Hall: When Will College Admissions Be Fixed?

The college application process is flawed and must be reformed.

by Christopher Hall | 3/8/22 4:05am

Ivy Day, the fateful moment on April 1 when thousands of students receive their admissions decisions from eight elite institutions, is less than a month away. As joyful as this day is for some, it also raises an important issue: The college admissions process in the United States is flawed and must change.

Today, with record-high applications and record low acceptance rates, each and every part of a student’s application comes under strict scrutiny. But some of the most heavily weighted parts — standardized test scores, essays and extracurriculars — are neither complete nor accurate representations of a student’s fit at a school. Rather, these metrics are often skewed based on students’ socioeconomic background. The wealthy have an advantage that gives them higher SAT scores. They can also hire tutors to help construct the perfect essay. And while the wealthy can afford to sign up for as many extracurricular activities as necessary, less privileged students may have to instead spend their time working to help pay for college.

While each piece of a college application is important, many are judged unfairly and inequitably. So, what’s the solution? To name a few, submitting test scores should be optional, the essay process should be overhauled, interviews should be more heavily weighted, extracurriculars and work experience should be judged equally and letters of recommendation should be from sources besides guidance counselors.

COVID-19 forced many colleges to temporarily go test-optional, which ended up being a step in the right direction. Now some schools are planning on not even considering scores in admissions decision-making. This is taking it too far, and colleges seem to believe that standardized testing is the only piece to fix in the application process. Dropping the tests could have unintended consequences on, again, the less fortunate. While SAT scores are the most notorious application aspect for being advantageous to the wealthy, other areas are also disproportionately affected by income. A Stanford study that compiled essays from 60,000 applicants showed that essay content is “strongly related to household income.” It states that “essays have a stronger correlation to household income than SAT scores.” So, dropping scores completely would simply place more emphasis on essay evaluation, ultimately giving more advantage to the wealthy. So that students who don’t score well can focus on other areas of their application, testing should remain optional for all colleges. 

The Common App, the platform most colleges use in their application process, includes a 650-word personal statement, an essay that is the same every application cycle. This should be eliminated. Colleges should rely on supplemental questions — which are tailored specifically to the school and application cycle —rather than the personal statement. Because students only know the questions once they open the application, they cannot write their responses so far in advance. An essay that is written over the span of 6-8 months, especially one that is written by a wealthy student with tutors and other help, can be reviewed by so many individuals that the student’s voice will ultimately be lost in the process. By dropping the personal essay, colleges can judge a student off of more genuine answers to questions asked directly by that school, making for a fairer process.

Interviews provide a glimpse into a student’s personality through conversation instead of text. They also require students to think on their feet, which can more accurately depict their level of qualification in the admissions process. Currently, most colleges offer interviews but usually do not have enough availability for all applicants to receive one. Colleges should make a stronger effort to ensure all students get an interview and eventually require them.

While extracurricular activities are an important part of a college application, many students do not have the ability to participate. Specifically, low-income students not only have fewer opportunities to choose from given where they may live, they also cannot afford to play sports or learn an instrument. Instead, they often work throughout the school year to help pay for college and even help pay bills. Colleges must take these factors into consideration when reviewing applications and weigh extracurriculars and jobs equally to make for a more equitable process. 

Finally, letters of recommendation should come from alternate sources. Guidance counselors, especially those from public schools, have too many students to be able to thoughtfully write about specific aspects of each applicant. Teachers often have the same problem. Applicants often feel pressured to get a letter of recommendation from teachers of core subjects like English and math. Instead, they should come from people who know the student best, regardless of their area of expertise. Whether it be a music teacher or a coach, colleges should take recommendations from anyone who can attest to a student’s best qualities. Dartmouth is one of only two schools in the nation that takes a peer recommendation. Dartmouth should begin to require this important piece, and all colleges should follow in its footsteps.

The college admissions process has many problems, and although the above suggestions do not offer a perfect solution, they could be a first step in improving the experience and making it more equitable for all students.

The application cycle for the Class of 2025 saw more qualified students than could be admitted, and the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal proved that institutions can be easily tricked into admitting unqualified students. Although it’s blatantly obvious that the entire college application process needs to be reformed, we have yet to see meaningful changes.

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