Summer Reading Suggestions 2012

We hope that this summer you will enjoy the opportunity to read more widely than you are free to do during the school year. Every one of us at College Goals is hankering for some slow summer days and a pile of good books at our elbow, or on our Kindle . . .

We would like to share with you the names of some fascinating, mind-bending books that we urge you to consider adding to your pile of current and topical summer books.

Joyce Reed is very excited about a book called Abundance – the Future is Better Than You Think, by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler . . . in fact, she sent it to her seniors as a graduation gift. Peter Diamandis holds multiple degrees from MIT and Harvard in engineering and medicine. He is the Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, and he has also founded more than a dozen space and high-tech companies. It is wonderful to read a detailed and well-documented book that lays out all the exciting opportunities ahead for young people in the future! Read this book, cheer up, roll up your sleeves, and get to work creating an amazing future! Highly recommended for parents, too.

And in line with the thought that anything, almost, is possible . . . if you are interested in the brain, the mind and the will, you may be fascinated by Norman Doidge MD’s writing called The Brain That Changes Itself – it would certainly motivate you to realize that the first step in the learning process is to gain mastery of your learning process.

Do you know who Kevin Kelly is? . . . another ‘futurist’ (like Peter Diamandis). Kelly edited and published the Whole Earth Review, a journal of technical reviews, after he had founded and published to original Whole Earth Catalog. He is now ‘Senior Maverick’ at Wired magazine, which he co-founded in 1993. I strongly urge every one of you to subscribe to Wired . . . even if you are classicists, you’ll love it! An annual subscription is very reasonable. I suggest the print version, so your parents can read it too, but you’ll want the digital also. Get it! Oh, and the book by Kelly that I recommend is called Out Of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social systems, and the Economic World. WOW!

From another perspective, my current (last 40 years) favorite book of poems, The Gift, Poems by Hafiz, The Great Sufi Master, translations by Daniel Ladinsky . . .

Andrea van Niekerk suggests . . . .

Christopher Hitchens died earlier this year, and it was a great loss to public discourse. Hitchens had strong opinions – very strong ones with which I often disagreed, as it happens! – on most anything, from Mother Theresa and atheism, the war in Iraq and the case for humanitarian intervention, to the phenomenon of Harry Potter and why men may be funnier than women. Shortly before he died he published Arguably, a book of essays that served to show his scholarship, wit and downright irascibility. It is wonderful and I strongly recommend you look at it. It is a VERY big book, but it consists of short essays published elsewhere and you can simply dip into it as you have time or inclination. The New York Times reviewer said that Hitchens, “is to modern American discourse what Lenny Bruce was to comedy. He changed the game, and in doing so forced us to examine our core beliefs.”

Quite a few students express an interest in psychology, and rightly so – beginning to understand how the human mind works is after all an important step in understanding yourself! And there are some lovely books out there to explore. I particularly enjoy the works of Oliver Sacks, a neurologist at Columbia (especially The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat); his books are fun to read and written for non-experts.

It is not only humans who have interesting minds though, and dog people like myself spend a lot of time wondering what our dogs are thinking about too. Now we know, after reading a lovely book by Alexandra Horowitz (who teaches psychology at Barnard) called Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know. Horowitz examines the perception and cognitive abilities of dogs in ways that make you wonder which species did the domestication!

In a recent interview Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard and an American historian, said that she would like all freshmen to read Kathryn Schulz’s book on Being Wrong. Many of you may have seen her Ted Talk on why we like being right all the time, and Professor Gilpin Faust points out that the book “advocates doubt as a skill and praises error as the foundation of wisdom,” and thus encourages college students to embrace risk and even failure.

Gail Lewis suggests . . .

The Power of Habit by Thomas Duhigg. I heard an interview with the author on NPR and was hooked – and delighted to read the book afterwards. It’s a penetrating look at how much habit dictates our behavior and how marketers and commercial interests (like toothpaste companies, casinos and Target) take advantage of our weaknesses or of their detailed knowledge of our purchasing patterns and emotional responses. Luckily, the book also informs the reader of how quickly the formation of one good new habit – for example, starting a regular exercise routine – can lead naturally and easily into other good habits with little effort – like eating healthier, getting more sleep, being better organized with morning routines.

