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Challenge: Back to School

Dear College Admissions Deans: Remember What It's Like to Be a Teenager?

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Dear Admissions Deans,

The school year hasn't even started, but my students are stopping by my office to talk about their college lists, essays, and the many standardized tests they face. I love my job. And, I think about the job you face. A lot.


I used to be one of you. I understand the challenges you face as the college application season starts. You have to attract a robust applicant pool, admit a group of applicants that exceeds all expectations, and yield a class perfectly on target and on budget. At times, you and your staff of admissions officers will work longer hours than a medical resident. This year will be the most competitive ever. Undoubtedly, you and your staff will rise to the occasion.

Despite the demands, I think we all would agree that working in college admissions is one of the best jobs on the planet. You get to see the next generation at its very finest. You will be the readers of incredible applications constructed by students sharing the very best pieces of themselves.

But those accomplishments, distinctions, and acts of unrelenting productivity come at a cost. As a college counselor at a high school, I see it every day. Those applications you receive are the smallest sliver of just how wonderful these young men and women are.

The kids applying to college nowadays are stressed. They’re under so much pressure to be perfect that they miss the moments of youth every kid deserves. Just as much as I used to be one of you, we have all been one of them.

Our high school seniors know how hard it is to get into college these days. The Class of 2016 spent their summer vacation prepping for standardized tests while trying to impress you with service projects, academic endeavors, and science research. They are trying to take as many advanced placement courses as possible—all to have a better chance of getting into your institution. They did all of this because they think it’s what you want. If it’s not, be honest about your process and tell them exactly what they need to know to have a chance of admission. If their essay has a typo or they have one grade that is slightly lower than the rest, be kind. Remember, we were not perfect college applicants either.

I fear high school juniors may be even more stressed than the rising seniors. They feel like guinea pigs. The Class of 2017 will be the first class to experience the old and the new SAT. They have already started worrying and studying for these tests during a summer that should be focused on summer jobs, hanging out with friends, and downtime to recharge. If you haven’t yet made up your mind about how you will handle this hybrid testing class, be generous.

Some of these kids will take the old SAT earlier than recommended because they think they’re better off taking something they know. But because they’re taking it sooner than they should, their scores may not be as high. Then these same kids will be forced to learn the ins and outs of the new SAT or the ACT in the hopes that their scores will go up. Don’t be too hard on them if they end up taking a whole lot of tests. If you can, try to mix and match their highest scores on each section even if it happens with the old SAT and the new one. If you and I had to study for all these tests while keeping our grades up and our activities afloat, we probably never would have made it to college.

The sophomores will be one of the largest college bound cohorts in the history of higher education. As much as your applicant pools have swelled over the last several decades, the Class of 2018 will take the proverbial cake. As if admit rates haven’t been low enough, this class will face even stricter admissions standards. If you have an opportunity to give advice to uncompetitive students looking to apply to your institution, be thoughtful about the message you are sending. Students get so much mail, email, and even text messages from you as they go through the process. They are encouraged to apply because they think you want them. Consider rethinking how you target students and whom you target. Having tens of thousands more applications just makes it harder to find the right students for your institution.

And, the freshmen who make up the Class of 2019 are unbelievably impressionable. They hear the upperclassmen talking about the college process. They already think test scores define them as human beings and they haven’t even made it to midterms. Let’s change that.

Let’s begin to talk about what really matters in college and beyond. For starters, you and I both know that the best predictor of success in college is a student’s high school record. I understand if you’re not ready to adopt a test-optional policy at your institution, but consider the idea that less is more when it comes to standardized tests. Putting less emphasis on a test score frees you to focus on the student, their story, and true potential.

As a college counselor and mom of three kids, I only see the good in the students of this generation. But they need us to protect them and support them. As mature as they may seem, they are still kids. We need to think about the college admissions process as something to strive for, not something to just simply survive. Sure, it’s a maturing experience to apply to college, but it doesn’t have to be one filled with angst, stress, and feeling like they can never measure up. When we make policy decisions that put students first, our higher education system will be stronger and better equipped to help mold a generation that will protect us one day soon.


Sara Harberson, Former Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, and Mother of the Class of 2024, 2028, and 2031.

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