The world of college admissions ended 2018 with a rash of articles focused on student stress and the college application process. The themes were familiar—the pressure of applying is great, the expectations are high, the effect of rejection is too extreme—but this recent spate of articles differed in the sheer number of them. In a year when even the federal government felt compelled to examine the role of mental health in student safety, it seems the world of college admissions may be willing to rethink some of its most cherished beliefs, all in the interest of supporting the sanity and healthy growth of the students.
If that’s really the case, I’d like to suggest a pretty easy jumping off point for change—end the January 1 college application deadline. I’m not exactly new to the world of college admissions, and this deadline has never made sense to me. High school counseling offices aren’t open on January 1, so we can’t send any documents to support applications. Even worse, high school counseling offices aren’t open from December 24 through at least the first of the year, so we can’t offer students any meaningful help with essays, activity lists, or other application logistics during crunch time. That may matter little to applicants whose parents started an Ivy League college, but to the students we say we’d like to create more opportunities for, this last-minute help is a big deal.
This deadline also gives counselors the annual moral dilemma of offering to check email during the holidays, or coming in and holding application workshops on their days off, but that puts their mental health at risk—and if you think that has nothing to do with the well being of students, you clearly haven’t seen a high school counselor working on their last nerve.
What’s even more mystifying is that college admissions offices themselves aren’t open on January 1. Stories float up here and there about a handful of admissions offices requiring their junior staffers to come in for a few hours to take phone calls, but by and large, students waiting until the last minute to apply are left to their own resources. If it’s really so important to have applications in by January 1, why aren’t any of the applications that meet the deadline touched in any way until at least January 2?
This is where the old school, nudge-nudge-winkery of college admissions comes into play. The only response I’ve ever received from colleges that could be considered a defense of the January 1 deadline is a logistical one: the reason we ask for the materials by January 1 is so we know we’ll have them when we really need them, which is more along the lines of January 10.
This argument made tremendous sense in the days when college applications were mailed (even though the US Post Office is closed January 1), but the digital age assures us that anything needed at the end of the day on January 10 can be sent an hour before the end of the day on January 10, and get there.
The only argument left for this “send it before we really need it” strategy is the vagaries of a 17 year-old’s understanding of deadlines—colleges argue they are doing students a favor telling them they need applications before they really do. But if high school seniors don’t know it’s OK to be late—and what high school counselor in their right mind wants to ever send that message to a student—this “favor” becomes a major source of stress, where students sacrifice the last long December holiday of their youth to meeting a deadline that doesn’t really exist. Wouldn’t their stress level be better served gathered ‘round the big screen, imbibing in the traditional family ritual of watching that penultimate holiday classic, Die Hard?
It’s easy enough for a high school counselor to point out all the things colleges can do to support the mental health of applicants, and there’s plenty we high school folks should be doing as well. Still, when I think about the low-hanging fruit that can dramatically change the tone of the college application process, the January 1 deadline is the first, but not only, thing that comes to mind. It’s worth a review.