Senior Rebecca Waterson shakes the M&M man's hand during Open House on Oct. 26 to honor her commitment to Brown University. (Photo by Hermione Xian)

Limit on M&M man college announcements sparks debate on admissions, award traditions

Two small, round objects lie in director of college counseling Jane Bauman’s cabinet drawer. One is green and filled with M&Ms; the second is smaller, red and stuffed with Skittles. 

They are the M&M men, whose hands seniors shake and whose candy they choose when Bauman announces college acceptance during morning meetings. 

Students email Bauman to let her know of acceptances and if they want them to be announced. If Bauman replies on her phone, she’ll even send a congratulatory bitmoji.

Ever since the tradition began under former college counselor Patricia Fels in the mid-1990, students could submit as many acceptances as they wanted. 

On Oct. 22, though, Bauman announced to seniors at C-day meeting that M&M man announcements will be limited this school year to one acceptance before January and four acceptances thereafter. 

According to an Oct. 22 poll of 31 seniors, 33% said the M&M man causes them stress. 

Fels said the M&M man tradition began when her twin daughters, Francie and Kelly Neukom, ’04, received an M&M man for their birthday. 

“We weren’t going to be buying them M&Ms every week so that they could put them in the M&M man, so he just sat on their shelf,” she said.

Fels said she thought it would be fun to honor students for getting into college.

The M&M man provided a quick ceremony with a nearly universally liked candy. Later, Fels said a student advocated for a second, smaller M&M man with peanut M&Ms to provide students with a choice. 

Both M&M men remain at Country Day, but the smaller one now holds Skittles as a non-chocolate option.

According to Chris Kuipers, associate director of college counseling, the M&M man has been on the department’s radar “for a while.” 

Kuipers and Bauman are members of the Bay Area Independent School College Counselors (BAISCC). During meetings about best practices and other issues, Kuipers said the tradition of acceptance-related announcements — such as the Country Day M&M man or a rejection letter “wall of shame” — have recently been questioned more frequently.

“A lot of schools will not even publish where you’re going to matriculate in end-of-year reports or at graduation,” he said. 

Bauman said, “Nobody (does) anything like the M&M man,” adding that she was “surprised” because other honors, such as National Merit finalists or signing day for college athletes, are frequently announced by BAISCC schools. 

Fels said that when she mentioned the M&M man tradition to BAISCC members about 12 years ago, counselors were “shocked.” 

“By that time, all the kids were already very secretive about where they were applying to college and which colleges they got into,” she said. 

Kuipers said this is consistent with current viewpoints on student privacy. 

“Ultimately, (acceptances) are a student’s personal business,” he said. “The school has a responsibility to support you and fill out forms, but you can make an argument that a student is under no obligation to tell the school what their acceptances are.”

While Country Day needs to send official records, such as a complete transcript, to students’ final choice, they can add schools to their Common Application account without notifying their college counselors, and most colleges don’t notify counselors about acceptances. 

However, Kuipers and Bauman said students are encouraged to tell them about their acceptances. 

Kuipers said he can further inform students about their options if he knows their acceptances, and Bauman added that the information can be very useful to the college counseling office.

“It’s important to see what type of student was admitted to what type of school, what the colleges are looking for and where we meet the mark,” she said.

Furthermore, if students are rejected, the college counselors can advocate for them and help them appeal or get on or off waiting lists, Bauman said.

Bauman said no students have contacted her about issues with the M&M man.

However, while Kuipers said he wasn’t sure if students ever contacted him specifically about the M&M man, it has come up in conversations. 

Furthermore, Kuipers said he’s concerned about “ silent voices.”

“I can imagine someone who is uncomfortable about not having as many ‘prestigious’ schools,” he said. “If you’re feeling that, it would be a challenge to come and voice that (the policy) is unfair because it draws attention to (your schools).

“In our role as decision-makers, you look out for the quieter and minority voice.”

A teacher who requested anonymity agreed.

“This whole process is very stressful and painful for some students, but they are not going to come forward and say that, and we’re letting them suffer and not protecting them,” the teacher said.

In light of conversations with other counselors, Kuipers said he did not consider the M&M man to be best practice within the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), and the policy was changed. 

“A strict reading of (the M&M man) makes it a way of sharing this acceptance information,” he said. 

He added that the new policy is the “perfect” compromise between students going up for all their schools and the elimination of the M&M man.  

“We want to celebrate you, but we don’t need to celebrate you every single week,” Kuipers said. “If you got in early somewhere, awesome; we’ll take a moment to note that. If you need to walk up three more times in the spring to get your M&Ms or Skittles, we’ll honor that.” 

