May 13, 2015

The hardest part of the college application process

Chart courtesy of Edswell
For most high school seniors, the college application process has come to a conclusion.  Most have committed to two- or four-year colleges or universities, and most are looking forward to launching the next chapter of their lives.

And if the CIRP freshman survey is any predictor, about three-quarters successfully concluded the process and were admitted to first-choice colleges.

Interestingly, despite all the attention on college-going in the United States, there is virtually no research that asks high school seniors the simple but important question, “What was the hardest part of applying to college?”  At a minimum, the answer could be helpful for identifying roadblocks in the college application process and figuring out how to fix them.   

To get an idea of what college-bound students thought was the most challenging part of applying to college, Edswell surveyed about 14,000 high school students and here is what they found:
  • Writing the application essays:  48.6%
  • Taking standardized tests:  21.2%
  • Getting transcripts, teacher recommendations and other required documents:  18.5%
  • Figuring out which colleges to apply to:  8.2%
  • Filling out the application:  3.4%
“Writing the application essays” was the hands-down winner—harder than taking standardized tests and many times harder than deciding which colleges to apply to.  And this may be a potentially surprising result for juniors just starting in the process, given the heavy emphasis on test prep.
So why would the essay be so hard?  Because students go into the process pretty much blind about what will be expected of them.  They simply don’t have much experience with expository writing before starting the task as part of the application process.  In fact, an earlier study conducted by Harvard’s Kennedy School suggested that that a large share of potential applicants fails “to complete a four-year college application out of an aversion to writing essays.”  Add limited experience in the self-reflection arena, and you have major barriers to overcome. 

But everyone agrees essays are very important.  Survey data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) shows that the essay is the most important admissions factor after factors related to test scores and coursework—more important than class rank, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities, etc.

So what is the lesson for “on deck” juniors getting ready to start the college admissions process.

“Start early and find ways to get organized,” said Alex Thaler, founder and CEO of Edswell and its companion Zoomita, an essay-organizing tool available free of charge to students.  “And set aside plenty of time. Ten selective to highly-selective colleges could easily require as many as 40 essays, which could take many many hours to complete.”

Essay prompts are already available for both the Common App and the Universal College Application (UCA).  Over the next few months, individual colleges will begin releasing their own prompts.  So now is the time to begin getting organized and looking at various tools for tackling the essay-writing challenge because most seniors who have gone through the process will tell you it’s the hardest part!

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