Center of Inquiry
Liberal Arts Online
This month's article, "College Admission: A Statement of Concern," is written by David Denman, a seasoned educational consultant or independent counselor. No doubt you're familiar with high school guidance counselors, who are responsible for helping students with testing dates, application forms, and making choices about where to go to college. What you many not know is that in 2002 every one full-time guidance counselor was responsible for 315 students, this according to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics. Add to that the fact that the number of applications submitted to college is at an all time high, and well, it's no wonder parents are seeking out the aid of a person who can spend a lot more time with their kids, even if it means paying a fee of, on average, $120 an hour. Educational consultants can not only guide a student through all the intricate details of the application process, but also help each student choose the right college for him or her. They spend a great deal of time visiting institutions so that they can provide more information about a campus than a catalog or web site ever could. And a consultant will even make calls to an institution on a student's behalf. With the number of applications rising, the competition to get into selective institutions is steeper than ever. Take Yale, for example. Of the 21,099 applications it received last year, only 8.6 percent were accepted. What happens to young people caught up in such competition? By trying desperately to get kids into a college, are parents and counselors doing them a disservice? Denman gives us a glimpse into the college admissions process and what students may go through to get to us. He suggests that high stakes admissions competition can lead to the erosion of individual and institutional integrity, and he offers good advice for how the admissions counseling process should happen. Denman believes that counselors should do more than just help students get into college, that they should help young people develop and explore their place in the world. His suggestions for how to do this are just as relevant for faculty and staff who work with students once they arrive at college.
--Kathleen S. Wise, editor
College Admission: A Statement of Concern by David Denman
A few years ago a young woman I had counseled in the past stopped by to see me. She had been a straight "A" student and an athlete in high school, with high SATs, who had submitted a fine admission essay and matriculated at one of the country's most prestigious universities. She had a confession to make. Her poignantly moving essay about rescuing a lost urchin in Guatemala City had been a total fabrication. "Frankly," she said smiling, with what sounded almost like pride, "I've never been to Guatemala!"
Welcome to the upside-down world of "the college admission hustle," where kids cheat, parents intrude, counselors try too hard, and institutions of higher learning compromise the ethics they promote.
These days one can't avoid being troubled by the side effects of the college admission process. Admittedly, for some young people the end result is affirming, justifying commitment and diligence, and validating intellect and talent. But the good fortune of these does not offset the demoralizing aspects of the process. In fact, "demoralizing" is much too weak a word. "Corrosive" and "corrupting" are denigrating terms that have been used to describe the process in major articles. We who are college counselors have numerous opportunities and an obligation on behalf of young people to mitigate these negative effects.
Reflecting in part the ethos of an increasingly competitive culture, the college admission process is a widely acknowledged source of significant stress for young people, especially during the busy senior year. It's obviously stressful for parents, too, many of whom are vicariously living out their own frustrated desires or their need for affirmation. The process has spawned a vast, predatory industry, including my own, which has mushroomed within the last few years and which under ideal circumstances would be largely unnecessary. Testing organizations, test preparation organizations, publishers, the media, counselors, independent consultants, and tutors all thrive on the insecurities as well as the admirable ambitions of young people and their parents.
Because of the twofold nature of admissions job descriptions (i.e., discriminating and selecting on the one hand, marketing on the other hand), admissions officers are understandably vulnerable. For instance (as the Wall Street Journal reported several years ago in a front page article), eager to accept from their applicant pools those qualified applicants who are most likely to enroll, some admissions officers disingenuously reject superbly qualified applicants. Such practices, aimed at augmenting yields and thereby improving rankings (and, incidentally, bond ratings!), are not merely duplicitous. They are a betrayal. Imagine this forthright disclaimer in an admissions brochure: "Although you are understandably presuming that we judge applicants on the basis of their merits, some of our admission practices reflect, instead, our effort to appear more selective than we actually are."
Nevertheless, young people are led to believe that they will be reasonably assessed, not toyed with for institutionally selfish reasons. Especially because of the power of example, these practices are damaging to the development of values in young people. One irresistibly recalls Erik Erikson's insistence on fidelity as one of what he called the "vital virtues." Furthermore, such practices contradict the basic values of liberal education. As Emile Durkheim said, "Anything that reduces the effectiveness of moral education, whatever disrupts patterns of relationship, threatens public morality at its very roots."
