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




Recommended viewing/listening

Over the past few weeks, while the weather here was not as conducive to being outside as one might wish, I had a chance to catch up on three programs focusing on aspects of education and college admissions. Two are podcasts, one is a documentary film – they look at different topics from very different vantage points – and each one is entertaining and informative. I think many college counselors and admissions officers will find them as interesting as I have.

The documentary is part of the PBS “POV” series – it’s called American Promise. The film follows two African-American boys in New York City over the course of thirteen years, from elementary school through high school graduation. It’s a fascinating film throughout, though the family interactions are uncomfortable to view at times — especially when one of the boys receives his college admission results.   It looks as though PBS isn’t offering the film for streaming online now, but a trailer and clips are available on the website. Many PBS documentaries also become available through Netflix, and this one should, too. It’s definitely worth putting on the “save” list.
Details at the PBS website:

The two podcasts are episodes from programs I listen to regularly: This American Life, and Planet Money.

The podcast “How I Got into College” has two parts – the first is a discussion about mistakes applicants (and their parents) make in the admissions process, with Rick Clark from the admissions office at Georgia Tech. The second part is contributed by Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and several other (wonderful) books. Lewis is a great storyteller, and in this podcast, he introduces listeners to Emir Kamenica, now a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. I don’t know how in the world these two ever crossed paths, but Lewis was intrigued by Kamenica’s narrative about (as the blurb on the episode web page puts it) “how a stolen library book got one man into his dream school.” It’s a terrific story about the way we construct our life histories, the way others view those histories, and about the things we believe cause or create the opportunities life presents to us. Lewis is a smart, funny, and very engaging interviewer and narrator.

The second podcast, “Duke’s $30,000 Tuition Discount,” investigates the claim often made by private colleges and universities that the education students receive costs more than the sticker price. Hats off to Duke for opening their accounts to the Planet Money team – I’m not sure every university would be willing to do the same. This podcast takes a thorough look at the cost of private higher education – listeners decide for themselves whether spending $60K per year for college is a bargain or not.

Perhaps spring break will provide you with a little time in which to watch or listen to these programs – if not, do bookmark them for summer.

Meanwhile, best wishes to friends and colleagues who are sending out and receiving admissions decisions now. May the force be with you!

(And may appropriately spring-like weather come to all areas of the country…soon!)

Spring last!