When guidance counselors give bad advice

A few years ago, I was contacted by the mother of a former student who wanted me to tutor her younger son, a rising junior, for the ACT. I’d been pulled in to work with his older brother very late, after he’d already taken the test a ridiculous number of times (five, if I recall correctly), and by the time I got to him, he was convinced that he would fail yet again and never wanted to look at another ACT in his life.

This time, his mother was determined to avoid that kind of last-minute craziness. Her younger son was a very hard worker and a straight-A student, but she knew had hadn’t learned any grammar in school and would need to be taught from the ground up. She was going to give him a loooong runway.

I was therefore more than a little taken aback when she told me that she had gone ahead and signed him up for the September ACT. When I had recovered enough speech to make my thoughts known, I managed to suggest to her that that was perhaps not the best idea at that point, given that he hadn’t even started tutoring yet.

Her response: her son’s guidance counselor had recommended signing up for the first ACT of the year, just to establish a baseline score.

Luckily, I talked my student’s mother into signing him up for a practice test at a local testing center instead, and persuaded her that he should hold off on the real thing until the following spring. 

But I had trouble wrapping my head around the fact that a guidance counselor in such a highly rated district could give such misguided advice. How many students had followed it and ended up with a set of official scores far below what they were capable of achieving? 

From a strictly practical standpoint, it is not a good idea to treat an actual test like a practice run. While most colleges participate in score choice, there are a number of schools that require you to submit scores from every test date. Even if a school superscores (considers only the highest scores from each test date), adcoms will still see your scores from each test you’ve taken, and admissions officers may be subtly influenced by a set of lower numbers or by an exceptionally high number of sittings. Colleges tend not to ask for information unless they intend to take it into account. 

Furthermore, students who improve by unusually large amounts from one test to the next run the chance of having their scores flagged for review. This doesn’t occur often, but it does happen. Even if the gains are made absolutely honestly, students can still face score delays (a problem if the test in question was taken close to an application deadline) and the stress of being suspected of cheating. 

There’s also the psychological factor, which shouldn’t be underestimated. Taking the test for real and doing poorly is a downer. And taking the test over and over again, and failing to improve, can create a psychological stumbling block that can be difficult to overcome, and that can make improvement more difficult than it could otherwise have been. That was the case for my student’s older brother, as it was for my very first ACT student, who took the test a whopping seven times before I started working with her.

That’s point number one.

Point number two involves guidance counselors and college lists.

A few months ago, a friend of mine happened to find herself at a social event chatting with a woman who had worked as a guidance counselor in another tip-top suburban district for several decades. My friend’s son, a solid-B student with an interest in Computer Science, was starting to look at colleges, and my friend asked the woman whether she might be able to recommend a few schools.

She recommended exactly one school: Roger Williams, a notorious party school with an 80% acceptance rate. By coincidence, my friend had just spoken to another parent who had recently toured Roger Williams and had received what could diplomatically be called not a favorable impression.

So my friend asked whether the woman had any other suggestions. She humphed and said that she would need her go-to computer program to come up with even one additional option.

Twenty years of experience. In a district that sends students almost exclusively to selective schools. And she couldn’t come up with more than one option — and a poor one at that — for a student who wasn’t headed for the Ivy League but who was still smart and serious. 

Yes, the woman might have been peeved at being asked professional questions in a social setting, but just out of curiosity, I googled her district and managed to find the matriculation statistics for the high school where she worked.

What I encountered was one of the smallest group of colleges I’ve seen a high school send students to. Normally, there are a handful of colleges that enroll many students from a particular high school, then lots and lots of schools enrolling only one or two students. In this case, it was the opposite. There was a very short list of schools enrolling six or fewer students over a four year period, and a much longer list of ones enrolling between about 7 and 20 students. The fact that the vast majority of these schools were restricted to a fairly narrow geographical range near the district itself suggests that the guidance counselors were steering students toward the small group of schools that they were personally most familiar with.

Learning that reminded me of just why people hire private college counselors. They might be a luxury, but if that story was in any way representative of the state of college counseling, they perform a real service. 

On one hand, I understand that guidance counselors, particularly in large public schools, are perennially overworked and responsible for as many as several hundred students. They probably don’t have the time to keep up with which schools are up-and-coming, or to learn about of schools outside their geographical area in any depth.

Much like SAT tutors who focus on the Math section because they just feel more comfortable teaching it, these tutors tend to recommend the same set of schools over and over again simply because they’ve sent a lot of students to those schools in the past.

The result, however, is that students may miss out on learning about schools that are good matches for them — including ones that might offer significant financial aid — but that fall outside the scope of their counselors’ knowledge.

