A Plea for Change in College Admissions

Who started it?:  “We expect applicants to take the most demanding schedule available to them?”  That is the source of the one of the most cruel, and truly unnecessary, abuses of our children .   These words send students, so many students, into depression and despair and hopelessness.  The words are meant for those elite students who can do it all.  The words have the greatest effect though, a truly pernicious one, on those who aspire to stay in the ball park for a ball that is likely to forever be out of reach.

 The biggest shame, and it should be embarrassment, is that so many colleges say this when meeting with students and it’s simply not true.  When I hear it, my ears perk up:  “NO YOU DON”T ,” I say to myself.  “I see who you admit and this is simply not true”.

 I’ve been in this business since 1981 and have seen a remarkable increase in the number of kids who are just falling apart, checking out, harming themselves and medicating themselves.  There are more suicide attempts, students cutting themselves, more hospitalizations, more cases of anorexia and bulimia, every year.  And there is every sign that this will continue to rise, unabated, into the foreseeable future.

 In an article in the 2013 Journal of College Admissions, How Much is Enough? Rethinking the Role of High School Courses in College Admission by Jen Kretchmar and Steve Farmer, they discuss the college admission’s role in this:

“Why have many universities adhered to the philosophy that “more is better” where strength of curriculum is concerned… Not because we’ve wanted to make life difficult for students, and not because we’ve intended to create another hoop for them to jump through, but because we have been operating in good faith on an assumption that most of us in the admission profession believed to be true: that taking more college-level courses in high school prepares students to do better once they get to college.”

 They found that students who took 5 college level courses (AP, IB, DE) had higher first year GPA’s than those who did not take any college level courses (At UNC-CH).  But from there, the benefit of a more demanding courseload diminishes to virtually zero.  As the authors put it:

 “…a student who takes no college-level courses during high school earns a 3.07 GPA in their first year of college at UNC–Chapel Hill, compared to a student who takes five and earns, on average, a 3.26. For a student who takes more than five college-level courses, however, the incremental gains in FYGPA are much smaller or even null. A student taking 10 college-level courses during high school, for example, earns on average the same FYGPA—a 3.25—as a student taking five college-level courses. In other words, the results suggest that our students need to take some college-level courses in high school to prepare themselves for UNC–Chapel Hill, but beyond a certain point, there isn’t an additional benefit in terms of grade point average.”

 Steve Farmer, one of the authors, is the vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He made a bold and righteous statement in response to the research:

 “We firmly believe that we must act on what we have learned to be true for our students; therefore, we will communicate to prospective students that we expect them to take at least five academic courses each year of high school, because that is what they will likely take in any single semester in college. In addition, we will encourage them to pursue at least five college-level courses—AP, IB or DE— throughout the entirety of their high school careers. “

 The mental health of our nations children is in serious decline.  There have been many causes, including over-involved parenting and social media.  But of all, the one that is the most unnecessary and most preventable, is best summed up by Pogo:

We have met the enemy and he is us

I don’t believe anything pernicious is going on.  There is a tiny, tiny number of colleges who can actually “expect applicants to take the most demanding schedule available to them.”  And many others who aspire to be elite repeat the phrase.  What could be the damage?  The damage is that students are collapsing on the treadmill trying to keep up.

 You, all of you, have a place in your institutions policies, and those with the most immediate impact sit on the college admissions side of the desk.   I implore our most selective colleges to carry out this study at your college.  If you get similar results, act on it.  Take the Farmer challenge (my term, not his) and post on your admissions requirements page:

 “We expect you to take at least five academic courses each year of high school, because that is what you will likely take in any single semester in college. In addition, we encourage you to pursue at least five college-level courses—AP, IB or DE— throughout the entirety of their high school careers. “

 And if your college does not expect this, be explicit about what you do expect.   It may not make an immediate impact, but if you truly believe it and act on it, it will.  Students will see that they will not need to take a physically and emotionally crushing schedule to be considered for the most selective colleges.

 This is not a suggestion; it is a moral imperative.  Asking your students to take more than you need in order to judge their chances for success is not just misguided; it is actively harming the health of our youth.  We have an opportunity to take thoughtful action where the object is not to get the most stressed and obsessed students, but students who challenge themselves enough while distinguishing themselves in some way.

 Or we can continue to push our students to their physical and emotional limits for no good reason than the fact that we can.  It is vital to your mission to accept the students who are the best fit for your institutions.  It is equally as vital to put as high an emphasis on the mental health of our students in our policies and actions.  To do other otherwise is abrogating our responsibility as educational professionals.


Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as swcollegeconsulting@gmail.com or 973-919-6798.

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