The Coaching Educator

Technology, Intangibles, and the Brave New World of College Admissions

aerial view of Harvard

The cost of attending college has infamously escalated to a level that can appear overwhelming to many, perhaps most, families of college-bound high school students, but the bad news doesn’t end there. Along with expense comes an increase in the intensity of competition for the approval of admissions officers in a crowded marketplace, and the possibility that more elastic criteria for “merit” could end up hurting the very people they’re intended to help.

What, exactly, are the decision-makers looking for, and how can students and their families best present it?

The answer is that colleges take into account a bewildering variety of factors, some of them completely alien to what today’s parents had to deal with when they were of college-entrance age, at least in terms of the processes involved.

Not that the traditional criteria have gone anywhere; witness the growth of test-preparation services into a big business. According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, the “top factors of considerable importance” are grades in college prep courses, “strength of curriculum,” scores on standardized tests (SAT, ACT, SAT subject tests, AP and International Baccalaureate) and overall GPA.

The NACAC cites as “top factors of moderate importance” extracurricular activities, letters of reference, essays or writing samples, “demonstrated interest” in a particular institution, and class rank.

The College Board reports that college admissions officers are also looking for “leadership, a willingness to take risks, initiative, a sense of social responsibility, a commitment to service,” and “special talents or responsibilities.”

None of this is really new, on the face of it, but a great deal has changed in how colleges define and identify the desirable qualities that have always mattered, in addition to adding new ones.

To take just one example cited by Eric Hoover in a wide-ranging New York Times piece, technology now allows colleges to measure “demonstrated interest” by tracking the number of times a prospective student is in contact with the college. Students who know about this can exploit it, via a steady stream of emails, for example.

Hoover explains that even the concept of academic merit has become vague. Though grades and test scores generally remain the weightiest factors in admissions, concerns about high school grade inflation abound, and the correlation between income and test scores is of concern to many college officials. An admissions officer may decide to “contextualize” the record of a disadvantaged student in comparing his or her performance with that of a candidate with higher metrics.

In this environment, intangible qualities loom large in a “holistic” evaluation process. Hoover describes one admissions officer working with a drop-down “Predictors of Success” menu that includes boxes for “Delayed Gratification, “Risk Taking,” and “Comfort in Minority of 1.”

Evaluation of intangibles might include observing how applicants interact with each other in a workshop situation–it is difficult here not to think of monkeys being observed by people in white lab coats–or submission of portfolios or videos. One Ivy League dean of admissions touts technology as a means of becoming better acquainted with the applicant and determining what type of community member he or she might be. Of course different institutions have different ideas about what sort of communities they are, which suggests that applicants might be kept very busy with multiple self-promotion projects for multiple audiences.

Even the candidate who successfully runs the gauntlet–a different gauntlet for each institution–still could end up disappointed because of other factors. The use of race in admissions decisions, though unpopular among Americans generally, is legal and is widely practiced. Being from the wrong place could also cost an applicant a spot, as some colleges strive for geographic diversity as a demonstration of popularity and of a national and not merely regional or local presence. Oh, and a 2015 NACAC Report states that an applicant’s “ability to pay” is still of “some importance” in deciding who gets in.

All things considered, today’s college application process is fraught with unprecedented uncertainty and complexity, and with what appears to be growing subjectivity–even as the pressure to take the right tests, the right number of times, for the right grades, escalates. The situation appears unlikely to improve as educators and social critics continue a vigorous debate about what factors should be considered important in deciding who makes the cut and who doesn’t.

Ironically, it is reasonable to suggest that even as admissions officers increasingly look to “intangibles” in an effort to be more inclusive of the economically disadvantaged, the expansion of technology in that very process will work in favor of applicants with the readiest access to the necessary tools.

Tomorrow’s successful applicants increasingly will be those who have the technology and expertise, or who know someone–like The Coaching Educator–who does.

Paul Culp has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University. A former journalist, he has also taught academic writing and research methods at the university level and an assortment of humanities courses at the secondary level, and now writes for The Coaching Educator team.



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