The ‘Arms Race’ of College Admissions | Interview with Martha Allman

We met with Martha Allman to discuss the admissions process, the importance of finding a school that best suits every student’s needs, and much more. Enjoy!

The ‘Arms Race’ of College Admissions | Interview with Martha Allman
"The best school for one child might not be the best school for another child."” – Martha Allman, Former Wake Forest Dean of Admission

Martha Allman, Former Dean of Admissions at Wake Forest University, offers a window inside the admissions process at one of the top thirty universities in the nation. Allman and Dr. Macosko discuss the challenges and improvements posed by the growing number of college applicants as well as the different approach Wake Forest University has taken to the application process. Allman also emphasizes the importance of finding the school that best suits a student’s needs rather than based on rankings. Follow along as Former Dean of Admission and Senior Assistant Provost Martha Allman talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University as she offers advice to high school students beginning the college admission process.

See additional information on influential schools in our ranking articles here.

Want to hear more from Martha Allman? Check out Karina Macosko’s interview with Martha Allman here.

View our other interviews from influential college admissions experts here.

Interview with admissions expert, Martha Allman

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:12.0Changes in admissions over the years

Jed Macosko: Hi. This is Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and AcademicInfluence.com. Well, we are so glad to have Martha Allman, who was the Dean of Admissions for the many years that I was at Wake Forest in the beginning. And now has moved on to the provost office. Martha it’s really good to see you again on this show, and I have some questions just about the admissions process, because as a professor, I don’t always know what goes on behind the scenes, but it seems to me that the number of people getting into college, the admission rate and the selectivity has really changed over the last 30 years since I applied to college. It’s much harder to get in.

So can you tell us a little bit about that and whether you think that’s a good trend or not?

Martha Allman: Well, it’s both Jed, and thank you for having me. You have to remember that my time in the Admissions Office spanned almost 40 years, so I’ve seen a lot of changes and a lot of evolution both good and bad in admissions.

The proliferation of applications is something that is getting a lot of ink these days as numbers of applications go up, colleges are very eager for applications to go up to make them look more selective and more popular, we used to call it the arms race of admissions applications, which is really very applicable, and that makes acceptance rights go down, and obviously that makes colleges look more selective, and it’s getting almost ridiculous.

Now, the number of applications versus the number of admits, it’s very hard for students and for admissions offices on both sides, except for early decision applications, when students say, I’m applying and if I’m admitted, I will enroll, colleges are in the situation of having to determine how many of these students to admit, how many are really interested, what the yield rates are going to be, and students feel compelled because they are unsure of acceptance to apply to more and more schools, so it is a chicken and an egg, and it is an arms race, and it’s very difficult.

At Wake Forest, we realised that because we asked students to interview and we asked students to fill out a really robust admissions application that that would probably depress our application numbers, and we were okay with that because what we said was, what we want are the students who are really serious about us.

We don’t want superfluous applications, we want those that are gonna be a good fit, and that if we admit we have a pretty good chance of enrolling. So that was a little bit of a different sort of mindset from the general admissions thought and is continuing to be but as you see, it’s problematic on both sides when there’s huge numbers of applications.

Jed: Yeah, I bet it is really tricky and it makes it difficult for students. The whole senior year is kind of consumed by this frantic stressful process.Do you have any recommendations that could work, like if you were in charge of the world or just things that everybody could try to work towards that would make it less stressful for students?

What can be done by students to be less stressed through the admissions process?

Martha: Well, starting the process early, I think is really important, for students to really narrow down the schools that they are most interested in and visit those schools, apply to those schools and really make it clear that I’m not applying to 25 different schools, and to say that to schools. I think the early decision process can be a very good one. If colleges hold up their end of the bargain and say, "You’re not disadvantaged in financial aid, or otherwise, if you apply early decision," which of course Wake Forest is good about that. Then that allows students to do their homework, to apply to their first choice and have a reasonable chance of being admitted if they’re qualified.

0:04:25.0College counselor, yay or nay?

Jed: That’s a good piece of advice to the students who are stressed out just to get a little start on it early.

Do you think it’s a good idea for students to pay money for a college counselor or a consultant of some sort to help them through this process?

