Brenner: How to reduce college application anxiety

Students walk through the campus of Nassau Community

Students walk through the campus of Nassau Community College in Garden City. (April 28, 2011) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

I hate this time of year. Not because we are in the middle of a very difficult school budget season and not because I am sick of the cold, snowy winter. I hate this time of year because it is filled with needless disappointment for thousands of high school seniors rejected by their first and second choices for college. With no feedback from the schools, many of them are left to ponder the randomness of a process that can lead to self-doubt and damage self-confidence.

Some will ask, "What's the big deal? So you didn't get into your first or second choice -- you are still going to college!"

To a certain degree, I subscribe to that thinking, too. But then I remember the pressure the application process puts on students. One of the biggest culprits is the Common Application, which more than 500 American colleges use to make the process more uniform and simpler. About 15 years ago, the Common Application went digital. While it is not quite as easy as pushing the "send" button, it does make applying to numerous schools less onerous.


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A byproduct of the Common Application is that more students are competing for the same spots, increasing competition to record levels. For example, Time.com reports that Ohio State's applications increased by 24 percent for the fall of 2013 after changing over to the Common Application. Colorado State University's out-of-state applications increased 64 percent after it signed on.

It is not uncommon for a student who might have applied to two Ivy League Schools in the past to apply now to six or seven. If Ohio State and Delaware are on your college list, why not apply to Purdue, Syracuse and Boston universities, too? After all, with a push of the button and a few more application fees, you can make sure you are accepted somewhere. The result is students are applying to an excessive number of colleges that they will most likely never attend.

The Common Application Fact Sheet cites an increase in student use from 413,675 in 2008-09 to 723,576 in 2012-13. With so many more applications, acceptance rates are at new lows and more applicants being rejected from more schools than ever. Colleges now have the unenviable task of weeding out applicants who are not truly invested in their schools. When students are accepted at a school they have no intention of attending, it is more likely than before to come at the expense of another student who is interested.

Here's a novel thought: Let's make students apply the old-fashioned way, with handwritten applications. Stuff them in an envelope and take them to the post office. No more electronic submissions.

If students had to do this, the number of applications would drop precipitously. If it were less convenient for them to apply, they would let their parents know just how broken the process is. They would say they are not filling out any more applications, with the righteous indignation that parents of 17-year-olds know well. That is how the process worked before the online version of the Common Application.

This may not the most realistic solution but this is a real problem. It is incumbent on colleges to recognize that they and their applicants benefit from an application process that yields more serious candidates.

Our goal should be for students to apply only to the schools they want to attend. They should compete against students who feel the same way they do, albeit fewer of them. In this model, students would still get rejected and still not know why. They would still be sad if they didn't get into their first or second choice. But they also would know the process was just a little more honest and reliable. And for that they would be thankful, and much better off.

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