Demystifying the college admissions process

By Anya Lai

The Blue and Gold (Shilin, Taipei, Taiwan)




Beneath the surface of college rankings

When faced with the name of an unknown institution of higher education, Taipei American School students often turn to US News’s Best College rankings or other similar ranking systems to form a snap judgment about the said institution.

Yet, the US News, QS World, and Shanghai/AWRU college ranking systems all have their own flaws and should by no means be a major factor in college decisions. While these arbitrary rankings offer some indication of a school’s prestige, they do not always guarantee a satisfying college experience for the students who enroll there.
Consider the ever-popular US News, which has become near-ubiquitous among TAS students. The methodology U.S. News uses to create its rankings is seriously flawed.

In the Best National Universities category, the “undergraduate academic reputation” criterion, which accounts for 22.5 percent of a university’s eventual US News rank, is obviously problematic. US News derives each university’s undergraduate rank using an amalgamation of academic peer review surveys sent to senior staff in higher education institutions, as well as surveys sent to counselors in public high schools within the United States. Basing evaluations on surveys sent to senior staff is troubling because these important men and women may not have the time to gain an in-depth understanding of rival institutions. In addition, the surveys sent to counselors have a mere seven percent response rate, a very small sample size that is not necessarily representative.

Another questionable criterion is that of “student selectivity,” which accounts for 12.5 percent of a university’s eventual US News rank. US News derives its “student selectivity” rating from the following categories: 65 percent from average admissions test scores, 25 percent from the high school class rank of admitted students, and 10 percent from the college’s admission rate. However, colleges use aggressive email recruiting campaigns to increase applications from students with no realistic chance of being accepted, artificially deflating admissions rates.

US News aside, other popular ranking systems like AWRU/Shanghai, and QS Rankings should all be taken with a grain of salt.

For example, the AWRU/Shanghai Rankings give heavy weight to scientific research prowess, counting such factors as the number of Nobel Laureates, number of Fields Medal winners, and research output heavily. By contrast, little emphasis is given to teaching ability of professors or humanities prestige, priorities that students may not agree with.

The QS World Rankings are also only useful in certain areas. QS’s description of their methodology, while vague, makes it clear that mass surveys are their preferred method of achieving accuracy. The problem with this method is that, once again, not everyone is highly informed of rival institutions’ curricula or programs. QS’s official website does not even specify who the “70,000” individuals surveyed are.

A cautionary tale that illustrates how easy it is to manipulate this system is that of Northeastern University, which rose from No. 169 in the US News rankings to No. 43 over a period of 17 years. The school did this largely by gaming the acceptance rate and admissions test criteria. Applicants from international high schools were no longer required to submit SAT scores, meaning that the college did not have the generally lower SAT scores from international applicants hurting their averages. These efforts resulted in record-breaking applications to the college, leading to more rejections and thus a lower acceptance rate, giving the appearance of prestige without an improvement in the quality of education.

Perhaps the best solution is to take a compilation of these rankings and choose results based on what your own needs. It would perhaps be wise to also consider TIME’s Money Rankings, which measures the value of a degree against the tuition required. If you are going to be happy at a no-name college that offers relatively weak research opportunities but strong undergraduate teaching, or if you feel like college degrees are too expensive, focus less on the prestige of a name-college and more on the worth of the education you are getting.

College meme groups: the new digital campus tour

Last year, when Harvard University rescinded admissions offers from 10 admitted students for their creation of offensive memes in a closed Facebook group, high school students worldwide found out about it from official press outlets.

Ashley Lin (‘18), however, heard about the event through another source: a Harvard meme group of her own. As a part of the Facebook group Harvard Memes for Elite 1% Tweens, she was able to access the reactions of Harvard students in real-time.

Harvard Memes is one of many “open-access” college Facebook groups that accept requests for membership from students outside the specific college. While the jokes and memes posted there are required to center around the university itself, other students are welcome to join in and get a look into campus culture.

High school students like Ashley have capitalized on these opportunities to get a more unfiltered look into what life at college is really like. “The subjects the memes are about reveals a lot about the issues students care about and what the culture is like,” Ashley says. “Each school also has a different sense of humor too.”

Some university students agree that meme groups can help students understand the colleges that they are applying to. George Washington University junior Claude Su (‘15) thinks that meme groups can help elucidate some aspects of college culture at his campus. “Since GW is a unique school in that it lacks traditional school spirit, the things in our meme group represent what school spirit and community actually mean for us as a college,” he says.

Others are more wary of their effectiveness. “I suppose that they are accurate, to some extent,” says Justin Rhee (‘16), now a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. “That said, it’s important to note that most of the memes are written, posted, and reposted by the same 5 percent of people.”

Overall, though, Ashley primarily uses these meme groups as another way to enjoy social media, rather than a serious replacement for the conventional college touring process. “I found most of the memes in the meme groups funny, and some funnier than others, but it didn’t really change my preferences,” says Ashley. “I think their most important aspect is that they provide me with humor I can relate to and give me some joy when I’m down.”

Blaming college admissions fees is not the answer

Many people who write opinion articles love to criticize. Dissatisfied with the status quo, they denounce everything that can be denounced, and call for change. For once, however, I am not criticizing anything in this piece. Instead, while many students argue that college application fees are exorbitantly expensive, I believe that the fees are justified.

Colleges need to hire many admissions specialists to read the many applications they receive each year. In 2016, The University of California, Los Angeles received 119,000 applications, which shows why the University of California charges an extra $70 US for each additional campus if students apply to more than four. There is only a limited number of admissions specialists reading these apps.

Moreover, the application fee also encourages students to carefully decide the colleges they want to apply to. If there were no application fee, prestigious universities like the Ivy League schools would be overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of applications from hopeful students, creating excessive work for their admissions officers. Similarly, high school college counselors and students themselves would suffer, as parents would force their children to apply to dozens of schools.

It is also noteworthy that students now have access to Common App, a system where the college application process is simplified and centralized. The college application fees are still present, however, through Common App, there is an option of requesting a fee waiver if the application fee poses a financial burden. Therefore, this is beneficial to students from lower-income families. For students from higher-income families, on the other hand, a $90 US fee is not considered a significant amount money, especially compared to tuition fees.

All in all, college application fees are justified considering colleges need to hire admissions officers to read the applications. The fees also alleviate the workloads for students and college counselors. Finally, having access to a fee waiver can reduce costs for lower-income families.

Photo credit: Alief Taylor 

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