What I Wish College Admissions Officers Understood

Teens are overwhelmed by a process that’s more complicated than it needs to be.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

I’ve been a private college admissions coach for over three years, and an essay coach for even longer. Year after year, working with my clients—all high school seniors—I see the challenges and fears they face going through the college admissions process. Anyone living with a college applicant knows what I’m talking about. But applying to college doesn’t have to be so anxiety-inducing. Here is what I wish everyone on the other end realized.

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They’re just kids. Really. The majority of them are only 17 when they apply, not old enough to vote, drive after 9 or join the military without parental consent. Yet they’re expected to make life-changing decisions right now—big decisions, like picking a career path and figuring out whether to take on some serious debt. All of this scares them. Their fear is too often disguised as procrastination, fooling even their parents. The possibilities college offers—independence, new friends, the opportunity to study what you’re most interested in—are the same things that make most teens afraid to move on from high school. On top of that, they’re worried about impressing you, the college admissions team. Cut them some slack. They’re not as pampered as they’re portrayed.

Your supplemental essays are harder than they need to be. I understand you’re trying to get to know your applicants beyond their test scores and activities, but their personal statement and additional info essay tell you a lot. It’s fair for you to ask, “Why our college?” to find out if they know why they’re applying or are actually interested in your school. What I don’t understand is why you need three or more supplements, too many with word counts beyond 150, that sometimes leave the student, their parents and even me struggling to figure out what you’re asking.

More applications need to allow students to share insight into who they are via alternative forms of communication. You’ve seen their social media. You know they express themselves in ways other than words. Consider giving applicants the option of responding to one or two of those supplemental essay prompts using a platform like ZeeMee.

You tease the unqualified when you encourage them to apply. I know you’re trying to boost your application numbers in order to make your college look more selective, but the average teenager doesn’t. Too many think you’re telling them they have a good chance of getting in when you know they have slim to none. Rejection hurts, especially after you’ve raised their hopes. Please, just go after the students who meet your admissions standards. There are plenty of them out there.

There’s actually a cost to your application fee waiver. Some of you who play the game of enticing the unqualified go a step further and waive the application fee. Sure, the student saves money on your fee, but what about the additional ones required to have test scores sent to your college? The SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Test, AP and IB all have a fee for this service. In addition to the financial cost, there’s the time it takes for the student to fill out yet another application if you don’t use the CommonApp, or your supplement if you do. They’re already over applying. Please don’t encourage them.

They don’t have a lot of time. How can they when they’re spending their days taking a rigorous course load that’s bogging them down with homework, participating in extra-curricular activities, volunteering and maybe working a part-time job because you tell them they need all these things to gain an acceptance letter to your college? They’re looking for leadership opportunities, another of your criteria, when we all know not every kid is or can be a leader. They’re staying up late, heading to the media center instead of the cafeteria and using their study hall to complete your applications, including the essays. And because of all the hype about selectivity, they’re applying to more and more schools, repeating the application process over and over again. There are only so many hours in their already-overloaded days.

Be more upfront. Many of you are encouraging, reassuring and supportive. As one admissions director I used to work with said to me, “We’re in the business of accepting students, not denying them.” Share that message with today’s high school seniors. Also clarify whether you want to know about their struggles with ADHD, anxiety, depression or a learning disability. They’re not sure, and are actually afraid you’ll use it against them, no matter how hard they’ve worked to succeed. Just as important, more clearly post your admissions guidelines on your websites, including the ranges for GPA and SAT/ACT scores, and how many students have been accepted outside of those ranges. You’ll help them know whether it makes sense to apply.

Their world is already stressful enough, please find a way to make applying to college less so. You’ll make the whole admissions process easier—for everyone.

To learn more about how I can help you and your teenager navigate the college admissions process, check out my Services page

Share your thoughts on the admissions process in the comments section below.

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