Monthly Archives: March 2013

Q&A: Son is a HS freshman — Where to begin?

A friend and parent of a high school freshman recently wrote:

Q.  I googled a college-related question a few days ago and by chance stumbled upon your Dr. StrangeCollege blog!
In the time it took me to find an answer to my question (partially from your blog and other online sources), I discovered that I am alarmingly overwhelmed by my complete and utter lack of preparedness. Clearly, I should start reading something about college, since L. is now in high school. I found it strangely comforting to think that I could go back and read your blog from the beginning. I feel calmer already!
Do you, in fact, have someplace that you recommend us poor, frightened, slightly nauseous newbie parents start learning about the whole process? Books? Websites?QandA block

A.  I have a lifelong habit of looking to books when I have a question. Here are a couple I would recommend for an overview:

1. The College Solution, a Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price (2nd ed.), Lynn O’Shaugnessy.

O’Shaugnessy has a website with the same name as the book; she also blogs for CBS Money Watch. While her focus is financial, she writes succinctly and with a good deal of common sense about most college-related topics. It’s a good quick introduction.

What’s fascinating is the motivation behind a school’s decision on which applicants capture a price break and which don’t. I can’t delve into this topic without at least mentioning this fact: Private and public colleges and universities routinely employ in-house enrollment managers or hire consultants who devise ways for colleges to use their institutional cash as strategically as possible to assemble their freshman classes. Typically this means helping institutions leverage their own revenue to attract the kind of teenagers they covet. Enrollment management practices have turned financial aid from primarily a utilitarian way to help disadvantaged students into a powerful tool to attract high-achieving students and the wealthy.

2. Crazy U., One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, Andrew Ferguson.

Ferguson is a journalist and magazine editor, but this is his story of the eighteen months from his son’s junior HS year through to leaving for college. He writes beautifully about the emotions involved (for parents and child), tells very funny stories (especially about the things parents say to each other), and digs deeply into areas you’ll probably want to know about, like college rankings, standardized testing, etc. This is what it looks like to parents today. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry. We made Mod Squad Pete read this one and it’s time for me to put it on M.S. Julie’s reading shelf.

It wasn’t until Christmas was upon us that I realized why he’d been so calm about writing his essays. He hadn’t been writing them.

“It won’t take long,” he said, after I pointed out that he hadn’t much time left. He had logic on his side, as he often did — inadvertently. It wouldn’t take him much time to get it done because there simply wasn’t much time to get it done. QED. By mid-January, when the last of the essays was sent off and all creation seemed to relax with a sudden release of held breath, a mother told me that she and her daughter had put in three solid months of work on the essays, “every day after school and weekends.”

“We did three months of work too,” I said, ” in twelve days.”

You might start here.

You might start here.

If/when you want to read more about things your son could be doing right now, you might look at Elizabeth Wissner-Gross’s two books. Her sons were both skilled and interested in a math/science track, so there’s an emphasis on STEM competitions, but there are plenty of gems in both books. I like these for cherry-picking tips related to a child’s specific interests:

What High Schools Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know), Create a Long-Term Plan for your 7th to 10th Grader for Getting into the Top Colleges

Keep in mind that grades are the currency by which opportunities are bought in today’s meritocracy. No matter how many after-school activities or advanced level courses your child has on his résumé, no most-competitive college or selective summer program will be impressed if your kid earns less-than-top grades.

What Colleges Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know), 272 Secrets for Getting Your Kid into the Top Schools

The important picture to keep in mind is that admissions officers read hundreds of applications, and sameness is detrimental.

This might be the time for a few readers of this blog to call me out as an obsessive. Accepted. Especially when I admit that these are merely the books one might read to get ready to read about the specifics of selection, application, essay-writing, and financial aid. Recommended reading for those topics still to come.

This is also probably a good time to reiterate a few beliefs I hold:

  1. What the kid brings to college in motivation, study habits, and acquisition of real-life skills will make much more of a difference than getting into a top-ranked college (especially when the rankings are based upon such ridiculous criteria as college administrators ranking each other).
  2. There is a college for every student — if college makes sense for the student. “Only 2% of institutions accept less than 25% of their applicants. Those 60 elite schools (out of 2,421) educate just 3% of the nation’s full-time undergrads who are attending four-year institutions.” That from Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s blog here.
  3. Start thinking about finances — and what your family thinks makes sense to pay for a BA or BS — now. Talk about it with your student when he or she is still building the long list of colleges, before winnowing that down to a short list.

Good luck, newbie parent, to you and your student!

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Filed under Books, High School

On Recruiting Underprivileged Students

I recently quoted Kevin Carey, writing in 2010 for The Chronicle of Higher Education. He concluded Real College-Acceptance Rates are Higher Than You Think with this:

And of course it’s always worth noting that the vast majority of college students don’t go to a selective college at all and they’re the ones we should be worrying about.

Click for larger view. Via the New York Times.

David Leonhardt’s Better Colleges Failing to Lure Talented Pure, from the front page of the March 17th New York Times, provided current data supporting Carey’s assertion that most low-income students with high test scores don’t even apply to the selective schools.

