May 10, 2006

Professional help preparing college applications: should it be disclosed?

Orin Kerr thinks students applying to college ought to have to disclose whether they received professional help preparing their applications:
... I wonder if disclosure might help even out the playing field. First, it would discourage excessive packaging. Wealthy parents might want to give their kids a leg up by hiring a consultant to help Junior package himself for Dartmouth, but will they want to do it if Junior has to admit in his application that Ivywise was hired to help him out? Disclosure would help admissions officers, too, by giving them some useful context to evaluate applications.

Of course, disclosure wouldn't work perfectly. For example, lots of applicants would probably misrepresent the help they received. And it's not easy to figure out what kind of information should be disclosed and what shouldn't. At the same time, disclosure might take us a tiny step forward in evening out the playing field for admission to competitive colleges.
I would not add the complexity of disclosure and the new set of problems it brings. I've put many years into law school admissions work, and what's important is to try to understand the person behind the file. Someone from a privileged background tends to produce a slicker file: you take that into account. Someone else lets us know -- because we specifically ask -- that they are the first person in their family to graduate from high school (or college) or that their family was on public assistance. If that person's file does not crisply highlight the kind of facts that matter in admissions decisions, I would consider it my responsibility to look very hard for them and to compensate for that person's disadvantage in preparing the file. It's the job of the person reading the file to weight factors properly and not to be impressed by superficial things that money can buy. Professional help preparing the file is one of those things. It's not really much different from having sophisticated parents to guide you. It's the job of the admissions official to use the file as evidence and to form an accurate picture of the person who stands behind it.


Nathan said...

I guess it says something about my background that I've never heard of such a thing as "Ivywise." There must have been an Althouse on the applications committee when I was admitted.

jeff_d said...

I've never heard of such services either. It seems so contrary to a central purpose of the admissions process -- namely, identifying unique characteristics that bear on the decision whether to admit. I wonder why it isn't feasible to require applicants to certify that they did not employ such services, or at least to disclose the nature of any assistance they did receive.

Are the "Ivywise" applications really better than the others? After awhile does it get easier to recognize common features of applications resulting from such services? If they are akin to Cliff's Notes, I would think the same trite little idiosyncrasies would show up again and again. As an evaluator, I would penalize for that.

I hope you are not alone among evaluators in actively trying to level the playing field between professionally coached applications and those completed without paid assistance.

Walt said...

Ann's right. An educated parent that has been involved in any type of hiring scenerio would also polish up an application. It is up to the institution to decide how they interpret the application materials.
On a side note, the whole idea of leveling the playing field is a pipe dream. The ivy legues will always be comprised of the most affluent with few exceptions. There are those students who overcome the odds and find acceptance, but for the most part, no amount of "coaching" will change that.

And for those of you ready to pounce, I am not saying that the situation is a bad thing. It is what it is, and in a capitalistic society, it takes capital. Unfortunately, we teach are kids that everyone is a winner, and perhaps that is just setting our kids up for failure. oops, I mean those kids without affluent and/or educated parents.

Balfegor said...

Re: Jeff

If they are akin to Cliff's Notes, I would think the same trite little idiosyncrasies would show up again and again. As an evaluator, I would penalize for that.

Actually, on the contrary, my suspicion would be that people who are unable to afford personal attention in polishing up applications would be the ones to have "Cliff's Notes" style "idiosyncracies"--poorer or thriftier people can and will get them out of books on how to navigate applications, just like students do with Cliff's Notes.

I suspect (though having no direct experience, I do not know) that these services are more like personal tutors than like Cliff's notes.

Re: Walt

On a side note, the whole idea of leveling the playing field is a pipe dream. The ivy leagues will always be comprised of the most affluent with few exceptions.

I think you're probably right. But structuring the system so there is some levelling effect, even if it is necessarily going to be imperfect, seems like a worthy aim.

As a practical matter, people coming from posh prep schools simply tend to be much better prepared for a posh college education at an Ivy League. When a close relation started at a posh Ivy League school, coming from a public high school (in California, though she had a decent education by American standards anyhow), she was confronted immediately with a shameful sensation of ignorance -- that she might, for all she knew, be rather cleverer than all these moneyed prep-school children, but they were certainly far better educated than she was in pretty much every area except mathematics. I suspect admissions people can read that plain as day in admissions packets. The real inequality here isn't merely a matter of gloss in packaging applications -- it's an inequality of preparation that developed over many years of compulsory education of inequal scope and quality.

