Capstone College and Career Advising

A dozen unconventional ways to improve college admission

November 30th, 2015 by

Every year like clockwork the college admissions process takes over the lives of students, teachers, parents, counselors and admissions officers — and every year like clockwork there are complaints about the process from just about every constituency.  Still, after all these years, it’s just too hard for too many people. So how to improve it? Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the private Derryfield School in Manchester, N.H., offers some ideas, some serious, some not so much, which he gleaned during a recent three-day Washington D.C. gathering of professionals in K-12 and higher education.
By Brennan Barnard

The small ballroom is hot and crowded, bodies packed together waiting for the session to begin. The air is clammy with controversy over the new college admission application from the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. The application, and the platform upon which it is founded, is the brainchild of an alliance of over 80 private and public colleges and universities. From Amherst to Yale, Cal Tech to Harvard, University of Chicago to Clemson and Vanderbilt to Stanford, the member institutions are predominantly the well known schools from across the country that occupy the top of many rankings and are sought after names on bumper stickers. The partnership is an effort to advance the college application process to better serve students and to reach bright, motivated candidates that might not otherwise consider applying to these schools. And, though the leadership is intentionally avoiding saying it, the Coalition was formed as an alternative to the widely used Common Application due to growing frustration with its perceived limitations.

In the past two months, since the premature, pseudo roll-out of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, there has been a healthy dose of media coverage and debate within the profession about the intent, impact and implementation of the new application. Articles from The Harvard Crimson, Georgetown’s The Hoya, Inside Higher EdThe Washington Post and other news outlets have offered various critiques focusing on the idea of “early engagement” of high school students. They have raised questions about access and issues around the resources and tools associated with the evolving platform. The portfolio “locker” where students can begin storing papers, resumes, school projects and other documents, starting in ninth grade has received the most attention. High school counselors and community based organizations fear the panic and confusion that this tool may inadvertently create. Colleges and universities question the requirements for membership.

The college admission world has seen a number of changes in recent months, including the redesigned SAT, free test preparation through Khan Academy, “enhancement” of the ACT standardized test scoring, a shift with the federal financial aid application, snafus with test score reporting, the government’s College Scorecard, and more.

These issues seem to have taken a back seat, as I am among admission deans and college counselors from institutions throughout the country eager to engage in dialogue about the Coalition Application.   We are in an indistinct Marriott ballroom in Washington, D.C., participating in the College Board Forum, a three-day gathering of professionals in K-12 and higher education. The Coalition leadership, protective gear on, is perched at the front of the room ready for whatever is thrown their way. Scanning the crowd, they are no doubt wondering who is going to attack first.

It is easy to dissect the Coalition Application itself, express skepticism about the institutions involved and criticize the marketing and promotion of the initiative. What is less easy is to embrace change. In the spirit of full disclosure, I too have my concerns about the potential for this application to further complicate an already muddled process of applying to college. I worry about the unintended consequences and question the ability of this platform to achieve the stated goals.   The common denominator in this crowded room, however, is a deep commitment to young people and the importance of a higher education. Yes, emotion and defensiveness can disrupt play, but we are leaning into to an effort to model the process that we encourage in our students.

In our schools, we talk about innovation, creativity, critical thinking and thoughtful dialogue. We promote the use of technology as a powerful tool in addressing current issues and solving problems in new and different ways. We ask students to take risks, think outside of the box and to be leaders. We develop programs in STEM education and talk about a growth mindset. We urge collaboration in an effort to incorporate multiple perspectives and arrive at better or novel ways of approaching the work we do. We want our students to embrace the pioneer spirit.

Is the Coalition Application perfect? No. Did the initial messaging about this initiative lack some clarity? Yes. Are educators flawless and all-knowing? Certainly not. Is this an excellent opportunity to celebrate innovation? Absolutely. There are a host of details still left to work through and intricacies that are unknown. How will this tool be used? It is difficult to know. Will it have less desirable outcomes? Potentially. With innovation comes challenge. Did the iPhone improve our lives? Many would argue that it has, allowing greater connectivity and serving as a powerful resource. Others will point out the ways in which it has set us back as a society. It could be that the Coalition Application creates too much complexity and hassle for students. It could be that this new way of applying to college does not get a lot of traction and fades into the background.   Maybe it does nothing more than highlight areas of the college admission process that need more attention.

