Tag Archives: Mod Squad Pete

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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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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How close to home is too close?

How close is too close when it comes to choosing a college–for students and parents?

My husband drove our son, Mod Squad Pete—a second-year UVa student—back to college Sunday evening after Thanksgiving. The drive takes between ten and fifteen minutes, depending upon traffic. Meanwhile a Midwestern nephew drove a couple of hours back to his college in St. Louis, and our niece flew back to her college in Los Angeles from her home near Boston.

Screenshot of The Chronicle of Higher Education graph. Follow the link for the interactive graph.

Screenshot from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Follow the article link for an interactive graph.

Distance was just one of many factors involved in their college choices. Our nephew looked at a number of pre-engineering programs and selected a college that offered him a chance to play baseball, a President’s scholarship, and proximity for easy home visits. Our niece only applied to film schools—she’s majoring in production—and all but one were in California, prime location for access to the movie and television industry. At 3,000 miles from home, she’s one of the consistent twelve to fifteen percent of students who travel more than 500 miles for college. (See the graph accompanying Libby Sander’s Ties to Home in The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

When Pete was in high school, we spent a couple of years expecting him to go to college 700 miles away. As it turned out, he chose a college seven miles away. Many students in our area either dream of attending UVa or want to avoid attending a college so close to home. Our son was in the latter group, yet changed his mind over the span of his senior year. Pete now will attest to what local UVa students had said to him:  there’s an entirely different and new world to explore on grounds, and it feels much further away from home than it is.

Making it work. When considering being that close to home, much depends upon the student-parent relationship (like most everything related to college).

Some parents have a hard time letting go. As Bella English wrote recently for the Boston Globe, in ‘Snowplow parents’ overly involved in college students’ lives,

In one extreme case of parental over-involvement, a college senior in December 2012 won a protective order against her parents for stalking and harassing her. Aubrey Ireland, 21, told a Cincinnati judge that her parents often drove 600 miles from their Kansas home to the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, unannounced, to meet with college officials, and falsely accused her of promiscuity, drug use, and mental problems.

Other parents–most I suspect–have raised their children with an eye toward both the increased freedom and responsibilities the students gain when leaving home.

Jennifer Conlin captured a sense of appropriate limits, writing for The New York Times, in When college is close to home, what are the boundaries?

“It was hard at first because I wanted Laura to immerse herself completely on campus, but I also wanted her to come home for family birthdays,” Ms. Wirth-Johnson said.
Leslie Gardner, who lives in Brooklyn and whose daughter, Rebecca Glanzer, is a sophomore at Columbia University, echoed the same sentiment.
“I worried that it would be too easy for me to access her,” she said. “But I also worried that she might access me too much.”
Both mothers said they waited patiently the first few weeks of college for their daughters to reach out to them.

Up to each family. Navigating a comfortable path for visits and phone calls is up to each family to figure out. We said something like this to Pete:  We won’t show up without calling first. We won’t bug you to come home often, but we’ll let you know what’s going on here, and we will want to hear what’s going on in your life.

We’ve enjoyed the benefits of his being nearby. We get to attend performances by his student jazz ensemble. We’ve had opportunities to meet and host his friends. Pete dropped by unexpectedly on a fall Sunday; he had to drive past our house on the way to set up an event at a local vineyard. Naturally, we don’t care if he shows up without calling first.

We don’t know where our daughter, M.S. Julie, will be next year. Near or far, we want her to establish independence and then share her stories with us as we watch her grow. We won’t hover, or smooth the path for our college students; we’ll just be right here when they need us.

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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3 Quick Tips for Completing the Common App (including this most important one: take it slowly).

Oct. 20 UPDATE:  The 2013-14 Common App has proven to be buggy and unpredictable. See Got Common App problems? Here’s what we’re trying.

Spring training is over. On August 1st, opening day for the 2013 application season, the new Common App went live.

Opening Day, Fenway Park

Opening Day at our favorite baseball park.

I agree with the independent college counselors who advise early submission: “Apply well before the deadline when everyone is still fresh, eager, and focused.”

