Doing school: the gap between high school education and college admissions

Many of you will have heard me complain rather cynically about the distance between colleges’ expressed expectations for high school students and the reality of highly selective college admissions.  That gap leaves students feeling funneled into an intensely functionalist view of their education even as they are also subjected to rhetoric about passion and intellectual engagement by colleges and by teachers.

This subject has gained growing attention recently in debates over the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which Amy Chua described her controversial ideas on parenting for success.  It is also the theme of the film “Race to Nowhere”, in which director Vicki Abeles described “the dark side of America’s achievement culture.”

Many of these questions were expressed even earlier by Denise Clark Pope, a senior lecturer in Education at Stanford, in her 2001 book, Doing School.  She examined “the predicament of doing school,” in which prevailing attitudes and expectations in high schools help create, “a generation of stressed out, materialistic, and miseducated students.”  Pope followed five students at Faircrest High School in California, as they negotiated with classmates, cheated on homework, manipulated teachers, and transgressed rules in their efforts to “be the best,” achieve material success and meet social and parental expectations.

In debates about high school education, the role of college application looms large.  Students are told that colleges are interested in their strength of character, (Harvard); that they are more than their GPAs or test scores (Chicago); and that universities also focus on their potential to contribute to learning (Princeton).  When university admit rates drop and colleges tout soaring levels of academic and social achievement by their applicants, however, it is clear that cookie cutter candidates with impressive credentials are most likely to prevail – those with course loads filled with an exhausting number of APs, a stratospheric GPA, and a slate of activities so impressive they seem unlikely to be the stuff of any normal teenage life.

Colleges have been called on the carpet for what seems like a growing gap between the ideal and the reality of holistic admissions. Marilee Jones, former dean of admissions at MIT, said in a 2004 interview that elite colleges “are complicit in rearing a generation of young people staggering under unbearable pressure to be perfect at everything.” The Education Conservancy argued that, “Students feel it is impossible to be everything colleges would like them to be.” Good teachers remind students that they need to find a balance between an impressive course load and an interesting one; between high academic expectations and joyful learning; and between their ambition for material success and status and their desire for a meaningful life.

But in her study of Faircrest High, Pope also referred to the central role that parents play in creating that contradiction between what students are taught to care about in their education, and the reality of selective college admissions.  She quoted a student whose parents expressed concern about her health in the face of a grueling schedule, as saying, “They are worried about me and say it is okay if I don’t go to an Ivy school, like they’ll still be proud of me, but that’s b.s. because no they won’t.”  Another admitted that his obsequious behavior towards teachers and his constant anxiety about his grades came because his father “wants me to go to Stanford like him.”

Pope’s interviews highlight the role parents play in encouraging students to equate success in learning with success in gaining admission to a brand-name college.  She shows how parents, probably far more than any admission officer, cue children to find the measure of their self-worth in grade reports.  But parents can also liberate their children from a relentlessly pragmatic view of high school by allowing them to pursue the things that fill them with joy rather than fill up resumes with yet another mindless activity.  As parents, we are hopefully more interested in raising critical thinkers and honorable adults than Ivy League graduates!

 

From junior year to college admissions

For the last few months high school juniors stood by as seniors wrestled with college applications, stressed about choices, and finally, exhaled as they picked their colleges.  Now the focus shifts and it is their turn to get ready for the wild ride towards college.  Given how early the application process happens in the academic year and the inevitable strains of that first quarter of senior year, juniors need to use the coming months wisely as they lay down the foundation for their application.

Let’s consider the different elements of that application process and the things that those of you who are juniors ought to be thinking about:

