The Changing College Admissions Process

By Ruemon Bhattacharya and Dylan Kwan — Correspondents

Over the last 20 years, the number of applications submitted to colleges has increased by more than 150 %. Often, admissions officers quickly review the applications of students, spending just minutes reviewing those who are accepted. Consequently, very low acceptance rates have become the norm for many colleges around the country.

Derek Hughes, an educational consultant, says that part of the issue is colleges fill up their class in early applicant pools before a majority of applications are reviewed. “Selective colleges are filling more of their classes in the binding early decision pool to reduce the uncertainty of regular-decision cycles, in which students might be weighing acceptances from multiple schools,” said Hughes.

“Barnard College had almost 62 percent of the class filled in the 2021 freshman class before it even considered students who applied in the regular decision pool. Boston University filled about half of the class early action and decision pools. 10 years ago, Boston University enrolled just over 10 percent of the class early. The University of Pennsylvania filled 51 percent of its class early this year,” added Hughes. 

Bob Schaeffer, the Executive Director of the FairTest organization, says some of the recent changes in the admissions process are driven by the pandemic. “FairTest counts more than 1,600 test-optional or test-blind institutions for fall 2022, a rise of over 500 schools since 2020,” said Schaeffer. 

However, Schaeffer says that the policies are not as flexible as colleges make them seem to be. “If two students from the same school are applying and they have similar extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, GPA, and one student submits a test score that’s near-perfect, who is the college-going to accept? Most likely the student with the test score.”

Eric Bergmann, Principal of Thousand Oaks High School, says that test-optional policies are helping create a more level playing ground in the admissions process. “Deemphasizing standardized tests could level the playing field for college applicants,” said Bergmann. 

“Lower-income students who may not have the financial means or access to test preparation that their more affluent peers have can now have the same opportunities for higher education,” Bergmann adds.

Jill Barshay, author of the “Proof Points” column about education research and data says there are a lot of issues in the standardized testing process which puts certain students at a disadvantage. “SAT and ACT tutoring is a huge business, fueled by parents and stressed-out students. The College Board markets these tests as a recap of the high school curriculum, but this is often not the case,” said Barshay. 

“Teen suicides are higher than ever, and the recent letter from a 16-year-old at a competitive high school who ended his life said that so much pressure is placed on them to do well that they couldn’t do it anymore. It is news like this which breaks my heart,” added Barshay. 

Steven Graunke, a Director of Institutional Research and Assessment at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, argues that application decisions are often ruled in favor of white applicants even though test scores are higher in Asian demographics. “In 2019, the average SAT score among all test-takers was 1059; the average score amongst Asian students was a robust 1223.” 

“One notable 2005 study discovered that if race were removed as a factor of consideration in applications, students of Asian descent would benefit most, encountering an acceptance rate of 6% higher across top colleges. No other racial group was adversely affected anyplace near this degree,” Graunke says.

“One more investigation of Harvard’s acceptances during the academic years spanning from 2000 to 2017, found that the acceptance rate for Asian-American understudies was 8.1% contrasted with an 11.1% figure for white candidates,” Graunke adds.

Derek Hughes says that the U.S. court system has weighed in on bias against Asian-American students at Harvard. “Much evidence was revealed as to how white students were routinely given superior ratings by Harvard admissions officers in subjective categories like “positive personality, and being widely-respected, as well as areas such as likeability, courageousness, and even kindness,” said Hughes. 

“While the school ultimately won the case Asian applicants may need to construct a stronger applicant profile than the average admitted student to have a genuine chance of getting into the very best American colleges,” Hughes added.

Bergmann says that even the most-applied schools in the United States have gone test-blind and it is a big step forward. “The Universities of California is, and increasingly will become a national model for test-free admissions. As important as the University of California’s decision is, over half of all colleges and universities in the nation have already committed to remaining test-optional or test-blind for fall 2023 applicants,” said Bergmann. 

“This brings into question the necessity of these standardized tests, and brings out the other aspects of the application to ascertain a better picture of an applicant that goes beyond a four-digit number,” added Bergmann.

Bob Schaeffer asserts FairTest’s position on the SAT: it should be optional in the admissions process. “Right now, kids do all kinds to boost their admissions profiles. They use their creativity and it can be seen as another way of showing their value to an academic setting. If kids want to take tests on Saturday morning and fill in bubbles and think that that adds something to their profile, let them, but it should be a choice without repercussions,” said Schaeffer.

However, the system right now, where a couple of million kids a year are forced to go to the SAT–and another million and some through the ACT is a tragic waste of educational resources and money,” he added.

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