This Dean Has 3 Wishes For The College Admissions Genie

This Dean Has 3 Wishes For The College Admissions Genie

19 December, 2017

Full transparency in the college admissions process is not really possible. If a college is selective, and uses holistic review — that is, takes into account the full range of material that is submitted — and if the decisions are made in committee conversations, the exact thinking with regard to any given decision is impossible to recreate and report. You will never really know why you were admitted or denied admission. But despite this fact, I suggest that we would all be better off if the system was at least much clearer.

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The college admissions process seems to confuse and frighten too many applicants and parents.

It would be very nice if everything could be made less forbidding, more clear (though not necessarily transparent), more helpful, and more understandable. So, after a 29-year admissions career — 20 of those as an admissions dean — and after having seen two of my own children go through the process, here is what I would wish for a smoother, less stressful experience for students.

Wish 1: A Customized Application Created by Each College

Making things easier is not the first thing I think of when I wish for a better process. The choice of a college is important (not the most important choice you will make, but a significant one), and important decisions don’t come easily.

Careful thought, investigatory work, risk-taking, self-understanding, and some self-revelation will be necessary if you are to feel good about the decision you ultimately make. If you do this work earnestly, the results will be good, no matter where you wind up. So, applying to college is not, and should not be, easy.

Of course developing technology makes certain aspects of life easier, and, we all appreciate the availability of plentiful information at the touch of a key. In the college admissions context, the existence of the Common Application, the Universal Application, and the promise of more such multi-college applications does make composing and submitting an application more efficient; but how likely is it that this convenience also facilitates careful thinking and decision-making? Does it really help us if we can so easily send off 15 nearly identical applications to colleges that we haven’t really thought about thoroughly and carefully? Is it possible that submitting only five applications, each different, each tailored to a specific college, may be better for our own thinking, for our own chances of admission, and for the colleges themselves?

Ease of applying too often makes it possible to put off the tough thinking until later — and maybe, until it is too late.

My first wish, then, is that colleges specifically tailor their applications to their institutions, and to the character of the student body they hope to enroll. Wouldn’t it be worth the extra effort to apply using an instrument that actually revealed what the college is all about? Shouldn’t colleges go to the extra effort of having their own applications, even if the revelation of difference depresses the number of applications?

Sadly, no college these days seems to be willing to lose any number of applicants, even if the lost applications were, in fact, less meaningful and less necessary due to being submitted as a afterthoughts through the Common App. Every college seems to want better statistics, more applications, and a lower admissions rate — a better ranking in U.S. News.

Let me insert a really dreamy wish here — I wish colleges would simply stop catering to U.S. News and its rankings, which trivialize colleges, learning, and the interests of students; that institutions of learning would forget about high or low admission rates and meaningless rankings.

Wish 2: Colleges That Embrace and Share Their Differences

In accordance with my wish that the application itself would give more specific information about the particular college that designed it, even asking specific questions pertinent to its own selection process, we should all wish for better information from colleges. Information is easier to find these days than ever, but it has also become harder and harder to distinguish fact from fiction.

If you look at many college websites, examine the “viewbooks,” take tours, or attend information sessions, you may find that they all sound very much alike. I wish they didn’t, because American colleges, all founded at different times and in different places, not under the direction of a government or a national plan, have fascinating histories. These heritages have resulted in unique schools, and the resulting diversity has made American higher education the best in the world.

So, why should everyone attempt to sound, and even look, basically the same? This indicates a lack of imagination and a lack of courage or will on behalf of the institutions. If you, as a college, sound different in any way, someone may dislike you for it. Fewer students may apply, numbers might decrease, rankings might go down, and so on (please refer to my wish that colleges not cooperate with the ranksters).

I assert that colleges should strive to discover and report their interesting differences, and should try to accurately tell the story of the campus culture they are asking you to join. This would allow you to make better decisions about where to apply, and, thus, colleges would get better, if possibly fewer, applications.

My simple wish is that colleges realize that they will make better admissions decisions, will cause less anxiety amongst applicants and their families, and will enroll a better class, if they have the nerve to distinguish themselves when preparing their promotional materials and applications.

Wish 3: Colleges That Are Honest About What They Want

Full transparency in the college admissions process is not really possible. If a college is selective, and uses holistic review — that is, takes into account the full range of material that is submitted — and if the decisions are made in committee conversations, the exact thinking with regard to any given decision is impossible to recreate and report. You will never really know why you were admitted or denied admission. But despite this fact, I suggest that we would all be better off if the system was at least much clearer.

Colleges should know what they value most, and should share those factors with applicants. Do their admissions officials place a lot of value on ACT or SAT scores? (I really wish they wouldn’t.) Why do they do so?

Are interviews important? If so, why? And if not, why not?

Colleges should be straight with students. If so-called “developed interest” — or, the number and kinds of contacts the student has had with the school — matters to the admission decisions, they should make that information public. If admissions committees, using whatever brilliant formula they have developed, judge that a student is too strong, so that he or she may be likely to deny enrollment after being accepted at many other schools, they should honestly inform applicants that they will be less likely to accept these candidates.

Financial aid is a whole separate matter, and maybe it is enough to simply say that financial aid offices should state their real policies and give examples that are useful. If a college is not need-blind, what portion of the class is admitted because it can pay its own way? If differentials are made in aid packages based on the desirability of certain students, which types of students are given the advantage when packages are prepared? If merit money is available, is it available to anyone, or just, for example, to students capable of paying much or all of the cost of attendance?

If the college’s policy is to practice “gapping,” where need-blind colleges admit students, but then do not offer them enough aid to actually attend, how much are students expected to pay beyond what the financial analysis determines they’re capable of? How many students are “gapped,” and how many receive the full amount of aid? And how does the college decide who gets which? Is a parent loan built into the package (but that isn’t financial aid!)? The reporting of financial packages should be uniform, or at least easily comparable, and should reveal everything.

So many wishes. In this world in which we presume everyone is trying his or her best, in which almost everyone’s heart is in the right place, why shouldn’t some of these wishes come true? Of course, different people have different wishes, which is fair enough.

Can we just say that colleges have responsibilities that they really must take seriously? If institutions of higher learning were always thoughtful and enabled clear decision-making, many more people would be better served.

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About the Author
Ted O'Neill
The former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago, now a teacher in the Humanities Department.