The New College Chaos

College admissions officers say they now have many, many more applications than they know how to handle—and, often, less reliable information to help them decide which students to admit

The pressure this situation creates for students is well known—even if, in the view of some officials, its damaging effects are still not fully appreciated. For instance, Robin Mamlet, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Stanford, says she is "deeply concerned about the level of stress on young people as a serious national health issue." Less well known are the corresponding effects on those receiving the new flow of applications: the college admissions staffs. Compared with their situation even five years ago, admissions officers have more work to do, often less time to do it, and—surprisingly—less data to rely on in making their decisions.

The traditional bases for admissions decisions at highly selective colleges are high school academic performance, SAT scores, recommendations, and then everything else, including students' essays. High school grades are still the most important factor, but top-end schools are rapidly abandoning official class ranking in their calculations. The complaint about ranking is that it exaggerates small differences among students, poisons the high school atmosphere, and implicitly penalizes students for being in excellent schools, with many strong colleagues, rather than in mediocre ones. (At the most selective colleges admissions officers are familiar with the high schools that have historically sent them strong applicants, and they know how to interpret a course list, even without a class rank.) All that is true; still, the elimination of ranking leaves colleges with one less piece of information.

SATs are simultaneously all-important and decreasingly important as distinguishing tools. The great "recentering" of SAT scores in the mid-1990s was designed to adjust the scoring curve to reflect the broadened share of American students taking the SAT, which had at first been given mainly to elite students. The recentering raised average scores significantly, especially on the verbal portion of the test. "Before, there were very few seven hundred-plus verbal scores," says Charles Deacon, the dean of admissions at Georgetown. "Afterwards there was a dramatic surge upward, and many more people saw themselves as competitive candidates for the top schools." Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, the admissions director at Harvard College, says that "the double 800"—a perfect score—"is not that great a distinction anymore." In each of the past few years Harvard has received more than 500 applications with double-800 scores, and has accepted just under half of them.

Colleges also have a harder time relying on recommendations from teachers and counselors, who are under increasing pressure to turn out more recommendations for more students. An admissions dean at one college reported getting identical recommendations from the same harried teachers for different students in the same high school class. Colleges don't always know whether to trust the students' own essays, because they are so easily polished by advisers or coaches, to say nothing of being simply copied in the first place. A Web search for "admissions essays" quickly illustrates the opportunity for students and the problem for colleges. Scores of companies will edit, revise, critique, or outright produce a student essay. "All of us worry about the degree to which an application has been scrubbed in the independent schools and the affluent publics," says Tom Parker, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Amherst. John Latting, the admissions director at Johns Hopkins, who previously worked at Caltech, says of applications that clearly seem to have been polished, "There is a growing sense of unease: Where does this come from? Whose voice is this?"

As the volume of applications has risen, the size of admissions staffs has increased modestly if at all. One admissions officer says his office is handling 75 percent more applications than it did ten years ago, with roughly the same number of staff members. Others report a variety of coping mechanisms: bringing in part-time volunteer "readers" from the faculty; practicing a more ruthless form of triage, in order to concentrate on applicants with a serious shot at getting in; reading more quickly; simply spending more hours on the job. Karen Cottrell, the dean of admissions at William and Mary, says that her staff has met the challenge by working "until two in the morning seven days a week" during the months of December, January, and February.

The colleges do their best, and under the circumstances they make wise decisions. But because those circumstances have become so odd (so many students to reject, so few quantifiable differences among applicants), the process has become fundamentally less predictable than it was in the recent past. One could make a good case for admitting the students in, say, Yale's freshman class of 1,300, but one could make just about as good a case for an entirely different set of students. "You feel things slipping between your fingers," John Latting says. "If it feels like a lottery that we're running, that's not very satisfying. We want to make good decisions based on sound evidence, but the nature of the evidence seems to be changing." He means the decreasing usefulness of SATs, class rank, essays, and recommendations. Commenting on the same changes, Daniel Saracino, the dean of admissions at Notre Dame, says simply, "With highly selective institutions there is no way to predict with confidence whether a student will get in."

Thus the chaos that many of our interviewees emphasize. It has short-term perverse effects, mainly in motivating students, since they're less certain of getting into any schools, to apply to even more, thereby worsening the problem for everyone. It is also connected to the No. 1 lament of high school counselors and college admissions officers: the neurotic intrusiveness of parents. "Pushy parents come with the territory," says a veteran counselor at an elite private school. But the clear message from the admissions establishment to parents is, Please back off.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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