I received a promotional e-mail from a New York City writer recently. In the solicitation, he boasts of having written screenplays for major television networks and film studios as well as articles for well-known publications. You might ask, "What would a screenwriter and journalist be selling to a high school guidance director?" It turns out that he provides a service to college-bound seniors. For around $500, he will provide guidance to a student on how to "craft" the best college essay. The sales pitch reminded me of an advertisement I read in my local newspaper that went something like this: "Did your guidance counselor go to an Ivy League school? Then why do you think they can help you get into an Ivy League school?" The advertisement provided only the woman's educational pedigrees (from Ivy League schools), her name, phone number, and her title: college counselor.
A Burgeoning Industry
A burgeoning industry is developing around the college admissions process. It is not uncommon for students, especially in affluent communities, to have a team of "experts" helping with exam preparation, essay coaching, admissions counseling, interview preparation and application processing. I can understand why the demand for these services has been skyrocketing. The process has become overly complicated and burdensome. A review of the various application types will make your head spin: regular decision, early decision, early decision II, early action, restrictive early action, rolling admissions, priority admissions, VIP applications and so on. So what's the problem with all of this?
First, seniors benefit significantly from managing the application process themselves by working with their teachers, counselors and parents. There are many things a student will have to navigate in college, and the experience provides an excellent springboard in organization, goal setting and time management skills.
Second, this industry is yet another obstacle for lower-income students, who do not attend or graduate from college at the same rate as those who are middle income and above. These students already struggle with obstacles such as lack of quality education in primary and secondary schools, demands of work and family, high tuition costs and ineffective initiatives by colleges to increase the representation of lower income students. Meanwhile, higher income students are benefiting from the professional admissions industry. They receive higher test scores, submit more polished essays, apply to more schools, demonstrate more interest in colleges, and present better in interviews.
Middle-income families can also be burdened by the industry, feeling compelled to employ these services in order to compete. Ultimately, I find no culpability in either the parents or students who employ these services, or even the providers.It is simple economics. The admissions process promotes competition around the application—creating both demand and supply. I am not so naive as to think that the process should be devoid of competition. But the application should be a reflection of the individual and not an inflated, exaggerated document designed to give someone the "edge."
So what is the answer? I have some ideas.
- Colleges should place less emphasis on the SAT and ACT . A student's four-year academic record should provide more than enough information to make a responsible admissions decision.
- The application essay should be a graded high school essay, with teacher comments and contact information. Instead of asking, "Why do you want to attend College X?" applicants should be asked to describe their community and their school so that colleges can have greater insight into the students' experiences.
- The application process should be made easier to manage, and do away with "demonstrated interest" as a variable in the admissions process. Some students just can't visit campus.
- Colleges should do away with early decision, a binding agreement that a student must make before learning of a financial aid or merit award. Students who struggle financially are not in a position to make this commitment in October of their senior year. DA College Admissions Becomes An Industry The process has become so competitive that some students are hiring teams of experts, tipping the scale even further away from lower-income students.
Christopher Griffin is the director of guidance for the Katonah-Lewisboro (N.Y.) School District.