Monthly Archives: September 2013

Essays, smack-talking siblings and a big college deadline

We are parents of a high school senior and we are in the midst of college application season.

Our oldest child worked his way through applications two years ago, acquainting us with the rhythms of deadlines and the components of transcripts, tests, essays, and recommendations.

Yet, even within one household, each student’s specific experience—in college prep coursework, activities, and his or her approach to the application itself—makes this process as singular as the student.

My husband describes the application process as complex project management. The student bears the responsibility for the content of the application; we can teach project management and help make sure not a single element of the project gets missed.

Our current senior, Mod Squad Julie, is already a skilled project manager who needs little more from us than an occasional schedule check. I may be able to help with some details, but Julie has an extraordinarily good handle on reality, what she wants to do, and what it takes to get there. Near the top of her task list now:  completing drafts of essays.

Seeing the student for who she is. Here’s where we think we can help Julie—and it’s not writing essays for her. There are two points to college essays:

  1. To see if the student can actually write at the level required by the college; and
  2. To help the college gain the best understanding they can of what each student is like.

Admissions officers will see so many similar numbers—on GPAs, SATs, SAT subject tests, APs. Well-crafted recommendations, extracurriculars, and interviews can help provide a more complete perspective of the student. Essays, though, are the student’s primary opportunity to include his or her own voice in the application package, and that “voice”—which can encompass writing style, turns of phrase, vocabulary, and philosophy, as well as choice of topic—can (and should) be as unique as the student.

Those essays can be tough to write well. Besides trying to show who they are without telling, many high school seniors mature rapidly through the year and are still trying to figure out who they are for themselves. It’s also tough on parents:  we want the best chances for our children, so there’s a strong temptation to push to make sure the essays put them in the best possible light. Yet putting every student in the best possible light defeats the purpose.

We are trying to help Julie see the young woman we see. We’re not about to tell her what to write, but we can describe to her the seventeen-year-old we know. We can remind her of how the present Julie connects to who she has been all of her life. Sometimes these conversations strike a chord; it’s very cool when her eyes light up as she thinks of a way she could write about herself that is true, genuine, and important to her self-identity. Even when our long-ranging talks don’t lead to inspiration for an essay, they provide us with something we absolutely cherish:  time with our daughter.

Missing the girl already. Here’s the biggest thing about having gone through this before. During our son’s senior year we anticipated his leaving with a parental mixture of trepidation (for us) and joy (for him). His excitement helped overcome our dismay… until he left and we missed him dreadfully. It doesn’t matter much that he lives seven miles away and we can see him often. We miss the impromptu piano recitals, the booming music heard through the walls when the car pulls into the garage, the gallons of milk that disappear, and the crazy smack-talk among three teen siblings.

College move in day

August 2012, helping the first one move to college.

We know now in a way we didn’t before—it’s seared into our hearts—that Julie will leave. We won’t have her presence in our daily lives: Julie’s insistence on “real meals” and a wide variety of fresh fruits, her sprawled out books and notes in at least four rooms of the house, her dry humor catching us unawares, girlfriend-movie-nights, basketball games, quick flashes of an almost-grown young woman. She will keep in touch, but she won’t be here.

Our relative composure about how Julie handles deadlines disappears when we think about the one with the biggest impact: eleven months from now she’ll go to college.

We accept that it’s our job to help her leave. We just will not pretend to like it.

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

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Fluffy Credits, or how do I get my kid into the top 10 percent?

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

Q.  I have a question for you regarding high school academics and the college search. We were having dinner with friends last night (one kid @ McGill, one on his way to Johns Hopkins, and one in high school) and mentioned that G. is taking health and PE this summer in order to get them out of the way. They told us that some uber-reaching students will actually hold off on taking health until senior year because they’re trying to game the system a bit and make sure that they don’t have any “fluffy credits” on their transcripts when they’re applying to colleges.

Have you heard of this and what do you think about it?

A.  Heh. Fluffy credits. What a great term.QandA block

I’m a bit agog at the thought of seniors taking 9th grade health, but I’m sure it happens. This is all to do with weighted course credits, as in when Honors and AP courses earn five points for an A on a four point scale.

A student earning straight As through high school, and taking a larger number of  non-weighted classes, such as arts electives, PE, band, etc., can end up with a lower weighted GPA than a student who maxed-out the weighted classes. That straight-A student will have earned an unweighted 4.0 GPA, but here’s the reason those uber-reaching students are putting off [non-weighted] health until senior year:  class rank is based upon the weighted GPA.

First, though, more about the GPAs. You’ve likely seen  @UVADeanJ’s tweets during reading season–she and her colleagues across the country run into true weirdness, like an applicant with a 12.31 GPA.

@UVADeanJ tweet@UVADeanJ tweetThis is why the school profile is so important for the colleges–they get the context of the GPA  and how each school weights grades (or not) from the profile. I’ve been told by a reliable source that UVa recalculates all of the GPAs for its applicants, to build comparables (and that a local high school math teacher has the part-time job to help with this).

August 28, 2013 Letter to the Editor, Charlottesville Daily Progress

“Albemarle shouldn’t rank students,” August 28, 2013, Charlottesville Daily Progress. Click to enlarge.

Whether that’s true or not, many colleges look for where that student’s GPA stands in comparison to his or her peers:  the class rank.

Why the class rank matters. A top class rank is crucial for those uber-reaching students you mentioned, the ones trying to get into very selective schools. At UVA, for example, 93 percent of the incoming class was in the top 10 percent of their high school class, and 98 percent were in the top 25 percent (or quartile).

See Frederick Smyth’s recent letter to the editor encouraging Albemarle schools to stop reporting class ranks because of the import colleges place on this arbitrary cut-off.

“Rankings are crude attempts to simplify complex academic records and often create impressions of meaningful differences between students when none exist.”

. . .

“Being in the top 10 percent is no guarantee of admission… but a lesser label, such as being in the second-highest 10 percent, nearly guarantees rejection.”

Most high schools don’t publicize a class rank of graduating seniors, as in listing the students in order by GPA. Instead, they determine where the GPA cut-off is for the top 10 percent (or decile), the top quarter (or quartile), the top half, etc. Which of those categories the student meets does get reported to colleges, at least in our school system.

Here’s what our counselor told us during Mod Squad Pete’s junior year:  you cannot tell ahead of time where the top 10 percent GPA cutoff will be for any given class, because that will be computed only at the very end of the senior year.

What she could tell us was where the top decile and quartile cutoffs were for the previous year’s class and, if Pete had been part of that class, where his GPA would have positioned him. (This also provided some much-needed incentive to maintain his senior year grades.)

Here, from our high school’s website,  are screenshots from the school’s profile, from three different years. A weighted 4.50 GPA sounds really good, but in 2010 a student with that GPA would not have made the top decile. In 2008 a weighted GPA of 4.010 made the top quartile, but not in the other two example years.

Class Rank based on weighted GPA

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 9.37.15 PM Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 9.38.23 PM

That’s a long-winded explanation of fluffy credits and why some students put them off until senior year. I’ll get to what I think of all this next time around. Thanks for the great question!

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