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The Waiting Game: Recent Trends in College Applications 

Students like Kate LaValle can be - overwhlemed applying to colleges. - PHOTOS BY HILLARY HARVEY
  • photos by Hillary Harvey
  • Students like Kate LaValle can be overwhlemed applying to colleges.

After her daughter Elle took the PSATs junior year at Red Hook Central High School, Emily Houpt would open her mailbox to find it brimming with college catalogs, envelopes, letters, and brochures. The pile on Elle's desk grew until her room filled. "That's when I realized," Houpt says, "it's an ocean."

Schools have become savvier in their marketing according to Erica Hezi, a guidance counselor for Ardsley High School. "This is big business. [Schools] put cookies on their websites, and track visitors. They pay the College Board for names of students who are within a band of scores," she explains. "It's upsetting for us as counselors because we have kids who think they've been earmarked, but it's often recruit to reject. If a thousand students apply, and only 250 are selected, it bumps up their selectivity rating."

Hezi says, "In my school, the average number of applications is 10 to 12 per student, but I've seen kids apply to 28 schools." With application fees, test score fees, and professionals offering writing help and test prep, Hezi feels students have to be savvy consumers. "They have to get away from bumper sticker mentality. You're not going to college for a name; you're going for an education." In a brutal job market, millennials have a fondness for demonstrated results and a wariness of overextending themselves financially.

"It's a very anxiety-provoking transition in a child's life," Hezi says. "Parents have their expectations, and sometimes in that push for the best, they overlook what the child is really saying. And kids lack the experience and maturity to know what they want. The most important thing is that kids are on a journey. Life is a process. They may not get into their number one school, and they may ultimately choose a school that's inappropriate, but there are always other options. It's important to embrace the process instead of being intimidated by it."

Buying An Education

For some families, spring break is college shopping time. During her junior year, Elle and Houpt toured schools and at some, Elle was interviewed. Many schools have moved towards alumni-conducted interviews, but there's a trend now to exclude interviews altogether from the application process. Houpt felt they got better with each college visit: clarifying what they liked, noting questions asked by other kids' and using that to inform their questions at the next college. For schools Elle was truly interested in, she always sat in on a class. Other than that, Houpt played little part in Elle's college application process. Seeing the potential for overwhelm, she hired Sandra Moore of Next Step College Counseling to guide Elle through the process.

In the current college market, the field of independent educational consultants, like Moore, is booming, and digital options now provide virtual guidance. Moore comes to it from a lifelong career on both sides of the college admissions desk. Her method is to help students figure out their wants and needs, then determine which colleges would serve those interests. "Kids get hung up on feeling they need to prove their worth. I help empower them throughout the process," Moore says. She broke the process down into the next manageable item on Elle's to-do list.

"Buying a college education is financially akin to buying a house," Houpt says. "Why wouldn't I get advice from an expert on this huge purchase?" With annual private school tuition approaching $70,000, Moore says affordability must be factored in at the outset. "Most families don't understand which schools are generous with need-based and merit aid. Rather than ruling out expensive colleges based on sticker price, families can learn to figure out actual net costs from the get-go." Most colleges have a net price calculator on their websites, so after a short questionnaire, parents can estimate the costs before their kids apply. Houpt tried it at all five schools Elle applied to and said they were all accurate.

College financials are Moore's area of expertise. Through blog writing and pro-bono talks, she walks families through need-based and merit aid application processes. For the 2017-18 school year, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms came online in October 2016 rather than January 2017, which allowed parents, for the first time, to use real tax numbers rather than estimating.

Working with Moore, Houpt says, removed the feeling of urgency from Elle's application process. "Unless you're someone who can only go to the Ivy Leagues, the goal isn't to get into the best college," Houpt says."The goal is to get into the best college for you. Because there is no best college. It doesn't exist, but people get sold on that idea."

Kate LaValle surrounded by the - materials colleges sent her.
  • Kate LaValle surrounded by the materials colleges sent her.

Alternative Applications

While the Common Application is convenient, it can be desperate. Students send one application to multiple schools, sometimes casting an overly wide net. But researchers find that most students aren't applying to too many schools; it's that they're all applying to the same ones. To assist students in focusing on finding the right fit, some colleges are developing alternative application options. They recognize that the application is a student's first introduction to the school.

In 2016, an online platform developed by the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, a group of more than ninety select schools, including all eight Ivy Leagues, was launched as a competitor to the Common Application. Kids create an online locker of work as they go through high school, which can be shared with parents and other adults for feedback. Recommendations are uploaded to the locker, which can be sent to schools of choice within the group. The idea is to help, particularly low income, kids who might not have access to prep, feedback, and guidance, begin planning for college as early as ninth grade. But it's also used by colleges to accommodate applicants. Williams College in the Berkshires accepts both the Common App and the Coalition App, noting on their website that they have no preferred application, and hope students will use the option that is most comfortable.

