Why Is College Admissions Such a Mess?

In my twenty-five years of working as an independent college admissions counselor, I have never been so bombarded with requests for information and help. Students are having difficulty with many aspects of colleges admissions, including unclear college application directions; diverse, confusing admissions policies; and the lack of accessibility and customer service on the part of many admissions professionals in colleges and organizations such as College Board and ACT. Add to this their feeling of being pushed to do more and more and perform better and better. The result: many are reaching a point of physical and emotional exhaustion. Here are examples:

COLLEGE APPLICATIONS AND SUPPLEMENTS
Are you aware of how college applications are filled with difficult-to-follow directions and sometimes no instructions at all? How much time do you think it takes to figure out how many words and/or "characters with spaces" a particular essay will allow if the number is not specified in the question? It's ridiculous. And if an applicant has a question or problem with the Common Application, they are forced to go through an online process involving a) finding a category that fits their question, b) searching through pre-prepared answers and c) if none is found (which students say is the norm), writing a query to a "technical specialist," often waiting hours and hours before receiving an answer. Surely life as a high school senior would be less of a hassle if college applications contained all the information needed in specific sections in which questions appear. Also, wouldn't it be more effective if applicants could pick up a phone and call a real person to get an answer for their questions? That's not possible right now.

DIVERSE, CONFUSING ADMISSIONS POLICIES
Virtually every college has its own, individual application policies, but often it is difficult to find out what they are. Take Subject Tests. For some colleges none are required; for others one or two are required or "recommended;" and Georgetown University strongly recommends three. The difficulty comes when different departments within colleges have exceptions to their Subject Test rules. For example, the University of California's policy is NOT to require Subject Tests; but if a student wants to maximize his or her chances of admission to a hard-science major, they better know about and follow departmental Subject Test recommendations. E.g., if you want to get into UC Berkeley's College of Chemistry or College of Engineering, take Math Level 2 and a science Subject Test. UC Irvine, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara and UCLA have similar science Subject Test recommendations, while UC Davis, Merced and Santa Cruz have none at all. How do students find out about other colleges' policies? For the most part, it is buried somewhere in respective college websites. Right now, there is no single source where students can go to get general and major-specific Subject Test information.

MISLEADING ADVICE FROM SOME COLLEGES
How about this? During campus Information Sessions, students report that some of the more competitive colleges (with acceptance rates of 5, 6, 7 and 8 percent) tell them not to worry about having sky-high grades and test scores. "Our college takes an holistic approach to admissions," they say. What this means is that many good--but not outstanding--students then think there's a chance of being admitted to these schools and they apply, even though their less-than-spectacular grades, test scores and activities will probably get them cut early? Colleges know this advice is misleading. Could they be egging on barely or unqualified students to apply so they can increase their admissions numbers and, therefore, yield rates? On behalf of already overwhelmed seniors, I hope not.

LACK OF HELPFULNESS AND EMPATHY
I'm not done. Why have the testing agencies, College Board and ACT, become so difficult to deal with, sometimes downright ornery? Recently, a first generation student parent told me that his son had been "locked out of his account, just when he needed to print out his ticket for a Saturday test." They tried everything to find out how to get that ticket, but nothing worked; so the student didn't take the test and forfeited the fee. Another student complained that she never received her fall test scores and no one would tell her why or when they would come. The last I heard, she's still waiting. I also hear about mistakes on test transcripts, AND how impossible it is to get information and problems solved. Where did the customer service orientation of a few years back go? Just because clients are "kids" doesn't excuse testing companies from not being responsive or helpful to their clients.

ESPECIALLY DIFFICULT FOR LOW INCOME STUDENTS
If all of this is bad news for middle and upper class students, imagine the problems low income, first generation, minority students have with college admissions. These students rarely have anyone to help them go through the admissions process. Did you know that the counselor to student ratio in California public schools (especially in urban and rural areas) is 1 to 1000? There are similar outrageous rates in states throughout the US. Even more, most underserved students don't own computers, the very thing they need to apply to colleges online. For so many underserved students, school and/or community library computer access is very, very limited. And if a-low income student is lucky enough to have a computer, few of them have Wi-Fi access at home through which they can get to college applications. What do they do and where can they go? We all need to work together to make changes for these students.

COLLEGE ADMISSIONS IS TAKING ITS TOLL
This is all to say that so much of what is going on in college admissions today is a challenge, if not downright unhealthy for students and their families. As a mental health professional, I frequently observe signs of stress and anxiety. Even in my small, private practice, I see students who are sleep deprived, overworked and overwhelmed, some of which comes out as physical symptoms, eating disorders, cutting (purposely making scratches or cut on your body) and an overall lack of joy and fun. And the rat race is starting earlier and earlier. This year I have more panicked 8th grade parents calling me for help than I have had in all the other years combined.

SUPER-STUDENT SYNDROME
Before I began working in college admissions, I counseled women, lectured and wrote books on topics such as The Superwoman Syndrome. I did everything I could to talk women out of being superwomen; you know, "trying to have it all by doing it all." Today our country is filled with "supergirls" and "superboys," who suffer many of the same health and mental health consequences of superwomen; in their case, trying to do it all in order to get into the highest-ranking, most prestigious colleges they can. "Super-dom" wasn't good for women and it's clearly not good for students.

Like so many other things in life, it's useless to just complain about college admissions. Small or big, we've got to do something about it. A few years ago I helped put together Admit One, a college admissions program for underserved students sponsored by the San Diego Public Library system. Similar programs are beginning to emerge throughout the country. Bringing the college admissions mess to the attention of a wider audience is my next step. What's yours?