Let’s face it. The process of applying to colleges has a reputation for being stressful. So in our discussions with high school and independent college counselors from various regions of the country, we asked a deliberately open-ended question to see if any unprompted patterns emerged: “What do you wish colleges would be doing—or not doing?”
This year, 97% of college-bound students and their parents replying to The Princeton Review’s annual “College Hopes & Worries Survey” reported some level of stress when asked, “How would you gauge your stress level about the college application process?” And the intensity of that stress is increasing. In 2014, 70% of respondents gauged their stress levels as “very high” or “high,” compared to 56% in 2003, the first year of the survey.
It’s easy to assume some of this increased stress comes from the interplay of economic conditions and rising tuition costs. When you compare the average published price (in 2013 dollars) for tuition, fees, room, and board in 2003- 04 versus in 2013-14, you find a 24% increase at private nonprofit four-year colleges and universities. Meanwhile, roughly during that time (2003 to 2012, in 2012 dollars) the median household income actually decreased by 6%.
Prospective students and their families also have more third-party sources of information about colleges at their disposal now, especially online. For example, the federal government created College Navigator to supplement interactive directories such as the College Board’s College Search. And now college comparison websites like the federal government’s College Scorecard and the private sector’s College Reality Check and College Factual can place a college on a scale relative to all other colleges for outcomes like “value for your money,” “earnings boost,” average net price, graduation rates, and monthly student loan repayment amounts.
With high-stakes financial investment and information overload involved, high school and independent counselors on the front line of advising the college-bound have their work cut out for them. So we asked them to tell us what their counterparts on the other side of the aisle—college admissions officers— might be able to do differently to make their jobs easier and decrease families’ stress. Here is what they’re saying.
You Send Too Much Communication to Students
“I think the biggest thing is the amount of mail and email that kids and families get,” said Ann Herbener, college counselor at Papillion-La Vista High School in Nebraska. “It is all so generic: ‘You have been chosen….’ ”
College and Career Counselor Ah Young Chi of Malibu High School in California agrees. “I wish they would send less materials to students. It just goes to waste,” she says. “A student doesn’t know whether it’s a good school for them or not, because honestly they all look the same on paper; they all look the same online. Everyone has gorgeous weather 365 days a year, and even when it’s snowing it looks beautiful. I feel like schools have spent so much money sending all this mail to students.”
“Choosing a college really shouldn’t be a game of advertising,” says Carolynn Laurenza, college coordinator at Uncommon Charter School in New York City. “It is—and I understand why it is. But my wish is that it wasn’t.”
Stop Encouraging Students Who Don’t Really Have A Chance
According to Jeffrey Neill, director of college counseling at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio, colleges need to stop encouraging kids who are not going to make the cut. “I ask students why they are applying to a particular highly selective college, and they’ll say, ‘Because the emails I’ve been getting from them say I could get in.’ Well, these are students with mid-level SATs and a decent GPA, so we often end up saying, ‘No, they are lying to you.’ ”
“Last summer I was in one of the Ivy League college information sessions with 250 people or so in the audience,” relates independent counselor Jim Overton of College Consultants of South Carolina. “The admissions representative said, ‘If you like what you see here today, apply.’ Now, this is a school where less than 10 percent of students are accepted. Many, if not most, of the students who were there would not be accepted. But why are they encouraging students willy-nilly to submit a $90 application? To inflate the applicant pool, which reduces their acceptance rate and potentially boosts their rankings? I just thought it was really unprofessional to encourage people when less than one in 10 in the room would stand a chance of being admitted. So with 100 kids there, that’s a lot of profit. I understand the marketing that they have to do, but I just did not think that was a good thing to say.”
High school students don’t realize that the messages are coming from a marketing department, says Gisela Terner, an independent counselor based in Mequon, Wisconsin. “They think it’s coming from a dean of admissions and that ‘Oh my God, [Ivy League school] really likes me.’ And so the counselor’s job is to then say, ‘No honey, everybody’s getting this message.’ So that adds to the stress and also to the unrealistic expectations of what this whole college search and application process is about.”
Terner acknowledges the reality of the situation: “I know that it’s a business, I truly do, and I explain that to my students and the parents. But they get bombarded with so much information, on their cell phones and on their computer. We need to stop the madness.”
