Monday, October 15, 2007

The College Admissions Arms Race

A former student came to me today with a stack of recommendations he'd like me to fill out. He's applying to eight schools.

Eight schools.

Think of the consequences for the system as a whole. If every student applied to eight schools, the paperwork in the admissions office would be overwhelming. Students would be offered admission to multiple campuses, meaning other students get waitlisted at schools where the people who got accepted really have no intention to attend. Unnecessary tears are shed, extra hoops have to be jumped--all because students weren't confident enough to apply to a reasonable number and level of school.

How many "safety net" schools do you need to apply to? And really, who came up with this idea of a "safety net" school?

It's seems mad to me--mad, I tell you.

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Admissions Process. Yeah, that sounds like a winner.

Update: If applying to way too many colleges isn't enough to give your kid a warm fuzzy, up the ante a bit and hire a $40,000 admissions coach while your kid's still in junior high!


Tristan said...

Ummm well. Eight colleges is actually a small amount by todays standards. My sister is struggling to get her list below 15. Getting into a competetive college will be difficult at least until after 2010 when it is projected that admissions will drop (baby boomers?). Ironically 2010 is the year I graduate so I will go through the broken system but the system does work for all wishing to get a decent four year education from a variety of state and private colleges that are less competitive but still offer a quality education. The system does not work as well for those who are bent on getting into the most competitive colleges (Stanford, Cal, Harvard, Etc.) but we can debate how that unnecessary drive causes great students to do stupid things all day long. But really the system works and has adjusted to the increased admissions work.

Anonymous said...

i know someone (who shall remain nameless) that is applying to 28 schools. i'm applying to fourteen and i'm dying. so...TWENTY FREAKING EIGHT? ridiculous

Darren said...

The system may have adjusted, m'lord, but it's not efficient. And I'm all about efficiency.

Darren said...

I know of some teachers who limit their letters of recommendation to THREE. Maybe I should adopt such a policy. While ostensibly it's my job to write such letters, it's certainly not my job to accommodate your feelings of inadequacy or grandeur (whichever applies).

Sandy said...

Never fear, aspiring Ivy Leagers! This lady promises that she can get you into your first choice college... oh, but of course there's a catch ($$$). Absolute insanity.

Anonymous said...

The college application process has been streamlined a lot over the last few years. with the common ap, it's a lot easier to just add on one more school...or five, to your list of potential colleges. California schools have made it even easier; I think there's some magic button you can press now that sends your info to all of the UC's at once. I'm not sure what the procedure is exactly though.

I applied to seven, not eight nor fourteen and sure as hell not twenty-eight. I had the grades and the extra-cirriculars to get into the ivy's, but It wasn't a sure thing. So I applied to the lot of them. I figured one ivy prestigious university was the same as another, right? I got shot down by every one, and I'm so glad I did. My supposed "safety school" (Smith) turned out to be the best place for me. Now, I now know a bunch of people who went to the ivy's and all they have to say is that the education isn't what was expected. The hardest thing was getting in. (plus...boys in your classes...ew). I should have shopped more during the application process and actually considered more than just the pretty buildings and the prestige. I would have saved myself the stress and heartache of not getting into Princeton...ha!

Darren said...

Loni, it's good to hear that you're enjoying your new alma mater. Your story could *easily* serve as a cautionary tale for the wound-up-like-a-spring types that inhabit the halls here at your former alma mater.

Ellen K said...

I think many second generation students whose parents are in one of the high profile professions feel obligated to swing for the fences. I talked my shy student, who had never been out of Dallas, into looking at Chicago Art Institute rather than NYU. I have also noticed that almost all my students are either going to be doctors or engineers. Those seem to be the only two acceptable professions. Woe be to the person who recommends Classics or God forbid, Art.

Anonymous said...

I think the whole "safety school" concept has changed a lot since I was applying to college. It used to mean a school that you knew you could get into, based on your SAT scores and GPA and the average SATs and GPAs for students admitted to the school.

But now kids with perfect SATs and 4+ GPAs might be accepted at two competitive Ivy colleges and rejected by two other equally competitive Ivies, and there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason. Theoretically, you could have perfect SATs and a 4+ GPA and be rejected by all the Ivies you apply to! Certainly, any less competitive school would be a safety school for students with those stats, but I don't think it's fair to suggest that they're over-reaching just because they go ahead and apply to some of the Ivies.

All of that said, I'm with Loni: everyone I know who attended an Ivy had a much less enjoyable and enriching undergrad experience than I had. A lot of the art of choosing a college is about figuring out where you'll be happiest, not which name will look best on a resume.

