ThickEnvelope.Com Creates Perfect Storm Over College Admissions

By Sam Rosensohn

ThickEnvelope.com, a brand-new Web site that produces probabilities for admission into 80 of the nation’s most prestigious universities, has created a perfect storm.

On the one hand, there are expert high school guidance counselors make the case that this new college can opener can’t do what a sharp counselor can do, because the site can only process data and data can be misleading.

On the other hand, ThickEnvelope’s creators say that not every school has sharp, willing guidance counselors who are there for the students.

“You should really ask yourselves if you are part of the problem or part of the solution,” Jon Reider, the current chair of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, wrote to the founders of ThickEnvelope  (thick envelopes signal college acceptance, thin envelopes spell rejection).

Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School and formerly an admissions officer at Stanford University for 15 years, took the position that the new site was “measuring meaningless quantities” and the embodiment of “the creeping commercialization of the whole college admissions process.”

The creators of ThickEnvelope.com, Grant Ujifusa and Richard Sorenson, met some 40 years ago when they were freshmen living in the same dormitory at Harvard. Two summers ago, over lunch, while speaking of their own children, Ujifusa and Sorenson imagined a Web site that would spare students and parents the infernal wait for an acceptance or rejection letter.

“We came up with the idea because both of us had two kids who went through it all, and what you do if you are the child or the parent is chew fingernails,” Ujifusa said.

Sorenson, a former assistant director of admissions at Harvard, says that for $79.95 a student will receive a report on his probability of being accepted into 80 select schools in the nation. Based on answers to a long list of questions on the site students are advised that they have somewhere between a 5 and 90 percent probability of being accepted to the 80 schools.

Before we give the critics of ThickEnvelope additional time, it’s important to note that there are free Internet services that do similar work. They can be found at www.collegedata.com and www.fastweb.com – students can also look at the college admissions predictor at www.sheppardssoftware.com. There are similar businesses to ThickEnvelope, such as, www.go4college.com, which charges $8.95 per college and www.collegeconfidential.com , which charges $89 and students speak with college counselors.

The biggest knock against ThickEnvelope, according to Reider, is that colleges want to know above all about the student’s GPA and  “a GPA means nothing to a college separate from the grading scale of that high school and its reputation.”

The biggest plus, I believe, is for eighth, ninth and tenth graders. At no cost, they can go into the classy site and quickly see what the nation’s top colleges want from students.

Reider went on to ask the creators of ThickEnvelope, “How can your system factor in the context of the grades as produced in a particular high school? Colleges have enough trouble with this, and they at least have some knowledge of the high school.”

When all the right numbers are there in good order (1430 SATs, 3.96 GPA) the qualitative factors take over (who is this particular person) and Reider argues the value of ThickEnvelope stops here. “The results for the most selective colleges show both admits and denies with similar credentials. Below a certain floor nobody gets into Harvard; but above a certain level, this one makes it, and that one doesn’t.” The electronic crystal ball, he says, don’t measure personality, character, intellectual vitality or a compelling history.

ThickEnvelope has created the perfect storm over college admissions, because it puts the focus back on how students pick schools. Students, all too often, pick schools based on reputation rather than picking a school based on their own identified needs. Students should start with themselves first. First, they need to make their own select list – not of where they want to go to college – but of what they want to learn and accomplish.

One in four college freshmen at four-year universities don’t make it back for sophomore year. Students are flipping majors like burgers on the Fourth, and transferring from one school to the next at a growing rate. Never mind, not graduating college with a major that won’t find a place in the workplace. This is all in part because too many students believe that all they have to do is get to college and the rest will take care of itself.

Too many students not only enter college without enough thought, but some find themselves in the second year of a rigorous PhD program, such as physics, only to discover that while they have the talent to compete in the field they don’t have the drive. They discover to be at the edge of their field that they will have to compete against people who are just as talented and with more drive, and they’re not up to making that kind of commitment.

Too many high school seniors are under the impression that if they don’t get into one of the big schools, they’ve failed. That’s all so wrong, because getting into the “big school” isn’t the key. Finding the right school for the student is the key. There are many examples of students who graduated from “great schools” and lived less than A plus lives.

Students need to be able to put their finger on just what they want to explore before they start to look for colleges. It’s not about a school’s rank, it’s about what a particular student wants and then finding a school that will work for that student. Another reason for students to start thinking about just what they might want to do with their lives.

ThickEnvelope has created a perfect storm because students often choose colleges blindly. Students generally pick schools based on what parents suggest, peers have done or are doing, and what professionals say. Students should identify what they like most and want to learn most before they start picking schools. What type of work might they like to do? It could be as broad as,  “I want to work with money and make lots of it,” or “I want to help people and driving an expensive car doesn’t matter to me.”

It used to be said that the hardest part about college was getting into college. I’m going to say the hardest part is picking the right school for the right reasons and that has little to do with any other name than the name of the student.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at sam@satprepct.com