So my advice is to give your guidance counselor a chance when it comes to suggesting colleges, but also be aware that he or she may not necessarily be the best resource.

There are a whole lot of schools between the Ivy League and Podunk Community college, and you shouldn’t limit your options prematurely. Poke around on College Confidential, do a search for the best programs in your areas of interest, and sit down with the Fiske Guide or Looking Beyond the Ivy League. Just don’t assume that the schools you’ve been told about are the only ones you should be considering. 


Why are colleges really dropping their SAT II requirements?

According to the Boston Globe, the number of selective colleges requiring applicants to submit SAT IIs is in decline:

In the past year, Amherst College, Dartmouth College, and Williams College all have dropped the subject test requirement, taking a lead from Columbia University, which announced the new policy this spring. Duke University and Vassar College also no longer require the tests, often called SAT II.

The shift occurs amid a larger discussion in higher education about the value of standardized testing in admissions. Some colleges, especially less-selective private schools but also such public colleges as UMass Lowell and Salem State, have made the main SAT and ACT tests optional.

“We want to make the application process as fair to all students as possible,” said Mary Dettloff, a spokeswoman for Williams College. “We felt like we weren’t getting any valuable data from the SAT II scores to help us.

So if you’re planning to apply to schools where SAT IIs are optional, does this mean you should happily remove them from your testing checklist?

Maybe not so fast.

Let’s look a little closer at what’s going on here.

First, it is not a coincidence that these particular schools have all decided to drop the SAT II requirement at the same time. There is considerable overlap between the applicant pools Vassar, Dartmouth, Amherst and Williams, and any one of these colleges that continued to require SAT IIs would risk losing potential admits to its competitors. 

Amherst in particular has made a very prominent effort to recruit underprivileged students, and the other schools in this group can’t afford to fall behind. If schools are looking for reasons to admit such applicants, even ones with stellar transcripts, SAT IIs pose a problem. Because students in that category tend to come from weaker high schools that do not fully cover the material tested on SAT IIs, their scores tend to be correspondingly lower. Either that, or these students do not know to sign up for SAT IIs at all. (Yes, even in the Internet age, that is entirely possible.)

In addition, these scores put grades in context in a very blatant way — more overt than even the SAT. If a student has earned an A in, say, 10th grade Honors Biology at School X and scored 750 on the SAT, it can be reasonably assumed that the student has more or less mastered a significant portion of the material covered in a standard introductory biology course. If a student from school Y has also earned an A in 10th grade Honors Biology but has only scored a 580 on the SAT II, that suddenly casts the grade in a very different light. On the other hand, if no SAT II score is provided, then adcoms are free to assume that the two grades mean the same thing. 

Now, the most interesting thing about SAT IIs right now is that they are the sole group of College Board exams that has not been overhauled by the Coleman regime. While they do test conceptual understanding, they are more directly knowledge-based than any other College Board exams. If you do not know the content, there is no way to do well on them. The relationship is really pretty straightforward. 

Furthermore, the scoring system (10-point increments from 200 to 800) provides far less wiggle room than the AP exams do. Whereas it is possible, in strict numerical terms, to get the equivalent of a C or lower on a number of AP exams and still receive a 5, no such possibility exists on SAT IIs.

Yes, the scores are curved very substantially on some tests, but there is still a much wider range of scores; the difference between someone who has answered 70% of the questions correctly and someone who has answered 95% of the questions correctly is much starker than it is on an AP exam. 

Furthermore, there is no way to fudge essay questions or compensate for a serious weakness in one area with a strong performance in another, as is the case for AP exams. And unlike APs, SAT IIs are entirely non-holistic exams: even though they cover somewhat less advanced material than AP exams do, they do nothing but test the picky details that are necessary for basic mastery of a subject but that schools are increasingly likely to skip over (as I learned firsthand during the several years I tutored the French exam).

Essentially, SAT IIs are a throwback to the idea that a specific body of factual knowledge in core academic subjects is both necessary and desirable in applicants to selective colleges.

It was thus entirely inevitable that they would be marginalized.  

In that context, the Williams spokeswoman’s assertion that SAT IIs do not provide “valuable information” is better understood as a euphemism for the fact that lower/missing SAT II scores among some less demographically desirable applicants make it more difficult to recruit such applicants — which, incidentally, would also drive application numbers (and USNWR ranking) up and acceptance numbers down. 

Besides, if these tests truly provide no information, then why do colleges even allow applicants to submit them? Yet the move is to make these tests optional, not to stop applicants from submitting them at all. Such a move is not unheard of: if memory serves me correctly, at one point Sarah Lawrence refused to consider test scores at all. 

