Thursday, May 29, 2014


One of the things I used to like about the college admissions process was that there is a rhythm to it, a beginning and an end.  I say “used to like” because that long ago ceased to be the case.  I feel sorry for those who make the mistake of asking me around this time of year if this is my down time, but not as sorry as they probably feel for themselves once they have to listen to me explain that my job isn’t finished once the seniors are put to bed,  that the spring is even busier trying to get juniors starting the search process.

Recently a close friend, now a venerable admissions dean, reminisced about when we worked together as young admissions officers back in the late 1970s. During the summer there were interviews to conduct and fall visits to schedule, but our days were so laid back that we spent hours with the Assistant Dean of Students on what was billed as the world’s largest crossword puzzle.  Those days disappeared long ago on the college side, and today I am shocked when I hear about a school college counselor who doesn’t work during the summer.   

It is tempting and comforting to think of May 1 as the “end” of the admissions cycle each year, but the past couple of weeks have brought several reminders of how misguided that belief is.

The first reminder was receiving several e-mails from colleges still looking to fill their freshman class now that May 1 was past.  There is an art form to such communications.  You want to look welcoming without seeming desperate.

The most creative this spring came from a friend who is a rising star in the profession and Dean at one of the good liberal-arts colleges located in the Midwest.  He used the “X is the new Y” metaphor--“Orange is the new Black,” “60 is the new 40,” “Ted Cruz is the new Barack Obama” (that will offend everyone on both ends of the political spectrum)—to suggest that “June 1 is the new May 1.”  He didn’t elaborate on that assertion, but the rest of the e-mail made the point that his institution still had room for a handful of qualified applicants who hadn’t yet made decisions.

The “June 1 is the new May 1” claim was obviously designed to get my attention, and it worked.  Is that true, or becoming true?

I hope not, if the statement is insinuating that May 1 is no longer relevant. I believe that the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date is the most important convention maintaining sanity and order and ethics in the college admissions process, and any attempt to subvert it would be a tragic mistake, leading us down a path to unprofessionalism and chaos.

The statement “June 1 is the new May 1” does recognize that the coming of May 1 does not end the admissions process for many institutions and many students.

I have previously written about how Wait Lists have become a regular part of the admissions process, with up to 20% of my seniors ending up at their final destination after getting off a Wait List, and shortly after May 1 the dominoes started falling.  Some of that is by design, as colleges use Wait Lists as “ED-3” to sculpt the class and reward demonstrated interest. Some of it is related to the fact that predicting yield is an exercise in inductive reasoning, with future projections based on past experience.  I recently had a conversation with the Dean of Admissions at a leading national university who observed that models for acceptance and yield are no longer reliable, that every year is a new experience.

There are clearly institutions where the admissions process routinely continues after May 1.  There are also certainly students out there who aren’t aware of the significance of May 1 and operate on their own time frame.  During that same summer when I spent my afternoons working on the crossword puzzle, I took a phone call one morning from a girl who had just graduated from high school. She hadn’t bothered to apply to college and was inquiring about the following year. I quickly determined that she was a good applicant, someone we would have admitted in the top half of our class, and despite the fact that we had a record freshman class, we were in a position to admit one more.  She ended up coming and becoming one of my wife’s closest friends.

So what are the rules of engagement for institutions that find themselves past May 1 and significantly short of their enrollment goal?  That question was raised in an article last week in  That article raised concerns that some colleges may attempt to “poach” (in the hunting sense, not the cooking sense) students who have already deposited elsewhere by offering them more financial aid dollars.  Similar concerns were raised last summer when several institutions experienced major enrollment shortfalls.

I am not someone who sees most ethical issues as black and white, but this one seems clear.  It is certainly permissible for an institution short on enrollment to contact students who have not responded to an offer of admission, as we know that many students do not inform colleges that they will not be coming, but it is unethical to contact a student who has already made a commitment to another institution or declined your offer of admission.  What is questionable is sweetening a financial aid offer to a student who has not explicitly told you that finances are preventing him or her from coming.  That suggests that you believe that college selection is only about price and not about value.  We are na├»ve if we think economic considerations are not substantial parts of the college decision, but do we want students choosing for economic reasons alone?

The other troubling piece from last week’s article was a quote from a Dean of Admissions whom I know and have written about.  The quote stated that you can be “more straightforward in doing the right thing” when you’re in a strong enrollment position.  I hope the Dean was misquoted.  The article provided two examples—the college not matching an aid offer from another college and advising a student to enroll elsewhere rather than assume significant debt—and I agree that both are not the wrong thing to do, but the suggestion that doing the right thing is dependent on the strength of the college’s enrollment position is not in my opinion what our profession should stand for.   

