“A NIGHTMARE! (okay, maybe a bit dramatic,) but I need a bit of insight on this,” wrote glittervolcano. This user on an online college admissions forum, apparently a student, wondered if universities would care about low marks in 7th grade.
Another user, seniors.yikes.us, confessed to feeling jittery about negotiating financial aid: “I was wondering if anyone could share some insight in how to approach it and talk about it.” A third, with the handle grandlv, pleaded: “Chance me for selective top schools? I’ll chance back!!!”
Welcome to College Confidential, an online gathering point for college-bound teens and college-obsessed parents. The site is not the only place that they can seek help or spill their guts under the cloak of anonymity. But it sure is popular, especially at this time of year.
Founded in 2001, College Confidential had more than 40 million unique users in 2016 and more than 260 million page views, according to its owner, Roadtrip Nation. On this site the angst of college admissions plays out in real time as students move through the rituals of applications (early and regular), decisions and wait lists. For many the tensions crest on Thursday when Ivy League schools release decisions.
Not that we’re only here to harp on the Ivies. Sure, if you log on Thursday, you’ll find Ivy anxieties. Sally Rubenstone, College Confidential senior adviser, said that when the site known as CC was founded, it was geared toward those looking at top schools.
“I do fear that in certain circles, the Ivy orientation can be the tail that wags the dog,” Rubenstone said. “That a lot of folks, particularly those who don’t know CC well or don’t utilize CC, view it as a site where people come to kvetch about the elite college admission process. But it’s really far, far more than that.”
True enough. On CC, you can kvetch about any type of school or admissions concern.
College Confidential serves the cautiously jittery and the overly confident, those who have spent years preparing for elite institutions and those who simply feel flummoxed by the sprawling admission process. Users come to its forum pages with questions on financial aid, coursework, waitlisting, campus life and everything in between.
The answers they get aren’t always right, and are quite possibly wrong. But hey, at least someone is listening.
“I think it’s a site that provides a huge amount of information about all sorts of post-high school opportunities,” Rubenstone said. “Every imaginable type of college for people, from every imaginable socioeconomic background with various goals and aims.”
The site has staying power, perhaps in part because of its evergreen subject matter and regenerating pool of potential users. The site is now 16 years old, which means that if it were a human being, it would be checking out universities right about now.
Jeannine Lalonde, an associate dean of admission at the University of Virginia, said she started following the site years ago, after noticing that some people were posting rumors or guessing answers.
“I thought, ‘I could easily answer these,’ and then the matter is settled, and people have a reference if they’re searching,” she said. “It also was really apparent that thousands and thousands of people were there.”
Some users stick out for Lalonde, who speaks of them fondly. She said that on U-Va. decision nights, her thoughts sometimes gravitate to the anonymous posters on College Confidential, as she wonders whether they or their children made the cut.
Still, she said, some parts of the site are “a little bit unfortunate.”
Like the chance threads. Yeah, she’s talking about those chance threads.
“People just throw some information on there and say what do you think? Am I going to get in or not, to these different schools?” Lalonde said. “And everyone is just guessing.”
Maybe so. But chance threads are an inescapable part of the site — and one of its draws. That’s where students post their high school stats — GPA, SAT or ACT scores, extracurriculars, et cetera, and ask for a crowd-sourced read on their chances of getting into a university.
“A kid posts their stats or a couple of things about them, and they feel that any anonymous person can go on the site and tell them what their chances are at any number of institutions,” said Daniel Creasy, communications director for undergraduate admissions at Emory University in Atlanta. “They’re basically saying that the role of an admissions counselor can be summarized by reading a short online forum.”
Creasy previously was an admissions counselor for Johns Hopkins University. He’d answer questions on College Confidential then, he said, until he “kind of took a stand” and decided to stop. His view on the site now? Well ...
“I like the potential of what College Confidential could be,” Creasy said. “But it has never realized that. So I am not a huge fan of it.”
Also among its critics is David Hawsey, who helped found College Confidential. He said that while the site helped make some people wealthy, he was disappointed that its most popular function was the blog forum.
“And so what you get is an overwhelming amount of information from students, especially, and their parents, either bragging about whose school is better than whose, or everyone armchair quarterbacking what they think it takes to get into any number of schools,” he said. “When in fact they have no idea.”
Philosophically, Hawsey said, College Confidential just didn’t do what he originally wanted.
“Which is be a consumer-friendly site to help people understand how to approach this process and maintain some sanity,” he said.
In a cafe in downtown Washington, Nicole Evers explained her use of the site, which she found through online searches. Her 18-year-old daughter, Maya, is bound for Denison University, a private school in Ohio.
“I don’t remember having to go through all this stuff when I applied for college back in the ‘80s,” the 44-year-old mother from Laurel, Md., said. “And, you know, you just want the best that they’re able to get into and that you’re able to afford.”
Evers said she spent months lurking on the site before she posted anything. Recently, she started a thread about empty-nest syndrome. Other CC users, she said, were supportive. But she’s aware of the negative aspects of the site, too, the users who post nasty responses.
“It’s so helpful in so many ways,” she said. “But at the same time, I feel like it can be a dreamkiller for some people. I just hope that people who do get the snarky responses apply where they want to apply anyway. Because you’d be surprised.”