By Kate Holby
The thin letter came recently. If you are a high school senior or a parent of one, this requires no further explanation. Early decision for me meant final rejection by the college over which I spent years obsessing. This rejection, shared by countless grieving high school seniors, has given me pause to reflect on the admission process and the ways in which it could be improved.
Consoling bystanders - my parents, teachers, guidance counselor - trot out the usual bland observations. Rejection is a part of life. Not everyone can be admitted. Get over it, life isn't fair.
It's true, I will get over it. But the fairness part nags a bit. The problem with the application process is that the admissions criteria colleges publicly provide are murky at best.
Grades, class ranking, SAT scores, sports, volunteer work. The list goes on. All we are told is that these things may count, but not how much.
Take the college of my desire, Bowdoin. The school tells prospective applicants that it does not require SAT scores. Nowhere does the school explain what that really means. I suppose SATs are not required because Bowdoin doesn't believe that the scores are a reliable indicator of ability. But they allow applicants to submit SAT scores, and presumably those with high SAT scores do so.
If I don't submit them, does that hurt my chances? Don't bother looking for guidance on the Bowdoin Web site, because it won't tell you. The application also asks whether any relatives attended Bowdoin. But it doesn't say why or how much it counts. Does it count more if my mother attended or my sister? Uncle or grandparent?
The application also asks for my parents' occupations. How does that figure in? Is a carpenter worth more or less than a lawyer? How about varsity sports? Are they important and, if so, which one? Is field hockey better than track? It's not that I'll give up pole vaulting if Bowdoin doesn't appreciate it, but, rather, I will save my heart and application fee for a college that wants a pole vaulter.
The typical college response is that they are not looking for a well-rounded person but a well-rounded class. This is an utterly useless piece of information. For guidance, some hire a college admissions consultant. And that exposes the entire hypocrisy of the process. A former college admissions officer will, for a fee, tell us what a current college admissions officer won't. Too bad if you can't afford one or are naïve enough to think it unnecessary.
I don't care if the college admissions playing field is tilted, skewed, or even upside down. I don't care if they value serving in a soup kitchen over serving up a tennis ball. But it would be nice if we all knew the rules of the game. This is particularly true with early admissions, where many of us spent literally years working hard toward the goal of acceptance by one particular college.
Perhaps the first step of the admissions process should be some frank admissions by the college. Let us know what role we are applying for. Perhaps colleges should list the spots they wish to fill like the help-wanted section: Bowdoin Class of 2012 seeks starting varsity field hockey forward, midfielders considered, goalies need not apply. Or, violin players needed for orchestra, but no saxophones, except perhaps a really good tenor sax.
Colleges, of course, are not solely to blame. Their tactics are "market driven." Who put us in this athlete-favored, SAT-weighted, competitive, arbitrary mode of college selection? It is the majority of people reading this article - the parents of students like us.
This college madness has gone so far that SAT coaches are considered the norm and college consultants the expected. I truly wonder what the pressures of the next generation will be, and if this curtain of hidden rules will ever be parted. But for now, all I am asking for before I put down my emotional and financial deposit, before I dream about the college that is right for me, is a little good, old-fashioned honesty to go with the ivy on the walls.