College Application Strategy - Shotgun or Scalpel?
> 3/21/2006 9:26:13 AM

In today's New York Times, writer Alan Finder examines the change in strategies that is occurring across the country for students applying to college. Evidence illustrates how high schoolers are increasingly applying to colleges numbering in the double-digits.

An annual survey of college freshmen indicates that students bound for all kinds of institutions are filing more applications these days. In 1967, only 1.8 percent of freshman surveyed had applied to seven or more colleges, while in 2005, 17.4 percent had done so, according to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at U.C.L.A., which conducts the survey. The survey began asking recently if the students had applied to 12 or more colleges; that proportion increased by 50 percent from 2001 to 2005.

Finder attributes much of this change in strategy to a growing anxiety about admissions, fueled by guidebooks that rank schools, increasing media coverage or the process and, in no small part, to parents, and the pressures that they place on kids to get into a "good college."

I would agree whole heartedly with all three of these: ranking guides create another ruler by which students can measure themselves (with only negative effects), the media exacerbates this by giving significant print and airtime to any change in these rankings and parents, well, this isn't even an appropriate post to address the problems of parenting and college applications. I would, however, lump another culprit into this miasma of anxiety: the colleges and universities themselves.

Schools, from top to bottom, aggressively recruit high schoolers. Once you've taken the PSAT, and often times, even before, you're on their list. The next two to three years will be a non-stop build-up until that final decision is made.

Finder employs the word anxiety, and that is a perfect description for the feeling that colleges and universities cultivate in potential applicants. Schools are aggressively marketing themselves at students, and one of a school's biggest selling points (especially at the "top tier") is their selectivity rating. So at the same time that they are saying, "Apply here, we're great!" They are also saying, "Buuuuuut, you probably won't get in." This strategy, while wildly effective, as proven by Finder's article, engenders a horrible amount of stress and anxiety about the process. The end result is what the NYT article addresses, a shotgun approach to applications.

Not nearly creative enough to think up this stuff on the fly, I stole my term from a student quoted by Finder. Michael Martin, who serves as Finder's introduction to the piece, concludes the story as well:

"I kind of did it shotgun--different campuses, different places, all across the country," said Mr. Martin, who said he hoped to become a wildlife veterinarian.

He was asked what he would do if 15 or 20 colleges offered him admission

"That," Mr. Martin said, "would be a great problem to have."

This isn't necessarily a terrible idea. Employing an "aim for the moon" attitude, most applicants would be happy to "land among the stars" (as that old, and somewhat obnoxious, saying goes). But I would propose that a less stressful and ultimately healthier approach to the college application process would be to use a scalpel in place of a shotgun.

The NYT article mentions that the common application, a universal application that is accepted by 270 colleges and universities, has made it easier for students to maximize their exposure. But even in the case of the common application, most schools, and especially the more exclusive ones, will require a supplemental application and essay. This makes applying to 20+ schools not only a stressful process, but also a lengthy one.

Utilizing a scalpel approach to college application seeks to maximize your effectiveness for your time investment. By spending some of that energy spent on countless applications on research, a student can begin to better shape their decision making process. Eliminate schools that don't have majors that interest you. Whittle away schools that are too big, too small, wrong location, wrong climate. In many of the cases that Finder mentions, the underlying purpose behind applying to a variety of schools was a delay in decision making. But sooner or later, schools will have to be eliminated.

Conversations with college counselors can also prove helpful in finding where similar students have had success in the past. Some high schools have never sent someone to Harvard. Does that mean you shouldn't apply? Of course not. But that piece of information can help better shape your decision making. College counselors can also help students look a little more realistically at their options. A student with a B+ average, minimal extracurriculars and a 1800 SAT will probably not get into Yale. It's just a fact of life. Again, this doesn't mean you don't include reach schools, if there's one thing that every year shows it's that college acceptance patterns are often haphazard. But here again, realistic expectations can help cut down on anxiety and stressful amounts of application work.

The bottom line is that the college decision will be the biggest of most students lives to that point, so why not treat it with the same reflection that one would treat any other major decision. By finding good fits before sending out applications, students will make their jobs easier down the road. Sure, they might not be able to say they got into 15 schools. But, I think that if asked, any student would say that they'd rather go to a school that fit their interests and goals as opposed to receive 12 acceptances from schools that might be of a high quality but poor personal matches.

One other major factor in cutting down on anxiety and making the college application process healthier is having a safety school or a couple of safety choices. In a worst case scenario situation, a student doesn't get into nearly every school. But by being realistic with themselves, every student would have a safety school. And while it might be a pain in the butt, any student can transfer. Just punch your weight at your safety school for a year, and swing for the fences again.

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