How to Be a High School Superstar by Cal Newport is a great resource for students and families interested in getting a new perspective on what it really takes to get the notice of colleges, and how students can set about deliberately building personal schedules that allow time to develop passions and interests while students are in high school, without burning out. This book contains some great advice on effective ways to begin projects and plan for success in achieving one’s personal goal, by researching the experiences of others who have attempted similar achievements, and even contacting them at the start. In this way, it’s good reading for parents, too.

Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, is a thought-provoking novel that both my college-age daughter and I liked a lot. It’s humorous but poignant – somewhat hard to believe in parts but the more appealing for that – as the author has attempted a new approach to the novel. It does create empathy for individuals stranded on the outside of our societies – like immigrants in legal limbo, and the harsh things that happen to those who don’t have a logical place in the contexts in which they find themselves. Intriguing – keeps you thinking about the characters.

Also consider picking up The Life of Pi, a novel by Yann Martell – not a recent novel, but I still think about the style of this novel and the quirkiness of it, on a regular basis. I think it’s a great read, very gripping, and it’s an exceptionally good example of how one’s reflective judgment about what one reads must come into play. How much of this story are you, the reader, willing to ‘buy’? It may surprise you to find Martell’s talented writing leads you to buy it very well – then the issue becomes, “where do you draw the line?”

A rather dark but I think a necessary read (and an antithesis to the optimism of Peter Diamandis’ Abundance) is The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston, who also wrote The Hot Zone. Both books make compelling reading! Not for the super squeamish – they deal with devastating illnesses and the horror of global pandemics!

And if you haven’t yet come across books by neuroscientist David Eagleman – you are in for a treat! First try Sum – a collection of short vignettes, views on the possible ‘afterlives’ that his curious mind has imagined for us. Very stimulating, easy to read in small doses! The other Eagleman book I recommend is Incognito, a very readable text on the mind and human identity. An Amazon.com reviewer provides this handy summary of Eagleman’s main points in the book:
1) Your conscious mind is the “tip of the iceberg” and the rest of the iceberg (your brain) is what is really running the show
2) The vast majority of your brain’s processing which leads to what you do and what you think is not accessible to your conscious mind
3) Your brain contains many modules that overlap and compete as rivals
4) “You” are your biology, but you can’t be understood by simple reductionism
5) You have little if any “free will” and what that means
6) Your neurobiology is a result of a constant interplay of genes and environment

Carolyn Stewart highly recommends . . .

Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David Pollock and Ruth El Van Reken describes the experience of kids who grow up or spend a significant part of the childhood living abroad. Rich with real-life anecdotes, it examines the nature of the third-culture kid experience and its effect on developing a sense of identity, and then adjusting to one’s passport country upon return.

Madeleine Albright’s memoir Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War uses her experiences and those of her family to examine the tumultuous years of 1937-1948. It explores the theme of what makes a person a resister rather than a collaborator. “Why do some people become stronger in the face of adversity, while others quickly lose heart? What separates the bully from the protector? Is it education, spiritual belief, our parents, our friends, the circumstances of our birth, traumatic events, or more likely some combination that spells the difference?”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells the true story of the woman from whom cancer cells were taken without her knowledge. These cells, known as the HeLa cells, have been vital for developing the polio vaccine, and helped lead to important advances like in-vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping, and made the fortunes of many scientists. The book addresses the interplay of race, poverty and science, and the medical ethics of tissue culture.

Former senator and basketball hall-of-famer Bill Bradley sees an America in the midst of a “slow-motion crisis.” The problems, he argues, are driven by the expansive role of money in politics, ineffective approaches to job creation and underwhelming efforts to stimulate the economy. In his book We Can All Do Better, Bradley sets out a series of arguments about how to get the nation back on track.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman chronicles the struggles of a Hmong refugee family and its interactions with the health care system in Merced, California, and the cultural conflicts that obstruct the treatment of their epileptic daughter. Through miscommunications about medical dosages and parental refusal to give certain medicines due to mistrust and misunderstandings, and the inability of the doctors to develop more empathy with the traditional Hmong lifestyle or try to learn more about the Hmong culture, Lia’s condition worsens. The dichotomy between the Hmong’s perceived spiritual factors and the Americans’ perceived scientific factors comprises the overall theme of the book. The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction in 1997.

We also continue to recommend any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books.

And finally, if you just can’t bring yourself to sit down for multiple sessions with a book but you really do want to know what some of the most interesting, forward-thinking minds on the planet are thinking about, make sure you FREQUENTLY tune in to the TED talkswww.TED.com — Ideas Worth Spreading. These are AMAZING, OUTSTANDING . . . they will shatter pre-conceptions, stimulate thought and discussion, and keep you fascinated. (You’ll find talks by people who are the thinkers of our future . . . yours, as well as mine.) A few minutes spent on a TED talk is guaranteed to expand your mind, and keep you hopeful.

