Two notes on colleges, from way, way, behind the front lines

This blog is currently on hiatus. I have a demanding day job, and our family is enjoying a welcome two-year respite between application years. (Quick personal update on our pseudonymous students: Mod Squad Pete is in his fourth year at U.Va., M.S. Julie is in her second year at U.Va., and M.S. Linc is a high school junior.)

However. Every now and then I see something I want to share and today is one of those days.Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 1.24.41 PM

Something current. In today’s New York Times Frank Bruni wrote How to Measure a College’s Value. I encourage you to read the column, which includes this result from an ongoing research project:

What else augurs well for success after college? Graduates fared better if, during college, they did any one of these: developed a relationship with a mentor; took on a project that lasted a semester or more; did a job or internship directly connected to their chosen field; or became deeply involved in a campus organization or activity (as opposed to minimally involved in a range of things).

Bruni’s conclusion could be my mantra:

What college gives you hinges almost entirely on what you give it.

Something older. Also from the NYT, here’s a November 2014 Q&A from the Social Qs advice column, written by Philip Galanes:

Admissions Gantlet

Our son is in the throes of college applications. Well-meaning family and friends ask us where he is applying. But no matter how comprehensive a list we give them, they invariably say: “Yale? What a terrible place. Don’t let him apply there.” Or: “Why not Duke?” Our son’s list was developed in consultation with his school counselors, who know his interests and scores, and we all feel good about it. Still, people are very strident and opinionated. How can we respond politely? Sonja, San Francisco

Nearly everyone (including me) supports the idea of personal autonomy — right up to the moment when the other guy is about to do something we wouldn’t. It’s a world of busybodies, Sonja. Surely this can’t be your first encounter with us? Still, college admissions are a sensitive area for many families, especially the competitive and lovers of status. (Again, pretty much all of us, no?)

The next time someone butts into your son’s college plans, just say: “What an interesting perspective. We’ll be sure to let Jake’s college adviser know.” No further words required — except maybe “plastics.” (Note to readers under 40: watch “The Graduate.”)

For any parents and students new to this game, consider carefully whose process this is and who should hear about the details. Many parents I know have had experiences similar to Sonja’s.

If you’re not comfortable just saying, “plastics,” try this from the first season of Gotham. In response to an unwelcome recommendation from James Gordon, the mayor said, “Thank you, my friend. Valuable input. Most refreshing.”

Good luck to all the students and families on the front lines this year.

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11 College admissions resources to read now. (Perhaps, even, instead of Dr. StrangeCollege.)

Having gone through college applications with two high school students in the past three years, here’s what we’ve been doing these days:

  • Driving our high school sophomore to his homecoming date.
  • Tailgating and watching UVA defeat Kent State with our third-year UVA student (aka: junior) during his frat’s fall parents weekend.
  • Delivering cough drops and healthy snacks to our first-year UVA student (aka: freshman).
September sky above UVA's Scott Stadium

September sky above UVA’s Scott Stadium

Here’s what we’ve not been doing:

  • Paying much attention at all to college admissions deadlines and news.

We’re enjoying this hiatus. Even though Mod Squad Linc will take the PSAT next month and will start receiving college flyers and emails in January, there’ll be no college applications for him until the 2016-17 school year.

If you happened to subscribe to this blog looking for college admissions news for 2014-15, these sites may interest you:

Head Count: Admissions and enrollment news from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Most recent post:  Applicants to Bennington College can ‘curate’ their applications

True Admissions:  the blog from the College Admissions Book. Latest post by Christine VanDeVelde: De-stress the college application process.

Parents Countdown to College Coach:  Helping parents navigate the college maze. Suzanne Shaffer’s latest post:  The college major debate: 4 points to steer teens in the right direction.

The College Solution blog. Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s latest post:  Please apply so we can reject you!

The College Puzzle:  a college success blog. Latest post by Michael Kirst:  College competition for students may hurt low income students.

DIY College Rankings. Latest post by Michelle Kretzschmar:  Help finding Minnesota Colleges.

On the Fast Track to an Empty Nest, by friend and neighbor, Tara Mincer, who will have three students applying within four years. Lastest post: Getting your high school senior organized.

Prep and study help: Academic advice and study tips for the college-bound

Also, find admissions blogs at colleges of interest. I am most familiar with Notes from Peabody, written by UVADeanJ, who does an excellent job of providing clear information about the process and what the college needs. Look at colleges’ admissions websites for how they communicate.

A variety of posts on this blog from the past three years can still be helpful, and most are searchable by tags, from dealing with deadlines, to essays, financial aid, visits, and more. Please remember:

  1. Any post needs to be read with “As I understand it…” and “as of today” mentally tacked on.
  2. Almost any response to a college admissions question can [and should] begin with, “It depends…”

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Who writes the essay? Doonesbury weighs in.

In case you missed it in the Sunday papers, Garry Trudeau takes a look at college admissions essays and who is writing them.Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 3.27.14 PM

“It was an epifany. (Note: check spelling)” See the full strip here.

