College Confidential: a Field Guide

Illustration by Oliver Munday for The Chronicle

April 29, 2013

Day and night the locals chatter. They counsel and console, bicker and rant. Their questions are endless. Though often hopeful, they never stop pounding the drums of worry.

"Do I have a shot at my dream school?" pacgirl4101 wants to know.

"So sick of asians whining about affirmative action," macmill writes, "get over it."

"How much debt is too much," Jay520 asks, "for a computer science graduate?"

"A party school and you will always be just a number there," seniorchick writes of Arizona State University. Northern Arizona University, she adds, is "for hippies and ugly people."

College Confidential: a Field Guide

M. Scott Brauer for The Chronicle

Mollie Woodworth, a longtime moderator on College Confidential, starts checking the site early in the morning. "Coming from a small public high school, I had no direct line to admissions offices, no clue about the process. Now I feel like I can answer questions for people like me, who are kind of clueless."

This is College Confidential, a vast virtual realm where visitors can find the best and worst of human nature. Here, in moderated discussion forums, people help strangers. They also belittle strangers, question their intelligence, and mock their chosen colleges or alma maters.

What began as a college-admissions Web site has become a culture with its own ethos, language, and rituals. Many here share a common faith: Where you go to college shapes, even defines, your very existence. An acceptance from the "right" college is your ticket to a rich and happy life. Woe to the rejected.

College Confidential didn't invent the anxiety many Americans associate with applying to college, but, like a mile-high megaphone, it amplifies that anxiety 24 hours a day. Even some of the site's longtime members believe it stokes as many fears as it soothes.

The anonymous masses who converse on these message boards provoke derision from the official stewards of the admissions process. "Horrific," one high-school counselor says of College Confidential. "The futile search for the inside track," says an admissions officer. Another, borrowing Obi-Wan Kenobi's line about the seedy spaceport in Star Wars, calls the Web site "a wretched hive of scum and villainy."

Nevertheless, College Confidential is more popular than ever among prospective students and their parents. In March the number of visitors was up 31 percent from the year before. From April 2012 to this March, it attracted nearly 44 million visitors, receiving more than 281 million page views. Its hundreds of active forums are testaments to the appeal of crowdsourcing and citizen-experts. Year after year, the site informs how families all over the world talk about college admissions.

Within this community, many subcultures coexist. Status-obsessed climbers mingle with learning-for-learning's-sake romantics. You'll find legacy applicants over here, first-generation students over there. Narcissistic soliloquies abound. Puerile jabber, too. Pay attention, though, and you'll catch revealing glimpses of the modern conceptions of success and merit, not to mention parenting. The planet's deepest hopes, fears, and misunderstandings about college are all archived right here, with typos.

Come, let's explore. Be sure to wear your thickest skin. And if, by chance, you're a proud graduate of one of Mississippi's colleges or universities, please avoid RyanOG88, who insists that "they all suck."

First you need a lesson on the lingo. The essential words in the College Confidential vernacular are "prestige" and "elite." Also popular is "top," as in the listing of "top liberal arts colleges" and "top universities," which, generally, overlap with U.S. News & World Report's rankings. "Bottom" colleges are implied.

Many regulars have an overwhelming fas­cination with private institutions, especially Ivy League colleges. (The grammatical correctness of referring to two or more Ivy League colleges as "Ivy's" has been discussed here.) Harvard, Yale, and Princeton ("HYP") are often distinguished from the five "lower Ivies" (some members include Columbia with the "upper Ivies"). "HYPS" brings Stanford into the fold. "HYPSM" includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Add a "C" for Caltech.

The above are "lottery schools," because their admission rates are so low, the outcomes so unpredictable. The use of this term, some members suggest, protects the egos of rejected applicants: If getting in is a matter of chance, then admitted students are merely lucky, and, therefore, undeserving of excessive envy.

URM stands for "underrepresented minority," whose members, by virtue of race, may have an advantage known as a "hook."

A "reach school" is one that an applicant perceives as a long shot, based on his or her grades and test scores. Some distinguish between "low reach" and "high reach" colleges. An emphatic version of the latter is HMFR, the second and third letters of which stand for a popular expletive. Recently someone used "ventile," a statistical term, in describing the top 5 percent of a high-school class (a nice play on words, perhaps, given all those who come here to vent).

