Applying to Colleges Can Be Fun With Application Crunch

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Application Crunch

With budget cuts dramatically reducing the number of high school counselors, students, especially those from low-income areas, find themselves having to face the daunting prospect of applying for college by themselves without any guidance or support. I know firsthand how much of a disadvantage this can be; for many students, it’s a brick wall, even before the even more daunting question of paying for school is considered. A new academic project hopes to address this problem by means of a game. They sent me the game to try out with my daughter and her friends.

Collegeology Games is a project of University of Southern California that exists “to develop, operate, and evaluate a suite of fun, inspiring, and educational games that will increase the number of low-income youth preparing for, applying to, and finding success in the nation’s 4-year college programs.” Their first product is Application Crunch, a Euro-style card game that hopes to teach the college application process. According to the box, the game is suitable for ages 12 and up, intended for 3-4 players, and should take about 60 to 90 minutes to play. When I received the game, I asked my daughter to play it with her friends and tell me what she thought. A month or so later I asked her about it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replied. I found the game on the shelf where she had set it and tried again. Finally, after a couple more weeks of waiting, I was able to get a group to sit down and play the game.

Our group consisted of myself as a non-playing game-master, reading the rules and explaining things as best I could; my daughter Kate, age 16; her friend Iona, age 18; my older daughter Ashley, a college graduate age 25; and Ashley’s boyfriend Shea, also a college graduate age 25. I set up the game according to the Quickstart Guide, then began reading the rules while everyone asked me what we were doing.

The game is extremely complicated, especially if the players aren’t the type to play card games regularly. I think there was a somewhat misguided attempt to make the rules look simple through the use of short sentences, large type and a generous supply of info-graphics, but the end result is a feeling that players are guessing at the rules and probably missing something. The Quickstart guide shows how to arrange the cards on the table, but provides no information about what these cards are for or how to use them. If the goal is to recreate the “lost, confused and helpless” feeling of being a kid trying to apply to a college for the first time, they succeeded admirably.

Turning to the rule book offers very little illumination; it jumps right into a walkthrough of the game without benefit of any kind of introduction or overview, leaving the players to figure out each type of card, its purpose, function and value when confronted with them. This makes the first couple of rounds of play very shaky, with lots of “why am I doing this?” and “what’s this for?” At one point, Shea remarked “I’ve graduated from college, and going to college was easier than this game.” Given the sheer volume of card types involved, I’m inclined to agree with him. We made it through one round of play in about half an hour; there 15 cards in the Timeline card set, indicating at least 15 rounds of play; after each round, a card is discarded from the right end of the Timeline and a new one added to the left. These cards specify actions that need to be taken, and the actions generally need to be taken in a timely manner; once a timeline card is discarded, the time for taking that particular action has passed.

Here’s how the game goes: At the start of play, there are several stacks of various cards on the table – Activity cards (Extracurriculars, Work, Service, and Academics), Question cards, Productivity cards (these drive the game), College Acceptance cards; College Counselor Strategy Guide, and the Timeline – and each player is given a few others that define who the player is meant to be. The Character cards describe the person’s interests and special talents (artistic, athletic, writer, etc.) and grant the player some unique advantage in game play; the Family Finances card describes the player’s income status; the College Account card is used to keep track of the player’s savings and financial aid as the game progresses. Unfortunately, these three cards are similar shades of green, making them easy to mix up or to overlook one when setting up the game. Since there’s no list explaining what each card is for, players are expected to figure out what to do with each type when they confront one in the course of the game. Each player is also given two envelopes, all printed with the same address and return address; each player’s envelopes have a different color text, but are otherwise identical white envelopes. At no point are the players told what they do; we only got as far as putting one next to the Timeline if a player wished to attend a College Fair.