Matthew K. Tabor said...


Since admissions is a focus of the work I do, I'm going to weigh in briefly.

I advise students to apply to plenty of schools. Why?

Because a $55 application fee and a few hours of essay-writing is a hell of a cheap price compared to having fewer options and/or a lifetime of "What if...?" Limiting options because it takes a couple hours to fill out an application is a terrible tradeoff.

As a disclaimer, I don't game the system, I don't set forth tracks for the sake of admission and I'm not like the average local guidance counselor. I find very, very few people in this admissions business [private or employed in schools] who have the slightest understanding of a) what college is really about and/or b) how to get in.

Most students can narrow down their options to 4-5 solid interests and a few safeties and/or outliers - mass apps really aren't a problem. I think we'd all agree that 28 is a bit much, but 10-12 can be sensible for plenty of reasons both academic and non-academic. For example, I had two academic interests in high school and an interest in a specific sport. I think I applied to 8 or 9 schools, a few for each of those three interests.

"While ostensibly it's my job to write such letters, it's certainly not my job to accommodate your feelings of inadequacy or grandeur"

We both know that it's not your job - that's why "letters of recommendations" come up as a no-no when a union decides to have its members stick to the contract.

But that's just a detail.

The real problem is the "it's certainly not my job to accommodate your feelings of inadequacy or grandeur" portion.

I argue for personal responsibility, too - we share lots of the same views. But the truth is that few students apply to loads of colleges simply because they're scared they won't get in anywhere. The paradox? The insecure, woe is me, no college will take me attitude is all you hear from students, The Wall Street Journal and everyone in between. It's really a pain - it's not just tiring and old, it's not very accurate, either. [And if a HS senior in October is thinking in these terms, their guidance counselor has failed]

A teacher limiting their letters to three is making a mistake. If their time is at a premium, I'd feel more comfortable with a busy teacher committing to a certain number of candidates and fulfilling those candidates' requests [assuming it's not 28 letters...] instead of meting out a specific count of letters. A teacher writing a rec needs to support a student's efforts in full, not dictate and make the student work around them.

I can't support the mischaracterization of the Ivies here - this "everyone I know hated it..." attitude is fashionable but inaccurate. Getting the most out of college requires a fair amount of work identifying with whom you should study, and if you're at Harvard and can't fill your schedule at least half-full with worthy scholars and good teachers, you've failed [or advising, etc. has failed you]. And no, I didn't go to an Ivy.

You can get a rotten education at a great school, a decent one at a poorer school and everything in between. We all know this.

I recently put on my site about 4,000 words looking at the question of, "Does it matter where you go to college?" It's broken into three parts, two of which are complete and the third will be this week - some people here might be interested.

As always, good discussion - thanks!

Matthew K. Tabor said...

One more thing - when I said that I thought very few understood the purpose of college and admissions process, I wasn't discounting anyone in this thread.

I was suggesting that there's lots of misinformation and paranoia out there - especially in the media - that makes a tough admissions process even tougher.

I believe a parent wrote into the WSJ a month or so ago begging them to stop writing such awful, depressing stuff about admissions.

Darren said...

Aside from hearing from an admissions officer, yours is probably as close as I'm going to get to a voice from the inside. Thanks for adding it!

Anonymous said...

>>>How many "safety net" schools do you need to apply to?

I would hope that out of the eight only 1 or 2 were actually safety schools! You're right, if they are "safe bets" then you really don't need a ton of them. If you're going to go all out (which, if it's as simple a matter as adding one more school to the list, like it is in Ontario) then at least fill up your application schools you want to strive for.

Thanks for this post, as you've inspired me to write about "safety schools" for my home schooling community. When I speak about Ontario university admissions, I have to inform families that a safety school for a traditionally-schooled applicant is different from a safety school for a home schooler.

Since home schooling is still relatively new and uncommon here, our universities have only just in the last few years started to formalize admission policies and many of the traditionally under-enrolled, lower cut-off "safety schools" for the general public may never have had to deal with a home schooled applicant. Not a very "safe bet" for home schoolers!

Superdestroyer said...

The real question to ask is what is there in the life experiences of a high school students that makes them really qualified or capable of picking a college.

For anyone going into engineering, the real trick is actually getting the engineering degree instead of what school they attended.

Considering that less than 50% of entering freshmen ever finish, more than 20% of students transfer, and most freshmen change their major at least once, why do we keep expecting 17 y/o high school students to be good at picking schools.

Anonymous said...

"'everyone I know hated it...' attitude is fashionable but inaccurate."