Reading these books and listening to these talks will certainly direct your thinking ‘out of the box’, and I am sure you will find them motivational, as well as intriguing.

And while you’re traveling on a car trip, or enjoying baking cookies and treats in the kitchen this summer – tune in and listen to NPR. You will hear some very interesting stories that you miss out on during the school year – the news programs morning and afternoon (“Morning Edition”, “All Things Considered”) are great, but also try to catch “Fresh Air” and “Science Friday”. Many college students are hooked on Ira Glass’s fascinating stories on “This American Life”. No radio in the kitchen? Stream NPR live on your computer at npr.org.

And please go ahead and send us your recommendations for an exciting summer read!

Waiting on the waitlist

High school seniors have opened the envelopes, received emails or logged into websites to discover the result of their college applications.  For many the news was very good or very bad – they were admitted to a college and have a decision to make, or that college will no longer be on the menu because they were denied.

For many the end result will be far more uncertain, however.  Instead of a clear yes or no, they received a warm and encouraging letter telling them that they have been placed on the waitlist.  Some will view this as good news (the door is still ajar) or as bad (they were not admitted), but the ambiguity leaves students wondering what this means and what to do about it.

The why of waitlists is easy: as students apply to more colleges, it becomes harder for colleges to estimate how many applicants will actually accept their offer of admission and they pursue various enrollment strategies. Waitlists are one such device to manage the uncertainty of a lesser yield. The institutional yield rate for colleges has steadily declined: nationally on average yield dipped from 49 percent in 2001, to 45 percent in 2007 and 41 percent in the Fall 2010 cycle.  Not surprisingly, more colleges reported using a waitlist: 39 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2010.

In the end, however, only for a minority of students will their persistence in staying on a waitlist pay off: in the 2009 cycle colleges nationally accepted 34 percent of students on their waitlists, and in the 2010 cycle, on average 28 percent.  If those odds seem reasonable, remember that the more selective a college, the more students will accept its offers of admission and the fewer spots will open up for waitlisted students.  In 2010 Yale reported, for example, that it had over 900 students on the waitlist but only about 100 made it into the class.  Most selective colleges will not have a numbered priority amongst many hundreds of waitlisted students, but will admit students according to institutional needs – fixing a gender imbalance, for example, pulling in more engineers, or answering a need for racial, socio-economic or geographic diversity.  In other words, all students on the waitlist may not be equal!

Given all of this, what is a student to do when places on a waitlist?
•    Decide how badly do you still want to attend that college.  It is okay to cut your losses, move on, and bond with your new home.  You can throw yourself into Facebook discussions with future friends and roommates and get back to finishing high school joyfully and successfully. After all, your success at college and in life will not be determined by the name on your college gate but by what you choose to do once it closes behind you.
•    If you remain interested, by all means stay on the waitlist. But know that it may be a long shot, and plan accordingly: accept another offer meanwhile, negotiate your financial aid if necessary and pay your deposit if required.
•    Respond to your waitlist offer with a note reiterating your continued interest in the school.  If a space opens up, admission officers will have some leeway in choosing the candidate they put forward for that spot but will definitely make their choice with yield in mind. Update the college on any new achievements and changes, and make it clear that you remain interested and will attend if taken from the waitlist.  At this point, individual admission officers too are desperately keen to be done!

Amidst all the appropriate concern over bloated waitlists that go nowhere, it is worth remembering that waitlists also have a more human face.  Admission officers at very selective colleges are faced everyday with the difficult task of choosing amongst a large collection of impressive and interesting young people who have worked hard to earn for themselves a chance to be admitted to top universities.  Most will not be admitted, however, and sometimes placing a student on the waitlist instead of slamming the door shut can also allow an admission officer a brief sense of still advocating on behalf of a much-admired young man or woman, or at the very least show the student that his or her efforts have been noticed and valued.

Building an education: engineering and college admissions

Gordon Brown, former Dean of Engineering at MIT, described engineers as operating at “the interface between science and society.”  They apply science to convert resources and solve problems to the benefit of humankind.  No wonder then that many young people, without knowing much about the field at all, are still drawn to it when they begin to consider college admissions.