"Podunk U" is a broad term for any undesirable college, especially a public one. It's likely to appear in posts written by parents worried about what other parents have said—or might yet say—about their son's or daughter's attending a lesser-known college. Some people think "public Ivies" exist; others scoff at the idea.

Plenty of fathers post on College Confidential, but mothers seem to outnumber them. Parents routinely refer to their sons or daughters as "S" or "D," or else as "DS" or "DD" (the "D" stands for "dear" or "darling"). Many describe their children as BWRKs ("bright, well-rounded kids") with strong ECs ("extracurricular activities"). It's common for parents to use "we" often, as in "We applied to five colleges" or "We liked William & Mary." Today's parents are co-shoppers, after all.

"Snowflake," a rare but memorable term for one's D or S, conveys that every teenage applicant is unique, and therefore precious; the word also connotes fragility. Members have used the term both earnestly and sarcastically.

OK, everyone. Want to learn the history of this place? Ask Sally Rubenstone. She's been here forever.

A loquacious woman with an encyclopedic mind, Ms. Rubenstone is a co-author of the Panicked Parents Guide to College Admissions. She writes College Confidential's popular "Ask The Dean" column, in which she answers questions from students and parents around the globe, many of whom, it's fair to say, are panicked.

Ms. Rubenstone receives about 10 e-mails from the Web site's readers each day, sometimes 100 a week. They ask about strategies for being admitted from wait lists, and about whether it's better to get a B in an AP course or an A in a non-AP course. Recently the mother of a student with allergies wanted to know which college's dorms were the moldiest. Often The Dean knows the answers; when she does not, she investigates.

Back in the 20th century, Ms. Rubenstone worked as an admissions officer at Smith College. She was often struck by how confused students and parents were, and by how many general questions they asked: What's a good essay topic? How does financial aid work? What should I say in an interview?

Ms. Rubenstone liked answering those questions, but a couple of times, she says, colleagues called her out for relaying information that wasn't "Smith-specific." She confronted a fact of admissions work: Although the job allows you to advise families about the admissions process, you're paid, in the end, to promote just one college. Souring on that idea, and intrigued by the possibility of Internet-based advising, she joined College Confidential in 2002.

The site, which had gone live the previous year, was founded by Roger Dooley, a tech entrepreneur, and Dave Berry and David Hawsey, authors of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Applicant's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools. College Confidential's cloak-and-dagger name conveyed its purpose: to provide inside information that guidebooks lacked, secrets nobody else would spill. "Not the same propaganda you get from a college viewbook or Web site," says Ms. Rubenstone.

Call it propaganda or call it marketing. Either way, colleges have hit a generation of American teenagers with great, glossy gobs of it, urging them to apply to vibrant campuses where they will meet caring faculty members, pursue their passions, study in diverse learning communities, and receive a global education that will prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow. Have you heard that one before?

"One problem students and parents have is finding the real deal of the place from the literature colleges send out," Ms. Rubenstone says. "I know, because I used to write that literature."

Admissions offices helped seed the ground from which College Confidential sprouted. Enrollment-management strategies, with jargony terms such as "demonstrated interest," furthered the idea that getting into a selective college is a puzzle to solve, a game rigged by colleges, with many rules to master. Slick, aggressive marketing fed a hunger for unpolished truth and authenticity. Just listen to elnamo, who seeks an "intellectually stimulating environment ... in a learning community," but who is "beginning to think this is some made-up utopia that doesn't exist because it seems ... that many of these schools are all bureaucratic corporations wanting to compete."

College Confidential offered a sense of authenticity, of strength in numbers. The Web linked far-flung families who were all in the same precollege boat. A democratic spirit blossomed as the message boards attracted more and more participants, many of whom came seeking tips.

Today the grass-roots feel of the forums endures even though College Confidential's ownership has changed. In 2008 Hobsons, a global education-services company, purchased the Web site for an undisclosed sum. (The company also owns Naviance, college-planning software used by high schools to advise students and manage the flow of applications and transcripts sent to colleges.) Hobsons promotes CollegeView, its college-search service, on College Confidential, and vice versa. And now a student who logs in to Naviance to find information about, say, Colorado College will see links to recent posts about the institution in College Confidential's discussion forums.

