As the father of a high school senior who suffered this spring through the angst of waiting for college acceptance notices at a time when some top schools reject more than 90 percent of applicants, I have a simple suggestion to reduce some of the craziness.
Place two limits on college applications: Students should be allowed to submit no more than 10 through the Common Application and no more than four to the eight Ivy League universities.
The Common App, which was created 35 years ago with the sensible goal of streamlining the college admissions process, currently limits students to 20 applications. But that’s too many. The ease of applying — and the fear of rejection — makes students submit to increasingly more schools.
The root of the problem, of course, is the various college ranking systems, which credit schools for their selectivity. That encourages schools to seek ways to boost the number of applications they receive. Our mailbox was flooded with college brochures just weeks after our then-sophomore son took the PSAT.
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Washington University in St. Louis, for example, even shamelessly promotes the fact that, unlike most selective colleges, it requires no supplemental essays beyond the basic Common App. You just click a box and, presto, your application is submitted (for a $75 fee, of course).
The net result is that colleges are being overwhelmed with applications by highly qualified students — and turning most of them down.
Lee Coffin, undergraduate admissions dean at Tufts University, wrote in a blog post last month that 74 percent of Tufts’s nearly 20,000 applicants were deemed qualified for admission — and that 42 percent were recommended for acceptance. But in the end the university could only accept a record-low 16 percent, making it nearly as competitive as Cornell University, an Ivy school. Five years ago, Tufts accepted 26 percent of applicants.
In response, students and their parents are engaged in a Great National Freak-out. The online forums of the College Confidential website are filled with anger at a system that has spun out of control. “This process is insane,” wrote one parent on March 24. “I’m Harvard ‘84, and my son is so much more accomplished and smart than I was in high school. But he’s getting rejected from places like Cornell and Northwestern, and wait-listed at Chicago (which had a 40 percent admit rate back in the day).”
Even more painful were the posts of parents whose children were rejected by every single college they applied to.
Limits on the number of applications would be the first step to restoring some sanity.
Take, for example, the eight Ivy League universities. I went to Brown University as an undergraduate and Columbia University as a graduate student, and I have visited all but one of the others. They are all high-caliber universities, but they have very different strengths and cultures; they just happen to be in the same football league. Students who want to go to Dartmouth should have little reason to apply to Brown, and vice versa, unless they simply are trying to buy a brand name.
A limit of four Ivy League applications would force students to make choices and understand the differences among the schools. Congratulations to the handful of students who got accepted to all eight this year, but they can go only to one school. Because they applied to so many schools, other well-qualified candidates had to cope with rejection notices.
The Ivies could accomplish this change by having each student certify that he or she is applying to no more than three other Ivies — just as students who apply for an early decision promise to attend the school if selected.
Meanwhile, the Common App could do its part by reducing its maximum number of applications from 20 to 10. Doing so would open opportunities for many students because it would shrink the competition to the students who truly want to attend those colleges, rather than including people who willy-nilly check a box.
My wife and I worked closely with our son, who attends Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, to identify the colleges that best met his needs and talents. He applied to just eight and, happily, got into five of his top six choices. But we were on the edge of our seats for weeks, as things could have easily gone the other way. That’s because getting into college has largely become a lottery.
Attending the right college should not be a game of chance. Limiting the number of applications would improve the odds for everyone.
Glenn Kessler writes the Fact Checker column for The Post.
© 2015, The Washington Post