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College applications: why your major matters

One of the most appealing aspects of an American liberal arts education lies in the notion that a student should not have to commit to any course of study before he or she is ready to do so. Unlike Britain, for example, where students apply to a specific course of study, American students applying to liberal arts colleges may at most be asked to state an academic interest. At many institutions students are in fact only called on to declare a major – such as mathematics, economics or sociology – at the end of sophomore year. (Note that engineering programs, for example, are very different, given the very high credit count of the accredited degree.)

Admitting students without reference to their major recognizes the fact that at college students will change their majors as often as they change their minds. It is also an encouragement to explore broadly and by roaming through an interdisciplinary reservoir, find the different lenses through which they can look at the issues that interest them.

It is easy, however, to confuse such an approach with a kind of academic drifting that lacks rigor and discipline. Many college applicants check the box that declares them undecided about their intended major because they genuinely cannot commit to a course of study. But for many it is simply a lazy way to avoid engaging with college as an academic institution or to think deeply about what they hope to achieve there. It is a bit like embarking on a trip without having wasted too much thought on either the route or the destination.

In the admission process to a selective liberal arts college, a lack of any academic focus can also help to weaken a student’s application. Some colleges will require applicants to express an academic interest even if their admitted students have a lot of leeway in changing majors. An applicant at Cornell’s College of Arts and Science, for example, has to be able to, “describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you.” Michigan asks applicants to describe how a particular college within the university will meet their academic interests. It may be possible to answer these questions without committing to a specific major, but it will probably be a lot easier to set out an intellectual evolution that has a major at the end of it. When a student is exploring what a school such as Cornell or Michigan has to offer, he or she should therefore spend as much time checking out departmental and program websites, as student activities and housing arrangements.

Even when a selective university does not require any commitment to an academic field, it is still interested in gauging what Stanford calls the “intellectual vitality” of its applicants. A student who wrestles with how best to pursue, for example, an interest in South East Asian culture – is it best to major in Asian Studies, International Relations, History or even Anthropology? – reveals just such a vitality and engagement.

Contrast such an intellectual tussle with a student who limply expresses an interest in mathematics, “because I am good at it”; or who wants to study psychology “because my friends always ask me for advice” and sociology because “I am a social person.” (These actually appeared in applications!) There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these ideas and in truth they probably do motivate many students. But they are superficial and thoughtless at best, and applicants to selective colleges do not want to give admission readers reason to doubt their depth. So while high school students should be encouraged to explore the many ways in which colleges differ from each other, from size and location to study abroad options, they should also be prodded to consider, with excitement and anticipation, the academic opportunities and choices at the heart of their college experience.

By Andrea van Niekerk

Stronger than Barbie: women’s colleges and the education of girls

On the campus of Mills College. Credit elisa_piper via Flickr

On the campus of Mills College. Credit: elisa_piper via Flickr

This week I attended a Share, Learn and Connect meeting arranged by WACAC, the Western Association for College Admission Counseling of which I am a member. The event took place on the lovely campus of Mills College in Oakland, and for many counselors this may have been their first visit to a women’s college. It was not only the beautiful campus that struck many, but also the reminder that women’s colleges like these are still very much alive and thriving. Started in 1852, Mills College has in fact grown up alongside the state of California itself – it claims to be the oldest women’s college west of the Rockies.

 

Women’s colleges were established in the US in the nineteenth century to prepare young women for the roles society thought them fit: as wives, mothers, teachers, and sometimes as social reformers in movements to abolish slavery or promote temperance. Whatever the intent, these colleges helped to expose young women to fields of science, mathematics and law from which they had been excluded (and a commitment to social reform remains very much alive at many). They are scattered across the country, from Scripps in California to Sweet Briar and Mary Baldwin in Virginia.

 

As more educational opportunities opened up for women, however, enrollment at women’s colleges suffered. Yale, Princeton and Harvard became co-educational in the late 1960’s. Women’s colleges faced economic and political pressure to do the same, and indeed many did. California’s Pitzer College became co-educational in 1970. Radcliffe College began a slow merger with Harvard while Vassar, another prominent member of the Seven Sisters colleges, opted to admit men rather than move and merge with Yale.

 

But many other women’s colleges chose the stay the course and adapt. Barnard in New York retained its unique relationship with Columbia University even after the latter began to admit women in 1983. Mills College now has an integrated graduate school. Bryn Mawr has a cooperative relationship with nearby co-educational Haverford; Smith is in the Five College Consortium with surrounding colleges such as Amherst; and Scripps similarly belongs to the Claremont Consortium.

