The College Process: Then and Now
by Hannah Hoffman on Friday, December 7th, 2012
As most seniors know, the college application process often seems to be a life or death situation. Over the years, the process has apparently become so significant that it makes high schoolers incredibly stressed and anxious even years before they have to complete them. But have college applications always been this way?
This past week, four Milton teachers–Mr. Smith, Ms. Foster, Mr. St. Laurence, and an anonymous source–recalled their application experiences.
Mr. David Smith, a member of the English department, applied to college in 1961. For ten dollars, he applied to only one college, Harvard College, and “did not discuss alternatives,” as the odds of getting into his desired school were “apparently 100 percent – the Dean/Counselor told me I did not need to apply to a backup [school]. More than fifty others in my class went to Harvard.”
Mr. Smith also stated that, at the time, “private schools like Andover, Exeter, Groton, and St. Paul’s were pipelines into selective colleges. Plenty of public school kids went to Harvard, but for them the process of getting in was presumably more strenuous.”
Mr. Smith took the SATs, but he is not sure how they influenced the colleges’ decision-making. The application itself was quite different from the application today–“I… would probably be embarrassed by [its] quality [compared to] today’s application.”
Though many aspects of today’s application, such as early action and early decision, did not exist when Mr. Smith applied to college, colleges did interview their prospective students as a part of the process. Mr. Smith’s interview was quite intriguing: “He asked me what I thought of the classmate he had interviewed right before me. I recognized this as a trick question and gave a bland, noncommittal answer.”
Seventeen years later, in 1978, Ms. Foster, a teacher from the History department, applied to four colleges for about fifty dollars each. Though her parents were involved very little in the process, Ms. Foster “met with a very helpful, dedicated counselor.” However, she thought she was mostly on her own with deadlines, essays, and revisions.
Like Mr. Smith, Ms. Foster was not very overwhelmed by the application process. “[While] I was aware of different tracks in my high school: vocational ed., regular courses, honors/AP courses, I don’t remember having conversations with my friends or family about ‘the odds,’ nor were we burdened by feeling that summer vacations, after school activities had to be shaped for our junior resumes.
“It was a simpler process; we had the luxury of less competition and less focus on that sense of scarcity. I was allowed to be more myself, without having to work so carefully on preparing a self to show admissions people. I also did not expect or feel entitled to, or limited to ‘Ivy Leagues or nothing,’ which was also freeing.” As in the 60s, only one major deadline existed and common apps were not offered in the 1970s.
In 1987, nine years later, a teacher from Massachusetts who preferred to go unnamed applied to two colleges. Early action was finally offered in the 80s, and this faculty member took advantage of it–he applied to one early action school and one regular decision school. Though he has “very vague memories of the application,” this teacher did not use the common app and had to write only two essays.
He had an interview with his desired school; however, he was “not sure if the interview was required.” His parents were not very involved in his application process. “They took me to visit some colleges and had a meeting with one of the college counselors,” said the teacher. “However, they did not read my applications.”
Nineteen years later, in 2007, Mr. St. Laurence, a Milton graduate and faculty member of the Performing Arts department, applied to 10 colleges for fifty to seventy-five dollars each. Mr. St. Laurence clearly remembers the significance of the SATs and ACTs: “scores in the 700s were expected for acceptance into more competitive schools. [Colleges had] just switched over to the 3 part, 2400-point version, so schools were still adjusting to the new format and trying to refigure their expectations accordingly. The window for ‘acceptable’ [ACTs] was much wider, since they were still low in popularity and thus not a lot of data.”
“The actual application that many schools accepted was the common application, [but] schools [added] a supplemental application to the common app; simple questions aimed to reveal as much as possible about the applicant, such as ‘Where do you call home?’ or ‘Explain a life-altering moment.’ The name of the game was word efficiency—I specifically remember writing one of my responses in the form of a poem, just to be different.”
Quite unlike Mr. Smith’s experience, attending Milton did not ensure Mr. St. Laruence a space in a top college. “[I saw] a transition out of the private school favoritism. ‘Top schools’ were no longer accepting 15-20 Milton seniors, and, although Milton students came from diverse backgrounds, schools were looking for more diversity in schooling environment.”
The college application process has radically changed over the past half-century: new methods of surveying prospective students have surfaced, new conveniences such as common apps and ACTs have increased the number of students who apply to college and the amount of colleges they apply to, and the stress that applying to college has has certainly become more intense.
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