For What It’s Worth… Musings on College Admissions 2023

“There’s something happening here… 

But what it is ain’t exactly clear.”

If you heard the distinctive, haunting tremolo of Buffalo Springfield’s opening chords as you read these words, you might think that I am reminiscing about the 60s. Not quite. I’m an 80s kid.

I am instead referring to the recent period of accelerated change in college admissions. As with many cultural shifts that emerged from COVID, the college admissions landscape is rapidly evolving to… well, whatever comes next.

The process that got us into the state we are in is called cultural habituation.  I can still remember how I learned the concept, sitting in Mary Pipher’s audience as she discussed Reviving Ophelia with an opera house full of earnest adolescent girls and their allies. If you throw a frog into a pot of hot water, it will immediately jump out. But if you very gradually turn up the heat, the frog will remain in the water until it is poached. Gradual, subtly imperceptible changes can–in combination–result in seismic shifts.

Which is what has happened since 1986 when–armed with my parent’s typewriter, a super-sized bottle of Wite-Out, and nearly across-the-board demographic privilege (that I would only recognize and unpack as an undergrad), I cast my fortunes to the winds and sent four inexpertly typed applications to two reach, one realistic, and one likely school. Without completing a Math beyond Algebra II (much to my delight, my small high school scheduled Advanced Math and Spanish IV simultaneously and there was no way back then to do both) or a single AP/IB/EC course, I was accepted into all four. I started at one of the reaches but it was a mismatch, transferred to the likely (my state’s flagship) after a semester, and continued on to grad school to obtain the degree necessary to do what I wanted to do.  Looking back, it seems so simple. And I don’t think it’s me misremembering.

While the unsuspecting public went about its business in the intervening years, the college admissions process became a gauntlet worthy of a post-apocalyptic hellscape. This was not by accident.  I have learned over the years that anyone that has anything to do with colleges does not do anything without intention. At some point, some individual or team decided to use technological advances to track every interaction (down to the mouse click) in which a prospective student engages. There was a meeting at which upper management at US News and World Report decided to get into the college ranking game.  There was a retreat at which a new way to identify talented students was envisioned by a nascent College Board.  If any one of these things existed in isolation, we might not be where we are today.  But, thrown all together in the same pot, the US admissions process has become a toxic morass that chews up and spits out “regective” college aspirants with impunity. The “rules” to the selective college admissions game are well articulated by Jeffrey Selingo in “Who Gets in and Why.” The odds, it seems, favor whomever a college’s enrollment management folks most value in any given year. I hear my childhood self complaining (as I often did to my Mom), “That’s not fair!” “Life’s not fair,” was her standard retort. No it absolutely is not.

When COVID hit and institutions had no choice but to endlessly pivot to manage the worldwide pandemic, previously sacrosanct elements of the process changed in ways once seemed unfathomable. It started with the SAT. The SAT will be administered electronically moving forward. If the College Board had anticipated the need and made this change in time for COVID, we could very well be in a different situation.  But the CB did not see into the future, and they were not ready for a raging pandemic that made it impossible for students to gather for a group administered standardized test.  So colleges went test optional. Just a few at first, then in waves as it became apparent that there was just no viable alternative. Then something amazing happened. Colleges realized that they preferred it.  I attended a webinar of three Boston area Directors of Admissions after the first season with newly optional test scores and they used the word “liberated” to describe how it felt to be able to make decisions about students without being tied to test scores. They talked about the shift to holistic admissions, what that consists of, and the end result: a thoughtfully selected student body that represents the ideals of each institution, the people that they want contributing to their campus culture irrespective of their performance filling in bubbles with #2 pencils. They drew attention to the influx of underrepresented groups, particularly Indigenous students (Tufts welcomed so many that they elected to create a new Center for Indigenous Students) that were previously scared off by the testing requirement but, in its absence, decided to take their shot. And made it.

Although some schools have returned to requiring the SAT/ACT–perhaps most prominently MIT–they too cite equity concerns as the underlying justification.  Keeping the SAT as a part of their process enables MIT to identify students who have no other way to irrefutably demonstrate their collegiate readiness. Although it seems counterintuitive to reinstate an element of the process that is widely acknowledged to be racially biased and inaccessible to already underserved kids, this practice apparently allows MIT to identify the diamonds in the rough languishing in impoverished high schools and to get them onto campus.

But these schools are now anomalies, outliers.  The Common Application, a frequent access point for college applications, recently reported that only 4% of its member schools require standardized test scores, a precipitous drop from pre-pandemic levels. Perhaps most important, longstanding believers that the SAT is an essential cog in the wheels of college admissions are finally starting to believe that it is no longer what it once was. Honestly, parents have been harder to convince. Kids are pumped to have a conversation about optional SATs and almost universally relieved to learn that they don’t have to stress about it. But for Gen X parents who grew up with the SATs as an essential building block of the admissions process, it’s about as hard to let go of as Saturday morning cartoons. Yes, Gen Xers-it’s OK. Your kids don’t have to submit scores. If they did reasonably well on the PSATs there’s no harm in taking the SAT; scores may be good enough to yield some merit aid or help a student gain admission. But the days of mandatory, all-or-nothing, stomach churning maelstrom of high stakes testing are no longer a thing; if they take the test they can do so dispassionately.

