This Dean Has 3 Wishes for the College Admissions Genie

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

It would be very nice if everything could be made more clear (though not necessarily transparent), more helpful, more understandable, and less forbidding. 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, I am happy to have the chance to consider what my wishes are 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 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.

Some things in this world of developing technology make certain aspects of life easier, and, we all appreciate the availability of plenty of 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. The process is also made simpler with social media, which enables a certain kind of back and forth, and thus, questions can be answered directly and tailored information can be made accessible. So, in some sense, some of what we wished for not so many years ago already exists.

But, despite the convenience these modern application processes allow, how likely is it that they also facilitate careful thinking and decision-making? Isn’t ease simply a way of helping us avoid thinking about the important issues that face us? Does it really help us if we can so easily send off 15 nearly identical applications to colleges we haven’t really thought about thoroughly and carefully? Is it possible that, to have submitted 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? And that took you seriously? 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, even if the lost applications were, in fact, less meaningful and less necessary, no college these days seems to be willing to lose any applications of any sort. Every college seems to want better statistics, more applications, 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. I really wish colleges would not crow about their low admission rates and their meaningless rankings.

Wish 2: Colleges That Embrace and Share Their Differences

In accordance with the wish that the application itself give more specific information about the particular college that designs it, and even asks questions that are most pertinent to its own selection process, we should all wish for better information from colleges. Information is easier to find these days, but information has tended to become less and less distinguishable.

If you look at many college websites, examine the “viewbooks,” take tours, or attend information sessions, you may find that they 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 is so because of a lack of imagination — and a lack of courage or will. If you, as a college, sound different in any way, someone may not like you for it. Thus, students will not apply, numbers will go down, rankings will go down, and so on (please refer to my wish that colleges not cooperate with the ranksters).

Colleges should strive to discover and report their interesting differences, and should try to accurately tell the story of the campus culture it asks you to consider being a part of. Then, you can make better decisions about what suits you, and then they will get better, if possibly fewer, applications.

A simple wish — 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 they prepare their promotional material and applications.

Wish 3: Colleges That Are Honest About What They Want

Above, I suggested that we would all be better off if the system was clearer, though transparency 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.

Colleges should know, however, what they value most, and should tell applicants what those things are. Do they most value ACT or SAT scores? (I really wish they wouldn’t.) Why do they do so? How much have such scores told them about the real success of their students?

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

Colleges should be straight with students — I fervently wish that. 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 so strong that she may not enroll in their institution, they should be honest that they will shy away from accepting these candidates.

Financial aid is a whole other 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,” when 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 actually can pay? 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 really 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 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? And add that, if they were always thoughtful and enabled clear decision-making, more people would be better served?

Follow this link to gain more insight about applying to college. Here you can ask questions you have about the process, and read additional advice from Noodle Experts like Ted O’Neill.