The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of College Confidential

Posted by Admissions_Daniel

On December 29, 2005, I took on a new job responsibility. It was not something assigned to me by my boss or anything official, but it was something I added to my daily tasks and considered important. On March 31, 2010, I made the decision to remove this task as a regular responsibility. I decided to take a break and re-consider whether taking on this task was the right thing to do. In the past nine months, I have thought long and hard about this decision. I have discussed it with my colleagues, discussed it with friends who are admissions counselors at other universities or guidance/college counselors, and brainstormed ideas with my Hopkins Interactive students. I have also kept a notebook of my ever-changing thoughts as I knew I would ultimately turn this into a blog entry.

If you haven’t guessed yet (the title of this entry pretty much gives it away), the task I am talking about is responding to posts on the “leading college-bound community on the Web”: College Confidential. I first learned about the existence and growing popularity of College Confidential in the summer of 2005 when a student intern in the Admissions Office mentioned she had received a phone call from a prospective student quoting information about our standardized test policy from this site. The information was incorrect. Since it was the summer, I had some free time on my hands and, with the help of a few student workers, began to explore the information posted about Johns Hopkins throughout the site and especially the discussions forums. To say I was stunned would be a gross understatement of my reaction. The amount of misinformation throughout the Johns Hopkins forums regarding admissions policies was stunning. Ever more disappointing was the myths about undergraduate life and academics at Johns Hopkins that were left unaddressed and led visitors to the site to just assume that these myths were truths. And oh yeah, no one was correcting the people who asked questions about JOHN HOPKINS.

Back then College Confidential was not nearly as popular as it is today, but it was clear to me that with the burgeoning role that social media was beginning to play in all forms of information gathering, that this was something that could become popular. At this same time, I was working with my students and colleagues to launch the Hopkins Insider admissions blog and Hopkins Interactive Web site, so social media outreach was on my mind on a daily basis. After the launch of my admissions blog and the Hopkins Interactive site, I made the decision to contact the officials behind College Confidential and request an official “College Rep” account. 2,459 posts and five plus years later, things are quite different. 

Hello, AdmissionsDaniel, it appears that you have not posted on our forums in several weeks, why not take a few moments to ask a question, help solve another member’s problem, or just join a conversation?

Since March of last year, whenever I visit the Johns Hopkins University discussion forums on College Confidential I am greeted with the above message. And I have to ask myself the question, why am I not taking a few moments to contribute? One can assume that the reason I stopped posting on College Confidential was that I thought the site was not that popular and not many students were using its resources. That would be an incorrect assumption. One could assume that I didn’t feel my presence as an official college rep on the site was appreciated by the people using the site. Once again that would be incorrect. Others familiar with my posting on the site may assume I took this hiatus because I was tired of being attacked by certain other posters on the site. Once again that is not the reason for my decision. So why did I choose to take this break from posting on College Confidential?

At first it was going to be a short break, one that I would take from the site after the release of Regular Decision notifications. As my last post stated:

And finally, just so you know I will be taking a break from College Confidential for the next week or so. Why? I actually purposefully take a hiatus from CC every year. In my many years in this field, and specifically during my time interacting with online admissions communities, I make it a point to remove myself after the release of admissions decisions. This does not mean I am not reachable, in fact I will spend the next week answering tons of questions. If you want answers, then use the systems that we have created for you to get answers:Hopkins Forums
Hopkins Insider Blog: Hopkins Insider

The Hopkins Forums:

I am available, I am just focusing my time on the forms of communication linked directly to Hopkins.

But then in mid-April, the usual time I would return to posting, I made the decision to continue my hiatus. As College Confidential’s popularity increased over the years I began to get more and more frustrated with the level of discourse and the residual consequences that were contributing to a wide-spread negativity in the discourse about college admissions. I began to question whether my existence as an official College Rep posting on College Confidential was giving some form of qualified validation to what was taking place in this online community. Was I contributing to the increasing mass hysteria and anxiety about college admissions and “getting in,” which was partially an outgrowth of what was transpiring in the College Confidential community? I wondered whether, even though I knew I was doing a service for some students visiting the site (providing correct information about Hopkins, linking to helpful resources, dispelling ridiculous myths), my posting on the site was a tacit approval of what I was witnessing as detrimental behavior and ideas that I did not want to support personally and professionally. It is these philosophical questions, as well as partially a sense of burnout, that led to my decision to stop posting. To be honest, I never thought my absence would be this long.

