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Dear Prospective Student…

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Dear Prospective Student…

Glo Robinson and Samantha Locke

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Amal Hayat was a sophomore when her letter from Harvard came in the mail. “It’s [like] a muggle getting accepted into Hogwarts,” said Hayat, now a junior  about receiving a recruitment letter from her dream school, Harvard, encouraging her to apply when she was just a sophomore.  “You don’t really feel it’s real, but then you get [the letter] and you’re like, wait a second….I remember receiving my Harvard Med School informational letter. It was held in a black envelope with my name written in silver ink,” she said. “The letter made it seem like I was special enough to go to Harvard.”  

In a culture of affluence it’s hard to ignore the stresses of college applications.

“Because I wasn’t accepted into these schools, I feel I am not of the caliber to be in the top institutions,” said UCLA college freshman Michael Schwartz, when he was a senior last spring. “I will always wonder if I could have done better and if I ever had that potential within to be admitted into these institutions and be at the top. These rejections affected me to a personal level when I hear throughout our community how people highly favor graduates with a degree from a prestigious school over other institutions. It’s hard not to be judged by people ,especially in Marin, from where you went  to college.” According to US news and world reports UCLA is ranked #24 nationally.

Hayat’s optimism about the college application process fluctuates. “On some days, I’m thinking… these are really low acceptance rates, like two point one per cent. I’m like, wow, that’s really hard to get into. But other days, I’m thinking like, two percent of like a thousand. That’s a lot of people… I could be one of those … people.”

“It’s ridiculous. It becomes this freight train out of control and I think that if parents at home keep the reality checks on all of that [college acceptance stress] and not promote that kind of craziness [of being accepted into a prestigious college] then we can get somewhere,” now retired guidance counselor Sarah Gordon said. “We already have teachers and parents that talk to their students in second grade about college. That’s insanity. So this all comes from the environment and thinking at home. It comes to this community that’s so immersed in how things look and not what it is …. And when kids start thinking about college this young, it becomes out of control and the disappointments are huge, when the answers are ‘no’ or ‘you don’t qualify.’”

While Hayat’s is an extreme example, receiving a recruitment of informational letter from a college has become expected. Since higher educational institutions were founded, marketing in some form has been imperative in recruiting a student body. Over the last decade, however, there has been a massive increase in college marketing to prospective students. Colleges are striving to raise their national ranking each year. When the volume of applications increases, a higher number of students can be rejected, resulting in a lowered acceptance rate. The lower the acceptance rate a college reports, the higher their national ranking

Recently, colleges have invested in branding strategies, further requesting applications so they can report a smaller acceptance rate and receive a higher ranking of their institution.

“Colleges have gotten much more aggressive about marketing themselves to prospective applicants,” said USC dean admissions officer Tim Brunold.  “With the increased competition, there is more of a need now than ever for colleges to tweak their marketing messages in an attempt to stand out from the crowd. Let’s face it: most of the colleges on an applicant’s list probably share many of the same programs and attributes. Colleges are scrambling to articulate how they are distinctive and why they might be the best choice for a given student.”

“At first when I started receiving emails from colleges it was kind of annoying. But then, it started to become very excessive. I would be getting like 20 emails per day. And then over the course of a few weeks I received about ten, fifteen, letters from colleges like Stanford saying  to [check out] our summer program.’ Then I would check them out and they would be ridiculously expensive and sort of sketchy,” junior Gillian Bell said.

Colleges find that marketing directly to high school students increases their applicant pool. That’s why today’s high school students are bombarded with information and slick, alluring packaging from a large number of schools. In the last decade, as electronics have come to play a larger role in communication, college marketing has become inescapable for many high school students. In addition to utilizing traditional forms of communication such as mail, colleges have turned to methods like video chatting and Facebook contests.

“And the hard thing about it is that it does come from good intentions on the most part, but there’s another side of it that can be very misleading, and really the way I see that happen is through misleading statistics,” said College and Career counselor Elizabeth Stoner.  

The onslaught of college marketing can affect student’s self esteem.

“I found it frustrating because I knew this letter was not targeted for me,” College of Marin student Lisa Mallett said.“I knew this letter was spam because with my grades and test scores Harvard really wouldn’t want me. The fact I got letters from both Harvard and Northern Arizona; this was a large range.”

Many students are overwhelmed by names and numbers. Tamalpais College and Career Counselor Stoner mentions parts of the process students often overlook when choosing a college. “The first question is, ‘Does [a particular college] have what I’m looking for?’” Stoner said. “‘I think that’s really hard for students to answer, and so sometimes students skip that step, and that’s where they feel totally inundated, because they can’t tell the difference, because they haven’t thought about what they really want in an institution.”

Lambert agrees. “Putting pressure on students to join activities for resumé building, working to get extra credit and go above and beyond and be perfect in everything regardless of personal passion, and forgetting to have fun with their family and allow their children to have a healthy social life is destructive,” she said.