  • Transcripts: admission officers at selective schools point out the unavoidable fact that your transcripts ARE the single most important element in their assessment.  If you are applying early, your junior grades may be the last ones they see before making their decisions. Even if there are no senior grades available, they can see your senior curriculum, and this too is crucial in weighing your academic heft.
  • Scores and letters of recommendation: admission officers also weigh your academic profile by looking at your standardized test results and by the quality of letters of recommendation, and you cannot wait until 12th grade to grapple with these. At some larger schools, for example, some of the most popular teachers begin to turn away requests for letters of recommendation well before the summer. There are also few test dates available early in the senior year for you to complete the required roster of tests, much less leave time for the almost inevitable retake.
  • List of activities: while most of us quite rightly abhor talk of “resume building” when referring to high school students, the activities list is obviously a very significant part of your college application.  Admission officers ask themselves what it is you will contribute to campus life. This summer will be your last chance to answer that question. It is a good idea to draw up a comprehensive list of your high school activities outside of the classroom, in order to assess both the cohesive “story” that your application will tell about yourself as well as the potential holes in your self-presentation.
  • Summer before senior year: the summer college trip has become something of an American tradition, and for good reason.  Not only does the wonderful range of possibilities make such exploration useful and necessary, but for many colleges these visits have also become a significant way to gauge “demonstrated interest.”  As more kids apply to more colleges, those institutions are finding it ever harder to accurately pinpoint their yield (the number of students who will accept their offers of admission). Your knowledge of a school and appreciation for what it has to offer can encourage a college to read your application with a more benevolent eye.   Growing numbers of high school students will also attend summer camps on college campuses, to learn more about the college experience, about life at a particular college, or about the range of academic options that await them.  As Dean Karen Sibley of Summer at Brown, one of the largest such programs for high school students in the country, points out, the liberating summer experience “validates the student’s ability to be far from home, intensely academically challenged and able to function independently in very new surroundings.”
    • Writing the college essay: For many of you SAT testing seems the most exhausting part of applying to college, but writing the personal essay causes the biggest anxiety. There is little reason to wait too long before jumping into the writing process.  It will give you time to consider essay topics, but also leave space for rewriting and editing before the full onslaught of the senior year.  Reflecting on her own experiences this year, one senior, who will be attending an Ivy university in the Fall, encourages juniors to “start doing something concrete regarding college essays and supplements by May!  Summer is actually too short  – it’s only eight weeks.”

    The Common Application will be available for students by August 1 (and its preview is already available online). The Common Application organization has already reported that the essay topics on the application will remain the same, though the length requirements will be adjusted. For high school juniors, this is the equivalent of a long-distance runner coming into the last few hundred meters of the race: a successful end is in sight, but to get there you first you have to throw all your energy and focus into the last lap.

     

     

     

     

    The “hidden” degree requirements

    Some of the most important things you will learn at college will never show on your college transcript. These are aspects of affective (versus cognitive) development. They are what employers are expecting to find in college graduates, quite apart from the subject matter of their degree studies, or professional training. Solid affective skill development is key – without it, the chances of graduating are slim!

    There is no “curriculum for developing the affective capabilities you will need, and acquire during your college years. But you can control, to a certain extent, how painful the process of acquisition may be. One useful thing to remember is to “expect the unexpected.” Resilience is the quality of being able to take things in stride and handle the rough patches well. It helps to “be prepared” by knowing in advance that statistically some things will not go smoothly. It helps even more to learn to anticipate obstacles and have a Plan B in place when you aren’t certain of Plan A’s chances of success.

    As a new college student, what affective skills will you need?

    You will mostly discover the need for certain essential affective skills when the lack of them “jumps up and bites you!” Life experience teaches us much. But perhaps a checklist of some valuable skills may be of value to a student who wants to “be prepared” and is willing to think ahead to help smooth their way.

    Here are some affective skills you will need in order to graduate:

    • Ability to prioritize
    • Ability to solve problems without having a parent run interference for you (think room-mate problems)
    • The inner strength to stand up to many demands, pressures and challenges all at once
    • Resilience – being able to pick yourself up and dust yourself off after a disappointment or crisis
    • Organizational capability – to buy your books on time, keep track of assignments and deadlines, exam dates, times and venues
    • Confidence – to reach out for support from peers or professors
    • Proactiveness – signing up early for limited options; finding out about good opportunities
    • A personal conscience that kicks in when you are missing too many classes or getting too little sleep
    • Being able and willing to defend your opinions, in class and in your social setting
    • The strength of character to be able to change your opinions if circumstances or the arguments of others lead you to a new outlook
    • The ability to brainstorm on your own – you can’t rely on the good students always sharing their bright ideas with a group. Coming up with your own original thoughts is rare, even in graduating college seniors

    I just arrived at college – now what?

    One of the key affective skills it will pay you to learn is “how to make friends.” Be prepared to go outside your comfort zone, especially in these first important weeks of your first semester at college. Even if you’re shy, commit yourself to striking up a real conversation with at least two strangers each day. Not trivial chit-chat – be prepared to talk about your opinions, what you are missing about home, what you are finding quite surprising about your first experiences on the campus. Ask questions, all the time!! You have no idea how important an affective skill it is to be able to speak up and ask for the information you need or simply to engage another person.

    Affective learning in college begins as soon as you arrive. But one more thing – good judgment is possibly the most important affective skill you will need. It may not be perfect yet – but don’t leave home without it.

    Gail Lewis,
    College Admissions Consultant with College Goals

    “Get Thee to a Nunnery . . .”: My Experience at a Women’s College

    My college search, no doubt, resembled that of many of you reading this.  A couple “safeties”, a “reach”, and the ones where I had a fighting chance.  Good schools, with attractive campuses, dependable financial aid, etc.

