It’s Easy Being Hard

Crabby finally comes out of his den…

In one of the many nun-themed theater pieces Crabby has seen over the years, a lapsed and frustrated former Catholic school boy asks the be-wimpled main character why God never seems to answer his prayers. “Sometimes,” the good sister replies, “the answer is ‘No.'” And so it is with college admission.

Crabby can’t help but laugh bitterly when he reads about students who, having gone through the college admission process and received admission to schools they claimed to desire, now find them undesirable. One recent posting on his professional website relates that one counselor’s student, a “synchronized skater” who insisted upon applying to colleges that would allow her to skate, and with two acceptances to such institutions in hand, now has decided she wants to attend a college where it’s warm. This situation thus forces her counselor either to say, “No, you made your bed, now lie in it,” which would be the sane and proper response, or to exhume what she can of this girl’s process and find a place where she can skate (synchronously) on water.

This situation is the tip of a larger iceberg, however. Put simply, it’s too easy to apply to college. Any schmoe can do it and, given the absurdly growing application pools at colleges far and wide, evidently does. Many people blame the Common Application, which recently added 46 new colleges, bringing the number of members to 460 (out of 2-3,000 total in the U.S.). Crabby thinks maybe that’s part of it, but there are many more factors: Colleges market themselves like crazy, offering “Fast Apps” with student names already filled in; magazines and newspapers and the internet report on plunging college acceptance rates the way Perez Hilton dishes about Katy Perry (“Ooooh!!! Dartmouth is only accepting 9.2% this year!! That’s sooooo hot!!!”); and in general there is more and more anxiety about a perceived shortage of spots that is totally fictional.

Colleges claim to be overwhelmed by and concerned about the numbers, but Crabby happens to know that application numbers are treated like production numbers in a widget factory: The more, the better. (They should not be treated that way, but that’s another column.) This “success” has a downside, which is that colleges no longer know who are bona fide candidates and who have just thrown their hats into the ring “to see if I can get in.” (The University of Chicago used to have an”Uncommon Application” with essay questions like, “What do you think about Wednesdays?” that would keep the riff-raff out, but no more. Crabby still mourns it.) That is why the wait list has been getting more and more play, causing more and more anxiety among everyone.

In order to lessen all this anxiety and gamesmanship, which lead to further anxiety and gamesmanship ad infinitum, Crabby suggests the following:

1. Application fees should be set according to the popularity of the institution times the wealth of the applicant. A student applying to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford from New Trier H.S. on the North Shore in Illinois (a very wealthy zip code) would pay $100 x 10, or $1,000. A student applying to Harvard from a poor community on Chicago’s South Side would pay $100 x $0, or $00.00. This is based on a scale of $100 as the most popular, with no lower limit, and 0-10 in terms of wealth. (Crabby supposes that could mean colleges might pay some people to apply, but so be it.) Let’s see who’s serious now!

2. In addition to the regular application, applicants should have to take three proctored, two-hour essay tests for each college to which they aspire, evaluated by a committee of professors from  the institution to which they are applying. They should be asked to address substantively some pertinent questions about social, political, literary, and scientific issues. Some limited pooling would be permissible: Schools could agree to a set of questions and provide the faculty members and spaces around the country. Far from being an innovation, this would actually be a reversion to an earlier time when colleges required applicants to explicate passages from the Greek or Latin epics, or to expound upon passages of poetry or literature. You want to be an Eli? Cough up some smarty-pants prose, pal! (This would also solve the problem of essay doctoring and purchase.)

3. Standardized tests are simply lazy ways to quantify something that can’t really be quantified anyway. Do away with them. This would make things easier for applicants, actually, but harder for admission officers, who would no longer have the simplicity of a number to rely on. They would have to read everything and make judgments that way. Fear of being totally overwhelmed would result either in larger staffs or rebellious ones, neither of which could be tolerated for long. Admission officers would then have an incentive to limit their recruitment to those students they could really see as members of their community.

4. To help out with #3, Crabby suggests a return to having members of each college’s faculty serve on admissions committees. Before college admission was professionalized, professors did just that. Since faculty members always complain about how ignorant and slovenly the incoming class is anyway, this would give them a chance to voice their objections where they count and maybe get what they want, and they’d only have themselves to blame in the end. It would also strike fear into the hearts of applicants to know that their claims of having played with Legos since they were womb-bound will only make a particle physicist howl derisively.

5. Colleges should return to paper applications exclusively, and print them on heavy stock paper to ensure maximum expense when an applicant returns them. Insist that applicants use fountain pen or typewriter for maximum braking effect. Everyone will think twice about applying to 18 colleges, that’s for sure. Crabby has considered using clay tablets but that would require knowledge of cuneiform writing, which just doesn’t seem practical.

6. The Common Application should require all applicants to answer one of its own essays before they can proceed to any college’s application. Possible topics: “Who said you could apply to an Ivy League school, and what makes you think you can get in? Really.” “Convince us you’re serious about applying to the schools you’ve listed.” “If you were to receive an electric shock every time you applied to a school after five applications, would you still do it? Why?” And so on.

7. Subject every 10th application to a campus-wide “American Idol”-style vote. Alternatively, throw 10 applications into a “Survivor”-like situation and let current students vote them on or off the island.

8. Require every applicant to produce a 3-minute YouTube video to justify his/her candidacy for each school applied to. A cinch for a generation leading its life online, but enough of an annoyance to thin the ranks.

The problem with college admission isn’t that it’s too hard but that it’s too easy to apply to too many schools. Really challenging students with significant hurdles as they consider their post-secondary plans would really tamp down the anxiety, because most students would probably rather lick an electrical socket than write another college essay. Crabby says, Apply away, young friends, but don’t take all that stuff for granted. Good luck!

2 thoughts on “It’s Easy Being Hard

  1. I love your blog posts! They always make me laugh, and they are wonderfully written. I tweet them when I can, because my clients can benefit from a little reality check! I would vote for the application fee jump… or the electric shock. Keep writing!


  2. #8 isn’t far from becoming a reality. There are some schools like George Mason University that allow an optional YouTube in lieu of an essay. It’s currently optional, but I think we all know what ‘optional’ is really code for.


Comments are closed.