Levelling that is a bit of pipe dream. And the best way of levelling would be to fix our abominable public schooling system, and elevate the importance of basic education in general culture -- this is almost hopelessly utopian, given the forces arrayed against any such endeavour. But we to try on all levels anyhow.

Seven Machos said...

This seems a lot like people prepping for standardized tests. It's sometehing they are going to do in a free society, and they are going to lie about it if they think they can get penalized for admitting it. My sense is that professionals (define "professional," by the way) would just find ways to make the applications look like ordinary applications as part of their services.

Hate to be a suck-up here because I swear I have lots of disagreements with our hosts, but again I agree with her: admissions people simply must discount certain stylized elements of applications and discount the rough edges of an application sent in by someone who could not afford the help or the extra flourishes. This amounts to what the admissions person's job is, anyway: trying to accurately assess the applicant.

jeff_d said...

I'm not sure I was clear enough on my suggestion that it is necessary to level the playing field. I am not referred to what is aptly described as a pipe dream--diagnosing and adjusting for vast disparities in family and educational background. Ameliorating those disparities is a worthy goal, but well beyond the capacity of a committee of admissions staff and volunteers faced with mountains of applications.

The evaluator's job as I understand it is to ascertain from the applications which applicants are going to be the best assets to the institution--whether by virtue of academic performance or contribution to the institution in other ways. The application is tailored to elicit information that is useful in this regard. It seems likely to me that a professional service will generally have the effect of obscuring useful distinctions between applicants. That is, they will adversely affect the quality of the information the evaluator receives. (Of course other outside factors, such as the assistance of parents or teachers, might do the same thing.)

My notion of a level playing field is this: an admissions department should actively discourage use of a professional service designed to make its job harder, and where possible, it should ignore distinctions between applicants that are likely the result of some applicants' use of a professional service.

Tibore said...

I agree with everything said above, but I think everyone's missed one important problem: The Super-Agentization of the admissions process. How much longer before getting into college resembles a drafted pro baller -- football, basketball, whatever -- getting signed by a team? How much longer before the choice of agents matters more than anything else? How inequitable would it be for colleges to take which agent chose what applicant into account, reasoning that only the top agents would get the "top" students (however that'd be figured)? I don't want to see the applications process turn away from being one where candidates are evaluated and appraised into some sort of agent hustle, where the word of the agent assumes too much importance. Yes, I know one doesn't necessarily follow the other, but the point is that it's possible.

Believe it or not, I actually see some advantages to the idea of professional consultants: They could help less knowlegeable applicants create a presentation that's up to snuff. And, they can "level" the process, if used right. While wiping out all variation is undesireable, leveling things so that the variations are genuinely due to the individuality of the student, rather than variables such as the family's understanding of the applications process is desireable, and an agent can help with that.

But even with all that said, my take is that the cons outweigh the pros by a considerable margin. Personally, I'd hate for this sort of thing to become widespread.

JimNtexas said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
altoids1306 said...

I went through the college admissions hoop a few years ago, and it's a game. I did pretty well (admitted to 3 of the top 5 in US News rankings at the time), but I freely admit it's a crapshoot.

The problem is that college admissions can be gamed, and people with money can play that game well. If you need to be a athletic team captain, an science fair winner, and have stellar test scores, the wealthy can attack on all fronts while the less-advantaged might manage one or two. Adding disclosure only adds another facet to the game. I could easily imagine ambitious parents attending seminars or classes on college prep.

I don't think erasing privilege from college admissions is possible, but the playing field can be made more level by simplifying the game.

To take the most extreme example, the US could adopt a system similar to the national university entrance exam, which is a direct descendant of the imperial exams used to select Chinese civil officials since 400 BC. This system is in place in China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

In Taiwan, they've been tweaking the system, but the basic form is a three-day test in 5-8 subjects. Test prep is difficult because it covers the entire high school curricula. Only pencils and rulers are allowed. Since Taiwan only has one time zone, the test starts simultaneously across the nation. The test has substantial hand-graded portions, such as algebraic and geometrical proofs, English and Chinese essays. The test is administered once a year at the beginning of the summer, and high school and college professors volunteer to grade them for a period of two weeks. Each question is graded by two teachers - if there are discrepancies, it is referred to an test official. Students are placed into schools, based on their stated choices and test score.

