How to streamline the US college application slog

Credit: Sébastien Thibault

Brett Nelson | Sep 01, 2021

Sections Economics

Collections Education

For many students in the United States, applying to college is a massive undertaking—from researching programs and visiting campuses to writing essays and corralling recommendations. The process, often stressful, can involve considerable time, effort, and cost.

But it doesn’t need to be so difficult, research suggests. If universities told students up front their odds of being accepted, the process could be more efficient and ultimately less costly for applicants and the colleges themselves, according to Microsoft Research’s Nicole S. Immorlica and Brendan J. Lucier, Chicago Booth’s Jacob Leshno, and Stanford’s Irene Y. Lo. A more streamlined approach would also bring the US system more in line with how many other countries handle college admissions, including Australia and Israel. 

The current process—which includes researching colleges, taking standardized tests, writing essays, and soliciting recommendation letters—might consume more than 100 hours, according to college guidance service CollegeVine (plus perhaps 50 more to prepare for entrance exams such as the SAT). US guidance counselors encourage students to apply to at least six schools, suggests a 2016 survey by Cappex, a college research service. Plenty of students courting the most competitive institutions end up applying to even more to shrink the chances of total rejection. 

Colleges, meanwhile, spend time and money creating marketing materials, conducting campus tours, and reviewing applications to end up with a full (but not too full) class of students each year. 

This system leads to a lot of wasted effort, the researchers warn. For example, “only 8 percent or so of Stanford applicants got in,” Leshno says. “Did Stanford really need all of the other 92 percent to write essays?” In some cases, the essays likely did determine whether applicants would fit well into the community, but in most, they were probably immaterial to the admissions decision. 

A better approach, the researchers suggest, would be to communicate applicants’ true probabilities of success in advance. “That means students get to first see which colleges will admit them, and only then decide which ones to look into,” Leshno says.

The researchers used a model to formalize this idea. In it, each college internally ranks candidates according to criteria of its choosing and admits students who score above a defined cutoff. Colleges publish their admissions thresholds, so students see them and use them to calculate their own odds of admission. The students research colleges and submit applications accordingly.

Helping students focus on colleges more likely to admit them would save energy and cost, the researchers write. In addition to paying application fees, students often travel to visit different college campuses. When they cast a wide net and apply to many schools, their costs quickly rise. A different process could control these costs and potentially help colleges too, by more efficiently attracting the students most likely to be admitted and attend.

It would require that colleges move away from the current practice of touting their “acceptance rate,” however. Instead of letting students know their odds of meeting a threshold, universities (and media that publish college rankings, namely US News & World Report) currently publish the percentage of applicants they admit, and an acceptance rate in the single digits is considered a sign of exclusivity and desirability. “This creates perverse incentives for colleges to improve their ranking by obscuring the application process and inviting applications from students who are clearly below the universities’ bar,” Leshno explains. A better admissions process would require addressing that incentive.   

The researchers also explore another option: colleges could publish their approximate rather than precise admissions criteria. This would let most students know whether or not they would be admitted, and the others could still decide whether or not to apply. Tel Aviv University has such a system in place, Leshno notes.  

Such streamlined processes already exist in many countries, the researchers note. They surveyed college admissions systems in the 25 OECD countries with populations of at least 8 million, as well as the two most populous countries on each continent. In some countries, they find, applicants must write subjectively evaluated essays (as in the US), or take entrance exams that aren’t graded until after college applications are submitted (the United Kingdom), or choose among programs very early in the application process (Japan). A lack of transparency and clear targets invites inefficiency, the researchers write. “For example, in the UK students do not know their exam scores when they apply, and the admission system includes second and third rounds for unmatched applicants.”

By contrast, in most countries, universities rank students on the basis of common, objective criteria, such as scores on entrance exams. The Australian Universities Admissions Centre publishes students’ exact percentile rank for each program, while other Australian programs commit to admitting every applicant who clears published admissions cutoffs. Israeli universities offer similar clarity, providing formulas and online calculators to help applicants determine their odds of being accepted.

“[I]n many applications, providing students with information about their admission chances can help address both stability and information acquisition,” the researchers conclude. Not to mention ease the essay pile.