Three Tips on Managing Parents’ Responses to Admission “Deny” Decisions

For those of us in the secondary school admission world, March means decision letters, and of course with it comes the inevitable–sometimes emotional– responses from parents regarding “Deny” letters. These conversations can be difficult, especially when we are dealing with the parents of an enrolled sibling or any family with whom we have developed a strong bond during the admission process. Here are some tips on how to navigate the tough ones:

  1. For deny decisions for a sibling, consider making a phone call to the candidate’s parents in advance of your letter mailings or electronic notifications. While these conversations can naturally be a bit awkward, the parents will respect you for it and appreciate your personal touch. You are letting them know that they are family.
  2. For all candidates and their parents, do not allow them to press you for specific details regarding an admission deny decision. There are simply too many moving parts to an admission committee decision, and pointing to one or two specific reasons for the denial will compromise the confidential aspects of your committee’s work. A firm statement (delivered with a soft touch) such as, “It was a difficult decision, but we had a very competitive pool of applicants this year” is the best way to go.
  3. You will often be pressed by parents to prescribe ways that their child’s application in the future will result in an acceptance. Don’t go there. While you understandably want to soften the blow after a deny decision, there are too many moving parts and unknowns in the coming year, and you will be inferring to the parents that a few improvements will in fact increase chances for this child’s future acceptance.

I’m reminded of a difficult Deny decision in my early years as an Admission Director: The parent pressed for the reason, and I wanted to be helpful. I agreed that the student’s testing was in line with our averages, his report card was quite good, and his interview was strong. The parent immediately went to the child’s teachers and bullied them about their “weak teacher recommendations”! In sum, Admission Directors and staffs should always be warm and caring, but when it comes to Deny decisions, it is far better to avoid specific reasons because you want to bring closure to the situation and protect the integrity and highly confidential nature of admission decisions. Parents have an agenda–to push as hard as possible for their child. Your agenda in Admission is to be firm-yet-kind in advancing your school with mission-appropriate acceptances that will define the school’s culture and support its programs.

Fred McGaughan is a 30-year independent school admission and marketing professional. He is the Managing Director of Gowan Group, an educational consulting firm that specializes in Strategic Enrollment Management.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Approach Branding like it’s a 500- Word Theme

Fred McGaughan, Gowan Group


As an English major and former teacher, now a branding professional, I’m struck by the similarities between savvy strategic branding and positioning and the old 500-word theme. In middle school, high school, or college, you may have found expository writing to be a chore, but love it or hate it, the 500-word theme remains a wonderful model for strategic thinking. And the application of that disciplined approach to writing holds some uncanny similarities to your branding.

Think about it: In sophomore year, you had just read The Great Gatsby, and you had a 500-word theme due in one week. A daunting proposition for any student, right? But your English teacher had spent most of the first marking period stressing that a step-by-step strategy would lead you to a. Do some close re-reading b. Brainstorm with impunity to get all your ideas down on paper c. Organize your thoughts to look for trends and “Ah-Hah!” topics d. Decide on a thesis statement that is important, compelling, and original e. Stick to that message with two or three topic sentences and f. Support each topic sentence with two or three supporting statements or quotations. Voila! Now you had a message of interest for your reader, an outline–a path to follow as you polished up your phrasing, sought your “grabber” opening line, and developed a conclusion. With this disciplined approach, in a short two and one half pages you had something clear, original, intriguing, and memorable to say.

It’s easy to see the similarities between this disciplined approach to theme writing and your branding and marketing. There are so many moving parts and so many things to say, but you don’t want to move forward without a. Conducting research to test your assumptions of who you are and what you do best (close reading) b. Gathering leadership and key stakeholders to hold candid, free-ranging discussions about current and emerging issues (brainstorming) c. Analyzing the plethora of information (organizing and looking for trends) d. Creating important, original, and sticky mission and vision statements (thesis) e. Affirming those statements with at least two or three of your signature program elements (topic sentences) and f. Drilling down with specific examples that irrefutably buttress your claims (supporting evidence).

