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Handling Stress, Panic And Nascent Adulthood In The College Admissions Process

As college students move into their dorms for the fall semester, I'm reminded a lot has changed since I was one of them.

Jill Margaret Shulman of Amherst, Massachusetts, is the author of "College Admissions Cracked: Saving Your Kid (and Yourself) From the Madness." As her book points out, at least one part of the process has gotten simpler since she and I applied to college.

Jill Margaret Shulman, author: Oh, yeah. When I applied to college — I won't tell you the date — we typed our college applications individually on an electric typewriter, and I brought that typewriter to college with me.

Now there's a Common Application that works for 800-plus colleges, and a student can fill that out once to save them a significant amount of time.

And now there's an application, called the Coalition application, that's gaining steam and is another sort of universal application. And it sure benefits the busy senior who is taking the hardest classes of their academic careers so far.

The problem with the Common Application is that there's the temptation to just throw in "one more application because you can," without taking into consideration if that college is a good fit for you. What happens is there's more competition, because more people are applying to the same colleges.

And what also happens is that kids are disappointed they will get back a rejection, or what they see as a rejection — a denial — from a college that was never appropriate for them to apply to in the first place. They were tempted to apply just because they could, and a denial never feels good.

It can really disappoint kids, even if in the back of their mind they know that it probably wasn't going to happen anyway.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: Tell me a little bit about your background in this. Did you start with a career that involved college admissions before your kids went through this process, or was it near the same time?

I started before that. I've always been in kind of a combination of writing and education, and I used to teach in colleges. And then I started working inside college admissions offices, and then helping coach kids through writing their essays.

And then my kids went through the process, and I saw that despite understanding all the nuts and bolts of it, I needed emotional support — and there wasn't a book out there that addressed it sufficiently for me. So I felt it was important to try to help families on a larger scale than I could working one-on-one with students.

So the college admissions scandal kind of revealed three big things about the college admissions system being broken: 1) that it's exploitable, 2) that it's broken, and 3) that it's arbitrary. Are those pieces of a system that was exposed as not working the way idealists think it works — issues that can be planned for in the college planning process?

What we're reading about in the news entails a teeny fraction of this gigantic system, which 4,300 colleges in the United States alone go through. And 99.99% of parents are honest about it. Then they want to know how to let their child take the lead. And 99.99% of colleges, they're all doing their best to try to make the system fair and to read holistically.

Yes, there are many things that I think colleges are now aware of, and will start changing. But I don't think that every aspect of the system is broken.

I think what's happening is parents are panicking to the point where this whole process feels like a cutthroat competition — and it doesn't have to be. If we can switch the perspective away from: "How do I get my kid into the best college, because everyone's telling me that there's an objective best, and that if they don't get into a prestigious college, they're never going to make it on their own without me!"

And if you can switch it around to: "Hey, who is this kid who has survived my parenting to this point where they're actually applying to college? So I must have done something right" — and what do they need? And what do these colleges out there have to offer my amazing child?

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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