What's Trust Got To Do With It?

What place does trust have in the college application process? College advisor Alice Kleeman joins us again this month to talk about trust -- as well as accountability and honesty -- among students, counselors and the colleges. Join her here to learn more about life lessons, integrity, and the meaning of signing on the dotted line.


The hand inevitably shoots up in the back row, just after I’ve explained to a class of juniors or seniors that they will “self-report” their extracurricular activities on their college applications. “But how do they know I’ve really done what I say I’ve done?” The question will be asked. After 19 years of speaking to students about college admission, this is a point of certainty.


Ah, one of my favorite topics: trust. If we stop to think about it, without trust—among applicants and their families, college officials, and counselors—the entire process falls apart like a poorly constructed house of cards. And yet it’s one aspect of college admission that we don’t talk about much, and when we do, cynicism arises on all sides.


Call me Pollyanna (Pollyalice?), but I’m an extremely trusting soul when it comes to the issues that ask for our trust in this process.


Students are floored when I tell them that colleges trust them to be honest in their self-reporting of coursework, grades and extracurricular activities. Why, for example, can't students simply erase coursework from their transcripts when they’ve repeated the course for a better grade? Here's why: Because a transcript must be a true and honest reflection of everything that has taken place in a student's career. This concept, by the way, is usually a source of wonder for students. They’ve really never thought about it before.


Sure, colleges will use a final transcript to verify self-reporting. Others conduct random verification of self-reported extracurriculars, but the results actually report minimal “cheating” on applications. A far better reason not to "cheat" in a self-report is to be able to look in the mirror every day and know you’ve been straightforward. At the end of the application, students will provide their signature. It may be the first time in their almost-adult lives that they need to understand the gravity of signing their name at the bottom of a page. Their signature is an acknowledgment that they have provided a true and honest statement, whether on a college application or—some day in the future—a voter-registration form, mortgage-loan application, or any other official document.


And what about the trust that must flow in the other direction—from the students and parents to the colleges? Here is where I most often find applicants and their families veering toward the cynical. And yet I (Pollyalice) feel confident when I convey colleges’ messages to students:


“Please send us all your test scores, and we’ll use the ones that are most advantageous to you.”


“Yes, we expect you to take a rigorous course load in high school, but that doesn’t mean you need to take every class at the AP level! Choose your areas of greatest interest and strength, and challenge yourself in those areas.”


“Dedicate yourself to one or two activities you love; we don’t expect you to have participated in every extracurricular activity available at your school.”


“If you have a blip on your transcript or a disciplinary issue, tell us about it. We need to understand the situation; it doesn’t mean you will be automatically denied admission.”


Parents and students meet these statements with a “Sure, they say that, but …” reaction. And yet from years of experience, I know them to be true.


So my students need to trust me, as well, when I pass on to them the colleges’ philosophies about such issues.


Counselors actually fall into the trust wheel at several points in the process. I have had many experiences with counselors or teachers at my school who, in the process of writing letters and marking check boxes, wonder how honest they should be about students’ skills or the rigor of their programs. Whenever I remind them about the trust between the colleges and us, and the need for us to be credible reporters over a long period of years while individual students come and go, they know exactly where to put those check marks.


Or how many times has a confidential phone call between a college and a counselor or teacher/recommender clarified a muddy situation or cast light on an otherwise confounding issue? The relationships among us are crucial, and if we respect them, the trust can continue unbroken.


In the last few months, trust on all sides has been put to the test in the case of the challenges of working with the new Common Application, as technical glitches have caused delays and other difficulties. In my mind, this is the perfect situation to bring our trust to the forefront. The Common Application, a long-trusted institution, has earned, through years of past uninterrupted service, our trust that it will straighten out the difficulties and once again merit our unquestioning trust. While there have been shaky moments since the opening of the new Common App in August, I do not for a moment question the integrity of the folks who are working on these problems. And I hope my students will trust me when I tell them to take a deep breath, keep working on their applications, and trust that everyone involved will work together in their best interest.


I remember a true moment of awakening years ago when a student came to tell me that, based on a recommendation I had made in a meeting with him, he and his family flew to Texas to check out a college I’d suggested might be a good fit. As it sank in that his parents had whipped out a credit card to pursue a suggestion I’d made, the weight of the trust families might have in my credibility felt heavy indeed, and I never forget it.

Is there room for some skepticism in these relationships? Sure there is. Colleges know that students sometimes receive too much help—they rightly wonder sometimes about the authenticity of an application. Students in the athletic recruiting process sometimes need to pull back on the trust when coaches seem to be making promises they aren’t in a position to make. All of us can and should ask questions about the statistics we’re presented by colleges, not because they’re trying to bamboozle us (I thoroughly trust that they are not), but simply because they are often allowed to present information as they choose. The figures we hear from colleges about the percent of students who receive financial aid, the student-to-faculty ratios, and even the admit rates might be based, even quite legitimately, on different formulas. And there will always be instances of schools or students or counselors who are less than honest and of course these instances are the ones that we hear about in the headlines. But they are the exception.


Overall, our trust pays off. Relationships among colleges, counselors, students, and families generally benefit from the leaps of faith and trust we invest in them. A healthy respect for the integrity on all sides of the college equation makes for a more positive experience for everyone involved. And I’m proud to affix my signature to that belief!


Alice Kleeman has served as the college advisor for 19 years in the College and Career Center of Menlo- Atherton High School, a public high school of 2,000 students in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also teaches each summer on the faculty of the College Board’s Summer Admission Institute for new admission officers.





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