It has been twenty years since I began my career in college admissions and I am finally seeing a shift in the process which benefits our kids. It's been a long time coming—a hard-fought battle between student advocates and the powerful Ivory Towers that have continually raised the bar for certain groups of students they deemed too commonplace in their applicant pool.
These are the five biggest trends in college admissions which show a definite shift in power from the colleges to students:
1. Racial, Ethnic, and Cultural Celebration in the Application
In 2015, I wrote an opinion piece for the LA Times, "The Truth about Holistic Admissions," where I pointed out decades-long discrimination against high-achieving Asian American students at elite colleges. Since then, several lawsuits have been filed against Ivy League colleges and a growing number of student advocate groups promoting cultural pride and acceptance like DeclarASIAN have surfaced. Admissions offices are on notice.
When families ask me if they should avoid the race/ethnic/religious questions on the application, I tell them to answer every single one. This forces the admissions committee to face underlying bias and think twice before they raise the expectations for certain students. In fact, I used to tell these groups of students to avoid writing their essays about their culture. Now I say celebrate it in the most powerful way. This approach has spread not only with Asian American students but students of all backgrounds and faiths. No student should ever feel afraid again to celebrate their race, ethnicity and religion in their applications.
2. Alternatives to the AP Curriculum
One of the biggest pressures on high school students is taking the most challenging curriculum available to them. If they don't, their class rank may be impacted and they won't be as competitive for elite colleges. This has led students to take as many Advanced Placement courses as they can fit into their schedule, sometimes leaving them with no lunch period and hours of homework each night. Growing research suggests that schools offering the AP curriculum are only teaching to the test, the AP exams at the end of the year.
The Mastery Transcript Consortium is a group of high schools offering an alternative: a curriculum and assessment which promotes a deeper understanding and a "mastery" of the subject area rather than teaching to the test. While the list of member schools still looks like a page out of a prep school guide from the 1950's, these are some of the most respected schools in the country and have the power to influence the colleges who have relied on their students for decades. Look for more schools, even public schools, to take a stand against unreasonable expectations for students by limiting the number of AP courses they can take each year or even eliminating the program altogether.
3. Standardized Test Flexibility
Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my former employer, the University of Pennsylvania, would change its policy to "super-score" the ACT or even back off it's strict Subject Test policy, but they did. More colleges are taking the best scores from each section of the ACT to create the highest composite score just like they do for the SAT. And even the elite colleges who have held Subject Tests as the ultimate differentiator between a good student and a superior student are toning down this requirement.
The purpose of this change has been to encourage more low-income students to apply to these elite colleges. However, if low-income students do not have to take these tests, the colleges find themselves needing to apply this standard to all students in their applicant pool. Penn, along with Stanford, Harvard, and many other elite colleges no longer require Subject Tests as part of the evaluation. Instead they "recommend" that students take Subject Tests, but will not hold it against them if they choose to withhold them.
Additionally, the test optional movement has been stronger than ever with the list of colleges not requiring standardized tests growing steadily over the past five years. Colleges are finding other ways to evaluate ability, match, and the depth of a student's mind. This is a positive sign for students who believe they have something extraordinary to offer to colleges beyond their test scores.
4. Starting to Think About College Sooner
While some may argue that sooner is not better when it comes to the admissions process, it's important for students to think about their future and how their choices will impact where they enroll in college. The courses they take in 9th grade will determine what they take by senior year. The activities they pursue early in high school could pave the way for greater opportunities down the road.
The Common Application now allows students access as early as freshman year to avoid the mad rush that occurs in senior year. This philosophy began two years ago with a new application platform called the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success which allows students to store papers, assignments and other work starting in 9th grade in online "lockers." Keeping track of achievements allows students to prepare more thoughtfully over time for the college process.
5. Impact Over Leadership
When I first started out in college admissions, "getting in" was all about leadership titles. Students had to gather the highest level of leadership in each club activity to feel like they could stand out in a highly competitive applicant pool. Nowadays, making an "impact" on a cause, movement, hobby, or commitment is much more respected.
This new paradigm allows a student to pursue something meaningful to them which may or may not fit into a traditional activity like student government, athletics, or community service. The student who creates something on their own, moves a cause forward, or independently pursues a transformative project shows initiative, influence, and ingenuity. This has effectively reset the way colleges view and evaluate extracurricular activities.
For decades, our students have felt tremendous pressure to fit into the gilded mold set forth by elite colleges. The effect on our youth has been undue stress, unreasonable expectations, and unfair admissions practices. Finally, we are beginning to see communities and high schools taking a stand for our kids. Elite colleges have no choice but to be more supportive. And with time, students will benefit from a more balanced approach to who they are and how they apply to college.