Facebook Meets College Apps with Mission Admission

By Nathan Maton

Games and Facebook: We know those are two sure-fire ways of getting kids' attention. Combine them, and you might have a tool to motivate low-income high-schoolers to apply to college.

That's the premise, anyway, for launching Mission Admission -- to help students who don't know what steps to take to get in the college application game.

“These kids didn’t know what kinds of classes they should be spending their time on or basic vocabulary like what is a letter of recommendation," said Tracy Fullerton, a USC professor and the lead game designer on the Mission Admission project about students she worked with, during a seminar at the recent SXSW conference. "They didn't know how to break down the steps into things they could accomplish. They didn't know whether the Frisbee club or physics club would look better on an application."

The process of applying for college is already a game, Fullerton says. "It's just usually played once at such high stakes. If students could play it in a fun and snarky environment, they could learn about the strategies of time management and how to focus their efforts in school."

In Mission Admission, you play a different student every week applying for the same school. You can "upgrade" your school to give it a better reputation, and sort what classes and extra curricular activities to take.

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"When they play the first time they're just learning the game just like everyone would if they were playing the real game, the real college game," Fullerton said. "At the end of it they're like, 'I see what I should've done.' Then if they play again with another group, they'll be the teacher and they'll say, 'You're going to want to level up in that one because you're going to get a letter of recommendation in that physics class.'"

The project grew initially from funding from U.S.C., which brought together a group led by Bill Tierney from the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis together with Fullerton's Game Lab. With the seed funding (and later, funding from the Department of Education), the group formed a junior design team consisting of youth from under-served high schools. These kids created three games games as part of a participatory research process that allowed Fullerton's team to identify the core problems students face, including managing time and understanding application strategies. It isn't designed to teach content, rather it's designed to teach strategies. And that's the strength of games, according to Fullerton -- to teach strategy rather than content.

Fullerton said she had no plans to create such a game until Tierney convinced her that these students had no other prospects -- no school counselors to guide them, and typically parents who didn't know how to navigate the system.

"Neither of my parents went to higher education so I know what it's like where there's no model for you," Fullerton said. "I could've very easily slipped through the tracks. It was just through luck and the fact that my friends were filling out the forms for the SAT that I even took the SAT. I only applied to one college and luckily got into UCLA."

Fullerton knows that the game is designed for a very focused audience of under-served high school students thinking about their careers. They've reserved 1,000 copies of the board game version of the Facebook game, called Application Crunch, to send to schools who need it.

Mission Admission will launch in the spring as one of three under the banner of Collegeology Games through the collaboration.