What Colleges Could Do About College Admission, Part 1

There’s plenty not to like about the way college admission has developed over the years. More due dates, more essays, more ways to cheat, more silly rankings, and more complexity in general make everyone’s lives crazily complex at a time when high school seniors should be focusing on their schoolwork and activities.

Everyone complains about the stress: It undermines senior year in particular, but school in general as well. It turns privileged kids into graceless competitors and underprivileged kids into also-rans before they even get started (except for those lucky enough to land in a college-bound lifeboat). Although most American colleges accept a majority of their applicants, the imbalances inherent in the admission process are practically guaranteed to produce the appearance of unfair results. We need a better way.


But what do we mean by a “better” college admission process? Like the workings of a clock, each element of the process has its function, and changing one thing throws everything else off. But we still need to consider whether there might be alternatives.

For me, a “better”college admission process would

  • simultaneously make it easier for every student to apply but also harder to do so without careful thought.
  • revert to being a sideline instead of the main event in a student’s life.
  • enable colleges and universities to stop playing games with numbers and relieve them of always trying to second guess applicants’ intentions.
  • showcase students’ actual achievement instead of relying on significantly flawed abstract methods of measuring it.
  • encourage more positive interactions between high schools and post-secondary institutions for the common goal of supporting solid educational values while ensuring that every student who wants to can go to college.

While high schools can encourage students to look beyond name schools or “take it easy” when preparing for tests, only colleges and universities themselves can make the changes that would enable students to be students again. Reforms and importunings like “Turning the Tide,” are doomed to failure because they ignore one key element: the “prize” of college admission itself.

We’ve developed a cultish obsession with “college” that goes beyond its being simply a way to get from high school to career or even to being a more educated person. It’s become a status emblem, a mark of “arrival,” and a supposed guarantee for attaining the good life. Fear of falling behind has made families even more desperate to get their children into “elite” schools, while non-privileged students have to take their chances with whatever scraps of information they get. It’s not really fair to blame students and parents for their obsession when the stakes are so high. iur

By participating in a system that allocates the best resources to the tiniest number of students, institutions of higher education have created this desperation among college-going groups. Colleges and universities could stem the tide if they acknowledged their systemic responsibility to society instead of trying to maintain their individual positions in an artificial hierarchy. Doing so disadvantages all applicants, creating a destructive dog-eat-dog application world. But steps can be taken to mitigate the damage.

Unfortunately, taking these steps requires immense determination and a willingness to lead that colleges don’t seem to have. They are highly sensitive to what other institutions are doing, adopting a “you go first” attitude for most admission reforms. Years ago, for example, Harvard eliminated its Early Decision option because it seemed unfair; when no peer institutions followed, they re instituted it.

Below are several actions colleges and universities could take to improve the college admission process in many dimensions. I’ve given my reasons for including them, and the reasons colleges probably won’t or can’t undertake them. In my next post I’ll list more.