 

Women’s colleges argue that their mission remains as urgent as ever. After all, even where women are increasingly in the majority, they still lag behind in wages and leadership roles – in her 2005 Commencement address to the College of Saint CatherineSusan Lennon pointed out that women in business held most managerial jobs but only 16% of corporate officer roles, 10% of executive roles such as CEO, and only about 5% of top earning jobs. Advocates for women’s colleges argue that such disparities underscore the need for educational experiences that seek to empower young women and foster their leadership skills.

 

Several studies have shown how women’s colleges appear to be delivering the goods:

  • study of data drawn from the National Survey of Student Engagement results found that students at women’s colleges “are advantaged in terms of the nature and frequency with which they engage in educationally purposeful activities and in the progress they make in a variety of desirable outcomes of college.”
  • A longitudinal survey of alumnae perspectives and outcomes, commissioned by the Women’s College Coalition, found that the graduates of women’s colleges are as likely as graduates of other liberal arts colleges to study abroad, find internships and have mentoring relationships with faculty. But the survey showed that alumnae of women’s colleges believe more than alumnae of other liberal arts colleges do, that their college experiences allowed them to develop self-confidence and initiative, be involved in publications or student government (while at co-educational campuses women continue to be underrepresented in campus leadership), be prepared for their first job, and learn to be a leader, solve problems, relate to people of different backgrounds, work as part of a team, write effectively, and be politically or socially aware. They are also more likely to hold graduate degrees.
  • Last year at the NACAC conference presenters of a panel on “How to get your girls to consider women’s colleges,” quoted at length from the work of Linda Sax, author of The Gender Gap in College. Sax shows the different impact that a poor choice of college can have on academic outcomes for boys and girls. In a situation where students feel that the professor does not take them seriously, women students are, for example, far more likely to downgrade their sense of well-being, degree aspirations and math ability.

Women’s colleges are not the most appropriate choice for everyone, but the best argument for attending may simply be the experience of women themselves. As a recent graduate of Mt. Holyoke put it in her posting on this blog, “After months at a women’s college, the first time someone treats you like a ‘chick’ and not as an adult with equal intellectual value, it smarts. Sexism is all the more apparent when you’ve fallen out of the habit.” Or as the t-shirt worn by a young woman on a Mills College poster proclaims, “Smarter than Barbie, Stronger than Ken.”

On writing your college essay

As we enter July, rising seniors should be giving serious thought to the college application. Many of you will not find this a happy thought, since starting the essay seems so intimidating!

There is certainly no shortage of good advice on the topic.  On the College Board‘s website, for example, Dean Schmill of MIT advises you to be honest in your self-presentation and to read the instructions.  Dean Brenzel of Yale reminds you to be authentic and to have your essays read by others who know you well. Dean Merrill of Connecticut College reminds warns that crafting a good essay takes time and you should make good use of the summer.

This last bit of advice is particularly important.  Students dream of an endless summer, but the break in your exhausting routine of homework and activities is actually short-lived. July is therefore a good time for some tips on writing your college essay:

•    On choosing a topic: For many of you, identifying the topic will seem the hardest part. The Common Application gives you six prompts to choose from, including a “topic of your choice.”  In other words, you can really write about anything under the sun because the topic is merely the vehicle for a larger story: what to tell an admission reader about yourself.  Whether you choose to write about a book, a person or an event, the admissions committee has at best passing interest in that subject, and will instead try and decipher what the essay tells them about you.

•    On controversial subjects and funny stories: Admission officers reassure students that they are free to write on any subject as long as it is honest and authentic, but there are clearly some subjects that will not work as well as others.  Few teenagers are deft enough to handle controversial subjects like their positions on abortion, presidential politics or foreign wars, with more depth than dogma.  Funny is good, but it works best if your unknown reader actually shares your sense of humor.  As with any writing, keep your audience in mind: admission officers are educated adults who are unlikely to share the social tastes of teenage girls and locker room boys, experienced enough to have read countless essays on every topic under the sun, and are above all led by the needs of their institutions.

•    On writing well: It is hard to separate what you are saying from how you say it.  With a college essay good writing is especially important since admission officers are also trying to gauge something about your academic preparation and intellectual depth.  This is not the moment to try and impress by choking out long words and unfamiliar phrases, and you are well-advised to follow the advice of William Zinsser in his On Writing Well, when he warns against the tendency to “inflate and thereby sound important.”

