Tag Archives: Higher education

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.

Chill

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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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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Q&A: Our daughter’s a freshman. Should we be concerned about her grades?

A friend and parent of a high school freshman just asked:QandA block

Q.  You know our daughter; she’s very interested in athletics, and not so much in academics. She does okay, but I’m wondering:  should we be concerned about her grades this year?

A.  Ahhh. That’s a question each family has to answer for itself, since the level of concern that one might have (I won’t take on “should”) depends upon so many factors, such as:

  • How much time does she spend on schoolwork compared to her peers?
  • How stressed does she get now about her schoolwork?
  • How do her grades compare to what you think she’s capable of achieving?
  • What sort of colleges do you hope she could attend?

Then you might consider this, which seems obvious now, but we still had to learn by going through it with our first child:

While we talk about the elements of the student’s high school record–course selections, grade point average (GPA), and extracurriculars–that go into a college application, the application process is timed so we’re really talking about a high school record of the first three years.

"The Freshman"

“The Freshman”

Most seniors submit their applications anywhere from mid-October for an early admission application to the end of December for a regular admission application. The transcript will, in most cases, indicate course selections and a GPA through the end of junior year. The student’s extracurriculars could include the first part of senior year, but any opportunity to demonstrate strong areas of interest and leadership would require taking action in earlier years.

Guidance counselors will try to help students understand the importance of their grades and increased rigor in course selections from year to year.

It can be hard, though, for a freshman or sophomore to take this as seriously as the parents might (or as the parents might want her to).

I wrote recently about a UVa admissions counselor visiting our high school. (See Straight talk from a UVa admissions counselor:  everything’s important.) After that session, one of the attending parents complained at length to the guidance counselors that they didn’t require all students to come listen to the admissions counselor. The counselors responded that none of the information was different from that they shared with students when planning course selections every year. The parent insisted that students would pay more attention to the UVa representative than they would to the high school counselors and, certainly, to their own parents.

That may well be. I have no idea what works in other households; I barely know what works with our own teens. When we were trying to get their attention–talking about courses, grades, or extracurriculars–we tended to (and still do) talk about doing the best they could to keep as many options available to them as possible, whether that’s access to college or an internship or a job.

Good luck!

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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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The debates on AP courses. Yes, No, Maybe, and How Many?

Every year the Higher Ed newsfeed fills with debates about AP courses, and this year is no different.

AP US History, decade notes.

AP US History, decade notes.

It’s up to each family to understand the issues involved and figure out the appropriate number for each student to take (if any). For background:

  • Last year the College Board administered more than 3.2 million AP exams. See College Board’s Who We Serve. This year the AP exam costs $89 per. (College Board is a non-profit organization, but more than half of their revenue comes from AP exam fees.) Factor that exam cost against the cost of taking a three or four credit hour course at a college.
  • Thanks to APs, many students now begin their first year of college with a semester or two of credits already earned. Yet, some colleges require a major to be declared when a certain number of credits have been achieved, sometimes leading to a first year student needing to declare prior to his or her second year.

Much of the recent debate includes discussion of a recent report from the Stanford University Education Grad School program, Challenge Success. Start with that fifteen page report, The Advanced Placement Program: Living Up To Its Promise? The authors set up a few claims and tackle a lot of issues as they pull them apart. Don’t miss the recommendations for students on page ten.

Here’s the thing: every student will have reasons to take — or not take — APs. Do not take them because everyone else is.

  • Do take them if your are interested in the subject and willing and able to put in the extra time and effort.
  • Do not compete to take the most APs of everyone you know.
  • Do focus on learning how to take an AP. Many high schools use the AP Euro class, typically taken by sophomores, as an intro to taking APs, spending time on the prccess as well as the content.
  • Consider starting slow and building through high school. Starting with one sophomore year, two junior, and three senior year shows increased effort and rigor and makes a lot more sense for most students than jumping in with two or three sophomore year.
ChallengeSuccess.org

ChallengeSuccess.org

More to read on APs:

Two perspectives from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

NO:  Stop Letting High-School Courses Count for College Credit, by Michael Mendillo.

The end result is that in many introductory college courses, the top students are simply not in the classrooms. For them, faculty-student interactions are not possible and the overall value of a university education is diminished. All of these aspects of educational disservice are due to the existence of the AP system.

