A new set of rules for the admissions game

There is no way to start a column about the college admissions process in a new, scintillating way. I could tell you about Student X of Nebraska who is fretting about her early application process right this minute as you eat your sausage patty and apple cinnamon dairyless pancakes. Or I could remind you of how every year when the leaves turn red and yellow — actually, I don’t even want to finish that sentence, it’s that stupid. So instead I’m going to tell you this: I think college admissions counseling programs are disgusting.

So-called “college counseling programs” are, ostensibly, partially geared toward helping students choose which college is “right” for them. But we all know in truth that, especially for high school students like we once were, this is not the bulk of this multimillion-dollar industry. The real reason parents spend thousands of dollars on various counseling and test-preparation programs is that they want their precious children to be afforded a spot at Prestigious University. As we have all heard, some parents in New York City will even begin preparing their children by having them apply to competitive pre-schools and “engage with” products like Baby Einstein.

The truth is, though, that no one really seems prepared to halt this system’s fierce hold on the psyches of college-bound high school seniors. In cases like these — where we know that the system is not only unnecessarily stressful, tedious and stupid, but more importantly, that it is fundamentally biased against low-income families with fewer such resources — we need a radical solution.

My proposal? Institute a requirement in college applications that the applicant receive no help with them. What does this mean? No more SAT preparation courses. No more proofreaders for college application essays. No more high school courses devoted to learning how to write a college application essay (by the way, that’s disgusting). No more guidance counseling on what to do to get into Prestigious U. All it takes is one group of influential universities — ahem, Ivy League — to instigate such a requirement.

If you think it can’t be done, take a look at the American Medical College Application Service, the national hub for applications to medical school. When you apply to medical school through AMCAS, you are required to submit all transcripts from all post-secondary institutions. Omitting a transcript to mask a poor grade in, say, the organic chemistry class you took before taking your real organic chemistry class, is ultimately a lie by omission. Possible consequences? Failure to be admitted to medical school. Ever. Institute a similar leveled-playing-field system for college admissions, and it seems to me that ambitious high school students would suddenly be willing to forgo SAT prep if the alternative were to be barred from a university education.

I understand, of course, that this solution does not target the bigger problems of access to, say, quality public school education, or elite Andover/Exeter-style private schools. Nor does it level the playing field of access to cultural and intellectual stimulation in the home. But I can’t in good conscience say that because this solution may not fix everything, it has no place in a reform of college admissions. If you think it can’t be done — and I am certainly no poster child for lack of resources in high school, so take this for what it’s worth — take a look: I got into Yale with no SAT preparation, no help with my application, and no advising on my application essay — and no private school education. Ask around; I bet more people did it than you think.

Such a reform would have true relevance in revising current thinking on affirmative action programs. Although affirmative action is an important goal in a society where race and gender have not ceased to play a limiting role for some people, it is administered in a fairly useless way. I don’t mean to say that it doesn’t increase minority presence in colleges and business; it does that to some extent. But it does nothing to truly correct the problem.

Let’s take a look at the cause and effect. In the college admissions setting, affirmative action programs take the effect — a smaller proportion of qualified minority applicants than rich white ones — and work from there. Others try to target the cause, by trying to even the race and gender playing fields in societal consciousness. This tack is limited in its short-term effectiveness. But my no-help requirement, with access to certain undeniably biased resources prohibited to all those involved, would target the problem earlier in the cause-effect scheme than do affirmative action programs.

It’s one thing for a student to be advised, for instance, on which colleges are best-suited to his needs. It is an entirely different — and thoroughly unnecessary — thing for a student to be advised on how best to write a college application essay. Or take the SAT, for instance, which would prove a much better assessment tool if some students taking it hadn’t spent hundreds of dollars and several months learning how to debunk its contents. There are more egregious techniques: having mom or dad proofread or, heaven forbid, “assist” in writing an essay; or failing to do the application process yourself while Guidance Counselor and Parental Unit do the whole thing for you. This unwillingness to take responsibility for access to higher education betrays, ultimately, a lack of preparedness for college in the first place. Disgusting, no?

Jessamyn Blau is a senior in Morse College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.