A Fight to Cap Those Apps

Writing recommendations can overwhelm high schools.

Writing recommendations can swamp counselors. Some states’ student-to-coun-
selor averages are much higher than the American School Counselor Association advises (more at www.usnews.com).
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Even for the most talented students, getting into a top-tier college often requires a bit of luck, so many seniors are trying to tip the odds in their favor by applying to lots of colleges. It's not uncommon for an ambitious prospective student to send applications to upwards of 20 schools. And it seems that high school faculty are bearing the brunt. "I have been the counselor eating dinner at my desk, processing the 20-plus applications of the overanxious, compulsive student whose family is paying more than $1,000 in application fees to have the most options possible," says Eva Dodds-Cannarsa, a high school teacher and dean of students at Detroit Country Day School. "And I resented the position, but it was their right to have their applications supported, and therefore, I worked late."

Not all counselors feel that way, however, and some high schools now are setting limits on the number of college recommendations their staff will write for students. Or at least they're trying to. There aren't any firm numbers on how many schools are setting such caps, though application limits have cropped up at a smattering of schools nationally. The epicenter seems to be New York City, where high-reaching students—and their parents—strongly object to the limits. Stuyvesant High School, or "Stuy," is a top-notch public school in New York that had a long-standing policy of limiting seniors to seven school recommendations. Earlier this year, however, a group of parents challenged the rule.

"A seven-application limit is no longer appropriate," says Florri Levy, whose son Dylan is a Stuy junior. Levy and other parents decided to take their concerns to the administration and found a surprising statute that they believe prohibits such restrictions.

"I had the feeling that what they were doing was not legal," says Jessica Wolff, another Stuy parent who worked with Levy to abolish the limits. Feeding on Wolff's intuition, Levy had scoured law books and found New York education code 209-A from 1968, which they believe prevents schools from limiting students' college applications.

Once the law was pointed out, the school was very quick to remove the limit, says Levy. Stuy's principal declined to comment on the policy, and no legal action was pursued.

Nevertheless, other high schools in the city continue to enforce limits. For example, Hunter College High School, a New York-based public school for the intellectually gifted, allows seniors no more than eight private-school applications. And many parents support that restriction.

"I think if they made the limit six, it would be more than enough," says Erika Moore, a Hunter parent. "People need to be a lot more Zen about this."

Thomas Hanley, director of college guidance at Loyola School, a Jesuit high school in New York, agrees. Beginning with the class of 2008, Loyola School will recommend that students apply to between eight and 10 colleges, with a strict exceptional limit of 14. "Our policy was not instituted to cut down on paperwork but with the hope that students will stop approaching the application process like a lottery—where the more tickets you have, the more chances you have of winning."

Wolff contends that these limits ignore that applying to college is not a one-size-fits-all process. "A seven-application limit is fine for some, but for others, like students who need to compare financial aid packages, it may not be," says Wolff. Levy's son Dylan says he's relieved the limit is gone. "It takes some of the pressure off," he explains.

College admission offices are ambivalent about how many schools prospective students apply to. They're eager for qualified candidates but frustrated when students they've accepted decide to enroll somewhere else. Though nonrestrictive policies allow students to delay making decisions upfront, they still will eventually face hard choices. More time for students to weigh their options means more work for high school administrators. Still, Wolff maintains it is no excuse for capping apps. "Schools can raise money, lobby, or take on volunteers," she says. "But it's not ok to limit student choices or ambitions."