The solution is simple: All the things a student accomplishes in high school—grades, extracurricular activities, sports, volunteering—are application credentials for college. There should be no carry-over of high-school accomplishments into the collegiate transcript.

YES:  Give AP credit where credit is due, by Mark Bauerlein.

We may ask, though, about the impact of refusing to give AP credit upon enrollments and test scores in high-school AP courses­—or other advanced offerings­. What’s the incentive for 16-year-olds to take a course with a stiffer workload, competitive fellow students, and the chance of a lower grade?

College credit means savings in time and money once they matriculate. Take it away, and students may wonder about the advantages. Yes, AP courses accustom them to college-level labor, and admissions offices favor AP as a sign that an applicant seeks a school’s best resources (this is Dartmouth’s policy). But those are somewhat fuzzy promises to a high-school junior.

NO:  AP classes are a scam, by John Tierney, writing in The Atlantic.

Many critics lay the blame on the College Board itself, a huge “non-profit” organization that operates like a big business. The College Board earns over half of all its revenues from its Advanced Placement program — more than all its other revenue streams (SATs, SAT subject tests, PSATs) combined. The College Board’s profits for 2009, the most recent year for which records were available, were 8.6 percent of revenue, which would be respectable even for a for-profit corporation. “When a non-profit company is earning those profits, something is wrong,” says Americans for Educational Testing Reform. (The AETR’s “report card” on the College Board awards a grade of D and cites numerous “areas of misconduct” by the College Board.)

Finally, here’s one high school teacher’s response to the Stanford report.

YES:  The Oft Understated Truth of AP Coursework, by John Blase, on his blog, Striving for Better.

Having taught an AP course for several years in the classroom (AP English Language & Composition, to be exact) I find that most of the arguments in this article and others purporting to say that AP coursework isn’t worth its weight miss one key important piece: Many students who are enrolled in AP courses are bored out of their skulls in regular classes.

. . .

As department lead, I made many observations of the teachers and students in their English coursework.  Every spring, I would ask the seniors in AP English Literature and Composition (the senior level AP English course at our school) one question:

“Now that you have taken the test, what could we, as an English department, have done better from day one of your freshman year to better prepare you for this course?”

The answers always came back the same: more of the stuff that made AP English what it is.  These students weren’t concerned with the college credit or the scores on the AP test.  They were concerned with not being bored out of their minds in their other classes.

Finding the delicate balance between enough challenge and too much, providing an overload of stress, is where an excellent guidance counselor or independent college counselor can truly help families. And the mix of courses, including how many APs, to reach that balance will be different for every student.

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Sending emails to strangers. At colleges. Asking for appointments.

Here’s one more reason why the college admissions process is so complicated for high school students:  at some point, after years of only emailing friends, family, and familiar teachers, your parents may insist that you sit down right now and send an email to strangers.

Right now, because this has likely been discussed a number of times over the past few weeks.

Mod Squad Mia, glad she doesn't have to write emails.

Mod Squad Mia, glad she doesn’t have to write emails.

Right now, because you need to request an appointment with someone in the department of interest while you’re visiting the college.

Right now, because the college visit is next week.

Yes, I know it would have been better if you had written last week, but it will be better if you write tonight instead of putting it off any longer.

No, you don’t know the specific person to ask — you need to look up the department and make your best guess.

Yes, it may be a different title in each department.

Yes, you may send a similar email to any number of people, but each needs to be sent to an individual, not to a group list.

Yes, it may happen that you don’t end up with any meetings.

Yes, you may end up meeting with someone in a department that ends up not being of interest to you.

Yes, you do need to write a few good things about yourself and what sort of student you are.

Yes, I do think you can figure out a way to say those good things without sounding like a braggart.

No, we will not write these for you, but we will read your drafts.

Yes, you can copy these and edit them to use again.

Yes, you do need also to write the Dean of Admissions who has sent you multiple emails, even though she has sent those emails to thousands of students. You can let her know you will be visiting and ask her advice about how best to spend your time while on campus.

Yes, you will have to do this again.

Yes, it gets easier with every email you write.

Just like this college thing gets a bit easier the second time around.

Why are college and scholarship applications so complicated?

 

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