The university admissions process is completely broken

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Updated at 5:25 pm on April 18, 2022.

With the last of the college admissions decisions for the high school class of 2022 arriving in the next few days, it is likely that we will come to the end of another record year of applications. According to the organization that runs the common applicationapplication volume until mid february it was up nearly 10 percent over the prior year, which in turn was up 10 percent over the prior year. In the last two decades, the number of applications sent to universities has increased more than 150 percent, even as the size of high school graduating classes has increased. remained fairly stable.

This may sound like good news, but the increasing volume of applications hurts both universities and students. Inundated with applications and short on time, admissions officers quickly scan the files of most students who have no hope of getting in and spend only a few minutes reviewing those who ultimately accept, something I witnessed in the year I spent embedded in three admissions offices for me last book. While lots of applications and a ultra low acceptance rate are certainly marks of popularity, these things are indeed indications of a poorly designed system that is long overdue for improvements.

Much of the dysfunction stems from a misperception about how difficult it is to get into college. In hyper-competitive, ridiculously low schools acceptance rates have become the norm: 5 percent at Stanford University, 10 percent at Colby College, and 12 percent at Vanderbilt by fall 2020. But selectivity is something of an illusion, stressing students and leading them to unnecessarily apply to multiple colleges when they can enroll in just one. The vast majority of universities admit the majority of 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 spots available, just not in the small set of elite institutions whose freshman classes have hardly moved in size since the late 1970s.

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There is a better way. The colleges could ease the congestion and stress they created and bring relief to both schools. Y students in the process, even in selective schools, by reforming the application system.

First, universities must be clear about their selection criteria. Although the average four-year university in the US accepts nearly 60 percent of applicants, many schools indicate they are more selective than they are by telling prospective students that they practice “holistic” admissions, considering more factors. beyond grades and test scores. This approach, which attempts to measure qualities that are not quantifiable and typically gleaned from an applicant’s extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendations, is loved and hated by parents and students alike. Both favor a method that focuses on the “whole student” until they discover that applicants with lower GPAs or test scores were accepted.

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 coursework and grades. In some cases, ACT and SAT scores are also important, though many colleges have made testing optional during the coronavirus pandemic. Accumulating impressive lists of extracurricular activities and hiring essay coaches ends up being useless in the admissions process at colleges where high school transcripts determine the decision. Long application forms also place a particularly unfair burden on students who don’t have access to resources like college counselors, supportive parents or teachers, and even a computer with reliable Internet access.

Last year, Common App experimented with something called direct admission, revolutionizing the traditional process: Instead of filling out one form after another, students are proactively admitted based on data provided by K-12 schools or basic information. provided by students. About 3,300 students were offered guaranteed admission to a school in their state if they met a GPA requirement; some 66 students ultimately participated in the pilot project. Although this is a small group, Common App officials told me that more than half of those who responded to the offer were first-generation college students. Last year, some 700,000 seniors who opened Common App accounts never applied. Typically, those students tend to be low-income, first-generation and of minority background, said Don Yu, vice president of policy and advancement at Common App.

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Second, colleges could eliminate binding advance decisions, which pressure seniors to apply to a college before the fall deadline and commit to attend if accepted. Early decision leaves students with the impression that there is only a correct university for them. For some, early decision has become the new regular decision.

Selective colleges are filling more of their incoming classes early to reduce the uncertainty of regular decision cycles, in which students may be weighing acceptances from multiple schools. barnard finished 62 percent of seats in this fall’s freshman class before regular decision applications are even considered. Boston University filled about 50 percent of its class early; a decade ago, it only registered 13 percent of the class early. The University of Pennsylvania filled 51 percent of his class earlier this year.

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

Finally, selective colleges may ask for much less to determine an applicant’s chances. Stephen Farmer, the vice chancellor for enrollment at the University of Virginia, wonders if there is a “more iterative way” to request materials. Instead of making the application process a huge burden, students need to finish all at once, applicants’ information could be collected in parts at different stages of the process. Transcripts can be submitted in the first stage, recommendations in another stage, and essays in another, allowing schools to narrow down the pool efficiently and ensuring students don’t spend unnecessary time or energy preparing materials.

“We should be looking at our [application process] hard, every hoop we ask students to jump through,” Farmer told me. “There are a lot of assumptions we make about things that matter that don’t matter,” like colleges counting the number of AP courses an applicant has taken as a measure of rigor.

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In fact, that’s the dirty secret I learned the year I watched admissions offices review applications: Most don’t know exactly what they’re trying to assess when they apply for multiple essays and recommendations, as well as an encyclopedic list of activities. Highly selective colleges like to talk about how they “build a class,” but let’s not fool ourselves with that level of precision. In reality, schools do not choose a class but send invitations to join a class. Not all students will answer “Yes.” At Northwestern, only 60 percent do, which means that four out of 10 accepted students say “No thanks.” At Wesleyan (not far behind in the prestige department), only 35 percent accept the university’s offer. So for all the anxiety students feel about getting into a certain school, the truth is that most of the student bodies at highly selective and elite schools are just somewhat different combinations drawn from the same pool of applicants.

The common application and the Internet allowed students to apply to the university with the click of a button, but the actual process is not that simple.

Eliminating early decision at selective colleges, opening up more spots in the regular round, teens will worry less about choosing a school to place their early bet on. A world where direct admission is a new way to get into most colleges, and where applying is generally less onerous, will encourage students to balance their list, because they’ll know early on in their senior year if they got into somewhere or not. have a real shot at one of the best universities long before the final decisions are released in March. In the end, these much-needed changes to the application process could make high school less a game of hoops and more about making friends, joining student government, enjoying coming home, and taking classes. interesting; in short, more about having a more meaningful experience and preparing them for the college students they will become.

This article previously stated that the acceptance rates for Stanford, Colby, and Vanderbilt were from 2021. In fact, they were from 2020.