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« February 2012 | Main | April 2012 »

March 31, 2012

Just stop it already

Please don’t email me to break the news that Harvard just had the lowest acceptance rate in its history at 5.95%, or that Yale dropped to 6.8% and put 1001 onto its wait list, or that Cornell got 37,800 applicants, took 16.2%, and put 3,000 on the waitlist.

1. I'm aware.
2. Who really cares?

The press runs this story every year.  "Competitive schools got even more competitive."  Somehow, it’s treated as breaking news.  If I charged people to come to a seminar and then spent the entire time teaching them that it’s hard to get into prestigious colleges, they’d ask for their money back.  But like clockwork, here come the annual stories again.   

Here's a story worth talking about.  There are only 40 colleges in the country that admit fewer than 20% of their applicants.  There are 1600 colleges that admit more than half.  We all get to make a choice.  We can talk about all the bad news and focus on the fact that when Harvard takes 6 out of every 100, your chances of getting in are close to zero. 

Or we can talk about how many great colleges there are out there that will gladly take you just as you are and give you a transformative four-year experience.

I know which story I’d rather read.

March 30, 2012

Are college admissions random?

After helping more than 3,000 kids get accepted to college, our counselors are pretty good at predicting where our students will and won’t be admitted.  That skill helps us guide families to make balanced college lists where kids can take some educated, focused shots at a few reach schools, yet still have plenty of colleges that are both good fits and good odds of admission. 

But every season, a handful of admissions decisions arrive that just make us ask, what the hell happened?

Sometimes it’s a good surprise, a student who takes a wild swing at a college that was a huge reach and ends up accepted, even though the school denied lots of seemingly more qualified students.  And sometimes a top student, one who seems to have done everything right, gets a rejection from one school that admitted a lot of seemingly less qualified applicants.  That’s a frustrating surprise, especially when it’s a school the student really wanted to attend.    

The admissions surprises get a disproportionate amount of attention and discussion during the college admissions process.  Students and parents are a lot more likely to talk about the “B” student who got into Northwestern than they are the valedictorian’s predictable admission to Michigan State.  Focusing on the surprises makes college admissions seem unpredictable, almost random.

After watching so many kids go through this, I still think the majority of colleges’ decisions are fair and consistent.  The more admissions officers I’ve met and had the chance to work with at Collegewise, the more faith I have that applicants are evaluated by smart, compassionate people.  At the most competitive schools, they’ve got to turn away a lot of kids who were qualified, but they do their best to be fair and deliberate.  It’s not a perfect system and there will always be surprises.  But those surprises are the exception.

If you get a good admissions surprise, be thankful and don’t second guess yourself.  Nobody just slips in—you presented something that made the admissions committee vote to admit.  And if you get the bad surprise, just remember that what feels like a terrible injustice today won’t matter at all in six months when you’re loving your life at a college someplace else.  I know it might feel like that’s never going to happen, but you’d have a hard time finding any freshman in a dorm still lamenting a rejection from a college.   You’ll move on, too.

March 29, 2012

The financial downside to part-time jobs in high school

There are a lot of good reasons for a student to get a part-time job in high school—extra money, experience on your resume, and something to impress colleges, to name a few. But there is one potential downside you should be aware of as you start your college planning.  Half of your after-tax income over $3,000 a year will be deducted from your financial aid eligibility.

Let’s say an ambitious kid puts in a lot of hours working a part-time job at an ice cream shop.  If she earns $5,000 after taxes (that’s not unreachable, even at minimum wage), she and her family will lose $1000 in financial aid eligibility. The colleges will also take 35% of any money she managed to save before she earned that $5,000.  So the financial aid formula penalizes the student who works and earns in high school, and can be kinder to the kid who’s never made a dime. 

Still, I think it’s worth it to have the job.  In addition to the benefits I’ve written about before here, every dollar a student has to put towards college is a dollar your family doesn’t have to rely on financial aid to get.  The formula may be kind to kids (and families, for that matter) that never bothered to save their money, but remember that not all financial aid is free money.  A lot of aid comes in the form of loans, most of which are taken out in the student’s name, that need to be paid back.    

A smart approach would be for students to start learning the value of saving.  If you get a part-time job, put part of your weekly paycheck into your savings account.  If your family doesn’t need you to help with college costs, consider yourself lucky.  You can use (or keep) the savings for yourself.   Otherwise, use the money to help pay for college, and be proud of the fact that you’re doing your part to help with college costs.

March 28, 2012

Should you visit during an “admit day”?

Many colleges will hold “admit days” in April when applicants who’ve been accepted can visit the school.  Students (and often parents) can spend the day attending information sessions, touring dorms, hearing student panels, and interacting with current students.  It’s the college version of an open house where the host puts their most impressive foot forward to wow visitors. 

A Collegewise parent asked us a savvy question today.  Isn’t visiting a college on an admit day like visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras?  Wouldn’t a student get a more realistic sense of the college by visiting on just a regular weekday?  Her point is a good one. 

I do like the admit days because they make it easy for visitors.  You get to tour dorms and facilities, hear from faculty, and even interact with students more so than you’d ever be able to do on a regular visit.  I also like the celebratory feel to it (many of the admit day announcements I looked up before writing this actually used the word “celebration”).  They’re festive affairs.  The pressure is off because the kids have been accepted.  So students can just have some fun and finally enjoy being courted by a college that wants them.    

But if you’d rather get a more realistic sense of everyday life at a college, especially if you’re not the kind of student who needs to tour all the dorms or talk to academic advisors in order to pick your school, you might pass on the admit day.  Pick a regular day to visit, like a food critic who shows up to a restaurant without announcing her intentions. 