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


An interesting recent discussion on the eList for ACCIS (Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools) had to do with Board reports, a topic that those of us in independent schools have to think about at this time of year while juggling everything else.  How much information, at what depth of detail, should we share with our Boards about the college admissions year, and how do we educate them about the larger trends and challenges facing our students—and us?

A close friend claims to be a convert to “Zen” presentations, with pictures taking the place of words and minimal text (something you’re unlikely ever to see in this blog).  A year ago his Board report was organized around three sets of iuitials—ED (Early Decision), DI (Demonstrated Interest), and FP (Full Pay).  His argument was that those three concepts explained most of the things taking place in the college admissions world affecting his students.  If he had only been a little less Zen and a little more attuned to acronyms, he could have reorganized into the memorable DI/FP/ED, or “difped.”

The consensus among ACCIS members who replied was that Demonstrated Interest has been a bigger issue this year.  That has been true in cases where highly-qualified applicants end up Wait Listed at selective institutions, and also in some cases where students on the bubble were admitted due to the interest they had shown.  Several counselors reported that colleges seem to be paying closer attention to the “Why here?” essay as a sign that a student has done research and has depth of interest, and that forging a relationship with an admissions officer might pay off with an offer of admission, where failure to connect could result in being Wait Listed even when superbly qualified.

I have come to believe that all those issues (Early Decision, Demonstrated Interest, and the use of Wait Lists) are related.  I also think Demonstrated Interest is no longer the right term.  What we refer to as Demonstrated Interest has become Likelihood to Enroll.  Colleges and universities, especially selective private institutions, are so concerned with admit rate and yield that they are taking likelihood to enroll into consideration in making admissions decisions.

That explains the popularity of Early Decision, where there is in theory a 100% likelihood to enroll, and it also explains why many institutions are using Wait Lists as a kind of “Early Decision 3,” filling a certain percentage of the class (up to 10-15%) off the Wait List where interest becomes a much more important factor than in the regular process.

The change I’ve sensed this year is that the process of demonstrating interest is becoming more complex.  Whereas demonstrating interest used to be something a student only had to do once, whether by visiting the campus or by meeting with a college rep at school, now demonstrating interest is an on-going process.  As colleges attempt to predict who is likely to enroll rather than who is interested, many are looking for multiple contacts, tracking hits on the website or student portal.  I think that interest is an appropriate factor to consider in the admissions process; I just wish that colleges would be transparent to students about what counts as interest and how they measure it.


The changing landscape for Demonstrated Interest produces new headaches for counselors trying to advise students interested in coming off a Wait List.  I recently heard about a school where the counseling staff is divided over the issue of whether a student should promise a college she will enroll if admitted off the Wait List.  The student in question is genuinely interested in the college where she is Wait Listed, but is unsure now that May 1 has passed whether she would withdraw from the first college if offered off the Wait List by the second.

One staff member sees the student as breaking a promise if she doesn’t accept the Wait List, while the other argues that the vagaries of the Wait List, especially in a time when colleges are trying to calculate likelihood to enroll, make the student’s ethical obligations far from clear.

I am sympathetic to both positions.  The German philosopher Immanuel Kant describes keeping a promise as the paradigmatic ethical act, in that having made a promise imposes ethical obligations on an individual even if outweighed by competing ethical principles, and I have always advised students that commitments and promises are not to be taken lightly.  At the same time, I don’t see the Wait List case as comparable to reneging on an Early Decision commitment.

The NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice (Section 2.B.6) states that colleges are not allowed to ask Wait List students for a commitment to enroll prior to a written offer of admission.  I haven’t seen colleges ask directly, but have an increasing sense that they would like to have a pretty good idea that a student will accept before making the Wait List offer.  Colleges use Wait Lists to manage enrollment with precision, and they don’t want to make 30 offers to fill 10 spots if they can fill them with only 10 offers.

The other side of the issue is that savvy students, or those with savvy counselors, understand that interest/likelihood to enroll are key parts of the Wait List game, and may commit either implicitly or explicitly to enroll if admitted off the Wait List.  Is it wrong for them to do so if they’re not sure?  Should a counselor encourage or discourage them?

