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Will College Admissions Ever Let Up?

October 21, 2008 06:00 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Ultracompetitive college admissions have driven students and parents to desperate measures, but has the obsession finally reached a breaking point?

Anything to Get in

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The intensely competitive college admissions process of 2008 has been well documented, but it seems that parents and students have reached a new level of desperation. According to the Chicago Tribune, some applicants and parents have resorted to “bashing other applicants” by mailing anonymous, disparaging letters. Sometimes they include negative newspaper clippings or suggest that admissions representatives visit a certain applicant’s Facebook page.

"People are willing to lie in order to do better in what they consider to be a difficult competition,” said Bill Fitzsimmons, admissions dean of Harvard University.

Admissions officials have not been tracking the number of negative “letters, calls or e-mails they receive and said they are unsure whether they're getting more of them.” But many experts suggest the behavior could be widespread, reports the Tribune.

"It is one more indication of the high anxiety that seems to be out there, the inability of some families to deal with a rejection," said Mabel Freeman, the assistant vice president of undergraduate admissions for The Ohio State University.

An article in The Boston Globe suggested that many of today’s parents risk becoming too involved in their children’s lives, prompting some critics to use the phrase “helicopter parent.” In addition to accompanying their children on tours of college campuses and helping out with application fees, parents are often “researching schools, helping write essays, and asking the tough questions,” said the article.

However, students in a 2007 College Board survey said they didn’t mind the extra attention, including 95 percent who said their parents were heavily involved. Many wished their parents had done even more.

Background: Tougher admissions process

The 2008 class of high school seniors was one of the largest in history, contributing to a highly competitive college application season. But as the economy struggled last spring, colleges wait-listed thousands of applicants, fearing many would not be able to afford tuition.

The process of applying to college, particularly in an economic downturn, has provoked high anxiety among students of all economic levels. Barmak Nassirian, spokesman for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, told Newsweek, “For many middle- and upper-middle-class kids, the transition from high school to college was never without some obvious stress. But now it has become a multiyear nightmare.”

Opinion & Analysis: What works, and what doesn’t

According to author Michele Hernandez, colleges today are looking for students who have focused on a passion, rather than students who’ve spread themselves thin attempting to be “well-rounded.”  But Hernandez cautions, “passion cannot be faked,” which could account for parental desperation. In addition, students of higher income families feel pressure to downplay their parents’ professions and seem more blue-collar, which could result in disingenuous applications.

Despite increased parental involvement and heightened student awareness of college admissions processes, mistakes are still being made and much of the system remains a mystery.

TheStreet.com reports on high school senior Lukasz Zbylut, who was accepted to all seven of the Ivy League schools he applied to, as well as 10 others, thwarting the chances of acceptance for other students. The situation could have been averted if Zbylut had been more aware of which schools suited him.

Careers Web site Monster.com is addressing that issue. Monster recently launched Admissions.com, which aims to help students and parents find “the right school” to fit their interests and abilities. Monster.com claims in its press release that companion sites FastWeb.com (which helps students complete online applications) and FinAid.org (which offers financial aid guidance) give Admissions.com an edge over other college planning Web sites.

Reference: College admissions guide

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