Fels said she most enjoyed that students were applauded regardless of the college they announced. 

“You could have a very selective college announced and people would clap, but you could also have a much less selective college and people would clap,” Fels said. “There was never this idea (that) if you got into Harvard, everybody went crazy, but if you got into Sac State everybody would just halfheartedly clap.”

A student who requested anonymity disagreed. 

“People have different views on colleges,” the student said. “If someone got into Sac State, some people might not find it as special.” 

Bauman said the majority of last year’s seniors chose to announce their acceptances, but two students announced no schools. Others wanted to announce only their final choice. 

“I really support and respect their choice,” she said. “If you don’t report, that’s perfectly OK.”

Fels said during her 18 years as a college counselor, only one student asked her not to announce any acceptances.

In a Sept. 25 poll of 31 seniors, 12.9% said they would choose not to announce any acceptances, and 61.3% said they would announce only some acceptances.

However, Fels said the exclusion of certain students could impact the tradition.

“I felt bad because that made it less of a group, less of an ‘Everybody’s in this together, and we’re all excited about the places people get in,’” she said. 

Bauman said she sees the M&M man as “a celebratory thing — a rite of passage — and something very positive that would encourage other people,” she said. 

Fels agreed, saying that she was “sorry” about the change and viewed college acceptance as a “positive thing.” 

“It didn’t seem as though, in the audience, people were keeping score about how many times this person has gotten into someplace,” she said. “Everybody knew where everyone else had gotten in.

“I never thought that there were hurt feelings or people who felt left out or as though they were not as honored as much as other people, but I wasn’t in the audience and in their situation.”

Bauman added that the M&M man also introduces students to a broad range of schools.

“A student at morning meeting may think, ‘That (accepted) student shares some of my interests and was admitted to that school — maybe I should look into that school,’” she said. 

“A student at morning meeting may think, ‘That (accepted) student shares some of my interests and was admitted to that school — maybe I should look into that school.'”

—Jane Bauman

Fels agreed.

“It gives students exposure to a lot of different schools,” she said. 

Senior Aaron Graves disagreed, saying students need more information during the announcements.

“I think it would be cool if Mrs. Bauman attached a footnote (after announcing an acceptance) about where a school is and a fun factoid,” he said. “Just saying the name doesn’t quite introduce people.”

However, Kuipers said there is a competitive aspect to the tradition.

“Some kids are more attuned to it than others, but there are certainly cases of kids keeping score of who’s getting into where,” he said. 

Graves said that is not such a bad thing and students should have unlimited announcements. 

“It definitely will (increase competition), but there is something to be said about how competition is beneficial and pushes students to work harder and achieve good grades,” Graves said.

“The high school should celebrate what students have achieved, and the M&M man is a great way to get the news out there in a fun manner that takes off some of the stress associated with the college application process.” 

“The high school should celebrate what students have achieved, and the M&M man is a great way to get the news out there in a fun manner that takes off some of the stress associated with the college application process.” 

—Aaron Graves

Senior Jewel Turner agreed. 

“I don’t think it will add any more competition than there already is,” she said. “If Suzie gets into five schools and Joe gets into one, we should congratulate them both,” she said. “Suzie worked hard, so she should get recognition.”

Kuipers added that the M&M man may impact the counselors’ mission to find the colleges that are the best fit for students and to encourage students to compile a list of schools that fit them and are “semi-limited” in length.

“If a kid really listens to that and applies to three schools that are the best fit, but another kid applies to 15 schools, knowing they will get into some and collect the trophies, the M&M man celebrates that second student far more than the first, and I’m not sure that is celebrating the right thing,” he said. 

Senior Maddie Woo agreed. 

“Right now, students apply to 10 colleges, at least, and I don’t want to listen to this long list of names in the morning,” she said. “I’m happy for my friends, but some of them are just safety schools, so it’s not necessary.”

A student who requested anonymity said submitting many acceptances may become “bragging.” 

“People are just clapping for you over and over again,” the student said.

Kuipers added that this effect may be amplified by the involvement of all grades in the ceremony.

“If the freshmen are seeing somebody get up there a dozen times, then when it’s their turn, it doesn’t matter what Mrs. Bauman and I say about having a smaller list,” he said. “All these other kids ignored it, and they were successful.” 

However, Fels said that when students received many acceptances on the same date, student reception was positive.

“If there was a particular deadline by which a lot of UC acceptances came out, somebody sometimes got into four places at the same morning meeting,” she said.

Fels would give such students a Dixie cup to hold all their M&Ms, and students viewed it as a “funny” tradition, she said. 

“They would laugh in a friendly way,” she said. 

