It seems we’ve stood and talked like this, before…

One of the interesting and frustrating things about working in college admissions is the way the cycle repeats each year. The broad outlines remain the same (a new group of students enters the process, searches for, applies to, hears from and decides which colleges to attend) but the particulars vary with regard to a range of factors specific to each college, or each high school class. I’ve written about the “Groundhog Day” aspects of the admissions process before, (see post from September 21, 2012) but at that time, I wasn’t thinking about media coverage of the admissions cycle, and how it repeats, as well.

Two articles about college admissions that appeared this spring in the New York Times had me thinking “déjà vu all over again,” as the authors discussed issues that were apparently new to them – but are old hat (ancient hat, really) to anyone who has worked in college admissions for more than a few years.

The first article, by David Leonhardt, focused on the shocking revelations (!!OMG!!) that many colleges are actively recruiting international students, and that “top colleges are admitting fewer American students than they did a generation ago. Colleges have globalized over that time, deliberately increasing the share of their student bodies that come from overseas and leaving fewer slots for applicants from the United States.”

I am sure I was not alone in receiving a flurry of phone calls from parents of rising seniors after that article appeared. Any article talking about the hyper-competitive nature of the admissions process at selective colleges always gets a lot of play ( I note that this one had almost 500 comments from NYT readers) and ramps up the admissions anxiety quotient.

In all fairness, Leonhardt’s article has more to it than the insight that the competition to get into college is quite stiff – he’s a thoughtful writer, and his points about the benefits of diversity are all good. However, those comments come later in the article, and I worry that many readers didn’t and won’t get past the early message that yes, it really IS harder – much harder! – to get into a selective college these days.

In the second article, Frank Bruni, who seems to have adopted college admissions as a topic of special interest, focused on the shocking revelation (!!OMG again!!) that some students choose inappropriate and/or overly revealing topics for their application essays.

Pondering the reasons why students might submit essays that offer TMI, Bruni notes that the application “essay is where our admissions frenzy and our gratuitously confessional ethos meet…” and he regrets that many students feel they have to go to great lengths to get the attention of admissions officers.

Fair points, but not unique to the current admissions scene.

I started out in the admissions field in the early 1980’s, and I can recall many essays over the years about topics that were inappropriate at best, and just plain disgusting, at worst.  I won’t elaborate, but trust me – my years of reading applications have left me with plenty of examples of essays that did not advance the author’s candidacy, to put it mildly.

To Bruni’s point about students doing “stagy, desperate, disturbing things to stand out” in an applicant pool, I have come to think that the standardized format of the online college application also pushes students toward riskier essay topics. If you can’t make your application stand out by writing your essay in crayon, for example, I suppose it makes sense (kind of!) to try to grab a reader’s attention with your topic.

I was never a fan of “stunt applications,” in which students submitted stuff ranging from balloons to baked goods to hand-tied fishing flies, among other things, to try to appeal to admissions officers.   However, I have to admit, I do remember with a smile a few essays that were “creatively” formatted, back in the days when paper applications were the norm.   I received one essay that was written backwards – but the author (thoughtfully) enclosed a mirror, so that I didn’t have to run and find one before reading it.  I also remember one essay that was written on paper cut into the shape of a foot. (To further illustrate the point that a journey of a hundred miles begins with a single step, of course!)

I don’t bemoan the demise of paper applications – there were a zillion problems connected with processing and reading those, too! – but we said goodbye to a particular and quirky dimension of the application process when things moved online.

But I digress!

My point is that whether we like it or not, in the admissions world, everything old is new each year. It will remain so as subsequent generations of journalists (or content-providers, if we want to be all-inclusive) encounter admissions topics for the first time. While the best of these journalists do acknowledge that the current admissions “frenzy” isn’t sane or healthy, their articles unfortunately add to the frenzy they try to explain.

And therein lies the rub.  Alas.

But…right now, it’s summer! Time to relax and recoup strength for the next admissions cycle.

And for me, time to finish work on two book projects. I will have a short e-book about writing college application essays out this fall, as well as a longer book for students and parents looking for a saner and less stressful way to approach the college search and application process. Please stay tuned to this site for further details! (Regular posts will resume in the fall.)

Meantime, thanks for reading this cycle’s posts at admissions cafe. I appreciate your email, comments, and recommendations.

Have a great summer!


Sunrise June




Are we better off now?

One of the “historical documents” in my files is the May,1989 issue of Money magazine, featuring this cover:

You have to admit that headline “The Sacrifice of the Children” and the cover image are attention-grabbers. So is the title of the main story inside the magazine: “The Agony of College Admissions.”

The college admissions scene was in bad shape then, at least according to Money magazine.   Is it in better shape now?

On the whole, I’d have to say no.  I think the admissions scene is crazier in 2012 than it was in 1989.  Much has changed on the college side of the admissions process in the past 23 years, but the way the process is experienced by students has not.

Several factors have amplified the stress and pressure high school students feel as they apply to college. In a nutshell, these are:

* Demographics: the number of high school graduates in the US remains at an all-time high, and because many colleges and universities now seek students from all around the world, instead of from their home regions, competition for space in the entering classes at many colleges has increased significantly. Application numbers are up, and where colleges have not increased the size of their entering classes, admission rates are down.

* The prevailing view that there is only a small group of “good” colleges out there. From this follows the proposition that you will only be successful if you attend one of those “good” colleges…which leads to the perception of college admissions as a high-stakes contest. This annual drama of “who gets in” has a strong grip on our attention.

* The explosion of “experts” offering advice and opinion about colleges and the admission process. The questions “what’s the “best school” and “what do I have to do to get in” can be hideously compelling to high school students and their parents. Many publications, websites, and individuals have rushed to help students answer those questions. Particularly interesting to me is the rise of the “citizen counselor” — those individuals who don’t have a lot of experience with the admissions process, but who are able to sell their advice and opinions nonetheless.

* Making the private, public. This is obvious, but the ease with which students can share impressions, anxieties, rumors and wild untruths about the application process with each other has ramped up the stress for everyone involved.

I’ll write more about these topics, among others, in future posts.