I have always taken the position that honesty and commitment are values to be taken seriously.  If a student tells a college they will enroll if admitted off the Wait List when they have no intention, when they are merely collecting an acceptance, that is wrong.  If, however, a student honestly believes they would likely enroll, communicates that they will come, then chooses to remain at the institution where they have already deposited, I see that as different, as not dishonest.  The college has no right to ask for that commitment, and by not admitting the student originally, in effect telling the student that the college doesn’t really want to admit her (that may be a harsh interpretation of what Wait List signifies), the college has given away its moral bargaining position.  When likelihood to enroll is part of the college’s equation, such that a student communicating that they are interested but not certain of enrolling may preclude an offer being made, any commitment must be considered conditional.

The poet W.H. Auden said that it is easy to promise that you will love someone forever and much harder to promise that you will love them next Tuesday. I tell students that making final decisions is hard because you are no longer talking about possibilities but making choices with real consequences. By choosing one you close the door on others.  A student who promises to enroll prior to being admitted off a Wait List is promising love forever. They can’t be expected to promise they will still feel the love next Tuesday when getting off the Wait List is a reality rather than a possibility.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

AP or Not AP--Another Perspective

Shortly after my post last week about whether students taking AP courses should be required to take AP exams, I received a thoughtful e-mail response (much more thoughtful than my post, in fact) from Susan Tree at Westtown School outside Philadelphia.  Susan is someone whose opinion I respect greatly, and I asked her if she would allow me to publish her response.  It is below, followed by a couple of closing thoughts.


Hi Jim,


I enjoy reading your blogs! Usually, I agree with your insights and feel your pain, but I have to express a contrary opinion on this one! I acknowledge up front that the value of AP courses and exams vary regionally.... in the greater Philadelphia area, the majority of independent schools have dropped the AP designation because it became clear that the value in the college admission process was negligible and it wasn't allowing our curriculum to evolve in this "new" century. And it certainly wasn't helping our high end students differentiate themselves in the applicant pools of selective colleges! Our faculty (after a lot of research including dialoging with professors of first year courses at colleges, from the Ivies to research universities to small liberal arts colleges) knew they could design courses that were more advanced, more 21st Century, and simply better than the AP curriculum.

Our college list is as strong as ever (actually stronger, from my perspective) as a result and we have been able to introduce some exciting, rigorous, advanced course work that takes our students to a higher level of college preparation. Colleges love it. Our kids stand out more in their applicant pools.


When we still had the AP designation on courses, we never required students to sit for the exam, believing that the value of taking a rigorous course is in taking the course, not taking the test. We didn't have trouble with kids slacking since these courses were well taught and kids were in it for the learning experience. Things haven't changed.


So I appreciate your perspective but it's simply not our experience that AP has gained in value in the college admissions process except at "the nation's weak and failing schools" (to quote George Bush and Gaston Caperton when the audit debuted) which truthfully, are the target audience for the whole AP program. Maybe AP is the gold standard... especially for schools that are under-resourced and whose teachers need a curriculum. I guess there are "platinum" standards too, especially for independent schools charging big bucks. We know that people in greater Philadelphia can go to good public schools and take all the AP courses they want - and many of those kids don't get in to the colleges our students get in to. Parents pay for the "value added", which is what we work hard to articulate, market, and deliver. Lots of student research, collaborative work, action based learning, interdisciplinary work, deep dives...

I think that colleges take each school at face value - and look for whatever it is that they value in an applicant (and what their professors want in their classrooms!). You and I know that applicants are judged in their own unique context. As the 21st Century continues to unfold, I think that AP will move out of well-resourced schools into schools that need to rachet up their teaching and curriculum. Expensive schools like ours will likely be looking at international curricula (and not just IB), research skill development, and interdisciplinary models... and other skills all the 21st Century research points to as critical for this generation. It's exciting.


This is ironic giving that I am proctoring the AP Comp Sci exam this morning! As long as we enroll international students, we will be giving AP exams... A few years ago at NACAC (ten, maybe!) I was on a panel called, "To AP or Not AP, That is the Question". Small world!


Best to you.




Susan K. Tree

Westtown School, PA


And a couple of thoughts:


1)       I appreciate Susan’s perspective and her willingness to share it.  My goal in blogging is to stimulate discussion about the ethical issues related to college admission, and I will be the first to admit that I am much better at asking questions than I am at providing answers (my philosophical background at work).

2)      As I was writing the post I had the uneasy sense that I was defending the College Board far more than I planned when I started writing, but while writing the post I somehow convinced myself that when you call a course an AP course, your default position should be that students will take the exam unless there are compelling reasons not to.  I am less certain about that than I once was, and Susan’s reflection on Westtown’s experience makes me even less so, but that’s still my default position.

