What I Learned as an Admissions Officer during College Application Week

“Ms. Full, I don’t know what this is asking.”  “Ms. Full, I don’t know what I’m supposed to put here.”   “Ms. Full, why do they want to know this?”  “Why are they asking me all of this?”  “This is stupid…I quit!” Recently I spent some time volunteering at a local high school during my state’s College Application Week, a program sponsored by the College Access Network.  Our task as volunteers was simply to help high school seniors fill out and submit applications to their selected colleges.  This was an amazing and rewarding experience for me, but also truly an eye-opening one.  I’ve been sitting on the other side of the desk all these years, placidly receiving college applications and not really thinking about the huge amount of effort it takes some students to get even this far into the college-bound process.  I’m talking about students whose parents do not have the ability or time to help their children navigate the procedures, and students who attend schools where even the most devoted and hard-working counselors cannot possibly provide the amount of one-to-one time necessary for each student.

It struck me that much of what I take for granted as an admissions officer might not be all that simple for even the brightest high school student.  For example, as I was helping students with their applications to various universities, I noticed that some of them had problems working through the computer-adaptive questions.  Questions that also required students to understand essential admissions terminology or university structure caused some of the kids to just stare at the screen in bewilderment.

There was the student who went down the wrong pathway while filling in questions and somehow found himself on the university’s graduate school application.  He had no idea now to maneuver himself out of it.  Another student applying to an out-of-state university found himself answering residency questions meant only for in-state applicants.

One student did not know how to distinguish among business programs.  “What is accounting?  What is management? How do I know which one to pick?”  One student was unsure how to approach a short-answer question that asked her to describe the contributions she could make to that particular college’s campus culture and community.  These were smart kids.  A bit of nudging, a few suggestions, and they were off and running toward the "submit" button.

So as I made my way between the computer terminals and kids urgently trying to capture my attention, it hit me:  there must be so many kids who truly need help with this. This alone … filling out the application!  And this is just the very beginning of their college admissions journey.  These kids will next endure many months of deciphering financial aid forms, understanding offers of admission and completing the other necessary steps toward college matriculation.  Schools are doing the best they can to help, but they are falling short.  Organizations at so many levels: national, state, private, philanthropic, are working to find solutions.  But what about the kids who need this help today, now?

I don’t have all of the answers, but I do know one thing: I can help one more student fill out an admissions application.  And then maybe stay in touch to answer more questions in the future for that student.

“Ms. Full, can you tell me what I’m supposed to put here?”