Seven Machos said...

We need less standardization in this country, not more. Besides, no way Princeton signs up to a Taiwan-like test.

Balfegor said...

The Taiwanese system is unusual in its extreme standardisation, I think. In Japan, at least, the applications process is slightly different for the different schools and the different faculties at each school. When you apply to Waseda, for example (one of the top Japanese schools) there is a standardized examination component, but you also have to take an exam for your particular department. I think there are also multiple standard substantive examinations at work in the Japanese system.

More generally, however, Japan, Korea, and the various Chinese states all have the cram-school phenomenon in spades. In Japan and Korea, at least, it is also not uncommon for people to retake their exams multiple times until they get into the school of their choice. This kind of situation obviously benefits the wealthy, because the wealthy can afford to pay for cram school, before taking the entrance exams, and can also afford, potentially, to take a year off (maybe working part time) to study before taking the exams a second time.

My guess is that if we tried to apply such a system here in the United States, it would only exacerbate the existing inequalities. Students in many public schools emerge barely literate -- expecting them to be able to compete against graduates from expensive private schools on a substantive exam covering a wide variety of topics is just unrealistic.

Seven Machos said...

I've always had a problem with this "children from public schools emerge barely literate" line of thought.

Admittedly, a lot of public high schools are crappy. However, I came from a sort of unique place where there was one public high school in town which was pretty big. In my experience, I would say that roughly 40 percent came out what elites would deem "barely literate." The other 60 percent could have gone to college or actually did. I have heard that something like 20 to 30 percent of the general population gets an undergraduate degree. I'd guess that graduates from high school fall roughly in line with that.

We've got this society in which about 30 percent of the people graduate from college. Why is that a problem? What percentage of the non-college grads really even wanted to attend college, anyway? What percentage of the 30 percent who do graduate couldn't get into a college they wanted to attend and could have attended with a better application package?

I think a lot of college grads put too much emphasis on how great higher education is. They aren't necessarily correct.

Balfegor said...

In my experience, I would say that roughly 40 percent came out what elites would deem "barely literate."

This is why I said only "many," -- I'm a public school boy myself. It's not all, after all.

I think a lot of college grads put too much emphasis on how great higher education is. They aren't necessarily correct.

That's probably true. But I think literacy and basic mathematical ability are pretty darn great. And while I don't know what true illiteracy is like, I am functionally illiterate in Chinese, for example, and it is pretty not-nice.

You said 40% came out what elites would deem barely literate, though. Do you see a marked difference between the standard of literacy elites apply and a more basic standard? I think there's a gap, but not that much of one. A lot of children (or even adults) come out of high school unable to meet 8th grade reading comprehension standards. And my lay opinion is that this is bad by any standard of literacy.

Regarding the larger issue of whether it's problematic that only 30% go to college -- I don't think it is either. I do think it's problematic, though, if entire classes of people never get the opportunity to go, or can't take advantage of that opportunity when they get it, because their public school preparation has been so poor.

Seven Machos said...

I think illiteracy is tremendously over-estimated in this country. I have never met anyone who couldn't read. I know that is a total Pauline Kael-on-Nixon kind of comment, but it's what I think, nevertheless.

I also know a lot of guys who didn't do real well in high school at all but who can fix a motor when it breaks, or install drywall, or wire an entire house starting from a point when there are no wires at all. I can't do any of those things.

The biggest point I'd like to suggest is that it simply isn't shameful or wrong that half of our high school students don't attend college or care to read Anna Karenina.

Balfegor said...

For strict "illiteracy," you are probably correct.

But if you look at the survey here, it looks to me like about 10 percent of 16-40 yr olds in the US have "below basic" reading abilities. That is to say, they can achieve basic functionality (e.g. follow simple instructions), but can't do things like identify cause and effect (!) or draw simple inferences. When I first read that about cause and effect, I thought that was bizarre, just now, but actually, that is the kind of thing I recall the few teenagers I have met who would probably fall into the basic or below basic categories having difficulty with.

Another 30% or a bit more can do somewhat better than that, but still have difficulty with tasks like identifying authorial perspective and cause and effect and again, drawing inferences.

Now, we may be satisfied if our helots can follow simple instructions and perform simple addition, but in a modern democracy, I think that's just not enough.

PatCA said...

I think people fret too much about getting in somewhere, so I'm against disclosure.