"The exciting thing about alternative applications is that they can speak to the school's pedagogy," explains Liam Dailey, the assistant director of admissions at Bennington College in Southern Vermont. "Students learn what the school values and get a taste of what it would look like to study there. The basic idea is that the application is specific to the college."

In 2013, Bennington launched the Dimensional Application, where students design a submission around the materials and format that best demonstrates what they would bring to the college community. It's an alternative to the Common Application, which the college also accepts, and provides an avenue for students who are interested in applying to college differently. Dimensional applications are evaluated for their construction and organization as much as for their collection of content. Its open-ended prompt encourages students to see the application process as a learning experience.

Last year, a Dimensional applicant constructed a wooden chest, filled with printed photos and examples of his glass blowing work, and hand delivered it to the college. It might take two hours to evaluate a Dimensional Application, and Dailey says it's not always possible to devote that much attention to one application at other schools. Bennington's pedagogy has specific appeal, though, so with it, a smaller pool of applicants. Of the 1200 applications Bennington received for the 2016-17 year, the majority were traditional Common applications, and 91 were Dimensional. Dailey says it's obvious why only 7 to 8 percent of applicants are utilizing the option. "It's scary to take away the traditional checkpoints that you would have in an application. This is the option for students where we're among their top choice." Even if all applicants don't apply the option, Dailey feels that most consider the Dimensional Application to infuse their Common Application submissions with a better understanding of what Bennington values.

"It doesn't serve any school to increase applications for applications' sake," Dailey says. "Your admit rate might go down for a couple years, but your ability to predict students' success goes down with it." Most admissions counselors argue that the push to increase applications is about increasing access.

Tests Optional

Long a leader in alternative educational philosophies, Bennington has been officially test optional since 2006—meaning it's up to the applicant whether or not to submit standardized test scores. As of 2015, 850 colleges and universities have joined them. In 2014, Hampshire College went test blind, meaning they wouldn't even look at scores submitted. "There's a growing resentment, in general, toward standardized tests," says Dean Viggiano, a Learning Coordinator at Tutoring Up-Grades in Poughkeepsie. "There's no correlation between test scores and an ability to succeed at college. What they test is your ability to take standardized tests."

At Tutoring Up-Grades, the focus is not only on academics and test prep, but on the student as a whole. Viggiano also provides test anxiety and stress management plans. He feels that understanding the material is one thing, but being able to recall, access, and utilize it is another. "Because of high-pressure and high stakes testing and the transition to Common Core, which some teachers were not well-prepared to teach, high school students have been taking tests they don’t feel prepared for," Viggiano posits. Even when students know the material, fear and anxiety can hinder them. A lot of Viggiano's job is stress management.

After the SAT test changed a few years ago to include a subject essay test and bring the scoring up to a total of 2,400 points, it was changed in March 2016 to be scored again at a total of 1,600. The SATs are aligning themselves to the Common Core curriculum and also making changes so they're competitive with the ACT. "As of fairly recently, any school that accepts the SAT also accepts the ACT," Viggiano reports. "If you can take either test, you might as well take the one that's better for you."

Test prep companies and courses are also available through community colleges and for free at Khan Academy, a tutoring website. Generally, test prep is about learning the rules that test makers use. "Once you know that, you're going to improve," Viggiano says. "It's about practice, and practicing the right way." The tutors at Tutoring Up-Grades take the tests every year to make sure their strategies work and to keep up abreast of any changes. "Now, if you guess and get it right, you get a raw point. But if you guess and get it wrong, nothing happens." He says it's important to understand the evolution because parents might base advice on what tests were like when they took them.


Enough Is Enough

"It's totally different doing applications the third or fourth time, rather than the first or second," says Christine LaValle as her daughter, Kate, awaited decisions on her college applications. The last of four children, Kate drew upon the experiences of her three older brothers. For the LaValles, the takeaway was to apply early.

It used to be that the major options available in a college application was when to apply: regular or early. Now, there are several different early application options. Kate applied Early Admission at five colleges. She applied in fall of her senior year, so she'll be considered among a smaller pool of candidates and can indicate her seriousness about those programs. If nothing works out, Kate will apply Regular Admission. Early Decision is similar, but binding, meaning she'd have to enroll if the school accepted her, functionally limiting her applications to one school that she could afford. Bard College in Red Hook offers a third early option. The Immediate Decision Plan accelerates the Early Action process through a daylong seminar program that culminates in notification the following day.

"My parents wanted me to do early admission because it gets it done," Kate says. By Christmas and New Year's, Kate had the results, removing the unknown from her senior year. "So I can enjoy it."

"It's painted to them that every decision you make right now will affect the rest of your life," says LaValle, exasperatedly. The LaValles are all about streamlining the process. Kate's college essays were done before her senior year began. She kept files for each school, with a dossier for each one, including a communications log to record connections made and whether she needed to follow up.

Still, Kate wasn't entirely spared the application anxiety. Sitting down one night during the first semester of her senior year, Kate had a moment of panic. She had just two sections left in each of her applications, which took months to think about, but only two hours to complete. "I was super scared to finish the applications," Kate admits, "because this is when everything happens."

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