The Crisis in College Admissions

By Jon Reider

As director of a high school college counseling office for many years, I, and many of my colleagues across the country, see that the college admission process is in crisis.  Ideally, the process of selecting a college should be an enjoyable rite of self-discovery as students reflect on their educational and personal goals and find colleges where they can achieve those goals.  Unfortunately, the process is now far from ideal.

Overall, applying to college has become increasingly complex and opaque to applicants and their families.  Students often find it hard to sort out the confusing variety of admission policies: what are colleges actually looking for, what do standardized tests mean, what references are useful, whether their activities will help their case for admission, how to write a good essay, whether they should apply early, and, crucially, how to maximize their chances for financial aid as college costs continue to rise.  At the same time, more and more students are applying to a fairly small tier of well-known colleges. The result is lower admit rates at many colleges every year. A frenzy of sorts has developed, as more students seek a place at a highly desired college.

Students are the victims. They see an endless series of hurdles in what they perceive as a race: taking every Advanced Placement course available, participating in more activities than they have time for, including often quite expensive summer programs, that they hope will give them an edge in the competitive process.  They also take expensive preparation courses for standardized testing and then they take these tests repeatedly. Some parents hire independent counselors with the word “Ivy” in their business names, advisors who claim to have the “inside” special knowledge that will produce a coveted acceptance.  It is all much too much, but who can blame them if they think that it might increase their chances, or their child’s, for a successful future?  At the same time, families who are unable or unwilling to join in the race worry that they may be seriously disadvantaged.

But all of this only seems to work for an increasingly small percentage of college aspirants who successfully play the game and win the prize, as they define it.  After jumping through all the hoops, many are left disappointed, destined for a college other than the one they furiously chased for so long.  Or, they achieve their prize but arrive at their dream college burned out from the ordeal that led them there. The colleges aren’t helping either.  With a few exceptions, they advertise widely to attract more applicants each year so they can pick a smaller percentage of their pool and use that number to brag to the public, their Boards of Trustees, and the bond rating agencies about their selectivity and popularity.

Photo courtesy Sally Springer

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Every student can emerge from the process feeling whole and optimistic about their future, if they practice moderation, common sense, and make thoughtful decision. You certainly need to know the details of the process and be clear-headed about your options, but you don’t have to participate in the frenzy.

Our book, Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College, helps students and parents come back to earth by giving them all the tools they need to approach the college admissions process with confidence and common sense, regardless of where they ultimately choose to apply. As educators who have taught college classes as well as advised high school students, my co-authors and I know that what ultimately matters is what a student accomplishes in college, not the school name at the top of the diploma. We hope that by sharing our experience with students, parents, and other educators who work with high school students, we can extend our reach beyond the small number of students we personally work with each year to help many more.

To purchase the third edition of Admission Matters, visit this page.

Admission Matters: What Students and Parents Need to Know About Getting Into College, Third Edition (2013) — 9781118450277

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