A Look Back: The Evolution of College Admissions

In the fall semester of 1986, I was in my senior year at USM and, like many of my peers, considering a list of five or six colleges, all liberal arts schools, mostly in hard-to-get-to small towns. A few of my friends looked at UW-Madison, which they could attend for well under $10,000 a year. After I sent off postcards, each college mailed a paper application that I dutifully fed into our family’s Smith Corona typewriter to complete. I took the SAT once and had only one letter of recommendation. My loving parents never asked to read over a single page of the stack that I sent off sometime in January.

Ultimately, the habits I developed as a USM student—self-reflection, a healthy skepticism of first impressions, and open-mindedness—contributed to my college choice, helped me adapt to college life, and still guide me now as one of three college counselors at USM. Today, however, the application process is much different. By the end of their junior year, our students will have taken three practice standardized tests with access to over 40 hours of test prep. In recent years, more than 80% of USM seniors have submitted at least one application (and three letters of recommendation) electronically by Nov. 1. Students routinely request that many people review their applications before submission, and most will use the Common Application, which only a handful of us did in 1986.

Back in high school, I was a firm proponent of staying true to one’s self, but as a counselor, I understand how students can be influenced by others. The brand strength of particular colleges and enrollment trends definitely impact student and parent behavior, and not always for the better. Instead of looking within and nurturing individual strengths and interests, many families feel the need to bow to external pressures. The recent “Varsity Blues” scandal, in which wealthy parents participated in bribery and test-cheating schemes in exchange for their children’s entry to highly selective schools, proves that.

In many ways, college admissions in 2019 doesn’t feel at all like it did in 1986. And yet, the very same
questions asked of me in USM classrooms that helped me make a sound college decision are the same questions we find ourselves asking students and families as they negotiate this different terrain now: Why do you want what you want? What are your obligations to yourself and others? What forces should shape your decisions? How do your decisions benefit you and the common good?

Who goes to college, where they go, and how they get there may be changing, but the purpose of an education—especially a USM education—has not: to build better selves and citizens.

Susan Zarwell ’87 is USM’s director of college guidance.

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