Important Emerging Admissions Trends

Unless you’ve been on another planet lately, you’ll have to admit that our world is in a major state of flux right now. There are multiple reasons for this, including political change, economic stresses, populace uprisings, and a number of other more complex factors.

This flux also embraces the realm of college admissions. I’ve been involved in helping high schoolers and their families with the college process for more than 30 years, and — finally — I’m seeing some changes evolve that potentially favor applicants, rather than place more stress upon them.

This is good news and if you’re involved in or will soon be involved in the college process, you should pay attention to what’s happening in the area of applying to college. That brings me to a quite enlightening article, parts of which I want to share with you today, since I’m willing to bet that most of you have missed it.

Sara Harberson, writing in the Huffington Post, tells us about the Five Biggest Trends in College Admissions. Here is a key paragraph or so from each of Harberson’s takes on those trends, along with a comment or two of my own.

1. Racial, Ethnic, and Cultural Celebration in the Application

… When families ask me if they should avoid the race/ethnic/religious questions on the application, I tell them to answer every single one. This forces the admissions committee to face underlying bias and think twice before they raise the expectations for certain students. In fact, I used to tell these groups of students to avoid writing their essays about their culture. Now I say celebrate it in the most powerful way. This approach has spread not only with Asian American students but students of all backgrounds and faiths. No student should ever feel afraid again to celebrate their race, ethnicity and religion in their applications.

I agree with Sara’s advice here. The thought of trying to “game” ethnicity on a college application seems somehow counterintuitive to me. Yes, ethnic discrimination does exist. I’ve seen blatant examples of that in my admissions counseling work. The current Harvard-centered litigation from Asian American groups seems to be gaining traction and, in my view, the outcome from which will change the global admissions landscape, especially where Ivy and other elite colleges are concerned. Why should an applicant have to try to “ambigufy” (to coin a word) his or her ethnicity when the banner of diversity is being waved so enthusiastically by college administrations? Accordingly, keep your eyes on Harvard.

2. Alternatives to the AP Curriculum

… Growing research suggests that schools offering the AP curriculum are only teaching to the test, the AP exams at the end of the year.

The Mastery Transcript Consortium is a group of high schools offering an alternative: a curriculum and assessment which promotes a deeper understanding and a “mastery” of the subject area rather than teaching to the test. While the list of member schools still looks like a page out of a prep school guide from the 1950’s, these are some of the most respected schools in the country and have the power to influence the colleges who have relied on their students for decades. Look for more schools, even public schools, to take a stand against unreasonable expectations for students by limiting the number of AP courses they can take each year or even eliminating the program altogether.

In working with some of my higher-achieving clients, I’ve often wondered about the kind of life they have, in light of the academic loads they have faced across their high school years. This has been due to their Advanced Placement course schedules. As Harberson aptly notes, “This [pressure] has led students to take as many Advanced Placement courses as they can fit into their schedule, sometimes leaving them with no lunch period and hours of homework each night.” What kind of a high school experience is this? The Mastery Transcript Consortium approach reminds me of The Great Books of the Western World, and Maryland’s St. John’s College’s Great Books curriculum approach. Why not actually learn something, rather than just prep for an ongoing series of tests?

3. Standardized Test Flexibility

… More colleges are taking the best scores from each section of the ACT to create the highest composite score just like they do for the SAT. And even the elite colleges who have held Subject Tests as the ultimate differentiator between a good student and a superior student are toning down this requirement.

… Additionally, the test optional movement has been stronger than ever with the list of colleges not requiring standardized tests growing steadily over the past five years. Colleges are finding other ways to evaluate ability, match, and the depth of a student’s mind. This is a positive sign for students who believe they have something extraordinary to offer to colleges beyond their test scores.

This brings me back to my ongoing rant about the ills of standardized testing and the equalizing possibilities of holistic admissions. Applicants should not have to live by test scores alone. You’ll hear all kinds of empathetic soothings from top schools, saying that “scores are important but not all that big of a deal.” But that’s not entirely truthful. Granted, there should be some kind of measurement tool to assist in the admissions process, but the weight given to test scores has been damaging to otherwise premium applicants. To prove my point, let’s see a compilation of the SAT scores of the leaders in technology, science, medicine, the arts, etc., those who have made a huge contribution to our world. And while we’re at it, let’s correlate their scores with the colleges where they were denied admission. I wonder how many of those denying schools would love to have this or that Nobel winner or captain of industry on their distinguished alumni list. This trend is a great one.

4. Starting to Think About College Sooner

While some may argue that sooner is not better when it comes to the admissions process, it’s important for students to think about their future and how their choices will impact where they enroll in college. …

The Common Application now allows students access as early as freshman year to avoid the mad rush that occurs in senior year. This philosophy began two years ago with a new application platform called the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success which allows students to store papers, assignments and other work starting in 9th grade in online “lockers.” Keeping track of achievements allows students to prepare more thoughtfully over time for the college process.

I’m cautious about this one. As long as thinking about college is compartmentalized to the four years of high school, that’s fine. However, you may have read about those obsessed parents who are jockeying on their children’s behalf for a spot at a “prestigious” (whatever that means) pre-school! This applies to kindergarten, too. It’s fine to begin thinking about “marketing” yourself to colleges at some point, but middle school and earlier is too soon, in my opinion. Let’s let our kids have a childhood. Okay?

5. Impact Over Leadership

… Students [once] had to gather the highest level of leadership in each club activity to feel like they could stand out in a highly competitive applicant pool. Nowadays, making an “impact” on a cause, movement, hobby, or commitment is much more respected.

This new paradigm allows a student to pursue something meaningful to them which may or may not fit into a traditional activity like student government, athletics, or community service. The student who creates something on their own, moves a cause forward, or independently pursues a transformative project shows initiative, influence, and ingenuity. This has effectively reset the way colleges view and evaluate extracurricular activities. …

This trend is a fruit of holistic admissions. If a student hears the beat of a different drummer, then, if s/he is passionate and shows signs of deep involvement and progress in that nontraditional area, then there should be some positive recognition for it. Of course, we can never underestimate the appeal of of an applicant who can throw a football 80 yards with unerring accuracy or run the mile in almost four minutes, but other ventures and accomplishments are worth noticing and rewarding. This trend may be my favorite among Harberson’s five.

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The bottom line here: Keep your finger on the pulse of admissions trends and how they may affect you. My thanks to Sara for bringing these five trends to light.

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Be sure to check out all my articles at College Confidential.