As I began to discuss these issues with various people I did continue to, on occasion, monitor the discussions primarily on the Johns Hopkins University specific forums. I didn’t expect major changes on these forums and to be honest there is not much of a drastic difference between posts in March 2010 and posts in January 2011. I do believe the absence of an official admissions voice has led to a return of some misinformation and occasionally the level of discourse between certain members has gone more negative than when I was an active participant. The ridiculous “chances” threads still exist, and the even more ridiculous responses from anonymous members ratings one’s chances are as popular as ever. Members still post the most basic of questions, ones that could be answered by spending less than five minutes on the Johns Hopkins Admissions site they could locate an official answer. The myths still exist, but there are still members who appear to be actual Hopkins students that are providing a variety of answers that dispel the myths. Students still seek comparison of College A to University X by others, rather than really weighing their own personal attitudes. And the laziness of accepting others’ opinions over personal preference or research that is often bred by online communities still remains as students seek assistance from anonymous posters on important questions and, disturbingly, even assistance with application essays. Nope, my absence did not change the world of College Confidential, and no I am not conceited enough to think it would.

But now the question remains: will I return? The answer is yes. Though I don’t know exactly when (obviously my priority over the next few months is reviewing applications), I did feel that before I return I would in one small way (this blog) share my personal concerns about what the growing popularity of College Confidential has done to the overall state of discourse about college admissions. I have come to the conclusion that my disappearance from a community that I do not completely agree with is not in any way a form of protest that would make a difference. But by publicly sharing my thoughts and criticisms maybe a larger discourse on these issues will begin and maybe, just maybe, I can persuade some high school students to re-think how they use a site like College Confidential. And with all of this exposition out of the way, I present what are my thoughts on the good, the bad, and the ugly of College Confidential. (Note, these are the thoughts of Admissions_Daniel, not officially sanctioned beliefs of Johns Hopkins University.)

THE GOOD
Despite my objections and concern about the weight some prospective college applicants place on information gleaned from College Confidential, I do see value in such a site. The majority of my criticism extends from just one section of the site: College Discussion Forums. The rest of the site can be very helpful to a student starting the college search. If one views the College Confidential site more as a collection of resources and avoids the discussion forums, I feel it is one of the most valid Web sites out there for students to use. Sections such as “Ask the Dean” where credible sources—professionals in the field—are responding to frequently asked questions are a great resource. There is also a wide collection of helpful articles on subjects as diverse as paying for college and student life. I do though fear that these valid sources of information are being overshadowed by the ubiquity of discussions on college rankings, the all-too-often focus on the Ivy League or elite colleges, and the ever present promotion of the opportunity to “chatter” or to “join the discussions.”

I understand why a community like College Confidential has grown in popularity. The caseloads for the majority of college guidance counselors are way too large. The difference in applying to college for this generation is vastly different than previous ones. The amount of information to sort through now in the world of the Internet and social media is daunting. The mass hysteria created by the media that reports of issues of college admissions is out of control. Students and parents are stuck, and unfortunately in today’s world the anonymous web posting carries as much weight and validity as anything else.

I also understand that a community like College Confidential presents an illusion of authenticity that prospective students are looking for in their college search. Many feel that the brochures, viewbooks, and Web sites being presented by colleges and universities are too glossy. These materials are seen as presenting a clean version of information and pumping out details that appeared to be skewed in favor of the rosy picture. Students turn to sites like College Confidential for the “real view” and the unbiased opinions. I agree that a community that allows the dissemination of mass opinions is beneficial but as I will discuss in detail below, when it goes unchecked it can raise some issues beyond inaccuracy.

College Confidential has the right idea in creating such a community with “hundreds of pages of articles about choosing a college, getting into the college you want, how to pay for it, and much more” but the existence of discussion forums that favor anonymity over credibility and the presence of a big brother marketing company in the background concerns me greatly. Why can’t such a community be formed by experts, by an organization that is unaffiliated to corporate ties, and where the most knowledge exists. (Yes, I am thinking about you NACAC, National Association for College Admission Counseling. Your tag-line is “guiding the way to higher education” and with a membership of experts in the thousands, maybe using your leverage and creating a legitimate community of resources and experts that prospective students and their families can easily access is a good project to work on.)