Either way, make sure you relish this.  You’re finally in.  Now you’re the one holding all the cards.  That’s a pretty great position to be in no matter when you tour a college.  

March 27, 2012

Five ways counselors can use Google alerts

Google alerts are emails you sign up to receive whenever any word or phrase you select appears on websites or in the news.  Here are five ways counselors can use them.   

1. If you work with student athletes, create alerts for their names.  When they have a good game and get written up in the local paper, you’ll know.

2. If you have a lot of students applying to particular colleges, create an alert for the college’s name followed by “office of admissions.”  You’ll be notified when they release stories about application numbers, wait lists, acceptance rates, etc. 

3. Create an alert for any presenter, author, or quoted source that you find useful or inspiring.  Then you’ll know when they are quoted in the press, when and where they’re speaking, and if they release a new book.

4. If you’re following any current event or legislation specific to your job, enter the term.  For example, we’re keeping an eye on the availability of Cal Grants out here in California and how they’ll be impacted by the budget cuts.  For us, that’s a good term for an alert.  

5. Want to know when your alma mater makes the news?  Create an alert.  Show your students how far college pride extends.

March 26, 2012

Where to get straight answers to your college questions

Here’s a fast way to get straight answers from your chosen colleges to questions like:

  1. What classes do you recommend I take in high school?
  2. How competitive is admissions (how many applicants apply, and how many actually get in)?
  3. What’s the average GPA of admits?
  4. What are the average SAT/ACT scores of admits?
  5. How much does each factor—grades, test scores, activities, etc.—count during admissions?

Type the college name into Google followed by the term “Common Data Set.”

The Common Data Set is a standardized questionnaire to which many colleges have posted responses.  I tried this with Boston University, Whitman College, University of Arizona, Colorado College and Haverford College—and found the responses for all five within the first 4-5 Google search results.

March 25, 2012

Two questions to ask college tour guides

Most college tour guides are students hired to give visitors a scripted presentation about the school.  I’ve never met a high school student who cared how many volumes were housed inside a college library or what year the oldest building on a campus was built, but still, good guide or bad guide, those are the kinds of factoids you get on the tour. 

You might have better luck getting a little honest feedback from your guide with these two questions.

1. What’s surprised you about this school?

This is code for, “What’s something you’re not telling us, something we can’t learn from the website or the college guidebook?”  Don’t let the tour guide get away with an answer like, “I was surprised how easy it was to get involved.”  Really?  You just told us there were 180 clubs and organizations.  You were surprised it was easy to join one?  You’re looking for the guide to get a little personal and hopefully share something that’s not obvious, like, “I’m an engineering major and I was surprised I don’t have to study as much as I thought I would.”

2. What’s something students here complain about but find a way to deal with?

No college is perfect.  There’s always something that’s a common source of student complaints, and it’s almost always something people deal with and find a way to love their college anyway.  That’s why the “…but find a way to deal with” is important—it lets the guides off the hook.  They can be honest about the common complaint, but also acknowledge that this imperfection isn’t a deal breaker.  They can tell you, “A lot of students go home on the weekends, but those of us who stay are never bored here.”       

Your results may vary, but it might be worth a try.

March 24, 2012

How do colleges encourage you to spend your summer?


While unusual activities may add a great deal to a student’s experience and have a profound effect on their world view, for some it just comes across as decorative, not substantive...I confess I often wonder why some students who live in areas that have many social service needs unaddressed will ignore the local situation but move to another country to perform a similar social service. Is it really a service trip or is it a summer vacation built for college admission purposes? It may be both and that’s not a penalty point, but it isn’t a bonus consideration either. Is the student whose family connections provided an internship at a high-profile organization more worthy than a student who delivered pizza or tended to family farm commitments? The rest of the application will give us the answer."  

Bruce Poch
Former dean of admissions at Pomona College
From The Choice blog

March 23, 2012

Ban parents from final college visits?

Jay Mathews started an interesting discussion on his blog this week—should parents stay home while their seniors visit the colleges that accepted them?   As Jay describes:


“I know we are paying the bill, but aren’t they likely to do best at a school that appeals to their tastes rather than ours? Shouldn’t they be allowed to soak up the ambiance by themselves, without us butting into conversations and offering, without invitation, our own reflections on each school?”

I’m all for parents resisting the urge to take over the college process for their kids.  But here’s a suggested middle ground. 

Students, invite your parents to visit your colleges with you.  Where you spend the next four years should be your decision, but picking the school is the fun part.  Let your parents enjoy it with you.  It won’t be long before you’re out of the house (and into a dorm) and you’ve got the rest of your life to live out from under their watch.  And if your parents are paying the bill, they really do deserve to at least see what they’re paying for and even give their opinion about it.

And parents, while you’re making these final visits, take a back seat.  Let your kids ask the questions, decide what to see, and maybe even branch off without you for a bit.  Don’t expect them to make pro and con lists or to arrive at their decision exactly as you would.   Just have some fun and enjoy seeing them excited about their choices.

Seems to me there’s no reason you can’t enjoy this together. 

March 22, 2012

Five reasons to attend a college fair this spring

1. They’re free and open to the public.

2. You can actually speak to representatives from colleges you’re considering.

3. They include free optional workshops for attendees on subjects like financial aid, how to choose a college, standardized tests, and selective college admissions.

4. Experienced counselors are on hand to answer your questions like, “Can you help me figure out which colleges here have elementary education majors?”

5. The fairs offer living proof of just how many colleges are out there beyond the most famous ones.

Go here for a complete schedule and more information.