Ethical College Admissions: Admission Coaching

Jim Jump considers issues raised by a new trend.

August 13, 2018
 
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I long ago came to grips with the fact that neither my thinking nor my tastes are cutting-edge or mainstream. Neither of the two major political parties represent my views, with one being too liberal and the other too conservative. I frequently remind my wife upon watching a movie or television show we find incomprehensible or just plain stupid that “perhaps we are not the target demographic.”

I worry that I may be becoming part of the lunatic fringe professionally as well. Last week several folks shared with my office an article with some examples of “winning” college essays. My office colleague found the essays perfectly fine but far from compelling, full of the evocative language and descriptive details loved by high school English teachers but short on insight into how the writer thinks or what he or she values. I concurred and posed the question, “Has it occurred to you that we might be the outliers?”

I had the same moment of anguish when I read a recent New York Times article entitled “Considering College? Maybe You Should Invest in a Coach.” The article, written by a freelancer for the newspaper’s quarterly “Learning” section, states that “getting into college is much more daunting than it was 10 or 20 years ago” and that a growing number of students are hiring college-prep coaches to help them navigate a process that is “fiercely competitive and time-consuming.”

The Times article raises a number of important questions. Is it responsible journalism, “fake news” or an infomercial for an industry trying to profit from college admissions-related anxiety? Is college-prep coaching a new paradigm filling a gap in the help and advice currently available to prospective college applicants? Have we in the college counseling and admission profession created a process that is flawed or even insane?

As already stated, the argument for hiring a college prep coach is based on the premise that getting into college is much more difficult than it used to be. But is that actually the case? Getting into certain colleges is clearly more difficult, but getting into college isn’t. That premise may offer insight into the target market for the college-prep coaching industry, but it also offers insight into one of the flaws in media coverage of college admission, focusing only on hyperselective name colleges and universities.

The article lists four factors making admission to college more difficult:

  • The increase in international students coming to the U.S. for college.
  • Greater access to information about colleges for students from all economic and geographic backgrounds.
  • More early-decision “opportunities."
  • Increase in “need-blind” admission.

Of the four factors, only two seem to me to contribute to making admission more difficult. Many American colleges and universities now recruit internationally. A number of institutions are taking a higher percentage of their classes early, meaning that students need to make decisions earlier and that applying early may be strategic if they hope to be competitive for admission at certain institutions.

But the other two factors? It is hard to imagine how greater access to information about college is a bad thing. It is news to me that there is an increase in need-blind admission. Even institutions that would love to be need blind philosophically find it hard to do so, and as a result I see an increase in need-aware or “need-squint” admission, at least on the margins. The only students for whom either of those factors would be problematic would be students counting on privilege as a strategic advantage -- exactly the target demographic for the college-prep coaching industry.

Do students need a coach to navigate the college admissions process? It has been said that the answer to every college admissions question is “It depends,” and that is probably true in this case as well. It depends on what you believe the purposes of the college search and admissions processes are.

If you believe that college admission is all about getting in, and especially getting in at a certain type of school, then the admissions process is about curating a résumé and packaging yourself in a way that will impress admissions officers. If that’s the game, then maybe you want a coach.

I have always believed that the real value of the college search is not in the destination, where you end up, but in the journey, how you get there. The college search is ultimately about discernment, about learning who you are and what you care about.

I also believe that the application process measures readiness for the college experience itself. The very same qualities required for success in college -- maturity, independence, organization, persistence and self-awareness -- are necessary in applying.

I believe both of those with all my being, but I certainly have moments when I wonder if I’m living in college counseling Camelot or its suburb, La-La Land. But if my view of college counseling is outdated (which I’m not conceding), is it because the college process has changed or because kids have changed?

Several years ago the title of a Wall Street Journal article (subscription required) by the psychologist Alison Gopnik posed the intriguing question “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?” The hypothesis was that today children hit puberty earlier but adulthood later. The first is biological while the second may be related either to brain development in adolescents or the fact that we no longer allow kids to learn to make decisions through practice, trial and error. In protecting our kids from failure, are we harming their ability to grow into college students and adults capable of managing their own lives and dealing with life’s ups and downs?

The college search should be a crucial step in a young person’s transition from adolescence to young adulthood. Unfortunately I don’t think we have given enough attention to its developmental importance. The "Turning the Tide" report dealt with a symptom but didn’t address the deeper issue.

I don’t see the college-prep coach model as helping. As described in the article, coaches are transactional rather than relational, focused on result rather than process.

One coach cited in the article helped a client arrange for an “internship” with a nutritionist and then develop a nutritional program for her fellow dancers in order to have a compelling essay for her college application. It apparently worked, because the girl is now a student at Penn. But how much of the application reflected the student? Did the coach help the student find her inner passion or create the illusion of passion? To be fair, the best-intentioned college counselors can struggle with that dilemma, but is it even a dilemma when a coach is hired and well compensated?

The related issue is whether college admissions offices can tell the difference between an application that is genuine and one that is the product of coaching. And do they care? Is admission about substance or about packaging, and are “internships” like the one above impressive or red flags? Does silence from the admission offices at prestigious colleges encourage gamesmanship?

If the Capitol Steps ever decide to abandon satirizing politics and turn to college admission instead, they might start with these rewritten lyrics from John Fogerty:

Get me in, coach
I’m ready to pay, today
Look at me, I can be
Ivy League

Bio

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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