The American personal essay is unique in the world of university admissions. It is not as important to selective colleges as a student’s academic performance – as admission officers like to say, a good essay can help heal the sick but it cannot resuscitate the dead.  It is nevertheless hugely significant in applicant pools where many students share similarly high achievements and equal evidence of hard work. And in the process it gives young people with very busy lives a moment to reflect on the opportunities and meaning of those lives.

College searching: what information matters and why

This summer rising seniors and juniors are actively researching colleges in order to plan trips and identify the schools to which they may want to apply. These are indeed important summer activities, and there is no shortage of resources to use – from college guides like Fiske to online search engines and college websites.

But this flood of resources does not tell students why the information they are gathering, matters.  They read about class size and student to faculty ratios, the number of undergraduates and even graduation rates. But none of this means much unless they also know why all those bits and pieces of information may, or may not, matter to them.  Big school or small, open curriculum or core, college or university, residential or commuter – none of these qualities are necessarily good or bad in the abstract.  Their value derives from whatever a particular young person needs in order to thrive at college.

Here are some of the choices students may consider:

  • Big or small: At larger schools class size usually depends on the level of the course, but at smaller colleges most classes are almost inevitably smaller. To one student class size will make no difference at all to the learning experience; to another, it will mean being deprived of focused attention and mentoring support that he or she needs to do well.  For these students, the presence of an honors college may be important to explore.
  • University or college: While most colleges have no graduate school at all, research universities may have as many graduate students as undergraduates.  For some students, access to the greater research resources of a university (resources necessary to train graduate students), will be very appealing.  But yet another may feel that those graduate students siphon off the university’s attention away from undergraduate teaching.
  • Availability of undergraduate research: Research takes place at all colleges and universities, but students should note how accessible research opportunities are to undergraduates.  In some fields of study, doing research beyond what is required in class may be unusual. But if you are excited by the idea of producing knowledge or simply know that research hones skills and adds to a resume, the availability of such opportunities at schools like Harvey Mudd may be reason to choose one institution over another.
  • Study abroad: High school students often make note of study abroad programs, even though many college students will in fact study overseas with programs administered by a school or organization other than their own.  But even though you can still spend a semester in Spain even if your own school does not offer such a program, your college’s commitment (or indifference) to the value of studying abroad may have an impact on how readily it grants you credit for courses taken elsewhere.
  • Curriculum: Even though college is presumably above all an academic experience, many high school students have no idea how a liberal arts college’s curriculum is structured or why they should care.  These curricula do in fact all try to achieve the same thing: a well-rounded education in which a student is exposed to a broad range of ways of thinking.  But they get students there in different ways, and while one applicant may find the shared intellectual conversation of a core curriculum exciting, another may find it restrictive. Similarly, the same open curriculum that some students find liberating may perplex or intimidate others.
  • Range of majors: High school students often understand a liberal arts education as little more than the chance “to study a lot of different stuff,” and may spend more time checking out the school’s mascot or reading about its traditions than they will spend on the school’s list of majors or the websites of specific departments.  This superficial understanding of a liberal arts education is reinforced by an application that may not ask you about your future major and the knowledge that you may change your mind anyway.  But there is a difference between thinking broadly and being intellectually scattered, and if you are interested in studying Classics, Geophysics or anything else, whether or not you change your mind later, you should make sure your college offers you the chance to explore that field!

 

These days everyone in college admissions talks about the idea of a good “fit.” But whether one is buying a suit or choosing a college, fit is about individual measurement and taste, and students should examine the information they gather about each school through a lens of self-awareness and personal reflection.

 

History as a college major?

Recently the History Department at Rice University offered a class on “Methods and Theory in History,” aimed at introducing history majors to the demands of upper division seminars and honors theses. But the class also presented history majors with a panel discussion on life after college with a history degree, in which four current students and recent alumni spoke about the trajectory of their own careers and intellectual development with a history degree.  As it happens, my son, a recent Rice history graduate now making his way in Houston’s natural gas sector, was one.

 

Concern with the usefulness of a history degree has been a long time coming, and occupies the mind of high school seniors and their parents as they look towards college.  Families fret about new economic realities, including unemployment amongst recent graduates and huge student debts. Traditionally many viewed a history degree as a common avenue into law school, but now law schools are shrinking in the face of declining demand. New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, in a piece entitled The Imperiled Promise of College, recently highlighted these concerns.  Bruni pointed out that according to an Associated Press analysis of data from 2011, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed or, if they were lucky, merely underemployed, which means they were in jobs for which their degrees weren’t necessary.

