Playing the college application game

Caroline Newman

February 06, 2011

During the evening of Jan. 2, a single piano appeared on a lonely sandbar in the middle of Miami’s Biscayne Bay. After days of speculation and at least one false declaration of responsibility, teenager Nicholas Harrington claimed accountability for transporting the baby grand to its unlikely new home. Far from being a thoughtless teenage prank, Nicholas told the Associated Press that he hoped to use images of the project as part of his college admissions application in the future, particularly his application to the elite New York arts school, The Cooper Union.

Susan Davidson, assistant dean of admissions for Cooper Union, confirmed the details of the story but reiterated that Harrington, who is a high school junior, has not applied for admission to Cooper Union, and would not until next year. Still, Harrington’s story serves as an example of the extreme lengths aspiring college students across the country will go to impress admissions officials to get into the school of their dreams.

Beyond the college essay
The lone piano in the middle of the bay is one rather extreme example of the supplemental submissions that are increasingly present in mainstream college admissions. Although many arts schools and colleges have required visual submissions in their applications for quite some time, the practice recently has become more widely available for college applicants. During the last few years, high-profile universities such as Tufts and George Mason have given students the option of submitting a video essay. The Tufts Admissions YouTube channel now boasts a staggering variety of one-minute videos. Students have filmed themselves juggling, riding a unicycle, singing, sledding, solving a Rubik’s cube, fencing, rapping, surfing and even levitating apples in true Harry Potter style, all in an attempt to distinguish themselves in the eyes of the admissions committee. George Mason decided to include the video option “in response to ongoing requests from students for more personalization of the process,” Dean of Admissions Andrew Flagel said. “Students really want that sense of being able to insert themselves in the process.” George Mason added an embedded YouTube channel to its application two years ago so that students could record a video with the same convenience that they write their essay.

In addition to using videos, students are finding other ways to assert their individuality. Stanford University Admissions staffer Kiana Shelton said students sometimes include their newspaper clippings or paintings. One Harvard admissions official remembered the office receiving a bag of M&Ms customized with Harvard colors and symbols. University Dean of Admissions Greg Roberts reported similar examples and pointed out that students on the waitlist are often the most eager to send in unusual materials. He recalled receiving a heart-shaped orange and blue box declaring, “There’s no place like home” and containing baby slippers painted orange and blue. That particular package, he said, came from a student on the waitlist who was hoping to sway admissions officials.

How much of a difference do these extra submissions make in admissions decisions? Very little, according to Roberts. Such submissions are “cute in a way, but not what is making the difference,” he said. “We don’t discourage it, but we do not encourage students to just send things to add to the width of their file”. Roberts noted that the University admissions office, and many others like it, are simply not equipped to handle submissions outside of the forms contained within a student’s application. Because of the sheer volume of applications it receives each year, the office simply does not have the time to consider extra submissions from students, Roberts said. Shelton said Stanford operates under a similar policy. “The things we ask for are the things that we evaluate,” Shelton said. Even schools that encourage video submissions acknowledge that the method plays a relatively minor role in the admissions decision. Although much fanfare has surrounded the inclusion of videos in applications, Flagel said “very few” students are actually turning in videos. He estimated that out of the 17,000 applications the school reviewed last year, only a few hundred included videos. “When it comes down to actually producing the video, I suspect that it is actually more appealing to do a traditional written essay,” Flagel said, noting that students often have more power to control and edit within a written medium. Whether or not a student submits a video “makes very little difference in the application and review process,” he said.

While videos might appeal to a student as a way to make the process more personal, Roberts encourages students to inject their personality in the required application — through the essay, recommendations and extracurricular involvement forms. Beyond that, he said, the University does not “require or recommend any sort of extra material.”

