Trends Review 2019

As we approach the first set of early application deadlines this fall, I have been thinking about ways in which the college admissions process has been working in some ways at cross purposes to serve the interests and needs of students. There are conflicting trends that are, on the one hand, helping students by giving them more options and opportunities, and, on the other, adding more pressure, stress, and confusion.

Early Decision and Early Action trends have continued to dominate my conversations with students. The general feeling among families continues to be that one has to apply “early something” to get into college, and data from some colleges seems to bear out that the majority – in some cases the vast majority – of accepted students and enrollees applied either ED or EA at the colleges that offer one or both plans. Students love the opportunity, at least in theory, to “get this whole thing over with”, but they also are feeling extreme pressure to make a commitment, often before they are ready to, or, for the wrong reasons. And for the many families concerned about comparing need- or merit-based financial offers and the total cost of attendance of their college education, Early Decision in particular seems very risky. As usual, I’m seeing a number of ED/EA plan changes this year, with some colleges moving solely to ED, and others adding to the group of schools offering ED1, ED2, and EA. It’s great for students to have choice, of course, but isn’t there a psychological theory that too much choice can lead to decision paralysis?

Priority deadlines are another trend to keep in mind, and which families are often unaware of. Typically utilized for “maximum scholarship consideration”, or honors or other special program admissions, priority deadlines are cropping up a month or more in advance of regular dates. Families need to explore carefully the admissions and financial aid websites of each college students are applying to, in order to make sure they are meeting these kinds of deadlines, and filing any necessary additional essays or other information required for special programs and opportunities.

The Common Application in particular as done a good job in its current iteration on a number of things, but still remains frustrating and confusing in other areas. I like the fact that some priority or other special deadlines are listed in a college’s information page within the application. There is a great spreadsheet function (“application requirements”) that students and advisors can use to look at all or just that student’s colleges’ requirements. However, many students don’t know about it. The main application itself? It’s fairly easy to complete, though the various drop-down menus and boxes can still challenge a lot of students. The 150 characters allotted to describe each activity is too short. The main essay length and topics seem just right. The main challenge for students remains the individual college questions. Not only does this include absolute confusion and a lack of consistency among colleges about what falls into the realm of Application Questions (with boxes for writing) versus Writing Supplement Questions. There are innumerable places for students to have to select major choices, programs, and special opportunities of interest. Sometimes essays show up only when particular majors and drop-down menu choices are selected.

I understand why colleges are taking this approach, but trust me, students are overwhelmed by all this. Many will continue to avoid applying to colleges that make it too hard to do so, and that includes underrepresented students and those without the time and resources to figure all this out. I am left wondering, and not for the first time, whether we can’t agree on a common application that is truly common. That is, one question about a meaningful activity back in the mix for everyone. One question about intended majors or academic areas of interest. The main personal statement. One “top ten” list? OK. One favorite book, website, movie, quote, color, stuffed animal? Maybe. And, perhaps, for colleges that want it, a “why are you applying to us and why are we a good match for your goals and interests” question that is clearly present. I believe, if students knew ahead of time that these were the three or four questions that all colleges wanted to see, and that was pretty much all they had to worry about, they would be much more inclined to go ahead and complete them, one time, and then file where they wanted to. I don’t see students who refuse to apply to any college that requires supplemental responses. I do see students who drop colleges that ask too much, especially those beyond their top several choices. Yes, Georgetown, MIT, and the University of California, as well as many other public university systems, represent fairly unique additional situations, and the Coalition application is a newer option, but I think it’s fair to focus on the Common Application on the whole.

OK, wishful thinking on my part, especially with the trend toward less standardization and less coordination or collaboration in the air. Witness the changes forthcoming in NACAC’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices (CEPP). What are we going to see after Early Decision round 1, or this Spring after the May 1 commitment date, or in subsequent cycles? More scholarship and discounting incentives to lure in students? More aggressive marketing tactics? Less ethical admissions practices, less clarity, or less consistency? Even as we see a positive trend toward promoting the prevalence of character in admissions (I and others have gotten involved in the Character Collaborative), deemphasizing testing (more colleges have become test optional or flexible), we are still processing the Varsity Blues scandal, and worrying about the current and future influence of money and unsavory practices in recruiting and enrolling students. Thus, counselors will need to be more supportive and informative than ever for students and parents, educating them about the complex admissions and scholarship landscape, and helping them navigate what will remain a very complicated and non-standardized process.

A version of this article appeared in the College Bound Newsletter