Not to mention all the consultants I know who will now hire a lobbyist to defeat any such rule. And If a Taliban can get into Yale, why worry over an essay? Rules are a waste.

altoids1306 said...

Balfegor - yeah, the Japanese system is a little different, but the substance is the same. And as my Ritsumekan & Todai friends assure me, just as stressful. However, among us international grad students, Koreans have the most formidible reputation for surviving exam hell. Anyways, drifting off topic...

I don't see what's the big deal with standardized testing - can anyone honestly say that there is a better, more objective way for determining mastery of subject matter? Money can buy tutors and second chances, but the kid still has to take the test and do well.

Unlike science fairs where parents can pull any number of strings to get help for their kid's projects, unlike the essay that can be sculpted by any number of hands, unlike extracurriculars that vary greatly from community to community, in a test, it's just the kid, pencil, paper, and stopwatch. Maybe it's just me, but the brutal simplicity and meritocratic nature of a test appeals to me.

Test won't even the playing field, but they're certainly more fair than the current system. (In Taiwan today, roughly 10-20% of the spaces in each department are reserved for American-style application admits, the other 80-90% are filled the old-fashioned way. One almost-politically feasible solution would be for US universities to do the reverse, and reserve 10-20% of their spaces for admits through a comprehensive national exam.)

The Exalted said...

I think all of you vastly underestimate what an outfit like "ivywise" does for an applicant. Trust me Ann, someone does not pay upwards of $30,000 to achieve an application that is similar to that of "sophisticated parents." In fact, after $30,000 worth of help, can you really claim that your application is still even your own?

I became aware of this company through the latest Fake Writer incident, aka, Kaavya Viswinathan of Harvard.

Here is an informative article about their services:

As you can see from this piece, Ivywise does not just "help" with your application, they make your application. They fix you up with internships, they get you agents, they help you write books. Note, this is all before you have even started to draft your application.

Now, given all the "help" just noted, and given that this company linked Ms. Viswinathan to a "book packaging company," which seems to be a glorified ghost writing outfit, what sort of "help" do you think these students are getting with the actual writing of their applications?

I wholeheartedly agree with Kerr, but I would go one step further. You should represent that everything in your application is your own, and that you have not engaged the services of a commercial application vendor. Sure, students could lie, but at least now they would be forced to flagrantly lie on their application, as opposed to the soft lies going on today with a company like Ivywise.

Balfegor said...

I don't see what's the big deal with standardized testing - can anyone honestly say that there is a better, more objective way for determining mastery of subject matter?

No, which is one reason the major American standardised exam, the SAT, is designed to test "aptitude," rather than "achievement." Mastery of subject matter, beyond a certain basic level (which, admittedly, not all American high schoolers meet) is not required to do well. It's an imperfect leveller, but it is more levelling than standardised subject exams, as are used in East Asia.

Bruce Hayden said...

The problem with the SAT is that it has moved from doing a fair job at testing aptitude to now testing more achievement. Theoretically, this was supposedly so that it would be more culture blind - but ended up more the reverse.

It used to be that, for example, the math section was mostly oriented towards reasoning. Now, it seems like it is mostly math story problems, best solved with algebra or geometry.

I should add here that I have taken a number of SAT sections over the last couple of years, and, not surprisingly, as I practiced, my scores increased. This was especially true with the math questions - after several hundred of them, I could pretty consistantly get almost all of them right.

If that wasn't bad enough, the new SAT writing sample goes even further in testing achievement instead of aptitude.

A previous commenter pointed out that private schools work a lot harder on teaching writing skills. Indeed, they work much, much, harder in that area. By the time the kids in these schools are in high school, they have been writing on a routine basis since about 3rd grade or so. And then it only accelerates, with writing assignments due almost every week. How many public school kids have at least one writing assignment a week in high school? Maybe at the top ones, but most don't.

So, by the time these kids take the SAT tests, they often write extremely well. On average, I would suggest that they write significantly better by that time than their public school counterparts.

Personally, I would like the SATs to go back to being more oriented towards aptitude than achievement, but won't hold my breath.

altoids1306 said...

What's so bad about testing acheivement over aptitude - is it not equally if not more relevant to test a student it how well they actually do in a subject, rather than how well they possibly could do? We're not talking about flying airplanes, we're talking about writing and math - there's plenty of opportunity to practice. (In fact, I question if it is even possible to accurately measure aptitude without also measuring acheivement.)

