How would I change admissions?

I spend my time reading and thinking about college admissions from a certain viewpoint--high school students. I rarely think about parents' perspectives or colleges' perspectives. I help out with the demand part of the equation. But what about the supply side? If I could advise colleges to make their search for top-notch students more efficient and effective, what would I tell them? How would I design the college admissions game?

If I could magically change the whole system, I would basically make it a two-cycle year.

Virtually all schools would have Early Action applications due on October 1, and every student who applied would have to commit to only applying EA at no more than three schools. I would eliminate binding, one-school-only Early Decision. Colleges would get their acceptance letters and financial aid offers out by January 1, and students would have until February 1 to make their decision.

Then, after February 1, any colleges that still have openings and any students that haven't found their place (or didn't make the October 1 deadline) can have another spring round between February 1 and May 1. 

This would be challenging to colleges. They would need to move fast to process all those early applications and get financial aid offers out. They would also have a lot less time for marketing to the students they accept to get those students to commit. However, admissions personnel would have a lot fewer applications to read. They wouldn't be spending nearly as much time working through applications for students who have no real expectation of attending but only applied out of a "why not?" attitude. Because students would only apply to three or fewer, all October applicants would show "demonstrated interest," and if October 1 becomes the norm then all the top students will be part of that first round. A lot of universities would have almost all--if not all--of their seats filled by the end of the year.

Sure, students could get another acceptance in the spring round and pull out of their spot, but not a whole lot of seniors are going to say "I have an acceptance and financial aid offer from one of my top three schools, but I'm going to put myself through another round of admissions just in case." Senioritis would work in the school's favor for once.

This would also be challenging to students. Most of them would have to start their application process much earlier than is the norm, being close to done by the beginning of their senior year. They would also have to be much more critical in their choices. It's common to apply to more than ten schools, so narrowing it down to three at the outset would be a hard process for most seniors. 

The advantage is that most students would be completely finished by February 1, instead of May 1. The spring of 12th grade is way more stressful for a lot of students than the fall. There's more work in the fall getting the applications filled out and submitted, but too many seniors delay the really hard decisions until spring. They just apply to a bunch of schools and see what happens. That's why, as a 12th grade AP Literature teacher, I always had a lot more student absences in the spring than the fall. Students were going on more college visits and working furiously to get scholarships once they finally saw their financial aid offers.

And for students not finished by February 1, there would still be the spring round. Universities would have clear ideas about how many and what kind of students they still need, and students could apply to as many of these openings as they want--not just three from the early round. 

Both students and universities would need to get started sooner, with a heavy focus on 11th grade instead of thinking of university admissions as mostly a 12th grade thing. But I think that would be a good change. Parents and families would also need to be able to complete the FAFSA sooner. Now that FAFSA allows "prior-prior year" data, and allows you to upload data directly from the IRS, this wouldn't necessarily be difficult. 

One of the best effects of my two-cycle plan is that it would drastically alter college rankings and reputation. Right now universities get more publicity and prestige for rejecting applicants than for accepting them. "Elite" and "Selective" are practically synonymous, so schools get rewarded for attracting lots of applications so they can turn them down. This isn't efficient for anyone. If most students only applied to three schools, there could be a great leveling-out of acceptance rates. Students could more easily choose schools for qualities other than selectivity, and schools could be ranked highly for serving their students rather than rejecting their applicants.

My system isn't going to get implemented any time soon, but--assuming you're not a current senior--you can still take advantage of the basic ideas. 

Start your college search earlier; don't wait until your senior year. Do your research ahead of time and apply to 8-10 schools instead of 15-20. Apply before the earliest non-binding deadline for all the schools. Talk to your family about money as soon as possible and have your FAFSA ready to go. You can't make the system good and efficient for everyone, but you can decide to make it better and more efficient for you. And that's probably good enough.

Related blog posts: Thinking about supply and demand; Learn from economists and apply early; Stop paying attention to acceptance rates!

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