    Fast-forward a few months, and I’d been waitlisted at Georgetown, Dartmouth and Brown and accepted to three of my eight schools . . . all of them women’s colleges. All of them wonderful places, but I had applied in spite of the gender specifications.  Going past the obvious problems it could pose for dating, I had always enjoyed close friendships with boys and my brother, so four years in such a decidedly female environment was not something I was very excited about.  Thankfully, the past few years have changed my mind.

    I’m trying to steer away from the words you’ll see on every seven-sisters website, but they really do apply.  Women’s colleges are liberating, empowering, and supportive, not because they’re free of some oppressive, patriarchal dark side of the force or anything, but because they’re intellectual environments where gender biases have little place.  Most of us, by the time we finish high school, have experienced some situation where a teacher dishes out extra credit more often to one sex or the other, or have been frustrated trying to get support for a women’s sports team, or some similar problem.  The “boys club” attitude that we can still encounter in various arenas simply doesn’t apply when there aren’t any boys.

    Not that four years could pass without ever coming into contact with men, as if you were attending a collegiate nunnery.  Many women’s colleges are in consortiums, where it is possible to take classes at neighboring co-ed schools, and co-ed students can take classes on campus.  In an urban environment you could meet all sorts of interesting people off campus, and even the most rural women’s colleges have a large number of men around on the weekends when boyfriends and buddies come to visit.  Regardless of what any school-sponsored website tells you, “meeting men” is never going to be as easy as at a co-ed school, but in my time at Mount Holyoke I’ve dated and made male friends just fine.  (It goes without saying that if it’s not men you’re interested in, women’s colleges are perfect.)

    Not having men around as much can lead to a certain amount of social-awareness as well.  After months at a women’s college, the first time someone treats you like a “chick” and not an adult with equal intellectual value, it smarts.  Sexism is all the more apparent when you’ve fallen out of the habit.  Not everyone will have the same reaction –I’ve seen women get furious at this treatment, and women who laugh it off.  For myself, I’m thankful that I’ve learned to recognize it as unusual and unfair.  I’ve become far pickier about the men I spend time with, and am happier because of it.

    I can’t recommend women’s colleges to everyone.  What I can say is that, if you give it a chance like I did, you can come to really appreciate it.  Women’s colleges might not be the most empowering experience of your life –that could be getting your first big promotion at the job of your dreams, nailing an audition, or doing a solo trip around the world.  But women’s colleges will help you get there, and cheer you on along the way.  As far as I’ve been able to make out, the goal of every women’s college is to give you the self confidence and spine to succeed, and if they can provide a rugby team or lab facilities or an excellent library along the way, that’s even better.

    Sydney Penny

    Mount Holyoke ‘12

    The problem with senioritis

    Senioritis is when second semester senior grades sag after college acceptance letters arrive. Talking about the problem “of senioritis” seems to lend this bad habit a legitimacy which I doubt it deserves – as if it is something unfortunate but expected. Rather like getting a cold in winter. Of course, having had my own kids go through that dreary last semester where they just want to have fun and move on with life and school seems so last year, I understand only too well how hard it is for students to stay motivated between admission and matriculation.

    But I still believe it important for students to keep on with the good work that got them accepted in the first place. There are three reasons for it – philosophical, practical and political.

    Firstly, we do not want to encourage students to think that high school is mostly about preparing for college application – as if you work hard, challenge yourself, and do community service all just to impress an admission office. Then you go on to college and start all over again, except this time the point is securing a good job or graduate admission another four years later. Perhaps we want to teach kids instead to extract value in the moment, develop a love of learning for its own intrinsic sake, and do good because the well-being of our communities require it.

    Secondly, college courses assume a level of preparation on the part of incoming first year students. So high school is not simply about preparing to apply to college, but also about preparing to be successful long after the application process is done. Blowing off the remainder of senior year risks missing out on basic skills like good writing that may be crucial to success in college classrooms.

    Finally, admission offices, especially more selective ones, do care about an accepted student’s grades after making an offer of admission, if only in preemptive self-defense. After all, an admitted student who gives up on his or her academics will likely show up a year later in committees that deal with students at risk of failing out of college. So admission offices not only request final grades, they actually look at them over the summer.

    And when they do examine your final grades, they know well that most of them have craftily added a line to your offer of admission stating that they can withdraw that offer if your final performance nosedives! And sometimes, they do just that.

    Along the road to college admission…

    Watch where you’re going!

