College Admission: This Is Not A Race

Everyone take a deep breath. If you are a college-bound high school senior, it is probably hard to ignore the fact that August has arrived. First, stores began their premature back-to-school sales push. Then on August 1, the Coalition for College and software platform Scoir launched their new streamlined approach to applying to college. On the same day, the Common App released the 2022-2023 version of its college admission application, which is now used by over 1,000 different institutions throughout the country and the world.

Social media is buzzing with posts about applications being open and colleges are peppering email inboxes with invitations to apply. Meanwhile, some applicants are being urged to apply to rolling admission schools as soon as possible just to get the “win” and to know they have an acceptance under their belt. As a school counselor and the father of teenagers, I can feel the collective blood pressure rising. College admission is not a race, but if it were it’s better conceived as a marathon and not a sprint. Perhaps it is even better framed as a long walk requiring an occasional jog. But if you pace yourself it can be an enjoyable and meaningful journey. Just remember to breathe deeply.

Access and Anxiety

There is a perpetual tension in college admission between outreach to students who might not think a college education is for them and others who are fixated on “getting in” to the most selective school possible. Underrepresented, first-generation, and low-income students disproportionately face barriers to applying and attending college. Often they lack access to the same counseling resources as their wealthier peers, understandably leading to uncertainty and anxiety. Colleges are eager to reach and support these students in the admission process but this push for awareness can have the unintended consequence of stoking the flames of anxiety writ large. When paired with the very intentional motivation of some colleges to drive up application numbers, hysteria ensues.

Chasing Volume

Application platforms exist to facilitate the admission process, and they face their own tension of wanting to simplify the experience and support students, while also being responsive to the agendas and priorities of the institutions they serve. The ease of applying to college has made these platforms vehicles of both access and excess. This has fed a vicious cycle of uncertainty and “application addiction” where colleges seek more students in their admission pool and students apply to more colleges. This cycle makes enrollment harder to predict and so all constituents in this scrum respond with a flawed “more is better” philosophy.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Believe it or not, the educators and professionals who bring you these applications also want you to pause, be intentional, and breathe. Though they want students to utilize their tools, they want this to happen responsibly, with a balanced approach, and with an individually appropriate timeline. Stacey Kostell, the executive director of the Coalition for College explains, “Wherever students are in their admissions journey, we want them to know that help is available, and they don’t need to go through it alone. Applying and enrolling is the end goal, but Coalition schools work together to engage students along the way, answer their questions, and help them begin to feel more comfortable with the process. Connecting with us at events this fall, or even watching recordings of our past sessions, can be a great first step toward applying.” Gerry McCrory, Scoir founder and CEO, agrees. He says, “When students are getting ready to apply to college, our goal is to reduce as much of the stress and anxiety as possible so they can focus on what matters most: discovering colleges that best fit their academic, social, and financial needs. That’s why we have worked so hard with our partners to enable a student-centric process.”

Scott Anderson is the senior director of outreach and education at the Common App and a former school counselor. He says, “Every August 1 we celebrate a new year and a new opportunity for students to pursue their college dreams. While we are so excited for students who are ready to take this next step on their journey, it’s important to emphasize that it’s ONLY August 1.” He reinforces that, “applying to college is not a race, even though it may feel like one. Just like each college has its own deadline, each student has their own timeline. Take the time you need to be thoughtful and seek the resources and support you need to help you find a college where you will thrive. Remember: your ultimate decision is just that – yours! He adds, “Common App is ready for you whenever you’re ready for us.”

The Early Win

I appreciate the idea behind students applying proactively to colleges and the confidence that comes from an acceptance. As a counselor, I have witnessed the weight that is lifted from a young person’s shoulders when they realize that college is obtainable and that they have options. However, unless an applicant has a genuine interest in possibly attending a given college, it simply contributes to application inflation. If a college on your list that seems like a good match has rolling admission, by all means, apply when you feel best prepared, but don’t succumb to the “land grab” mentality of applying to schools because it is free and “why not get a win?”

Tune Out the Noise

College admission is plagued by information overload and often media coverage perpetuates the narrative that it is a game. Click-bait headlines contribute to the frenzy, obsession with a small group of selective colleges, and worst of all the notion that one must be exceptional and flawless to gain admission. Take, for example, a recent Wall Street Journal article about “absurd” college essay prompts. The author writes, “Back-to-school season is approaching, and for many rising high school seniors, so is the grinding process of applying to college. Most college applications—including the Common Application and the Coalition for College—opened on Monday. A key part of the frothing madness of college-admissions season: crafting the perfect essay.”

Not helpful, and neither is the condemnation of unique essay prompts that encourage students to reflect in unconventional ways. While there are potential equity issues with applications that require more work and nuance, there is also a method to the “madness” that the article propagates. During a webinar last week, an independent educational consultant regretfully relayed the story of one of her clients who has seventy (yes, you read that right–70) essays to write for their college applications. That indicates a college list that is excessive and likely lacking in intention. Don’t get caught up in the mania or suggestion that you must be perfect. Angel Pérez is the CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and a former admission dean at several colleges. He advises, “Bring your authentic self to the application, and don’t try to become someone you are not. Besides, if a college is going to ‘deny’ you for who you are, you wouldn’t want to attend that school. So don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Just be yourself, tell your own unique story, and you’ll end up at the school that is perfectly meant for you.”

Take Time For Thanks

Speaking of essays, one school is hoping to encourage students to pause and reflect in important ways with their supplement this year. The University of Pennsylvania added a short-answer prompt asking students to “Write a brief thank-you note to someone you have not yet thanked and would like to acknowledge.” Whitney Soule, vice provost and dean of admissions explains, “We thought carefully about the impact of adding another prompt (and we shortened the word length of other prompts to minimize that impact).” She adds, “It might be impossible to eliminate anxiety from the application process, but it’s essential that we ground the process with emphasis on the experience of individual students who apply. Most applications invite students to organize and describe their achievements and aspirations. So, in a way, we accidentally force them to be very self-centered at the same time that we are evaluating them academically and as members of the community.”

Soule says, “As admissions leaders, we have a responsibility to make sure that every detail we ask students to provide has value in our review. And, we have a responsibility to consider the impact of what we ask and how we ask it. Could any applicant, regardless of resources and support, answer the question? What might it feel like to prepare a response? How will we prepare readers to include the response in a holistic review?” When asked why gratitude, she responds, “We know that the act of expressing gratitude is more powerful than describing it, so we hope that answering the prompt, actually writing a thank-you note, will feel good for students when they do it. For those of us reading the application, we’ll appreciate learning a small bit of context for how the student experiences the impact of others.”

Don’t Go Fast

Perhaps you’ve heard the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” This has great relevance to the college admission experience. While it is certainly a personal process it needn’t be done in solitude. As noted, there is–and will be–plenty of encouragement for you to go fast, but resist the knee-jerk response to rushing your application and accompanying materials. It is important to first identify your team, those who will support you along the journey. For some this will be family members, counselors, teachers, or coaches and others will lean on friends, employers, pastors, or different mentors. Work with these individuals to establish an application timeline for the next few months that makes sense for your unique circumstances. Communicate openly and often and own the experience but ask for help when you need it. There is time but don’t wait until the last minute. Remember, pace yourself, breathe, and together you will go far.


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