The College Admissions Process Is Broken

Now that college acceptance and rejection decisions have found their destinations for another year, it is finally time that someone steps up and says what needs to be said: The college admissions process is broken and needs to be fixed.

As an independent college counselor, I have spent the last 15 years watching two disturbing trends on both sides of the socioeconomic spectrum. Upper- and middle-class students face a preposterous degree of pressure to attend a “good” college. Every day, I spend hours with teens applying to college. They tell me how they base a good part of their self-esteem on whether an institution deems them smart enough or good enough. To students who have barely glimpsed the challenges of life, getting into college serves as the ultimate validation for their level of ability, potential, work ethic and societal acceptance.

Consequently, more of these students are applying to more and more colleges each year to try to increase their chances of getting accepted. In fact, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, almost three-quarters of American colleges have seen increases in applications in 10 of the last 15 years.

For low-income or hard-pressed middle-income students – the type I once was – the process is simply overwhelming. Public schools are short on counselors, leaving students with little guidance to navigate a confusing process. Students who have parents who did not attend college are at an even greater disadvantage. These students often “undermatch” themselves, applying to too few colleges or to schools that don’t match their level of academic achievement. According to the Association for Education Finance and Policy, 50 percent of students from low-income families undermatch into colleges less selective than are warranted by their academic record.

Colleges know about these trends but have done too little to standardize their process and make it more accessible. Things are a bit easier thanks to “The Common Application,” a standardized electronic application accepted by over 600 colleges and universities. But too many schools don’t accept it, including the entire University of California system and the University of Texas system.

Even those that do often have additional requirements. Stanford University, for example, requires three different essay answers, along with multiple short answer responses that are completely different from those required by say, The University of Pennsylvania. Some colleges require two recommendations and SAT subject tests, while others do not.

Application timelines also vary. The deadline for The University of Vermont is different from that the one required by USC. Some colleges offer interviews, in some cases requiring students to sign up in September, while in other cases granting interviews only after the application is submitted.

This is just a fraction of the minutiae the typical 17-year-old college applicant must figure out. Ask any parent who has tried to shepherd a child through the process and you will hear horror stories about last minute essays, screaming matches over missed deadlines and frustration over different requirements.

Today’s application process is no picnic for college admission offices either. They also have the virtually impossible task of sorting through 20,000-100,000 applications in a matter of months, trying to find interesting, smart, diverse students who will actually come to their campuses and take advantage of the education that is offered. For any given college, much of this is wasted effort: as applications increase, the majority of the accepted students will turn them down and attend another institution.

This system frustrates everyone in the process, except perhaps people in my business who help families navigate this chaos. But enough is enough. Colleges need to work together to make the process more manageable and sane.

First, all colleges and universities in the United States should standardize their requirements and deadlines. The Common Application should be used for this purpose unless and until a better solution is developed. Additionally, all colleges should require the same personal statement and only one supplemental essay – I’d suggest the popular prompt of “Why do you want to attend this specific college?” because it forces students to research the schools to which they are applying.

Yes, I hear you admission staff. A standardized process with just two essays will actually drive up the number of students applying to multiple colleges. This is why I also suggest capping the number of colleges to which a student can apply at 12. In my experience, this number allows plenty of choices while encouraging students to focus their attention on colleges they would actually attend.

These changes would free up time and resources for college admissions offices, restore sanity during the application process and most importantly, make college more accessible to all.

Whether it is true or not for every individual, we live in an era where a college degree is considered a necessity for success. Perhaps we can at least start a discussion about making it easier to get in.