 

There are different pathways to an engineering education, but the most common ones are these:

 

  • Many students will still follow the most traditional path to an engineering education, which is to apply to one the larger state schools with their well-known engineering programs. Nine of the top 20 university engineering programs are offered by such state institutions, including Penn State, Illinois, Georgia Tech and others. These public institutions give their students exceptional resources and rigorous training, but students may also be subjected to large classes and perhaps a degree of earlier specialization.

 

 

  • For students who wish to embed their technical training within the wider context of a liberal arts education, most private universities offer a separate School of Engineering that is more or less integrated into the wider undergraduate education of the college. Some of the better-known ones may be the Ivies, such as Princeton, Columbia and Brown, MIT, Caltech and Stanford, but some of the highest ranked ones are in fact outside that small circle.  These include perennial science powerhouses such as Rice, Carnegie Mellon, Purdue, Northwestern and Johns Hopkins. Students who have not only a great technical foundation, but also learned to write and communicate and to be aware of the larger socio-economic contexts in which engineers work (the ecology of building dams, the economics of manufacturing, the politics of international trade) are very attractive to employers.

 

  • Future engineers can also choose smaller liberal arts colleges with their intensely mentoring environment and ready access to faculty resources.  Smaller universities such as Bucknell and Villanova have very highly regarded engineering programs, and even smaller colleges may boast their own top-ranked schools of engineering, including Lafayette, Swarthmore, Smith and Union Colleges.

 

  • Smaller colleges without a separate school of engineering, such as Occidental College in California or Goucher in Maryland, may still offer students the benefit of a 3-2 program: students spend three years studying in the physical sciences (usually, although not necessarily, physics) and then transfer to a larger, well-ranked engineering program, such as Caltech for Oxy students and Johns Hopkins for Goucher, to complete their engineering courses in two years.

 

  • Finally, students may also choose to finish their undergraduate education at one college (again perhaps in Physics), and then study engineering in graduate school.

 

Wherever a student chooses to study engineering, there are a few basic questions they need to ask in their research of a particular program:

  • Is the program accredited by a group such as ABET (the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology)?
  • When do you have to choose your specific major in Engineering? Many schools allow you to spend a longer time (a year or two) on foundation courses such as Calculus and Physics, to give you the chance to explore the field of engineering a bit more widely before you specialize.
  • Are you allowed to study abroad? Given the extensive requirements of an engineering training, some colleges still dissuade students from studying elsewhere for a semester, but many others are becoming increasingly supportive.  Either way, an engineering student who wishes to study overseas for a semester needs to do some thorough research to make sure his or her credits will transfer and meet the home college’s degree requirements.
  • Does the school have programs to encourage young women in a field that historically shunned them – programs such as WISE (Women in Science)?
  • How easy is it to double major or simply do interesting courses outside of the school of engineering?
  • If you change your mind and wish to transfer out of the engineering program into another field, how easy is this arranged and when do you have to make a final decision?

 

When students apply to engineering schools, they should be mindful of each college’s particular application requirements. Some will insist on students submitting an SAT Subject Test in Math 2, while some, such as MIT, may even require a second SAT Subject Test in a laboratory science such as physics or chemistry.  These scores are important: students who lack aptitude in mathematics will struggle to get through engineering training.  Colleges will also want to see demonstrated interest in the field – an engineering camp, a technical internship, or just an interest in building rockets and taking apart lawn movers.  After all, curiosity about how things work is the hallmark of a good engineer!

Finished with all your college applications??? Not quite!!

The big ‘crunch’ of applications through December/mid-January is over. You did it! With at least 8 applications filed, you can sit back now and try to calm the gnawing anxiety as you await the announcements of accept/deny decisions from your colleges, in late March/April 1st. So is that all you can do?? By no means!

