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A Primer in Change

College Admission Isn't What it Used to Be.

Written by Dan Lundquist, Vice President of Admissions & Financial Aid, Union College.

The changing scene

Understanding what has changed -- and what hasnít -- can be a valuable guide to a successful college search.

It seems that everyone wants to move up in the world.

From parents to kids to colleges, everyone wants to "do better," to be "cutting edge." But how are we defining that? How are we defining the goals of the college admissions process for our kids? Enhanced prestige for families? Greater selectivity? Better-connected roommates? Better future job opportunities for kids who donít yet know what they want to do? Both colleges and applicants seem to be constantly trying to look "better" and more competitive. This urge can impede realistic planning and honest communication, as kids and families focus on trying to get in rather than trying to find the good matches for them. It also fuels the cottage and not-so-cottage industries that are springing up and feeding off the college admissions frenzy, from test prep coaching to online essay services to franchised college advising. College admissions has become a big money business, thanks to the "marketing" approach adopted by some families and most colleges.

The small college scene has changed.

Significant investments in information technology, a wealth of freshly-minted Ph.D.s, and other rich campus resources now allow many schools to offer students compelling, unique intellectual experiences. It is also important to question the myth, put forward so casually by many universities and colleges, that a bigger school offers more opportunities. In fact, there is a limit to the amount of opportunity an undergraduate can take advantage of while maintaining academic well-being, and many small colleges offer a better overall participatory experience because, with fewer students to support the myriad of activities, more students play more varied roles in the infrastructure of campus life. As more institutions use merit-based financial aid as a recruiting tool, it is entirely possible for students to receive aid and admission offers from colleges that may not be well-known (yet), but which offer rich educational opportunities. And are willing to offer financial incentives to students to matriculate. Itís very, very important to research colleges. Use reference materials (guidebooks and the Web), visit colleges and talk to the people there, and then make your own, current judgments. Do not rely on any sense of how things used to be. Because things have changed!

Colleges are paying attention to the ratings game

Colleges are paying attention to the ratings game, and many are making important strategic decisions with rankings as a priority. So it is not all about good kids and making the match anymore; institutions have very significant agendas that are separate from the kind of merit-based, human process that students hope and parents assume happens. Whether or not that is good is debatable ó this focus has certainly produced the richer resources referred to above ó but it is important to acknowledge and take into account in college planning. With institutional agendas becoming an ever more powerful force in the admissions process, uncertainties abound for students and families!

In addition to counseling students, admissions officers are "enrollment managers."

Colleges have significant institutional concerns that families donít always understand; from special talents to student diversity to finances, there are a number of issues in the mix that shape admission decisionmaking in sometimes-unexpected ways. For example, early decision/early action has changed the admissions strategies at many of the most highly competitive colleges. Many colleges admit a large percentage of that freshman class early to enhance selectivity and control financial aid. So for applicants who arenít ready to commit in October, for whatever reason, the admissions pools in the spring are dramatically more competitive. There seems to be very little room for kids to grow up and maneuver in this process. If the sophomore year, or even worse, the junior year has "soft spots" on the transcript, or if a student wants to explore several colleges rather than commit early, there isnít much forgiveness in a process that must accommodate institutional needs and prerogatives, as well as those of students and families.

There are very few ó if any ó truly "need-blind" colleges

There are very few ó if any ó truly "need-blind" colleges, the schools that admit students without regard to their need for financial assistance. As you assemble a list of prospective colleges, try to ascertain the role that aid-requesting will or wonít play in your childís evaluation. At most colleges the odds favor "full pay" applicants, especially when credentials are comparable. In these days of $30,000-plus per year private college fees, it is common to see a majority of students receiving aid. Aid budgets are bigger than ever but they are still finite, and the shift from need-based to merit-based aid at many schools has had a profound effect on both budgets and admissions strategies. Apply for aid if you need it but be aware that this might have an impact on your childís candidacy.

Competition is intense.

College Board statistics show that last year more than 1.3 million college-bound seniors took the SAT-1. On the verbal section, more than 58,000 scored 700 or above, and 200,000 had 600 or better. In math, 71,000 scored 700 or higher, and 218,000 were above 600. This year, SAT-1 registration has risen 5.6 percent to more than 1.7 million students. The number of Advanced Placement exams increased from roughly one million in 1998 to 1.15 million in 1999, and the number of candidates taking the tests increased 11 percent. Itís a big, talented world out there! (And yes, lots of those kids are taking four years of English, math, and science!)

