Fact-Checking College Admission

Where do you turn for information about college admission? Do you rely on friends, parents, neighbors, siblings, teachers, coaches, or counselors? Perhaps you default to the internet and the sea of sources for admission related news? From webinars, virtual visits, and search engines to rankings and crowdsourced rumor mills like College Confidential and Reddit, there is an unimaginable amount of content. It is enough to make one’s head spin. What is credible? Who is reliable? And, when is someone simply trying to profit from the angst that students, and those who support them, feel as they approach this experience?

We are living in the age of information overload and one need not look beyond the presidential election to realize the need to fact-check the news we are being fed. From Politifact to Factcheck.org, there are entire institutes and websites dedicated to verifying what is accurate in politics. But who is responsible for setting the record straight in college admission?

I asked leaders in the admission profession to assist me in fact-checking the common misconceptions and assumptions that contribute to the mania around college admission. Here is what they said:

Standardized Testing

Can we please put this issue to rest? I know there is great skepticism and even some test-optional deniers out there. But when a college or university says that their policy is that test scores are not required for admission, that submitting them is optional, and that it will not disadvantage a student in review...they mean it. Especially in a year when access to testing has been limited, you should not obsess over standardized testing if the schools on your list have optional policies. If you won’t take my word for it, then read this collective statement, “Care Counts in Crisis: College Admissions Deans Respond to COVID-19”, from Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It is endorsed by over 375 admission deans, to convey what colleges and universities value in applicants during this difficult time (hint: it is not testing). Still not convinced? The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) also has a growing list of over 500 colleges who “affirm that they will not penalize students for the absence of a standardized test score.” The signatories state: “together, we strongly endorse a student-centered, holistic approach to admission that will not disadvantage any student without a test score.” Test-optional means test-optional.

High School Quotas 

Are there four other seniors from your high school applying to your dream college? Have you heard that colleges have a limit on how many applicants they will accept from one school? Fear not, this is not the Hunger Games. You are not at risk of being edged out by the kid in your AP English class. Colleges and universities want to admit the most qualified applicants and contrary to popular belief, they do not have a set number of spaces allocated to certain high schools.

Ronné Turner, vice provost for admissions & financial aid at Washington University in St. Louis, explains, “I’ve worked at several different institutions throughout my career, and never did we limit the number of admits by high school. In highly selective admission, the goal is to accept as many well-qualified applicants as possible to meet institutional enrollment goals regardless of which high school applicants attend.” She adds, “In general, I wish students and their families would stop listening to the myths and misconceptions out there about the college admission process. It causes undue stress, and the myths are just wrong. Students and families should focus on what admission professionals tell them about our processes and ask us directly if they have additional questions or concerns.”

It is also important to note that admission officers read applications within the context of each school, what is available in the curriculum, and how challenging an individual’s course program is. It is their job to familiarize themself with each high school. Catherine McDonald Davenport, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions at Dickinson College, says that one assumption she often hears from applicants is "If I had gone to XYZ school, my grades would have been better." This typically refers to a neighboring school where the grading scale and course offerings are perceived to be less challenging. To this she responds, “How do you know your performance would be better? It could be the same or worse.” She adds, “you don't go to that school—you go to your school—what do you need to do to be successful (a loaded word as success is not all A’s) at your school?” The fact is, college admission deans want to see evidence of your curiosity, engagement, and ownership for your learning, no matter where you go to school—focus on that.

The Silver Bullet

Believe it or not, there is no secret strategy for gaining acceptance to college. Nor are there a set of checkboxes that every college looks for in a competitive applicant. Students often assume that they must have met specific extracurricular criteria to be admitted to college—such as participation in a sport or a given number of hours of community service. While athletic involvement is a great way to be active and part of a team, and volunteering is a good and right thing to do, they are not prerequisites to acceptance. Jeff Schiffman, director of undergraduate admission at Tulane University, reassures students that “admission directors don't all get in one big group call each fall and say ‘alright gang, what are we all looking for this year? Is this the year of the crew coxswains? Or the tuba players?’” He says, “there is never one specific extracurricular we want to see, nor is there a silver bullet that will get you into college. Instead, we want to see that you simply are participating in a few activities that leave you feeling fulfilled, and you're doing them because you genuinely enjoy them - not because you think it's what colleges want to see.” Santiago Ybarra, director of admission at Pitzer College agrees, saying, “You should do what you enjoy. No club is a guarantee of admission, so why waste your time?”

The Gap Year Effect

Last spring and summer, there was growing concern that because the pandemic has forced many colleges and universities to be remote, students who were to start their first year of college this fall would take a gap year, therefore reducing the number of spots available in the fall of 2021. News stories contributed to this angst. In early August, the Boston Globe reported that “droves of first-year students at top-tier schools are choosing to defer their admission for a year,” including twenty percent of Harvard’s newly admitted students. While some colleges did see increased requests to delay matriculation for a year, many say that the increase was negligible and will have no impact. We need to be careful in extrapolating gap year requests as a concerning trend that will lead to it being harder to be admitted to college this year. Angel Pérez is the CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). He says, “there is no data to prove this. In fact, recently released National Clearinghouse Data shows that 16% fewer (new) students enrolled in college this year, which has significant implications for schools trying to meet enrollment goals.” He adds, “With so much uncertainty in the future, colleges may actually admit more students this year to fill some of the gaps they faced this year and ‘cushion’ for potential gaps coming in the future.” 

