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It’s college application season — and it’s not just students looking for the right fit

High school seniors are starting to fill out college applications. It can be a frustrating process. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

As high school seniors begin to file the first of their college applications in the coming weeks, many find the admissions process frustrating and full of contradictions. As I visit high schools to interview seniors for a book I’m writing on college admissions, I hear often about colleges that want applicants who completed a rigorous load of courses while also trying to find balance in their lives. Or about colleges that desire “well-rounded” students but also those who exhibit a deep commitment to something.

Among their parents, a few find the entire process inherently unfair, and as evidence they point to the daily headlines out of a federal trial in Boston accusing Harvard University of intentionally discriminating against Asian American applicants. It doesn’t matter to them that the Harvard admissions process is distinctive to the Ivy League university. In their minds, the disclosure of whom Harvard admits, and why, is emblematic of everything wrong with admissions.

I remind the students (and their parents) that college admissions is not about them; it’s about the institutions, their mission and their priorities. At issue in the Harvard case is how admissions officers “shape a class.”

The shaping of a class is not unique to Harvard. It happens at each college that rejects some portion of their applicant pool. Colleges have priorities just like applicants do in their search for the right fit. Some colleges want more students who pay in full, or more students from Nebraska or California or pick a state. They might need more English majors or a kicker for the football team.

One reason Harvard challenged the release of internal admissions documents is that the university didn’t want future applicants to game the system. Applicants, parents and counselors often change behavior based on what they think colleges want. Students know they are in a system, and they respond accordingly.

“Let us acknowledge the anxiety our words and policies cause,” David Coleman, president of the College Board, which owns the SAT, told hundreds of college admissions officials and high school leaders who gathered this week for the organization’s annual conference in Dallas. “We need to do more to stop the madness that has arisen around college admissions.”

Part of that madness is attributed to the message colleges convey to applicants about taking a rigorous curriculum in high school. For students, the simplest proxy for rigor is Advanced Placement, and as a result, they try to complete as many AP courses as possible. While AP courses have been found to equate with better performance in colleges, research released at the Dallas conference concluded that those improvements in college tend to level out for students once they take five AP courses. In other words, taking eight or 10 AP courses doesn’t really influence how well students do in college.

That’s why some colleges, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, scrutinize AP courseload when reading applications. “We don’t want to put a limit on AP courses, but we also don’t want students to break their back,” Stephen M. Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina, said during the College Board conference.

Yet a few high school leaders in the audience told college officials that their admissions decisions sometimes tell a different story than what they intend in their marketing. A principal at a Plano, Tex., high school said students are heavily influenced by peers who are accepted to certain colleges. So if those successful applicants took a hefty load of AP courses, younger students will follow suit.

Farmer acknowledged that admissions decisions are complicated and based on various factors. “The thing I hate about my job,” he said, “is that students are making decisions based on what I think about them.”

Of course, those decisions are often educated guesses by applicants, especially as the standards that have long driven admissions — grades, test scores, recommendations and essays — are coming under closer examination by college officials. That’s why for some high school students, the college search has turned into a high-anxiety act. The process will never be fair. Students should stop trying to please colleges and, as the College Board’s Coleman said, “enjoy the golden time of high school.”