 

No wonder then that many students feel compelled to set aside their love of history and consider more practical fields as they look towards college – Stanford, with one of the top departments in the country, now only graduates about 70 history majors a year, and at Yale where history has historically been one of the most popular majors, the number of history degrees granted fell from 217 to 131 in the last ten years.

 

Bruni is indeed right in cautioning students that hard economic times require them to be thoughtful, flexible and proactive as they think about their education. But students who love history and would like to study it in college, should not despair either!  If the problem with a history degree is that it does not come with a technical expertise that will ensure a job – like a degree in engineering or nursing may – that flexibility is also an asset.  As that panel at Rice confirmed, countless history majors are still leaving college to find interesting, productive and steady careers in an astonishing diversity of careers, as they always have: in politics and law, entertainment and news (Edward Norton, Steve Carrell, Sacha Baron Cohen), writing (Malcolm Gladwell) and business (Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook).

 

This is surprising only to those who remember history as the mindless memorization inflicted by Mrs. Smith on their fifth grade class.  In college, history students learn to gather, analyze and interpret conflicting evidence.  They construct arguments that fit the evidence, study change over time, and learn to communicate all of that with good writing. There are few profession in which demand for these skills – research, critical and constructive analysis, and the ability to communicate well – is not at a premium. In fact, William Sullivan, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, argues that narrow pre-professional programs, ” do not give students the depth they need to be morally engaged citizens and intellectually agile workers.”  An undergraduate degree in history, on the other hand, will give students, whatever their future careers, exactly that kind of flexibility and critical judgment.  Look at the list that the recent SUES committee on undergraduate education at Stanford identified as important skills that Stanford students ought to gain during their time on the Farm: “the capacity to communicate, critical thinking, aesthetic and interpretive judgment; formal and quantitative reason­ing skills; an ability to think historically; facility in both sci­entific and social scientific analysis, including the abilities to formulate and test hypotheses, assess data, and weigh competing theories; and, last but not least, a rich capacity for creative expression, in whatever domain or field.”

 

Why do we still need students to study history?  According to the American Historical Association, it is how we “gain access to the laboratory of human experience.”  Whether a student wants to become a businessman who needs to understand China’s position on international trade, a teacher in high school, a researcher for a think tank on social policy, a government employee or an online journalist, studying history will impart useful knowledge and strong analytical and communication skills.  And in a rapidly changing world, the study of history will above all give students the flexibility and adaptability to keep up the pace.

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.

Almost there: the academic performance of accepted students

With March well on its way, many high school seniors have either been accepted into Early application schools or are beginning to receive acceptance letters from their Regular decision colleges. After the celebration and relief, some will begin to believe they are in fact already in college and that high school is, well, so last year. They will start taking skating on homework, consider dropping that pesky math course that requires hard work, and say things like, “I am not really going to study history/science at college anyway.”

There is only one appropriate response: don’t! The culture of college admission often encourages students to think of high school as little more than preparation for college applications. Once you have achieved admission to college, there seems little reason to keep going in high school. But college applications are nothing but a point of transition between these two experiences – it is not the main act for either.

• Your high school education has value of its own – after all, if you don’t go to college, this may be the end of your formal schooling. Even if you go to college and study engineering, for example, you may never do much history again, and if you major in political science, other than some general education requirement, you may never be exposed to geometry again. And right now that may seem like no big loss to you, but those are important bits of knowledge in your daily life as an adult – as you measure your new kitchen counter or read your newspaper – and if miss the opportunity to gain such skills in high school, it may become harder to get back to them.

• Once you are at college, you are not starting over but building on a prior knowledge of reading, writing, and mathematical literacy. If you skip out on that preparation, you go to college just a little further behind than you may have been otherwise. Colleges know this, and so they will not look kindly on you changing your senior curriculum because “it is just not that interesting to me.” In college lack of preparation also leaves you less able to discover ideas, applications and even entire subjects that did not occur to you in high school.

• Colleges also know that high school seniors do not necessarily know what is the best preparation even for their intended major. A student who wants to study psychology may need to have a foundation in statistical analysis, an engineering student may find it useful to know some economics or urban studies, and if you fancy yourself a CSI analyst in Miami, you need biochemistry. You are in effect also preparing yourself for the unknown.

• There are also practical reasons why colleges look askance at accepted high school students who give up on rigorous senior learning. They know that if the academic enterprise cannot keep you motivated in high school, it won’t in college either and before too long they may see you before a disciplinary committee on academic progress. They know that if you did not learn good study skills and habits of self-motivation and discipline in high school, your risk of failure at college increases exponentially.