No matter where this new initiative leads us, a group of individuals and institutions had an idea and they pursued it. They have faced criticism, skepticism and pessimism from all sides. It could improve the college admission process or it could be a total train wreck. What is exciting, however, is that at the end of the day, it has created meaningful dialogue about education, access and affordability. In this ballroom, I am surrounded by passionate educators who care deeply about the work we do and students we serve. As the heated session disperses, we spill out into the surrounding bars and restaurants of DuPont Circle.

As we do I ask my fellow college counselors and admission deans to share their innovative ideas and the following are just a few. Some are realistic, some are idealistic and some are just plain old fun. A number of contributors wished to remain anonymous, which is understandable given the controversy surrounding the Coalition Application.


  • Take a Number: “Why not create admission help centers around the country. Maybe the government could even partner with corporations and the wealthiest universities to set up these centers in underserved locations. These are the types of public/private partnerships–favoring human help over technology– we should be exploring for the common good.”—Matthew Struckmeyer, Director of College Counseling, Dunn School, CA


  • Matching Day: ‘What if the college admission process were akin to the medical school residency matching model where students ranked colleges in a particular category, league, or geographical area. Then college admission offices would review students and on one day in March all applicants learn where they will end up?”—Director of Admission, Patriot League Institution


  • Educational Guard: “Wouldn’t be nice if next time the federal government talked about putting “boots on the ground,” they were referring to battalions of counselors and mentors who would fan out and fight for college access. Why can’t we develop a force akin to the National Guard where “soldiers” give one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer? These educators could be deployed to communities where educational resources are lacking and where nearly half of high school graduates do not go to college. From the Trio Programs to The Breakthrough Collaborative to other local organizations, many communities have such models, but let’s put some significant, unified federal resources behind this. ” –Brennan Barnard, Director of College Counseling, The Derryfield School, NH


  • The Hogwarts University System: “What about a Harry Potter matching hat style algorithm that places candidates in the right college?”—Dean of Admission, Ivy League Institution


  • There is an App. For That: “Maybe we should create a college application Tinder app. that enables admission officers to simply swipe one way or another to determine acceptance based on a student’s profile.”—College Admission Dean


  • Peel Back the Labels: “I dream of a blind-taste-test version of the college search process (parents may recall the Coke vs. Pepsi ads from the 80s). If students and parents reviewed colleges based upon their programs, offerings, etc., and not perceived prestige alone, students might consider a broader range of great schools.”—Emmi Harwood, The Bishops School, La Jolla,CA


  • First Things First: “Wouldn’t it be great if students could focus on being high school students and then have an application process that takes place after graduation?”— Peter J. Quagliaroli, Director of College Counseling, St. Anne’s-Belfield School, VA


  • Reality University: “Perhaps colleges should run admission Survivorweekends where all applicants come to campus to compete for spots. Maybe Hunger GamesShark Tank or The Apprentice would be better models.”—College Admission Dean


  • Pro Bono: “What if every college/guidance counselor and college admission officer in the country committed to mentoring five underserved students every year?”—High School Counselor


  • Get With the Times: “When will the SAT & ACT join the 21st century with a computer-based exam, like the GRE, that is held via appointment, any day of the week, at a testing center. Scores would be immediate. Proof of identification would become professionalized. High School teachers would no longer be running testing centers in gymnasiums on Saturday mornings.”—Art McCann, Crossroads School, Santa Monica, CA


  • Let Life Imitate Art: “Fans of the television show The West Wing might recall the episode when White House staffers develop a scheme for free college tuition, or at least reduced costs, which ends up with tuition as a tax write-off. I am a firm believer that the public good that college provides for society is worth more than we invest in it. My proposal would be to increase Pell and increase eligibility for it.”—Mary Beth Petrie, Director of Admissions, Lawrence University, WI


  • Punch in Your Numbers: “I’ve often thought that colleges might post an ‘admission chance’ calculator. I think doing so could help students manage the expectations, and perhaps help students apply to fewer places.” –Director of Admission, Large West Coast Institution