3)      I hope I didn’t come across as arguing that the AP program is the “gold standard” when it comes to curriculum.  What I was trying to suggest is that the justification for the AP program has changed from college credit to curriculum rigor, and I expect that to increase under David Coleman as the College Board moves to position itself as the leader in assessing the Common Core.  I work in a traditional independent school where the faculty generally likes both AP courses and AP exams, and yet my own sympathies lie with those schools that have moved away from the AP brand in order to design courses that engage students and require them to think deeply.  I suspect Susan is right  that a number of good, wealthy school will become “post-AP” in their curricula to better provide the skills our graduates will need in the 21st century world.

4)      Susan may be right that the appeal of AP varies depending on geography.  Unlike Philadelphia, the independent schools in Richmond continue to be committed to AP, and yet I have joked with colleagues from other schools that the commitment is for marketing rather than philosophical or educational reasons.  Each school is hesitant to drop AP because of perceived marketing disadvantages, and it would probably require the independent school equivalent of the Camp David Accords to achieve AP disarmament.

5)      I apologize for inadvertently borrowing a title from an old NACAC conference session.  It proves once again that I am neither as clever nor as original as I would like to think.



I am doing a presentation this weekend on “Surviving the College Admissions Process—and Enjoying It” at the Community Conversation on Teen Stress: Fostering Wellness and Resiliency sponsored by the Superintendent of Schools in Fairfax County, Virginia.  If any of you have thoughts on that topics, feel free to share.


On a lighter note, ECA hit two milestones last week.  The blog received its 12000th view, something I would never have dreamed of when I started writing, and more significantly, received its first view from the last state we were missing, North Dakota.  According to ClustrMaps, we’ve had readers from 63 other countries, but I’m skeptical about how many of them were actually interested in the ethics of college admissions.  Thanks to everyone who reads and comments either publicly or privately on the blog.   


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

AP or Not AP? That is the Question

As we celebrate the annual College Board Festival of Advanced Placement Exams, let us pause for a minute to consider the question, Should students who take AP courses be required to take AP exams? That has never been a simple question, and it is even less so today.

For much of my career my answer would have been a clear “yes,” and in fact my school continues to expect students who take AP courses to take the AP exam (we will not get into the semantics of “expect” vs. “require”).  The classical definition of an AP course is that it is a course designed to prepare a student for the AP exam, which then provides the potential for earning college credit.

But is that definition of an AP course still valid?  Today AP courses have more value for admission to college than for college credit or placement.  AP has become the nation’s top curriculum brand, making the AP syllabus (or at least the AP designation on a transcript) more important than the AP exam.  With AP exams now costing $89 and less likelihood of receiving college credit than used to be the case, is it fair to require students in an AP class to take the exam?

That begs the question, “Fair to whom?”  It may not be fair to the student with financial hardship and little chance of earning credit, but it may be fair to teachers who need every carrot and every stick at their disposal to stave off senior slump at this time of year.  Exams of any type promote accountability, and there is an educational argument to be made that taking an exam has educational value in itself, helping a student to pull together information and make connections between ideas.  Most of my colleagues who teach AP courses are impressed with the quality of the exam, especially now that exams like Biology have moved away from regurgitation of information and toward critical thinking and problem-solving.  Several years ago a Chemistry teacher argued that the AP exam didn’t measure the right things.  I pointed out that you can make that argument when your scores are good, whereas it looks self-serving when your scores are modest.

The question, then, is how essential a component of the AP experience is the exam itself?  Is taking an AP course but not taking the exam the same experience as taking an AP course to prepare for the exam?  My gut tells me it’s not, but that’s not necessarily a reason to require a student to sit for the AP exam.

But what about a student who shows AP courses on his or her transcript but no evidence of having taken an exam? Does that concern or worry colleges?  It is less of an issue today when schools have to get approval to label courses as AP, but without the exam component what’s the difference between a course taught using the AP syllabus and an Honors course? 

Having an AP exam score provides information both about the student and potentially about the course as well.  There is a big difference between having an A in an AP course with a score of 5 on the exam and an A with a 2 on the exam.  Most of us would guess those aren’t equal courses. There are certainly students who don’t test well, but when an entire class scores poorly on the AP exam it may say something about the quality of the class.  When a student’s transcript show AP courses with no evidence of having taken the exam, do colleges assume that the exam wasn’t taken or that the scores weren’t very good?

I have never been described as an apologist for the College Board, which I have labeled “America’s Most Profitable Non-Profit Organization.”  I think the AP curriculum provides rigor and quality, although I also think it may restrict good teachers from delving into topics that are not on the exam.  I also have reservations about the “AP for average students” movement.  That having been said, I think that most students who take AP courses should also take the AP exam, with exceptions made for those for whom the cost of the exam causes financial hardship.


