Ten Ways to Reduce College Application Stress

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By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 3, 2007; 12:38 PM

Three of America's smartest and most experienced college admissions officers, Sarah D. Donahue, William R. Fitzsimmons and Marlyn McGrath Lewis of Harvard, had a piece in the Harvard Crimson recently saying, among other things, that they planned to "work with secondary schools in a renewed effort to make applying to college less complicated and stressful than it is today."

I am not certain how that is going to happen in their case. They rejected a record 91.03 percent of applicants to Harvard this year. It seems to me the only way to reduce stress in their process is to franchise the brand name so we can have McHarvards in Beltsville, Md., Kankakee, Ill., Pismo Beach, Calif., and other deserving locales.

But they have the best of intentions. Reducing stress for college applicants and their families is a worthy cause. I have been asking experts of my acquaintance -- particularly parents, students, counselors and admissions officers contributing to my "Admissions 101" discussion group -- for suggestions. We have come up with ten, some of them pretty reasonable, others kind of wild:

1. Make the colleges pay for SAT and ACT score reports: Admission 101 participant Cal_Lanier, an SAT prep coach, said the enormous increase in college applications means big bucks in test fees for the test companies and in application fees for the colleges. Research shows that high school grades are as good a predictor, usually, as test scores for colleges that want to know how students will do their freshman year. Since, despite that research, the colleges and universities are still demanding test scores, why shouldn't they pay for them? This is not a very big saving for overstressed applicants -- $8 per ACT score report and $9.50 per SAT score report after the first four. But it's a start. Cal_Lanier said "once schools are paying for the score reports themselves, they'd be unlikely to order score reports until they've winnowed down the application list to serious candidates. They'd probably demand that the ACT and College Board give them a volume discount."

2. Don't require the SAT or the ACT: See suggestion number one. Those tests are without doubt the most stressful part of the college application ordeal, and yet they add little useful information. A good SAT or ACT score can mean the difference for a few students whose good grades are given too little attention because they are in substandard high schools or whose poor grades are the result of bad health or family distractions or deceptive grading systems. Those students can still send in their scores, but why should everyone else be required to suffer?

3. Make the super selective colleges tell all potential applicants that their admissions processes are often irrational and that getting accepted is akin to winning a lottery: Many of their rejectees are just as impressive as many of the students they accept. They should admit that, particularly in the tens of thousands of search letters they send out each year to encourage more applicants. Contrarymom, an Admissions 101 participant, said that parents should also make clear to their children as they begin to apply to colleges that "while it may be amusing to play dice on occasion, we shouldn't bet our house, or our emotional stability, on games of chance." But note a warning from turtle1, a student contributor to Admissions 101. For teenagers new to the process, such disclaimers often do not sink in. "It's only after you see the list of colleges that let you in and realize there's not any pattern that you accept how random the process is," he said.

4. Have colleges that reject 75 percent or more of their applicants reveal how many of those unhappy students were in the admissible range: This is contrarymom's idea. Such a revelation, she said, would show students in that range what their chances of admission actually are.

5. Pick a range of colleges that are likely to admit you and with which you are comfortable: This seems obvious. Many applicants do this and have a relatively stress-free admissions experience. But many do not. Admissions 101 participant AnarchyBunny, experienced as both an admissions counselor and high school guidance counselor, said students who do not make sensible college selections are stunned at the end of the process when "they realize they might have to go to their (GASP) local public university." This is where SAT and ACT tests have some marginal utility. You can be fairly confident that you will admitted to at least some of the colleges whose admitted freshmen's average SAT or ACT scores are at about the same level as your scores.

6. Treat the college tour like a visit to a theme park: Don't check off items on a clipboard. Don't take notes. Enjoy the tour guide's jokes. Soak up the campus history, like an afternoon at Colonial Williamsburg. You are on vacation. Act like it. Save the detailed questions and note-taking for April of your senior year, when you are visiting or revisiting colleges that actually admitted you.

7. Have selective colleges post profiles of students who were slam-dunk admits, average admits and borderline admits: An Admissions 101 reader calling himself happydad1 suggested this stress reducer. He also wanted selective colleges to report precisely how much weight they gave to each factor in a student's application. That will, of course, never fly. The holistic process that the most selective schools use is supposed to be vague and mystical, not precise. It makes the admissions officers feel better, and reduces the chances of lawsuits. Sample profiles would at least give young applicants a few clues as to what is going on.

8. Have colleges report what percentages of their admits were legacies and recruited athletes: Admissions 101 participant sbgoldrick came up with this idea. I suspect the colleges will not go for it. But they could do it if they wanted to. It is worth mentioning as a test of their desire to make the process more transparent.

9. Repeat this phrase every day: In America, people succeed because of the quality of their character, not the notoriety of their college. My apologies to Martin Luther King Jr. for stealing some of his words, but this is the great stress-busting truth about getting into college. There are several research studies, like the work of Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger described in my book "Harvard Schmarvard," that demonstrate this. The most important word in the title of an institution of higher learning is "college" or "university," not the name that precedes it. Going to college is important. Going to a famous college is not. Parents should remember all the people above them in the chain of command at work who went to big state universities that accept most of their applicants. Students should check out the bios of our governors, U.S. senators and corporate chief executive officers, the vast majority of whom graduated from those same state universities, or some little Bible schools they never heard of. It is true that our most recent presidents have been graduates of very selective colleges, but that raises an interesting question: Do you want to be like them? Some fine presidents did not go to Georgetown, Yale or Harvard. Harry Truman did not go to college. Ronald Reagan went to Eureka College in Illinois.

10. Do something about those rejection letters: Advanced Placement psychology teacher Patrick Mattimore, an Admissions 101 participant, revealed the results of his students' analysis of their own rejection letters in the San Jose Mercury News. Many of the letters from different colleges seemed to have been written by the same consultants. The students recommended that colleges stop trying to assuage their own guilt by saying how many other "talented and highly qualified" applicants they rejected or reassuring the rejectee that "you will have many other fine choices" of colleges. As if in answer to the efforts by Harvard's admissions staff to find ways to reduce stress, Mattimore's class gave that great university's rejection letter the prize for "most obsequious while maintaining utter insincerity."

Mattimore said "Harvard officials let students know how 'very sorry' they were to reject them. They then bestow three wishes, none of which they grant. First, Harvard wishes that they were writing with a different decision. Second, they wish that it was possible to admit the rejected. Finally, they hope the student will accept their best wishes."

The Harvard people have their work cut out for them. If you have any more good ideas of this kind, let me know.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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