1. I hope you read the recent email from the people at the Common Application, reminding you to CHECK YOUR SUBMISSION STATUS. Most of your colleges will offer you a way to ‘track’ your application materials arrival online. Make sure everything has arrived! Sometimes it takes a few weeks for each college to process all the materials, so different colleges may be reporting that they did or did not receive some of the information required to complete your file. BY NOW, EVERYTHING SHOULD BE IN PLACE. If you have any concerns about your application files, call the admission office at the college in question.
2. It is not too late to BOLSTER YOU APPLICATION with any new, interesting, relevant material that can let the admission officers know what a dynamic, creative person you are! Have you just won the leading part in a school play? Received the MVP award for your efforts for a sports team? Sung the lead in the Christmas oratorio? Re-sat some exams from last term, and expect to significantly improve some grades in just a few weeks, when you get your results? Put up a new website about your music/art/community service? I know your life has not been standing still since we worked on your lists of activities, and you received your last term’s grades. Have you risen to the top in one of the classes in which you were struggling a little? Would that teacher be willing to write a short additional recommendation for you, based on your increased efforts, and results?
3. Have you VISITED CAMPUSES of the colleges to which you applied?? It is not too late . . . and it is considered to be a significant sign that you are strongly interested in a particular college. Statistically, students are more likely to accept admission offers from colleges that that they have visited. Colleges are more likely to offer admission to students whom they think will attend. This ‘yield’ factor is more important to the colleges than their admit rate is to you.
4. Above all, find a reason and a way to CONTACT THE ADMISSION OFFICER who is responsible for taking the lead in handling applications from your location – most colleges assign certain experienced admission staff to certain areas. If you can’t determine who that is on the college’s website, then call and ask for the name and contact information (email, and possibly phone number). Then draft a short, dynamic email to that person, letting her/him know about any new developments in your academic and extra-curricular life that could increase that college’s interest in you. Tell them something more that enriches your application. Some of your colleges asked very little in their Supplements – it made them easier to apply to, but it also made it harder for you to distinguish yourself from all the other qualified applicants. Why would they want YOU?? Write about how your visit to that school is lingering in the back of your mind each day, and you KNOW it is the college that ‘fits’ you best, and you can hardly wait to be studying there.

Best wishes!! Joyce Reed

Taking a GAP year!

Initially, the gap year concept was foreign to me. I am naturally an independent and adventurous person, which is how I ended up at boarding school in the first place. Nonetheless, I felt intimidated by the realness of the opportunity to “gap it.” Not go to college right away? What? No one does that.

After four straight years devoted to critical essays, history research papers and lab reports, I was exhausted. I yearned for time to myself; time to catch my breath, experience something fresh and put my academics into perspective. Yes, I was eager to attend college and begin the next chapter of my life; but the idea of diving into four more years of academics made me feel restless and resistant. I hankered for a new experience. I itched for something other than studying myself to sleep every night. I wanted to be challenged outside the classroom for once. Nonetheless, by pursuing the unconventional option of a gap year, my primary intention was not to postpone university or the “real world,” but instead to reenergize my mind in order to enhance my college performance.

So now that I’m into the first month of “gapping it,” I have quickly come to realize that I did not postpone the real world for a year; I’m actually experiencing the real world. I’m traveling the world, seeing it with open and, I admit, innocent eyes, exploring new cultures and meeting new people. I know some people do what I’ve chosen after they’ve completed college, and some do so at later points in their lives. Most people never have the chance or the means, and I know and appreciate that my journey is a lifetime opportunity that will help me be a more informed and well-rounded individual (as well as student) and an even stronger contributor when I do get back to my academic studies.

First stop is Italy. I’m interning for a textile company where I’m learning the ins and outs of a family-run business in Florence. At the same time, I’m taking intensive Italian language classes, living with a family, and exploring the Italian culture and people. Of course as an avid pasta lover I can’t complain about the meals! I’ll be here through the end of 2011. While I’m enjoying every moment, I’m busily planning next semester. (I still think of time in school terminology!) A month each in India, South Africa and China! So much more to see and do, and even in one year, I know I’m just scratching the surface on all there is to discover in this enormous world of ours.

I am appreciative of and grateful for this opportunity. Trust that no second of the day is wasted. When I enter the halls of Bucknell University in September 2012, Nicole Meyers will have evolved into a more globally knowledgeable person, and also a more thankfully appreciative person for all I will have learned.

written by Nicole Meyers, in Florence Italy

posted by Joyce Reed, College Goals

Summer Studies . . .

Summer vacation is when we take a deep breath after a long year and relish a sense of wellbeing after the strains of the school year. We vegetate mindlessly in the sun and we laze days away in a hammock. But we also catch up on our reading, argue with friends about ideas that have absolutely nothing to do with homework and linger over a volume of poetry that was never required for school. Rather than putting our minds on hold, the summer gives us time to recover a joy in exploring ideas for no better reason than our interest in them.

This is indeed exactly what high school students need to do with their summers, and one way to do so is by attending a youth program with like-minded peers.