“I understand, in theory, the need to have big numbers,” says Marie Bigham, director of college counseling at Greenhill School in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. “But it’s one thing to recruit a kid who is vaguely admissible; it’s another thing to recruit a kid who really has no shot in hell.”
Stop Contacting Students Who Are No Longer Interested
Once a student gets into a database of a college, some colleges continue to contact them—forever.
Students might say they’re no longer interested, but “they continue to get emails or mail from different departments within the school or even from the admissions office,” says Chi. “I know it takes money and a lot of coordination to get it right, but I think if you do spend the resources right and do it right, then the image you will have in the community is just going to get better. I wouldn’t want to be known as the college lacking in communication skills.”
You Place Too Much Emphasis on Rankings
“I would love to see that U.S. News & World Report list get flushed down the toilet,” says Terner. “It’s so subjective, yet some parents hold it like it’s the Bible. I tell the girls, just because it’s a pair of Prada shoes doesn’t mean that they’re better than the shoes you got at Payless. Maybe the ones in Payless are more comfortable, but Prada is a brand. And you are going to squeeze your feet into those really uncomfortable shoes because they look really good, but they’re not even going to let you walk a block without giving you a blister. Yet the parents still say, ‘But it’s [Ivy League school]!’ And I say, ‘But so what?’ ”
“Those rankings have created such a frenzy, students believe their life is over if they don’t get into one of the top five schools,” notes Bob Turba, chairman of guidance and school counseling services at Stanton College Prep in Jacksonville, Florida.
“I wish that, in the world of admissions, colleges could be up front with how much rankings drives decisions,” says Bigham. “And the kids could understand that, frankly, they are data points and tuition dollars. It’s painful to talk to some of my students and have them be like, ‘Wow, I thought that college was for the greater good of society.’ And I say, ‘First and foremost, it’s a business—a very, very large business.’ And when they see themselves as a cog in that wheel, it can be kind of disillusioning at times, but the kids who figure that out are the ones who approach the process better. It’s less personal.”
Bigham was surprised to hear from a college dean that “the conversation with the bond rating people is the most important phone call they do all year,” she said. “When colleges borrow money to build, and build, and build, sometimes their bond rating can be tied to what the raters see as the sustainability of an institution. And that includes how strong are your test scores? How strong is your yield? Because they take that as a sign that you’re healthy.”
Neill too has observed how colleges have become much more like businesses. “It seems at a lot of places, business models are driving the decisions about what direction the school is going and how they treat individual students,” he says. “Every college out there denies doing it, yet they continue buying standardized testing results, encouraging and sending mixed messages. Particularly the ultra- selective colleges—their business model seems somewhat to depend upon continued increase in volume of applications. They say, ‘No, no, no, we’re not driving up volume just for the sake of doing it.’ But their behavior would suggest otherwise. It comes back to the business model: Fill the hopper so their volume is high and they can have a lower acceptance rate.”
You Put Too Many People on the Wait List
Several counselors mentioned their frustration with wait-listing students.
“Try to have more realistic numbers on the wait list, because this carrot is being dangled into June and these students cannot move forward,” notes Terner. “So either take the kid or reject the kid. Or just keep a really realistic number so that they can move forward.
I know that some schools have 1,000, 2,000, and 3,000 on the wait list because they may need 50 at the end. Do you really need to have 3,000 on the wait list to have 50 at the end?”
You Need to be More Transparent
Several counselors noted the lack of details from colleges about their criteria for making an admissions decision.
“I have one school that sends me a very nice detailed report—the GPA used, SAT used, what the decision was,” says Turba. “It’s useful and helpful for us. But most other schools want to play games and keep us in the dark. I suppose if they were to reveal these details, it might make them liable for a court case.”
His idea for a better way? “Put together a simulated admissions committee and show us how you work with an application.”