I know that this is supposed to be about the “good” of College Confidential, so let me end on a more positive note and with a suggestion for the future. I understand that this idea for a NACAC-based resource community that has the reach and scope of College Confidential is a bit of a pipe-dream, but I do think there is something that can take place over the near future to alter the discussion a bit. Though I am resistant to suggest there is any “good” involved with the discussion forums section of College Confidential, what I do find helpful and a move in the right direction is when credible professionals begin to use the site and are recognized as “officials.” When I posted in the past my screenname had the official moniker of “College Rep” and I had to go through a confirmation process to be labeled that way. It is pretty easy to learn who I am, obtain my professional resume, and know that I am a college admissions professional for Johns Hopkins University. I hope that more colleges and universities become officially active on the site and combat misinformation, poor advice, mass hysteria, etc. If more of my colleagues and professionals become official representatives then the conversation can be molded by the people who should be shaping the dialogue. That becomes true transparency, and that becomes the most valid resource to the prospective community search for any and all information.

THE BAD
For those who have followed me on College Confidential or read a majority of my past posts it is clear that there are two things that bother me the most: “chances threads” and “college X vs. university Y posts.” This for me is the bad part of College Confidential and an area I try to avoid altogether. I understand why these kinds of posts exist, and I know back in the day I probably would have been tempted to possibly post such threads if such an online community existed (or the Internet existed). However, it is extremely rare that these posts can help and they have in many ways bred the lazy prospective college student.

The college search and admissions process should not be easy. It should not be a point – click – apply – pay – attend process. High school students should have to put energy into this process, they should have to spend time researching, and, most importantly, they need time to do some form of SELF-assessment. This process is one of maturation and of finding oneself and determining interests and preferences. It is a rite of passage where 16, 17, 18 year olds begin to move to that next step in their intellectual and social lives. It is not a time to favor other people’s opinions, thoughts, and preferences, especially anonymous people who know nothing about your history. You hear it all the time that the college search is about finding the right fit. But the phrase is finding “your” right fit. The “your” is being lost and in its place students are leaning on general conclusions, concerns about status, and other opinions.

In the quest for “fit” I respect that college applicants want to know what their reach and safety schools will be. But turning to the members of College Confidential is not the answer. Correct me if I am wrong but there is not a single admissions application reviewer for any school in the country that is responding to “chances” threads. The so-called “gatekeepers” are not on College Confidential letting you know you have a 22% chance at school Y and a 46.8% chance at school X because they favor students more whose last name starts with a “L.” Just because one student was admitted to a school does not make them a credible source on what the school is searching for in its future students. Just because student X was admitted to Hopkins with a 620 Critical Reading and only submitted two subject exams, does not mean that every student who meets those same criteria will be admitted.

You hear all the time that the admissions review process has become holistic and the application reviews are much more comprehensive than ever before. Fit matters more now than it did in the past. Our decisions are not based on things one can post on a chances thread, unless that student posts every part of their application and that it is posted in the context of the full application pool that cycle. I find it funny that members of College Confidential find the assessing of another member’s chances so easy, especially with such little information to go on. Basically that means my ten-plus years of experience in this profession don’t really matter in the determination of who gets in to Hopkins.

Do your own research and speak with your guidance counselors—those are the sources that should be helping you determine your “chances.” You’ll be amazed at how helpful your counselor can be. One thing is for sure, they will not ridicule you, they will not attack you, and they will not make you feel lesser about yourself. They also will not boost your ego, pat you on the back, and just provide you simple lip service. That is what chances threads are for.

THE UGLY
I mentioned this briefly before but I need to expand on the thought. The ugly part of College Confidential is the rampant lack of credibility of sources and the blind acceptance that whatever is posted on the site must be gospel. Every few weeks one of my colleagues and I interact with a student or parent via campus visit, e-mail, or phone and are stunned at the information they are presenting as fact. When a bit of questioning is complete the source is often College Confidential. How many applications did Hopkins receive this year? 26,000 of course because someone said so on College Confidential. (Make the closer to 19,201.) How many SAT II subject exams does Hopkins require? Two of course because someone said so on College Confidential. (Not true. See http://apply.jhu.edu/apply/testreqs.html.) Greek life dominates the social scene at Hopkins. (Not quite. There are over 360 clubs and organizations on campus.) Yup, must be because someone said so on College Confidential.

And who are these someones? What do you know about them? Their name. Their age. Their educational background. What school they attend / attended. And are you sure that what they are telling you about themselves is true? I am not claiming that every post on College Confidential is wrought with misinformation, speculation, and inconsistencies, but what I am asking is how you know what is credible and what is not? Does the number of posts a person have lead to that conclusion? Does their self-posted location lead to credibility? Does their screenname choice really mean they are a wealth of information? Has no one ever lied or trolled on this site? Please do not get me wrong here, I think there are many people who post of College Confidential who are helpful, respectful, and provide great information but the format of the site does not provide an easy way to discern who is credible and who is not.

