Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"How To Live Wisely" from The New York Times

This piece  gives some solid recommendations for how to prioritize and reflect on academic and career goals.  The author refers to a college student audience, but I could see these activities holding value for high school students as well.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Common College Search Mistakes

It's a college campus, not a weekend destination.

I never, never begin a college search conversation with, "So.... do you like cities?  Or do you like rural areas?" for several reasons.  First, it's the rare student whose initial inclination is to say,  "Please surround me with cows!"  Second, it's an unfair way to begin the college search... if applying to college is like buying a house, pre-selecting schools based on location is like pre-selecting houses based on what color the current owners decided to paint it.

Remember that choosing a college is not the same as deciding where to spend a weekend.   There are so many more factors at stake!

Treating college like graduate school.

Some students will find a college appealing because it has a reputable program in one specific area that is of interest.  But ask what else they enjoy about the college, and they draw a blank.

I remind families that undergraduate education is social, residential, and academic, while graduate education is (infamously) academic.  If a student at age 16-17 already professes a strong desire to pursue a specific field, then that student will likely pursue a graduate degree in that field.  At that time they should consider the school with a strong reputation in that area!

Over-analyzing the campus tour.

I've heard it all: We liked College X and didn't like College Y because college X serves cookies every day at noon.  We liked College A but not College B because the tour guide at College A did an awesome internship and talked all about it.  We didn't like College M because the admissions officer wasn't able to answer our question.  This tendency to take small things and make them big is so common that psychologists even have a name for it.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Why I Won't Share My College Results

Of the several trends in the college admissions consulting industry that bother me, one of the most concerning is when independent counselors or high school college counselors post a list of schools their students were admitted to as if it were a Who's Who of Colleges.

Yes, I understand name brands sell, and sometimes counselors have to engage in a little bit of glitter and glam in order to appease parents/trustees/etc., but even so the practice is questionable.

I won't share my client's results because the list says more about how families find me than about the work I do for the student and family.  By and large I work with students who are interested in attending highly selective colleges.  By and large their parents have undergraduate and graduate degrees from highly selective colleges.   I don't do a lot of advertising or marketing (intentionally), and the families who find me want to use somebody with my particular background.   There are many terrific college counselors out there who know a lot more than me about a whole variety of topics... their work is crucial, too, and they deserve recognition, but may not be bragging about sending their clients to nationally recognized name-brand schools.

I won't share my client's results because I don't tell students where to apply to college.  It's one thing to identify a college where a client may have an advantage in the admissions process and encourage them to apply to "beef up" my college results.  I also don't discourage them from applying to colleges that I believe are out of range.

I won't share my client's results because the results list doesn't include the disappointments.  Most students who worked with me this year faced some disappointing news from some highly selective colleges.   Most students who worked with me this year also received some terrific news from other highly selective colleges, including some with generous scholarships attached.  I helped families by anticipating the disappointments and the victories well before the real results came back.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Pop culture and college experiences

About 20 minutes in to this radio show the co-hosts start describing their college experiences against the backdrop of pop culture portrayals of going to college, applying to college, and affording college.

It's a neat mix: one went to a medium sized college, one went to a small liberal arts college, and two went to public universities.

One concludes that the range of experiences that was available to at his campus was similar to the range of experiences that would be available somewhere else.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

"Where else are you applying?"

The college admissions universe is buzzing over the Common Application's offer for colleges to add that question to the application next year.

Rather than explore the ethical considerations of offering such a question, there's another issue here: what could including a question like this mean?

1.  It might give the college more competitive leverage.

All colleges are in a competitive race against each other to fill dormitory beds with paying customers.  The winner of the game admits the fewest students possible with the highest test scores possible paying the most money possible.

Imagine you're the Dean of Admissions at College ABC.  College ABC prides itself on academic excellence, a close-knit environment, access to professors, and a non-competitive atmosphere.*

Your admitted students score between 1800-2100 on the SAT and you keep your admit rate at a cool 25% even though about 75% of your applicant pool tests above an 1800.  Your secret to keeping your admit rate low is that you admit the candidates who are most interested in you and you waitlist the students who might look a little too strong for you or might be shopping elsewehre.

Now imagine that you have two applicants before you: both scored a 2000 on their SATs and are comparable in other ways. You know that one of the students, Student X, applied to all the Ivy Leagues (unlikely to get in), your college, and their in-state safety.   You know that the other student, Student Y applied to you and your archrival competitors, including some colleges a little more selective than you and a few colleges a little less selective than you.

Which student is more appealing?