And so, contrary to what you may hope or believe, colleges pay attention to your senior performance even after you have been accepted. If you want to drop an academic course, you simply have to request permission from the college first, and the more selective your college, the more likely they are to say no. In the summer they will check your final school report to see if you maintained the academic record that gave them reason to accept you (measured by grades and courses), and if you did not, you will probably hear from them. Students can have their offers of admission revoked, although this is a rare occurrence. They are more likely to receive from their college a letter of reprimand or a request for an explanation – what the Dean of Admissions at Connecticut College calls an “oops” letter. Having such evidence of your former, slacker self in your file at college is no way to start this new, exciting journey!

14 Tips for good college visits

With spring break ahead, many families are planning campus visits with their juniors and sophomores.  Demonstrating your interest to a college by visiting the campus is a good thing, but not the most important reason for the visit.  Rather, you are exploring a place where you may choose to spend four years of your life, and as such the visit is far more for your benefit than for the college’s sake!

With a bit of planning and forethought, you can make the most out of the experience:

  1.  Do not fit too many campuses into a single trip or day.  It makes for an exhausting time and after a few of these ‘drive-by visits,’ every campus will begin to look the same!
  2. While it is a lovely idea to jump in the car and make a spontaneous visit to a campus, organizing your trip can help you maximize the moment: downloads maps, locate admission offices and parking garages, confirm tour schedules and register for information sessions, sign up if informational interviews are offered, check out class schedules, and see whether there are student performances you wish to attend. Prior preparation makes for more productive visits!
  3. Prepare for the trip in other ways too. Don’t forget to learn about the college itself – its interesting history, unique programs, and residential arrangements, for example. This will allow you to identify what you don’t know and should learn during your visit.
  4. Take notes.  This will help jog your memory later as you reflect on your visits, and come in handy when you are completing that college’s Supplement to the Common Application where you are asked to explain your interest.
  5. Get the name of the person responsible for applications from your city or country.  Admission offices may not always advertise this information, but they will give it if you ask! Geographic assignments can change over the summer, but having an individual’s name is helpful later when you have questions or minor crises about the application, or you simply wish to send a short note of thanks or of introduction.
  6. Register at the admission office when you arrive.  Some schools do indeed track ‘demonstrated interest,’ but even when they do not, being on a mailing list means that you will be invited to admission events offered in your city.
  7. Make your visit an academic experience.  College is not primarily about fitness facilities and dining halls – trust me, your good time at college will probably not depend on the quality of these! Colleges are about libraries, laboratories and lectures, so check these out by attending a class or even by emailing a faculty member whose work interests you, to meet and learn about it.
  8. Listen to ‘official’ presentations with an enthusiastic but critical ear.  These paint the most appealing picture, but there are other possibilities and you need to listen for them. I always suggested to my own children that they identify those words that are the stock in trade of every admissions person (passion, engagement, research, advising, community, etc.), and then differentiate them from those that are specific to one college (curriculum, residential colleges, cooperative experiences, etc.).  These are what matters most.
  9. Listen to the questions and conversations of fellow visitors. You may learn concepts (retention rates, yield, academic standing) that you did not know to ask about yourself beforehand.
  10. Parents, listen with an open mind to your child’s opinions. Parents are driven wild by children who step foot onto a campus and instantly decide they hate the place. But your students may be responding to something significant even if they are not good about articulating their concerns or fears.
  11. Students, listen with an open mind to your parents’ opinions! I often sympathized with blushing teenagers when parents monopolized conversations, asked inappropriate questions and boasted about their exceptional child to scare off the competition! But consider the wise words of Mark Twain: “When I was 16 my father was the most ignorant man in the world.  By the time I was 21, I was amazed at how much he had learned.”
  12. Resist the temptation to hang onto each other like life rafts during your visit, and spend time apart.   Going on separate tours, for example, will allow each side to develop its own perspective.  There is much to be said for giving teenagers the chance to interact with prospective classmates, and for giving parents a moment of respite in the coffeehouse!
  13. Enjoy yourself.  For many families, college visits will be one of the last times to explore together before separate lives and college obligations make family trips a thing of the past.  Enjoy it while you can and begin to build your future relationship as equal adults.
  14. Bring quarters for parking meters and leave extra time to find a parking space.  Of the many things colleges share, inadequate parking space may be the most common and aggravating!

 

 

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.