Admissions Dysfunction

Mitchell Lipton, a dean, recalls three scenes that illustrate how something terribly wrong has happened to the system.

January 18, 2008

Something has gone terribly wrong in the world of admissions over the past decade. More students are over-stressed, and it’s not helping anyone. Parents are over-stressed as well. Whether they think it’s their responsibility to fill out their child’s application for college or to rewrite the essay, they’re doing a grave disservice to our next generation by not allowing students to face life’s challenges, even if it means feeling pain and disappointment. These children will be our next leaders. All leaders must fail at times to be able to grow and learn from their experiences.

As dean of admissions and records for a highly selective college in New York City, I’ve spent long hours recruiting students (and their parents). Over the past decade, I’ve seen a change in the climate and discussion regarding admissions, particularly between parents, students and college admissions officers. The following passages are drawn from experiences working in admissions over the last six months.


It’s a typical humid September evening in New York City. The air-conditioning in the convention center isn’t working and neither are the three bottles of Poland Spring I’ve gulped down in between visitors. As the college fair begins to wind down after five long hours, I begin to pack up my supplies and, as often happens when folks see that you’re about to leave, I get approached by a mother and her son. Mom is smiling yet seems to have something behind the grin. Son is politely standing at her side, barely making eye contact, looking at the rainbow of college banners displayed in my aisle.

Mom: “We’d like to apply to your college. What SAT scores do we need, what do we include in our portfolio and when do we set up an interview?”

My thoughts:“If I could just remove the 'we' from her sentences…."

My comments: “Generally, there are a handful of things we look for. First, a strong selection of courses taken in high school with grades in the A- to A range. Then, SAT scores in the 1300-1400 range and well-thought out answers to questions that provide us with insight into the applicant. We also consider the applicant’s involvement with extracurricular activities and recommend two or three reference letters from teachers who know your son personally.”

Mom: “Fine. When do we interview.”

My comments (directing them to her son): “What do you want to study in college?”

Mom: “He wants…

My comments (politely interrupting the mom): “I’d like to hear from your son if possible. I haven’t had the opportunity to discuss anything with him.”

Mom gives me a glance that would scare a Hell’s Angel. I’m sure she’s thinking, “Who is this guy to tell me who he wants to speak with? He probably hasn’t had kids yet and he should realize that we probably know our own kids better than they know themselves!”

Son: “Well...“ (pauses as if to think of a way around the question and nervously answers) ... I'd ... I’d ... like to study English or maybe history.” (He looks at his mom with trepidation.)

My comments: “I see. You’re looking for a liberal arts degree? If so, are you aware that our school only offers degree programs in architecture, fine arts and engineering?”

Mom:starts right back in… “Yes. But my husband and I think he’d be a great engineer. He’s a terrific math and science student and in fact, his grandfather worked on World War II fighter airplanes.”

My comments: “Engineering, though grounded in math and science, involves a lot more. In addition, one really needs to be interested in studying engineering, not just proficient in math and science. Other colleges will also tell you that they seek out individuals who are passionately interested in the programs they offer. In my experience, if the student is forced to study at our school, there is a much greater chance that the student will be unhappy and look to transfer.”

Mom:Realizes she’s not convincing me that her son should apply to an engineering school, takes the arm of her seventeen-year-old and abruptly remarks, “Let’s go.”

Son: “Sorry about this, sir. Turns around quickly so as to whisper quietly. “They’ve been on my case about this for over a year.”

My comments: “I hope that you find the right fit.”

Ever since I’ve worked in admissions, and more so after becoming a dean, I’ve become a poor man’s celebrity. You won’t see me on the home pages of or but if it’s an admissions-related question, friends and family come out of the woodwork. First question: “Hey Mitch, how are the kids? Second question: “Oh ... by the way …. do you know anyone at NYU?” There used to be a few more questions in between the first and the second as an attempt to conceal the intent of the conversation. Now, folks cut right to the chase.

It’s yet another muggy September day in New York City, the kind of day that has you begging for air conditioning and the fall season that awaits. I’m walking back to my office with a faculty member whom I respect greatly. He asks me if I could answer couple of admissions questions on behalf of his nephew.

Professor: “My nephew attends a highly regarded public high school in an affluent suburb of Los Angeles. My sister and nephew have asked me to inquire if Harvard accepts students from public high schools.”