Tellingly, the schools that have the strictest SAT II requirements tend to be the most academically rigorous, as opposed to being merely extremely selective or prestigious.

MIT, for example, requires either Math 1 or 2, plus an additional science test. At Caltech, the requirements are even more stringent: only the Math II test is accepted, and the mid-50% of admitted students scored 790-800. (Granted, the Math II curve is quite large, but still.) I also recall that in one recent year, every entering freshman at Harvey Mudd, another super-selective engineering school, had scored an 800 on the Math II exam. 

To be sure, perfect scores on these exams alone will not get anyone admitted to these schools. Rather, they are a precondition for serious consideration. And there is a reason for that: students who have not mastered the basic material — and by elite engineering school standards it is basic material — that SAT IIs test would most likely struggle to do the work. Admitting such students would be doing them a disservice. 

In contrast, elite liberal arts schools — by which I mean all non-engineering schools, universities included — are much harder to get into than to graduate from. A good 90-95% of the entering students will receive their diplomas, regardless of whether they’ve mastered multivariable calculus or Spanish or economics or, to be very cynical for a moment, anything at all. (To digress for a moment, one result of growing up in a city with 40 institutions of higher education is that you learn early on that students are admitted to top colleges for a variety of reasons, and that the only thing an Ivy League diploma reliably indicates is that someone played the game well in high school. Outside of places like MIT, elite schools tend to be populated with well-off but basically normal above-average kids who happen to be very good at giving the system what it wants.)

In general, the most selective schools admit at most around 10% of their freshmen classes on primarily academic criteria, while the remainder of the class — though still highly academically accomplished, at least on paper — is composed of various special interest groups.

As I’ve written about before, at the undergraduate level, school is merely one purpose of a university, even if an institution is home to spoils of virtually unmatched educational riches. Elite colleges will manage to identify their quota of academic superstars, regardless of what tests they do or do not require. For the remainder of the class, they can afford to be flexible, particularly if doing so will increase both diversity (or at least the appearance of it) and selectivity. 

The problem is that colleges are trying to have it both ways: they are trying to make the admissions process more “fair,” but in reality they are making it even more head-spinning. Rules, or perhaps more accurately guidelines, exist, but they are largely tacit, used to guide admissions decisions but rarely acknowledged to the public.

The result is that at elite colleges, there is one set of rules for unhooked, not overly privileged applicants; another set of rules for highly privileged, hooked applicants (some of whom nevertheless would be unlikely to think of themselves as particularly privileged); and yet another set of rules for underprivileged, under-represented minority applicants.

And that’s not even factoring gender into the equation: at schools such as Brown, Vassar, and Wesleyan, female applicants are admitted at lower rates than male applicants are in order to maintain gender balance (and thus keep the number of applications up for both male and female applicants, and the admissions rate down). 

These issues are common knowledge, and yet schools continue to dance around them. 

Yes, from admissions officers’ perspective, this is a balancing act; trying to juggle so many sets of competing demands is not easy.

But at the very least, if colleges truly do not believe that SAT IIs have anything to offer, then they should stop considering them outright, full stop. That would not paint a particularly flattering picture of the regard in which admissions committee hold measurable academic knowledge as a criterion for entry into college, but it would also be both fair and transparent.

And that is precisely why it will never happen. 


My top tip for managing college essays

College application season is upon us again, and if you’re a rising senior or the parent of a rising senior just starting to pull a final list of colleges together, you might be starting to notice that the whole process is, well, a little bit complicated.

Everyone talks about the famous “college essay,” but in reality that should be “essays,” plural. And potentially lots of them. There is of course the main Common App personal statement, but what you might not realize until you actually sit down and begin adding schools is that many colleges have institution-specific supplements that include additional essay questions.

Most of these questions require around 150-250 words, but some can be just as long as the main personal statement.

If you are applying to specialized programs in engineering, health sciences, businesses, or architecture, you will almost certainly need to write multiple essays for some schools. 

Since the Common App makes it so easy to add colleges with the click of the button, and since students are applying to increasing numbers of schools as a way to hedge against dropping acceptance rates and unpredictable financial aid packages, it’s easy to end up with a whole lot of essays to write. 

Now, if you (or your child) is the sort of hyper-organized type-A student who has known your first-choice college since sophomore year and started your applications sometimes last spring, this might not pose too much of a problem.

This post is for the rest of you.

Although it might sound like nothing more than straightforward common sense, I cannot stress how important the following is for keeping the number of essays you need to write from becoming overwhelming. When I did admissions counseling, it was the absolute first thing I had every single single student do. 

