Forget Tweaking the College Application Because of Covid. It’s Time for a Total Overhaul.


Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu | Unsplash

Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu | Unsplash

The pandemic upended the college admissions process for students who graduated in the two most recent high school classes. SAT and ACT tests were canceled or severely curtailed and virtual tours and online information sessions replaced the usual road trips that prospective students and their families take to kick the tires on their college list.


As this year’s seniors get ready to file their college applications, they face even more hurdles. When the pandemic interrupted their education, they were only sophomores. They were just discovering the academic courses they might find interesting or joining a team or club with dreams of rising to a leadership role their senior year. As a result of COVID-19 restrictions, it will be difficult for them to fill in the fields for extracurricular activities on their applications or find teachers who know them well enough from Zoom to write recommendations.


But the truth is the pandemic’s effects on admissions will likely last a lot longer than the virus and certainly won’t end with the Class of 2022. What goes into a college application starts well before a student’s senior year—the courses they take (or don’t take) in ninth grade and the activities they begin in middle school. The remainder of this generation’s disrupted journey through K-12 will shape college applications for the next decade and beyond.


Almost since the coronavirus outbreak began, college admissions offices have adjusted application deadlines and evaluation processes to deal with the consequences of varying levels of remote education in high schools. But rather than continue to tweak how they evaluate applicants to fit the changes brought on by COVID-19, colleges need to remake the application itself to spotlight what really matters once students get to campus.

Research shows that two measures alone largely indicate whether teenagers will prosper in college: their high school courses and the grades earned in them. That’s why almost nothing carries more weight in admissions than those two elements, along with test scores when colleges require them. After that there’s a steep drop-off in the emphasis admissions offices give to other parts of the application such as counselor and teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities. Fewer than 25 percent of admissions officers said those factors are of “considerable importance,” according to a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Forty percent said they carry “moderate” weight. Even essays are considered of “considerable importance” by fewer than 25 percent of admissions officers.  


One reason is the unreliability of key elements of the application. “Activities are embellished, recommendations lack negative comments, and the standard now is multiple editors for essays,” said John Latting, Emory University’s admissions dean.


The admissions readers I watched the year I was researching my book on the selection process generally glanced at parts of the essays and recommendation letters and scanned the list of activities. That’s the only way they can wade through the rising pile of applications each year—some 160,000 at the University of California at Los Angeles alone—without adding more staff or days to the calendar.


Right now, most students apply to college through the Common Application. Each year, more than one million students applying to more than 900 colleges and universities submit the form. But the application has remained essentially the same since it was started in 1975 when students photocopied it and stuck the forms in the mail.


This month, the Common App rolled out some of the biggest changes ever to the form for the high school Class of 2022. Among them, a question that asked applicants to reveal whether they had been subject to disciplinary action in high school was eliminated. Officials said the question was a barrier for Black students considering college because they marked “yes” more than twice as often as white applicants and submitted applications at a lower rate. Also, questions related to parents’ occupation and education, which colleges used to get an early read on full payers and filter for legacy admissions, were made optional.


But many other changes are necessary to open the doors of college to the low-income students and lower the anxiety level of applicants who liken a college acceptance to winning the lottery. Given that colleges already say they put less weight on essays and recommendations, let’s make them more useful and less likely to be gamed.


Students at well-resourced schools often start working on their essay during English classes in their junior year or attend school-sponsored workshops. Some even hire professional coaches. Teenagers might write a dozen drafts or more in the months before they submit the essay, cutting and pasting to personalize the essay a bit for each application. Few college courses or jobs give anyone that much time to write just 650 words. If colleges want to understand how well students express themselves, ask instead for a piece of graded, original work in any form, whether that’s an essay, a poem, a script, or a video.


Recommendations, most from overwhelmed public school counselors, are generic letters that reflect the fact students may meet with them only once or twice a year. One analysis, looking at more than 17,000 recommendation letters from teachers, found that letters from private schools were longer and provided more useful information to admissions officers while letters from traditional public schools devoted most of their space to graduation requirements or information found elsewhere in the application. Because students spend most of their time outside the classroom, others who have observed them—coaches or managers at work, for instance—could provide more detailed recommendations, and in any form, such as a video clip.


For the application’s list of activities, colleges should provide fewer spaces for them—on average, applicants complete just 6 of the 10 spots anyway—and then ask students to write about their most meaningful commitment, so they don’t see activities as prizes they collect in high school.


One thing I found in observing admissions officers is how much a student’s high school matters in the ultimate decision—high schools are evaluated as much as students are. But often students are at a disadvantage. If the school isn’t known by admissions or is one they don’t get many applicants from, they turn to the school profile that accompanies transcripts and describes a high school’s offerings.


The school profile, one piece of the file that applicants rarely see or even know exists, is critical to their prospects because it gives a snapshot of their high school. It’s also another way that high schools vary widely. The profile is part information, part promotion.


In scanning dozens of these profiles, I found that some are slapped-together documents providing only the most basic information. But others—usually from private schools or top public schools where counselors know profile’s importance—are slick advertisement-like reports touting the excellence of their programs. If we want students to be evaluated for admission in the context of what is available to them in high school, these profiles must be standardized. All should include the same information, such as the range of grade-point averages in the senior class to provide context for an applicant’s grades and the distribution of courses taken by students in the school to better understand the rigor of an individual course load.


Jenny Rickard, the Common App’s president and CEO, said she considers the changes made this fall to the application only the beginning of what she calls a “revolution” of the application. But like
any membership organization, the Common App moves at the speed of its members. For top-ranked schools and big public flagships, the current application is largely working for them. The problem is it no longer works for the rest of us.

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