Admissions anguish: how parents and students grapple with the ever-taxing college admissions process

Admissions anguish: how parents and students grapple with the ever-taxing college admissions processWith most colleges and universities under increasing pressure to meet the bottom line and enroll enough of the right students to fill each year's entering class, and with families more stressed out than ever about finding and paying for the right colleges for them, what are IHEs to make of the maze of available application options? Reflecting on our ongoing experiences with students, parents, and admissions professionals, we offer some suggestions for institutions evaluating how they attract, admit, and enroll qualified applicants.

Do families really care about interaction with a college?

From the first to their final interactions with a college, families are highly attuned to the messages they receive, both intentional and unconscious on the part IHEs. We have written previously in this magazine about the importance of good communication with families. The application process itself can be an essential element in that communication process. What application or applications a college chooses to use, and how the student is able to apply, can mean a lot in terms of whether a student will complete the application and what he or she will learn about the college in the process.

How are students applying to college?

Students are utilizing a diverse array of application options, from the traditional paper application sent by snail mail to electronic applications submitted in various ways. Though there is still wariness and concern on the part of many families about pushing the button on the keyboard and hoping an application transmits successfully to a college, more students are heading in this direction confidently. What survey and single-case data we have seen suggests a trend toward online application usage.

Given the ongoing generational shift toward those raised in the computer and internet age, this is hardly surprising. It also follows the trend toward online filing of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (www.fafsa.ed.gov), the online registration and score reporting for the SAT (www.collegeboard.com) and the ACT (www. actstudent.org), the most important standardized testing programs. In the case of the Test of English as a Foreign Language, even the exam is computer-based (www.toefl.ets.org).

According to CollegeBound's annual survey of colleges and universities, many institutions are receiving upwards of a third of their applications online. For example, for the class entering in 2000, Brown University (R.I.) and St. Louis University (Mo.) received 30 percent of its applications electronically, more than in the previous year. CollegeBound notes that, of the schools it surveyed, 74 percent used electronic applications, up from 62 percent in 2002. One hundred percent of these institutions reported an increase in online applications in 2003.

What are typical complaints of the application process?

Anyone with a collegebound child, or who has recently survived the process, will acknowledge the level of complexity associated with all these tasks. This complexity, combined with the academic, social, family, and financial pressure most students experience, leads to a high degree of confusion and frustration on the part of many. Some students abandon the entire application process, or choose the easy way out by applying to only one or two schools, perhaps those with only minimal application requirements. This year, for example, a strong vocal music student we counseled finally pulled out of the application process at all but one institution--her state's public university--choosing a music program that will not offer her as many options or as much challenge as those she initially researched and visited. Overwhelmed by the choices and requirements, she chose the path of least resistance. The major complaints about college applications revolve around the multiple requirements, the inconsistency of those demands, the repetitiveness of various tasks, and the complexity of the administrative process. Families are relieved when we walk through what they will need to do to complete the relatively simple and short Common Application.

Yet eyes begin to glaze over when they discover the multiple supplements to be completed, or the fact that several schools of interest do not accept this application. Students wish they could use the one central essay they have written which they feel best represents who they are, and are concerned when a college makes it very clear that they want a school-specific essay that was definitely not written with any other college in mind.

Having put together one comprehensive list of activities, awards, honors, work, and volunteer experience, order in terms of personal priority, and including involvement summarized by hours per week and weeks per year of participation, students are frustrated when asked to use "only the resume or activities format listed on our application."

Students who don't fit a neat and simple list, or who have sharp edges, pronounced angles, deep involvements in one or more activities, or complicating factors associated with their personal, academic, familial, or physical history, wish they had more room to elaborate. "Are you sure I should include that?" they ask. "It sounds like they don't want me to send anything else." Why, some colleges don't even require an essay, or even recommendations. Forget about an on-campus interview opportunity. How will these institutions get to know a student beyond the numbers?

What is demonstrated interest?

More colleges are considering a student's demonstrated interest in attending the institution when making the admission decision. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling's (www.nacac.com) latest "State of College Admission" survey, 32 percent of admission officers considered interest, or lack thereof, when evaluating an application when asked directly if they do so. Fifty-three percent of admissions officers said that demonstrated interest was of some importance when asked to rate various factors that affect the admissions decision.

Not surprisingly, smaller and private colleges are more likely to consider demonstrated interest. Students might demonstrate such interest, which is basically linked to knowledge of the college and a suggestion of intent to enroll if admitted, through campus visits and interviews, contacts with the admissions office, an Early Decision or Early Action application, or specification of a particular academic or professional focus or contact with a faculty member (see "State of College Admission," p. 63). While it is true that many institutions note that individual interest has an impact on the eventual yield of admitted students (the percent who will actually enroll), more colleges indicated that finding a good fit academically between student and school, and conducting an individualized, holistic review of all applications were stronger reasons for considering demonstrated interest.

Thus, students might show interest through a campus visit, an interview (when offered, and increasingly they are not), and through targeted writing and recommendations. Primarily, students should take the opportunity to write directly and specifically to colleges about why there is a logical fit, as we refer to it, between them and the institution. Recommendation writers should indicate what type of college will best serve a student, and perhaps even when one college in particular is appropriate. Students should follow up with colleges through one or more letters at key points in the admissions process to update admissions committees and indicate how much interest they have in the college and why.

The issue for colleges is how to be receptive to all this, in order to select the most appropriate, interesting, and interested class, and the individuals most likely to enroll and succeed upon doing so, without putting too much of a burden on students who, no matter how strong their interest, will necessarily look at and apply to other institutions.

Can the application process be used to assess interest?

Essay opportunities are one element where students can reveal personal interests and reasons why they are a good match for a college. Particularly when interviews, much to our chagrin, are being phased out at many institutions, and visits are too costly or time-consuming for many students applying from around the country and the world, the written application stands the best chance of showing real communication skills and research.