Plummeting Admission Rates Call for Rethinking College Admission Process

The gates of ultra selective colleges will open for relatively few applicants this year.

Introduction

Higher education, much like American democracy, is designed to move slowly. Colleges react cautiously to trends and trust that their venerability will carry them from year to year and generation to generation. This approach usually works. It works so well, in fact, that the nation’s oldest colleges are also the most sought-after, with tens of thousands of applicants pursuing vanishingly few spots.

The number of applications, and, consequently, colleges’ rejection rates, had been creeping upwards so gradually that most colleges and applicants have proceeded unperturbed over the years. And then came 2020. Just as the pandemic overturned nearly everything else in our lives last year, so has it disrupted college admissions. Colleges received record numbers of early applicants, mainly because of test-optional policies. Though most regular-round numbers have not yet been released, we can assume the same.

(Applications at Tufts, which is particularly transparent, are up 35 percent, to nearly 32,000 for a mere 3,800 acceptances. Harvard is reportedly up 42 percent. NYU is up 20 percent. Colgate is up — wait for it — 102 percent. Distressingly, nationwide college enrollment among low-income and underrepresented minority students is plunging because of the pandemic.)

The good news is that many worthy students who might have been disqualified because of test scores (including students from under-represented demographic groups) had a fighting chance this year. But, overall, applicants to ultra-selective colleges — I won’t bother naming them, but you know which ones they are — will face longer odds than ever before.

While I have always been wary of wantonly applying to reach schools, this application year has brought a particularly acute version of madness — and next year’s will too.

Likewise, it will be tougher for colleges to sort through so many applications. Admissions staff will have to read applications even more quickly than before and will likely make less nuanced judgements than ever before. The vast majority of applicants will get scarcely more than a cursory glance before they are relegated to rejection.

And yet, most of this year’s applicants probably spent more time writing their applications than did previous generations. In the effort to discern the absolute most attractive candidates, ultra-selective colleges heaped on supplemental essays. Students who apply to multiple ultra-selective colleges therefore had to write a disconcerting number of essays. And, of course, the essays have to be good.

Applicants bear the labor — often to the detriment of their sleep schedules, self-image, and emotional well-being — and colleges do not care. In fact, they welcome and encourage as many applications as they can get, in part to put on the pretense of egalitarianism and in part to depress their admission rates — which factor into college “rankings” and into the general perception of prestige.

Something has to change.

The following are some ideas, in rough order of my preference, that can make the application process more sane, humane, and effective — for everyone.

NB: Unless otherwise noted, references to colleges refer to ultra-selective colleges: those with admission rates below 15% and/or especially extensive written applications.

A Two-Tier Process

Students have no direct control over a majority of items on a college application. Grades, courses, test scores, recommendation letters, and many (not all) activities are immutable and do not lend themselves to embellishment. Application essays constitute the bulk of the marginal labor in the application process. Essays are important, insightful, and enriching when applicants take them seriously — but they are hardly crucial for making the first round of cuts.

Colleges should require applicants to file pre-applications with their basic information at some reasonable early date (say, September 1 for early applications). Colleges could probably eliminate half of would-be applicants quickly and decisively. Then they can invite the other half to submit a full suite of essays. Eliminated students who insist on applying may be allowed to do so, but with a provisional essay in which they can deliberately explain what is so extraordinary about them that they should be considered.

Of course, the pre-application eliminates what colleges reverently call “holistic review.” And that’s the point: it does away with the pretense of holistic review, since, for tens of thousands of applicants, holistic review is a sham in the first place.

Lest colleges fear a hit to their admissions budgets or rejection rates, they can charge full fees for the pre-application and include those students in their statistics. Applicants who are sorted out in the pre-application need to understand that the colleges are doing them an enormous favor. It could be the best 95 bucks they’ve ever spent.

(Real) Interviews

No more “back in my day….” nonsense.

School spirit is swell. And alumni can offer applicants a wealth of insight into their respective colleges. But they have no business influencing admissions decisions. (Myself included.)

A system of genuine interviews would be a variant on the two-tier system. Colleges could cut down on required essays but require interviews for their genuine pool of applicants.

