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Articles / Applying to College / Applicant Anger

Applicant Anger

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 16, 2015

There’s an intriguing thread on the College Confidential discussion forum. What makes you ridiculously angry about the college admissions process? explores the issues that perplex and even possibly enrage college applicants and their parents.

While the qualifier “ridiculously” in the thread’s title may be a bit over the top, there are certainly aspects of the college process that are at least annoying, and at worst temper-tantrum inducing. From my personal perspective, having been through the college process cycle with a daughter and son, I can recall having to counsel my son on a short-fuse deadline for submitting his EA application to one school.

A printing error caused the school to delay sending its paper application (this was back in the mid-’90s) until the first week of October. The deadline was November 1 and no extensions were given to the early applicants. That was frustrating and angst inducing. Things were different back then, before the advent of all the electronic accesses applicants have today.


Getting back to today, though, there seems to be a lot of irritation dwelling beneath (and above) the surface of those who are entering the application barrel. I’d like to choose a few pertinent comments from this “angry” thread and comment from my perspective, where I have something substantive to say. Maybe you’ll find something here that will press your hot button.

The originator of this thread posits:

With college season coming up, wanted to hear some rants about the admissions process.

Personally, I hate the fact that you have to pay such expensive fees to just apply to college!

That inspires the following responses:

– I really dislike how it forces kids to start shaping their lives to fit applications so early in life. After your early teens, everything you do is evaluated by how valuable it is on an app.  

I totally agree with this comment. When I was a teenager, I never gave a thought to how what I may have been doing would “look” to a prospective college admissions committee. Like Popeye, my attitude was essentially, “I am what I am,” pretty much “I gotta be me.” These days, some young people (and their parents) look at adolescence as something of a scripted exercise in “becoming” some kind of stereotyped young person who will score big in the admissions lottery. That may not make me ridiculously angry, but it does make me sad.

– The fact that elite schools do not use the same supplemental writing prompts, essentially requiring students to write a unique essay for every application. This was extremely nerve-wracking for our entire family.

I understand that elite schools may use these supplements to filter out random applications from students who are underqualified or not genuinely interested — but OP simply wanted to know if it made me angry — and it did.  

The supplemental side of the Common Application irritates me, too. My position is: Why can’t the Common Application be comprehensive enough on its own to eliminate the need for all the supplemental information required by various colleges? Granted, this would take some coordinated unification among those schools (maybe beyond the so-called “elites”), but that would be time well spent, in my view. A detailed examination of these supplemental requirements reveals overlap in the information needed. I would greatly prefer everything to be covered in the Common App itself, eliminating a lot of extra time and angst for the applicants.

– It annoys me that more advanced subject knowledge (as demonstrated by AP and SATIIs) is valued less in admissions than the basic generic stuff and specific test taking skills (as demonstrated by ACT and SAT). The colleges (especially public) are just plain stating “We don’t care how much you love or know your future field of study! Just get the best grades and generic test scores and have a long enough list of ECs.”

Overemphasis on GPA is playing a role, too. I find it ridiculous that 13-14-15 yr-olds are expected to worry about college “resume” by having straight As as to have that “perfect” GPA. Just imagine how many brilliant “late bloomers” the Ivys and such are missing!

Having said all that, good or bad, the system is there and all the kids are left to do is play along. The only hope is that Einstein will be Einstein even if he goes through a community college at first.  

Amen, especially to the “late bloomers” reference. How many high school students have a clear picture of what their future holds? How many have locked onto a real passion … about anything? I didn’t begin to appear focused on anything particular until I was in my later 30s. That was when I finally decoded the cumulative impact of my liberal arts education and found my true calling. One has to wonder how many “difference makers” are turned away at “elite” (and other) schools simply because they do not have the correct numerical profiles.

This subject reminds me of Princeton University’s late Dean of Admission, Fred Hargadon, who, each admissions season, would reserve a small number of slots for those he thought were diamonds in the rough. They didn’t have the luster of all the other Princeton admits, but Dean Fred inferred their potential and gave them a shot at Old Nassau. There may be other admission deans out there willing to allocate “chance” admits, but if there are, I’m unaware of them.

– 1- How secretive selective colleges are about their admission process and using bs terms like “holistic”. …

I’ve written here about holistic admissions before. For me, that process (if, indeed, it can be deemed a “process”) is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives the admissions committee latitude to look beyond the strict numerical elements of an applicant’s profile and search for subjective aspects that may be of value to a particular year’s class. On the other hand, the holistic approach lends itself to obfuscation. The validity of a certain applicant’s admission, can always be relegated to “holistic” factors. Sometimes I can’t help but think of holistic admissions in the same sense of that saying about hotdogs: You don’t want to see how they’re made. If we knew the reasons behind some holistic admissions, we may find ourselves, like the title of this forum thread, “ridiculously angry.”

– It’s stupid how much busy work they made me do in high school, which on top of my extracurricular activities and my almost nonexistent social life, gave me very little sleep throughout all four years of high school to make me a “competitive applicant”  

This reminds me of Paul Simon’s song Kodachrome, where he says:

When I think back

On all the crap I learned in high school

It’s a wonder

I can think at all

And though my lack of education

Hasn’t hurt me none

I can read the writing on the wall

Obviously, there has to be some kind of structure and curriculum planning in high school, but the pressure of the college process tends to backfire down through the system, thwarting some aspects of young people’s lives. Fortunately, I have managed to suppress most of the “crap” I learned in high school (along with a lot of important stuff), so my mental hard drive has freed up a lot of room for what really counts, such as what really happened to Vee at the end of OITNB‘s Season 2.

The essential advice I can offer to vexed high schoolers and their parents boils down to this: Try to be who you are, despite the negative pressures. In most cases, things turn out for the best. So, here’s to your well-tempered approach to college admissions …  and life!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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