Not that that really happens. Right?

If your high school student needs help, rather than sitting at the keyboard, you might point them to a couple of key  resources:

  • Essay Hell — One of the few sites that our daughter, known here as Mod Squad Julie, dove into more deeply than I did, and then asked, “Why didn’t you tell me about this last summer?”
  • College Admission — That link will send you to a series of posts on writing essays, including how to respond to common prompts.
  • This post, from last summer when Julie was in the thick of it, provides a few more: How to write college essays.

Good luck (to the students) with the essays.


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The girl is going to college.

There came a day in mid April when I stopped our daughter, known here as Mod Squad Julie, on her way out the door and said, “You haven’t sent in your commitment yet, have you?” She shook her head and left.

A day or so later, Julie said, “Right. College. What is it exactly that I need to do?” I was distracted by work, she was starting a new internship. We let a few more days go by.

Julie may not know all the words to "The Good Old Song," but she's knows the choreography for the chant at the end.

Julie may not know all the words to UVa’s “The Good Old Song,” but she knows the choreography for the chant at the end. (Click to enlarge)

By the last week of April, Julie had chosen her college, attended the admitted students day, chatted (face to face) with future classmates, and chatted (via messages and texts) with many more, and found a roommate. She just hadn’t gotten around to passing on the news to the school.

The Lawn at night

The Lawn at night, via Cavalier Daily (click to enlarge)

One night last week, Julie logged on to the SIS, clicked the “Accept” button, and paid her deposit to the University of Virginia, which had offered her a place in its Echols Scholars Program.

Halloween, 1999

Halloween, 1999

Julie’s excited and her older brother Pete is thrilled that she will join him there; her younger brother Linc just surfaced from the spring high school musical, so I’m not sure he’s even paying attention yet.

She also registered for orientation this summer before turning back to the high school assignments at hand. Soon (read:  after AP exams), she will start digging through the course selections for the fall semester.

The girl’s got wings.





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April is the craziest month

T.S. Eliot may have called April the cruelest month, but for high school seniors that label might go to March. After the long autumn months of writing college applications and the cold winter months of awaiting a response (and hoping for the best), March delivers the stark reality of college admission decisions: yes, no, or would you like to wait for a possible yes later (at very low odds)?

The red bud in crazy bloom

The red bud, blooming like crazy, in April

Which brings us to the craziness of April and the decisions seniors and their families face. Even when the student is accepted into his or her favorite school, most families will want to look closely at each of the colleges offering admission.

Closely, and quickly: the May 1 deadline for the student’s decision fast approaches.

Here’s what many senior households may wish to do this month:

Visit the campus

If you haven’t yet visited the campus, now’s the time to take a look, before anyone writes a deposit check. Virtual visits may be great, but they cannot convey the smell of the freshman dorm, the path from one end of campus to another, or the typical style of students at the school.

Or visit again

I am an enthusiastic fan of admitted student programs. There’s a huge change from visiting as a prospective student to visiting as an admitted student, for a few reasons.

  1. The college takes this opportunity to make its best pitch. Now that the school has offered admittance, it would really like the student to accept.
  2. High school students make amazing strides in maturity through their senior year, in no small part due to the self-examination the admissions process requires. The student visiting in April of senior year is quite different from the one making the rounds junior year.
  3. Also, having that admittance offer in her hip pocket, the student is more able to imagine herself walking those same paths in just a few months.

Consider your family’s net cost

Many families will want to compare net costs; that comparison requires careful attention to the financial aid letters from each college, including determining the source and amount of aid from grants, loans (subsidized or not), work-study, and self-help. Most colleges develop their own financial aid criteria, so offers can vary widely. As Richard Pérez-Peña wrote in What You Don’t Know About Financial Aid (but Should), for the New York Times:

“…most consumers do not realize that colleges are free to come up with their own ways of defining a family’s ability to pay.

Most colleges stick largely to the FAFSA formula. But hundreds of private colleges require another form, the CSS/Financial Aid Profile, and use a related formula created by the College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT and Advanced Placement tests. Many colleges blend the federal and College Board methods, tweaking them as they see fit, or simply add their own factors to the mix. The result is that comparable colleges can reach very different conclusions, and they do not make those formulas public.”

Study the colleges’ academic requirements

Dig deeply into the colleges’ websites to examine and compare academic requirements from each college, including

  • distribution requirements (the need to take courses in each of a number of defined subject areas),
  • possible major requirements,
  • graduation requirements, and
  • credit earned from AP or IB courses.

The amount of credit earned through AP, IB or dual enrollment can potentially affect the student in at least a couple of ways. Some colleges require a declaration of major once a specific number of credit hours have been earned; this can pop up earlier than the student is ready for it. Some colleges accept very few credits; that could cost the family an extra semester or two of tuition.