Under pressure
Why then, do some students feel the need submit art or newspaper files, to painstakingly produce videos or even to haul a baby grand piano out into the middle of Biscayne Bay? “Students approach this process and want to put their best foot forward,” Roberts said. “Perhaps they feel that this additional information will give us a better picture of who they are.” It would be hard not to feel that pressure when applying to elite universities that reject far more students than they accept. Last year, Harvard received 30,489 applications and admitted only 2,205. Similarly, Yale reported an admissions rate of 7.5 percent, receiving 25,869 applications and accepting 1,940. Princeton and Stanford reported admissions rates of 8.8 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively. For its part, the University received 22,514 applications for the class of 2014 and admitted only 7,222. Many of these universities have reported increases in the application pool for the current year. In such a competitive environment, some students might feel the need to use methods beyond the usual application process. One such method involves hiring consultants specifically trained to aid students about their college or graduate school applications. Chioma Isiadinso, CEO of the London-based college consulting firm Expartus, said the increasing competitiveness of college admissions has created a “need in the marketplace” for companies designed to help students gain admission to their top choice schools.

Bev Taylor, founder of New York-based college consulting firm Ivy Coach, compared hiring a college consulting firm to hiring an attorney or an accountant; it helps students “get that extra attention” that comes from working in a more individualized, one-on-one situation. High school guidance counselors often have too many students and responsibilities to provide that kind of instruction to each student, she said. Consulting firms can offer many services to aspiring college students, including help with the all-important admissions essay. Linda Abraham, CEO of college consulting company Accepted.com, explained essays “are the applicants’ opportunity to introduce themselves as a human being,” and as such, her company is “ruthless in editing,” encouraging clients to think more deeply, ask questions and to show by example, she said. Abraham noted that many high school students have little experience writing personal essays and that many are naturally disinclined to share so much of themselves.

“We encourage them to come out of their shell a little bit,” she said.

James Miller, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, which consists of both high school and college admissions counselors, said his organization sees the use of consulting firms as “inappropriate” in some ways. “We see a college admission process as not so much a prize to be won, but a fit to be made,” he said. “We think it is fine to help students go through the thought process and help them probe what they might want to write about, but not to the point that the coach or counselor is editing or helping to create the essay or other things.”

Isiadinso, however, was careful to note that her company does far more than simply help clients with their admissions essays.

“We take a very comprehensive approach in helping applicants get in.” Isiadinso said her company urges students to look beyond college rankings to find the college that is best for them. Your ‘real self.’

“Ultimately, you have to look at your real self instead of your aspirational self,” Isiadinso said. Each of these companies reported some measure of success in recent years. During the last 17 years, Ivy Coach has seen 100 percent of their clients go to one of their top three schools, and 93 percent gain admittance to their top choice. Abraham compared the movement toward college consulting firms to the earlier movement toward test preparation, which “has gone from being an act of desperation, to something that is a good idea, to something that you cannot do without,” she said.

Miller did acknowledge that students are driven to these firms in part because of the increased pressure students face while filling out college applications. This pressure, he said, “is partly our fault” in that hype about rankings and ratings “has gotten carried away” and “put students in a position of anxiety”.

For some students, hiring a consultant is one way of coping with this competitiveness. These companies could prove very valuable in helping students achieve their college goals, but Roberts pointed out they are only valuable to those who can afford them. On Accepted.com, essay consults start at $260.00 per hour. An initial consultation with Expartus costs $350.00, and that is paid before a student even becomes a client. Roberts called this expense “unnecessary,” and Shelton said “probably most of the time you don’t really need [consulting firms]”.

The hiring of consulting firms or the inclusion of extra materials can be done at the student’s or parent’s discretion, but not all college applicants have the means to engage in these practices.

Kiyoe Hashimoto, assistant dean of admissions for Stanford, stated in an e-mail that her office discourages supplemental efforts partly because “there are many students who do not have the financial means to do so, and we want to ensure the process is as fair as possible.”

Roberts said the bottom line for the University is to “admit the best students we can from diverse backgrounds but also people that we believe are kind and ethical, people who want to make a difference.”