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Articles / Applying to College / The Perplexing College Admissions Process

The Perplexing College Admissions Process

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | March 5, 2019
The Perplexing College Admissions Process

Learning from other people's experiences is among the best ways to avoid problems and mistakes when undertaking a new endeavor. One of the more complex endeavors these days is the college admissions process. There are so many variables and possibilities for seemingly random outcomes that having the benefit of other applicants' war stories can be key to helping you avoid pitfalls. If you will be applying to college this fall, the following information could be quite helpful to you.

There's an intriguing -- and long -- thread on the College Confidential discussion forum that details some “applicants' war stories." What makes you ridiculously angry about the college admissions process? explores, across 520 posts, 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, infuriating and possibly, at worst, temper-tantrum inducing.

Meeting Deadlines Presents Challenges

From my personal perspective, having been through the college process cycle with a daughter and son, I can recall having to counsel and “encourage" my son to meet a short-fuse deadline for submitting his EA application to one school. This was back in the Stone Age of paper applications, but points out the kinds of issues applicants can encounter, even when things seem to be going smoothly. Thus, my brief war story:

A printing error caused the school to delay sending its paper applications (this was back in the mid-'90s) until the first week of October. The deadline was Nov. 1 and no extensions were given to the early applicants. That was a frustrating and angst-inducing experience for both my son and his parents. Things were different back then, before the advent of the electronic access applicants enjoy today.

Getting back to today, there seems to be a lot of irritation dwelling beneath and at the surface of those who are entering the application sweepstakes. I'd like to choose some especially pertinent comments from this “angry" thread and add some comments from my perspective, where I have something substantive to say. Maybe you'll find something here that will press your hot button. Ideally, however, you'll find some wisdom that will help you avoid problems this fall when you will be conducting your own college process.

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 inspired some interesting 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," and 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.

How Are Late Bloomers Viewed?

- 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 futures hold? 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 and legendary 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.

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

I've written 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 hot dogs: 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, too), so my mental hard drive has freed up a lot of room for what really counts, such as catching all the good new movies for March on Netflix or Amazon.

Debt Is Another Issue

Now, if I can add one other ongoing issue that makes me angry about the college admissions process, it would be the “ridiculously" high amount of loans college students need to acquire in order to complete their degrees. As you know, I'm not afraid to jump up on my soapbox and preach about the perils of loan debt.

This brings me to the issue of consequences. Just today, I saw this news article:

Florida Board of Health suspends hundreds of health care licenses over student loan defaults -- That headline alone should be enough to sober up any college student who is thinking about throwing caution to the wind about taking on loans, thinking, “There's no real penalty for blowing off payments." Check this out, from the article:

Nearly 1,000 health care workers have lost their license to practice in Florida because they can't repay their student loans – a new crackdown potentially putting hundreds out of work, the I-Team found.

The move to suspend health care licenses comes after federal student loan companies spent years lobbying states to adopt laws to punish those who default on student loans by taking away their professional licenses.

Yikes. Now that's a consequence ... of blowing off loan payments. What makes me angry about loan debt is that it's so easy to fall into. I won't rehash my past sermons about this. Just be aware of the old saying: There's no such thing as a free lunch [or student loan].

To put a cap on all this, I'll offer this parting advice to vexed high schoolers and their parents about preparing to enter the college process: Try to be who you are, despite the negative pressures. In most cases, if you do, then things turn out for the best!

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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