But in deciding to send a student to one of the many such programs offered in the US and across the world, parents often have far more functional intentions – they hope quite bluntly that attending pre-college at College X, or a few weeks helping the poor in a developing country, or traveling to exotic locales will impress admission officers and increase the student’s chance of admission at College X. Having countless students pursuing summer programs for the same set of reasons has, however, helped to dilute the impact of this strategy. Yet there remain excellent reasons for students to seek out a summer program that excites and intrigues them:

  • the opportunity to explore an academic field – economics, archaeology, computer science – with peers that share that interest
  • to travel to a new city or a far-flung country
  • to meet students from all over the country and even the world, enlarging their perspective
  • to develop their English language skills if that is not their native tongue
  • to expand their sense of service to those far outside their own community
  • to get a taste of college life and remind them of the adventure ahead
  • to leave home and begin to develop an empowering sense of independence and self-sufficiency

Will any of this have any impact on their college applications? Definitely. But the impact will in fact be far more intriguing than many parents anticipate. Pre-college programs are offered either by for-profit organizations or as a money-generating venture by a unit within a college that is completely separate from the admission office of that institution. Doing such a program at College X therefore does not in itself improve a student’s chances of admission at that college. But that does not mean that admission officers will not notice that a student attended. Instead they will notice:

  • because it suggests that a student is actually interested enough in the college to spend time there – a form of “demonstrated interest” that colleges have to care about as they fret about their admissions yield
  • that the student has enough intellectual engagement with a subject to spend time on it
  • that the student has the social and emotional maturity to spend time away from home
  • that an international student has sufficient English skills to cope at an American college

Colleges will of course take note of the academic and social growth that attending such a program can generate. But the value of a summer program extends far beyond a college application. Instead, the student will have spent a week or more of their summer having fun, making new friends and talking about new ideas, while expanding the horizons of their world and of themselves.

For an overview of summer programs, please download the Summer Programs PDF on our Resources page.

How to Thank Your College Recommenders

(Source: Adapted from ideas provided on the following website:
http://www.shmoop.com/college/how-thank-recommenders.html)

The best part about asking a teacher, coach or mentor to serve as your recommender is that you get to thank them afterwards. Knowing this makes asking for their help a bit easier – if you have a good plan in mind to express your thanks for their effort and kind words, you will feel less demanding and can present your best points confidently to your recommenders, knowing that they will remember you long afterwards for your exceptionally warm thank-you. While the college application process can seem to be all about you, the adults in your life are – to paraphrase Isaac Newton – the giants on whose shoulders you stand! Don’t allow yourselves to forget the sacrifices they must make in order to spend an hour of their precious free time to find the right words and tone to “market” you to your colleges. Don’t leave your recommender feeling this way:
“If there’s one thing missing from all the great SAT scores, the high GPA’s and the meticulously prepared applications, it’s manners”. (Actual quote from an instructor with whom I spoke recently.)

Not only should you remember to thank these important people. You can also consider paying it forward. I’d suggest a good rule of thumb would be to perform at least three ‘random acts of kindness’ to others in your daily life for each letter of recommendation you receive, selecting strangers and close associates alike for your generosity.

No act of kindness should go unacknowledged – thank your recommenders!

Here are some ideas of how to show your teachers and other recommenders how grateful you are for their time and help.
(Remember that these suggestions are for after the recommendations have been written and sent – you don’t want to do any of these things beforehand as this may seem as though you are trying to influence the quality or content of the recommendation!)

  1. A promptly written thank-you is essential!!   The best is writing a hand-written thank-you note expressing how they have helped you. No one ever gets hand-written letters anymore. This is perhaps the nicest thing you can do. No matter how you thank your teacher, be sure to also include a hand-written note.
  2. Even if you must send an email “Thank you” – don’t delay.
  3. Write a ‘letter of recommendation’ for your teacher and give it to him/her.
  4. A simple bunch of flowers would be a nice touch. Or a little plant for the desk.
  5. Maybe bring in a small plate of homemade holiday cookies when you thank them.

There are many ways to thank your recommenders. You can get creative! Remember, your teachers are rooting for you. They want you to do well. So don’t be afraid to ask them for help. And don’t forget your manners!

Remember to notify recommenders after you receive your college admission results and tell them about your decision.  Thank them AGAIN for their support in getting you where you want to be!

