Pet Peeves in College Admissions

Jim Jump offers some easy ways colleges could improve the admissions process.

November 21, 2022

In early November each year, I experience a college admissions form of post-traumatic stress. I am recovering—physically, mentally, spiritually—from the October slog of writing recommendations for the huge number of my students applying early with deadlines of either Oct. 15 or Nov. 1. I warn those around me—students, colleagues, family members—that I am likely to be grumpy, or, perhaps more accurately, grumpier than usual. T. S. Eliot described April as the “cruelest month.” He obviously never worked in a college counseling office.

I tell my students that all it takes is one thing added to one’s plate to become overwhelmed instead of simply whelmed. That’s true for us as well. Over the past week or so there have been three admission practices that have gotten me exercised, perhaps even overwhelmed. What the three pet peeves have in common is that they get in the way of a college admissions process that is rational and easy to navigate.

The first is received-by deadlines. There is nothing inherently wrong with having a received-by deadline, other than the fact that almost everyone else has a submit-by deadline. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” but having consistent definitions for what an admissions deadline means is anything but foolish. Students (and counselors) deserve consistency in admission requirements, and that includes deadlines. Colleges with received-by deadlines, if you want to stand out from the crowd, find a different way to do it. Or if received-by is necessary for some reason that none of us can fathom, make that case.

The second is the increasing trend on the part of a number of large public universities that require students to self-report grades, with a transcript required only after the student enrolls. While the college counseling dinosaur in me yearns nostalgically for the good old days when I (or, in the interest of truth, my administrative assistant) automatically sent a transcript, letter of recommendation and school profile with every application, I actually think that putting the onus on students to report their grades makes sense.

What I find objectionable is that there are too many different ways to self-report. Last year one of my students applied to four large public universities in the South that required applicants to self-report grades, and he had to self-report four different ways. One required submission of the Self-Reported Academic Record (SRAR), another required the grades to be reported on the Common Application itself, another wanted an unofficial transcript uploaded to its student portal and there was a fourth way I can’t remember.

The Common Application, and later the Coalition Application, were established to make it relatively easy for a student to apply to multiple colleges. Having multiple ways to self-report grades is at odds with that principle. Can we please find a common method for self-reporting grades? I’ve never been one to ask, “Why doesn’t NACAC do something about this?” but I’m tempted to make an exception in this case.

No. 1 on my current list of pet peeves (subject to change at any moment) is emails sent to students telling them that certain documents are missing from their applications. Like the other examples listed above, these serve a valuable purpose in theory. They help an applicant make sure that his or her application is not incomplete, which is a valuable thing to know. The problem is how and when these reminders are sent, and the lack of sensitivity attached to them.

The “We’re missing …” email is not received by students and parents as a helpful reminder, but as a cause for panic. The first, and natural, thought is “my stupid school counselor didn’t even bother to send my transcript.” That can certainly happen, especially in these days when a student can apply without counselors even knowing and when some students prefer to communicate telepathically. We are certainly capable of making mistakes during the hectic days leading up to Nov. 1.

What is annoying for counselors is when emails alleging that school materials are missing are sent when document platforms such as Naviance or SCOIR show the documents as not only having been sent but also received and uploaded by the college. My administrative assistant is wonderful about calling to check in the wake of the “We’re missing …” communications, and invariably the materials are there, either not yet logged in to student portals or in rare cases misfiled. I don’t blame colleges for either of those.

Related Stories

But sending those emails prematurely is another thing altogether, creating unnecessary stress and anxiety in students and parents, which creates unnecessary stress and anxiety in college counselors. Students and parents assume that when something is sent electronically, it is received instantaneously. They don’t understand what goes on behind the scenes in a college admissions office to process applications.

What is especially problematic is colleges that aren’t transparent about the fact that it may take several days to reconcile documents and show them as received. At one point it seemed like some institutions sent the “We’re missing …” email as an acknowledgment that the application had been received. Thankfully that practice seems to be disappearing.

Recently a university in the Midwest that will remain unnamed (but is the alma mater of Tom Brady, Gerald Ford, James Earl Jones and Madonna) caused a stir by sending notices of incomplete applications listing missing documents. What it failed to admit was that the admissions office was 10 to 12 days behind in processing documents submitted in the days immediately preceding Nov. 1. Is it ethical to send a “We are missing …” notice when you have no way of knowing whether the documents in question are actually missing?

The Scottish philosopher W. D. Ross (not to be confused with WD-40) said that ethical obligations arise out of relationships. In any given ethical dilemma, each relationship creates what Ross referred to as a prima facie (first glance) duty. For example, as a college counselor I have a relationship with my students, with my school, with my profession and with myself as an ethical individual. Each of those relationships creates an obligation or duty. Ross believed that we could determine our actual duty in a given case by identifying and weighing the various prima facie duties present in any situation.

Colleges are in relationship with their applicants, and also with feeder schools and the counselors who reside in them. Those relationships create ethical obligations. First and foremost among those obligations would seem to be not scaring the bejesus out of any of them.

That seems to be something we’re missing.

Share Article

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.

Read more by

Jim Jump

Back to Top