    The college application process can have many unfortunate effects, and one happens when students run around madly padding their resumes with yet one more activity, one more shot at leadership, one more service moment.  The problem is not only that this kind of scattershot business does little to enhance their applications, but also that they seldom stop to ask the important questions: why am I doing this, what does it all mean, where is it taking me?

    Watching this mad runaround brings to mind one of my most favorite college presentations, done by an esteemed colleague and good friend at Brown University.  She reminded prospective students that the journey matters, not just the arrival; that as a high school student moves towards college and the next phase in his or her life, thinking and engaging and playing around with ideas along the way is as important as ultimately getting accepted.  Being a classicist, she pointed out that even as we cheer for Odysseus to find his way home to Ithaca (not only those dreaming of Cornell!), we should remember the wondrous things he saw along the way. So she handed prospective students a copy of the beautiful poem Ithaca, by the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1911).  It is worth repeating here:

    Ithaca


    When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,

    pray that the road is long,

    full of adventure, full of knowledge.

    The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,

    the angry Poseidon — do not fear them:

    You will never find such as these on your path,

    if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine

    emotion touches your spirit and your body.

    The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,

    the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,

    if you do not carry them within your soul,

    if your soul does not set them up before you.

    Pray that the road is long.

    That the summer mornings are many, when,

    with such pleasure, with such joy

    you will enter ports seen for the first time;

    stop at Phoenician markets,

    and purchase fine merchandise,

    mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

    and sensual perfumes of all kinds,

    as many sensual perfumes as you can;

    visit many Egyptian cities,

    to learn and learn from scholars.

    Always keep Ithaca in your mind.

    To arrive there is your ultimate goal.

    But do not hurry the voyage at all.

    It is better to let it last for many years;

    and to anchor at the island when you are old,

    rich with all you have gained on the way,

    not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

    Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.

    Without her you would have never set out on the road.

    She has nothing more to give you.

    And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.

    Wise as you have become, with so much experience,

    you must already have understood what these Ithacas mean.

    Some Interesting College Application Stats

    The Common Application posted an announcement to all college admissions counselors today with some statistics about this year’s application season.

    Currently, there are 788,241 students who are registered to submit Common Applications – an increase of 15% over last year.

    Together, they submitted 1,736,287 applications – an increase of 19% — and they expect to process about 1.9 million applications before the season ends, July 15th.

    Teachers submitted 1,211,709 recommendations – an increase of 112%!

    From the January edition of College Bound comes this information regarding the application pools at a few of the colleges:

    Harvard’s applications are up 5%

    Dartmouth’s applications are up 4%

    Brown saw an increase from 24,000 to 28,000 this year

    But the amazing statistic is U. Chicago . .  . up 42%!!!!  (Their admissions staff must be going wild)

    The University of California system is up 6%

    Despite the economy, nationwide, 49% of colleges attracted more applicants in 2009 than they did in 2008

    A few really excellent colleges dropped in applicants, however, including Brandeis, Bucknell, Colgate, Dickinson, Elon, Harvey Mudd, Middlebury, St. Lawrence, Valparaiso.

    57% of colleges accepted more students in 2009 than in 2008 (trying to avoid a drop in enrollment based on the economic crisis), and some had a higher enrollment than they were prepared for, meaning crowded dorms and classes .  .  .  don’t expect they will keep the high acceptance rates this year!

    College Admissions and Service Work

    A recent blog in the New York Times’ Education section (http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/08/activity/), raises interesting questions about the way in which high school students may actually be choosing to do volunteer work (or any other activity, for that matter) purely for college admissions sake.  Indeed, given the emphasis that college applications place on things like community service, it seems logical to assume that many kids do in fact sign up for all sorts of activities with their applications in mind.  But even if this is true, does it really matter?  What are the consequences of such pragmatism?  This is an important and thorny question, and certainly one with which I have often wrestled, as an admission officer, as a private consultant, and as a parent.

    I do in fact believe that many students, consciously or otherwise, opt to do community service with their college applications in mind.  And I equally believe it is silly to spend hours doing something after school you care little about.  (Whatever activity a student is doing, keep in mind that countless others are doing the same thing for the same reason, making it unlikely that the activity in itself will impress the admission officer who has, I fear, seen it before!) But I don’t think it is silly to encourage students to see service to, and engagement with, their communities as an important part of passing on their privilege.

    So perhaps the answer is that we encourage students to do community service, but we also urge them to be aware and thoughtful about finding the service opportunities that speak most to their own interests.  After all, why feel compelled to dig latrines in another country if you would rather clean up the beach where you surf every day; why think that your job refiling books in the library must have less value than becoming president of the service club at school?

