Monthly Archives: October 2013

What we talk about when we talk about college: an early decision.

“Do we talk about anything other than college these days?”

Our daughter, Mod Squad Julie, asked me that over dinner last weekend, before adding, “It’s okay, that’s about all I’m thinking about anyway.”

Alarm Clock

Is it too early?

Early in the morning, two days before that dinner, Julie and I set out on one more college visit. I cannot say that will be our last campus visit, but it is the last we will undertake before she submits her first application.

Julie wanted to revisit this campus with a number of questions in mind:

  • Could she see herself there as a student?
  • Did she feel comfortable in the neighborhoods surrounding the campus?
  • Where do first year students live?
  • How close is that to the center of campus?
  • Does she like the dorms?
  • What does the student body look like, in terms of diversity, dress, attitude?
  • How studious are they? Or, do they seem to be?
  • How does that fit with what she is looking for?
  • Was this college still her first choice?
  • Does she still love it enough to apply Early Decision?

My task was straightforward:  help her find the answers to her questions.

Our job as parents isn’t to make this decision for her.  But we want to help make sure she has asked enough questions of the school and of her own reactions to the school so that she can make an informed decision. That’s not to say we don’t have any input, but our input on the decision was provided long ago when we three–parents and daughter–discussed the characteristics of her list of colleges and what made the most sense to all of us. We’ve agreed on the short list; this is about the shortest list, a list of one.

“Do you like it? What do you think? Look what I see when I step out of the dorm!”

Campus tours weren’t offered during Julie’s initial visit due to our timing–we visited immediately before commencement weekend. We had listened to the admissions information session, Julie met with a department chair, and then a 2013 graduate showed us around another department’s facilities. There was more than enough to snare Julie’s interest. Now, five months later–a long time in the life of a teenager–was she still that interested?

This visit, we walked the neighborhood in all directions, located the first year dorms, peeked into the dining hall, sat in on a class, and took the official tour.

“I’m looking for where I could hang out on my own. If I need space, where would I go?”

Is it too early to decide?  Last year, I offered a nephew three reasons to apply early:

  1. Gain a huge sense of accomplishment by seeing one application through to the end,
  2. Get the Common App interface figured out by seeing one application through to the end, and
  3. Receive an early response.

This year’s Common App, with its numerous glitches for both students and colleges, could make the application completion feel even sweeter. But there are a few other considerations for applying early:  Do the student’s grades and accomplishments through junior year support a strong application? Is the student’s SAT or ACT testing complete? Does the student have time to complete applications by, well, right about now?

Many colleges offer either Early Action or Early Decision, not both. Early Decision adds more heft to the question, since that application requires the student, parent, and guidance counselor to commit that, if offered admission, the student will accept, and there are significant financial aid considerations. Since Julie’s college of choice only offers Early Decision, her follow-up questions boil down to:  Am I ready to commit now?

A couple of  years ago Julie loved a different college and talking of applying there Early Decision, but her interest stemmed mainly from attending a musical theatre camp there in seventh grade.

This time is different. Almost every aspect of this school offers a strong connection to her interests. While still on campus during the first visit she drafted a list of why she wanted to attend. Julie’s visit last week confirmed and strengthened her choice. The academics, the campus, advising, class sizes, location, challenge:  they are what she wants.

Now we walk a fine line together, of loving a college yet trying not to love it too much, because no matter how strong the student, how compelling the application, there are no guarantees. While she awaits the outcome, I’ll try to help her stay away from College Confidential, and I’ll try to stop myself from reminding her she’ll thrive wherever she ends up.

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

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Got Common App problems? Here’s what we’re trying.

Everyone needs help with this year's Common App.

Everyone needs help with this year’s Common App.

Not long after this year’s Common App launched — a new version for the 2013-14 application season and a completely new version of the interface, aka Common App 4 — I offered 3 quick tips for completing the Common App, including this:

Find help before you get too frustrated.

Unfortunately, the new Common App has proven itself beyond the help of its own staff, causing multiple problems for applicants and colleges alike. As the New York Times reported October 13, Online Application Woes Make Students Anxious and Put Colleges Behind Schedule:

Problems became evident as soon as the application was released in August, including some confusing wording that was later changed. Students who thought they had finished the application found that it was incomplete because questions had been added after its release. As changes were made, some who had started their applications early found themselves locked out of the system.

A function that allows students to preview applications and print them sometimes just shows blank pages — a problem that may be linked to which Web browsers they use. And, as Ms. Geiger discovered, the system often does not properly format essays that are copied and pasted from another program, like Microsoft Word.

The earliest Early Action and Early Decision deadlines of October 15 caused the entire Common App system to close down for several hours on October 14. For more on that, and examples of college reactions, see Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s Common Application Pandemonium:

You know the Common App’s malfunctioning system is in trouble, when a top administrator at Cornell University in an interview in The New York Times, publicly made this observation about the system: “It’s been a nightmare. I’ve been a supporter of the Common App, but in this case, they’ve really fallen down.” (Admission folks are usually quite circumspect when they are being quoted.)

What’s a high school senior, planning to apply early, to do?

