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Admissions Insider

The Year in Review and a Look Ahead
University Business, Mar 2006

From application frustrations to test score worries, high school students and parents have a lot on their minds these days. As do Admissions offices, of course, in their quest to do ever better for their institutions. Here's a look at some of the current concerns and trends, as well as a glimpse at what college administrators should focus on in the coming year.

Families Are Asking ...

Two conflicting trends in admissions are the standardization of college applications and the individualization of the same. While students have access to a variety of standardized application forms--including, most prominently, the one created by The Common Application, a nonprofit--it is clear that the standard application form isn't so common. The Common Application has helped each student to fill out more applications (and, yes, this is another trend), but a number of colleges have supplements to the application that continue to bedevil applicants.

Many of those supplements are data-oriented, asking the same kind of information from applicants, including extra family and educational data, demographic background, other colleges to which the student is applying, academic interests, and so on. Other supplements add one or more essays, including a very common essay we call the "Why us?" or "Why our college?" question.

We applaud the colleges that have adopted the Common Application and other standardized online forms, even while we bemoan the loss of opportunity this represents for students to share more about themselves in multiple essays, and for colleges to show their unique personalities through creative application processes. The fact is that students are busier than ever, and many talented students are turned off by difficult applications that ask many extra open-ended questions (see the University of Chicago or Northwestern University in Illinois as examples).

Students are busier than ever, and many talented students are turned
off by difficult applications that ask many extra questions.

Thus, sticking with or creating a difficult, time-consuming, and individualistic application might attract self-identifying prospects, but this can have a significant downside. We wonder if it's possible to revise the Common Application or another standardized form to include one or two extra essays, including the "Why us?" one, as well as a longer data section covering items of interest to most institutions. In this case, "Why us?" would be more generically focused on, "What are you looking for in your college experience and what will you contribute to your college academically and through your activities?" Students might then adapt that essay (as they often do already) by being more specific for each individual college they are applying to as they revise that single application, most likely online.

This would simplify life for students, who would not need to seek out, download, print out, or e-mail a variety of supplements, all asking for basically the same information. It could also encourage more colleges to join The Common Application group, which had 277 members as of late January.

There have been numerous problems with electronic applications this year, and even problems for families trying to print out applications or supplements to submit in hard copy. Not only do the applications vary from college to college, but they even show discrepancies for the same college. Many colleges allow parts of applications to be submitted online and other parts by mail. Others require the entire application to be submitted in the same way. Some colleges allow extra length on essays submitted by mail, while limiting to text boxes the length of the online essays.

Instructions are unclear, and we learned of many cases this year where families encountered bugs in the system. We encourage colleges to intensively test application systems prior to launch, and to solicit feedback from applicants to ensure the system is responsive to the family needs (yes, parents and students fill out forms, sometimes together, sometimes in separate components).

If an institution's policy prefers one version or the other, it helps to specify that right on the admission pages. In addition, offering a monetary incentive for students to apply online is one positive way to encourage students to take that route. Pointing out why online applications are better--such as by saving you data entry work and limiting possible human errors, improving the time in which you can review applications, improving the security, decreasing the cost of submitting the application, and taking away the nasty handwriting or typing-on-the-line issues associated with paper copies--will help convince uneasy parents and students that the age of online applications has arrived. Sticking with a standardized application format or service will help make the process easier as well.

Early what, we ask? Early Decision? Round one or two? Early Action? Rolling Admission? Rolling Early Decision? Restrictive Early Action? Is the college your first choice? Are you thinking about applying to more than one college "early"? Is that allowed by each college to which you might apply? As you might imagine, the early situation has only gotten more confusing.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling has recently clarified qualified admission plans, but we continue to see differences among colleges and bewilderment on the part of families. It is hard to generalize what applicants may and may not do, depending on which colleges they are applying to, how, and when.

Students must, as always, read colleges' application materials very carefully to see what is prohibited and allowed, but often policies are hidden deep in the bowels of admission websites, and couched in language that admission professionals have a hard time interpreting.

For example, a student can apply to Harvard under its Restrictive Early Action plan, but that student may not simultaneously apply to another college under an Early Decision plan, or under an Early Action plan. Public colleges and universities are exceptions if they use Rolling Admission, or, it turns out, Early Action (yet, how many parents and students really even know how to differentiate between public and private?). On the other hand, Yale, with its Restrictive Early Action plan, does not allow students to apply Early Action to a public university, but it does allow Rolling Admission applications to that type of school. Georgetown allows Early Action applications to other colleges in addition to Georgetown Early Action, but not an Early Decision application.

There are many such inconsistencies regarding prohibitions, deadlines, and deferral or rejection policies. Some IHEs, like Northwestern, almost never defer if an ED candidate is not admitted, but almost always reject; others, like Harvard, might defer more than two-thirds of EA applicants.

Of course colleges should be able to control their applicant pools, and families always need to read the fine print. But why does the system need to be so difficult to navigate? We find many families fall into the trap of "strategizing" as they try to decide on the right set of applications and when, and they then can lose sight of what's really important: finding the right college fit.

The revision of the SAT and addition of an optional writing section on the ACT has done nothing to quell the fears and stress of students facing these tests. If anything, there seem to be even higher stakes involved and a tougher experience to survive.

The SAT now runs over three-and-a-half hours. A student with an extended time accommodation might even take the test in two sittings. There is a move underway to encourage The College Board to allow all students to take the individual sections of the test over several days or even weeks. There is also a move on the part of many colleges to create a more optional test submission situation. Drew University (N.J.) reported an increase of 11 percent in applications received by mid-December after having dropped the standardized test requirement in September. In place of the SAT or ACT, students must submit a graded paper.

