The story is worth hearing, and even listening to again. You came home from college for the holidays, and Mom or Dad was preparing the traditional roast. You’d somehow eaten this dish a thousand times without ever seeing it prepared, so you were horrified and fascinated to watch them lop off a half pound or so from the back of the roast and toss it in the trash—perfectly good food. You composed yourself enough to make asking why they did this sound downright casual. “My mother made it this way” was the response—and it was just too convenient that the mother in question was also in the room. “That’s right” she added, “and my mother made it the same way.”
The resolution of the issue had to wait until Sunday, when great grandmother joined the family for dinner. Seated at the table with the roast right in front of everyone, the sensory elements were perfectly aligned to ask the question- why cut the roast? “I learned to do that from my mother. The pan we had was too small for a full roast, so we always had to trim it to size.”
And there is the fascination. No other generation had the same limitation of pan or oven, but the roast trimming continued without questioning or consideration for three generations.
It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to consider just how many implications this tale of roast trimming exist in college admissions, and nowhere is that more clearly the case than with application and notification deadlines. Long before any kind of Internet presence, January 1 was an application deadline for hundreds of colleges. Remarkably enough, this pre-high tech deadline didn’t make much sense even back then, since the deadline was a postmark deadline, but post offices were never open on New Year’s Day—in fact, depending on how small your town was back then, post offices across smalltown America were hard to find open after noon on the 31st.
Postmark deadlines are now a thing of the past, but there are other issues to consider with January 1. A clear number of high schools close for the holidays around December 23 if not sooner. This leaves most students largely on their own to put the finishing touches on the first major, multi-component task they’ve had to negotiate in their young lives—that, or it compels counseling offices everywhere to assemble some makeshift effort to offer support here and there at a time when counselors most need a break of their own. (Although there was one high school who was floating a “guarantee” that every counselor would check their email every day of the December break, thus denying everyone a chance to rest and recover. Talk about a happy new year…)
Even the efforts to offer some kind of support over vacation can miss the mark, especially for students who are the first in their family to apply to college. I am not a disciple of the “applying to college is rocket science” school, nor do I believe young people learn much about deadlines by treating them like they are amorphous, when they are not. Still, given that this is the first major multi-tasking activity most young people have that has a fairly big consequence attached to it, it isn’t unreasonable to hope the deadline would permit them the chance to have counsel—and even more important, face-to-face support—to complete the task, something a finger-wagging “just plan ahead” overlooks in a brazen, cold way. If we then add on the fact that nearly every admissions office is empty and unavailable for student support on January 1st, it’s easy to see every director of admission with carving knife in hand, ready to lay waste to a couple of pounds of perfectly good applications, all in the name of “we’ve always done it this way.”
At the risk of sounding like someone who has never run or even worked in an admissions office, the answer seems simple—this is a practice that needs to stop. The easiest alternative would be requiring all materials to be submitted by the second Tuesday in January, a time when even the most luxurious of December vacations is over, where students have had time to seek the help they need, and everyone has had time to refresh their energies in a meaningful way. Doing something challenging doesn’t mean it has to be inhumane, and the family man in me suggests that, for as much as I value the lessons learned in applying to college, there are more important things to consider over the holidays, like developing a strategy for a successful entry in the annual family gingerbread building contest. This is the final holiday of youth, and it deserves recognition, and space, as such. It’s possible to do that and develop a strong college portfolio, given the right deadline.
This isn’t the only deadline that could use some attention. November 1, November 15, and May 1 all landed on a Sunday last school year, leaving students with a couple of days to do the best they could with what little they knew. Again, this is especially true for students whose family has no experience applying to college. Since these students tend to come from urban and rural schools where counseling ratios are typically astronomical, it’s easy to hope colleges would want to nurture applications from these populations, rather than throw more barriers in the way of these talented, but raw, applicants.
There are many other facets of the college application process where roast trimming can apply, especially when considering every facet of the application is easier for students who come from a background of wealth. This aspect seems easy enough to start with, since its effects are easy enough to understand. Let’s put the January 1 deadline and its impact back in its sheath.