ADMISSIONS OFFICERS ARE well aware of many changes afoot in the admissions landscape these days-from increasing costs to online applications. We thought it would be helpful to offer some perspective on key changes and trends. From our vantage point, working with families and high schools, we also offer some suggestions to higher ed institutions related to the implications of policies, procedures, and developments that impact students, parents, and schools.
First, we find ourselves repeating our longstanding mantra: if you think you know everything about admissions, just wait. Change will continue to make things more complex and uncertain for the average family, school counseling office, or, for that matter, college admissions office. In the midst of rising numbers of high school grads and college applicants, we are digesting the new Common Application and the launch of the competing Universal College Application. There are also new instructions from The College Board and college websites. Students and parents are extremely frustrated as they attempt to decipher requirements, deadlines, and options.
This is our encouragement to families. It's highly challenging to make generalizations when answering questions about filling out applications, whether online or in print. Despite the trend toward adoption of common applications, many colleges continue to require supplements and to implement particular requirements on deadlines, various parts of applications, and standardized tests, for example.
There has been ample discussion of these issues among members of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), but the trend toward easing the application process is accompanied by a continued reverence for the individuality and independence of IHEs, many of which connect the substance of the application to their institutional identity (take the University of Chicago, for example) or the timing of the admissions cycle to particular institutional needs or priorities. Private selective colleges and public universities, from the University of Southern California to the University of Illinois, continue to change requirements, take their own path, and come up with new deadlines and application options.
Counselors and students must look beyond standardized applications and seek out individual application instructions to ensure students aren't missing "priority deadlines," specialized requirements for particular programs, or other curve balls.
Clearly IHEs must protect their institutional identity and mission and work within their own admissions and enrollment framework, but we encourage institutional leaders to consider the perspective of the parent, student, and overtaxed guidance counselor attempting to navigate at least several, if not a dozen, applications during a hectic senior year or before.
Why so many applications? The admissions process is so uncertain that families must protect themselves by trying to open up multiple options over the course of the admissions cycle. Just as IHEs are using deferrals (a rising strategy among large public universities that historically did not defer students during the rolling admissions cycle) and waiting lists (some as large as or larger than the total of the enrolling class of freshmen) to protect their interests, families are reacting rationally, if haphazardly, to the admissions situation with which they are presented today.
More students continue to desire and need to apply to a diverse group of colleges and universities. In doing so, these students are often mixing Rolling, Early Action, Early Notification, and Early Decision application plans. One college might allow multiple Early Action applications, while another (e.g., Yale) might not. It's essential that students examine the fine print for every college of interest, yet in doing so they often come up with unclear responses.
Many colleges fail to clearly explain their application plans online. Providing a link to NACAC's website is a minimal way to help educate families about standardized policies. Sticking to those policies is a starting point. We encourage colleges to look to their peers, especially their "overlap" or "reference" group, and to create some common deadlines and plans.
The ACT has become standard now. Most students we see are not asking whether, but when, to take it. And most families know it's accepted at every college. The fine print: some colleges accept the ACT in place of both SAT and SAT Subject Requirements (Boston University, for example, though it takes a detailed web search and reading an asterisked citation to find it out), while others continue to require Subject Tests in addition to the ACT (New York University and Dartmouth College, for example).
We typically encourage students who are in a PSAT/SAT school to start with the SAT and then add the ACT perhaps in June of their junior year, depending on how the SAT is going. Many try an ACT practice test or work with a tutor to see which program might be more appropriate for their learning style. ACT has added additional testing dates and centers around the country. Students love the option of submitting only their best ACT score, rather than a summary of all scores as in an SAT report, though colleges tend not to mix ACT results by taking the best section score from different ACT administrations, as they will do with multiple SATs.
More students are submitting a combination of SAT, SAT Subject, and ACT tests with their applications. There will be some sorting out to do there. We hope IHEs will make their test policies clear in their informational materials. We maintain a list of test optional colleges to share with students for whom neither the SAT nor the ACT works well, compared to their courses and grades. Becoming test optional can be a great advantage to a college looking for talented and capable students who might not test well.
Media outlets have continued to raise the issue of the boy/girl imbalance on many college campuses. Counselors are becoming aware that a student's gender can dramatically impact that student's odds of admission at a particular college, positively or negatively. Many application tracking services and general college admissions statistics don't seem to capture the gender difference, so the determination of how a student's sex will impact admissions outcomes is likely to be a matter of a counselor's experience, intuition, and judgment.
Boys, of course, are thrilled to learn of something working in their favor-that they might be destined for "great odds" when they get to college. Girls are frustrated that, despite hard work in a tough curriculum, they may lose out on a space at a college of interest to a less qualified male applicant. They have to work even harder and develop an even more impressive r?sum? to stand out in a crowd of strong female peers. Rightly or wrongly, gender is impacting admissions and is a trend that is not likely to be reversed anytime soon.
Boys are thrilled that they might be destined for "great odds" when they get to college.
We hope that, in their informational materials, colleges will clarify their class profile broken out by gender. It's helpful for families and counselors to see the differences in the applicant and accepted and matriculated pools, and to factor that into their thinking about admissions odds as well as campus climate and fit for an individual student. Colleges may need to go out of their way to attract male applicants. Some institutions have turned to athletics and the expansion of more traditionally "guy-friendly" programs, such as business, in order to achieve such results. Skidmore College's (N.Y.) expansion of undergraduate business majors and push on athletic recruiting represents one such experience.
While trends in international admissions seem to have stabilized and even improved a bit, the biggest question we continue to get from international clients revolves around paying for college. A few elite colleges and universities are making more funds available for international students, but we aren't aware of many more workable options for international students needing a fair amount of financial assistance in a climate of increasing college costs. As we work one-on-one with international students and field a constant stream of inquiries from them during our free weekly internet chats on Petersons.com, we sense frustration on the part of qualified students from across the globe seeking an American education.
Many colleges hope to increase their pool of internationals on campus, but they don't have the resources to provide financial assistance. Thus, they offer admission to otherwise qualified candidates based primarily on a nonexistent or limited aid budget. Direct calls or e-mails to specific colleges' coordinators for international admissions or financial aid directors are just about the only way to determine accurately whether a college is offering aid to international students, and, if so, how much. Community colleges have become a frequent point of entry for many internationals unable to pay for four-year institutions and perhaps in need of additional academic enrichment.
For internationals who can't pay for college out of pocket or through a combination of home country government and private scholarships, the consideration of college-based aid for international students remains a key element of the admissions process.
Colleges can best take advantage of global interest by dedicating more funds to these students, many of whom have a lot to offer U.S. IHEs. That takes a lot of endowment dollars, which most schools will be unable to devote to this cause. In addition to focusing resources in this area, schools can publicize their efforts among schools and counselors working with internationals on their own websites in a format dedicated to international applicants and in other online environments used by international students from Ghana to Guatemala.
Howard and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants and the authors of Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them, visit www.greenesguides.com.