Steinman ’19: The Internet democratizes college admissions

Staff Columnist
Thursday, November 3, 2016

A recent article in the Atlantic delves into the messy world of online college applications, focusing on the dramatic growth of the Common Application. The article particularly resonated with me because Tuesday marked the two-year anniversary of the day that I — along with many of my classmates — logged onto the Common App website and submitted my early application to Brown. I can’t dissociate the process of applying to college from the transactional experience that the Common App provided: Enter all your data on one page, and then try to make yourself seem like a person on the next. The transactional experience encourages people to apply to more and more schools, regardless of their fit, resulting in a phenomenon that the Atlantic calls “congestion.”

This process through which applicants can feasibly apply to 20 or 30 schools without considering the differences among them amplifies inequalities in the admission process including: the presence or lack of college counselors and educational consultants, the ability to visit campuses to demonstrate interest, the privilege to apply early without worrying about the need to compare financial aid packages, the privilege to apply to lots of schools without worrying about the application fee — I could go on. With colleges focused on driving up the number of applications in order to increase their selectivity and their rankings, a topic I’ve written about before, less privileged students are left caught in the middle of a cutthroat numbers game.

I agree with the Atlantic’s premise, that the college admission process is out of control on both ends — student and college. Applying to 20 schools, each only marginally different from the others, is time-consuming and expensive, not to mention ultimately unproductive — you can only go to one college. At the same time, the ruthless pursuit of new applicants through innumerable marketing emails and pamphlets just to drive down acceptance rates only serves to make it harder to find the students who truly belong at a college, the ultimate purpose of college admission offices. These are clearly problems that need to be solved. But if the alternative to the congestion that the article describes is exclusion and a perpetuation of the traditional barriers to admission that are as old as education itself, then the rising role of the Internet is not necessarily a bad thing. On the whole, the internet — and the Common Application in particular — strike down more barriers than they prop up.

While applying to colleges, I was fortunate enough to have excellent mentors and advisors and to live close to many of the schools I was interested in, making visiting them relatively simple. These opportunities are not available to everyone, whether for reasons of class, geography, ability or anything else. But a world made smaller by the Internet could deliver these opportunities in new ways, which the Atlantic piece fails to consider. Rather than fly across the country to take a campus tour, students can now sign up online to watch guided virtual tours or listen to recorded information sessions. Forums like FYBU taught me more about life at Brown than the campus tour that I took, and similar ask-a-student models could be replicated by admission departments across the country, democratically opening the traditional question-and-answer period at the end of an information session to all interested applicants. And while the lack of effective, personalized college counseling in too many schools remains a disgrace, the online proliferation of advice and guidance on the eternally confusing process is an improvement.

The Internet is not to blame for making a bad problem worse; rather, it is opening up a system that has been gated for too long. In much the same way that social media has brought people in opposite corners of the world closer together, the Internet can transport college information from an inaccessible trove to just a click away. This is not just idealism or speculation: Over 30 percent of applicants using the Common App in 2015-2016 were first-generation college students. This is significant.

There are many more steps colleges and high schools can take to further the good that the Internet can do to remove barriers and diversify admission pools, from providing more ways to demonstrate interest to collecting useful information on how to navigate the admission process. The Internet can and should be a facilitator, not an obstructor, of the much-needed paradigm shifts in the world of college admission.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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