It’s not unusual for me to hear someone say, “There ought to be a law …” and me tell them that what they are saying makes sense. Sometimes it’s something where a law could actually happen and other times it’s them seeing something that isn’t run efficiently and wanting to improve it.

I thought of that as I reflected on the college application process. I’ve been fortunate that my kids have both ended up at great places which seem to be perfect fits for them. But the horror stories I’ve heard along the way calls for some changes to be made to the process.

First off, the gaming of the system and advantage that wealthy families have is out of control. If you are a college admissions officer and are blown away by an applicant’s essay, chances are that it was edited or even partially written by a highly paid college counselor. If you are impressed that a kid did volunteer work, don’t be surprised if it’s really something that was put together by the parents that the kid had to do. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of kids doing great volunteer work that they care about, but when thousands of kids are all doing it through the same nationwide organizations, it kind of loses its luster. I’d love to see someone commission a study to see how much volunteer work kids do from age 18-25.

Many kids today are feeling compelled to start the college prep process in Junior High. That’s nuts. But when great schools like UCLA have 150,000 applications or Michigan has around 100,000, there is a lot more competition for a lot fewer spots. When you take away spots for athletes, some legacies, and rich donors, there are even smaller chances than you think. Everyone knows some super smart kid with straight A’s and great test scores who didn’t get into their top choice. That’s because there are tens of thousands of kids with similar profiles and they are applying to the same schools that have really limited spots. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s harder to get into UCLA than most Ivies simply because of how many impressive applicants are applying.

A lot of the high application numbers are due to the common app. It makes it easier to apply and for some states you can just check a box and apply to multiple schools at once. It’s awesome that so many people have access to applying to college, but I think it has an unintended effect of preventing a lot of lower income kids and others from getting a proper look or even having a chance at schools they are interested in. Basically I believe that many kids are applying to schools without reason or strong desire to go there.

And colleges know this too so one thing you’ll find is that the concept of a “safety school” is going away as well. Schools are insanely worried about their yield which is the percentage of people who accept the offers given. This factors into rankings which is another absurd thing that everyone worries about. Because schools are worried about yield, if you don’t apply early decision to a school you are more than qualified for, they will likely defer your application and then ask you to commit to accepting if they offer you. It’s not a situation where they are trying to get the best students or best fits for their school, but instead where they are trying to get the best acceptance rate possible.

The other awful thing a lot of colleges do is pressure kids with the essays they ask. There’s a big focus on overcoming hurdles. Now if a kid had cancer, or was from an abused home, or lost a parent, it’s amazing if that kid persevered and accomplished things. I believe those factors should be considered. But two unintended consequences are happening. First, these highly paid college counselors are polishing up the trauma these kids experience. Many kids haven’t processed it in a way that can be fully articulated and others are pressured into making more of a situation than it really is. It’s almost as if you have to compete with your trauma. But way worse is that kids feel pressure to share their trauma with strangers. My son has one good friend who lost his Dad and ended up in an argument over whether or not he’d write about it. He’s a private kid and didn’t want to talk about it, but felt like he had to. I can’t imagine that’s a unique situation.

As a lawyer I try to be solution focused when I am presented with a problem. There is no perfect solution and I believe the first priority needs to be a system that makes the playing field more level and doesn’t give special preference to those who can afford it more or game the system. So here are some ideas:

  1. Limit the number of schools someone can apply to. Nobody needs to apply to 20-30 schools. The ability to do so favors the rich as they can pay the application fees at all of those places. I would suggest a maximum of ten. That gives you the chance to apply at dream/reach schools, schools where you think it’s 50/50 and a couple safetys. If you limit it to a lower number, it will force kids to think about where they want to go to and why. Everyone should get to apply where they want to, but the way the system works now clogs up the application process.
  2. Speaking of which, every school should have a “Why Us” type essay. There are some that do and I think it really gives a kid a chance to show their personality and also talk about the school in general. It forces some research into the school which could also have the effect of helping the kid realize that it’s not the right place for them.
  3. Even without a paid consultant, Chat GPT and editing tools make it easy to craft a “perfect” essay. If schools really want to judge your writing ability, but want to prevent the system from being gamed as much, they should have impromptu essays. In other words, you login on a certain date and time and they tell you the essay questions then with 30 minutes to answer one. It wouldn’t prevent all gaming as you could of course prep for possible questions with a college counselor, but it would likely prevent any editing, Chat GPT, etc. and would more show how well you write, think on your feet, etc. And if someone is going to take the time to do this, it also shows a genuine interest in the school.
  4. Schools should encourage kids to give a decision sooner. I’ve seen kids who post about being accepted to 15 colleges. Congrats on the flex, but you know you aren’t going to go to many of those places. The longer you hold on to an offer, the longer someone else who really wants that spot has to wait. Schools should be following up with accepted applicants who don’t take an offer to find out what their timeline is and also kindly encourage them to say no if they don’t want the spot. College counselors and high schools should be doing the same.
  5. Financial aid and cost needs to be fixed. FAFSA was an absolute joke this year and the delays forced many kids to accept schools just because they were worried they wouldn’t be able to afford the school they really want. I personally think that public schools should be free aside from food/books/housing. At the very least it can be greatly reduced. It’s insane to spend $250,000-$400,000 on a college degree. I get that free college isn’t coming any time soon. And while I know the cost benefit of going to junior college for two years, taking away the connections people make by being in person for four years is a real problem. So I have two thoughts: 1. We need to streamline the FAFSA system and make it easier for people to get aid as well as make it so more loans are forgivable. I won’t act like I know enough about it to say how it would exactly work, but the beginning process shouldn’t be much harder than here are my and my parents tax returns and that process should be able to start much earlier. 2. If you go to a public school, you’ll miss out on a ton socially and networking wise if you aren’t in person with your peers your first year. There’s a hack though that can save you a lot of money. In your second year or over the summer, you can likely knock out a bunch of core classes for next to nothing by doing online junior college. Most public schools take those credits. In other words, if you take a leave of absence from your school, but still live in an apartment with buddies, you can get most of the school experience, save a semester of tuition, and then be back on campus for classes in your major right after that. At the very least, online junior college can make it so most people can graduate a semester early which takes away some of the cost and the cash grab that most universities are doing.
  6. Early decision applications heavily favor the rich as they don’t have to worry about committing without a good financial aid package. Applying early decision greatly increases your chances of getting in. There needs to be an economic opt out that doesn’t make students feel like they can’t pick their first choice.
  7. Schools need to be smarter about making sure special circumstance situations favor those who really have it. I know one kid who got in as a “first generation” college admit. Technically he’s the first in his family to go to a US college, but both of his parents have post-graduate degrees from the US after doing undergrad overseas. It’s no different than someone who is 2% Native-American getting special consideration. The playing field needs to be leveled, but not manipulated by those who already have advantages.

I’m sure some/all of my ideas have an unintended consequence or aren’t perfect for everyone. But the truth is that the college application process is broken, and not doing anything about it isn’t the right solution.