Fels added that not all students are pushed by the M&M man to apply to as many schools as possible.

She recalled one student, ‘04,  who applied early decision to one school and got in.

“That was the end of it,” Fels said. “I never thought, ‘Oh, my God, she must just feel terrible because she got into the school she wanted to get into.’”

Fels added that she asked the student if she ever regretted her decision.

“She said, ‘No!’” Fels said. “It was so great for her to fill out one application. She knew that was where she wanted to go, and she was so happy to get in. (Applying early) made absolutely no difference.” 

The M&M man might also place more emphasis on the prestige or selectivity of a school, Kuipers said, adding that it is a “terrible” measure of a college’s worth. 

However, Fels said the M&M man reduces the importance of universities’ rank because all schools are rewarded with M&Ms.

“Everybody is aware of which schools are really selective and prestigious and which schools are less selective and prestigious,” she said. “Treating all of the schools the same way by honoring people makes it less like one school is more important than another.”

Furthermore, if multiple students applying to the same school receive different admissions results, the M&M man may make those disparities more obvious, according to Kuipers.

“(The accepted student) goes up there and has that honor, but to what extent does that rub it in for somebody else?” Kuipers said, adding that those conflicts are one of the primary reasons college counselors encourage students to keep their list of schools private.

Senior Emme Bogetich said the M&M man contradicts, rather than complements, the counselors’ emphasis on confidentiality. 

“They stress to us so much to keep things confidential, but now, we’re supposed to announce everything,” she said.  

“They stress to us so much to keep things confidential, but now, we’re supposed to announce everything.”

—Emme Bogetich

Bogetich added that certain students used the M&M man almost every week. 

“Then, if other students get up for one (college), it makes them look bad,” she said. 

A student who requested anonymity said it also could cause students to feel left out.

“That doesn’t mean they aren’t happy for the students that do get accepted, but they might feel some self-doubt.”

Graves disagreed.

“It might put some people down if they don’t get into a good school, but I know all the people at (Country Day) are smart and will accomplish something great,” he said.

Kuipers said the effect of the M&M man policy change remains to be seen. He sees the discussion of the M&M man continuing.

“It’s a really beloved tradition, and student feedback was pretty positive about it, but in polls, the conservative voice usually wins out, and something being popular doesn’t mean it’s the best option,” he said. 

“It’s a really beloved tradition, and student feedback was pretty positive about it, but in polls, the conservative voice usually wins out, and something being popular doesn’t mean it’s the best option.”

—Chris Kuipers

However, Woo said the M&M man should not be eliminated.

“It’s nice to applaud our classmates, and getting into college is no easy feat,” she said. “It adds to our community.”

While a third of seniors said the M&M man causes them stress, 38% said the high school awards ceremony held at the end of the year does. Furthermore, 23% said Country Day should not announce college decisions on May 1, and 23% said the school should not announce college decisions at graduation.

Head of high school Brooke Wells said students have contacted him requesting changes in the awards ceremony, at which students are presented with awards for their performance in academic subjects or overall character. 

Wells said the school wants to allow as many people to receive honors as possible while ensuring that the value of each honor will not go down. 

Bauman said the school has made “thoughtful” adjustments to every part of honoring students. For example, the number and variety of awards has been expanded, Wells said.

Turner, however, said Country Day can grow in awarding honors to a more diverse group of students. 

“The school should distribute awards more evenly and recognize that all of us work hard,” she said. “It might not be reflected in having the highest grades, but everyone is involved in numerous organizations and puts time and effort into this school.” 

Senior David Situ, though, said students should not rely on the awards ceremony for a validation of their work or effort. Situ added that any stress inflicted by the awards ceremony lies with the students. 

“Most of the time, I think the people who feel bad about it have some kind of low self-esteem,” he said. “The reason you would be upset about (an award) is either you think you deserved it or you don’t think (the recipient) deserved it.”

Although Situ said he does see the awards ceremony as a competition with winners and losers, it’s a “friendly” one and mostly a celebration, regardless of how students feel about the award recipients.

Bauman said that while students have chosen not to be in the May 1 college decision ceremony and photo due to absences or privacy concerns, no student has requested their college choice not to be announced at graduation since she became director of college counseling in 2012.

Nevertheless, she said the school would accommodate students who choose not to announce their college decision.

“In any of the places we typically announce, I would respect (students’) choices,” she said. 

Graves, though, said that at graduation the accomplishments students choose to have announced may be overshadowed by which college they attend. 

“The (May 1) sweatshirt photo is enough to tell where students are going,” he said.

By Héloïse Schep

Originally published in the Nov. 12 edition of the Octagon.

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