“Finding The Shoe That Fits”: Putting yourself at the centre of your college search

I suspect that if I ask for a show of hands, there will be an unusually large number of parents here who applied to and attended universities in other countries. Coming from those foreign countries of ours, we tend to be particularly struck here in the US by the sheer number of colleges available for our students to attend. After all, there are some 3,500 degree-granting institutions with over 2,000 of them awarding bachelor degrees.

The problem with such an embarrassment of riches, however, is that in the end you can only apply to a handful of them and attend only one. So the question of finding the few that fit best with who you are and who you hope to become at university, is crucial. Parents and students often get side tracked by thinking about “good” schools. With so many amazing institutions to choose from, finding a “good” school is hardly a problem, however, and the term is so vague as to be meaningless.

Like many long-time university counselors, I tend to approach my work with students more from an educational than a practical admissions perspective. And such a viewpoint – one that focuses as much on the experience of a student after they have been admitted as on the application process itself – puts the issue of “fit” at the forefront of the process.

When an admission officer presents an applicant to an admissions committee, however, the question he or she asks is not whether this is a “good” student, since most in a selective pool tend to be pretty good. Instead, you focus on whether a student is a good fit for your institution, or not. Part of that fit is of course whether or not a student has performed in high school the way your institution wishes students to perform, but in a holistic application process the question also goes beyond that. For a technical program, for example, students need to show engineering aptitude, as well as great grades, to be considered a good fit, and in a very selective liberal arts program, students need to back up their strong testing with evidence of a flexible and critical intellect to be considered a good fit. If a student cannot persuade the admission officer of that great fit, the answer is likely no.

The best way to persuade the admission officer of how well you fit with his or her institution is to turn that question of fit around. Stop worrying for the moment what the institution will find a good fit, and ask yourself what fits for you. What kind of place do you need to become the scholar, to have the kind of intellectual experience, and to have the fabulous social life that you wish to have at college?

There are many ways to figure out what fits for you, but like an admission officer, you may want to start thinking about it in roughly 3 categories

  • an academic fit
  • a social fit
  • and an institutional fit.

Finding an ACADEMIC FIT would seem easy at first glance: you look in a college guide, you see whether your SAT scores fall within that school’s 50% band at least, or whether your class rank and your GPA are more or less typical of most of the students that school accepts. These are indeed helpful ways – if your scores were way off from that band, then realistically your chances of admission would seem slim. Not impossible, but unlikely. And you either understand that this is a reach school, or you move on.

But there is a lot more to finding academic fit than just the seeing whether or not the school will take you. Ask yourself instead if in fact you want to be there!

  • What is it that you want to study – a school with no geology program may not be a good fit if you are interested in earth sciences
  • What kind of science resources does the school offer you as a prospective science researcher – few laboratory resources likely means less focus on such research
  • What size of class do you require to do well – are you okay with the anonymity of a large lecture hall, or do you want the intimacy of small seminars
  • How much contact do you want with your faculty – at a school that values teaching as much as famous faculty, this may be easier to achieve
  • How hard do you want to work or are you willing to work, in order to do well in a very demanding program
  • Do you need the structure of a core curriculum or extensive distribution requirements, or will you happily sacrifice those for the opportunity to shape your own curriculum

The application process is not limited to academics, however, because life at an American college is not limited to the classroom. Admission officers will therefore also ask themselves what kind of citizen will you be on their campus, what kind of contribution will you make?
Turning that around, ask yourself if this is the campus that offers you the SOCIAL FIT you need for the kind of experience you want?

• Do you want to be on a large campus, or do you want the small intimacy of a place where after 2 years you may know most of your compatriots
• Do you want to be in a bustling city, or does the splendid isolation of a beautiful campus in the countryside appeal to you
• Do you want to live on campus as long as possible, or do you want to get off and into your own place as soon as possible
• Do you want to attend college mostly with others who are like you- in geography or race or religion – or do you fully understand that you don’t go to college to be comfortable, but to question and to grow, and that is best done in places where you are challenged by a diversity of people and ideas

And finally there is the question of INSTITUTIONAL FIT. There are some things a particular college will always be looking for because they fit with what that school’s sense of its own identity, but admission goals may also change a little from your to year – the soccer goalie graduated, the orchestra lost its harpist, the engineers complain that they are not getting enough students with high math scores. Again, turning that upside down, you have to think about fit where the institution with which you are concerned is not the college, but yourself and your family.