Huzzah! By taking this disciplined approach to your branding, you and your “reading” audience now have a much better understanding of your brand. You’ll still need that “grabber” (tag line) and a compelling conclusion (delivery on your promises), but your teacher (Board Chair, President, Head) just might just upgrade you from a C+ to an A by the end of the term (praise and raise).

To learn more about Fred, our Managing Director, please visit our site at

Posted in Admissions, Leadership, Markers of Excellence, motivation | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Adding Context to Data

Here is another excellent post from John Pryor. John offers his insight on how to analyze data and add context to make data more relevant. Gowan Group has recently been discussing this topic here on our own blog. While flawed in its research, the NYT article does reference some reputable independent schools that offer solid advice from their college guidance offices.

Below is John Pryor’s most recent post:

Too Many Applications? Think Again

“Do we have a problem with too many high school seniors applying to too many colleges?

That’s what the New York Times thinks.  A front-page article on Sunday (November 15, 2014) about college admissions (Applications by the Dozen, as Anxious Seniors Hedge College Betsclaims that a lot of high school seniors these days are applying to “more colleges than anyone would have previously thought possible.”  The sidebar proclaims that there is “a perfect storm of ambition, neuroses and fear among high school students.” Yikes!

Well, there must be pretty good data behind this, right?  It was on the front page of the New York Times, after all.

To shore up this claim, the reporter cites two high school seniors, one who applied to 29 colleges, and another who applied to 18. Two cases. An N of two.

OK, that’s the human interest side (we have names, a back story, and in one case, a picture of a young woman on her laptop, presumably writing application number 29).  What else? A high school staff member tells a story of one person who applied to 56 schools.  Naviance (a company that, among other things, has a web-based program that helps high school students with the application process) says that 1 student in the US has 60 colleges they are thinking about applying to.

So far I am not really impressed. Two interviews with students and two examples of hearsay.

Finally we get some actual data based on more than a few conversations.  The reporter tells us that the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) has a survey that says that in 1990 nine percent of college freshmen had applied to seven or more colleges, and by 2011 (which the reporter tells us is the most recent data), this had risen to 29%.  Now we’ve got some data.

Only it’s not quite right, as this is not a NACAC survey, it’s the CIRP Freshman Survey, which NACAC clearly credits on their website as the source. It looked very familiar to me, since I directed the CIRP Freshman Survey for eight years, and provided the information to NACAC at the time.  We would typically have around 200,000 students represented in the CIRP Freshman Survey database each year (note to reporters, that is not a “2,” it’s “200,000”).

While the source is wrong, the numbers cited are correct.

Even though the reporter did not actually use the most recent data or the most relevant data.  Figures for the class entering in fall of 2013 (not 2011) have been released, and the percentage of four-year college first-year students who applied to seven or more schools rose to 31.6.

But wait, seven schools isn’t what this is about. It’s about 18, or 56, or maybe even 60 if that student using Naviance applies to all the ones being considered.  The CIRP data doesn’t tell us about such high numbers because we topped out the available responses by asking about 12 or more applications. And that’s at 5.9% of the college freshman for 2013.

So make a reasonable guess about how many of those are sending 18, or 56, or even 60 applications.  It’s not very many, is it?  And that same database tells us that the median number of applications per student is still just, well, four. Which seems pretty reasonable.

Why is this on the front page of the New York Times?  The headline was “Applications by the Dozen, as Anxious Seniors Hedge College Bets.”  And while the article does have quotes from guidance counselors that explain that this is not a good strategy, that wasn’t the headline, was it? Why not have a headline of “A Very Small Number of Anxious Seniors are Sending in Too Many College Applications in a Practice that May Actually Hurt Their Chances of Admission”? The message in the headline is that some seniors are hedging their bets by applying to a lot of colleges. Who doesn’t want to hedge a bet?  That’s good.

But this article is not good. It’s playing on the fears of already anxious students (and as a father with a high school junior, it’s scary to their families too). I expect better from the New York Times.

