Ethical College Admissions: Applicants’ Remorse

There are many reasons for the affliction, writes Jim Jump.

January 6, 2020
 
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We have come to the official end of the holiday season that includes Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. The time for airing of grievances to celebrate Festivus has passed. Today is the proverbial 12th day of Christmas, although Christmas as commercial celebration should be measured in weeks rather than days. I’ve asked my true love to hold off on the 12 drummers drumming this year so I can return the lords a-leaping and clean up the mess left by the geese a-laying.

I treasured having a couple of weeks away from the office, even though I did at least a little bit of work almost every day. I particularly needed a break after a fall that seemed more crowded and hectic than any I remember. I have been more disciplined and organized this fall than ever before, but nevertheless constantly felt on the precipice of being overwhelmed rather than merely whelmed. I have talked to numerous colleagues who expressed similar sentiments, and I wonder if that is the “new normal.”

For many of us the end of the holidays and the return to routine is therapeutic, a chance to recover. Preparing for the holiday season is not exactly relaxing, and spending time with family provides both joys and challenges.

There is also a disconnect between anticipation and reality. Christmas morning rarely lives up to the promise of Christmas Eve. The humorist Robert Benchley wrote an essay about Christmas afternoon in which he described a family covered with “ennui” as thick and overpowering as the lava and ash that covered the residents of Pompeii. As anyone knows who has had to put away the must-have toys that two days later are already out of favor, if there were such a thing as post-Christmas carols, the Peggy Lee song “Is That All There Is?” might easily belong in the canon.

I wonder if there is a similar disconnect between anticipation and reality in the college admissions process. For many seniors, December brings early decision and early action presents for those who have been good and figurative lumps of coal for those not good enough. They are subjected to a mix of emotions before the holidays even arrive -- joy, relief, disappointment.

Just before the start of the holiday break, a senior stopped in to report college decisions. He has had a good fall, admitted to most of the places he has applied, including a couple that were iffy, and his top three choices. He was happy but also perplexed. “Why is it that as soon as I’m accepted to a college I’m less interested in it?” he asked.

I reassured him that he’s far from alone in that. He’s experiencing the college admissions equivalent of buyer’s remorse, the letdown that follows once you own something that you were dying to have. It resembles the Christmas afternoon ennui described by Benchley. Call it applicants’ remorse. After all the anticipation and anxiety associated with applying to college, the acceptance letter may be a temporary high. Fortunately applicants’ remorse is also usually a temporary condition.

So what are the causes of applicants’ remorse and what does it tell us about the process of applying to college?

One of the causes is the falling in love myth, the widely held belief that every student will have an experience where the clouds part, the sun shines and it becomes clear that they have found the perfect college. To borrow terminology that’s particularly fitting on this day, they have an epiphany.

That myth (or the term I prefer, suburban legend) is pervasive but dangerous. There are certainly students who have that experience, but there are far more who don’t, and I have conversations every spring with students who think something is wrong with them because they haven’t fallen in love with a college. I tell them that those who don’t fall in love but have to think through and weigh the pros and cons of their various options make better, more thoughtful college choices.

A second cause is the acceleration of the application process. Over the course of my career I have seen the application timeline change dramatically. When I first started, Feb. 1 was still a major application deadline for a number of selective public universities. Today those same places have a Dec. 1 deadline. The fall used to consist of a wave of application deadlines every two weeks over a three-month period from Oct. 15 to Jan. 15, and now most of that is compressed into the month of October (I am fully aware that not all colleges and students follow that application calendar).

I have no doubt that earlier deadlines benefit colleges, but I am skeptical of the benefits for most students. In my experience, students are forced to make important decisions about their futures before they are developmentally ready to think about who they are and what they want and need from the college experience.

A related factor is the tendency to see admission to college as an end rather than a means, a goal in itself rather than a step in a longer and more important journey. That belief leads students to see high school as over the minute they have been admitted to college, thereby derailing the senior year as a time for academic, intellectual and socio-emotional growth and preparation for the college experience.

The best explanation for applicants’ remorse comes from Marxist theory, with the Marx in this case being Groucho rather than Karl. Groucho Marx is famous for having said that he would never want to be a member of a club that would have someone like him as a member. For the college admissions world, that belief is poignant and perhaps even foundational. It is the philosophical underpinning for selectivity. Why do colleges and universities seek to increase application numbers when they are already hyperselective? Because they hope that being a club that is impossible to attain makes them more desirable.

Applicants’ remorse is the antithesis of the argument for selectivity and the real-world example that reveals that Groucho Marx’s statement is not just a joke. Being admitted to the club or college or university may in its own bizarre way lead the successful applicant to question whether an institution willing to admit someone like him or her is as good as they assumed when applying.

Applicants’ remorse has all kinds of implications in college admission. It explains why colleges find that the power dynamic changes in the relationship between institution and applicant once a student is admitted. It explains why colleges have to spend more time on yield activities and why retention begins as soon as a student deposits, something that will only increase with the changes to ethical rules forced by the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s settlement with the Department of Justice. And it explains why students and parents turn their sights to more selective colleges the minute they are admitted to schools that they should be thrilled to have as options.

As we move out of the holiday season and into the new year, I am reminded once again of the words of Tiny Tim (the Dickens character, not the ukulele-playing novelty singer). “May God bless us, every one.”

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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