Lessons in Cynicism and Sales

Applicants to top colleges view the process as unfair, mysterious and discouraging, new study finds.
September 24, 2007

"I wanted to take a Shakespeare course my sophomore year but instead had to take a required PSAT prep course. I hated that."

That quote, from a high school student, sums up themes of research being released today by the Education Conservancy, which is promoting the reform of the college admissions process. Eight focus groups of high school seniors conducted in February found that the admissions process appears to leave students cynical, baffled and frustrated. They believe that they and colleges are trying to sell themselves (in many cases by being less than truthful), that the admissions process favors the wealthy and the savvy and may punish the intellectually curious, and that they are forced to make undesirable choices in high school in the hopes of impressing a college admissions officer.

Those findings come from focus groups -- each one with 12 high school seniors involved in the competitive admissions process. Students were selected from public and private high schools in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, with a focus on producing focus groups with gender and socioeconomic diversity.

Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, acknowledged that focus groups are imperfect research tools, and said that his hope is to use these findings to build a larger research project. Thacker's group -- which has been in the forefront of the push against U.S. News & World Report rankings, standardized tests, and other practices -- is also trying to build a research arm, of which the focus group reports are the first major effort.

Even within the limitations of focus groups, Thacker said that there were numerous instances of themes coming up again and again, even though students were generally asked open-ended, non-specific questions. He noted, for example, that the questions didn't even refer to standardized tests, yet they were a constant subject of discussion.

Among the findings from the focus groups:

  • Students dislike "disingenuous" college recruiting, college fairs and "generic" marketing materials. Students said that most colleges "sound alike."
  • Students dislike being encouraged to apply to a college even when they have no chance of admission. They believe colleges are after their money (application fees) and statistics (getting more students to reject).
  • Students would like to take more courses that interest them in high school, but feel that they may lose out if they take courses on which they can't earn top grades. Students enroll in multiple AP or SAT-prep courses for the sole reason of impressing admissions officers, sacrificing courses or extracurricular activities they want to pursue.
  • Students believe that they must fill out every line of the admissions form about extracurricular activities and so feel the need to pad their lists.
  • Students perceive that the admissions system favors wealthier students and those who attend private schools.
  • The widespread us of SAT coaching services makes many students feel that the SAT is not a fair measure and, as a result, not to feel any shame at seeking every possible edge in taking the test. Students talk openly about how the SAT is a test on which to use strategy to get a good score, and of the importance of learning that strategy (as opposed to real learning). Students use the term "equal opportunity cheating" to talk about the way they think of the test's importance.
  • Private school students were less critical of dishonesty and cheating in the application process than were public school students, believing that it is just part of the game.

The focus groups also revealed that students do care about the prestige of the college they will attend, and view it as having a significant impact on their ability to get a better job and to have more success in life. And despite all the cynicism uncovered in the students' perception of the admissions system the focus groups also found that students reported that the application process helped them become better at planning and time management, and helped students learn about themselves on their goals.

The study found that "for some," the admissions process also "was a lesson in humility, learning that they were not as unique as they had thought they were."

While Thacker said that his initial goal in releasing the research findings is to attract interest for a larger study, he thinks that there are clear conclusions from the findings. "I think colleges need to look at their applications and evaluate whether the signals they are sending are contributing to behaviors that are not educationally desirable," Thacker said.

For example, are they asking about extracurricular activities in ways that encourage lists as opposed to genuine engagement? Are they describing grades in ways that make anyone fear applying without a 4.0? Are they stating that just about everyone has a chance of getting in, when they in fact never admit anyone without certain qualifications? Are they placing so much emphasis on the SAT that more students are likely to abandon courses are activities they love for SAT-prep?

If colleges did ask those questions, he said, they would find the need for "significant change," although the nature of change might vary from campus to campus.

The best thing colleges could do, he said, was to think for themselves and be honest. "They are paying consultants thousands and thousands of dollars," he said, adding that the research suggests that all the commercial strategies offered by the consultants aren't fooling anyone, and that colleges would do better to "believe in themselves, and think about whether what they are doing is consistent with what you should be doing."

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