It worries me that our high school students feel as though they need to solve the mess that our U.S. college admissions process has gotten itself into, but it’s also remarkable. Recently, I read an interesting perspective on the problem in The Hechinger Report in an opinion piece written by Claire Schultz, a senior at Princeton High School in New Jersey. This fall, Claire will be off to University College London, a public research university in the U.K., founded in 1826 to serve students previously excluded from higher education and boasting alumni from Alexander Graham Bell to Francis Crick to all four members of Coldplay. In her piece, Claire talks about two issues: (1) the growing number of college applications being submitted by high school seniors and the consequent increased selectivity in admissions at many colleges; and (2) the perception of what colleges are looking for in applicants and, in turn, of what colleges are “selling” potential applicants.
To learn more about the first issue, listen to Episode 78 of USACollegeChat, the podcast that Marie Segares and I co-host (available free online at usacollegechat.org and on Google Play Music and iTunes). Find out why Claire said, “I took a step to remove myself from the system, and applied to schools in the U.K.” Her recommendation on how many college applications kids should be submitting these days turns out to be just about the same as Marie’s and mine. Great minds think alike. To learn more about the second issue, read on.
In our podcast episode, we quoted Claire, describing her applications to U.K. colleges:
As you apply to a specific subject, you write one single personal statement explaining why you are qualified for the course; you may have to complete a subsequent interview, again on academic merit. There is a set of grade-based entry requirements you will have to make at the end of your senior year, but that’s it.
There are no essays asking about ‘a journey’ or what celebrity you’d like to have to lunch, no extracurricular jumping through hoops. Plain and simple, are you good at what you do? . . . I’d want to see the focus of the college admissions process brought back to school, if only a little bit. (quoted from the article)
While some U.S. colleges also ask students to write an essay about what they plan to study in college and why they are well equipped to do that, the difference is that such an essay for U.S. colleges is typically one of the supplemental essays in an application. In the U.K., that is the essay. So, what about an admissions process that would be focused on academics—on “school,” as Claire says? That’s an interesting idea, parents.
Claire continues with these observations:
When I applied to U.S. schools, . . . I was sold student centers and dorm rooms and meal plans. Underneath all of the football games and paraphernalia, I was not being shown a school, I was being sold an experience. These colleges seemed to care less about me as a student than me as a well-rounded, ‘holistic’ individual. When I toured schools in England, I was shown classrooms and students studying in libraries rather than well-polished amenities (most students lived in private housing and cooked for themselves, anyway). (quoted from the article)
Or as my husband used to say when we were looking at colleges for our own kids, “Are we choosing a college or a country club?” He was reacting to the sales pitches that concentrated on what Claire calls “well-polished amenities.”
Of course, many of our U.S. colleges try to get prospective applicants into a classroom to observe a class firsthand as part of the grand tour—and they should, according to Claire. But that is the precise thing that makes visiting colleges in the summer not ideal, parents, though many of you are just about to set out to do that. Seeing colleges in the summer (when most campuses look great) is convenient for many families, but it doesn’t give prospective students much of a feel for the academic life of the college—for the lecture halls, for the labs, for the libraries, for the professors, and for the other full-time students.
Claire sums up her U.K. visits this way:
It was nice to see what I’d be paying huge amounts of money for—not a four-year party, but a school with actual classes and exams. (quoted from the article)
What a kid! Parents, I bet that you, too, would like to be paying for a school—for the professors, for the books, for the classrooms, for the computers, for the labs, for the guest speakers, for the art and music and dance and theater events, and even for the intellectual camaraderie of the students. While we all want our kids to be happy at college, we also hope that they discover some joy in their studies, some passion for an academic subject and/or a social cause, some desire to keep on learning for a long time.
As one parent, you can’t change the way that U.S. colleges recruit freshmen. But if lots of parents start asking the same questions, you all collectively might have an effect. Here are some questions you should ask your tour guide when you visit colleges, whether that’s this summer or next fall:
- Would you show us some typical classrooms—maybe a few lecture halls and a few seminar rooms?
- Might we see some of the science labs and computer labs?
- How many different libraries are there on the campus? Would you take us to a couple of them? How do students usually use these libraries?
- What about facilities for students in the arts? Where are the art and music and dance studios? Might we see the performance spaces for the theater and music and dance departments?
- How many students does the college lose after their freshman year?
- How many students graduate in four years?
- How many students who graduate get a job in their field within six months or a year? How many students who graduate go directly to graduate school?
- Which professors are the most popular or best known or most admired? What do they teach? What are they known for?
- Which academic departments are the most popular or best known or most acclaimed? What majors do they offer? What are they known for?
- What you are studying and how did you choose that? What your friends are studying?
- How good were your freshman classes and what were they like? How good are your classes now that you are an upperclassman and what are they like?
College tour guides are carefully selected, highly trained students. They will certainly tell the admissions staff that parents are asking some new questions.