The colleges that most low-income students attend have fewer resources and lower graduation rates than selective colleges, and many students who attend a local college do not graduate. Those who do graduate can miss out on the career opportunities that top colleges offer.

The new study is beginning to receive attention among scholars and college officials because it is more comprehensive than other research on college choices. The study suggests that the problems, and the opportunities, for low-income students are larger than previously thought.

. . .

If they make it to top colleges, high-achieving, low-income students tend to thrive there, the paper found. Based on the most recent data, 89 percent of such students at selective colleges had graduated or were on pace to do so, compared with only 50 percent of top low-income students at nonselective colleges.

It’s difficult for the colleges to recruit the high-achieving, under-privileged student, many of whom would be first-generation college students.

Matthew Yglesias has written a couple of Slate Moneybox columns about this recently. First, from Smart, Poor Kids Are Applying to the Wrong Colleges:

High-income, high-achieving students generally do what you’d expect. Most of their applications are to schools where the median admissions test score is similar to what they got. But they apply to some reach schools and most to a safety school. Generally they apply to the local flagship state university campus, which is sometimes a match and sometimes a reach depending on the state.

Low-income students are very different. Fully 53 percent of them apply to zero schools whose median SAT or ACT scores are similar to their own. Many of these smart, poor kids apply only to a single unselective school. Only a very small percentage of these kids—8 percent of them, the authors estimate—act the same as high-achievement kids from prosperous families by applying to selective schools, including some reaches and safeties.

Then, from How Smart Poor Kids Get Screwed by the College Admissions Process:

The problem really does seem to quite literally be that most low-income kids and their families are not well-informed about the situation. They don’t know personally what kind of SAT or ACT scores are good enough to go to a selective college, they don’t know which selective colleges are appropriate for someone with their test scores to apply to, they don’t know the strategic logic of “safety schools” and “reaches”, they don’t know about need-blind admissions policies, and they don’t have any social acquaintances who can inform this. Isn’t this what school guidance counselors are supposed to be for? Indeed it is! But they’re seemingly not doing a very good job, nor are the recruiting arms of selective schools.

When selective colleges are fielding many more applications than they can ever accept, and when many colleges need to ensure they have a number of full-freight applicants, and when a number of colleges have had to abandon need-blind admissions, how much time or effort can or will they truly put into recruiting the high-achieving, low-income students?

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College rejection letters, how colleges boost their rankings, and funny math.


Via; outdated since Stanford charged $90 in 2012.

Only a few more days and college admission departments will send a boat load of letters (or push email “send” buttons) to reject millions of applicants.

Colleges will accept a few, too, but the real news to be trumpeted across the land in early April will be how many students they rejected.

From last year see, Ivy League colleges post record low acceptance rates, via

Your odds of getting into some of the nation’s most prestigious colleges are shrinking.

The country’s eight Ivy League institutions finished sending out their admission decisions to applicants late Thursday. And many of the elite schools — including Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth and Cornell — are reporting that they accepted record low percentages of applicants for the upcoming school year.

As colleges send out more rejections they can also reduce their selectivity rates — the percentage of applications accepted out of those received — and help boost their rankings in US News & World Report and other popular  lists.

The story that doesn’t often make the front pages in admission season, though, is what goes into the calculations of the acceptance rates. The Common App has made it much easier to apply to more colleges, as long as Mom and Dad are willing to pay the application fees (up to $90 or more, each). Just because an elite school — say, Harvard with 34,302 applicants in 2012 or UC-Berkeley with 61,702 — receives more and more applicants each year, does that mean they receive proportionately more that are qualified?

Valerie Strauss wrote in the Washington Post last year, in Some 2012 college admissions rates hit new lows:

More kids who don’t have a prayer of getting into some of these schools apply anyway, but schools still get to brag that they have a record number of applications. As a result, some admissions counselors note that the percentage of kids who have a real shot at getting into some of these schools doesn’t go up much — if at all — from year to year.

Yet the reduction in acceptance rates remains the juicier story — and the story that helps support the narrative that students (and their parents) need to do anything to get into college, no matter the cost, retention rates, graduation rates, resulting debt load, or the job outlook.

Here are a couple more perspectives on the acceptance rate math. I’m quoting a paragraph or two, but the essays aren’t that long and — if you like this sort of thing — interesting.

Kevin Carey, in Stalking the True College Acceptance Rate for The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote about the fifteen minutes it might take to screen applications into piles for Yes, No, and Maybe.

There are inevitably a lot of easy “No” decisions, because a substantial number of students treat elite college applications like a $90 lottery ticket. Such unqualified applicants don’t change the odds of qualified students being accepted. There could be 10,000 “No’s”, 100,000, it doesn’t matter. It only matters how many “Yes” and “Maybe” applicants apply (and how many legacies, athletes, Hollywood ingenues, and senator’s sons…).

. . .

From the student’s perspective, there’s no difference between applying to five elite colleges and being accepted at one and applying to 10 elite colleges and being accepted at one. You can only go to one. But the student who applies to 10 colleges drives institutional acceptance rates down, even though he or she doesn’t change the number that actually matters: the total ratio of high-quality applicants (not applications) to high-quality spots.