So, don’t worry that we have hordes of students applying to 59 (or 60!) colleges. Worry how to pay for college these days. That’s the scary part.”

Visit John Pryor’s blog at Pryor Education Insights.


Posted in 21st Century Skills, Admissions, Lead From Within, Leadership, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

How To Make College Better, And Why We Need To…

Yes, I know he is my brother, but John Pryor’s ideas on improving schools make such sense and support my long-standing theories on 21st Century Skills. Spend the next 15 minutes listening to and learning from one of the greats. Enjoy.

Posted in 21st Century Skills, Admissions, Creativity, Innovation, Lead From Within, Leadership, life long learning | Leave a comment

What Lurks Behind Your Data?

Recently, I watched a Ted Talk and I found it spot on as far as how we should bring relevance to data. Because schools are becoming evermore data driven in making decisions, I think it’s wise to understand the story behind the data and ask ourselves the hard questions.

Susan Etlinger delivered her Ted Talk, What Do We Do with All This Big Data?, from both her head and her heart. She not only shared why learning from data is critical in making decisions, she underscored the importance of telling the story behind the data, which makes the numbers even more relevant. Etlinger states, “data doesn’t create meaning…. we do.” I not only agree with her on the data side, I encourage her on the personal side. We have an opportunity to practice our critical thinking skills. We have an opportunity to think, to question, to understand. But, more importantly, we have a responsibility to report data supported by context.

Etlinger urges us to add context to our data, to use our critical thinking skills and to ask the hard questions. “Did the data really show us this or did the result make us feel more successful and more comfortable?”

As you watch, begin thinking of how you present your data to your board, your Head of School or your marketing committee. Are you making the numbers relevant? Are you allowing the data to come alive with a story? If so, you are on your way towards making stronger connections and better decisions, making data more relevant and useful and making headway in the competitive world of admissions.

Visit our site and call me to learn more about how Gowan Group brings relevance and significance to data for schools when we perform demographic studies and marketing, communications and admissions audits.

Posted in 21st Century Skills, Admissions, Creativity, dynamic learner, Innovation, Leadership, Social Media | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


Helping schools fulfill and advance their missions is at the heart of our work as strategic enrollment management consultants – that includes strategic planning to ensure the long-term viability of an organization. Here are five signs a school may benefit from a new or renewed strategic enrollment management plan.

  • Board and faculty do not have a unified understanding of organization’s identity or you have a newly revised mission statement
  • Current messaging is more than 5 years old and is not consistent across the school community
  • Enrollment has been stagnant or steadily declining for 3 years or more
  • Significant change in leadership at either the Head of School or Director of Admissions level
  • Considering a marketing or communications plan with a new website or marketing material

** BONUS**

  • You have your 10 year accreditation looming overhead and need to gain focus on your self-study preparation

Gowan Group has experts available to work with you and your school on Enrollment Management and Strategic Planning.

Click here to learn more about the process.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dan Pink on Sales and His Ultimate Impact on Schools

I bet Dan Pink never knew he was going to be a thought leader in the world of independent school education, but he sure is. From his thoughts on right brain thinking or how to motivate people to his newest insight on sales, independent schools should be reading Pink very carefully. In these two videos Dan Pink shares his insight on how the world of sales has changed. Admissions offices can learn a great deal from the corporate world of sales and how to market themselves. Take a look for yourself and see what you think.

And, by the way, Gowan Group trains admissions professionals in the traditional art of sales. In fact, it is one of our four basic tenets.

Professional Development is critical for all of us to continue learning and growing: Throughout my career as a head of school, I was an ardent supporter of professional development; I believe as communities we must always learn and grow. Our admissions guidance programs are based on teaching skills that will allow your admissions office to evolve, and, in turn, increase your enrollment. More than that – the enrollment management process will provide the vehicle for your school to learn and grow together. It is an inclusive process that will solidify and strengthen your community.

Posted in 21st Century Skills, Admissions, Creativity, Dan Pink, Leadership | 1 Comment