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USACollegeChat Podcast

Jun 9, 2016

Last week, we began our new summer series, entitled The Search Begins. This series is dedicated to those of you—primarily the parents of juniors—who are starting the serious college hunt now. In Episode 77, we talked about the number of college applications your teenager would ideally be making in the fall. While a bit dependent on what your teenager is interested in studying and on how broad a range of college options you all want to consider, we recommended between 8 and 12 applications—after carefully thinking through and winnowing down the options.

Recently, I read an interesting perspective on college applications and admissions in The Hechinger Report, which is usually a good source of informative pieces on education. This opinion piece was written by Claire Schultz, a senior at Princeton High School in New Jersey. This fall, Claire will be off to University College London, a public research university in the U.K., founded in 1826 to serve students previously excluded from higher education and boasting alumni from Alexander Graham Bell to Francis Crick (a co-discoverer of the DNA double helix) to all four members of Coldplay, a little band your kids know, who met there as freshmen. In her piece, Claire talks about two issues, offering one solution that is obvious in the title: “American colleges need to end admissions “Hunger Games” and take a page from the U.K. playbook instead.” It worries me that our high school students feel as though they need to solve our U.S. college application and admission problem, but it’s impressive at the same time. 

1. Too Many Applications

Claire talks about a topic we have addressed more than once recently at USACollegeChat: the growing number of college applications being submitted, which leads to the increasing selectivity of colleges and lower admission rates, which in turn leads to more applications being made, and so on and so on and so on. This process is, for many students—especially for bright students applying to first-rate colleges—becoming the “vicious cycle” that Claire describes.

Claire says, “I took a step to remove myself from the system, and applied to schools in the U.K.” Noting that the U.K. system is different from ours, she believes that we can learn something from it. Here is her description of the system in the U.K.:

…[Y]ou can apply to Oxford or Cambridge (not both), and a total of five schools. As you apply to a specific subject, you write one single personal statement explaining why you are qualified for the course; you may have to complete a subsequent interview, again on academic merit. There is a set of grade-based entry requirements you will have to make at the end of your senior year, but that’s it. (quoted from the article)

Why not have the Common Application, accepted by over 600 colleges today, limit the number of applications a student can submit from its website, Claire asks? She believes that some students are applying just to apply and aren’t even really interested in some of the colleges they are applying to. She offers her view of college acceptance time at Princeton High School:

For so many top schools, I saw the same students admitted over and over again. I saw other students who were tremendously qualified not get into any of them. I saw some people not get into schools that would have been a terrific match, which they would have attended in a heartbeat, while others who were accepted saw them as safety nets and never really planned on attending. So why do we let this happen? You could argue something about The American Way and ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty,’ but all it really is is a college admission ‘Hunger Games’—dangerously competitive and only the most prepared survive. (quoted from the article)

Unfortunately, probably true—especially at top-ranked high schools. Claire proposes that applications be capped at 10—a number I like pretty well inasmuch as our recommendation last week was 8 to 12. Frankly, I am glad that our recommendation will seem sensible to a kid who has thought as much about this as Claire has. Of course, capping the number of Common App college applications won’t entirely solve the problem because students can apply to other colleges that do not accept the Common App. But her point is still clear: Control the number of applications to optimize positive admissions decisions for everyone.

2. Is It a College or an “Experience”?

So, let’s look at the second issue that Claire brings up, and I think it is even more intriguing. In describing her applications to U.K. colleges, Claire writes this:

There are no essays asking about ‘a journey’ or what celebrity you’d like to have to lunch, no extracurricular jumping through hoops. Plain and simple, are you good at what you do? . . . I’d want to see the focus of the college admissions process brought back to school, if only a little bit. (quoted from the article) 

It’s refreshing, I guess, to see a high school student who wishes that college admissions were more about how well you did in your academic studies and exams and how well you can write about what study you plan to pursue in college and why you are well equipped to do that. On the other hand, some U.S. colleges also ask students to write an essay about that topic—though it is typically one of the supplemental essays in an application that has several essays to complete. The difference is, in the U.K., that is the essay.

Claire continues with these observations:

When I applied to U.S. schools, I wrote essays about my biggest fears and hopes and dreams, I was sold student centers and dorm rooms and meal plans. Underneath all of the football games and paraphernalia, I was not being shown a school, I was being sold an experience. These colleges seemed to care less about me as a student than me as a well-rounded, ‘holistic’ individual. When I toured schools in England, I was shown classrooms and students studying in libraries rather than well-polished amenities (most students lived in private housing and cooked for themselves, anyway). (quoted from the article)

Well, that couldn’t be more interesting. It recalls for me a comment that my husband made more than once as we were looking at colleges for our children. He used to say, “Are we choosing a college or a country club?” He was responding to what Claire calls “well-polished amenities.”

Now, I am going to be the first to say that I personally like a well-polished amenity or two. I am okay with great-looking dorms (my daughter certainly had that at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus—suite-style dorms so nice that my husband and I would have been happy to live there, within spitting distance of New York City’s magnificent Lincoln Center). And I am fond of attractive sorority and fraternity houses, too (I lived in one), though I fear that they might be part of what Claire calls “paraphernalia.” And who doesn’t love a good football game, Claire—and baseball game and basketball game and soccer game, etc.? Yes, I love college sports, too (and wrote about them for my college newspaper).

Nonetheless, I do like the idea that Claire saw students at work (and, by “work,” I mean studying) when she visited schools in the U.K.—and that she was impressed by that. Of course, many of our U.S. colleges try to get prospective applicants into a classroom to observe a class firsthand, too—and they should, according to Claire.

So, where does all this leave Claire and me? I guess it leaves us here, as Claire concluded about her U.K. visits:

It was nice to see what I’d be paying huge amounts of money for—not a four-year party, but a school with actual classes and exams. (quoted from the article)

Parents, I am sure that you, too, would like to think that you are paying for a school—for the professors, for the instructional facilities, and even for the intellectual camaraderie of the students. Do you want kids to be happy at college? Of course you do. But do you also—and more significantly—want them to revel in what they are learning and believe that they are learning from the best and brightest professors anywhere? I bet you do.

Claire’s view suggests that, during the recruitment of new freshmen, U.S. colleges—at least some of them, anyway—have tipped the scale a bit too far toward “well-polished amenities.” She would like them to tip the scale back a bit toward “actual classes.” So, U.S. colleges, are you listening—just in case you want to pick up a few students like Claire (and, frankly, what college wouldn’t)? Think about what you are showing off to your prospective candidates. Are you a party venue or a school?

If I were Claire’s mother, I would be proud of her thoughtful opinions. If you have a teenager at home—one who might be tipped himself or herself a bit too far toward looking for the “well-polished amenities”—tell them about Claire. You can probably find her next fall in the library in London. (But, Claire, don’t forget to have tea at the V&A—London’s unparalleled Victoria & Albert Museum—because that is unforgettable and you can bring a book to read.)

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