The college admissions process is completely broken | Tech US News

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Updated April 18, 2022 at 5:25 p.m.

With the final college admissions decisions for the high school class of 2022 set to arrive in the coming days, we’re likely at the tail end of another record-setting application year. According to the organization that runs the Common App, the volume of applications was up nearly 10 percent year-over-year through mid-February — only about 10 percent more than the year before. Over the past two decades, college applications have increased by more than 150 percent, even as graduating class sizes have remained fairly stable.

That may sound like good news, but the growing volume of applications is hurting colleges and students. Overwhelmed with applications and pressed for time, admissions officers quickly review the files of most students who have no prayer of getting in and spend only a few minutes reviewing those who are ultimately accepted—something I witnessed the year I spent in three admissions offices for my latest book. While piles of apps and extremely low adoption rates are certainly signs of popularity, these things are really signs of a poorly designed system that needs improvements that are long overdue.

Much of the dysfunction stems from misperceptions about how difficult it is to get into college. Ridiculously low acceptance rates have become the norm at hypercompetitive schools: 5 percent at Stanford University, 10 percent at Colby College, and 12 percent at Vanderbilt for fall 2020. But selectivity is an illusion that stresses students out and leads them to apply to multiple colleges unnecessarily , when they can only enroll in one. The vast majority of colleges accept most of the students who apply. Seventy-five percent of schools using the Common Application accept more than half of their applicants. However, “students come to Common App thinking they’re not going to get anywhere, but they will,” Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of Common App, told me. In other words, there are plenty of places out there, just not at a small set of elite institutions whose freshman classes have barely budged since the late 1970s.

There is a better way. Colleges could alleviate the congestion and stress they’ve created — and provide relief to both schools and students in the process, including at selected schools – by reforming the application system.

First, colleges need to be clear about selection criteria. Although the average four-year university in the U.S. admits nearly 60 percent of applicants, many schools claim to be more selective than they are by telling prospective students that they conduct a “holistic” admissions process that considers factors beyond grades and test scores. This approach, which attempts to measure qualities that cannot be quantified and are usually gleaned from an applicant’s extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendations, is loved and hated by parents and students in equal measure. Both favor a method that focuses on the “whole student” until they discover that applicants with lower GPAs or test scores have been admitted.

Holistic admissions may sound great, but many admissions offices at less selective colleges make most of their decisions by evaluating the rigor of an applicant’s high school courses and grades. In some cases, ACT and SAT scores are also important, although many colleges have made the tests optional during the coronavirus pandemic. Compiling impressive lists of extracurricular activities and hiring essay coaches ultimately prove futile in the college admissions process, where the decision is driven by the high school transcript. Long application forms are a particularly unfair burden on students without access to resources such as college counselors, supportive parents or teachers, and even a computer with reliable Internet access.

Last year, the Common App experimented with something called direct admissions, turning the traditional process on its head: Instead of filling out form after form, students are proactively admitted based on data provided by K-12 schools or elementary information provided by students. About 3,300 students were offered guaranteed admission to their in-state school if they met the GPA requirement; in the end, about 66 students participated in the pilot project. Although it’s a small group, officials at the Common App told me that more than half of the respondents to the offer are first-generation college students. Last year, about 700,000 seniors who opened Common App accounts never filed. Typically, these students are lower-income, first-generation and from minority backgrounds, said Don Yu, Common App’s vice president of policy and advancement.

Second, colleges could eliminate binding early decisions that pressure retirees to apply to one college by the fall deadline and commit to attending if accepted. Early decision leaves students with the impression that there is only one real faculty for them. For some, the early decision became the new regular decision.

Selective colleges fill more of their incoming classes early to reduce the uncertainty of regular decision cycles, in which students may be weighing acceptance from multiple schools. Barnard completed 62 percent of the seats in this fall’s freshman class before even considering regular decision applications. Boston University filled about 50 percent of its class early; a decade ago, only 13 percent of the class enrolled early. The University of Pennsylvania filled 51 percent of its class earlier this year.

Teens know this, so the early decision to get into a super-selective school turns into an angst-filled Hunger Games. They don’t necessarily love college; they love their chance to be accepted. A single application deadline without early decision is not uncommon: The University of California has one, and it still attracted more than 210,000 applicants to its nine campuses this year.

Finally, selective colleges may require much less to determine an applicant’s options. Stephen Farmer, vice chancellor for admissions at the University of Virginia, wonders if there is a “more iterative way” to request materials. Instead of the application process being a huge burden for students to complete all at once, information from applicants could be collected in chunks at different stages of the process. Transcripts could be submitted at the first level, recommendations at the second level, and essays at the third level, allowing schools to effectively narrow the pool and ensure that students do not spend unnecessary time or energy preparing material.

“You should look at ours [application process] difficult, every hoop we ask students to jump through,” Farmer told me. “There are a lot of assumptions we make about things that are important that aren’t,” such as colleges counting the number of AP courses an applicant has taken as a measure of rigor.

In fact, it’s a dirty secret I learned that year watching admissions offices review applications: Most don’t know exactly what they’re trying to assess when they ask for multiple essays and recommendations and an encyclopedic list of activities. Highly selective colleges like to talk about how they “shape the class,” but let’s not kid ourselves about that level of precision. In reality, schools don’t so much choose a class as send invitations to join a class. Not every student will answer “Yes”. At Northwestern, only 60 percent do, meaning four out of every 10 admitted students say “No thanks.” At Wesleyan (no shortage in the prestige department), only 35 percent accept the college on their offer. For all the anxiety students have about getting into a particular school, the truth is that most student bodies at elite, highly selective schools are just slightly different combinations of the same pool of applicants.

The Common App and the Internet have made it possible for students to apply to college with the click of a button, but the actual process isn’t that simple.

If early decision is eliminated at select colleges, which opens up more regular-round spots, teenagers will be less concerned about choosing one school to place their early bet on. A world where direct entry is the new way to get into most colleges and where applying is generally less burdensome will encourage students to balance their list, knowing early on in their senior year whether they’ve gotten in or not. to have real options at a top college long before final decisions come in March. In the end, such long-needed changes to the application process could make high school less about jumping through hoops to apply to college and more about making friends, joining student government, enjoying homecoming, and taking interesting classes—in short, more about they have a more meaningful experience and one that prepares them for the students they will become.


This piece previously stated that the acceptance rates for Stanford, Colby, and Vanderbilt were from 2021. They were actually from 2020.

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