Unintended Impact

Changes in the college application process designed to help students may not do so, writes Nicholas Soodik.

February 3, 2020

We’ve all seen those feel-good viral videos of students opening their college admissions news. As much as I’d like to witness the celebrations of my students, I rarely get to see them receive their decisions. I do, however, watch them agonize over the applications themselves, and perhaps others should, too.

During this year’s application cycle, what has stood out to me is that a few of the more recent features designed to make the process easier -- more streamlined and student-centered -- have raised unintentional hurdles. A couple steps forward and one step back -- these changes improve parts of applying while introducing new challenges along the way.

Over the past couple of years, for example, an increasing number of colleges have begun to accept self-reported test scores from students. Doing so cuts down on the need for students to interact with and pay the College Board and the ACT, a change I certainly welcome. Applicants bypass the slow processing of submission requests and don’t have to rely on the carrier pigeons the College Board and the ACT currently use to transport scores to admissions offices.

These changes are all to the good, except that not every college accepts self-reported scores, and even among the institutions that do, there are a host of ways that colleges request that the scores get shared. Some simply require students to enter their scores into the application, the method I’d like to see all institutions adopt. Other colleges, however, want a screenshot of the applicant’s test score and may require it get sent from a counselor or school official, not the applicant herself. Not to be outdone, some colleges require the applicant to input her scores on a separate portal, distinct from the application itself. These differences compound and become more challenging when we remember that nearly 40 percent of college applicants send out seven or more applications. One student’s college list may have more than a half dozen different requirements when it comes to the test scores alone.

A similar story can be told about an applicant’s transcript. Last year, the Common Application added a new section inviting students to input their entire academic record, every final grade and course taken in high school. Previously, students using the Common Application depended on their high schools to send documentation of the applicant’s grades, and there was no grades section on the Common Application. Only a small handful of colleges required the new section at first, but this year the number has grown. In a similar fashion, a host of other institutions -- public universities that each receive many tens of thousands of applications -- ask that applicants report their academic record on a separate form, the Self-Reported Academic Record (SRAR), which is not affiliated with the Common Application.

Asking students to send or upload their own grades, in the abstract, is a good idea. It emerges, at least in part, out of a desire to give students more agency, to make their applications less reliant on high schools to send transcripts. The same, of course, goes for the move toward self-reported test scores, which also benefits applicants by saving them money. And yet, these two changes have introduced an administrative layer to the application process, and the sort of managerial vigilance required by the addition imposes a cost all its own.

Add, too, the litany of other administrative burdens that drag down the application process. Writing a personal statement, for example, takes a significant investment of time and opens up advantages for wealthy applicants who may have parents, tutors and essay coaches to help in its composition. Supplemental essay prompts require still more personal resources, and the most common prompt -- “Why Us?” -- leverages applicants with the means to visit campus and to use that experience in the essay. Even the sheer variety of due dates makes meeting deadlines an administrative maze.

I haven’t even touched on how the steps for receiving financial aid intensify the administrative burdens of applying. A bipartisan bill released last December promises to ease the financial aid application process. We should be hopeful, but given how recent beneficial changes to the college application process have also resulted in unintended complications, we have reason to be a bit skeptical at the same time.

Part of my job involves making sure students don’t miss any of the requirements while applying to college, but most college applicants don’t work with a counselor whose caseload is as small as mine. Administrative burdens in the application process heighten such inequities in K-12 schooling. I wish I were smarter about solutions, and I am grateful to have colleagues who are imagining them.

The longer I work in the admissions space, the more I think students would benefit from a uniform application process. There are too many distinct due dates, too many supplemental essay prompts, too many separate requirements for individual colleges. I know that a post-CEPP world means that colleges need to be careful about coordinating with other institutions, but a truly common application would lessen the administrative burdens on applicants and likely send more students to college.


Nicholas Soodik is associate director of college counseling at the Pingree School.


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