The barrage of college marketing begins early in the college application process. When sophomores and juniors register to take the PSAT, they are given the option to receive college information. Once they release their phone number, address, or email, they are unaware who has access to their scores and personal information and how many solicitations they will receive.

“When students start receiving letters from colleges after they take the PSAT in their sophomore and junior year, they start to feel the pressure that they are supposed to start looking and [these letters] put the names of these colleges in their mind. It also causes students to skip the very important step of reflection of what they are really searching for,” Stoner said.

The College Board  (nonprofit corporation that administers the PSAT, SAT, and ACT), has been generating revenue by selling personal information about students to private consumer groups who then sell this information to colleges. It’s a great revenue stream and customers are increasingly willing to pay. “The companies collect information on millions of test takers and both sell names and information to colleges at 33 cents a name,” wrote Bloomberg Business columnist Janet Lorin.

Colleges’ attempts at increasing the number of applications they receive parallels the college board’s campaign of  “Apply to Four or More,” encouraging students, especially from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, to apply to an increasing number of colleges. They describe an ideal four as, “At least one safety… at least two fits… [and] at least one reach.”

It’s worked; in each year since 1997, colleges have reported receiving more applications since the previous year. More people are applying to colleges, resulting in shrinking acceptance rates. Caught in a vicious cycle, colleges drum up applications and raise tuition, turning increasing amounts of their resources towards branding their schools to potential applicants. Among institutions, it’s become a marketing arms race.

This, of course, skews acceptance rates, and can confuse those who don’t understand the factors involved.  When students apply to colleges, a majority are unaware of the reality behind this percentage. The acceptance rate reported in widely read publications represents the number of students that have decided to enroll out of the total number of applicants that applied in a given year. What the acceptance rate neglects to represent is several other factors.

“Parents due tend to trust these institutions a lot, and so they take these facts and they say, ‘well, oh, gosh,’ you know, ‘I should do this.’ And so they don’t stop for a second and go, ‘oh, okay, let me actually figure out, what does this number mean,’ said Stoner.

When the average person looks at an acceptance rate of a school, they don’t realize all the factors that go into producing this percentage. Take Duke University for example; The acceptance rate they reported for 2015 was 13 percent. This is is accurate when it shows how many students were originally admitted (4,077 out of 30, 374), but neglects to reveal how many declined (1,712). This leaves the yield percentage, the number accepted students who attended, at 42 percent. A whopping 1026 students were accepted from the waitlist, though only 102 chose to go (only 9.9% yield). Duke is not alone. Acceptance rates are simple, initial calculations that can often prove inadequate when gauging the selectivity of a college.

This number also neglects to inform applicants of their chances based on their gender and socio-economic status. Many institutions strive for a diverse class appearing to seek students from all around the nation. Almost no students are exactly average.

Furthermore, terms like “diversity” or “selectivity”, especially in the context of state schools, feed confusion. “The real question is, ‘What’s the percentage of students that come from the three states around your state?’” said Stoner. “If [a college] says 45 percent are in state students, and you’re saying, okay well, maybe you have one student from Wisconsin, and one student from Texas, but it’s not actually the diversity you were presenting.”

College admissions are also distorted by legacy applicants. When families of legacy donate year after year, it subsidises financial aid, allowing colleges to recruit low socioeconomic students and encourage them to apply for scholarships. However, with those donations comes a leg up in the admissions process.

According to Business Insider, the acceptance rates for legacy students is astonishing, increasing the rate by four times. For example, Harvard’s legacy admissions rate hovers around 30%. Its overall rate was 5.8% this year. For Princeton, the legacy acceptance rate is 33%, versus 8.5%. Even though the college marketing is targeted to students of low economic status, the concrete numbers favor privileged students.

All of this adds up to a system that makes many students feel self conscious and potentially confused. Rather than feeling special, many students are made more insecure by the letters they receive. “As such colleges and universities market to all students, even those who don’t fit their profile and even those who have a very slim if any chance of being accepted, this does the students a disservice by setting unrealistic expectations and taking away the students’ focus on schools that would be more appropriate for the students,” said Tam parent Kim Lambert.

“It’s black and white,” Gordon said. “Don’t take the recruitment letters to heart. It’s the other stuff that we don’t have control over, like what goes on at home and what that feeds in a person’s mind. It’s hard to shift people’s consciousness of this stuff.”

College marketing is all around us. From emails that flood our inboxes to the college brochures on our doorsteps, it’s hard to escape the constant reminders of college applications. This adds another layer of stress for students as they begin to plan their future years.

“We can’t change college marketing. We can critique it, we can talk about it, we can be educated about it, but we can’t change it,” said Stoner. “It shouldn’t demonize the schools because they serve two functions of being the business so they can survive and being institutions of education. What it comes down to is looking at yourself and knowing that there are over 4,000 colleges and more than one of them will be right for you.”

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