Me: “They absolutely admit students from all types of high schools -- public, independent, parochial. Though I don’t work for Harvard, it’s my hunch that the applicant’s high school record, standardized test scores, and involvement with extracurricular activities are the most important aspects in determining admission.”

Professor: “I thought so but wanted to make sure. You see, my sister is so worried. She’s concerned that if my nephew doesn’t get into Harvard, he’ll just, well ... not be as successful as those that did.”

Me: “Wow. First of all, the definition of success can vary (and should!) from person to person. Second, that’s just not true, whether one defines success in terms of wealth, power, fame, spiritual fulfillment, or satisfaction with job.”

Professor: “I’m just saying that folks from Harvard command a certain amount of attention when they enter a room. They also tend to have lots of political and business connections.”
Me: “Sure. Harvard is a wonderful place to study. Students who graduate from Harvard have an extensive network of alumni, faculty and friends to turn to for advice and support. But so do folks from a host of other places. I’m still a firm believer that passion and hard work can determine a person’s level of success.”
Professor: “I understand your point. Based on what he’s intending to study, I’m not even sure if he’s set on a specific college yet anyway. I guess he needs to do some more homework.”
Me: “Now we’re getting somewhere. What’s most important to me, and most of my colleagues in this profession, is ensuring that kids finds the place or places that fit their needs. There are many colleges that can meet the academic and social needs of a student, But no one benefits when the student and the college have a bad relationship. Just like a bad divorce, it ends up costing money, time, and lots of sleepless nights.”
Professor: “Thanks. So do you know anyone at Harvard?”
Me: “You almost got me.”

Though I’d rather be outside exploring the streets of New York City, I decide to read an application recommended to me from a guidance counselor. The counselor works at a high school where 96 percent of the graduates attend college, and over 90 percent attend four-year colleges. Most seniors have at least two or three AP courses in their program. Many of them have been “encouraged” to think about college as early as the 9th grade.

The academics of the applicant look fine -- a 96 percent high school average, challenging courses. Very strong SAT I and II scores. Reference letters fine. Essays well-written, even a bit witty. Activity Sheet: oh my, oh my... For grades 10-12, 37 clubs and activities listed. Thirty-seven. Most people don’t have enough time for 37 activities in a lifetime, let alone a few years during high school. Even if the student is being honest, how much time can he devote to each of the 37? Regardless, should any student be involved with 37 of anything? Are students feeling that pressured into spending countless hours running a club or volunteering at the local hospital or reading children’s books on Sunday mornings to preschoolers?

I’m all for volunteerism and in-school activity. But not if it means completely sacrificing mental and physical health. We want balanced students to arrive at our campuses each fall to become involved with a few activities, maybe even leading one or two. I can assure you that no one on my side of the desk expects any student to join thirty-seven clubs. We hope you find some time to even enjoy your last year of high school before setting foot in our classrooms.

The cycle that we’re all in is not only hard to stop, it’s probably impossible at the moment. For the foreseeable future, more students will continue to apply to more colleges each year. This will only make it harder to predict which schools they have a reasonable chance of getting into.

In turn, colleges will seek out ways to split hairs, trying to differentiate between groups of stellar students, and in the process only adding to the existing frenzy. More kids will feel the pressure to pad their resumes and take more challenging courses and join more clubs, mainly for the sake of gaining “that admissions advantage.” Feeling like they’re falling behind, other kids will try to catch up to their high-achieving, ambitious peers, only making the cycle more vicious. Where does it end? How can we breathe?

If I could leave one message with the students and parents involved with the college application process it would be to keep in the back of their minds at all times that things will work out, even if the student drops one activity or takes one less advanced course. We’ve all recognized at different points in life that balance is an important aspect and contributing force to mental and physical well-being. We need to instill this important concept in our children.

There are still over 3,000 colleges to choose from and certainly at least a dozen or so away from home that would a proper fit for the student. The college admissions process should be viewed as a learning experience for everyone, one in which with enough homework, patience and perspective, the end product might actually be a happier and healthier family.


Mitchell Lipton is dean of admissions and records and registrar at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, where he has worked in various enrollment positions for 11 years. Prior to joining Cooper Union, he worked at New York University and the Partnership for the Homeless.


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