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Who Is the Client Today?

Today's strategic admissions practices can wind up creating both hurdles and confusion for prospective students.
University Business, Oct 2006

We have a routine of beginning the workweek by stopping in for breakfast at our local coffee shop. The proprietor, an enthusiastic, outgoing recent arrival to the United States, has embraced the national sport of baseball as his especial devotion to his adopted country. An exuberant Yankees fan, he is never shy in recapping the weekend's games and how he would have managed the lineup and pitcher changes as needed. He takes on all comers who differ with his coach's corner opinions.

We may well suffer from the same level of devotion to our field of passion, student access to higher education for all who seek to enrich and further their lives. So we find ourselves delivering critiques from our coach's corner without having to actually manage or play in the competitive admissions stadium.

Well-off families are surprised and cynical when their children are granted non-need-based awards.

Our rationale in offering our opinions and recommendations is that we meet daily with high school students having all manner of interests, skills, aptitudes, and dreams for their future. Also, we interact with parents of these students from a wide spectrum of social, economic, and cultural backgrounds as we speak to audiences across the country. We are not quite in the dugout with admissions officers who are expected to win in what the spectator world has come to view as the competitive enrollment game, with the academic team owners-the colleges-as the ultimate winners rather than the student players.

Here are several strategic practices that have been expanding in the last several years that create serious hurdles or confusion for college-bound teens.

Students clearly are getting the message directly and indirectly (the latter has become somewhat insidious in on-campus presentations) that visiting campus, interviewing where offered, and meeting with any and all representatives wherever they may be available are essential factors affecting their being considered positively in the competitive admissions pool.

Several distinct clusters of students are negatively impacted by this practice: the serious student committed to a heavy load of advanced courses and projects (you are the managers asking for this profile); the actively engaged student who is committed to his or her school leadership roles or athletic teams or community service; the economically stretched student who works after school and weekends and whose family cannot afford the expense of jaunts across the country to make a show of their interest in your institution.

The many variations in Early Application plans have led to increasing confusion in the marketplace. Again, the message that emanates from admissions offices is one of advantage to those who apply early to their institution.

A peculiar compound of anxiety and cynicism can form on the part of the student players. Too many students, especially those who are academically strong, are gaming in kind-that is, they are focusing on which of the competitive colleges they are interested in is more likely to accept them if they apply early, rather than concentrating their deliberations on which college most suits their interests and abilities.

The irony, from our vantage point, is that the admissions office that plays the acceptance game by these rules runs the risk of losing out on the very candidates it would be thrilled to have on its playing field. These students will turn off for any of the reasons mentioned here if they learn directly or indirectly that unless they make a costly time and financial commitment to a particular college, they will not be considered or will be disadvantaged.

So they decide not to apply or, worse still, apply to a less appropriate college or university. Nontraditional candidates who will be the first in their family to enroll in college and those who attend relatively unsophisticated high schools are much less likely to understand the Early Application plans in time to consider the potential advantages of this strategy, or to comprehend the potential loss of financial aid opportunities. Harvard recently addressed this issue by dropping its Early Action option.

We understand the rationale from the team's management for offering large amounts of money in the form of academic merit awards to garner as many all-stars as possible as they hope to win the world series of college rankings over time.

But look at what this is doing to students who qualify for and desperately need financial aid in order to fulfill their goal of a college education.

We see too many families with all the means to send their children through college without financial duress both surprised and cynical when their children are granted these impressively named non-need-based awards (dare we say discounts?). At the end of the day, these parents will focus on the right college for their child or the most prestigious, wondering why a college needs to offer money when it was not asked for.

Rather than a contorted prompt, let applicants
select supplemental
materials that best speak to them.

There are so many hungry, ambitious youngsters out there who will bring their excitement for learning and appreciate the opportunity you can give them through financial support at a realistic level. These may well be (and from our interaction, we find that many are) the most loyal and generous of alumni in time. To clarify, we are talking about the vast middle group of college-bound families in America, those for whom some combination of need-based and merit-based financial assistance can make a great difference in their ability to consider, enroll in, and complete an education at a selective public or private college or university. In addition to the neediest of families having the lowest income levels, these are the families for whom access is becoming an ever greater concern.

We have to ask, when and why did the historic mission of higher educational institutions in America to serve the interests of our nation change? Who will profit in the longer term by this interscholastic competition for the players with the biggest batting averages but not necessarily a commitment to the real cause of the game and the team? We also worry for those educational institutions lacking the resources to continue competing in this financial aid arms race. There are few colleges and universities in the country able to offer unlimited need- or merit-based aid, and trying to keep up with those that do can bankrupt or severely impact the options of many private and public institutions.

Yes, we have discussed this topic in an earlier column a year ago. Nevertheless, in the short period of one admissions cycle we have witnessed the increase in the complexity of applying to many of the colleges that accept the Common Application.

Numerous students ask us, "Why is it called the Common Application?" They, and we, believe that there are too many different supplemental requirements that are both time-consuming and confusing to many intelligent applicants. We know that the aim is not intentionally to make students suffer, but try convincing them otherwise!

If your institution agrees to accept the Common Application, then why not make it truly universal in its required content? We suggest that you either encourage or require applicants to submit supplemental exhibits of their talents and skills, such as a written or visual representation of their best work. Let them select for you what best speaks for them instead of the contorted prompts we have read this year served up by many colleges. Alternately, work with the Common Application and member schools to add one additional 300-word prompt to the application, which can be altered according to each college to which the student sends the application: "Why are you applying to [name of the college] and why do you believe it is a good match for you? How will an education at [name of the college] help you reach your educational, extracurricular, and career goals?"

Finally, we plead for an increase in the length of the main Common Application personal statement from 250 to 500 words, to 750 words. We know, we don't need to read the thousands of essays you receive during the admissions season, but we do see a dramatic difference between a great 750-word essay and a 500-word essay that has been overly condensed. It might surprise many admissions readers (though perhaps not) that one of the toughest parts of writing the main personal essay is not trying to get to 500 words, but rather trying to cut down from 1,000 words what the student truly believes is what he or she wants to say.

So, like all passionate fans, we like to think we have the answers to make your team a winner. We appreciate the pressures and expectations put upon the admissions team and the manager, but we are in the field every day with a wonderful array of young people who are ready and willing to play the game on fair and transparent terms. Give them a break. We want to convince them that colleges and universities have their best interests in mind, that they are the main players and winners in this game-and, of course, we want them, and you, to move away from the game metaphor and the whole idea of "winning" in the admissions process! Now we're off for that morning coffee and a debriefing on yesterday's ball game.

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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