Go to the Common App and click on the supplement for every school you are planning to apply to.

Find the essay questions for each college, and copy and paste all of them into an Excel document, divided by school. 

Make sure to include the character minimum/limit for each question. For maximum clarity, put this information in a separate column.

When you have compiled all of the essay questions, go through the document and see which topics repeat in multiple schools. Although the phrasing may change slightly from school to school, there should be a significant amount of overlap. Even schools that go out of their way to ask quirky questions (ahem, UChicago) typically also include at least one relatively general option designed to give you some leeway.

Provided that you do not completely detest the topics/themes that recur most frequently across schools, think of an  experience/interest/personality trait that you can in some way connect to the most common topic, and make it your primary supplement essay. Remember that it is not necessary to answer every question to the letter: as long as the connection is reasonably clear, you’ll be fine. The prompts are mostly there to induce you to write essays that will not put admissions committee members to sleep. 

Start with the school with the longest essay, usually about 500 words. Then, pare it back for schools with similar questions but progressively shorter character counts. It’s a lot easier to get rid of words than it is to add them.

For schools whose questions do not quite fit, you may also be able to rewrite short sections of your essay to give it a slightly different slant. The point is to recycle material whenever you can, albeit in a way that doesn’t feel artificial. This will take a little practice, but most people get the hang of it after the first few schools.  

Also: almost every school with a supplement will have a “why this school?” question. Again, write the essay with highest character count first: this is your template. For each subsequent school, research the same set of features: departments, classes (find ones in your areas of interest that look particularly interesting), professors, clubs, internship opportunities, etc. Then, you can plug in with just a few alterations to account for different schools’ quirks and particularities. Just don’t forget to change the name of the school. You do not want to proclaim your undying affection for the University of North Carolina on the essay you’re submitting to Duke. 

And finally: writing college essays is like any other skill: the more you do it, the better you get. If possible, wait until you’ve done a few apps to work on those for your top choices. Your essays may continue to evolve, and you want to leave yourself some room to grow before working on the schools that matter most to you.

Why you won’t get a full ride to Harvard on a National Merit Scholarship

After I posted a list of reasons that students should continue to consider passing up the new SAT in favor of the ACT, I received messages from a couple of readers who said that they shared my misgiving about the redesigned test, but that they had a very practical concern regarding that exam: namely, the PSAT and qualification for National Merit Scholarships.

In both cases, they indicated that their children would be dependent on scholarship money to attend college, and that they could not afford to pass up the opportunities offered by the National Merit program.

I confess that this was the last thing on my mind when I wrote the list, but it is a very real concern, and I appreciate having it called to my attention.

I do want to address the issue here, albeit with the caveat that I am not a financial aid expert, and that you should check with guidance counselors and individual colleges because policies and guidelines and vary from school to school.

I’m going to go into a lot more detail below, but in a nutshell: If you are unable to afford college without a full scholarship and are focusing on a group of less selective public universities, primarily in the (Mid)west and South, that offer large amounts of aid to students with high stats in order to boost their rankings, then yes, National Merit can count for a lot. But otherwise, it may have little to no effect on the amount of aid you ultimately receive.

If you are looking at highly selective schools, as many students aiming for National Merit are, you probably do not need to base your decision regarding SAT vs. ACT solely on the possibility of obtaining aid from that source.

Here’s why:

Approximately 1.5 million students take the PSAT each year. Of those students, the top approximately 1% in each state are automatically named National Merit Semifinalists by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC).

Cutoffs are set by state and vary significantly; cutoffs in traditionally high-achieving states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey are substantially higher than cutoffs in traditionally low-achieving states such as Mississippi in New Mexico.

In total, around 16,000 students receive National Merit Semifinalist status. In order to become Finalists, they must be endorsed by their schools, fill out an application detailing grades and extracurricular activities, write an essay, and take the SAT to confirm their scores.

Most Semifinalists (about 15,000) advance to Finalist status, and of those students, around half will ultimately be named National Merit Scholars.

Although the designation of “National Merit Scholar” is considered an honor, the actual payoff in terms of reducing college costs varies enormously and depends on what type of institution a student wants to attend.

First, a few universities offer substantial scholarships to Semifinalists, so if students with that designation want to attend such a school and decide they do not want to take the SAT, they can obtain a substantial amount of money regardless. These schools include the University of Maine and the University of Southern Mississippi.

Most universities, however, require that students obtain Finalist status in order to be eligible for full-tuition scholarships. Some of them also have GPA requirements. Representative schools include the University of Alaska, the University of Arizona, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and North Dakota State.