Hobsons has also monetized the site's popularity. About 700 colleges advertise here. Look, there's a banner ad for the University of Alabama, and one for Full Sail University. There's more: "At College Confidential we can tailor a custom exposure program to meet your needs," says the site. Colleges may sponsor a discussion forum ($800 a month) or advertise on the mobile application ($1,500 a month). Geo-targeting and retargeting are also options ($600 for 50,000 impressions). A student who visits a forum on visual and performing arts will surely see ads from colleges promoting such programs.

Although many people flock here to discuss highly selective colleges, the community has become more diverse by any measure. These days, parents often urge one another to place "value" above "prestige," savings over selectivity. Ms. Rubenstone now gets many queries, she says, from "towns with no vowels, in countries I've never heard of." She's just as likely to get questions from single mothers seeking information about a certificate program, she says, as from teenagers dreaming of Dartmouth.

The message threads are countless. Confused about educational loans? Jump into the "Financial Aid" forum. Interested in New York University? There's a forum just for NYU, and for hundreds of other colleges. Everywhere students and parents, eager to share what they have learned about choosing a college and paying for it, trade advice and gripes and worries.

College Confidential's attraction is also its curse. The forums let a visitor overhear what zillions of other people are fretting about, including fears that she might never have considered otherwise. "I've begun to wonder," jazzymom writes, "if there's any such thing as 'safety' colleges for the coming admission cycle." Oh, no! Is that true?

"Anxiety is the key thing here," says Chris Peterson, who directs digital strategy and communications for MIT. He's spent a lot of time chatting with prospective students on the message boards, helping the admissions office establish a warm, low-key presence in its forum.

College Confidential, he believes, has great power to calm. Over the years, many users have thanked him for relieving their stress, by answering questions and explaining the intricacies of the admissions process. "There are plenty of people here saying, 'Stop worrying, we'll help you,'" he says.

Whether your blood pressure rises or falls, he suggests, all depends on which forums you visit and whom you engage: "The question is, Are the signals amplified or dampened as people pass through the system? Is this going to be your big Marshall amplifier, like Led Zeppelin used, or your Bose noise-canceling headphones?"

There's another catch, of course. Anyone here can claim that practically anything is true. Many responses begin with the phrase "I hear." Some users are thoughtful and informed, and some are neither. Reading the hodgepodge of posts, College Confidential's founders suggest, is like reading restaurant reviews on Yelp or book reviews on Amazon: Just because some content is questionable does not mean the forums are useless.

"It's a buyer-beware situation," Ms. Rubenstone says. "You've got to take what's there with a grain or a block of salt."

Two blocks of salt are recommended for anyone venturing into the "College Chances" forum. Here, members engage in the age-old art of fortune telling. Hour after hour, students post their academic vital statistics and ask others to predict their odds of admission to specific colleges. "Chance me," they write, as if engaging a crystal ball.

Recently, for instance, Flamengo2009 wrote a thread with this title: "Chance me for NYU, U. of Illinois, UMich, etc. ... " The student listed the following credentials: a 3.1 unweighted grade-point average, with all honors or AP courses, a 2200 on the SAT, "first generation Latino/Hispanic," and "not that many ECS," though he or she did "have charity work in South American countries."

Less than an hour later, Brown 2011 responded: "Chances are good at U of M, U of I and great at Northeastern. ... the unweighted GPA might hurt your chances at UC Berkeley and Stanford."

Later billscho chimed in: "Chance is not good at UMich at all. ... Note the average GPA for admission is around 3.7 at UMich." ParceledTongue then wrote: "Your SAT and URM status will help, but for Berkeley and Stanford in particular, it's going to be almost impossible to overcome that GPA."

Among chancers there's a code of reciprocity. "Chance me," many students write, "and I'll chance you back." Some members have mocked this ritual. "Umm," Jea828 writes, "if you don't know your own chances, how would you know someone else's?"

It's a good question. Perhaps today's teenagers, who grew up sharing everything on Facebook, find a meaningful sliver of hope and reassurance in favorable assessments from complete strangers. One member, imsobored, describes it this way: "Leave me baseless positive feedback to make me feel better about myself." For some, this is nourishing.