This is how Oxford and Cambridge do it. They require a relatively threadbare “statement of purpose” on the written application but then selectively extend interviews. Professors then grill their applicants to make their final choices.

With legitimate interviews, colleges would no longer treat interviews as treat for rosy-cheeked alumni but rather as serious attempts to get to know applicants. They’d have to train their interviewers (ideally professors or admissions officers; maybe a corps of serious, trained alumni volunteers) and come up with a fair, effective system to use interviewers’ evaluations. It would require some work. But, anything would be better than the current system, especially since interviews are currently all but meaningless.

Meanwhile, applicants would truly be held to account. They would have to be able to think on their feet and demonstrate their academic qualifications in real time.

Radical Candor

The easiest thing colleges can do is just stop lying.

If a student BS’d a professor the way admissions people BS potential applicants, that student would end up in front of the disciplinary committee. But, advertising being what it is, colleges can basically lie to their hearts’ content. The biggest lie they tell is that they really do look at every applicant! Sure, the Ferrari dealership will let anyone walk into a showroom, buckle into a Portofino, and make vroom-vroom noises. That doesn’t mean they’re racing it at Le Mans.

The truth is, colleges gladly take application fees from every applicant. They gladly include every applicant in their rejection rates. They want every applicant to hype them. (In no other industry are brands promoted so eagerly by non-customers.) They don’t actually give every applicant equal scrutiny.

These schools can identify contenders and castoffs from a mile away (see my first recommendation). They know what sort of GPAs and test scores aren’t going to make the cut. And, they know that admitted applicants have to have something extraordinary about them. If they were honest about those standards, students could make realistic decisions that serve their interests rather than fantastical decisions that just pad schools’ rejection rates.

Colleges should also make their institutional priorities more clear. That’s a euphemism for “who we favor and who we don’t.” For instance, colleges are admirably more committed to equity these days than ever before. College reps should be as candid as possible about the types of applicants who benefit from these policies — be they underrepresented groups, recruited athletes, children of alumni, etc. — and, indeed, the types who don’t benefit. They should also be candid about the number of admission slots that are, essentially, already spoken for. They know how many spots go to athletes, and they know generally how many go to legacies. The real admission rate for everyday applicants is even lower than it seems.

The people who market ultra-selective colleges should also remind their audiences that great educations abound for students who are willing to seize them. As I have written previously, plenty of college that aren’t “famous” are still incredibly strong, in part because all of those strong, ambitious applicants who don’t get into ultra-selective colleges are still go somewhere. Wherever they go, they usually thrive as students, and their colleges benefit from their presence.

Application Limits

Scarcity breeds judiciousness.

Colleges could forbid their applicants from applying to more than a certain number of other colleges. If students who are thinking of applying to Harprinceford University have to pledge that Harprinceford is one of only, say, 10 or 12 schools to which they are applying, then applicants will have to think much harder about whether they A) want to attend Harprinceford; and B) have a chance of getting in.

This policy may sound invasive, but it’s actually not much different from Early Decision and Restrictive Early Action programs, in which applicants make pledges that bear on their overall college lists. (And, as with REA programs, public universities could be exempted.)

This proposal is, yet again, inspired by our British friends. Students may apply to only Oxford or Cambridge — not both — and they may apply to only six colleges in total. Applicants must choose wisely, and they can’t get tangled up in multiple ultra-selective “dream schools.”

Behavioral Economics

Behavioral economics is all the rage these days, so let’s try a thought experiment:

A time-honored writing trick is to imagine that every word beyond a certain threshold costs $10, $100, or $1,000 — whatever it takes to make the writer feel that every word is dear and, therefore, to write as concisely as possible. I’d love for applicants to approach applications the same way.

Most colleges’ application fees (around $100) are negligible for many — but certainly not all — families. The real cost of applying is usually far greater. Applicants expend a great deal of time, effort, and heartache, but those costs are borne individually, privately, and silently. Parents who write the checks generally aren’t going to care if they’re writing ten checks or fifteen, even if those extra five checks correspond with diminishment of their children’s well-being.

If, depending on your family’s socioeconomic good fortune, a school’s fee was $950 or $9,500, or 950 Bitcoin, would you still apply? If the answer is no in the thought experiment, maybe it should be no in reality.

