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.
"While the parents are anxious to help, we want them to understand that the process belongs to the student," says Nanette Tarbouni, the admissions director at the newly hot Washington University. "I'll get a call from a parent saying, 'I'm working on my daughter's application ...'" Robin Mamlet, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Stanford, says, "Noisy parents and students have always been there, but they are especially active this year." Saracino says, "Parents will call up and say, 'We're applying ...' I'd like them to repeat after me: 'We are not applying; my child is applying.'"
The uncertainty of today's admissions climate is connected to the other big theme that ran through our interviews: the increasing marketization of the process. Some aspects of this effect have been widely publicized—for instance, the rise of costly admissions counselors, especially in New York, who charge tens of thousands of dollars to advise students on where and how to apply. The most notorious of these is Katherine Cohen, of IvyWise, in Manhattan, who was profiled at length in New York magazine. She offers a "platinum package" for students that lasts two years and costs $32,995. Colleges themselves have turned to enrollment-management firms for advice on how to attract the students they want. The best known of these is called Noel-Levitz. Its Web site is almost beyond parody, with consultant-speak applied to the business of recruiting, admitting, and retaining students. For instance, the company's consultants can provide "Institutional Image and Competitive Positioning Analysis™"—a "complete enrollment research package [that] offers comprehensive decision data for image enhancement and strategic market positioning." The site continues, "The analysis prepares your institution to compete effectively in its marketplace and to distinguish itself from institutions vying for the same student populations."
But some other aspects of the marketization of admissions have received less public notice than our interviewees think they deserve. These are the related phenomena of waiting-list management, "expressed interest" measures, and "merit aid."
The problem all these tools are designed to solve is a college's surprising lack of control over the makeup of its entering class. To students, a college seems to be in complete control. But once the acceptance letters go out, the balance of power changes. The same uncertainty that plagues students affects colleges when it comes to "yield." Even the most selective colleges know that at most just over half of those they admit will end up enrolling. A college that has learned to expect a 50 percent yield therefore sends out 2,000 acceptances to muster a freshman class of 1,000. But the college can't know exactly how many will accept. Worse, it can't know which ones. In putting together its admittee list it took great pains to strike a balance—men and women, athletes and musicians, black and white, rich and poor. But the vagaries of yield mean that it can end up with a class quite different from what it had in mind. Nearly all the black students might accept—or nearly none. It might have three first-trombone players for the band—and no chemistry students. It might find that a large number of students who need financial aid have accepted—and only a few who can pay their own way.
Thus the colleges look for buffers and safeguards to give them some control. The waiting list is a crucial tool. Students and parents may think of the waiting list as something like a queue in a bakery, or the standby list for an airline flight—that is, a predictable system for determining who comes ahead of whom. The reality of waiting lists is different. The main surprise is that they are huge. Very selective colleges may put hundreds of applicants on the list and ultimately admit only ten or twenty. Harvard is a dramatic case: in recent years it has put significantly more people on its waiting list than it has accepted in its springtime admissions cycle. Harvard typically accepts about 1,000 applicants in the fall under its nonbinding "early-action" program, and another 1,000 in the spring in the "regular" cycle. According to informed accounts, in the spring Harvard also places as many as 1,500 students on the waiting list, of whom it ultimately admits very few—typically a handful, and in some years none. Marlyn McGrath-Lewis, the Harvard undergraduate-admissions drector, declined comment on such reports, but she said that the list contains "several hundred" members. Williams is more representative of elite schools. Last spring it sent acceptance letters to 936 students, on top of the 193 it had accepted under its binding early-decision plan, and it put 700 to 800 more on the waiting list.