Perhaps other students crave the cold dose of reality that comes from hearing they have zero chance of attending Brown. Seeing who's been rejected by selective colleges, Ms. Rubenstone suggests, can adjust the unrealistic expectations of parents, especially those "who think the world of their kids, that the world's their oyster, and they're all gonna go to Stanford." Call it Snowflake Syndrome.

The popularity of the "chance me" exercise also reflects the ambiguity of the admissions process, especially at selective colleges (aka the "lottery schools") that conduct "holistic" reviews of applicants. With no hard-and-fast formulas for getting in, students grasp for the semblance of science. They rate their own essays and teacher recommendations on 1-10 scales, and they handicap their peers' odds of being admitted to, say, Vanderbilt University at 60 percent. In "decision threads" each spring, applicants post their credentials in standardized templates, as if the data tell the whole story about why a particular student was accepted, denied, or put on the wait list.

These rituals have long troubled Daniel G. Creasy, director of communications in Emory University's admissions office. "The idea that you can sum up the job of an admissions counselor this way," he says, "it's just not how it works." For one thing, the "chance me" threads don't account for context: what the entire applicant pool looked like, and a college's needs in a given year.

Mr. Creasy has grappled with a prevalent question: Are admissions officers better off ignoring College Confidential's forums or diving into them?

In 2005 he dove in, reluctantly. He was then an admissions officer at the Johns Hopkins University. The "misinformation" in the discussion forums, he says, including basic facts about the university's admissions requirements, had floored him. Nobody was setting the record straight, so he obtained an account reserved for verified representatives of colleges. "College Rep" appeared beneath his handle, AdmissionsDaniel.

Mr. Creasy wrote 2,459 posts in about four years. Then, on March 31, 2010, he stopped posting. He was burned out but also disillusioned with the Web site. "I began to get more and more frustrated with the level of discourse and the residual consequences that were contributing to a widespread negativity in the discourse about college admissions," he later wrote in a blog post for Johns Hopkins. "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."

In his blog post, Mr. Creasy suggested that the presence of admissions officers lends College Confidential too much credibility. These days he sees value in engaging the forum's readers so long as colleges can direct them to meaningful content. Although Emory's admissions officers don't have an official presence in the discussion forums, he lurks there, to see what people are saying about the university.

Jeannine C. Lalonde, senior assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia, posts regularly, as Dean J, in College Confidential's UVa forum, where respect for her is evident. ("Dear Dean J, YOU JUST MADE MY DAY," wrote UVAorBUST after reading Ms. Lalonde's post about how most applications are far from perfect. "She makes the entire process so open and less scary," blueiguana responded.)

Ms. Lalonde answers questions and looks for "teachable moments" when she can step in, like when someone says UVa considers an applicant's "demonstrated interest." (It doesn't.) She avoids pro-UVa cheerleading.

Although she dislikes some aspects of College Confidential, she considers engaging students there an essential part of her job. If you imagine a college's forum as a room full of people who are all talking about your campus, she thinks, you're better off being in the room. A thread might have 100 responses but 10 times as many views.

"It's like the ideal information session, because you get to talk to 1,000 people at once," Ms. Lalonde says. "If you are an educator, how can you turn down an opportunity to answer a question?"

At College Confidential, emotions run hot during the spring, when discussions of who's deserving and who's not always flare up. Members often debate the role that race and ethnicity should play in admissions. It gets loud.

When Duke sent acceptances this March, latinomniavincit wrote, "Accepted with a merit scholarship! So happy." Later watchmaster64 responded: "Should we all guess why you were accepted with a Merit scholarship? It's funny. When I lived in USSR, I could not get into a top college since I was a Jew. Now my son can't get into a top college because he is white."

Philovitist responded sarcastically: "Maybe your son just couldn't overcome the profound adversity that comes with being white in America like these kids could. It's too bad."

Heated debates can last for months or years. Who could forget the epic war of words between barrons and novaparent, who, respectively, defended and disparaged the University of Wisconsin at Madison, enlisting both statistics and insults to further their arguments?

Bragging—it's rampant. In 2006, koolcrud started a thread titled "The Uber-Exclusive 2300 Club," describing it as "an ego thread for all of us genuises" who got at least a 2300 (out of a possible 2400) on the SAT. (Surely "genuises" was just a typo.) Seven years later, members continue to post their scores, and how many times they took the exam before hitting 2300.

