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Who reads your application to college? A series of insightful articles sheds light.

Updated: May 11, 2023

As the Fall 2023 entry admission cycle wraps up this spring, there has been a lot of attention given to the state of the admission profession.

Application numbers are through the roof, and the consequential realities of selectivity dramatically shift the categories of "likely, target and reach" for students coming into the college search each year. To be fair, colleges bear some responsibility for participating in the process of generating more applicants in order to become more selective each year. Also, more students apply to more places-- when I started counseling in schools 20 years ago, even the most selective places still drew most applications from a 500 mile radius. Students cast much broader nets now. (And I can't help but head off this common response: this is not a reason to apply to more colleges; probabilities don't change with more applications to comparably selective places-- the antidote is research, compilation of evidence, and realistic self-assessment. Naturally, a good counselor can also help you focus efforts productively.)

At the same time, the confluence of these numbers and post-pandemic migration from admission jobs, which are often compensated at relatively low levels, is creating pressure points on admission offices. It's becoming harder to keep and retain the often young admission officers who travel extensively in the fall and read extensively through the winter and spring.

More experienced admission professionals are feeling the heat, too. Mid-level professionals are facing burnout from managing these and other demanding realities, and their senior leadership are tiring, too-- it's incredibly stressful to have a job that demands answering to so many constituents, many of whom expect a set of outcomes that are not easily met, and sometimes counter to each other, while also managing a team of humans, frequently spanning Generations Z to late Boomer in the same office. (A good friend and veteran Dean told me years ago that that factor alone was leading them to an early retirement.)

That said, the people holding down the proverbial admission fort are dedicated, committed folks who care deeply about their educational institutions and about the young people whose stories they read. Yes, their decisions are shaped by scarcity, constantly changing institutional priorities that come from Presidents and Boards, financial realities, and to varying degrees, the demands of providing numbers that feed the beast of the misguided US News rankings. Within those constraints, contrary to the speculation fueled in online forums, they do, in fact, put eyes on every application, and do their best to shape a class, and provide access to a diverse population according to what their power and budget allow. As you'll hear in the quotes and in the podcast at the end of this post, it's truly a labor of love.

I recommend reading all of the articles below to learn more. As I have said before, it is completely worth setting up a free account at the Chronicle of Higher Education to read the best reporting on what's happening in American universities, and especially the admission reporting by Eric Hoover.

What's my takeaway? College admission in the US is still human and still humane. Meet the representatives who come to your school and to local college fairs. Reach out to the designated representative for your area as found on the college's website, when you identify colleges of interest. Putting a real personality and teenage voice to an eventual application is valuable. Whether or not you are eventually admitted, these are the folks who can offer you the most current insight, and maybe even point you to great fits you may not know about.

On a related note, I think it's important for parents to know, as an MIT dean used to say, that the people deciding your children's educational future might not look any older than your children do, and to understand the reality of their lives and the pressures they manage. It's important to treat those folks kindly and respectfully-- and know that going over their head will almost surely backfire... in general, consider how you come across to the people who are deciding if you will be an asset or a liability to a community that they gatekeep. Recently I saw someone suggest in a parent admission forum that "squeaky wheels get the grease." To this I offer, consider that you are squeaking from a very large reserve of wheels that are just as qualified and attractive to the mechanic. (Are you picking up some feelings about the amateur opinions shared in online college admission forums for parents and students? I'll write more soon on the mania, misapprehension and misdirection that I see fueled in these spaces.)

Here are the articles:

The following piece is a personal commentary on the realities of a career in admission by the always wise Jon Boeckenstedt, VP of Enrollment Management at Oregon State U. If you've read my previous newsletters, he'll be a familiar voice.

Finally, if you have time for nothing else, listen to this 50 minute conversation with Eric Hoover, author of the first two articles here, and the most informed and connected journalist writing about college admission in the US. Eric will also be familiar from my previous posts. He's an incredibly dedicated investigative reporter and brilliant writer who I am grateful to call a friend.

It's worth subscribing to the ALP podcast to hear from other experienced leaders in college admission and counseling. The host, Ken Anselment, is a highly respected admission leader who know works at an admission consulting firm.

Here's a Spotify link to that same podcast, if you prefer.

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