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Finding Common Joy In College Admission

Brennan Barnard
What are the first three words you think of when you hear college admission application? Go ahead, take a moment and write them down. I had my suspicions for how students would respond, but nonetheless decided to conduct an unscientific poll of the young people with whom I work in a variety of settings. Intimidating, lengthy, boring, hard, nerve-racking, annoying, a grind, stressful, complex, daunting, competitive, perilous, one-dimensional and terrifying—these were just a few (those that were appropriate to print) of the adjectives that emerged. Do these align with the words that you just wrote or were you more optimistic?

Common App is. They want to reframe the narrative around applying to college—it doesn’t have to be a slog. In fact, as the 2019-2020 application prepares to launch on August 1, they want it to be joyful. Not only have they changed the online interface so that virtual confetti drops when a student submits their application, but they are also inviting educators, students and families to consider their approach to the admission experience as one of opportunity rather than limitation. This spring, I was invited to attend their annual Member Summit in Arlington, Virginia where nearly 400 college admission deans gathered to reflect on the past admission cycle and to plan for the coming year. The themes of joy, empathy, simplicity and equity were apparent in every conversation.

Common App is a not-for-profit college access organization that was established by 15 private colleges in 1975, and has grown to an association of nearly 900 member colleges and universities, both public and private, in all 50 states and around the world. Together they have collaborated to provide a centralized or “common” undergraduate application for admission with an express mission of improving ”access, equity, and integrity”, all values that are more important than ever in college admission. Students can fill out a single application online and apply to up to 20 colleges at once, though on average students submit fewer than 5 applications through Common App. While colleges typically charge a fee to apply, some colleges waive these charges. Common App is free for all students to use, and provides fee waivers to students for whom the cost of apply to multiple colleges would present a hardship. Many of the member colleges have supplemental questions or essays that accompany the standard application and those schools that also offer their own institutional or other application must agree to give equal consideration regardless of how a student chooses to apply. Over one million students—a third of whom are first generation—a year choose to apply through this platform and they are of all ages, backgrounds, circumstances and financial means. 

President and Chief Executive Officer, Jenny Rickard is the perfect ambassador for joy in the college admission process. Rickard exudes positivity and is deeply committed to reducing barriers to access to higher education. Having served in admission roles and leadership at The University of Puget Sound, Bryn Mawr College, Swarthmore College and New York University School of Law, she is ideally poised to facilitate their renewed vision.

So why joy? Rickard explains,
"We engaged a group of applicants, admission professionals, and counselors in a strategic planning process using human-centered design principles to chart Common App’s course for the future. One of the questions we asked of all participants was ‘What one word would you NEVER use to describe the college admissions process?’ There was striking similarity in response across all of our constituents saying that they would NEVER use words like ‘Simple. Logical. Joyful.’"
This is consistent with research by the Making Caring Common (MCC) project at Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggesting that high percentages of high school students find the admissions process stressful. MCC's research also finds that achievement pressure often squeezes out children's attention to others and their communities. Doesn’t sound too joyful, does it? Reflecting on the responses that Common App received, Rickard adds,
"I was struck by all the words that people would NEVER use, but found the presence of ‘joyful’ on that list particularly poignant for me. It’s even more poignant today given the recent scandal that highlights the stress and systemic inequities of the current process. So we’ve taken on the challenge to bring joy to the college admissions experience by making the application simple and the process logical – and by celebrating applicants all along the way. Because expanding your possibilities and your potential through higher education should be joyful. And the process to explore and reach those possibilities should be, too."
You might still be skeptical about the relative joy involved in applying to college, but the truth is that it is a personal experience and each individual controls the attitude with which they engage. Rickard tells students and families to, “approach the process with an open mind and without attachment to any particular school as an outcome.” By doing so she says, “they open themselves up to the incredible opportunities our higher education system provides.” Here are some other ways to make the experience one of revelry not revulsion:

●     Pride and joy: If you are at the point of filling out an application, it means you have likely worked hard to get to this place. You have taken the classes necessary to be prepared and some of you have overcome great hurdles personally and academically to even be considering higher education. This is something to be immensely proud of, so pause and take delight in your efforts.

●     Celebrate early and often: Be intentional about making time to celebrate each stage of the admission experience. Set a timeline for when you will complete different parts of the search and application. Maybe by September 15 you will plan to be done all your visits and interviews, by October 1st you will have a final draft of you college essay and by October 15 you will have completed all the application sections. Then at each milestone, go out to dinner with family, see a movie with friends, or find some other way to treat yourself with kindness.

●     Focus on the opportunities: It is easy to get caught up in rankings, selectivity and the potential for being denied admission. While you have to be realistic about your options, instead of fixating on what you cannot have, spend your time and energy getting excited about the colleges where you will thrive and have a strong chance of being admitted. Imagine the connections you will form, the learning you will do, and the experiences you will be exposed to. Make a list of all the opportunities that you want to take advantage of in college, like studying abroad, internships, intramural sports, student government or other means of engagement.

●     Create memories: Do you want to look back on the junior and senior year of high school as something you simply “endured” as you prepared for college? Hopefully this experience will be one you remember fondly years from now. Make it so. Maybe as you visit colleges, find the best burger joint in each town or take a walk with whoever accompanies you in the nearest park. Use the long car rides to talk about your dreams for the future and share laughs and stories with your travel companions.

●     Be a scavenger: Are the college tours all starting to feel the same? Do you need something to make it a bit more exciting? Try creating a scavenger hunt that you play at each campus. Make a list of the items that you will search for (maybe a school newspaper, a photo at the most historic spot on campus, or the signature or the president) and be creative. Not only will you learn more about each school, but it will also keep you engaged and looking beyond the school’s marketing.

●     Pay it forward: Another way to celebrate the opportunity to apply to college is to share resources and experiences. Students and families who have the financial means to visit colleges can include those who do not in their travels and help create access to higher education in other ways. Maybe this means advocating for your school to share college search resources, college planning tools, and admissions-related curricula, with less wealthy schools and districts. Or perhaps you can encourage standardized test preparation for all students rather than simply arranging for private tutoring for an individual student. Common App has done this by expanding their organization to include Reach Highera college access initiative founded by former First Lady Michelle Obama during her time at the White House.

●     Be grateful: Perhaps the ultimate way to spread joy in the college application experience is to express thanks to those who have supported and encouraged you. Whether it is a parent, sibling, friend, teacher, counselor or other mentor, be intentional about gratitude and share your appreciation for the opportunities you have been provided. A simple handwritten note or thank you goes a long way.

Lee Ann Backlund, dean of admission and financial aid and vice president for enrollment planning at The University of the South is the chair of Common App’s Board of Directors. Describing the work of this membership organization, she says, “part of our work has been to provide more resources for students, families, counselors, and teachers, which is part of the newly designed website.” She adds, “another piece of this includes the diversity of colleges who are members of Common App which makes it easier for students to apply to an array of colleges and universities from one platform and to keep their options open.” This is crucial for expanding access and simplifying this rite of passage for many young people. Backlund believes strongly that “Common App clears the way for a better application for all students.” She explains that by reframing this experience, “the stressful, angst filled part of a students senior year will become a joyful part of their journey and that they will focus on their senior year in a positive way and not focus solely on "getting into college." Though it might not happen overnight, hopefully this emphasis on joy and integrity will create a more meaningful and fulfilling experience for applicants and will center the college search on the value and transformative power of higher education.

Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project
for www.forbes.com
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