Oh, surely this is a universal need for other high school seniors and their families, not just our own. Let’s get this done and move on to thinking about roommates and color schemes and summer jobs and internships and walking the dog and gardening and catching an episode or two of “House of Cards” and, well, anything other than college admissions, shall we?

This post appeared in slightly different form on True Admissions, the blog of College Admission: From Application To Acceptance.

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Seniors: It’s almost over

Welcome to the last dip of the roller coaster.

Whether you began the ride way back in middle school, charting a path through Algebra, then Geometry, then Algebra II, and so on in order to get to AP Calculus BC for senior year, or you began with a few college visits during spring break of junior year, or some wide variation from either of those tracks… as March slowly fades away, if you (or your high school senior) applied to colleges via regular admission, the wait is almost over.

Soon you will have received the last of your admission decision letters.

I truly hope that you will receive exciting news from a college you care about.

And if you have received one letter that says thanks, but no thanks… at least you challenged yourself.

Soon, it will be the colleges’ opportunity to court you.

But for now and not much longer, in the splendid words of the Alabama Shakes, “You got to hold on…”

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The SAT: more of the same prep, same anxiety?

Illustration: Zohar Lazar, from The New Yorker

Illustration: Zohar Lazar, from The New Yorker

First, if you haven’t already read it, see There’ll be some changes made, with the news report and a reaction or two on the announced changes coming to the SAT in 2016.

Since we have a couple of years until those changes come along, here’s some more test-prep reading…

1.  Elizabeth Kolbert, writing for the New Yorker, offers, “Big Score:  When Mom takes the SATs.” Kolbert relates her own experience, as well as that of Debbie Stier, author of The Perfect Score Project:  Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT, retaking the SAT as an adult, and covers a good bit of the test’s history as well.

Whatever is at the center of the SAT—call it aptitude or assessment or assiduousness or ambition—the exam at this point represents an accident. It was conceived for one purpose, adapted for another, and somewhere along the line it acquired a hold on American life that nobody ever intended. It’s not just high-school seniors who are in its thrall; colleges are, too. How do you know how good a school is? Well, by the SAT scores of the students it accepts. (A couple of years ago, the dean of admissions at Claremont McKenna College was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had inflated students’ scores to boost the school’s ranking.) As befits an exam named for itself, the SAT measures those skills—and really only those skills—necessary for the SATs.

I may be interested in reading about the SAT, but there is a less than zero probability of my registering to take the test, old or new. Just offering my real-world application of math.

2.  Walt Hickey, writing for FiveThirtyEight, offers advice in “How to Take the New SAT.” I’m likely to pay attention to his recommendations since FiveThirtyEight is the new data journalism organization headed by Nate Silver, statistician, baseball and politics forecaster, and author of The Signal and the Noise. Hickey examines the announced change that the SAT will no longer penalize test-takers for incorrect answers. Currently each wrong answer costs the test-take a quarter of a point.

Since the exam’s inception, students were advised to only guess on a question if they could eliminate at least one of the answers. This put expected value on their side, and they could hope to come out ahead in the long run.

Starting in 2016, with the death of the quarter-point penalty on wrong answers, there’s absolutely no reason anyone should ever leave a question blank on the SAT. According to College Board statistics, in 2012, every five points added to a test-taker’s raw score meant an additional 30 to 80 points on her curved final score.

So guessing isn’t just advisable, it’s about to become strategically crucial for people seeking to maximize their performance. Granted, everybody guessing is probably going to increase the average raw score, but that just means the College Board will adjust its grading curve commensurately.

If you choose not to guess, you risk falling behind the pack.

3.  Writing for The Atlantic, James S. Murphy says, “The SAT Prep Industry Isn’t Going Anywhere,” even though the  College Board president described their partnership with Khan Academy for free test prep, a “bad day” for test prep companies. Murphy has been an SAT teacher and tutor for the Princeton Review.

The truth is that there are no tricks to the SAT, or at least none that will make a significant change to a student’s score. Test prep raises scores by reviewing only the content students need to know for the exam, teaching them techniques they have not learned in school, and assigning students hundreds if not thousands of practice questions. It is this work, and not tricks, that overcome test anxiety. As Ed Carroll, a former colleague of mine, puts it,  “Competence breeds confidence.”

. . .

The main reason test prep isn’t going anywhere is that, as long as a superficial, high stakes test remains an important aspect of competitive college admissions, there will be no shortage of people looking for some advantage.  Admissions anxiety is not fomented by test prep companies. They do not need to make students and parent anxious.  The SAT has taken care of that for them.

4.  And finally, my favorite read on the SAT this past week:  Cora Frazier’s “New SAT Practice Questions” in the New Yorker. An example:

7. Student-produced-response math. You have one remaining pair of clean underwear, besides the pair you are currently wearing. You have an additional pair of underwear that doesn’t cover your entire butt and says “Thursday.” How many days can you go without doing laundry?

Now there’s a question with real-world applications.

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