I'd argue Student X is more appealing, because Student X is going to be between you and a state school, and you feel that your selling points position you well against the state school.

I'd argue that Student Y is less appealing because Student Y will be hearing the same old spiel about liberal arts colleges from you -- and from all your competitors.  So you'll have to work even harder to stand out... and you're more likely to lose the kid to a more competitive school anyway.

2.  This added information might not help the colleges do anything they aren't already doing now for the same students.

College admissions officers develop a pretty good "sixth sense" about where else their applicants might be applying that's based on their geography, their family's background, their academic interests, and how they express themselves in the application.  The ability to make this knowledge scientific instead of intuitive might not mean much.

Colleges will continue to use informal measurements to assess interest, including but not limited to visiting campus, attending a college fair, e-mailing a college admissions office, and taking advantage of preferential decision rounds (e.g. Early Decision, Early Action, etc.)

3.  This information might help the student if a college feels like it is entering a "bidding war" for a particular student.

Imagine a supremely talented musician applies to mostly conservatory programs but adds a few non-conservatory colleges that are looking to up their music talent.  Would revealing to a non-conservatory college that that college was one of the few non conservatories to be in the running inspire that college to jump for the bit?  Like, "Hey, this kid really thinks we're special, and this kid has talent we need?"

Maybe a female reveals that she is only applying to engineering schools.  Does she come across to the admissions office as more desirable than a student who is only applying to one or two engineering programs because she appears likelier to commit to engineering in the long-term?

I don't have answers to these questions, but they are among the many to think about.

4.  If I, a student, am asked this question, should I answer it?

The bigger question I have is: have you conducted a thoughtful and thorough college search?  Do you have a reason for applying to all the colleges you are applying to?

If a college is bold enough to ask, part of me thinks that students should comply and answer it honestly.

Another possibility, if the question is a write-in question instead of a drop down menu question, is that a student might be able to write something to the effect of, "As of ((date)) I have not yet finalized my college application list.  If you wish to know all of the colleges I have applied to please contact me at ((e-mail))."

That kind of response allows students to appear amenable and yet withhold information that could be unfairly used against them.  

And it's true... students revise and add to their college application list all throughout their senior year.

* I have no specific college in mind; I'm just listing data points that are realistic for a range of liberal arts colleges in the Northeast.

Monday, April 20, 2015

In which new news isn't really new

I was a little irked this morning that along with news about ISIS and Hilary, NPR decided that I needed to know about one student who was admitted to all eight Ivy League schools.

Didn't you do this story last year?

I have several issues with stories and those like it:

1.  These stories highlight outcome without highlighting process.  It assumes that getting into all eight Ivy Leagues is the accomplishment; the real story is the kid, the 8/8 is the gimmick.

2.  There are all kinds of cool teenagers who are going to colleges that aren't Ivies and are totally worthy of a feature story.

3. It reaffirms that Ivy=quality

4.  Applying to all eight Ivies is suggests either a lack of access to quality college counseling or a Pollyannaish outlook.

That said, I do appreciate how NPR features fascinating students from unusual schools, albeit in less headlining ways.  Check out this story about pop culture algorithm designed by Olin College students or this story about Swarthmore's role in climate change activism.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

3 dirty tricks in financial aid award letters

If you've gotten in and gotten scholarships, you're not done yet!  Read financial aid award letters carefully and be on the lookout for the following tricks.

Colleges that disguise a student's part-time job as a scholarship to inflate the amount of financial aid you appear to be receiving.

Do you see an amount for 2 or 3,000 dollars a year in the "scholarships" section of the letter?  Look at that line item a little more closely -- make sure it's not a part-time job sorted in the scholarships section for the sole purpose of making it look like you're receiving a bigger scholarship than you are.

Just because you've been offered a "merit" scholarship doesn't mean the school is affordable.

Colleges market "merit" scholarships mostly to make their admitted students feel special.   I mean, who wouldn't feel great after receiving a Dean's Scholarship?

But make sure you look at what you're being asked to pay out of pocket, too.... because it still might be too expensive for what the FAFSA expects you to afford or what your financial advisor may tell you is appropriate.

Colleges that assume you'll take out loans.

Sometimes colleges assume that parents and students will take out loans and they include those loans in the award letter.  But the financial aid letter is not the application or approval for a loan.... that paperwork is separate.

Colleges can include loans in the award letter to make the financial aid package look better.  $10,000 per year parent contribution with $5,000 in parent loans sounds a lot less than a $15,000 parent contribution, doesn't it?