College-choice sanity



For nearly three decades, Martha O'Connell has seen the hopes and fears of high school seniors pass through her hands.

That's how long she has been in the college admissions business, the last 15 years at McDaniel College in Westminster, where O'Connell is vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions.

This year is no exception.

"I've just finished reading 900 essays, all in the last 15 days," O'Connell said last week.

It is deadline season in the college admissions world. Last week, high school seniors applying for early admission began hearing from their chosen schools. And for those applying for regular admission, the end of the year brings the first of the deadlines for sending in applications. Results will be out by April.

During her career, O'Connell, 51, has seen the tension level rise higher and higher to the present high-stakes game of rankings and ratings, scores and statistics. It is not an evolution she has enjoyed.

As a result, O'Connell is active in two groups seeking to bring a different approach to the process. She is on the advisory board of The Education Conservancy, a group founded in 2002 by Lloyd Thacker, a former college admissions officer and high school guidance counselor. Among its stated goals: "Help students, colleges and high schools overcome commercial interference in college admissions," and "Calm the frenzy and hype that plague contemporary college admissions."

In addition, McDaniel is part of Colleges that Change Lives. These 40 schools were chosen by Loren Pope, a one-time education writer for The New York Times, who hoped to shine a light on some small liberal arts colleges that might get overlooked in the ranking and prestige wars. Pope argues that students are more likely to get a spark of inspiration at such schools than at big-name institutions. Their admissions representatives travel the country together, trying to emphasize that this is not a competitive sport.

At the same time, O'Connell admits that there is tension on her side of the desk, something she feels every time she sees a group of prospective students touring the campus.

"It's a one-shot deal," she said of campus visits. "If they don't like the tour guide, what can you do? It's what makes my hair turn gray."

What is the message that admissions officials active in groups like The Education Conservancy are trying to get out?

We are trying to calm students and their parents down. We want them to realize that there are so many choices in this country that it is absurd for someone to say, "Oh, I'm not going to get in anywhere." To hear those words coming out of the mouth of someone who lives in a country with more than 1,500 four-year colleges and universities does not really make sense.

Too much of the focus is put on the one-quarter of applications that get sent to the 156 most selective schools. Those are the ones that accept less than half of their applications. Everyone else accepts more than half. But the focus tends to be on that tiny minority. There are plenty of options that would be better fits for plenty of students. If we could just move away from focusing on those highly selective schools, it would lower everyone's stress level.

Is the stress level bad?

It gets worse every year as the so-called "baby-boom echo" bubble of students moves through. When that bubble - the children of baby boomers - bursts in about 2012, depending on where you are in the country, the stress will go down. For now, you still have the frenzy.

It is fueled by stories of the straight-A student with perfect standardized test scores who doesn't get into any school. Of course, this is only some tiny minority of kids, but everybody reads those stories and thinks, "Oh, no, this is going to happen to me." So you try to give out the facts, to calm students down.

Students need to be kids. They don't need the college admissions process to be the focus of what they are doing so early in their high school careers. Some start as freshmen, trying to game the system. They should be involved in activities because they want to, not because they think they will look great on their college application.

How has the plethora of college rankings affected this process?

It is part of what has fueled this frenzy. Ranking systems change the admission process to something that is not about the right fit between a student and a school, it's about numbers. And numbers are not a good way to choose a spouse or a college.

This a process that takes some time. It requires making sure that the student and his or her family sit down and talk about what the goals of the student are. Why is the student going to college? What does he or she hope to achieve there? A school that is in the top 10 or top 20 on some list might not be the right place to meet those goals.

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