When it’s their turn, a player takes a “Productivity card.” These are similar to the Chance or Community Chest cards in Monopoly; they each describe an event or circumstance and award the player a set number of “Actions” which can then be spent in a variety of ways; players may draw an Activity card, ask a question (draw a card from the Question stack and ask the other players, choosing the best answer; both the player who asked and the one who gave the best answer get to “level up” one Academic card), put a card into an envelope; submit an envelope (placing it above one of the cards on the Timeline), or level up an Activity card. Note that the same action, leveling up, takes place on all Activity cards. (Leveling up is done by placing a paper clip on the card and progressively sliding it up through the levels indicated.) There was some confusion among the players regarding the difference between Academics cards and the other Activity cards as concerns the Question cards; leveling up as a result of asking or answering a question can only be done on an Academic card, which players may not have, in which case they don’t get to do anything. The player then chooses from the available options to use up the Actions acquired. Again, there was some confusion about Actions, since one of the rules says “you can have up to five at a time,” but the absence of a noun makes it unclear whether it means five Activity cards or five Actions (we finally figured out that it meant five cards).

Have I lost you yet?

This was just the first round of play. Each player, on each turn, has to do several things, keeping track of levels, stuffing envelopes, reading questions, monitoring the Timeline, and so on, and we haven’t even gotten to several items yet. In fact, due to the similar appearance, I never even put the Acceptance cards or Strategy Guides out on display; I left them under the Timeline stack, thinking they were the same thing. We didn’t get far enough along in the game to ever miss them. I still don’t know what they do.

Another problem is the scattered nature of the information provided and the sameness of the visual arrangement of all the cards, the result of which is that players skim over important details; none of us noticed the special attributes granted by the Character cards. Ashley read hers, commenting on the appropriateness of having drawn the “Wordsmith” card (she’s a writer for an education company in real life), but never seeing that the card also allows her to place Extracurricular cards in the Liberal Arts category into the Application Envelopes without spending an Action Point.

The Question cards yield a great opportunity for engaging in adolescent snark. For example, one card asked “what are some qualities of liberal arts colleges?” the winning answer at our table was “unemployment, stupid haircut, stupid clothes, stupid mustache, and a Prius.”

My group found the game confusing and a bit boring; I found it stressful. Just as in the actual college application process, there are a great many tasks to complete and details to keep track of, but the difference is that in the real world, it’s spread over years, not minutes. After a half-hour of stumbling through the game, I was a bit depressed to learn that the game doesn’t end with acceptance at a college and success in arranging to pay for it; it actually continues through all four years to graduation, and ends with determining whether one has acquired enough money to pay for the education, along with keeping track of “badges” earned by performing certain actions or acquiring certain cards. By the time we got through the first round, all our players suddenly discovered that they had something important to do elsewhere. The prospect of wading through another 14 rounds at this pace was just too much for them. Perhaps it would have gone more quickly if somebody at the table had played it before and could explain the rules and process so that everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing.

My overall impression is that the game might be an effective teaching tool in a structured setting with a trained facilitator serving as game-master and players who were motivated to learn about the college application process. It really needs to end at “congratulations, you’re accepted!” because the current setup is just too much for the players to sit through. If the plan is to hand this game to low-income students and expect them to learn about college by playing it, it’s doomed to failure. Most such kids will never open the box, and those that do will throw it out after about 15 minutes in a fit of frustration and confusion, possibly drawing the erroneous conclusion that applying to college is every bit as difficult and stressful as the game. A noble idea, but not ready for prime time.

This game was something I had high hopes for; when I was in high school, I had absolutely no clue how to apply for college and was completely oblivious to the wide variety of scholarships, grants and financial aid available; I met my guidance counselor for the first time a week before graduation (prior to my mandatory exit interview, I didn’t know she existed). As a result, and despite having SAT scores in the top 7% for math and 2% for language, I ended up at the local community collage, and over 30 years later, I still have no degree, and it has definitely had a negative impact on my employment and earnings. I currently have a daughter in high school and a son at the community college (my firstborn is a graduate of San Diego State University), so I thought I might learn something that would be useful for my children. I’m sure I still could, if I just sat down and read the cards rather than playing the game again. Trying to absorb the information while also trying to understand and follow the game rules is just too much for my tired old ADD-rattled brain to handle. Maybe with a few edits and a more comprehensive introduction to get things started, it will be more successful.

According to the Collegeology website, they are now developing a similar game for online use; I think that one will be a lot more fun and, effective, since the rules and procedures will all be programmed in and the players can focus on just following the onscreen instructions.

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