It is January again, which means hordes of fresh faces in the gym and long lines for the equipment. While I am happy for their resolve to get fit and eat right, in a month's time I know that the queue to the treadmill will be gone. The crowds will have thinned once again and many of the good intentions to embrace healthy lifestyles will have waned.
College admission is not much different. Just like overeating and lack of exercise, bad habits and practices bedevil the well-meaning and best-intentioned. As we begin a new year, it is worth considering what aspects of admission to college are best left behind with 2018. I asked college admission deans and high school counselors what should be abandoned in 2019, and they willingly suggested words, phrases, and practices that they want to be rid of in the new year. In this first of a two-part series, I examine the terms that need to be struck from the admission lexicon. In the second piece, I explore Early Action/Decision, standardized testing, “demonstrated interest” and other aspects of admission that contribute to an unhealthy experience of applying to college and send the wrong messages to young people. So put on your workout gear and imagine a better year ahead.
Admission to college is often referred to as a “process”, suggesting a mechanical operation which is simply a means to an end. Though not new in 2019, Matt Hyde, dean of admission at Lafayette College, hopes this will be the year that his crusade to reframe college admission comes to fruition. Hyde explains that “the experience of searching for and applying to college is a rite of passage moment - one that should be full of introspection, self-celebration, and the owning of one’s voice and narrative with pride and confidence.” He warns against the “if this, then that” approach to admission and he argues that calling the college search and application effort a “process” reinforces this mentality. He says,
That is NOT how it works, and especially when reaching for the most selective institutions, it’s a mistake to make this adventure about a wished-for outcome. Doing so diminishes the likelihood for real learning and the countless moments that can emerge to empower college hopefuls to be more self-aware, more invested in and connected with their future.
Hyde tells students that “there’s a lot of agency to be gained when embracing this experience, and applicants should not yield that power to admissions committees.”
“Fit” is one of the most overused terms in college admission, and while the intentions are admirable, it can be misleading. By emphasizing “fit”, educators try to move students and families away from a focus on selectivity, rankings or the notion that admission to college is a prize to be won. However, it can often be misunderstood as suggesting that there will be one school that fits perfectly like a glove, and it can be intimidating to students when this type of fit eludes them. Bill Conley, vice president for enrollment management at Bucknell University has this to say,
There was a time when high school counselors urged students to find the 'right fit' and when college admissions officers claimed to recruit students who would 'fit well' with their schools. But now I think the word 'fit' is no longer a healthy word to associate with college admissions. It seems more people see 'fit' as 'conform'. Students should not seek conformity if that will not allow them to grow. College should not be seeking 'conformity' as that implies they do not wish to evolve as an institution. So is there a new 'fit'? Maybe it is the tried and true 'match. Find a college [a student] that matches your ambition to grow through challenge, some discomfort, and yes, some values that resonate with you as you are now.
“Well-rounded” is another term that is misused in college admission. The perception is that colleges and universities are looking for applicants who have a bit of everything. Assumedly, students should have a balance of excellent grades and test scores with a perfect spread of activities and involvement in a wide range of areas. These “wonder children” should be able to sing, dance, play soccer while holding their fiddle and volunteer using multiple languages, right? Wrong says Heath Einstein, dean of admission at Texas Christian University. He explains that “colleges do not seek well-rounded people; we want angular individuals who create a well-rounded class.” So, let’s allow the overscheduling and pressure of resume building in the name of well-roundedness to pass with 2018.
“Passion” is a word that makes high school students cringe. When they hear college admission offices talk about finding or demonstrating passion, they are often paralyzed by the perception that they must know what they will do with their life, or that they need to have identified their one big thing. The pressure to know and achieve is stifling and we need to think about involvement or engagement in different terms. Courtney Skerritt, director of college counseling at The Hockaday School agrees, saying, “I’m reading 'Enough as She Is' by Rachel Simmons and she does an amazing job outlining what is wrong with using the word 'passion' with teenagers and how, instead, we should have conversations about 'purpose'”. Skerritt adds, “Simmons’ work struck me, as this conversation has been happening with girls at Hockaday for over 100 years and with focus through our Institute for Social Impact. Students are craving an engagement in their future, but in ways that don’t make them feel like they have to figure it all out today."
“Diversity” has become a catch-all term in our language that has perhaps lost its meaning. It has long been a buzzword in college admission and the source of much debate, lawsuits and misunderstood intentions. Marie Bigham, founder and co-leader of ACCEPT: Admissions Community Cultivating Equity & Peace Today challenges its use, saying that, "'diversity’ is about counting numbers.” She adds, “in [the admission] profession, we often congratulate ourselves for doing just enough that's within our comfort zones.” Rather than simply seeking diversity, Bigham says, “I want our profession to seek equity and justice for marginalized communities that have often been kept away from post-secondary education. We need to make real change that removes barriers and builds higher education communities where everyone can thrive, learn, and lead.” In 2019, we must articulate the ways we can create more inclusive college campuses and level the playing field for students of all backgrounds.
“Undermatching” is a term used in college admission to suggest that highly qualified underrepresented students, who might be first-generation college students or have limited financial means, often do not get connected with selective colleges or maybe do not apply to college at all. Jody Glassman, director of undergraduate admission at Florida International University argues that we should move away from this word. She says,
Often when someone tells a student they are 'undermatching', it's based only on one characteristic such as academic achievement. The well-intentioned influencer does not account for what the environment might be like for the student beyond the classroom. Not just in terms of race, ethnicity and culture; but also climate, financial status, and the maturity to handle the changes.
When we are discussing equity and access, we must have more in-depth conversations about the many hurdles to reaching for a college education.
The list of outdated and misused—or misunderstood—terms goes on and on. A few honorable mentions from deans and counselors were words like, “fair”, “we”, “better”, “perfection”, “safety school”, “college placement”, and “holistic”. Certainly, students would also have strong opinions about the terms they would like to discard in the coming year. Even if we have all stopped going to the gym by February, let us at least be intentional about the words we use and the impact they might have on others.Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project