My teen is applying to college, and it feels like a very different experience than it was (ahem) 25 years ago. The recent college admissions scandal has highlighted both how stressful and how complicated the process has become — with parents going to criminal ends to help their children succeed. It’s also constantly changing and today is different than it was just a few years ago.
We asked experts to give us their take on what has changed and identify the emerging trends in college admissions. Here’s what the playing field looks like today and how kids and parents can navigate the dynamic landscape.
Colleges are monitoring applicants’ digital footprints
Kyle Kashuv, 18, a survivor of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, recently announced that Harvard rescinded his offer of admission because of racist comments he made online at age 16. This isn’t the first time that Harvard has taken such action. In 2017, the university revoked admission of 10 perspective students because they shared obscene memes. Students’ online behavior matters.
“Colleges will Google your kid,” says Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor at Common Sense Media. She says that the schools are looking for posts that are consistent with both the values of the school and the student’s application. For example, if an applicant says they are an Eagle Scout, they may want to see a photo or video of the work that went into that project. If a student is studying abroad, the location tags should match up.
That doesn’t mean that teens should delete all of their accounts. Knorr says having accounts is fine and content creation can be evidence of students pursuing their passions.
Knorr cautions that colleges will look at more than just one profile or wall and that students should be aware of the digital footprint they leave around the internet, including what posts by others they have liked and the comments they have made.
She also warned against having students overly curate their accounts to look good for colleges. “Colleges aren’t looking for that kind of kid. It’s hard to game the system, and admissions officers are very good at picking out fakers,” she explains.
Parents, however, should not focus on micro-managing their teens’ social media. Instead, Knorr recommends talking with them about what’s appropriate to post, using privacy tools on platforms while also recognizing that they are not fail-safe and being judicious about what they share.
Parental involvement has reached ridiculous levels
We’ve all heard about Operation Varsity Blues, in which dozens of parents, including actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, have faced or received federal charges and jail time for paying for college admissions assistance for their children. At Sidwell Friends School, the elite private school near Washington, D.C., the head of the school sent a letter to parents of the Class of 2019 calling for an end to their objectionable behavior, including the “verbal assaulting of employees” and using blocked phone numbers to report the faults of other students in hopes of increasing their student’s chances of admissions. Two of the school’s three counselors reportedly left their positions this month, according to reports.
Parental involvement has gone too far, even if it doesn’t constitute a chargeable offense. But what’s driving it? Sara Harberson, a former dean of admission who is known as America’s College Counselor and the founder of Admissions Revolution, says that the scarcity of spots is driving the insanity. “The competition for a coveted spot in a freshman class has become out of reach for most students applying to elite colleges,” she says. “With more applications and little wiggle room, student from high schools which have historically been the beneficiaries of these coveted spots are not seeing the same results their older siblings and especially their parents had a generation earlier. Parents are intervening to ensure nothing gets in the way of their child having the opportunities they expected they would have,” Haberson says.
Nicole Oringer, senior college counselor for Collegewise, one of the nation’s largest private college counseling organizations, urges parents to reframe their thinking about the admissions process. “The belief that good kids who work hard will somehow be at a disadvantage if they don’t attend a school in the top 20 of an arbitrary rankings list is one that should be rejected,” she says.
She notes that when parents back off, they allow their children to develop some valuable skills, such as time management and independent thought. “It is vital that students own their admissions journey — they are transitioning to adulthood,” Oringer says, adding, “No amount of parental involvement can control the outcomes of college admissions, and attempts to that end will only increase stress, frustration, and may even make your student feel like you don’t trust them to own this process.”
The number of test-optional schools is increasing
More and more universities are going “test optional,” meaning that students are not required to submit standardized test scores as part of their application. The University of Chicago announced in June 2018 that they were going test optional and since then, more schools such as Bucknell, Creighton, and the University of San Francisco have followed suit. (You can find a full list of test-optional institutions at FairTest, the site of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.)
“Every day, it seems as if another college goes test optional, which is encouraging because the tests have so many biases,” says Oringer, who believes that the trend will continue.
Harberson, who used to be the Dean of Admissions at Franklin & Marshall, a test-optional college, classified herself as a “big fan” of test-optional colleges because it “can be a game-changer for students as long as their transcript is extremely strong.”
Vinay Bhaskara, co-founder of CollegeVine, a college preparation and admissions consulting firm, says that only 10-15 percent of colleges are test optional. More schools may go that route, and he also predicts that while schools may not completely waive the requirement, “colleges will continue to decrease their focus on test scores and grades in favor of more holistic factors as they attempt to expand college access and react to changes in student demographics in the U.S.”
Some schools care about demonstrated interest
When students attend a college fair, they likely have a QR code that the admissions staff will scan before speaking with them. The days of just showing up for the campus tour whenever you like are long gone. Reservations must be made, often far in advance. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that some schools go so far as to track when a perspective student opens emails from the school and if they clicked the links to the school’s website.
Schools do so in part to track a student’s “demonstrated interest.” They want to admit students who want to be there and who have shown a commitment to learning about the school.
The 2018 State of College Admission report published by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that, among the colleges and universities that responded, 21.4 percent said that a student’s demonstrated interest is of “moderate importance” and 15.5 percent of schools said demonstrated interest is of “considerable importance” in application review. Knorr’s advice to be authentic and polite online also applies to in-person interactions with admissions staff. If a student loves a school, communicate that in a clear, respectful way. The experts said that schools take their interactions with students seriously, and students should do the same.