In addition, students who advance to Finalist status become eligible for corporate-sponsored National Merit Scholarships, which are open to children of employees of participating companies or, in some cases, residents of communities that those companies serve. About 1,000 corporate-backed scholarships are given out, ranging from $500 to $10,000 dollars. Some are one-time grants, while others are renewable for four years.

Finally, some schools, such as the University of Massachusetts-Amerhest, only offer full-tuition scholarships to students who have actually been named National Merit Scholars.

It is important to understand that it is an individual school’s choice to offer significant tuition discounts, full-ride or otherwise, to National Merit Scholars; the funds do not come from NMSC itself. In fact, actual National Merit Scholarships themselves are worth only $2,500.

It is also important to understand that although there are a number of prestigious universities that participate in National Merit, most of these schools offer fairly modest amounts of scholarship money on top of the actual National Merit scholarship. Usually, the amount is roughly comparable to the amount of the NM scholarship itself, with some schools offering a bit more (the University of Chicago offers a minimum of $4,000, for instance) and some a bit less. 

Although there are exceptions, the general rule is that the more prestigious the college, the fewer NM scholarships are offered, and the smaller the amount of those grants. Conversely, the less prestigious the college, the more NM scholarships are offered, and the higher the amount of those grants. 

The reason is that highly competitive schools such as Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, and Emory do not have a shortage of high-achieving applicants, and they can afford to allocate aid primarily based on need. Although they may offer full-tuition scholarships to students at the very top of their applicant pools (students for whom they are competing with Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc.), they do not automatically hand out these scholarships to NMSC Finalists the same way lower-ranked state universities do. The Ivies do not offer institutional National Merit Scholarships, or indeed any merit scholarships whatsoever. 

Northwestern, for example, offers only $2,000 in additional aid, bringing the total to a $4,500. The school makes clear that students who receive corporate-sponsored National Merit Scholarships cannot also receive university-sponsored National Merit Scholarships, limiting the amount of NM aid a student can receive.

You should also be aware that elite schools have recently been reducing the number of National Merit scholars they support, in some cases from well over 100 to no more than a few dozen. So while certain elite schools may enroll large numbers of National Merit Scholars, those students are not necessarily being supported financially by the schools themselves — either that, or they are only receiving trivial amounts of merit aid relative to the cost of attendance. 

Likewise, a number of well-known universities, including the University of Texas-Austin and New York University, and the the Universities of Michigan and Virginia, have withdrawn from participation entirely, although they may still offer their own merit programs.

The other, exceedingly important point to be aware of is that merit aid virtually always replaces need-based aid; it does not supplement it.

Middlebury College, which admits students on a need-blind basis and does not offer merit scholarships, summarizes this policy clearly:

Middlebury College allows outside scholarships, such as local scholarships, high school awards, subsidies from parents’ employers or National Merit funds, to first replace the self-help (work and loan) component of the financial aid award. Any outside scholarship aid exceeding the self-help will then reduce Middlebury grant aid dollar for dollar. Outside aid cannot be used to reduce or replace your Family Contribution (EFC).

Even at a school that does offer matching NMSC grants, such at the University of Chicago, you can assume that the same will be true. If a student receives $7,500/year through a combination of $2500 from the NMSC and $5,000 from the school, that $7,500 will be used to reduce the size of any need-based grants the student is awarded; it will not be awarded on top of those need-based grants. The EFC will remain unchanged.

Obviously, at elite private institutions, merit aid policies tend to be most beneficial to well-off students who can almost afford sticker price, but who aren’t going to turn down an extra $5-10K.

Students from families who make too much money to receive significant need-based merit aid at elite private colleges, and who don’t qualify for one of the very few full-ride (non-NMSC) merit scholarships some of those institutions, may be unable to fill the gap through NMSC alone.

So the bottom line is as follows:

If you are a high-achieving student who is not necessarily aiming for elite schools, and whose ability to attend college is entirely dependent on your ability to secure a full scholarship, then yes, you should probably take the PSAT seriously, regardless of how ill-managed the rollout of the new SAT has been. If money is that serious a concern, you are best off pursuing every opportunity open to you, and you may discover ones you did not even know about.

That said, if you are a stellar test-taker and are committed to taking the ACT, it is unlikely that you will suffer too much. The vast majority of the universities that offer significant scholarships to NMS Finalists, also offer equally substantial aid to students who achieve high scores on the ACT. If you see that one of your target schools offers automatic merit scholarships for NM qualifiers but does not mention the ACT, call the financial aid office and ask about what sort of merit aid is available for ACT-takers. Colleges do not always put every piece of information on their websites. 