One of my firm beliefs as I entered the world of social media years ago (kicking and screaming by the way) is my “grain of salt” methodology. You have heard it before, take everything you learn with a grain of salt. I have always interpreted this as meaning to question the source and realize that there is motive behind the presentation of all information. This skepticism about what you read online should exist whether you are reading an anonymous post, or something that I’ve written. The problem is that when I post something there is background and history of my motives that are clearly evident. When anonymous member 781 posts something what do you know about them?

THE FRUSTRATING
I do need to add one last category to my thoughts. I won’t elaborate much on the point but it is something that boggles my mind and no one has really been able to explain to me why it happens. For me the most frustrating part of College Confidential is that for certain students it becomes the only source of information whatsoever. If one can’t find it on College Confidential than it must not be true. Why are people asking about a university’s standardized exam policy on College Confidential rather than going to that school’s Admissions site? Why are people asking what to do if all interview slots are filled on College Confidential rather than calling the Admissions office? Why are students asking about personal parts of their application and what they should do about something linked to them personally rather than sending an e-mail to the Admissions office? For Johns Hopkins, our Admissions site is easy to navigate and there is a ton of information at your fingertips. Our phone staff are polite, helpful, and available during normal business hours to help with any and all inquiries. And our e-mail account is cleared out on a daily basis with thorough responses even over the weekends and holidays. It just makes no sense that one has to turn to “CCFan326” to find out if Hopkins requires SAT scores, or ask “HopingforJHU” what the last date to request an alumni interview is for Hopkins.

I do hope that prospective Hopkins students who do turn to College Confidential also make sure to check out the Hopkins Interactive site. We have worked tirelessly over the last six years to present extensive information to prospective students on student and academic life at Hopkins through this site. 28 current students volunteer to respond to questions on our Hopkins Forums, and they also post fantastic blogs and work on other unique outreach projects on a daily basis. This information is presented in an independent, uncensored format and touches on every possible subject. Personally, if I were to do my college search again I would turn to a resource that allows me to connect with current students who present their pictures, their biographies, and their personal opinions (positive and negative), over the anonymous and random possible Hopkins student. Oh and by the way, the Hopkins Interactive students are not paid and there is no script they need to follow.

I could go on and on and on about my frustration on this point, but the good thing is there is a simple solution. My return to College Confidential will bring back an official responder and I will go back to something I used to do: sharing links of where information can be found.

Thanks to those of you who read through this long post and those of you who will consider my comments. In no way do I expect you all to agree with my point-of-view, and I expect to receive numerous criticisms. I also know that as I continue to have dialogues about these issues that my own perspective will probably adapt. I just hope that this post makes a handful of people think and that in the future others will add to this discussion. College Confidential is not all good, it is not all bad, and it is not all ugly. What College Confidential has become is a part of the college admissions landscape and it can’t be ignored. I do believe the future can bring us an online community where issues of college admissions and higher education can be addressed openly, transparently, and that prospective students and parents can connect with credible sources and open and honest professionals. But before the “utopian” community exists, maybe we can improve the discourse slightly as we move ahead.

15 thoughts on “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of College Confidential

  1. As the parent of a JHU freshman, I want to personally thank you for the integrity you bring to your job. Your hard work and dedication are exemplary. Truly you are a credit to the tremendous university that you represent. I actually think your presence on College Confidential is essential and I would not be surprised if you are responsible for much that is good there. Thank you for all you do for high school students everywhere and also for spreading the good and true word about Johns Hopkins. Our son could not be happier. It is absolutely the right place for him. It was his first choice,and we all feel blessed that the fit between him and his college is perfect.

  2. I love that you do this Daniel, and take the time to do so…shows that this is more than a job for you. I was a CC browser as I was applying to college and it ended up making me regret choosing JHU for a little while because of the things I read on there, glad to see they were wrong and that this is the best place for me!

    Ask real students, prospective students and parents! We love it! ;)

  3. I have a College Confidential account, but don’t post too often. I think it’s good for people with little help from guidance staff, and there are many helpful members. I also benefit from people posting correspondances with admission officers that have updates on the review and notification process (since not all admissions departments have blogs like this). The blatant marginalization of minorities and people with sub-2000 SAT scores is what really frustrates me about the site.

  4. thank you for posting this! i also have a college confidential account and don’t post very often (similar to ‘A Person’). i’d like to echo his or her frustration with the racist attitudes on the site. it’s quite unfortunate.

