Naval Academy, other colleges differ on when an application counts

The U.S. Naval Academy received 19,145 applications for the class that began in fall and accepted 1,426. Its admission rate was 7.5 percent, one percentage point lower than Princeton’s.

Or was it? Academy leaders acknowledge that only 5,720 of those applications were complete. The rest, more than two-thirds of the total, were partial applications that never reached the university’s admissions board and were never seriously considered.

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Colleges in the Washington region routinely count applications that are incomplete, a lapse that typically means the application will be rejected or quietly “withdrawn” by the institution. It’s part of an admission process that has mushroomed into an intense — some would say overblown — marketing effort for many schools.

Selectivity is currency in higher education. Colleges have every incentive to raise their application totals, even if it means counting applicants who have no desire to attend.

But at most schools, incomplete applications remain the exception. At the Naval Academy, they are the majority.

“There’s this novel by Gogol called ‘Dead Souls,’ about counting dead serfs as people. And that’s what we do,” said Bruce Fleming, a Naval Academy English professor whose public information request prompted the Nov. 22 disclosure.

Academy officials say there is good reason for unfinished applications. The institution’s rigorous admission process includes an in-home interview with an officer, a drug test, a 1.5-mile run and push-ups. Each applicant must complete 11 distinct steps.

“Other colleges don’t require push-ups,” said Cmdr. William Marks, an academy spokesman.

The complexity of the admission regimen yields a certain amount of weeding-out. Such is the nature of the Naval Academy, an institution founded to forge military officers.

“We want it to be hard,” Marks said. “We want you to be a dedicated person just to apply here.”

But the school’s unconventional approach puts it at odds with convention in college admissions. The admissions community has gone to great lengths to define what does, and doesn’t, constitute an application so that colleges cannot game the system. The appearance of selectivity can give a school an edge over its competitors.

The accepted definition, embraced by the federal government and collegiate rankers, states that an application should count only if it is “actionable,” meaning the applicant has provided enough information for the college to make an informed decision.

Most applications have three principal components: the application itself, a high school transcript and standardized test scores.

Applications missing any of those items are generally regarded as not credible. A student who submits an online form but nothing else likely is not a serious applicant.

Yet an informal survey of local colleges found several that include at least small number of incomplete applications in their annual totals.

Of the 12,825 applications counted last year by the College of William and Mary, 115 were tabulated as “withdrawn” because they lacked basic information such as test scores or a home address, said Henry Broaddus, dean of admission.

Georgetown University counted “perhaps 500” incomplete applications in its yearly total of 19,344, according to Charles Deacon, dean of undergraduate admissions.

Virginia Tech counted 731 incomplete applications in this year’s total of 21,000. American University counted what officials called a “negligible” number of incomplete applications. Roughly 10 percent of applications to Goucher College were incomplete. Catholic and Washington and Lee universities, too, counted some incomplete applications in their annual totals.

By contrast, officials at the University of Virginia said they counted only completed applications in their 2011 total of 23,587. Counting incomplete forms would have added nearly 400 more. Johns Hopkins University, the University of the District of Columbia and Loyola University Maryland also did not count any incomplete applications in their 2011 totals, officials said.

Among those that did not answer The Washington Post’s survey were Washington College; George Mason and Howard universities; and the universities of Maryland and Richmond. George Washington University said only that it followed guidelines for what is known as the “common data set.”

What sets the Naval Academy apart is partly a matter of scale. The academy’s application total for this year was three times the number of completed applications — hardly a negligible difference.

The total includes thousands of students who technically did not apply for the fall term. They applied instead to the academy’s Summer Seminar, a week-long event for rising seniors interested in life at the academy. All who apply to the seminar are counted, a year later, as applicants to the academy.

That fact is clearly stated in the seminar application. But Fleming said he thinks it is a ploy: These “are 11th-graders whose only interest in the Naval Academy consists of going to a summer program.”

Several admission officers at other schools said the academy’s practice differs from their own. Catholic University, for example, has summer programs, but students who participate are counted only as prospects. Were they and other admission prospects counted as applicants, “Catholic would be super-selective, too,” said Christine Mica, the school’s admissions dean.

Colleges that count incomplete applications say they are following the industry standard. But it’s a gray area. One could argue that incomplete applications aren’t truly “actionable,” because the available actions do not include admission.

“It’s gotten to be so hard because there are so many different ways of defining an application,” said Deacon, of Georgetown. “You want to say [you only count] a completed application, but what is that in the end?”

Innovations such as the online application and the Common Application (one form that can be submitted to more than 400 schools) have simplified the admission process. The core of an application can be completed “in one sitting,” as Tulane University says on its Web site.

A number of prestigious colleges accept the Common Application without the customary fee, a policy that yields many more applications but arguably diminishes their credibility. The group includes some big names in liberal arts: Carleton, Colby, Grinnell, St. John’s, Smith and Wellesley.

The industry standard for a valid application doesn’t require a college to charge a fee. But it does say the college should have “more or less what’s required” to make a decision, said Robert Morse, director of the U.S. News & World Report college rankings. That means a completed application form, a transcript and a test score.

In general, Morse said, he hopes incomplete applications are “the rare exception rather than the rule.”

 
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