Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons: Got Credit

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons: Got Credit

As a sophomore, I am not too far removed from the undergraduate admissions process to have forgotten the feelings that came with opening the response letters to college applications. I remember the sadness, hurt and surprise when I was rejected from my top choice of schools after pouring over those applications.

I had almost forgotten these feelings of confusion, rejection and sadness, until I read an article by Joel Stein in the Feb. 2, 2015 edition of TIME magazine. Stein is a graduate of Stanford University, who during his time as an undergraduate student, had been allowed to see the comments of the admissions counselors on his application. His piece is about his experience with this and his desire to impart his words of wisdom on the new generation of Stanford students who were lobbying to be able to see the comments on their applications. Stein was allowed to see his application because a friend of his used the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to convince Stanford to allow students to see the applications, yet now he encourages this new generation of students to avoid looking at the comments on their applications.

Initially, I was surprised that this man had elected to see the comments that admissions officers had written on his application. This seemingly went against the very sacred agreement between admissions officer and applicant, the agreement that said the admissions officer could laugh at my application as long as I didn’t have to witness it. I am under no impression that my application was given the careful attention I had hoped for. This is nothing against the admissions offices of universities; they have thousands of applications to read and must send out decisions in a timely matter. They just simply can’t spend more than a few seconds on each application. However, after thinking about it, I have to say that in the same position as Stein, I would also want to see the comments written on my application. I want to see them, not because I need validation or a reason for why I wasn’t admitted. I want to look at them because it will hold colleges and universities accountable when they say that their admissions process is honest and fair.

There is a veil of secrecy surrounding college admissions, and I think students, both accepted and unaccepted, should be allowed to view the comments on their applications, or at the very least receive a personalized explanation of the decision of the admissions board. Although this may seem time consuming on the part of the admissions officer, in reality they are already doing it, just not committing it to words. The explanation needn’t be long; a simple sentence would suffice, but it would force institutions to provide a reason for rejecting specific candidates and accepting other equally, or sometimes less, qualified candidates in their place.

Where this particular issue becomes unclear is the state-funded versus private institution. At a state-funded school, the percentage of accepted students is often higher than the percentage of students accepted to many private institutions. This is due to the state funding provided and the regulations that come with receiving that money.

One way of looking at this issue is that state-funded schools should be required to allow students to see comments on their applications because they are large institutions receiving federal aid, and in the United States people expect oversight for institutions receiving federal money, their tax dollars. This particular view of the application question is derived from the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that Stein’s friend used to force Stanford to show them their applications.

This situation is often seen as being dramatically different from that of the private institution. On the whole, it can be generalized that private institutions tend to be more selective in that they accept a lower percentage of their applicants in part because they don’t receive federal supplements. Many are attracted to a private college because of their perceived selectivity. Some say that these institutions should not be required to allow students to view their applications — an argument that I also understand, but with which I don’t agree. I think private colleges should allow students to view comments about their applications, only because of the growing emphasis placed by these institutions on integrity.

By allowing students to see the comments on their applications, institutions would show a dedication to the student and allow the world to see that their admissions decisions are as fair as possible. An article published in Forbes Magazine and written by Steve Cohen details the three biggest lies told in college admissions and by those who are involved in the process.

The first is that standardized tests are becoming less important. Often college admissions officers will say that standardized tests are not the only factors looked at for admission. However, they are important, as many selective schools use them to filter out applicants due to the high number of applications they receive. In this way, a high standardized test score is important for your application to make it past the first round of cuts and could therefore be seen as the most important part of the application. The issue isn’t that these tests scores are important for admission; it is that admissions offices make it seem as though they aren’t as important as one’s grade-point average, which isn’t the case in many initial application decisions. The second lie is that applying for financial aid does not affect the results of the decision. Cohen argues that in times of economic downturn, colleges can’t afford to be completely need-blind during admissions.

“If there is a choice between two virtually-identical applicants — one who needs financial aid and one who does not — the fat envelope is going to go to the kid who can pay full tuition,” according to Cohen, even if the college claims to be need-blind to its applicants. Finally, Cohen points out that the biggest lie in college admissions is that the process is fair. While he details many unfair variables, the one I find most fault with is that academic institutions are looking for “a well-rounded class, not a well-rounded kid.” Although the common advice is that students should be well-rounded, the truth is that an applicant who is spectacular in one particular area contributes to a well-rounded class more so than an applicant who himself is well-rounded but not particularly strong in one area. This goes against much of the advice from admissions counselors to be involved in a wide variety of activities outside of academics.

While these problems can’t be resolved overnight, or by simply allowing students to see the comments on their applications, they can be made more public. Students who see comments about their standardized test scores, their financial aid application and how well-rounded they are on their application will have a better understanding of the admissions process and decision. This understanding can then be passed on to others, making the overall process more open and honest in terms of what colleges are actually looking for.

Allowing students to see the comments on their applications isn’t so much about the students as it is about the institution. I am sure that the college admissions process isn’t fair, and I have accepted it as part of my life as a student who attends college. However, allowing students to see the comments on their applications forces the institution to either remedy its admissions process to fit its stated goals of fairness and honesty, or to admit that its application process is flawed at best and completely dishonest at worst, something most students know already but would still like the universities to recognize. The discrepancy between how the application process is presented and how admissions actually works is disheartening to students, and if they can access the currently hidden parts of the process then they can accept the system, even if it is flawed. Most applicants know that the admissions process is unfair, yet we continue to apply anyway. Allowing us to see the comments on our applications will not deter applicants but will instead provide a model of openness that many institutions reciprocally claim to desire in their graduates.

A college or university cannot have a secret and dishonest admissions process and expect its graduates to be open and honest. In my opinion, if an institution truly wants graduates who represent the concepts of integrity and honesty, then the admissions process must be opened up, and the first step is allowing the comments on applications to be viewed by the applicant.

Alli Buettner is a College sophomore from St. Louis, Missouri.

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