Why College Applications Are So Complicated

College Application History | Admissionado

Dear college applicants: it gets easier. If you’re looking at a college application for the first time this spring, know that it’s the most complex application most people will ever have to complete. Chances are, you will not have to do anything like this again!

The SAT/ACT, a passel of AP tests, one common app essay, 2-3 supplements per school, reams of short answer questions, not to mention the financial aid packet—adults do not expect this sort of thing from one another. So how did this happen? In a world where a cover letter and a resume is enough for most jobs, how did we come to ask so much more of teenagers applying for college?

It didn’t used to be this hard. What we now call college applications first emerged in the early 19th century, when formal high schools supplanted tutoring as the main form of secondary education. Each Ivy League university created their own standards, starting with a basic list of courses the applicant was required to complete before matriculating. The first college applications were simply transcripts that proved this work had been done. Once that baseline requirement was met, admissions committees would pick between the (universally white and male) applicants on the basis of family connections, the prestige of the prep school, and other nepotistic factors. So you might have had an easier time writing your application in the 1810s—but you wouldn’t get in if you didn’t have the right family name.

This began to change in the latter half of the 19th century. Reformers had two goals: First, to simplify the application process by standardizing admissions requirements across schools, and second, to make the process more meritocratic. States created accreditation boards and uniform transcripts that made it much easier for admissions committees to make comparisons between, for example, a six-hour-a-week English class and a four-hour-a-week Literature class. They also required college essays and began to expect that they be more than “correct in spelling, punctuation, grammar and expression” (from Harvard University’s 1874 essay prompt, possibly the first in the U.S.). If the evolution of college admissions had stopped at this point, getting into college would be very similar to applying for a job: a single essay (cover letter), a transcript (resume), and a reference or two.


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So where did all these other requirements come from? In short: World War I. Faced with the monumental task of sorting millions of draftees for the first time in U.S. history, Army planners turned to the relatively new field of standardized intelligence testing. Many of the IQ tests used at the time are widely discredited today—coming out of the eugenics movement, they tested English literacy and American cultural knowledge more than actual intelligence. But the idea of intelligence tests as a more scientific, “meritocratic” indicator of an applicant’s potential stuck. In 1926 the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) was born. Ten years later, early scanners allowed for the automatic grading of multiple choice tests. Suddenly it was much cheaper to administer an IQ test than to grade essays—the era of mass standardized testing had begun.

The modern college application is essentially the unintended consequence of a century’s raging debate over whether or not high-stakes standardized testing is useful. On one side are the test critics, who encourage admissions committees to focus more on essays, extracurriculars, interviews and creative submissions. On the other side are the testing agencies, who have addressed perceived deficiencies in general intelligence tests by creating more and more specialized tests. The result: lots of tests AND lots of essays!


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One would think admissions committees would step in and simplify things, and they did try. In 1998 the online Common App went live, intended to reduce the number of essays college applicants would be required to write. But ironically, easy online applications actually made applicant’s lives much harder. While an enthusiastic student in the early 90s might apply to three or four schools, today’s high achiever often applies to more than a dozen at the press of a button. Thus, while the ratio of applicants to available seats has changed only slowly, applications have soared and acceptance rates have plummeted—a feedback loop that encourages people to apply to even more schools.

Today’s college application is not only more complex than most job applications, it’s probably the most complex college application ever in U.S. history. Will applications get even more complicated in the future? It’s hard to see who has an incentive to halt the trend. Almost all testing companies and admissions departments provide their services at cost, but they are paid fees, and higher volume means larger, more prestigious organizations.

While the extra work is certainly no fun for the applicant, from a societal perspective it’s not obvious that complex college applications are actually a bad thing. Yes, the process is daunting—particularly for people who lack a support network from their school, family or private admissions counselors. But as we have seen, applications were simpler in the past, and that simplicity meant to a less meritocratic system. Every piece added to the application requirements was meant to address a bias—how can we remove any single piece without reinstating the bias it was meant to solve? Perhaps the ideal solution is to retain a complex, holistic application, improve guidance counseling, and focus on lowering the number of applications each student submits.  Some simple ways of doing this would be to impose a lower maximum application limit (currently 20 on the Common App), or forbid application fees.

It seems unlikely any such change will happen soon, however, so if you’re applying this season, take heart in the knowledge that you only have to do this once.  It gets easier! And if you’re feeling overwhelmed and need it to be easier NOW, reach out—we at Admissionado would be happy to guide you through the process.

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