  5. Awesome post. Makes me wish my son would apply to Johns Hopkins, assuming everyone who works there is as wise and sane as you. There are many places on the internet where unqualified people give advice, but none with such humorless, bizarre “experts” as CC. I suspect that many of the posters are actually undercover agents working on commission for the college board, because every day there is another thread urging a poor kid to retake the SAT because of his pathetic score of 2190.

  6. Thanks for the thorough post. I also use college confidential as one small part of the college search process. It does make you wonder why anyone would read from one source on the internet and take the information as gospel. Your post reaffirms my feelings about Johns Hopkins. If everyone is as committed and involved as you, I look forward to attending.

  7. Hopkins. Explaining that place to the rest of the world, especially via a medium as dumbed-down and simplistic as Collegeconfidential.com, is a challenge. That “Hopkins isn’t for everyone” is so obvious that perhaps it should replace “Veritas vos liberabit” as the university motto.
    I confess, I lived in a dream world at JHU: the flood of ideas; the deep intellectual focus; the sheer beauty, rigor, clarity and and intensity of the entire experience. Just now, 40 years later, it thrills me to recall those days. I am still working on some of the same problems which I stumbled on at Homewood, now at a university in Thailand.
    My next educational stop after Baltimore was Harvard Medical School. A wonderful place HMS, but compared to JHU (if I may be forgiven for a lapse into the CollegeConfidential comparison game), trivial somehow.

  8. Very well written! As a prospective student visiting the website for the first time,I was appalled by the “Should i re-take a 33 ACT?” or “You have a 26 ACT. Maybe consider community college first, then transfer”. Though the posts didn’t affect my confidence at all, i do believe a student somewhere has developed a low self-esteem because their 30 ACT was deemed unworthy by strangers in college confidential. What appalls me even more are the “My great great great grandfather was one-quarter black.Do i get to check the “black” box on the common app?” questions. In addition, there is the “She got in because she’s a URM” and the “I didn’t get in because I am white/Asian”.

  9. I found CC at its worst to be no better than the ill-informed conversations that kids and parents have when going through the process. The sad thing is that the kids don’t know how ignorant they are until years after having finished college. The fetishism with purported prestige tiers of colleges simply has no match and despite an apparent reliance on “objective measures of quality” really leaves the applicants and potential applicants (peers and parents) not much better off…
    At its best, they do have some info…

  10. Thanks for this post. I found it trying to figure out who/what/source of funding is College Confidential which I found because I was researching U.S. News and World Report rankings. I learned a lot, and I’m glad the students/parents have you as a source.

  11. Daniel,

    You might take some consolation in knowing that misinformation permeates virtually every discussion on College Confidential, not just discussions of JHU. As a practicing physician, I am appalled by the medical misinformation sought and dispensed on CC. Most questions posed on CC cannot be answered, could be answered with a simple google query, or have no answer. Those questions that could be answered would be better addressed on relevant online specialty fora.

    Discussions on College Confidential are like the discussions that take place in high school parking lots: anecdotes abound, speculation is the rule, no true expert is present, and the loudmouth prevails. The only difference is the size of the parking lot and the number of loudmouths.

  12. I think it’s naive if not condescending to think that everyone who reads the information on CC, or anything on the internet, takes such information at face value. The reason for going there is evidently because sometimes you get information there that isn’t available elsewhere, because, as we know, more information travels by word of mouth than through official channels, and sometimes that weird rumor turns out to be factual. Sometimes you get a feel for a college or uni by the people who respond, or by the response to CC itself.

  13. Thanks for your blog post, which I primarily agree with. Attending a small school with a class of 50 and an overloaded guidance counselor, I (parent) became my kids’ guidance counselor. I did find some sound advice on the discussion forums at times. To do this, however, I had to review each poster’s posting history to determine if they knew what they were talking about, and parse through trash, inaccuracies and nasty comments to get to the bits of valid information that I was able to pull from these posts.

    The posted actual results threads, which I thought gave some idea of what actually took place, aren’t very representative. They can be scary, and if my kids had looked at them, they would have been dissuaded from applying to the schools (both with 25% to 35% acceptance rates) that accepted them.

    Overall, I would recommend the Ask The Dean column, occasional forums, and for the most part, to avoid most of the advice/discussion forums, which are often incorrect, and worse yet, filled with meanness.

    They’ve just redone the site, and you can no longer see the poster’s age, making it even more difficult to determine if you are getting advice from a high school kid. The site gets worse.

  14. The post makes me wish my son would apply to Johns Hopkins, assuming everyone who works there is as wise and sane as you. There are many places on the internet where unqualified people give advice, but none with such humorless, bizarre “experts” as CC.

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