This suggestion is merely a thought experiment because, practically and ethically, colleges cannot actually tailor fees to their applicants’ wealth. Arbitrarily raising fees would unduly discourage low-income applicants. I don’t want that, and neither do colleges. So, it’s up to applicants to nudge themselves in the right direction by considering the true “cost” of their applications.

Lottery

New York Times columnist Gina Bellafonte recently proposed her own antidote to the Ivy League frenzy: a random lottery. Sorry, but no.

Even well-meaning meritocracies will never be entirely fair. Someone will always game the system or fool the gatekeepers. But that doesn’t mean that meritocracies, well, lack merit. Colleges just have to be clear about what they mean by merit, and about the instances in which they set merit aside. We can still acknowledge the hard work, skill, and knowledge of a great many high school students. Attractive colleges deserve credit for being attractive (maybe they get more than they deserve) and they should be entitled to choose students whom they believe will make the most of their resources.

As a practical matter, I cannot fathom how a lottery would work or how it could be fair to the schools that adopted it. And there’s no way a lottery would be able to achieve colleges’ equity goals. Sure, lotteries could be open only to students with certain GPAs or test scores, and they could be segmented along socioeconomic lines or other equity-oriented criteria. But the latter option is fraught, and the former option basically brings us back to my first proposal.

In reality, many students already treat applications like a lottery. That’s what they mean when they say they want to “give it a shot,” figuring that their individual odds are roughly in line with colleges’ respective admission rates. They may think that the randomness of the selection process will be random in their favor. But that’s not how it works. For applicants who are exceptionally well qualified and/or who fulfill institutional priorities for talents or demographics, it’s somewhat random, but with maybe 50/50 odds or 3:1 odds. For everyone else, the odds of this “lottery” are nearly zero.

Conclusion

People, especially teenagers, don’t always make the right decisions. But institutions can and should. Especially the most venerable academic institutions in the world. These colleges could stop, or at least mute, this madness if they wanted to. But they don’t care. And they’re certainly not taking advice from me.

So, it’s up to students and their families to understand that they are dealing with an unforgiving system and to make decisions accordingly. Applicants have all the power in the world to approach the process on their own terms and for their own benefit.

I hope these proposals help applicants approach their applications and college choices more thoughtfully and critically. I would like them to think about the flaws in the system that I am implicitly and explicitly pointing out herein. And I encourage them to not simply accept those flaws, but rather to understand how the flaws will affect their chances and, in some cases, their well-being.

I urge applicants to consider questions like these:

  • If there were a two-tier system, would I make the cut? If I didn’t make the cut, would I be willing to write an extra essay to explain why I deserve to be considered?
  • How would I impress, charm, and assure an interviewer?
  • Am I comfortable with the social politics of equity and with schools’ institutional priorities? How do I fit into those priorities?
  • If an application fee cost a month’s allowance or a week’s pay at a summer job, would I be happy for my parents to pay it?
  • If and when I get rejected from my “dream school,” will I be just as excited about State U. or community college as I would have been about a U.S. News superstar?
  • Am I glad to live in an imperfect world full of subjectivity, unpredictability, and occasional disappointment as long as I know that I face many paths to a bright future?

Whether students choose to “go for” a fancy school or stay focused on and fired up about modest schools, I hope above all else that — even as colleges make their admissions processes ever more maddening — they will remain excited for what college holds in store.

Related Blogs

2020 Early College Application Numbers Defy Expectations

Today’s Applicants, Tomorrow’s Reputations

The Hidden Perils of Applying to ‘Reach’ Colleges

College Rejection Doesn’t Have to Mean Frustration

I’d like to thank colleagues Susan Goodkin, Victoria Gruenberg, and Sonja Montiel for reviewing and contributing to a few of the ideas in this blog.

Josh Stephens is a longtime educator based in Los Angeles. He has advised domestic and international students on college applications for over a decade. He blogs about college admissions and essay-writing on Medium and the Huffington Post. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English at Princeton University and his Master of Public Policy at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of the recently published book The Urban Mystique. He can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.

Photo of Yale University by m01229 courtesy of Flickr.

Josh Stephens is a veteran teacher and college counselor based in Los Angeles. Josh can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store