Quote Bruce Hayden: I should add here that I have taken a number of SAT sections over the last couple of years, and, not surprisingly, as I practiced, my scores increased. This was especially true with the math questions - after several hundred of them, I could pretty consistantly get almost all of them right.

Absolutely. I did exactly that in high school - took one practice test a weekend, for eight weeks leading up to the SAT. Perfect score in SAT Math, Math I, Math IIC. The problem is the tests are too narrowly focused, which makes them suseptible to repeated practice. There's also a certain lack of imagination in the questions - once you've seen all the forms, your mind begins to classify them automatically. They have too many questions in too little time, which means most of the questions fall into stock categories that don't require much thinking. They should decrease the number of questions, increase the amount of time, and pose questions that require multiple logical steps.

(Erm, I just realized this had nothing to do with the parent - other than advocating testing as an alternative to this professional application silliness)

Eli Blake said...

I have an extremely intelligent nine year old who has decided that she wants to go to Harvard.

However, I have been honest with her that since we live in a small town in Arizona, hours from a city, she probably won't be able to get any help with her application (the H.S. counselors here are adept at helping people get into NAU, or maybe the University of Arizona, but that's about it.) She said that doesn't bother her, because she plans to write everything in it herself.

Little does she know what that will entail. I figure that in about eight years she will get the picture and set her sights a bit lower.

I like having my kids grow up here, but I'd be lying if I said you don't give some things up. Any chance at a good college is one of them.

PatCA said...

I used to teach SAT prep in writing, and the biggest jump in scores, a 25% increase, resulted after I explained the test mechanisms, directions, format, etc. AFter that, it's practice, practice, practice. The ones that did got high scores, the others didn't.

katiebakes said...

I don't know about all this. I think a lot of you are blowing this out of proportion. Not everyone who gets into an Ivy League college does so because they had someone else write, or structure, their application for them.

eli blake: if your nine year old turns out to be the type of student who ought to be admitted to Harvard, I have a feeling that she will also be the type of student who will be perceptive, ambitious, and sensible enough to write her own application as she says she can.

I also think that being from a small town in Arizona is an asset. Schools strive for geographic diversity. Students from Massachussetts who went to a middling prep school are a dime a dozen.

Anyway, clearly there are plenty of families who hire these Ivywise type consultants. But I think their relevance and success rate is overblown.

Balfegor said...

What's so bad about testing achievement over aptitude - is it not equally if not more relevant to test a student it how well they actually do in a subject, rather than how well they possibly could do?

I actually agree, and would be quite pleased if we switched over to the comprehensive exam system used in pretty much every civilised country today. But there are concerns about the mix of students who end up in the top schools, and move on to constitute the elite of society etc. We (that is, Americans) are anxious about class, and reluctant to see ourselves as constraining peoples' prospects on the basis of where and to whom they were born. We do it, of course, all the time, but we aspire not to.

I think -- and perhaps one of the Britishers who comment here can clarify, if I am wrong -- that the English system has been rejiggered over the past decade or so of Blairite rule so as to adjust the proportions of well-educated students from posh private "public" schools and of ill-educated students from state schools in the matriculating classes at the top universities. This has been for largely the same reason we have been trying to reduce the intellectual/academic achievement component of admissions, and is supposed to have resulted in watered down examinations.

In our own case, I suspect there is also a second rationale at work: many people look at college only secondarily as an educational experience. First and foremost, they may think, college is about making connections with people that you can then build on in an elite career. Going to Harvard or Yale or Princeton will put you into an alumni/old-boys network of people well placed to give you a leg up in your career, and will introduce you to wealthy legacy admits whose parents rule the Earth. Whether this view is correct or not, I cannot say -- there is certainly evidence that Ivy-quality students do well no matter where they attend university -- but I think this view of college as a social experience on which successful careers are founded is fairly widespread.

Under such a view, whether you have been well educated or ill educated is strictly secondary to your ability to take advantage of the kinds of social opportunities on offer at a top-class university.

eli blake: if your nine year old turns out to be the type of student who ought to be admitted to Harvard, I have a feeling that she will also be the type of student who will be perceptive, ambitious, and sensible enough to write her own application as she says she can.

I agree -- she may lower her expectations in the future, but, presumptuous though this may be, I don't think she should set her "sights" lower. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that as she learns more about Harvard, she may decide she'd rather not go to Harvard at all.