Everyone take a deep breath. If you’re a high school senior, it’s probably hard to ignore the fact that August has arrived. First, stores started promoting back-to-school sales too early. Then, on August 1st, the Coalition for College and software platform Scoir unveiled their new streamlined approach to applying to college. That same day, the Common App released a version of its 2022-2023 college admissions application that is now used by more than 1,000 different institutions across the country and the world.
Social media is full of announcements about open applications, and colleges are flooding email inboxes with invitations to apply. Meanwhile, some applicants are urged to apply to current admissions schools as soon as possible, just to get a “win” and know they’ve been accepted. As a school counselor and father of teenagers, I can feel the general blood pressure rising. Getting into college is not a race, but if it was, it would be better thought of as a marathon rather than a sprint. Perhaps it is even better framed as a long walk that requires occasional jogging. But if you stick to your own pace, the trip can be enjoyable and meaningful. Just remember to breathe deeply.
Access and anxiety
In college admissions, there is a constant tension between reaching students who may not think college is for them and others who are focused on getting “into” the most selective school possible. Underrepresented, first-generation, and low-income students disproportionately face barriers to applying to and attending college. They often do not have access to the same sources of advice as their more affluent peers, which understandably leads to uncertainty and anxiety. Colleges are eager to reach out and support these students in the admissions process, but this awareness effort can have the unintended consequence of fanning the flames of anxiety. In connection with the very deliberate motivation of some faculties to increase the number of applications, hysteria sets in.
Application platforms exist to facilitate the admissions process, and they face their own tension of wanting to streamline the experience and support students while responding to the agendas and priorities of the institutions they serve. The ease of applying to college has made these platforms vehicles of access and excess. This has created a vicious cycle of uncertainty and “application addiction,” where colleges seek more students in their admissions pool and students apply to more colleges. This cycle makes enrollment more difficult to predict, so everyone involved in this scrum reacts with a misguided “more is better” philosophy.
Don’t shoot the Messenger
Believe it or not, the educators and experts who bring you these apps also want you to stop, take a breath on purpose. While they want students to use their tools, they want it to happen responsibly, with a balanced approach and with an individually appropriate timeline. Stacey Kostell, executive director of the Coalition for College, explains, “Wherever students are on their enrollment journey, we want them to know that help is available and that they don’t have to go through it alone. Application and enrollment is the end goal, but coalition schools work together to engage students along the way, answer their questions, and help them begin to feel more comfortable with the process. Connecting with us at events this fall or even watching videos of our past meetings can be a great first step toward applying.” Gerry McCrory, founder and CEO of Scoir, agrees. He says, “As students prepare to apply to college, our aim to reduce as much stress and anxiety as possible so they can focus on what matters most: discovering colleges that best suit their academic, social and financial needs.. That’s why we’ve worked so hard with our partners to enable a process focused on students.”
Scott Anderson is Common App’s Senior Director of Outreach and Education and a former school counselor. He says: “Every August 1st we celebrate a new year and a new opportunity for students to follow their college dreams. While we are so excited for students who are ready to take this next step in their journey, it is important to stress that it is ONLY August 1st.” He affirms that “applying to college is not a competition, even though it may seem like it. Just as every college has its own deadline, every student has their own timeline. Take the time you need to consider and find resources and support to help you find a college where you can thrive. Remember: your final decision is just that – yours! He added, “The Common App is ready for you whenever you’re ready for us.”
An early win
I appreciate the idea of students proactively applying to colleges and the confidence that comes from being accepted. As a counselor, I have witnessed the weight lifted from young people’s shoulders when they realize that university is within reach and that they have options. However, if an applicant has no real interest in possibly attending a particular college, this simply adds to application inflation. If a college on your list that seems like a good fit has rolling enrollment, by all means apply when you feel best prepared, but don’t fall into the “land grab” mentality of applying to schools because it’s free and “why not get a win?”
Turn off the noise
College admissions is data overload, and media coverage often perpetuates the narrative that it’s a game. Clickbait headlines add to the frenzy, the obsession with a small group of select colleges, and worst of all, the idea that one has to be exceptional and flawless to get accepted. Take for example recently The Wall Street Journal article about “absurd” college essay prompts. The author writes, “Back-to-school season is upon us, and for many high school seniors, the grueling college application process is upon us. Most college applications — including the Common Application and College Coalition — opened Monday. A key part of the sparkling craziness of college admissions season: crafting the perfect essay.”
It’s not helpful, and neither is judging unique essay prompts that encourage students to think in unconventional ways. While there are potential equity issues with applications that require more work and nuance, there is also a method to the “madness” the article propagates. During a webinar last week, an independent education consultant regretfully shared the story of one of her clients who has to write seventy (yes, you read that right – 70) college application essays. This indicates a faculty list that is excessive and probably without purpose. Don’t get caught up in the mania or the idea that you have to be perfect. Angel Pérez is the executive director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and a former dean of admissions at several colleges. She advises, “Bring your authentic self to the app and don’t try to be someone you’re not. Besides, if the college is going to ‘deny’ you for who you are, you wouldn’t want to attend that school. So don’t stress so much. Just be yourself, tell your unique story, and you’ll end up in a school that’s perfect for you.”
Take time to say thank you
Speaking of essays, one school hopes its addition this year will make students stop and think in meaningful ways. The University of Pennsylvania added a short answer prompt for students “Write a short thank you note to someone you haven’t thanked yet and would like to acknowledge.” Whitney Soule, vice chancellor and dean of admissions, explains, “We carefully considered the impact of adding another prompt (and shortened the word length of the other prompts to minimize that impact).” She added: “It may be impossible to remove anxiety from the application process, but it is essential that we ground the process by focusing on the experiences of individual students who apply. Most applications invite students to organize and describe their achievements and aspirations. So, in a way, we accidentally force them to be very self-centered, while at the same time evaluating them academically and as members of the community.”
Soule says, “As admissions managers, we have a responsibility to ensure that every detail we ask of students has value in our review. Furthermore, we have a responsibility to consider the impact of what we ask for and how we ask for it. Can every applicant, regardless of means and support, answer the question? How would it feel to come up with an answer? How are we going to prepare readers to include the answer in a comprehensive review?” When asked why gratitude, he says, “We know that the act of expressing gratitude is more powerful than describing it, so we hope that students will feel good about responding to the prompt, actually write a thank you note when they do. For those of us reading the application, we’ll appreciate getting a little bit of context about how a student experiences the influence of others.”
You may have heard the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This is very important to the college admissions experience. While this is definitely a personal process, it doesn’t have to be done in solitude. As mentioned earlier, there is—and will be—a lot of incentive to go fast, but resist the knee-jerk reaction to rush through the application and accompanying materials. It is important to first identify your team, those who will support you along the way. For some, it will be family members, counselors, teachers, or coaches, while others will rely on friends, employers, pastors, or various mentors. Work with these individuals to determine an application timeline for the next few months that makes sense for your specific circumstances. Communicate openly and often and be experienced, but ask for help when you need it. It’s time, but don’t wait until the last minute. Remember, keep calm, breathe and together you will go far.