Monday, May 25, 2009

You've got questions, we've got answers

The New York Times college admissions blog "The Choice" has been running a nice series of Q&A sessions called the End Game with two counselors: Ted de Villafranca of the Peddie School in New Jersey and Lolli Lucas Clark of the Brentwood School in California. I posted one of their questions below from a frustrated parent whose child was denied acceptance to top-end colleges despite excellent credentials...a familiar theme this Spring.

We've heard from a number of our readers who find this kind of Q&A interaction between parents and experienced college counselors/consultants helpful in learning more about the admissions process. So in a few weeks here, we hope to launch a similar feature with local Bay Area counselors and admissions consultants. More later, stay tuned!

Q: My daughter is a senior from a public school with a class size of 589. She has a 4.0 GPA with mostly advanced and AP classes, except required classes. She has an SAT of 2,250, ACT 36. So she is a National Merit finalist, President Scholar candidate, and a winner of MI Southeast Conference All Academy Award (only five students in her school win). She is a cellist in symphony orchestra and a varsity crew member on the rowing team.

Yet she was rejected by four Ivy schools and put on the waiting list for the University of Chicago. What went wrong? Her counselor was stunned by her rejection. What should she do to get off the waiting list?

Also, does a parent’s call to the admissions office help or hurt?

A: Your daughter sounds like a terrific scholar, musician, and athlete. The world of selective college admissions is so hyper-competitive that trying to read the tea leaves about why decisions were rendered is almost impossible.

The Ivy League and highly selective schools admit anywhere between 8 and 15 percent (roughly) of their applicant pools. Unfortunately they are unable to admit literally thousands upon thousands of highly qualified applicants. We often think, “What else could these students possibly do?” Thankfully, there are a number of wonderful college options which, in our mind, offer the same type of educational and extracurricular experiences. Gender does play a role and it is simply more competitive for young women at most places these days.

In terms of pursuing her wait-list offer, she should send an e-mail to the regional admissions officer stating her strong and unqualified interest (being straightforward and unequivocal: if admitted I will enroll, etc). We also think it is important to send a letter to the admissions office with any recent accomplishments. In the letter it is helpful for the admissions committee to be able to discern genuine interest by reiterating why you think the school would be such a good match.

In terms of a phone call, I would leave that to your daughter and her guidance counselor. We would certainly address all information to the regional admission officer who oversees your daughter’s school with a “hard copy” to the person who signed her letter offering her a spot on the wait list.

In this situation, it may also help to have an additional letter of recommendation sent. Maintaining and sustaining that interest is important, but being relentless (annoying) gets you nowhere. We wish you both the best.

College Admissions, Twitter and Facebook

The way that we give and receive information today is worlds apart from how we exchanged information 30 years ago. Technology created an even bigger chasm in the past 5-10 years. In 2009, with the advent of micro-feeders like Twitter and Facebook, there are incredible ways to share little bits of information, and I have mixed feelings about it...

When it comes to gaining insight into college admissions, you miss the bigger picture of getting a holistic view of the process - visiting schools, talking with professors, hanging out with students - you can't minimize those aspects and create 140 characters worth of meaning from that. On the other hand, we have so many different outlets of news, so many different thoughts we'd like to express, sometimes snapshots are the best way to do so - or at least to start there.

College admissions officers often look at Facebook and Twitter profiles, not as a make-or-break decision with their prospective students, but just to get an idea of who this student is behind the application papers. What is the contect behind the Facebook photos and the Twitter tweets? Because at the end of the day, as brief as we make our comments, and as we digest the latest news into smaller and smaller bits of information, they will only be as relevant as we make them. If the content in those tweets, facebook updates, emails, and blogs are worth reading about, we will start there, and then continue to peruse libraries and cyberspace for a wide variety of sources.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Battling Senioritis

Jay Mathews of The Washington Post writes an intriguing article on the causes of "Senioritis" - that all-to-familiar spring slump that 12th graders inevitably fall victim to - challenging teachers to keep up the rigor and creative learning process even at the end of school. "The important part of the learning process," Mathews argues, "is not pounding in the material but thinking it over, talking about it, coming up with new and intriguing ways of connecting it to the rest of the world." He writes that an AP environmental science teacher in Delaware has students assign their own field trips, and forces them to be clear about what they have learned by writing their own multiple-choice questions for the next exam. Big Picture schools avert Senioritis by immersing students in real-world projects and internships, allowing students to pursue their own interests and passions, substituting narratives and exhibitions for grades and multiple-choice tests.