The recent announcement that two prestigious colleges–Columbia and William and Mary–have gone permanently test optional may be a bellwether for the future, calling into question the continued viability of the SAT/ACT. I’m curious to see who goes next.

But that’s not the only pillar of the college admissions process that is on shaky ground. So too is the US News and World Report ranking system under threat.  It started when Harvard Law issued a statement that it would no longer participate with the enormously influential rankings. But this was Harvard. Law. They could do just about whatever they pleased and still have thousands more applications than available spots.  Harvard Med School followed, but again Harvard is Harvard and will never want for applications. A sizable number of Med Schools and Law Schools followed, but it was Colorado College that became the first undergraduate institution to take that step. Others will surely follow. A good measure of the rationale for cooperating with US News was fear-based. Sort of like a bad mobster movie in which all the neighborhood shops pay for “protection” until one of them stands up to the bully and the others feel emboldened to do the same. Colorado College’s audacity to break from the stranglehold paves the way for other colleges to defy the rankings as well. It will be interesting to see who goes next. BREAKING

These two massive changes join the existing anti-legacy movement underway in higher education.

As these Titans fall, the inevitable question of “What do we do instead?” is no doubt playing on your mind. No standardized test scores? No rankings? No legacies? What will we do without these? We are absolutely in uncharted territory here, so there is a certain amount of experienced conjecture–but here are my suggestions for parents of college bound students.

  1. Acknowledge your anachronistic perspective.  Be open to learning what you don’t know. Chances are better than average that what you think you know is no longer a thing. Your student REALLY doesn’t need a printer; that is in the dot matrix past. But they may be able to bring their emotional support animal or room with a person of the opposite sex. We are in the unusual position in which first generation parents may actually have a leg up on parents that had their own college experience because it is so different now. Parents with a collegiate past need to forget and relearn way more than first gen parents have to assimilate. Now is the time for humility, not hubris. Be curious, don’t assume anything, and ask lots of questions.
  2. Follow your guide. School Counselors are paying attention to all of these changes and are adjusting accordingly.  The information that we are receiving daily is akin to drinking from a firehose, so there is a lot to process, but counselors are sorting through everything and relearning what they need to know. If you are fortunate to attend a school with reasonable counselor:student ratios, you should be all set with your assigned school counselor.  Reach out to them and ask to have a conversation so that you can identify what has changed since back in the day. If your student’s counselor has unwieldy numbers, you may want to consider the services of an Independent Educational Consultant.
  3. Find the niche rankings for particular characteristics that are important to your student. Campus Pride helps 2SLGBTQIA+ students find rainbow friendly campuses.  Speaking of Niche… There are lists of vegan/gluten free colleges, colleges friendly for students with disabilities, Do a Google search for colleges where you can legit play with LEGO. And the old stand-by Colleges That Change Lives is still as relevant as when it was first published, although—as Ron DeSantis’ hostile makeover of New College amply demonstrates—you need to #knowthestatewhereyoumatricuate and pay attention to what is happening in states that are actively seeking to dismantle higher education diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives (Texas, Virginia).
  1. Get to know the Common Data Set. Think of the hardest school that you know to get into, then Google “school name” and “common data set.” What should appear is a bunch of statistics. You can read all that if you want, but you could also skip ahead to C7, where—what to your wondering eyes should appear—a roadmap for what the institution prioritizes in the college application process. It plainly shows what value each school places on the myriad elements that aspiring scholars need to demonstrate in their applications. They literally tell you exactly what is the most important to them. All you need do is apply this knowledge.
  2. Remember what, and who, college is for. An untoward outcome of the toxicity of the American college process for parents is FONI-Fear Of No Ivy. Where kids get in and where they go drives a lot of parental behaviors–what you talk about at cocktail parties, the sticker that you put on your back car window, what you post on Facebook. You’ve spent your kid’s whole life managing the tenuous balance of connection-independence. Now is NOT the time to slip up and make it about you. In fact, your kids need your help keeping it about them. Help them drown out the voices of others that think they should have a say in their choices.
  3. Look north! While Americans created a system that is overly complex, labyrinthine, and cutthroat, our kinder neighbors to the north have kept it simple, the way it used to be here.  You send in your application. And your transcript. And maybe a letter of recommendation. That’s it.  No strategizing about the sequencing of EDI and ED II, EA I or EA II, RCEA, etc. No meticulously scrutinized admission percentages. No need to deliberately curate your image or engage in activities just because it looks good to colleges. Canadian Universities say to give them a couple of weeks to decide, but in reality that’s in case someone has the flu or is on vacation.  If everyone is in the office, they can turn around your decision in a day. There are a lot of great reasons to study in Canada. And you can just avoid the mess that we’ve made of admissions.

I’m a hopeful person. Maybe, just maybe, the shifts we are seeing are a sign that the pendulum is about to swing the other way, back toward sanity, back toward humanity, and back towards those self evident truths on which our nation was founded.

Author Piet Lammert is a 25-year veteran public High School Counselor who loves helping kids navigate the college process so much that he became an Independent Educational Consultant as a side hustle to do it more, DiriGo College Consulting. For more about intersection of School Counseling and Educational (College) consulting, check out this College Spy podcast.