In another piece, from 2010, Carey cited Chad Aldeman, who suggests in The Quick and The Ed that we Switch College Admissions to a Single Lottery:

Now consider for a second that you are a high school junior and you see these rates. It’s becoming easier than ever to apply for multiple schools, so what is your rational course of action?

You’re going to apply for tons of schools, thinking that at least one will let you in. And the next year, when the acceptance rates go even lower (they’ve been falling for years), students will apply to even more schools. The chances of any one student getting into any one school will become smaller and smaller, even as the number of spaces at those schools keeps pace with demographic changes. The spaces themselves are not becoming more scarce; it’s the admissions craze that’s making them look that way.

Back to the 2010 article by Kevin Carey, for The Chronicle of Higher Education. He outlined the math in Real College-Acceptance Rates are Higher Than You Think, then put the acceptance rates into perspective with his last paragraph:

And of course it’s always worth noting that the vast majority of college students don’t go to a selective college at all and they’re the ones we should be worrying about.

More on that — in this week’s news — to come.

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Follow up: What do colleges want to see?

A couple of weeks back, I posted this Q&A:

Does a college look at what type of diploma my student earned?

The parent followed-up with more information about the question:

The reason for my questions: G and I were at the HS last week for an orientation session. She’s planning to go for the Advanced diploma, but it requires 4 maths and 4 sciences and, while she could fit them into her schedule, her interests and plans are such that she would much rather get the 3 maths and 3 sciences required by the Commonwealth of Virginia and then use those extra credits to focus on higher-level English classes (e.g. Shakespeare) and/or picking up another foreign language. At this point, I’m telling her not to worry about junior and senior years and just focus on the coming year and the transition to high school. (Oy, what an overachiever.)

Which prompted my response:QandA block

I would say your last line — not to worry about junior and senior years now — is the best advice.

There are also many opportunities outside the HS classrooms, including taking a summer course at UVa after junior year (where she could pick up another foreign language or study Shakespeare).

As further information, we met last week with our counselor about Mod Squad Julie’s senior year (and college choices) and, even though Julie has completed five maths and four sciences, she needs to take both next year because, according to our counselor, “the colleges want to see math and science still during the senior year.”

Parents of high school students talk — and speculate — a lot about what colleges want. Our guidance counselor is well informed, professional, and quite helpful. She doesn’t speculate about what she doesn’t know, she will provide as much information as she possibly can, and she will do her best to find answers to our questions. We’re very, very grateful.

I especially appreciate when she can clearly state what colleges want to see.

What’s been your experience with guidance counselors? Good, bad, indifferent? Let me know, below, in comments.

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Why are college and scholarship applications so complicated?

I wrote recently about a number of deadlines our household faced this winter. (You can read about it here.) While these were not (yet) college deadlines, they were similar to the Common Application and other admission applications in their make-up, each requiring student information, essays, transcripts, and teacher recommendations.



On deadline day for a summer lab internship, Mod Squad Julie asked why the application needed to be so complicated. I’m not sure it needed to be — but it certainly was. I’ve been thinking about that since, especially since she will be working on college applications later this year.

1.  Every application is different. The actual interface for each admission, financial aid, and scholarship application is determined by the individual colleges and other entities. The Common App provides some streamlining, but most colleges offering the Common App also require their own supplementary forms. Some are available via the Common App; some are only available via the college website. Like it or not, each interface requires its own learning curve.

2.  Deadlines and requirements are not always clear. Some colleges do this well, providing a complete timeline for applicants. On other websites, the admission deadlines are separate from the financial aid deadlines, which are also separate from the supplementary submission deadlines for arts or other specialty programs.

3.  Most applications have multiple, moving parts. M.S. Julie’s summer program application is a great example of this. A new program offered through UVa required the following:

  • Fillable pdf application form to be downloaded, completed, saved, and emailed back.
  • Teacher recommendation letter to be downloaded by the teacher, completed, saved, and emailed back.
  • UVa application for visiting HS students, part I, to be completed online via the University’s SIS.
  • UVa application for visiting HS students, part II, to be printed, completed by parents and mailed in paper form.
  • UVa application for visiting HS students, part II, to be printed, completed by HS guidance or Principal and mailed with transcript in paper form.

This combination of online form submission, pdfs to be emailed, and paper forms to be mailed makes my head spin. I understand how this happened — a new program requests information specific to it and additional to the standard summer application the University already requires. The administrators were very helpful when we contacted them with questions. I’m just saying, this was complicated.

4.  Deadlines.  Julie has fine-tuned her ability to perform triage on a multitude of school and extracurricular schedule demands. Adding essay-writing and the many steps required to build an application makes the deadline dance even more interesting. Or, complicated.

5.  High stakes raise the stress level. A high level of interest in gaining entrance — to a college or summer program — raises the stakes for providing every bit of information the application requires and writing the best responses to the essay prompts or questions.

We’ve had a lovely break since M.S. Pete wrote applications in the fall of 2011. It’s time to get back into the game and this was good practice for both Julie and me.

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