[Hiring a consultant] is "a little like having a personal trainer, you can lose weight on your own, you know how to do that, you know how to get in shape, but if you are a person that needs an external kind of motivator and guide, I understand that..."” – Martha Allman, Former Wake Forest Dean of Admission

Martha: I think it is something, it’s a little like having a personal trainer, you can lose weight on your own, you know how to do that, you know how to get in shape, but if you are a person that needs an external kind of motivator and guide, I understand that, but for the most part, this is a process that a family can do on their own, and really college admissions officers can be a great help.

When I was in the Admissions Office, I received many, many calls from people in the community, or alumni, or people that I knew saying, "I’m not sure my child is interested in Wake Forest, but could you just talk to me a little bit about the process?" And I think that’s true with admissions offices everywhere.

We’re happy to provide that information, and obviously, guidance counselors are very good at that, and they’re wonderful college guides, and there are wonderful internet tools now to help families, so it’s there, it’s an option, but it is certainly not essential.

0:05:41.4Number of schools to apply to

Jed: Well good to hear that. Now, Wake Forest has been in the top 30 schools in the US News & World Report Rankings for national university for years, as long as I’ve been there. And that’s been wonderful, but compared to its position in those rankings, there are schools at the very, very top, and I don’t know if you know much about what happens to the students who apply to those, but it seems to me applying to 25 schools, which you said you shouldn’t really have to do might be the only way to get into one of those schools even if you’re really a perfect student for one of those schools, even if you would thrive in one of those top 20 top 25 schools. Can you comment on that? Why is it so hard for a person with straight A’s all the APs, perfect scores and everything to get into the top schools and don’t they have to kind of apply to 20-some schools to make sure they get into one of them?

Martha: Well again, it’s the arms race and it’s the chicken and the egg. The more they’re applying to all the schools, and so those schools don’t know whether the student is really going to enroll if admitted or if they’re gonna be admitted at another school.

And obviously schools, they don’t all use the same criteria. There are some times that you apply to a school and you are from a state that they don’t have that many people from that state, or they don’t have many people from that high school or they don’t have that many people with the particular configuration of talent you have or background that you have.

And so you are very much in demand at that school, and then another school that is similarly ranked, you really are because of where you’re from, or where you went to high school, or whatever. So there’s a little bit of mystery there into what schools are looking for, but I still contend it is very difficult with the increase in numbers of applications that are going out and it is making the numbers get smaller.

Jed: Yeah. I can definitely see that. Although, if you look at those, again, the top 20 schools in the US News list, and you look at how many letters of acceptance they send out compared to then how many students they get, for those top schools, it’s pretty much in their favor.

They get 80% of the students that they offer admissions too, so that doesn’t totally explain, isn’t it also just that there are more college-ready students and they’re just the same number of spots at those top schools, they haven’t grown, but the number of students have grown?

Isn’t that part of the problem too?

Martha: The number of college-going students has grown, and that’s a very good thing in this country, because there are lots of students who 20 years ago would not be going to college, who are now getting the kind of education that will enable them to go, that are getting the kind of financial aid that will enable them to go and getting recognition from top colleges for their achievements, and so that’s a really good thing in this country for low income students, for minority students for first generation college students, that’s something we can be very, very proud of with increasing application numbers.

Jed: But it does pose a challenge because the Stanfords, the Harvards, the other schools at the top haven’t grown their admissions.

The number of freshmen they let in each year by the same amount, and yet it’s not... There can only be one top school in the US News & World Report unless there’s a tie, but there’s only 10 schools in the top 10 or whatnot.

So what does that say about us as a culture? We always want to be at the top. If we’re the best of the best in our high school, the best of the best in our state, and we know we’re one of the best of the best in the whole country, doesn’t it seem right that we set our eyes on one of those top schools and then fall flat on our face when we find out that there’s just not enough room in those top schools. So how does that play out?

Martha: I would argue that there are many wonderful schools in this country where students can get superb educations and connect with faculty and find their way and hone their skills.

I think we are a little bit obsessed with rankings in this country, what’s the best car, what’s the best TV, and we read the manuals and we read the reports, and what we don’t take into consideration is the best school for one child might not be the best school for another child. And so that’s why I think it’s really important for families, for students to research a lot of different colleges, to listen to guidance counselors who have information about different colleges and be open-minded about that process, not just to say, I’m applying to the top 20 schools in America, but I’m applying to schools that I think are really going to fit my needs and really going to help me become the best me.

0:10:53.3Sign off

Jed: Well, great advice, thank you so much, Martha, for taking a little time with your years and years of wisdom to share it with some students and with me to figure out how this whole process works, so I really appreciate it.

Martha: Thanks for having me.