Change is Constant

Is anyone else tired of hearing the word “unprecedented”? Just once in 2020, I would like to hear someone say that what lies ahead has some precedent—after all, I think many of us are craving even the hint of certainty or normality. Andrew Strickler, dean of admission and financial aid, at Connecticut College says that the significance of change itself needs to be fact-checked. He explains that it is misguided to believe that “the college admission process is static and this year (with Covid-19) will be massively ‘different.’" He counters, saying, “the reality is that EVERY year is different and the assumption that this is the ONLY year that is different is extremely flawed.” Instead of fixating on what has changed, consider what you can control and stay with that truth.

A “Crapshoot”

Beyond her inherent disdain for the word “crap,” Terri Devine, director of college counseling at Punahou School in Hawaii, takes issue with the idea that “the process is just some arbitrary selection.” She says. “Students need to keep in mind that colleges are trying to shape a class given their institutional priorities.” Devine adds, “I get that this can seem random when decisions are handed down, but calling the process a crapshoot diminishes the very thoughtful work that goes into the application review.” She also cautions students “not to focus on one particular part of the application (the essay, test scores, a recommendation) and believe that this one thing will make or break an admission decision.” She explains that “generally this just isn't the case when the application is reviewed in its entirety. Each piece of the puzzle fits together to tell a story and things aren't siloed in the reading process.” Pitzer College’s Ybarra reinforces this reality, challenging the assumption that “you need to be unique and write a unique essay to get in.” He says, “the unique essay is one that is about you, not a catchy topic. Colleges are trying to fit the right student(s) to the right college(s). We can only do that if you're authentic.”

More is Better 

In our “supersize me”, “go big or go home” culture, we are conditioned to believe that more is always better. However, in college admission, quality over quantity rules the day. Daniel Evans, associate director of college counseling at Germantown Academy in Pennsylvania, points out that fear and anxiety about college admission can make students and their caregivers want to go overboard, submitting excessive letters of recommendation or other materials. In response to this, Evan says, “I share the mantras that my colleagues and I used when we worked on the college side of the admission process: ‘The thicker the file, the faster it sinks.’ or ‘The thicker the file, the thicker the student.’" He adds that these statements are “not pretty but a reality - admission officers are going to spend the same amount of time on an application regardless of how much extra material is in it; a thick file runs the risk of getting skimmed rather than thoughtfully read/reviewed.” 

Similarly, Moira McKinnon, director of college counseling at Berwick Academy in Maine, highlights the flawed reasoning of “the more applications you submit, the better your chances of gaining admission at highly selective colleges and universities.” Her response is, “It's not a raffle ticket. Colleges at similar levels of selectivity have similar admissions standards. If you don't meet them at one school, you are unlikely to be admitted to another.” She recommends “a shorter, focused list that allows students to develop relationships with admissions officers,” adding, “put thoughtful work into essays and supplements and, above all, stay sane.”

Admission Impossible

There seems to be a dominant narrative that it's impossible to get into a "good college." Kent Barnds, executive vice president and vice president of enrollment at Augustana College explains that this is just false and that “with the exception of a few dozen colleges across the country, most colleges recruit students rather than select students.” He says, “I think we have an obligation to dispel the myth that it's harder than ever to get into college. It's simply not true.” He adds, “selectivity rates have increased because we've all made it easier to apply. But, in reality, many places that are more selective today than they were 10 or 20 years ago probably admit far more students today than they did before.” Barnds points out that “applicant pools have grown and therefore they appear to be more selective, even while admitting more students.” He laments that schools have, “created a mess at a time that most colleges across the country are actually quite desperate for students.” 

Shawn Abbott, vice provost for admissions, financial aid & enrollment management at Temple University agrees about the opportunities for higher education. He argues, “one myth is that when the admission dust settles and you have to choose where to attend, that there will be dramatic, jaw-dropping differences between the kind of college experience you can have - that attending one college will provide you with a lifetime of happiness while attending another will leave you with despair.” To this Abbott says “Garbage!“ adding, “I've had the luxury of either attending or representing a variety of incredible colleges, from rural America to urban America, from public flagship ship institutions to the Ivy League, from New York to California. The size, setting, and funding might be different at each, but one of the greatest assets we have in the U.S. is our stunning collection of colleges and universities. Frankly, you can reap a high-quality collegiate experience at so very many more colleges than the average person believes is possible.” As an example, he says, “during my time at Stanford, it would baffle family and friends when I'd off-handedly remark that honestly, swap out these palm trees for pine trees, and I'm not that sure college here is all that different than college at the University of New Hampshire, my alma mater. While sure, Stanford is unmistakably one of the crown jewels of American higher education, I wouldn't trade my own college experience in Durham with anyone who spent their four years in Palo Alto.” He tells students, “Apply with confidence, knowing that wherever you land, you can have a college experience you won't regret.” 

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