Huh? How can an observation based on personal experience - and clearly limited by personal experience - be "inaccurate"? If I'd said, "Everyone who goes to Ivies ends up hating it," that would be one thing. But that's not what I said.

I know two Princeton grads, three Yale grads, and two Harvard grads and they have all expressed disappointment with their undergrad years. That's simply not arguable - just as if all the Ivy grads YOU know loved it, I can't argue with that. Just because we know different people who had different experiences doesn't mean either observation is "inaccurate."

Matthew K. Tabor said...


Admittedly, phrased poorly. I thought it was implied that those individual anecdotes seldom reflect properly on the system.

Though you're right - I can't argue with the testimony of those with whom you've talked - I can bring up two points:

1. My sample size is many, many times larger than 7;

2. Those dissatisfied Ivy grads would likely have even more complaints had they gone to another school.

Superdestroyer said...

Isn't the real college application race really about the top 10% of college students. Every states has a university like George Mason, Temple, Georgia St, UNC-Charlotte that has tens of thousands of students who wished they were somewhere else.

Matthew K. Tabor said...

There are over 2600 colleges/universities in the United States - they serve students well beyond a top 10% threshold.

Dean Baird said...

It's a large nation filled with diverse experiences. Your mileage may vary...

It turns out most people will only attend ONE college. The practice of collecting acceptance letters has gotten out of hand.

There's a time to consider all the possibilities. Junior year and the summer that follows it. Read. Visit. Pare down. (By the way: be smart and don't miss school to visit colleges!)

Sorry Matt--I *do* limit the time, talent, and energy I give away to three letters per student. Your suggestion that I instead limit the number of students is not practicable.

Teachers have a lot of things to do every day. Writing letters of rec goes above and beyond the call of duty. We do it to support our students, but we do not expect to be taken advantage of.

My limit is three and I only write for students I've known for a full academic year. Feel free to disparage me with whatever characterization you like. Better yet, come by and labaste me in person at school. You'll find me there past 5pm most days. Often well past 5pm. I'd extend the invitation to weekends, but the hours are less predictable.

Ivy Leaguers? I'll weigh in. All the students I've had that went on to Ivy League schools loved it and wouldn't have traded the experience for the world. When I visited Harvard (strictly as an observer--well into my teaching career), I noticed that students seemed to know what they were there for. That's not a sense you get at most colleges.

By the way, since I could only go to one school, I applied to only one school: The University Michigan. I had considered many other schools, but narrowed it down BEFORE the application process.

Downside? No file of acceptance letters to make me feel shiny when I'm having a bad day. Guess I'll have to rely on chocolate.

Superdestroyer said...

Most of thsoe 2600 college/universities are open admission institution that students settle on after not being admitted to where they really want to go or when they realize that they are not getting into a "real" university.

Most of those 2600 universities are directional state universities, small bible colleges, or HBCU's.

The kids filling out 20 applications are doing everything they can to avoid the bottom 2500 out of those 2600 univerisities.

Remember, for every on 18y/o students happy to be at an Ivy League there are probably 50 students are a directional state who wishes they were somewhere else so that they could have a "real" college experience instead of a continuation of high school.

Anonymous said...

Each of those colleges has more to teach students than those students could learn in four years.

Education is not something that happens to you; it's something you do for yourself.

Are we to sympathize with anyone who whines, "I would have studied and learned the material if only I had gone to a *real* school. But since I only got into this school (one that would take the likes of me), I'm just gonna party and sharpen my online gaming skills"?

No one who made the best of their high school opportunities will be "stuck" with admissions to bottom-ranked school.

Some might hope to blow off high school, waltz into an Ivy, then accept a position as a corporate CEO. Don't forget to reach for the snooze button when the alarm clock wakes you up.

Matthew K. Tabor said...

"Sorry Matt--I *do* limit the time, talent, and energy I give away to three letters per student. Your suggestion that I instead limit the number of students is not practicable.

Teachers have a lot of things to do every day. Writing letters of rec goes above and beyond the call of duty. We do it to support our students, but we do not expect to be taken advantage of.

My limit is three and I only write for students I've known for a full academic year. Feel free to disparage me with whatever characterization you like. Better yet, come by and labaste me in person at school."

... relax, Dean.

I think that's my cue to unsubscribe from comments on this post.

Superdestroyer said...

to Anonymous at 2:31 PM who could not think of a screen name.

There are directional state universities that have mean SAT scores over 1200 (see University of Maryland -Baltimore County). Yet it is a communter school that even if you major in computer engineering would still feel like a continuation of high school. Every student at the school really wants to be somewhere else but not everyone can make 1400 on their SAT test.