Friday, May 2, 2014

ECA Gets a Shoutout

The front page of today’s features a reference and link to yesterday’s post.  The mention is in the Around the Web section at the bottom of the page.

The Ethical College Admissions blog was previously mentioned by the Washington Post website and by  In addition, Peter Gow last year listed the blog as among the influential independent school blogs in his blog on Education

We are grateful for the coverage and for all those who read the blog.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

May Day! May Day!

I just returned from attending the Potomac and Chesapeake ACAC conference.  I did two presentations, and preparing for them has consumed most of my free time over the past several weeks.  That has diverted attention from the blog.  Several years ago Jeannine Lalonde at the University of Virginia, better known as “Dean J” thanks to her Notes From Peabody blog, told me that blogging is addictive, and I have found that to be the case.  After about two weeks without a post I start to panic that: a) I haven’t written anything recently; and b) I have nothing worth saying.  I’m going to try to address the first concern with several shorter posts over the next couple of weeks.  It remains to be seen whether that will prove the second concern right or wrong.

Today is May 1, better known as May Day.  What images May Day conjures up depends on your background.  It may mean dancing around the May Pole, Cold War-era Soviet bloc parades of military might, or the international distress call.  For all of us in the college admissions/college counseling profession May Day means only one thing, the Day of Reckoning that is the National Candidates Reply Date.  By the end of the day today high school seniors should have one and only one deposit in at a college, and college admissions offices should have a good idea about what their class looks like.  May 1 is not final, because there will still be movement on and off Wait Lists, but today marks a ceremonial and realistic conclusion to the admissions year.

May 1 assumes even greater importance for those of us concerned about the ethics of college admissions.  I would argue that May 1 is the most important convention that prevents admissions from degenerating into the Wild West, a landscape without law or order.  Having May 1 as a common date protects both students and institutions and keeps us from deteriorating into blatant self-interest at the expense of the common good and a sense of professionalism.

At PCACAC I attended a session titled, “Is It Ethical?” dealing with both the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice and some case studies that illustrate gray areas and the fact that no document is capable of covering every scenario. During the session, Lou Hirsh, retired Director of Admissions at the University of Delaware as well as Chair of the AP committee for PCACAC and a member of the National AP committee (also a friend and devoted reader of this blog), observed that the majority of admissions practices inquiries received at both the regional and national levels are prompted by colleges that ask for deposits (enrollment, scholarship, housing) prior to May 1.  Many (most?)  are not malicious in intent but motivated by self-interest, but asking for a deposit before May 1, even when refundable, has the potential to be coercive, to manipulate a student to make a commitment before they know all their options or are ready to choose among those options.

During the session two interesting things came up.  One was a discussion about whether assigning housing on a first-come, first-served basis is ethical.  The consensus in the room was that it is not, that it disadvantages students who are already economically disadvantaged, those who require financial aid and may have to scramble to come up with an enrollment or housing deposit.  I see both sides of that issue.  On one hand, all things being equal, first-come, first-served is defensible as a “neutral” way to assign housing or other benefits.  Then again, all things aren’t equal. A first-come, first-served process gives further advantage to students who are already advantaged, and first-come, first-served has the potential to manipulate student behavior, even unintentionally. Other means of assigning housing, such as a lottery, are fairer to all students.

The second was a comment from a Director of Admissions.  The essence was that we shouldn’t be surprised if erosion of the May 1 deadline doesn’t eventually lead to an increase in double deposits and an erosion of the idea that there is something inherently wrong with depositing at more than one college.

His comment touched a nerve.  I believe in the sanctity of May 1 and tell my students and parents that double-depositing is unethical, but I also see hypocrisy in college folks who see double depositing as a treasonable offense when so many colleges are violating the spirit of May 1.  When students and parents are led to believe that they will lose opportunities for housing and scholarships if they don’t commit prior to May 1, we can’t be incensed when they hedge their bets with multiple deposits.  The May 1 convention, like so much about college admissions, is an honor system, relying on all of us giving up what’s good for us for the greater good.  That greater good is public trust and confidence in the admissions process and calendar.

On this May 1 I hope we will look at the big picture and pledge ourselves to admissions practices that build trust and confidence.  We must remember and heed the words of Benjamin Franklin, who told the signers of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or we will surely all hang separately.”

Happy May 1.  May this day bring us happy students and full freshman classes, and may the phrase “May Day” signify the coming of spring and not an emergency call for help.