I hope you can accept this critique in the spirit it’s intended, as advice from someone who believes in the wide choice of colleges in this country, who recognizes the noble and important purpose higher education serves as an instrument of social mobility. I know I’m not an insider and hope my suggestions won’t sound presumptuous or naïve. My view is admittedly limited to what I’ve seen teaching at a small independent school and applies only to that finite (and growing more finite) group of truly selective universities and colleges. However, to someone who experiences the effects of your marketing, your approach to applicants, and your sometimes baffling decisions, the college application process seems a terrible mess.
Here’s what I see:
- Students applying indiscriminately to large numbers of schools—Though the common application (thankfully) makes applying less arduous and time consuming, being able to shotgun applications delays students’ decision-making. Many are not really making decisions at all. Why not apply to ten or fifteen schools when fees are such a small percentage of the cost of college? Many students decide to decide later and then select from what turns up in April—hardly the optimal, thoughtful process anyone ought to want.
- Despite growing numbers of applications, the list of schools students apply to seems to be shrinking—Many students aren’t doing their homework to find schools most suited to their skills, interests, and aspirations. Seniors busy trying to make the grades to qualify for admission naturally fall back on schools they recognize, places with name brand cache. Because students can decide later, their search falls on the same schools over and over. Few discover the little-known but wonderful schools who’d rather fund effective education than massive marketing campaigns.
- Admissions decisions seem more and more capricious—Phantom applicants must make it difficult for you to determine who’s really out there. It must be tough to say if your acceptance letter is one of five or one of fifteen. Yet, though you may be admitting more students to reach your yield, the percentage of admits remains essentially the same, and students who thoughtfully apply to four or five schools are at a distinct disadvantage. You may admit many phantoms before you get to—if you get to—the student who really wants you for the right reasons. From my angle, you sometimes pass by good candidates and accept disinterested students, which is neither good for you nor good for students’ faith in a meaningful, just procedure.
- Because students are delaying their shopping to see where they’ve been lucky, nearly all the decisions are yours, not the students’—Right now, the college admissions process seems to create a mass of confused and anxious supplicants. Instead of embracing an exciting moment in their lives when they might feel empowered to make their first adult decision, applicants feel acted upon. They see themselves as judged by arbitrary power, as if luck, not twelve years of effort, determines their status and value.
I know you can’t solve all these problems—other players like parents, standardized testing (plus parasitic tutoring services), private and school college counselors, and even teachers like me add pressure to the process. You may not want to do anything that would shrink your choices. However, if you are—as you say you are—interested in the education and personal development of young adults, you need to encourage them to make more thoughtful and selective decisions. You need, at very least, to make the process sensible and, as much as possible, predictable.
To that end, I have eight suggestions:
- Open up more about your process—Your rationale for selection is entirely your own, but it needs to be a discernible rationale. Any change undertaken to demystify your work will help make decisions sensible and aid applicants trying to decide if they stand a chance. You publish average test scores and GPAs and might publish even more numbers—the number of candidates and a thorough statistical summary of who was admitted. Many high schools are already keeping historical statistics for their own students, but a comprehensive and authoritative document from your end would help immensely.
- And, along with numbers, applicants need to know how you reach your decisions, what factors you value and isolate—The absence of a transparent, rational process encourages students to believe in magic. Explaining how you choose freshmen will discourage some potential applicants, but those files will no longer clutter your office either. With fewer applications, you can read more thoroughly and thoughtfully. Transparency will also keep you honest. Above all, if you are not need-blind, please say so. Students who require aid must be able to identify schools that may want them enough to defray their costs. It seems unfair to lead needy students on.
- Compile a list of schools that typically contribute to your freshman class—For some of you, this change may be openly admitting what you do covertly, implicitly, or haphazardly. Your list of client schools does not have to be comprehensive or exclusive. You might choose to reserve a substantial majority of your spots for “at large” candidates, but identifying schools that contribute to your freshman class (in coordination with my next suggestion) would refocus your attention on schools rather than individuals while exerting positive influence on secondary education. I’m not suggesting a new old boys network, quite the contrary. Your selection of a troubled school might prove inspiring for students there and induce the school to find candidates who will add to the diversity of your freshman class.
- Indicate how many students from those schools you can reasonably accept—This number would not be a quota, but a cap or upper limit that would help applicants better understand their chances. You may choose not to accept that number—you might decide not to accept any—but students in schools like mine might apply less frivolously if they recognized a line forming ahead of them. They might join another line if they saw fewer people waiting there. A few might even step out of line to give a better chance to classmates more devoted to that school.
- Investigate ways for students to communicate their level of interest—What if students had 30 interest points to distribute among their applications? Though distributing the points might add another decision to the pile, it would be in the students’ pile, where it belongs. It might compel applicants to do their homework more carefully and reduce the number of applications they file. Those interest points might help you predict yields more accurately as well. You will know when you are taking a chance by admitting a student, and, to me, it seems fair you should share risk.
- Eliminate early action and early decision—If you truly want students to make careful and thoughtful decisions, you must grant them time to do so. You flatter yourself in believing all early candidates want you exclusively. Some do. Many simply want the process over with. Early decisions also create issues of equity and fairness, as early admits often appear to be judged by different criteria than “regular” candidates, adding to the general mystery of the application process.
- Reduce or eliminate deferment and waiting lists—These categories demean students. Rightly or wrongly, most see them as non-decisions, a way of saying, “We don’t really want you, but if we’re strapped for bodies…” They cast you as self-serving and make your marketing materials appear craven and hypocritical. You try to be nice, but it appears you don’t care about the good will of those you ultimately reject. If you are serious about your educational ideals, you ought to.
- Limit your marketing and redirect it to distinguish your institution from others—High school seniors receive an overwhelming amount of information about colleges, more than they can possibly read or study, some of it from places they have little hope of attending. Recognizing that colleges may have more common than uncommon elements, you can still highlight what you see as your particular mission, your distinctive niche. I know about the arms race of the last few years—you don’t dare advertise less—but, make no mistake, your advertising is harmful to the people you court.
As I said at the beginning of this letter, these suggestions may be naïve, unrealistic, or presumptuous. You may feel the current process serves your interests well, and, after all, what motive do you have to reduce your pool or encourage more students to apply to rival institutions? Behind all these suggestions, however, is an earnest plea to lessen what’s duplicitous and mysterious in your work. As someone who has nurtured and encouraged the students you accept and reject, I only want to see them treated with honesty, integrity, and respect.