Yes, there is also confusion about what is required by the various colleges offering alternatives to SAT or ACT, including institutions like Hamilton College (N.Y.), Middlebury College (Vt.), Franklin & Marshall College (Pa.), College of the Holy Cross (Mass.), and Pitzer College (Calif.). We continue to see many talented students, though, who don't do well on the tests, but who would be excellent candidates at many selective colleges, and we suspect that the test-optional trend will continue during the next few years.

As competition for admission at selective colleges has increased (though we acknowledge this is not universally true across all colleges), families have become more concerned about the unpredictability of admissions. In addition to wondering about getting in, they are asking whether they have enough colleges on their list.

Fortunately, there is some hope in technology that helps families determine realistic expectations. The Counselor's Office software from Naviance is one such recent innovation. It assesses a student's profile relative to other students who applied to a particular college from their high school over the past several years. The data is never perfect, and it doesn't capture the nuances of individuals and their applications, but the results do help provide a reality check on a student's place in each college's pool.

IHEs Are Working On ...

As independent college counselors ourselves, we represent one facet of this development. As more families look for extra support and expertise in finding and applying to the right colleges, the group of independent counselors has continued to grow. (The Independent Educational Consultants Association's membership has doubled in the past two years to 500, and Executive Director Mark Sklarow says the total number in the field is about 5,000 and still growing.)

Institutions can help convince uneasy parents and students
that the age of online applications has arrived.

Add to this several interesting developments in the last year or two. High schools are outsourcing more of their college guidance functions to groups like The Princeton Review and Peterson's (with whom we do a lot of work). In some cases, states, school districts, and individual schools are abdicating the college counseling role entirely, hoping an outside group will take over all functions, including writing the counselor recommendation, preparing students for standardized tests, and coordinating the sending of teacher recommendations and transcripts. In other cases, schools and districts are looking for more outside support to improve and professionalize their counseling process.

We have lamented in the past the move by some states, districts, and schools to give up on the college counseling process altogether in the face of budget cuts, growing enrollments, and the need to focus on other guidance issues, such as discipline, curricular planning, and behavioral health. Now we are seeing more schools look for formal outside support, which will likely affect the ways in which students are presented to IHEs as applicants.

Tackling this issue from another angle are employers, some of whom are beginning to offer college counseling (or, more broadly, educational planning) as an employee benefit. Such groups as Peterson's and College Coach help companies to develop comprehensive educational planning centers, offer seminars in person or on the web to employees and their families, and even provide one-on-one counseling.

We have long provided seminars for corporations, nonprofit organizations, schools, and libraries, and the need for more advice and support for families is clear. We hope that IHEs will actively support engagements with organizations and families trying to establish better planning mechanisms and offer helpful information on the college admissions and financial aid processes.

The new think-tank Education Sector recently released a study based on data from the U.S. Department of Education that suggests aid provided by four-year private colleges and universities in the form of grants to the wealthiest 25 percent of families increased from 1993 to 2000, while the same kind of aid to the poorest 25 percent of families remained level. In 2000, the average grant given to the wealthiest students was $6,800, while the average for the poorest students was $6,200. The average for both groups was $5,500 in 1993. Similarly, more than half of wealthy students, up from 35 percent, received aid from the colleges in 2000, while the proportion of lower-income students increased from 52.8 percent to 55.7 percent.

It is true that lower-income students are more likely to receive need-based aid from the federal government, while higher-income students are not, so colleges perhaps do not need to subsidize the aid packages of lower-income students as substantially. However, it is also the case that the money pouring into non-need-based aid packages for wealthier students is taking away from colleges' ability to support the needs of lower- and middle-income families.

A type of arms race is underway, and we are seeing it in the awards given to many students with no need of support, who don't even apply for aid or scholarships, and who are often quite surprised to be offered $5,000, $10,000, $15,000, or more as an enticement to attend a particular college. We are most concerned about the threat this poses to colleges without the substantial endowments of all but a few of the elite institutions who might soon find themselves unable to maintain a financial model based on huge discounting.

This of course leads to the concerns expressed by many--including the author of a November 2005 article in The Atlantic Monthly--about enrollment management versus admissions counseling. Families have become quite aware of how the colleges are approaching them from a marketing and business modeling standpoint. They are shocked to find out how colleges are using data they willingly or unknowingly provide.

For example, few understand how colleges are using data from The College Board to track and categorize, profile, and market to students. Most applicants are concerned about revealing which other colleges they have applied to when colleges ask the question on their applications or supplements (remember those supplements?), because they sense that admissions officers might be using that against them in some way, either to punish them for applying to more competitive colleges by putting them on a waiting list, or to limit the amount of non-need-based aid awarded based on an analysis that a family is already very interested in the college and thus doesn't need a discount to encourage enrollment.

Show "demonstrated interest" to gain admission, but if you show too much, you won't get one of those merit offers which are causing all that trouble.

All of which leads us back to our hope that the admissions process will become more family-friendly in the future. This means simplifying the process, explaining it well, and connecting personally with parents and students through seminars, interviews, and visits to high schools and community centers. It means providing more aid to those who need it or show special talent to earn it. And it means supporting the counseling process as it evolves at the high school, family, and community level so that families have the resources they need to find you.

Howard and Matthew Greene are independent education consultants and the authors of Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning. To contact them, visit

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