The College Craze
Photo by Beth Segal
Top advisors charge $40,000 for several years of guidance, but typical fees range from $1500-$3300. Are these attorney fees to help battle social injustice? No. These numbers reflect fees paid by parents to experts who specialize in the college admissions process. Don’t worry. There are other practical and thrifty options to help you navigate the craze surrounding the college admission process.
The Admissions Frenzy
It has many names: the Admissions Arms Race, the Admissions Frenzy, the Admissions Industrial Complex. Call it what you will, the college admissions process simply wreaks havoc.
Lloyd Thacker, head of the Educational Conservancy, a nonprofit group that seeks to reform the college admission process, believes that the college admissions industry, a multi-billion dollar business, preys on the anxiety of parents and kids. Mr. Thacker and others agree that reform is necessary.
It is easier to understand the frenzy than its cause. First, more students are applying to college than ever before, making acceptance into college significantly harder. Next, a selective college admission process improves the reputation of a college, and acceptance into selective colleges reflects well on the high schools. So each of these institutions, directly or indirectly, contribute to the admissions frenzy. Finally, both parents and students strive to win the admissions game. Today’s parents, the Baby Boomers, while highly educated and motivated, are responding to an opportunity and guiding their children on how to best play the game. All of these factors contribute to the craze.
Today’s students seem to spend more time preparing for the college admission process than for the college experience. The National Bureau of Economic Research released a study called Playing the Admissions Game: Student Reactions to Increasing College Competition. The report cited an increase in the number of students taking AP classes and challenging courses; however, there was also evidence of a decrease in the number of hours students spent studying for course work. At the same time, evidence shows an increase in preparation time for standardized testing.
Test-Prep is the College Admissions’ Steroid
Students are investing more time and more money for test preparation than ever before. Samuel Freedman of Columbia University reports that the undergraduate test-preparation business has increased 25% over the last few years. Freedman worries that “under the pretense of fair competition, tens of thousands of high school students and their families employ the scholastic equivalent of steroids: test prep courses, private consultants, essay writing help.”
Maggie, from New York, is a perfect example of the target population for the test prep industry. She has been tutored for the SAT since the ninth grade. Maggie’s parents estimate their investment at almost $10,000. However, not every family can afford this, so the cost of standardized testing practice hardly creates a fair playing field. Consequently, Freedman believes that the system is broken and requires reform.
The Standardized Testing Debate Continues
In 2008, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), led by Harvard’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, William Fitzsimmons, reported that because the ACT and the SAT are not accurate predictors of college achievement, they are not optimal measures for admissions. NACAC challenged colleges to examine the role of these tests and to consider making the tests optional for admissions.
“It would be much better for the country to have students focusing on high school courses that will prepare them for college and also prepare them well for the real world beyond college, instead of spending enormous amounts of time trying to game the SAT/ACT,” states Fitzsimmons.
Today, there is a steady movement of colleges moving away from testing requirements. These test-optional colleges accept standardized test scores, but they don’t require them. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (www.fairtest.org) provides further information and a list of test-optional schools.
Despite this new trend, many disagree with the NACAC. Gaston Caperton, former Governor of West Virginia and current president of the College Board, believes strongly in standardized testing as part of the college admission process. He is not alone. Standardized testing for college entrance is the topic of much discussion among educational experts.
Preparing For The Test
Individual study habits and financial resources will determine how a student prepares for standardized tests. Preparation for the ACT and the SAT can include group lessons through businesses, like Kaplan and Princeton Review, lessons through your high school, private tutors, books and online guides and tutorials.
Understanding test-taking strategies is advantageous and can be learned through any testing guide. Students with enough initiative and discipline can study on their own. One cost-effective method is individual study with study guides from libraries and bookstores. Also, ACT and SAT websites offer free practice tests. High school guidance counselors and older students also make great resources for sharing preparation techniques.
Erin Frew, the principal at John Hay High School in Cleveland, Ohio, recommends the following strategies for students with limited financial resources:
- Borrow preparatory books from the school library.
- Utilize the free resources on test preparation web sites, like ACT and SAT, and other useful websites, like mystudentedge.com.
- Ask high schools to target ACT/SAT-type questions in math and English classes.
Number of Retakes
Many students wonder how many times they should retake the test to improve their scores. Some experts believe that students who are disappointed with their scores should study and retake the test. Sam, from Ohio, took the ACT four times, ultimately improving his score four points and putting him in a more competitive position to get into his school of choice. Eileen Blattner, a college guidance counselor from Shaker Heights High School in Ohio, believes that unless students invest additional study time, either on their own, with a tutor or through preparatory courses, their tests scores will not improve significantly with a retake. She also believes that students should not take any test more than two times.
Most educational experts agree with Blattner about limiting test taking to a maximum of two times, as the benefits do not outweigh the loss of time, money and stress from test repetition. William Conley, Dean of Enrollment and Academic Services at Johns Hopkins University, would go further. He believes that students who take test over and over again send a negative message to colleges that may ultimately hurt them.
Some Practical Test Taking Advice
- Review your Test Admissions ticket to be sure of the date and location of the test. Take a test drive if you are unsure of the location.
- Determine what you are allowed to take into the testing room, including pencils, food and cell phones.
- Check what kind of calculator is permitted and make sure yours is working properly. Bring extra batteries.
- Eat and drink wisely on the day of the test.
- Wear a watch.
Your Role as a Parent
Parents often play an important role in the college process and recognize that experience is helpful. Nancy Schaumburg, a social worker and single mother of two, found the college admissions process overwhelming. “Navigating the college admission process with my son was a daunting and stressful experience. I worried about everything, from financial aid and scholarships to deadlines, test taking and admission forms. Ironically, my son didn’t seem to worry at all. Next year, when my daughter applies to college, I am going to try to relax and let my daughter do all the worrying.”
College Admission Process
One thing you can do as a parent — pay heed to the following advice. In his book, College Unranked: Affirming Educational Values in College Admissions, Lloyd Thacker urges parents and students to consider the following ideas:
- Limit the number of college applications to between four and six. Taking the time to thoroughly research a few colleges will lead to better rates of acceptance and overall college success.
- The more popular the college, the more political the admissions process and the less control you have in that process.
- Don’t apply to a college just because the application process is easy.
- Don’t let rejection define you. You are being judged on criteria that you would never use to judge another person and that will never again apply to you once you leave college.
- Consider taking a year off between high school and college to work or follow your passion.
- Approach high school as a necessary, significant and enjoyable part of your life.
- Take courses that are appropriately challenging for you.
- Whatever the outcome, don’t let an admissions dean, test scores, GPA or coach tell you what you are worth.
What’s Right for Your Teen?
In the end, the most important step for a high school senior is to select prospective colleges that will be a good fit both socially and academically. Mr. Conley wants parents and students to have a healthy perspective. “Over ninety-five percent of students are applying to schools that don’t require multiple essays, letters of recommendation and activity listings. There is no reason for these students to obsess about the merit of their essay or achievements.” Conley believes that all students should focus less on the college admission process and more on whether the school is a good fit.
Don’t let the craziness get the best of you — Good Luck!