Especially troubling is the way that the admissions process, which the Atlantic Monthly's James Fallows has called "the great college hustle," entices many people to transgress the boundaries or at least to skirt the edges of morality. Stressed by the system, young people grasp for support wherever they can find it. Realizing that the application essay is one thing they can control, they unashamedly submit personal statements that are the products of collaborations with parents, teachers, and paid essay tutors, all eager to help. Or they submit blatantly impersonal, plagiarized products from one of the many internet sources. Or they resort to prose fiction. Given the prevalence of this charade, perhaps it is time to forego the application essay.
Parents, too, are tempted by the admissions process into bizarre behavior. They become over-involved, insist on too many applications "just to be safe," and call in tutors at the first sign of slipping grades. Often stretching beyond their means, parents push children into the tedium of test preparation. The exponential growth of the test preparation industry in the last few years reflects this parental anxiety. But consigning young people to hours and hours of last minute cramming and test-taking tips delivers a tacit, demeaning message: that the young are not good enough. The subtle damage that this message, delivered at such a developmentally significant time, can do to the fragile egos and shaky self-confidence of young people is undeniable. Yet, many parents press on, paying thousands of dollars to have their apparently normal, adequately functioning children psychologically assessed, hoping they will be declared clinically disabled so that they can qualify for more time on the tests. Anything, it seems, is acceptable in order to obtain a perceived advantage in the increasingly competitive college admissions process.
We who are college counselors must mind our own behavior, for we, too, are liable to be seduced by the college admissions process into inappropriate and unethical activity. If we indiscriminately collude with parents in telling students that they need to be intensively tutored or "prepped," we risk reinforcing the inherent, demeaning message. Thereby, we may also tacitly affirm an exaggerated notion about the importance of the college admission tests. If we casually encourage the desire of desperate parents to have their children psychologically assessed in order that they may qualify for "extended time" on the tests, we ignore and flout the research evidence indicating that extra time for non-learning disabled students is of no significant benefit. As my consultant colleague Dr. Jane McClure says, "If you don't know it, you don't know it."
Which, incidentally, suggests the question: Why is time a factor at all? I am reminded of the story of the child who asks his mother why his father always seems to bring work home from the office and is told that his father can't get it all done at work. "Then," says the child, "why don't they put Daddy in the slow group?" Clearly, in life we compensate for the need for more time: We bring work home; we stay at the office late or get there a little earlier in the morning; we rearrange priorities or hire an assistant. For non-disabled students who work slowly and deliberately, though they may "grind exceeding small," the testing situations offer no such allowances.
We should acknowledge and then try to communicate to parents and young people the relative insignificance of the college admissions process. I'm told that Ted Fiske, former education editor of the New York Times and author of the Fiske Guide to Colleges, customarily begins every talk with parents by saying, "This is not the most important decision your child will ever make." As Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, once said to me, "Whatever you do, try to help young people and their parents see that ultimately it doesn't make that much difference where they go to college!" In other words, it is not the particular institution, but one's self that is the crucial factor. Explicitly or implicitly to emphasize the importance of the place is to minimize or partially absolve young people of the ultimate responsibility for their learning. Young people need to realize that, as the Elizabethan philosopher Francis Bacon observed 400 years ago, "chiefly the mould of a man's fortune is in his own hands."
Thus, we should explain to young people and their parents that "first tier," "second tier," "top," "good," "better," "best," etc., are irrelevant and misleading terms. (And, of course, we should cease using them!) The important criterion is obviously appropriateness. As Stephen R. Lewis, the president of Carleton College, says, "Best for whom?" Beyond this, we need to remind people that education is not an entity; it is not some thing one goes some where to "get." Instead it is an elusive goal, and the pursuit of it is a perennial endeavor. As Henry Adams confessed, one can diligently spend one's life in the enterprise and still feel uneducated. Alexandre Dumas might have consoled him. "One's work may be finished," wrote Dumas, "but one's education, never!"
The reports about aggressive lobbying of college admissions officers by some counselors on behalf of students leaves one wondering: What about those students without lobbyists? How much involvement should a college counselor have with college admission officers on a particular student's behalf? Strictly speaking, the answer is obvious: except in unusual circumstances, none. David Erdmann, the dean of admissions at Rollins College, says of independent consultants, "In the spirit of creating as level a playing field as possible for all students, I would prefer that the independent consultant remain invisible to me in the process." The way some college counselors in independent schools must annually document their placement success to boards of trustees raises troubling presumptions that seem irrebuttable. (What do trustees know about which colleges would be "best," as Carleton's president uses the term, for particular students?) Equally disturbing is the extent to which many high schools publicize the college admission acceptances of their students.
