Many of us can recall the days when students applied to one, or perhaps two or three colleges, got accepted to their first choice school, and were done. Today, when over eleven million readers across the nation eagerly await the annual August issue of US News and World Report on college rankings, those days seem far behind us and college admission seems unduly stressful. There are many reasons why this is so. First, thanks to the Baby Boomer generation, there are more high school graduates, and more of these students plan to attend college. Projections indicate these numbers will remain high until at least 2022. In addition, the demand for higher education has risen steadily, translating into greater numbers of applicants. For many, a college degree is viewed as the path to economic security, and labor studies confirm a strong correlation between earnings and employees' educational attainment. The recent economic downturn added more pressure by driving unemployed persons back to college..
Colleges have responded to increased demand by aggressively reaching out to prospective applicants. Each year colleges escalate marketing efforts to attract large and diverse pools of qualified applicants. Broad student recruitment and direct outreach continue to grow in popularity both nationally and abroad. Schools send students multiple communications, attractive guidebooks, early application fee waivers and invitations to attend regional college conferences and visit campuses for specially arranged tours. And technology makes it easier than ever to access college websites, take virtual tours and prepare college applications. The Common Application, a standardized form that can be completed once and submitted electronically, has simplified the process; it is currently used by 414 colleges nationwide. This figure is up from 350 member colleges in 2009. The Common Application set a new single day record on December 31, 2010 when students submitted 127,175 applications. By January 15th 2.1 million applications had been already submitted; this figure surpassed the total volume for the enter 2009-2010 admission cycle with many weeks still remaining for students to file applications to colleges with later admission deadlines.
Clearly, more students are applying to more schools than ever before. Yet this is only part of the reasons for the increased stress. Digging a bit deeper, we see that the sources of anxiety afflicting many families are fairly limited in scope. Admission stress is most felt by students who apply to the 50 most prestigious US colleges. More students are competing for the same number of freshmen spots at these institutions. Unfortunately, heightened media attention on this small subset of institutions makes it appear more difficult to gain entry to colleges and universities everywhere. The overall impact on students and parents can be nerve-racking. The pressure mounts to take more challenging coursework, register for increasingly earlier test prep, and hire professional consultants to help students "get into" to the "right" college. College admissions has become big business, and students are the consumers. Education begins to be treated as a commodity rather than a public good. Certainly, the psychological well-being of our students can be compromised in such a stressful environment.
Here are a few simple guidelines that can help students reclaim the college admissions process.
• Control what you can control. With all the hype, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it is you, the student, who should be highly selective in the college she chooses. It is the student who must research and select colleges that meet her interests, needs and academic goals.
• Plan ahead and start early. Involve yourself in activities that are exciting to you. Colleges admit students who take grades seriously, challenge themselves and demonstrate consistent involvement in a couple of activities they are passionate about.
• Taking charge also means taking an honest look at areas for improvement and focusing on these during the high school years. Being a senior is far more fun and rewarding if you prepare the groundwork by doing what needs to be done in the first three years.
• No matter when you get started, the secret to staying in control of the process is applying broadly to colleges that are a good match for you. It is helpful to remember that a good, often a great education can be had at more than 2500 colleges nationwide, and most of these institutions accept 50% to 80% of their applicants. Having an 'only one college will do' attitude is a recipe for disappointment and more stress.
Students should remember that building good organization and planning skills provides benefits during the admissions process and beyond. Students that learn these skills in high school are happier and more successful in their freshman year than students who do not fully engage in college admissions. Remember, it is the student who is going to college, not the parent, teacher or guidance counselor. Take charge of the process, put things in perspective and try to relax a bit along the way--it will be more fun and your outcomes are likely to be better as well.
Elizabeth LaScala, Ph.D. is an educational consultant and certified college admission advisor. Her goal is to help freshman applicants as well as transfer students and their families understand the admissions process, research college and career options, create a balanced college list and submit strong and cohesive applications. She is familiar with local high schools and has guided three daughters through the college admissions process in addition to more than 300 clients. Dr. LaScala is an active member of NACAC, WACAC, and HECA and earned a certification in College Admissions and Career Planning from University of California at Berkeley. Contact her at (925) 891-4491 or firstname.lastname@example.org.