Why You See the Same (Problematic) Admissions Story Every Year

… and why many think it gives future applicants the wrong ideas.

April 9, 2018
 
Image of headlines about Micheal Brown's acceptance to 20 colleges

Micheal Brown is this year's pick by mainstream journalists as the high school student whose college-admissions success deserves attention. He was admitted to 20 competitive colleges and won full rides from all of them. The colleges included all eight Ivy League institutions.

The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, People, Inc. and many other publications featured his success.

Every year, journalists pick up on students who apply to many top colleges and get into them all. Consider this article about a student who "went 14 for 14" in getting into top colleges. Journalists in particular like the "admitted to every Ivy" story line, as you can see here and here and here. The articles appear reliably every year, such that admissions experts like Jim Jump, author of the "Ethical College Admissions" columns here on "Admissions Insider," predicted a week ago that we were about to see another round of them.

None of the articles question the logic of applying to all the Ivies, given how different are such places as Dartmouth College (rural with liberal arts college style) and Columbia University (urban research university).

Some of the articles explicitly link the success of these students (all clearly exceptional) with the strategy of applying to many institutions. The articles cite the low admission rates of top colleges and the need to have many options. For example, Inc. tells students (and likely their parents) to "take a lot of shots" because "you miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take."

Many college counselors are pleased when the articles highlight -- as many of them do -- the academic success of low-income students. And experts on higher education too say many academically talented, low-income students apply to only one or two colleges when they should cast a wider net.

But most experts say these articles' advice (explicit or implicit) is wrong. Students shouldn't be applying to a dozen or many more colleges, they say, but should be making focused lists, with good options that include "reach" institutions and fallbacks. When everyone interested in attending an elite college starts applying to 20 of them (sometimes pushed to do so by parents who read these articles), their actions add to the stress of all involved -- and pretty much guarantee that admit rates will go down as applications per college go up.

The articles also create a false impression on how many colleges students actually apply to. Only about a third of students at four-year colleges applied to seven or more institutions, although about 80 percent applied to at least three.

So why do journalists continue to promote the idea that it's a good thing to apply to many more colleges than is the norm? Why do some parents push students to apply to greater and greater numbers of colleges? And what can counselors do about the trend?

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he worries about the trend -- as do many NACAC members. "I think the best advice counselors give to families to work against this tendency is to focus on quality rather than quantity in the application process," he said. "This usually comes after counselors advise families to focus on the best fit college for their student." A focus on quality of application and fit can help to "inoculate against the tendency to go crazy."

And if a more practical argument is needed, he noted that many colleges these days focus on "demonstrated interest" -- whether they believe an applicant is serious about enrolling. And demonstrating that interest can be difficult if one is applying to too many colleges.

As to why the "apply to every top college you can" approach seems to gain favor with some, Hawkins cited several reasons.

First, he said that the Common Application has made it easier for people to apply to many more colleges than they might have in the past, so "because they can" is part of the answer. But there are more things at play, he said.

Hawkins said, "On more occasions than I can count, I’ve heard from NACAC members that many families and students and even some counselors view college admission as a ‘skins game,’ where the object is not only get into a top college, but to collect as many as you can."

And Hawkins said press coverage contributes to the trend. "I think media coverage to this effect is not much different from media coverage of an athlete who wins five gold medals at the Olympics, in that we seem to have a collective fascination with someone who can run the table, to mix metaphors."

Further, Hawkins said, these articles reflect a false narrative prevalent in news coverage of admissions. Most admissions coverage focuses on elite institutions and the difficulty of getting in, even though most colleges are not competitive in admissions, and high school seniors who want to go to college in fact have many options -- however unlikely it may be that they are going to get into Harvard University.

Don Hossler, senior scholar at the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice at the Rossier School of Education of the University of Southern California, said he thinks some high schools may be contributing to the idea. He is hearing of more high schools that assign students to write and seek information from five to 10 colleges. The idea there is to look at options, not to apply everywhere, but Hossler said this may carry over into application strategies.

And he said that the articles about the low admission rates make people fearful. "I sometimes only half in jest say that sometimes readers can pick up the Times, The Wall Street Journal, etc., and it will sound like almost no student is being admitted to any of the colleges of their choice."

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