Seeing all this, one could assume that all the locals are stuck-up or mean, if not unhinged. But, thankfully, there's Mollie Woodworth. She's as kind and helpful as can be.

Ms. Woodworth found College Confidential as a junior at MIT, back in 2005. One day she heard that someone had mocked the institute's cheerleaders in a forum, calling them fat and ugly. Ms. Woodworth, a cheerleader, joined the Web site just to express her "righteous fury." She never left.

After graduating with degrees in biology and brain and cognitive sciences, in 2006, she earned a Ph.D. in biological and biomedical sciences at Harvard. Nonetheless she found time to engage with prospective MIT and Harvard students in the forums. Every day. As of late April, Ms. Woodworth, writing as molliebatmit, had written 10,647 posts, an average of about 25 a week over eight years.

She has answered many questions from students about life at MIT, majoring in biology, and becoming a scientist. "I'm helping them discover what they potentially want to do," she says. "It's like a social-media mentorship program."

Ms. Woodworth is one of about 20 volunteers who moderate College Confidential's forums. Newly appointed "mods" are assigned to a specific forum and have regular duties, like deleting spam (Viagra ads are like weeds). Over time, mods become "super moderators," like Ms. Woodworth. She has the power to delete posts and to ban—temporarily or permanently—members who write especially rude and disrespectful messages.

Each morning she carries her laptop into her bathroom. She checks the discussions as she brushes her teeth and puts on her makeup. When she comes home at night, she logs on again.

Ms. Woodworth's posts are frank and specific. In a recent thread she revealed her SAT math score (690), and that she had taken "the easiest" math and physics courses at MIT. "My lack of world-class ability in math and physics hasn't stopped me from being a world-class neurobiologist," she wrote. She gently urged one student not to think of a 700 as "a poor math score."

Many applicants out there lack a knowledgeable college counselor, and some have none at all. Ms. Woodworth, who grew up in a "two-horse town in Ohio," empathizes with them. "Coming from a small public high school, I had no direct line to admissions offices, no clue about the process," she says. "Now I feel like I can answer questions for people like me, who are kind of clueless."

Karl M. Bunday, another super moderator, brings a similar perspective to the forums. "My high-school counselor," he says, "was actually useless."

Since 2004 he's posted nearly 16,000 times. Often he composes long "fact threads" that include multiple links, directing readers to external sources of information about an array of issues, such as testing and affirmative action. The forums, he believes, should be a starting point for research—not the last stop. Posting as tokenadult, he has reminded students of the importance of applying to "safety schools."

"There's this driven attitude that I've tried to counteract," says Mr. Bunday, "the idea that you absolutely must have straight A's, and that any score below 2300 dooms you to a trashy college. Both are nonsense, and I don't think high-school students should go through life thinking that. Even if you end up at a college some people think is crummy, you can still get a good education and have a successful life."

See, College Confidential's not all bad. Take the long thread in which students who ended up at second-choice colleges talk about how happy they are there. Life went on, it's true! There are moments of kindness and kinship, such as when Clear My Mind, rejected by Cornell, wrote, "Preety disappointed that I got rejected from the more prestigeous schools. It is a real heartbreaker." Thirty-six minutes later, nani2429 responded: "I feel your pain."

And so College Confidential, with its many facets, is also a metaphor for the admissions process, in which families have many choices. To freak out or stay calm. To sweat prestige or not. To crank up the big amplifiers or don the noise-canceling headphones.

You could choose to take a cue from Pizzagirl, a longtime member who sounds downright grounded. Case in point: This winter, Ms. Rubenstone, of "Ask The Dean," started a thread (titled "How did HE Get In?") in which she relayed a story from a friend about a college that had accepted one applicant but denied a classmate with "a much stronger record." What were members' theories, Ms. Rubenstone asked, on such "odd outcomes"?

In response, Pizzagirl wrote, "Why would I spend one minute of my time worrying about some kid not my own, whose only link to me is that he's in the same grade as my kid?" Two minutes later, she wrote more: "The Monday morning quarterbacking and gossip you describe is that of a total loser."

Can we get a big round of applause for Pizzagirl, everyone? You might say she's one of a kind. But, please, don't call her a snowflake.