However, there’s no need to rush (yet) and many arguments against it. Here’s what UVa’s admission blogger (aka UVaDeanJ), wrote last year when the App went live:

It’s too early to submit an application.
Every year, there’s some eager student who submits their application soon after the Common App launch. While I think it’s fine to poke around the Common App website and fill out the forms, I don’t think you should submit anything right now.
Fill out the forms. If you’re one of those students who worked on essays over the summer, that’s great. Put those essays away for a few weeks and look at them with fresh eyes just a little bit closer to the deadline. You may find that a little distance will help with the editing process.

The promised tips:

1.  Do your homework before you begin.

Update and complete your resume first. Take some time to update and organize your scholastic, extracurricular, and work details into a document on your own computer. You can work in a format that’s familiar to you (Word, Google doc or Pages), help ensure you don’t forget aspects you’d like to include, and build a worksheet of data for the Common App interface. Plus, you may want to upload the resume as part of the application. [N.B. You can only attach a resume if a specific school asks for it.]

2.  Start now and take your time.

Create an account, complete some easy stuff in the Profile section (personal information, address, contact details, etc.), sign out, and walk away. There. You’ve begun. Later today or tomorrow tackle a few more sections. Moving around between different sections will make the interface more familiar–and somewhat easier–each time you work on the app. [N.B. While I prefer printing out the blank form and working through a draft on paper, you can’t do that with the Common App; you can only print a pdf preview of the completed app right before submission.]

3.  Find help before you get too frustrated.

The far right column shows help topics related to each section you have open. Bookmark the Application Help Center; its “Knowledgebase” section provides an index of topics, including what the green check marks mean:

Common App help

Who knew?

If you use Twitter, follow @CommonApp. Like the Common App Facebook page. The application process offers endless opportunities for confusion and frustration, most of which are amplified the closer we get to deadlines. The Common App tries to help by providing these resources. Explore them.

Now, just a minute:  Before anyone thinks we’ve totally got it figured out here at StrangeCollege command center (aka my desk), let me clear up that confusion as well. Yesterday I urged Mod Squad Julie to create a Common App account (not yet done), print out a blank form (can’t be done), update her resume (in the works), enter some basic profile info (not yet done), and save the app for future updates (cannot be done; the interface automatically saves if you use it correctly).

Clearly, there is work to be done. Yet it’s hard for me to tease Julie about it, since she’s a mile or so ahead of where M.S. Pete was at this stage of the game two years ago. As he put it the other day, “I’m retroactively jealous of how far along you already are.”

Good luck working your way through the App!

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No more “Topic of Choice” in Common App essay prompts

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

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

The Common App Board updated their essay questions for the 2013 application season and–in the most significant change–removed the wild card, “topic of your choice.”

Your choice must be one of the following:

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family?

The other significant change for this year’s applicants: essays must be within 250 to 650 words. No less, no more. For any newbies, previous prompts suggested a length of 500 words, but since the process involved uploading Word documents, the application accepted any length. Application readers may have been perturbed by over-long essays, but that’s another matter.

The announcement from the Common App folks suggests that this year, rather than uploading a document, an applicant will paste the essay text into a word-count-restricting interface.

When writing about deadlines recently, I corresponded with a number of independent college counselors. Almost all of them strongly recommended that seniors complete their essays before school starts.

That gives Mod Squad Julie and her classmates about four more weeks.

Last I checked, Julie had drafts in-progress for most of the supplementary essays, but not for the main Common App prompt. She wasn’t wild about any of the options, so she checked to see which one M.S. Pete chose a couple of years ago… Of course:  topic of your choice.

Essay-writing resources up next. Which prompt would you choose?

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This just in: summer vacation!

Yesterday was the final day of school for the local school district, but the summer break launched in stages for our household.

Mod Squad Pete’s first year of college ended May 10th. He came home for a night, then headed off to South Carolina for Beach Week with friends from school.

South Carolina

South Carolina

M.S. Linc graduated from middle school at the end of May. Four days later he traveled solo to visit family in the Midwest.

The farm

The farm

M.S. Julie completed her junior year on June 6th and left for the North Carolina beaches the following day.

North Carolina

North Carolina

All that to say:  happy summer! Turn up the volume! (We’ll deal with reading requirements, internships, camps, and application essays soon enough. Next week, right, Julie?)

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