College Admissions is Not a Game

By Kevin Pittard

Kevin Pittard is associate director of admissions at Wake Forest University. Here he shares his insights from the 65th annual national conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling taking place in Baltimore this week.

At the annual NACAC conference, the “Town Hall” session is meant to be a forum for members to directly address the organization’s leadership about their cares and concerns. Sitting in this year’s session, I am struck by the cross section of schools and constituencies represented here. The key questions today seemed to focus on the challenges that everyone associated with college admissions has had to deal with this past year due to the troubled economy.

Not to be too “inside baseball” for some of our readers but worries about “melt” and “double depositing” generated the most comments. Representatives from colleges expressed their frustration with the trend of students sending in deposits to more than one of the schools that had admitted them. High school counselors responded with their dilemma of directing students to follow policy and send in only one deposit and having their advice ignored. To make the situation worse, a college wondered aloud how many other schools were being hit by more and more students abrogating their binding Early Decision agreements – presumably but not necessarily because of economic woes. All of these issues lead to “melt” or the cancellation of enrollment over the summer months by students that colleges had thought were signed, sealed and delivered.

Colleges and secondary schools do not like these problems but cannot seem to find a way to solve or prevent them. Suggestions were offered today, but the predominant sense of those in this town hall was that of resignation. “It’s inevitable and we all should just deal with it.” Then one college representative stood up and pointed to the elephant in the room by saying the problems were “societal” because more and more students and families—for whatever reason—see the college admissions process as a “game”. And in order to “win” that game, you need to “keep all your options open” even if that means breaking the rules of the game itself.

What better illustration of a broken system than the idea that parents and students, who are otherwise models of virtue, are willing to forsake their moral code because, in this instance, the end of getting into the “right” school justifies the means of duplicity and broken promise?. The pressure of the process has generated a mentality that diminishes us all.

Can this model be fixed? Various tweaks and cures were proposed, but surely bold steps are necessary. Students need to apply to fewer schools. Colleges should put their integrity above numbers and cancel applications from those who break the rules—no matter how strong that student’s credentials. Or maybe everyone should step back, take a breath, and rethink what choosing a school is all about. It is not about rank or prestige; it’s about the best school for that student.
Colleges have to be clear about their expectations from applicants and their policies regarding the admissions process and stick by those policies when required by circumstances that could be classified as “out of bounds”.

College admissions is not a “game”. The stakes are too high for such a rationalization.



Agreed. Rank and prestige only goes so far, especially for the student who actually has to attend a college that he/she has never set foot on the campus! The visit is an importent part of the college decision.

cynte415 says:

“Students need to apply to fewer schools…”

Part of the problem is that many parents (especially Asian ones; I am Asian myself, so I speak from experience) are very mechanical about selecting colleges – specific academic programs, campus appearance, student quality, and campus life have a weight of 2-3% at most of the overall decision. The main factors are prestige and cost, without question. The university that gives you the best combination of both will be the one you go to. Yes, you say that the “best school” is the important factor, and I agree that it is. But not everyone is mindful of what that means – the ranking system by US news turns out king over anything else.

This plan for comparison of offers leads to a college list of 10-20 possible schools, many of which the applicant doesn’t know anything about. In fact, I’m always surprised that there are some universities that a student would never go to even if admitted; they were just mindlessly put into the stack of applications to be sent out because they had lost track of the names of the schools. This is a dangerous direction for both students to colleges to go to – for students because they will be put into places they may not like, and for colleges because they will have students who don’t like where they are.

Mark Neustadt says:

The harder thing to accept is that for many students and families it is about rank and prestige. And with so little genuine differentiation between programs at many schools, that is a rational grounds for making a choice.