Colleges and universities make clear how much help applicants may get with their application essays. After alluding to the university's Honor Code and to "the standard of honesty and integrity that it provides," the Stanford University admission application states: "Your signature below indicates acceptance of the spirit of the Honor Code and signifies that all the information you have provided in your application is your own work." In its application, the University of California states: "The University expects you to write your own personal statement." Bates College requires students to sign above the statement: "My signature above indicates that all information in my application, including my essays and other submissions, is entirely my own work." The Common Application, accepted by 277 institutions to date, has for years asked applicants to sign beneath the statement: "I certify that all the information in my application, including my personal essay, is my own work, factually true and honestly presented." Reinforcing this point for its membership, the National Association for College Admission Counseling is explicit. Its "Statement of Principles of Good Practice" declares that secondary school members and independent counselor members agree that they will "encourage students to be the sole authors of their applications and essays and counsel against inappropriate assistance on the parts of others."
Growing up in this confused society in an era of disconcerting complexity, young people need good counsel. College counselors with the appropriate education and training, tempered by experience, reinforced by wide reading, grounded by reflection, and perhaps deepened by suffering, have much to offer young people and their parents. Counseling provides young people and their parents with opportunities to converse about more serious matters, what the Quakers call matters of consequence. Presumably we draw upon wisdom about teaching and learning, educational testing and psychological assessment, growth and development, the loss of innocence and the pain of separation. With the impending transition from high school to college at the top of the immediate agenda, we should ask young people (since, incredibly, others usually don't) if they really want to go to college? And why? And when? These questions provide opportunities to mention that it is not necessary to matriculate in college immediately after high school and to discuss the important difference between being academically prepared for college and being developmentally ready to succeed in college. As my friend, Professor Douglas Heath of Haverford College, always insisted, with an impressive longitudinal study to buttress his conclusion: It's not because they can't handle the academic work in college that many falter; it's because they can't handle the freedom. Customarily, I always share with young people the delightfully irrefutable logic of Fred Hargadon, whose admissions directorships include Swarthmore, Stanford, and Princeton. The reason to go to college, says Hargadon, is to become a more interesting person because you are the person with whom you must live for the rest of your life!
As young people anticipate writing personal statements, we can certainly help them assess their strengths and acknowledge their shortcomings. We can, legitimately, help them to reflect upon their experiences, their learning and their personal development. We can talk with them, justifiably, about how they might weave their reflections into what Harvard psychiatrist Robert Coles would call their "stories." We should of course converse with them about major fields of study and about career choices, and encourage them to ponder Hannah Arendt's fine distinction between "labor" (e.g., merely employment) and "work" (e.g., useful, necessary activity that makes personal sense). In other words, work that is worth doing—with its own intrinsic reward because it is felt to be one's own. We can also exploit opportunities to talk with young people about what the poet Gary Snyder calls "real work," the work of becoming more authentic.
Ideally, counselors will be empathic listeners, responding in sensitive, affirming ways so that young people will feel more self-confident and hopeful. Those who have been emotionally injured by the rough edges of life or, ironically, have been wounded by their school experience, will leave our offices to resume the Eriksonian quest for identity feeling validated and less anxious. Especially if we have found a transcendent purpose (and if we haven't, how can we help others on the road to that discovery?), we will do more than merely facilitate a transition. We will also guide young people regarding the larger questions, perhaps even what Paul Tillich, the great 20th century theologian, called the "ultimate questions."
As young people, caught up in the intensity of the college admissions process, reduce learning to a matter of GPAs, we might suggest that they ponder Einstein's comment that "Imagination is more important than knowledge." As they appear driven to obtain higher and higher SAT, ACT, AP, and IB scores, we should remind them, as Robert Coles reminds us, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, that "character is higher than intellect." As they quest for a career, we can nudge them toward a calling-in the words of William Blake, a "firm persuasion." And as they focus on narrow materialistic goals, let's talk frankly and very seriously with them about the difference between the good life and a good life.