If you are a high-achieving but very needy student, you should also be aware that you may in fact be eligible for a free ride at some elite schools. It is true that the wealthiest colleges do not offer merit scholarships, but the flip side is that they can afford to offer enormous amounts of aid to their poorest applicants. You shouldn’t count Harvard out entirely — just know that you won’t be attending on a National Merit Scholarship. 

If you fall into the “too-wealthy-for-need-based-aid-but-too-poor-for-sticker-price” category, the amount of effort you expend in pursuit of National Merit should depend on a number of factors: how much time you will have to spend studying for the PSAT (are you almost there, or do you need another 150 points?), and what the tradeoff is in terms of spending time studying for that test vs. doing other activities; what type of school you are aiming to attend (public vs. private), and what sort of other scholarship opportunities it offers; and just how much aid you will require to make paying for a particular college feasible. These are individual decisions, and they must be made on a case-by-case basis. 

Finally, if you are a high-achieving student for whom financial aid is not a significant concern, and you are aiming to attend the most prestigious college you can be admitted to, then you should not base the SAT vs. ACT decision on National Merit. The reality is that elite colleges receive so many applications from recognized students that this factor will carry very little weight. Your actual SAT or ACT scores and overall record of achievement, both in and outside the classroom, will be the deciding factors. 

Why making holistic admissions even more holistic is a very bad idea

If there’s one thing that everyone can agree on, it’s that college admissions is out of control. With schools posting new record-low acceptance rates each year, it’s hard not to wonder where things will end. Will Princeton soon have a 3% acceptance rate? Will Harvard dip below 2% Or, as Frank Bruni recently suggested in a satirical New York Times piece, will Stanford eventually boast that it did not accept a single student into its freshman class?

As long as students can apply to as many schools as they want with the click of a button, there’s nothing to suggest that the stampede for spots at a handful of elite schools will become any less intense; the fact that the vast majority of colleges in the United States accept over half of their applicants is no consolation to those seeking a spot at the top. With 40,000+ students clamoring for only a couple of thousands slots at places like Harvard and Stanford, and virtually no baseline criteria to deter weaker applicants, there’s no way for the process not to be stressful.

Now onto this landscape has been dropped a report produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and endorsed by admissions officials and administrators at a plethora of top colleges.

The report essentially makes the argument that to reduce the stress on applicants and de-escalate the college arms race, colleges should focus less on academic achievement and more on “soft” factors such as empathy and community service.

I’d heard a fair amount of buzz about this, but I only just got around to reading the report myself. I’d already more or less drawn my conclusions from hearsay, and unfortunately there was nothing to contradict those impressions. Nevertheless a few things stuck out for me.

First, the reports starts from a premise that is true (too many applicants, too much stress, too much competition) and uses it to form a conclusion that does not entirely follow logically (reduced academic expectations.)  Although it suggests deemphasizing the importance of brand names, it does nothing to suggest that colleges should take responsibility for feeding the application frenzy or for encouraging students to apply to schools at which they have no real chance of admission.

As things stand right now, elite colleges are looking for students who, in addition to being good at everything, are either spectacular at something and/or belong to a demographic that makes them particularly desirable. If the students applying were primarily the ones who actually fit into that category, the number of applications would drop dramatically, and a large part of the problem would be solved.

That, however, would lead to higher admissions rates and potentially lower USNWR rankings — two things that would make schools appear less desirable and thus less able to compete with their peers. So although colleges claim to want what is best for students, they also have a stake in ensuring that their applicant pools not only remain as large as possible but continually increase in order to keep pace with peer institutions. (I can’t seem to find it now, but I recently came across an article that quoted a consultant who was brought in to advise admissions committees at elite colleges but whose suggestions were never implemented. He said something to the effect that admissions officers would bemoan how out of control the process had become and then, without the slightest hint of irony, immediately turn around and discuss how to recruit more international students.)

Furthermore, if colleges were to deemphasize academic factors, as the report recommends, elite colleges would most likely receive even greater numbers of applications. Name-brand appeal is not about to disappear (after all, the report generated so much attention in large part because it came out of Harvard), and exclusivity breeds exclusivity: the fewer applicants a college accepts, the greater its value. By placing the burden on applicants to become more empathetic, or at least to present themselves as such, colleges conveniently sidestep their own role in driving the process.

The report is also, in many ways, proposing the system that already exists. Despite the fact that students can list numerous extra-curricular activities on their applications, colleges are pretty clear — and have been for a while — that quality counts more than quantity. “Serial joiners” have absolutely no advantage in the admissions process, nor do students who participate in expensive community service projects abroad. Colleges learned to see through those ploys a very long time ago.