  • Does a school have the kind of financial aid policies that you family needs
  • Are you okay with seeing your family a few times during the semester, or do you want to drop your laundry off every week
  • Do family circumstances or your own health situation make it more sensible to be closer to home or to medical care
  • Are you a student struggling with either physical or learning issues that require accommodation, and how well-organized is a school’s Disability Services

In the end, there will not be only one school that will fit with who you are and what you are looking for. Indeed, there ought not to be, because the wealth of opportunities in the US means that there are many places where you can have the experience you want. And that great fit you have identified is also only the starting point for your college career – how well you make it work, will depend on what you do at the college where you end up and the choices you make there.

Heard of FIRST Robotics?

“To create a world where science and technology are celebrated… where young people dream of becoming science and technology heroes”

This is the motto of FIRST, whose members include, at last count: 212,000 students, 17,634 robots, 57,376 mentors, 19,134 teams and 34,000 event volunteers.

What is FIRST?
From Wikipedia:
For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) is an organization founded by inventor Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers in 1989 in order to develop ways to inspire students in engineering and technology fields.

FIRST seeks to promote a philosophy of teamwork and collaboration among engineers and encourages competing teams to remain friendly, helping each other out when necessary. The terms frequently applied to this ethos are “gracious professionalism,” and “Coopertition,” the terms coined by Woodie Flowers which support respect towards one’s competitors and integrity in one’s actions.

Breaking news – The finals for this year’s FIRST Robotics Championship are being held this weekend, April 15 – April 17, 2010 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Watch the 2010 FIRST Championships live at:

http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/robotics/

I have seen firsthand the amazing enthusiasm generated in my own children by participating in FIRST – designing, building, and testing a robot in 6 weeks with the help of patient, experienced mentors, and then competing against other teams from around the nation and the world.

I recently found myself wondering how FIRST had fared amongst homeschooled students. A Google search turned up evidence that the inspiration of FIRST and its philosophy can blend with the intense intellectual dedication and flexible time capabilities of technologically-motivated homeschooled students to make a magnificent and successful combination, as seen in this FIRST Championship-winning team of homeschoolers:

http://nche.hslda.org/docs/BrightSpots/200805300.asp

What does FIRST Robotics have to do with college? Scholarship money!

The website for FIRST explains:
Many colleges and universities, professional associations, and corporations offer college scholarships to high school students on FIRST teams. This is official recognition of the knowledge and technical and life skills these students have gained from participating in a FIRST competition. FIRST scholarships enable students to pursue majors and careers in engineering, computer science, science, math, design, aeronautics, and many other fields. In 2010, the FIRST Scholarship Program boasts: $12.2 million in college scholarships, over 746 individual scholarship opportunities, and over 136 Scholarship Providers.

For more details on FIRST scholarship opportunities for college, go to:

https://my.usfirst.org/scholarships/index.lasso?page=scholarshipsearch_printed

Congratulations, you have been accepted! Now what?

Many students who applied to regular decision programs now have a big envelope (or more likely these days, an email!) in hand telling them that they have been accepted to a school. Congratulations! Those who got good news from their dream school feel like they were handed the keys to the kingdom. For most, having at least one offer of admission is an enormous relief – let’s face it, one school is all it takes!

But as that good news keeps on streaming in, you may now find that you have difficult choices to make between those schools that looked good earlier on. So keep the following in mind:

***This is all wonderful. After being a supplicant at the mercy of admissions committees, the ball is now firmly in your court. Enjoy it – soon you will be a first year and at the bottom of the college totem pole again!

***Seek out the information you need to make your choice. Phone financial aid offices and talk to them about your aid package. They may not change their minds, but you won’t know unless you ask.

***Try to attend accepted student events, even if you had visited before. It changes the experience to know that college is yours if you wish! Also, if your earlier visit was over summer, a campus feels very different when it is in term.

***When you do visit, hone in on the things you care about – student organizations, research facilities, teaching faculty, or dorm rooms. Don’t confine yourself only to a few new friends or the set program, but rather explore the campus, talk to students, or attend a class.

***During your visit, have a good time but behave with propriety – schools would rather retract their offer of admission than end up with a freshman whose lack of good sense marks him or her for serious trouble.

***Don’t doubt the decisions of the admission officers and wonder if you have what it takes to succeed. If they had doubts, they would have informed you quite bluntly!

***But don’t harbor the illusion that you now have made it either – college is meant to challenge us because that is how we grow.

And then get back to senior year, relishing the last days of high school, preparing yourself academically for college, and enjoying what may be your last months living at home. Above all, stay safe!