Volume means high-tech and low-touch.

The Common Application and e-applications are encouraging more applications with less personalization. While the forms are fine, the process isnít always. With collegesí inferred blessing, kids now write one generic essay and photocopy or e-mail apps across schools. Often they send only one recommendation. Precisely when students ought to "find their own voice" and try to present a distinctive application, many are not. The focus shifts back to numbers, as the volume of students with good numbers increases. For their part, colleges try to discriminate intelligently among students as they seek to build a class. Yet are they "recruiting to reject" so they can enhance the selectivity component of their ranking profile? Where are the humans here? What values are colleges projecting? How much soul-baring are applicants willing to present?

How to help cope with the changing scene

So, against this backdrop, what advice do we have to offer? Parents can prepare and support their children in a number of ways:

Focus on fit, not brand name.

Make sure the seedling is being placed in the right-sized pot (too big and it fails to grow; too small, it becomes root-bound and fails as well). Depending on the "seedling," many environmental factors will come into play. They should be appropriate to the individual, and the process should focus on the individual first and work outward from there.

Ask questions.

The range and diversity of our higher education system is wonderful. And staggering. Never assume there are any universal policies, strengths, or preferences.

Help the child understand the scope of the world.

Kids do not fully understand the numbers. It is sobering ó but an important reality check ó for a kid to know that Harvard may have more application folders, each representing a very qualified candidate, than the number of people hanging from the rafters at a rock concert at any given arena. What does 21,000 applications mean to a 17-year-old looking at NYU? And even smaller colleges, like Union, have seven or eight applicants for each spot in the class. Hereís where parents must be realistic and protect their children from the inevitable tendencies toward self-centeredness and wishful thinking that are part of the adolescent world.

Be realistic when developing a college list.

Competitive colleges are just that, competitive. Get away from the idea that this is a rewards or awards process. It is not. It is certainly credentials-based, but it is not necessarily merit-based. Again, kids need help understanding the difference. Excellent qualifications will open the door for consideration by elite colleges but the invitation to walk through ó admission ó is the byproduct of an idiosyncratic and often unfair selection process. Dreams are wonderful but reality is essential: we all know how hard it is to assess honestly a beloved childís place in the world. Assume nothing. Resist the temptation to refuse to learn more, and plan broadly so that even given the vagaries of the process, the child will have some choice in the senior spring.

Reinforce the idea that what weíre all after are good next steps

Reinforce the idea that what weíre all after are good next steps in the transition between late adolescence and early adulthood, and remind kids that formal education plays a role in but does not define oneís success in life.

An important, related, notion is that many of the most important educational experiences one has are non-academic.

As important as the formal collegiate curriculum is, personal growth is a vital part of a college education. In that regard it is important to recognize that oneís college education actually begins with the college search, and all the personal development that is imbedded in the process.

Try to diminish the need for a parental gold-star

Try to diminish the need for a parental gold-star from the admissions office. One student described his rejections as "body blows to my parents." Parents should be careful exactly what they invest in this process. Kids should come first.

Letís understand that adolescents donít understand risk and rejection.

Itís not fair for parents to set kids up to receive a lot of rejections on the off-chance that "something could work" or the need to recite a prestigious list in answer to the inevitable questions about college plans. Adults have a different understanding of risk and rejection than children, and it hurts kids more to be rejected and to lose. If the list of prospective colleges is top-heavy with "hot" schools, the student ends up feeling like a failure even if she was admitted to some good places, because the number of rejections ó some of which were probably unrealistic from the start ó is overwhelming to her. The college admissions process is not a place to take a lot of risks of this kind.

Having said that, encourage kids to break or bend the unwritten rules that constrain the college search:
the "conventional wisdom" that because this is a serious, high-stakes process, one must be deadly serious about it. Teenagers should be themselves and have some fun! For all of the caveats that weíve presented, the simple fact remains: students have a remarkably wide range of options, and at the point where lofty ambition and reality intersect comes the next step after high school.
Good luck!

© 2004 College Advisor of New England