Ethical College Admissions: Tinker, Tailor, College Counselor

Jim Jump considers roles that counselors shouldn’t play, and lines they shouldn’t cross.

July 17, 2017

I have never shared John Le Carré’s obsession with tailors. The legendary writer of spy thrillers has two different novels with “Tailor” in the title, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Tailor of Panama. I, on the other hand, am in most areas of my life strictly an off-the-rack kind of guy.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have found myself thinking about the relationship between tailoring and college counseling. That started with reading the reverse freedom of information lawsuit filed by Princeton University that I wrote about in my last column.

In that suit Princeton argued against releasing information about Princeton’s internal admission policies and procedures because students and college counselors would use the information to “tailor” applications to fit Princeton’s admissions priorities and preferences. That, the university argued, would create unfairness in the admissions process, although Princeton seemed to be far more concerned that “tailoring” would place it at competitive disadvantage.

That was just the first of several unrelated incidents over a couple of days that raised the question of whether tailoring and college counseling are similar or entirely unrelated.

A parent advised her son at the end of a discussion about the potential benefits of applying early decision to his reach colleges that “you have to play games.”

A former colleague, now living in another part of the state, emailed asking advice about whether a friend should hire an outside consultant to help her son prepare his application materials and improve his chances of admission for a service academy.

My student correspondent from Vietnam, who previously contacted me about some of the shady practices used by agents to help clients “polish” and even fabricate applications, wrote wondering whether the State Department’s Education USA centers might help solve the unethical college counseling taking place in certain parts of the world.

Are tailors like college counselors? Both should be concerned with fit, and both suits and applications should make their subjects look good. But should college counselors help their students to “tailor” or “polish” applications?

Answering that question requires answering larger questions about the purpose of the college process and the essence of college counseling.

Is getting into college an end in itself or a by-product of a student’s journey of self-discovery and discernment? Is a college application about articulating who a student is and what they value? Or is it about figuring out what will impress an admissions committee?

Is college counseling about advising, about managing a student’s process or about packaging? When does customer service conflict with maintaining professional integrity?

None of those are either/or questions. The correct answers are either “It depends,” which has been posited as the answer to every question related to college admission, or the classic SAT multiple-choice answer “All of the above.”

Successful college counseling begins with a philosophy of education and an understanding of how the college process fits into a student’s intellectual and personal growth and development. Ideally one’s personal philosophy is shared institutionally.

I have always believed that the college search is a crucial developmental step for a young person, beginning the transition from adolescence to adulthood. For most students it represents the first time they can make decisions about their futures and what they want from their life, and how they choose is more important than where they end up. I also believe that how students embrace the search and application processes reveals a lot about their readiness for college.

My job as a college counselor is to serve as a trail guide and an asker of questions to help students and their families understand and navigate an admissions and financial aid landscape that is complex and confusing. I try to dispel the suburban legend that college counselors are like Hollywood agents, making deals with colleges for their students to be admitted. That reference always get laughs in parent meetings, but I’ve noticed that it’s nervous laughter.

That philosophy has sustained my work as a college counselor for 40 years, and I will go to my death believing that it is sound, but I must admit to moments wondering if it’s outdated, whether I’ve become a professional dinosaur. Today’s students are not as ready as I would like to make thoughtful decisions about their futures, partly because today’s parents are less likely to give them opportunities to be independent and think for themselves. More colleges have turned to business practices and gamesmanship in order to project prestige and quality through data points like admit rate and yield.

My attitude toward tailoring applications depends on how one defines “tailoring.” I don’t encourage students to practice gamesmanship, but I want them to understand how admissions practices like demonstrated interest and financial aid practices like leveraging and gapping work.

Like the folks at Princeton, I’m bothered by the idea of tailoring applications if tailoring means telling colleges what you think they want to hear. I’m in favor of tailoring that demonstrates substance and against tailoring that focuses on packaging, for tailoring that reveals rather than hides.

I also recognize that there is a market for college counseling that is about “tailoring” or “polishing” or “packaging.” The desire for, and the promise of, competitive advantage is just as powerful in some students and parents as the fear of competitive disadvantage is for places like Princeton. But is that inevitable, or is it because highly selective colleges don’t disavow the mythology that there are secret handshakes?

Like my friend in Vietnam, I hope that one day the information and educational approach by providers like Education USA will remove the need for agents who take advantage of students in certain parts of the world with promises of serving as admissions tailors. I also hope that movements like Turning the Tide will reform the admissions process, but fear that all that project will accomplish is a different kind of tailoring.

All of us in the profession, and particularly those on the college side, need to send a consistent message. Whether or not you get your wardrobe from a tailor, college admission should be off the rack.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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