  1. Stop using standardized testing as an admission requirement.
    • Why: Study after study has shown that these tests indicate family income as much as (or more than) they do “aptitude” or whatever abstract concept is supposedly being measured; they clearly disadvantage students from lower economic strata; many institutions have already discovered that they predict performance no better than high school GPA; they are incredibly expensive, especially for underserved students; they have created a massive test prep industry that sucks time from real learning and money from everywhere; they distort the educational process by teaching that a number can define a student’s capacity for learning, curiosity, or dedication to doing well in school; good scores have become goals for many schools that can least afford to pursue them over real teaching and learning; schools that have stopped using them have found no disadvantages in doing so; many students with low scores are actually very good students; instead of a sideline to the application process they’ve become absurdly central, with privileged students taking them multiple times in pursuit of better scores; they can often offer contradictory evidence when compared to a student’s GPA and other characteristics; they lead to the elevation of certain academic subjects at the expense of others; they require immense amounts of teachers’ and high school administrators’ time; they encourage cheating at every level; they are overvalued; they are used in ways that were never intended; recent revisions have revealed significant errors in construction that have not been corrected.
    • Why Not: It’s too easy to rely on scores to make distinctions among applicants, especially for institutions with thousands of them; they give the impression that “science” is involved, which reassures people that admission decisions are “accurate” and “fair;” they’ve been a part of the admission landscape for so long they seem like integral and immutable parts of it; when they’re low enough, they provide a reasonable sounding excuse to reject a student who might other wise be admissible; colleges and the testing agencies are too closely entwined to uncouple; they have become the basis for institutional evaluations; there’s no real pressure to give them up despite the reasons to do so; scores look good on profiles.
  2. Return to using institution-specific applications instead of “common” forms.
    • Why: The extra effort required to complete several institutional applications can reassure colleges that a student has put some thought into applying, which addresses the “Is this a serious candidate?” question; students would have to think more carefully about applying; it’s likely to decrease the number of institutions students apply to, easing the pressure on both high school counselors and admission offices, giving them more time to process applications; colleges could tailor their applications to fit their personalities; a growing number of competing “common” application systems creates needlessly overlapping and confusing methods for applying (soon students will need a “meta-common application” to sort them all, a Travelocity for applicants). iu-2
    • Why Not: It’s likely to decrease the number of applications; the Common Application, for example, is a great tool for students, making it easier for them to apply to multiple institutions; being part of a common list may attract a wider variety of students; lower status institutions may benefit from association with higher status institutions on a common list; it’s relatively easy to participate in a common application.
  3. Establish a National Essay Day. Applicants would have a morning to write application essays on selected topics and in formats (argumentative, critical, narrative, etc.) they’ve learned in school, from material provided that day.
    • Why: Eliminates the proliferation of essay writing “help” that tilts the playing field toward those who can afford to spend the time and money getting it; there’s widespread uncertainty about the authenticity of application essays, so a supervised writing session with topics provided that day would ensure it; honest students who write their own essays with no or minimal help are disadvantaged by those whose essays are doctored; anxiety over the essays is second only to that for standardized tests, resulting in ceaseless writing, rewriting, and more rewriting that interferes with other work; students may also put them off to the last minute; a one-time session (with multiple dates) would relieve students of the seemingly ceaseless trudge through application season; it could revive the teaching of essay writing in the classroom throughout school years since students would be expected to write in different modes; the work would genuinely be the student’s, regardless of background; it would require the ability to think on one’s feet; more interesting questions could be developed across different topics, with each essay mode represented by multiple questions distributed randomly at the time of the exam; similar to AP exams but without need for grading; could use passages from documents, readings, etc. to make responses more relevant; would reinforce the importance of teaching writing and careful reading in general; essays would simply be sent to applicants’ colleges for addition to their files, allowing for differential decisions across institutions; it’s “one and done” so students can get on with their lives.
    • Why Not: Logistics of administering, reviewing, and distributing results (the essays themselves) to applicants’ colleges; months of anxiety crammed into one morning or afternoon; probably expensive from every direction; still would be a big gap between privileged and non-privileged students regarding teaching of writing;

Each of these suggestions and the ones to come in Part 2 put the burden on colleges and universities to address the problems currently besetting the college application process. As I have written before, too often the onus of creating a better college application system falls on students, schools, and families instead of where it really belongs: the institutions that benefit from it.

It’s not enough to dictate that students be”nicer” or pay more attention in class or do more community service; institutions have to reward that behavior as well if they’re serious about it. That goes for any other qualities they desire to see in their eventual students. Entrenched habits are hard to break, of course, but many schools have gone test-optional; students take exams and go through interviews for some major scholarships; and we’re always trying to level the playing field for applicants regardless of their backgrounds.

Despite what we may think, the college application process can change if there’s enough will to do so. And it can even become more supportive of students’ lives in high school. Instead of being a massive hurdle, it can perhaps be more of a bridge. To get there, colleges need to take bold steps to realize more fully the ideals they espouse.


7 thoughts on “What Colleges Could Do About College Admission, Part 1

  1. Will,
    I appreciate all your posts. One thing that also needs to be addressed is the cost of college. That is the biggest hurdle I’m seeing right now for so many of our students.


    • Hi Lis– Thanks for your comment. That’s a huge issue, of course, but I think it overshadows the many social and cultural issues that present significant challenges to students even before they reach the point of considering costs. Those issues need to be brought forward. I also confess that I don’t feel comfortable discussing college finances/financing except in general terms. I’d have to do a lot more research before I did! Stay tuned…


  2. Great article! Thank you for putting this info out there, it certainly is a lot to consider. I look forward to part 2.


  3. I wonder if a UCAS-type application makes more sense. It would truly be ‘Common’ rather than uncommon as the Common App has become in order to accommodate the needs of its membership. And, truly beneficial, limits the number of schools a student can apply to. (It’s five with UCAS, in US with more choices and more students 8?


    • I’ve thought about that from time to time as well. The UC system is similar and seems to work just fine. Others have proposed a lottery system with various modifications. I think our notions about college and class/status are too ingrained to turn things over to chance or a “common” system. But who knows? Stranger things have happened.


  4. Towards your first bullet point, “simultaneously make it easier for every student to apply but also harder to do so without careful thought.”… I’d like all colleges to ask “Why us?” short-answer questions. I love when colleges ask this; through these questions, I have students include at least 5 concrete reasons or opportunities specific to that campus that match their interests or that they can picture themselves getting involved with. This helps students to make more informed and confident final decisions.


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