Overton says many parents are operating in a vacuum when it comes to scholarships. “Colleges should be telling if they have a threshold level above which an outside scholarship reduces the college’s merit or need-based award,” he suggests. “There are times where it varies by college. Some outside scholarships will not reduce institutional money up to a limit. Others have said, vaguely, that there is no limit. I think we have a problem, particularly for parents who are in the middle. We have kids who are chasing after a scholarship that’s not going to make any difference. They haven’t found where a financial aid office will say, ‘Outside scholarships will be accepted up to a limit or 100 percent of outside money will not affect your college aid package.’ ”
Colleges should also be up front from the very beginning about how much it actually costs to apply, recommends Bigham. “Starting with, ‘Here’s how much the application fee is, here’s how much it’s going to cost for you to send scores, and we expect you to come and visit us, so here’s how much a plane ticket costs.’ And then parents can actually look at that and say, ‘Hey, for a place that admits 4 percent, I’m really not going to spend $500 or $600 just to see what happens.’ ”
Try To Work More Directly With Us
“I like having one person at the college who is assigned to my school and can help me navigate some of the issues,” says Herbener. “For example, I had a student whose application has just been lost and lost and lost. This college doesn’t have anyone assigned to my school, so I’m just talking to a different rookie every day. They’ll say, ‘Try this and this,’ and I’ll say, ‘I tried that yesterday.’ So it’s nice when I have one person I can call, not for general questions, but for when I need someone to help.”
Laurenza agrees. “This is a big wish and isn’t even possible, but I wish more colleges would call counselors,” she says. “Some counselors know a lot about their students and can sometimes have a more honest conversation than an application can show. It’s rare to speak one-on-one with admissions counselors, but when you do, it feels very helpful.”
To facilitate this, “I would be hiring more admissions officers,” says Neill. “The volume of applications has increased dramatically, specifically over the last three to five years. I don’t know of many colleges that have kept up with the size of their office in a proportionate way with the volume of applications.”
Another potential improvement would be for colleges to use better tracking systems. “A college we interact with just switched over to a different CRM or database system that allows them to read applications online and store all of their documents online,” says Chi. “This system pulls the transcripts and letters and documents directly from the Common App server so that they no longer need someone to sit in front of a computer and pull files from one folder and then stick it into a student’s digital folder; they just cut that part out. If more colleges could do that, then we would have less of these missing document notices coming through from colleges, and it would just really decrease the stress level for everyone involved.”
Streamline Where You Can
“It would be really cool if everybody just had a January 1 deadline,” says Terner. “Stop with all these different decisions, and let’s put back the old school and make it January 1 and then a March 15 notification. As it is, there are kids going into their senior year who are giving up experiences because they’re starting right on the college application. There’s no more breathing room. But if everybody had a January 1 deadline, I think the world would be a kinder, less stressful place for these seniors—and for the college counselors.”
“I used to say, probably naively, ‘It doesn’t have to be like this, it doesn’t have to be this difficult, it doesn’t have to be this complex,’ ” says Bigham. “But this year, with everything that happened with the Common Application and seeing how the public system in Texas is kind of shifting about, I truly don’t understand how a student could do this without a lot of hand-holding. It is incredibly complex, and the people really do need help with it.”
Keep Up Your Good Work
Despite any criticisms, all of the counselors asserted that many colleges are doing the right things.
“What I really do appreciate is how many colleges out there really are making efforts to continue to have this be a personal process,” says Bigham. “So many of my students and parents will go visit a college, and then they come away feeling respected and that they were heard, that they saw what they needed to see. So I think there are some really positive parts to this process. And I know that people who want to do this right continue to make it personal and holistic. They have their hearts in the right place.”
Laurenza, who works with low- income students of color, many of whom are the first in their family to go to college, agrees. “I wish more colleges would look at students holistically beyond just grades and test scores, and actually look at context,” she says. “There’s value in terms of the diverse conversations that can happen when kids from different socioeconomic brackets are together in a small community and are all working together. And the numbers—in terms of SAT scores, ACT scores, and even in GPA— don’t often reflect that.”
To Terner, it comes down to focusing on fit: “This whole frenzy about applying to college and getting into the right college, that it’s going to make or break your life—I think we need to tone it down. It’s making the whole process unrealistic and needlessly stressful, and it’s resulting in kids choosing the wrong schools. If everyone in this business would be on the same page in helping students find the right fit, then everyone would be happier in the long run,” she concludes.