    Students can then achieve several crucial things.  They will hopefully learn that good citizenship extends beyond their college applications.  They will also move towards that marvelous and transformative moment when they can see the connection between what they learn from books and what they see in the world around them.  In that sense, they will be well ahead of many others that may only begin to get a glimmer of that in college, if ever.  And pragmatically, students who can show and articulate a critical awareness of how the different elements of their young lives are integrating even at seventeen – intellectually, politically, socially – are the ones with the most interesting applications in the end.

    Paying for College

    Online presentation on Paying for College 1.14.2010

    “Financial Aid Experts Reveal Secrets of How to Pay for College”

    on January 14, 2010 at www.collegeweeklive.com

    (Access online between 3:00p.m. and 10:00 p.m EST)

    Though we at College Goals cannot guarantee that students and families will gain the answers to all their college financing questions, we’re suggesting that interested parents or students visit the CollegeWeekLive site on January 14 as opportunities to hear directly from professionals in these aspects of college financing are rare. For your interest, we are publishing the official program for this event here on our blog page.

    From the CollegeWeekLive website:


    This online event focuses on the transition from “how to get into college” to “how to pay for college.” Scholarship and financial aid gurus offer essential information immediately applicable to your financial aid search, including:

    • 3:00 PM Eastern – “How To Raise $15k For College Right Now” featuring Kim Clark, Staff Writer, U.S. News and World Report
    • 4:00 PM Eastern – “Money for the Student Athlete” featuring Dion Wheeler, Author of “Sports Scholarship Insider’s Guide”
    • 5:00 PM Eastern – “Finding Money: A Guide To Financial Aid” featuring Martha Savery, Director of External Relations, MEFA (Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority)
    • 8:00 PM Eastern – “Let Your State Help Pay for College” featuring Dr. Armando Salas-Amaro, Policy Analyst, Florida Department of Education
    • 9:00 PM Eastern – “Ask a Financial Aid Officer” featuring Adam Hatch & Ashley Munro, Financial Aid Officers for Hawaii Pacific University and University of Alaska Fairbanks

    Visit virtual booths hundreds of colleges virtual booths, each with admissions and financial aid information!

    To attend this event go to www.collegeweeklive.com. You may also register there for their online newsletter.

    A wise college bound student says thank you often

    I came across the article, below, recently and thought how appropriate it is for students — you can’t say ‘thank you’ too often!

    Students sometimes forget how much effort others have put into their college search and application process.  Their parents, of course, have invested hours of time and no doubt hundreds or thousands of dollars on campus visits, counseling guidance, test preparation programs . . . so much!  Teachers and counselors support is also immeasurable.  Appreciation and expressions of thanks are always well-received!  There is a saying, ‘Gratitude greases the wheel of life’.

    Remember, also, that there are ‘real people’ there at the colleges to whom you apply, and when you do receive your acceptances, and especially those Early Decision acceptances, it would be entirely appropriate for you to write or email a joyful, thankful message to any admissions officer you have met or with whom you have spoken or exchanged emails at ‘your ‘ college.  And when you arrive in the Fall, it is nice to follow-up and go to meet with that person who shepherded your application through the Admissions’ Committee.

    Of course, if you were interviewed by an alum. of your school, or by a current undergraduate, be sure to let them know the results of your application and your appreciation for their time and support.  Generous, gracious words can only benefit you.  Someday, hopefully, you will be interviewing for your college!

    Joyce Reed

    by Julie Manhan, writer — from the Seattle College Bound Examiner, December 14,   4:44 AM

    Most college bound students are in one of two places at this time of the year: finished with all applications and ready for some serious relaxation or gearing up for that final push to finish up those applications due in January. Whichever place you are in, there is one thing you need to do before you pack up your backpack for the holidays– you need to say thank you.

    You need to say thank you to the counselor who has gotten your transcripts off to the colleges you are applying to, written recommendations for you, made sure you have enough credits to graduate, or even chased you down for things you forgot to turn in. You need to show some appreciation for the late nights and weekends they have spent composing a letter to help you get into college and for the days of their vacation they will spend making sure everything gets submitted on time. You need to acknowledge all the times they have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help you get into college.

    While you’re considering whom you should thank, let’s not forget the teachers who added writing a fabulous letter of recommendation for you to their already huge list of things to do. There are also those teachers who may have proofread your essays or helped you review math concepts so you might be able to improve your SAT scores. How about those teachers who have challenged and inspired you to do your best?

    I’m sure there are other people who have helped you, too. What I am asking you to do is to take a moment to remember who they are and to somehow express your gratitude for their efforts on your behalf. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; a simple thank you note would be fine. The important thing is to let them know that you are appreciative.

    “We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.” ~ Cynthia Ozick (writer)