If students are not getting the message, it’s more likely because their (overworked, overwhelmed) guidance counselors haven’t managed to impress it upon them than because colleges have failed to make that message sufficiently clear.

And if students are participating in extracurricular activities simply to impress colleges and to the detriment of their schoolwork, why not then suggest that the emphasis on extracurriculars is misplaced and insist that applying to college should be a primarily academic endeavor? Why is it taken for granted that schoolwork should take a hit?

Furthermore, while the report posits that students should seek “authentic” experiences before enrolling college, it then turns around and suggests just the opposite:

Rather than students “doing for” students from different backgrounds, for example, we encourage students to “do with”—to work in diverse groups for sustained periods of time on school and community challenges, groups in which students learn from one another. Importantly, these experiences of diversity should be carefully constructed and facilitated.

The real goal, it would seem, is not to let students experience the bumps and knocks of independence, but rather to bring them into line with a particular line of social orthodoxy. Experiences that are “carefully constructed and facilitated” are unlikely to prepare already-sheltered students for the transition to adult life, where interpersonal relations can be messy, unpredictable, and unfair.

What I find most troubling about the report, however, is that seems girded by the belief that admissions committees are actually capable of gauging qualities such as authenticity and sincerity — that they can somehow peek into applicants’ souls and suss out the purity of their intentions.

The only thing admissions committees can truly judge is how well an application indicates that a given individual will fulfill a college’s need for a student with a particular profile. As Wesleyan University president Michael Roth pointed out in Alia Wong’s recent Atlantic article “What Values Really Matter in the College Application Process,” as soon as students figure out what elite colleges are looking for in their applicants, they will go to extraordinary lengths to conform to that profile — regardless of their actual interests.  

Besides, is it really appropriate for colleges to be so invested in managing applicants’ emotional lives? There’s something more than a little off-putting about that prospect. Not every kid is a passionate extrovert, and those who aren’t should have the right to be considered on their own merits.

Given the inherently limited picture of a student that an application can present, the entire idea of “authenticity” is highly suspect. What students are really being asked to produce is not really “authenticity” but rather a carefully cultivated version of what colleges believe authenticity looks like.

Although admissions officers may insist otherwise, they actually have no way of telling when an applicant has received too much help with an application; they can only tell when an application has been polished too obviously, when an adult’s fingerprints jump too clearly off the page.

The reality is that a coach who does understand how the game works can create a veneer of authenticity, or at least the particular brand of authenticity that colleges are looking for. They can leave just enough warts in just the right places — or, more calculatedly, encourage a few warts in just the right places. They can capture a student’s voice in a way that seems entirely natural but that thoroughly obscures the fact that the student could never have produced such cogent, grammatically correct, and stylistically engaging writing on their own. I know this for a fact because I was directly involved in the process for years.

As problematic as standardized-test essays are — and right now, they are hideously problematic — they do at least offer admissions committees the chance to see whether applicants can cobble together minimally acceptable prose in the absence of direct adult intervention. Unfortunately, that’s not always something that can be taken for granted.

The existing system, in short, is set up to be gamed; and the “fixes” proposed by the report do nothing to mitigate the problem (there is no indication that colleges would also deemphasize admissions essays). Indeed, they would likely make it worse.

In terms of solving the numbers issue, I don’t think there are any easy solutions. Elite colleges are global brands, with global demand. As long as colleges make it easy for students to apply in droves, they will continue to do so.

The only ways I can think of to reduce the madness would involve either imposing a cap on the number of elite schools students can apply to, as is the case in England (one app, one college, Oxford or Cambridge, not both); and/or setting a minimum academic bar for regular applicants, accompanied by a special preparatory/transitional program for underprivileged ones (as is the case at France’s Sciences Po). That would still leave room for consideration of nonacademic factors while taking some of guesswork out of the process. 

Sane, reasonable steps such as those would go a long way toward curbing some of the excesses of the current system. But if the Harvard report is any indicator, colleges are more likely to head in exactly the opposite direction. 

The straw man in the standardized testing debate

Frank Bruni wrote a column in yesterday’s The New York Times, in which he expounded on the virtues of college admission committees’ decisions to look past marginal test scores in a handful of underprivileged applicants in order to diversify their classes.

Depending on your perspective, what Bruni describes can either be construed as a noble undertaking or the symptom of a corrupt system that unfairly disadvantages hardworking, middle-class applicants, but I’m actually not concerned with that particular debate here.

Rather, my issue with Bruni’s column is that it perpetuates a common straw man argument in the debate over college admissions — namely, that test scores have traditionally been the be-all end-all of the admissions game, and that only now are a handful of intrepid admissions officers are willing to look past less-than-stellar scores and consider other aspects of a student’s application. 