1. Start with how it SHOULD work.  Robin Mamlet and Christine VanDeVelde have provided a Common App 4 update to their step by step guide in College Admission. Download here their twenty page supplement; it offers clear instructions on how the new Common App is supposed to work. They explain the intuitive interface (if the student indicates parents are divorced, a second contact form appears), the green check marks and red asterisks (checks indicate what has been completed; asterisks indicate what is required), the mysteries involved with Print Preview, and much more. Do not miss the to-do list on page 17.

2.  Double-check your college’s website.  Beloit is accepting paper copies. Princeton is accepting the competition, the Universal College Application. Many colleges have extended their deadlines. Do not accept my word for it, nor that of a newspaper article. Go directly to the admissions page of each college on your list and check their deadlines and any other possible changes.

3.  Learn the known problems.  Nancy Griesemer, a Virginia college counselor, has written 8 Tips for Improving the Common Application Experience. Every high school family would be well-advised to read this before trying to submit. Here are the tips,  important details can be found via the article link:

  1. Avoid traffic jams (the 24 hours immediately preceding major due dates)
  2. Conform to system requirements
  3. Don’t touch the text boxes
  4. Invite your recommenders
  5. Carefully review Print Preview
  6. Do not pay twice
  7. Sign your application
  8. Don’t forget the Writing Supplement

Nothing has been submitted from our household yet. While I would have preferred that Mod Squad Julie was done with early applications, I cannot argue with taking time to make sure all the details are included and all the essays are fine-tuned. She also needs to read this post before we hand over the credit card. Good luck to all of the seniors (and their parents)!

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Straight talk from a UVa admissions officer: everything’s important.

English: The Rotunda, the central historic str...

The Rotunda, the central historic structure on the campus of The University of Virginia (Photo: Wikipedia)

A couple of weeks ago our high school offered a college planning night. One of the most popular sessions featured an admissions officer from the University of Virginia. We live near UVa and a lot of families are interested in the school.*

Ms. Admissions introduced herself as a neighbor; her children live in our district and will attend our high school. She also identifies more with the parent now than with the student when reading applications. That sympathetic stance–she’s one of us–helped shape her explanations of UVa’s perspective into something that sounded gentler than it will be for thousands of students. In 2012-2013 28,984 students applied, and 8,691 received offers of admission.

From my notes:

Selective admissions. The process is not about determining who is qualified and who is not, and letting in the qualified. That’s not the way it works. Selective admissions means we have more qualified applicants than we can admit. Who amongst the qualified applicants will we let into our university.

Every app is read by at least two; if I pulled up records from this high school last year, some of them will have been read by eight reviewers.

We look at the record. Where are you from? Did your parents go to college? Then I look at the transcript:  it is and always will be the most important part of the application.

When we look at the transcript, it will be with the school profile pulled up next to it, general info about the school. I look at what courses are available to the student. It’s not just about the grades, it’s about the rigor. It’s about the student taking what we consider the most rigorous courses.

Junior year is a very important year. If there’s a year to push that is it. It’s the last year for which I will see the full transcript for the year before the decision. The courses and grades matter probably more than any other year.

When I look at the transcript, I am looking for a trend. By junior year we want to see you hitting your stride. We’re going to take a close look at your courses and your grades. We want students at UVa who will really embrace the rigor of the academic opportunities.

One errant grade, we can overlook. If it becomes consistent, that will be a bit more of a problem.

We want to see a continued trend in academic work. We don’t want to see you step back from rigor.

On class rank, we consider whatever the school provides. We evaluate what we are given and the student is not penalized for what the school provides. We’re seeing less and less class rank nationally, a real trend. At strong high performing schools, the rank can be misleading. A student can be getting all As on top classes, and be ranked 125th class rank.

Grades and program are the most important thing. Transcript is king.

Qualitative measures are also important: Very rarely do people ask what type of student are we looking for. Character, integrity, honor, passionate, intellectuals, interested in community service, friendly, funny. Personal qualities matter.

Letters of recommendation give me a sense of the qualitative aspects. Teacher recs are a very underrated part of the process. Who taught the class where you showed the most growth, depth of thought, contributed the most, helped other students who were struggling?

Extra-curriculars are important in the same way. I’m looking for impact and contribution. If it’s not evident what you contributed, tell us. Write a phrase about what you did:  Coordinated, contributed, initiated — that’s what matters. It’s not about the laundry list of activities in which you’ve been moderately involved. It’s about the activities in which you were really involved, in which you made a difference.

The essay is also a really important aspect. Probably a little more so at UVa. We all read the essay. This is the chance for the student to have a captive audience with your admissions counselor. It’s one of my favorite aspects.

We will also look at test scores. The test is important, but never as important as the transcript. What you do every day in school is always more important than one test one morning, but the scores will be noticed.

Well, then. What isn’t important to a selective school?

Our household is in the midst of application season, with essays in flux, test scores being submitted, and early applications in the works. So what if it’s also homecoming week. Hope all is going smoothly for the seniors (and their families) out there! And for the juniors:  remember, yours is a very important year.

* I write about UVa a lot because of the proximity; UVa Dean J, through Twitter and Notes from Peabody, provides great information on the admission schedules and processes; and our oldest child, Mod Squad Pete, is a second year student there.

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