Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Kinder, gentler college admissions policies?

Yesterday's CNN.com education site had an interesting article for JIS parents with high school kids: "Taking Aim at Admissions Anxiety."

In the article, MIT's dean of admissions, Marilee Jones, discusses her views on the pressure cooker that faces students applying to top flight universities. (See this previous post on the related issue of AP/IB over-programing.) According to Jones, the anxiety is literally making students sick. She points to "statistics on the increase in ulcers, anxiety disorders and control disorders such as cutting and anorexia."

The CNN.com article explains that,
"For years, high school teachers and counselors have been complaining about the emotional and physical toll of the competition for slots in selective colleges. SAT prep classes and an arms race of extracurricular resume-building, they say, are draining the fun out of life for their students."
Jones agrees, and now she's one of higher education's most vocal proponents of revamping the college admissions process. "Nothing will change unless we get up, look ourselves in the mirror and say, 'I'm responsible,'" Jones told her admissions colleagues. "We have to look ourselves in the eye and say, 'Am I an educator, or am I marketer?'"

The negative effects of all this pressure on students go beyond the physical and emotional, says Jones:

"'You don't see the kind of wild innovation from individuals you used to see,' Jones said over lunch during a recent interview. 'You see a lot of group and team projects overseen by professionals, but you don't see the kind of rogue, interesting stuff that we used to see at MIT.'

MIT faculty told her many students just weren't much fun to teach. The issue of perfectionism had been brought painfully to the fore at MIT by a series of student suicides. Students 'want to do everything right, they want to know exactly what's on the test,' faculty told her. 'They're so afraid of failing or stepping out of line, that they're not really good students.'"

So what's the solution? At MIT, Jones has rewritten the admissions application to make it seem less like a laundry list form for awards, prizes, AP scores, and class rank. And MIT's essays "...asks applicants to write about something they do simply for pleasure...[and] to talk about an experience where they found value in failure or disappointment."

Jones also applauds Harvard's move to drop early admissions, a policy she believes adds to admissions pressure. And she hopes for the day when MIT and other top-flight universities make the SAT optional for applicants.

Will Jones succeed in her quest for kinder, gentler admissions policies? According to CNN.com,
"She probably won't persuade many parents that it really doesn't matter which colleges accept their children. Nor will it be easy getting other colleges to tone down their recruiting. Many struggle simply to fill classrooms and don't have MIT's luxury of limitless talent to pick. And even MIT's highly selective peers care about rankings; in the marketing arms race, they aren't likely to unilaterally disarm."
But at least she's trying....

Update: "Princeton Joins Harvard in Dropping Early Admissions" (from CNN.com, 9/18/06)

Update 2: The Washington Post's Jay Matthews unpacks six compelling reasons for colleges to keep Early Admissions programs (9/19/06)


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