Bruni is the author of Where You Go is not Who You’ll Be, a book that very validly emphasizes the questionable relationship between name-brand colleges and overall success in life, but in terms of actual admissions, his authority appears to stem primarily from the fact that he turned down Yale to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and still managed to land a job as a columnist at the Times. Although he’s generally familiar with the field, he is not actually an expert in admissions the way, say, Paul Krugman is an expert in economics. As a result, it’s hardly a surprise that he misrepresents some of the issues at play.

In short, what is news to Bruni is a long-established practice known as “holistic admissions” — a practice that was, incidentally, introduced in the 1920s, when the Ivies first decided to consider “character” in order to limit the number of Jews. Since then, the purpose of evaluating applicants according to factors beyond grades and test scores has changed again and again, but colleges continue to select students according to their particular set of institutional needs — be it diversity, donors, athletics, or physics research — and test scores play a role in that process only insofar as they garner universities freshman classes with the desired characteristics. For example, a major reason for inflating scores on the new SAT was presumably to allow colleges that aren’t quite ready to go test-optional to admit more applicants from under-represented demographics without compromising their USNWR rankings. The College Board has danced around this fact with various euphemisms about “opportunity,” but it is difficult not to conclude that this type of demographic manipulation was not a driving force. 

For at least four decades, though, admissions committees’ willingness to give disadvantaged applicants a boost has had a very real effect on thousands of students — life-altering effects, in many cases. When people attack colleges for relying too heavily on test scores, they’re obviously thinking of all the other thousands of applicants who didn’t get that boost.

What’s interesting (but not at all surprising), though, is that the other side of the argument is almost never considered — that is, the students who are given every advantage but who never achieve scores anywhere remotely what they would need to be competitive applicants at top colleges are rarely mentioned. Yes, the majority of students achieving high scores are well-off, but it does not follow that every well-off student achieves high scores. As I’ve pointed out before, the lowest-scoring students I worked with tended to be from the wealthiest families. 

As a result, I left Mr. Bruni the following comment, which can be viewed here (and which, might I add, was selected as a Times “top pick!”):


With all due respect, what you describe in this column is holistic admissions, which has long been the policy at the vast majority of selective private colleges in the United States. There’s a reason that schools do not publish — and, to the best of my knowledge, have not ever published — official cut-off scores for applicants. Admissions committees are well aware that applicants come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, and that some applicants face far more obstacles than others. That said, what about the opposite end of the spectrum, e.g. a student who has spent 10+ years in a $40K/year Manhattan private school and whose parents have doled out an additional $10K or more for tutoring, but who can barely break 600 on any section of the (old) SAT? These numbers are not exaggerations, by the way: I tutored students in that demographic for a considerable period, and some of them could not in fact achieve scores that would make them even remotely competitive at most top-25 or so schools. (In case anyone is wondering, money and connections only get you so far). Some of those students were reasonably bright and hardworking, but their scores were also very accurate reflection [sic] of their academic limitations. The fact that there is a correlation between scores and family income does not in itself mean that scores cannot provide an important piece of information when considered in their full context.

The real problem is that test scores mean such different things for different applicants. Sometimes they reveal an awful lot, and sometimes very little. 

In my experience, scores for the most privileged applicants do tend to be a roughly accurate reflection of what those students know.  A slew of 750+ scores from a student at a top private school is by no means indicative of brilliance, but 500/600-range scores from a student at the same school are usually a sign that there are some real gaps. That’s a significant piece of information for an admissions committee to have when evaluating those students against their classmates, as well 30,000 other applicants. 

On the other hand, how is a committee supposed to judge 500-range test scores in an applicant from an academically marginal school and a single-parent household with an income of less than $20,000/year? It would be obtuse to believe that that applicant’s scores did not also reveal some gaps (even though 500-range scores are actually quite an achievement in that context); but the question is what sort of potential other aspects of the application reveal, whether and to what extent they outweigh the test scores, and whether the college has the resources in place to help that student catch up academically to his or her peers. 

The fragmented nature of the American school system and the relationship between real-estate prices and school quality ensures that these are not apples-to-apples comparisons. They’re not even apples-to-bananas comparisons. They’re more like apples-to-skyscrapers comparisons.

Scores are not everything. Admissions officers know this. They struggle with these kinds of calculations every for day, for months, and in the end they just can’t take everyone. Exactly what role test scores should play in the process is up for debate. But to suggest that everyone has just been playing a straightforward numbers game all long… well that’s just not true.