It takes good teaching to keep students engaged. Senioritis, just an "admirable urge to do things differently," should not be allowed to become an unchallenged slump. Good teaching in creative environments can triumph over dispassionate learning, even with graduation around the corner.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Plenty of Financial Aid Available, Just Need to Work Hard to Find It

Harry Le Grande, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at the University of California, Berkeley wrote a letter to the editor on May 7, 2009, that underscored the harsh reality of being denied financial aid this Great Recession. Yet he also offered a bit of hope and advice: "All middle-class students and their parents should know that other avenues of assistance exist, including the Blue and Gold Opportunity Plan, which ensures that families with total income of less than $60,000 have their systemwide fees covered by grants and scholarships." The UC system follows strict federal formulas for calculating financial aid eligibility, so this is a welcomed relief to those lower- and middle-income families.

One student received a mere $212 in financial aid from Berkeley - more of a token gesture than anything - and so hopes to get accepted to a more selective, smaller liberal arts school, on the chance that the school will pay his tuition in full. As May 1 hit, the day Berkeley's $100 deposit was due, one student netted about $1,500 in outside scholarships, mostly from the California Scholarship Federation, a statewide organization. Other organizations to apply for college assistance: Rotary Club of Los Angeles (up to $2,000 grants), and D.R.E.A.M.S. ($5000 grant for Developing a Responsible, Educated and Moral Society). There's more money for college out there than ever before, it just takes more determination and perseverance to get it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

College Students Make Timely May 1 Decisions

One student favored City University of New York over Harvard and Columbia. Another chose Columbia over Cornell and University of Chicago. One student's first choice is another's safety school. To no surprise, according to this recent article, financial packages made a big impact on student's final choices of college. Students posted their responses on Facebook and bought on-line T-shirts to make the decision more permanent. It's the hardest choice students have made at the time, and many students waited until the last minute, May 1, to do so. If I can speak to any personal experience at Stanford and Brown - and having family, friends and colleagues graduate from city colleges, the UC system, and a wide array of small liberal arts schools - students will make what they want out of their college experience. You can have fun and be challenged at any school, depending on what you choose to do while you're there. Be it CUNY, Columbia, or a University of California school, take pride in your choice of college, and make the most of it. You have a fun and challenging time ahead.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Colleges Make Accommodations for Students with Learning Disabilities

It's hard enough transitioning from high school to college - moving away from home, becoming more independent, getting used to a more challenging academic environment. Factor into this transition a learning disability, and this transition can be downright daunting. Yet many colleges, big and small, have programs specifically designed for incoming students with documented disabilities. Consider the following ways to plan ahead for your child's transition to college:
  • Medications may need adjusting
  • Plan for a place to get refills
  • Factor in additional services:
    • student learning centers
    • programs that focus on study skills and organizational strategies
    • office of disability services
    • other specialized services for A.D.H.D, dyslexia, or other LDs
The University of Arizona has a flagship Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques Center, where a learning specialist is matched with a student, providing mentoring, tutoring, and counseling services. Landmark College in Vermont and Beacon College in Florida run exclusively for students with learning disabilities.

Finally, there's no better research than your own. Check out the following guides: “The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students With Learning Disabilities or Attention Deficit Disorder” (Princeton Review) and “Survival Guide for College Students With A.D.H.D. or L.D.” (American Psychological Association). Kathleen G. Nadeau, author of “Survival Guide,” recommends trying to find out about the college’s general attitude toward providing accommodations, and how difficult it is to get them. One way is talking to students who are using the services.

As a last bit of caution, there was an interesting article in the New Yorker last week about college students abusing their prescription drugs - and a growing number of undiagnosed students taking Ritalin offshoots for "cognitive enhancement." Best advice is just to stay in touch with your kids, make sure they use - not abuse - the tools to thrive in college.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Financing Your College Education (Part 3)

With all the uncertainty about how to afford a private (or public) college education these days, it's refreshing to read a proactive article on financial aid planning. Though quite technical at some points, parents should find solace and good advice from Rob Lieber of the New York Times. One financial planner suggests an approach he calls “20-20-20.” Take the current average cost of attending four years at a public university: roughly $60,000. Save $20,000 before your child begins college by putting aside $50 a month starting at birth and assuming a 6 percent annual return. Pay $20,000 out of current income while the student is in college, and finally, have your child take out $20,000 in federal student loans over four years. The $200 monthly payments afterward are not a horrible burden for 20-somethings to bear, and they’ll be debt free once the 10-year payback period is over.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and other forms you may encounter are intimidating, but fill them out anyway, even if you don’t think you’ll win grants from your chosen college - you never know where you might end up or how your financial circumstances may change. If grandparents wish to step in at this late stage, be aware that giving money to parents or making tuition payments directly to the college can have a big impact on aid eligibility. Consider paying off the child’s loans (or the parents’) after college graduation.

In short, there are many ways to plan - and save - for college. For most parents, the best way to save for a child’s college education is still through a 529 savings plan. With 529s, you deposit after-tax money, but any earnings are free of taxes as long as you spend them on tuition, room, board and other postsecondary educational expenses.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

College Night Recap (part 2)

More tidbits from Tuesday night's college fair. Part 1 focused more on Q&A from Stanford and Georgetown. Here are some random asides I picked up from listening to the other three schools in attendance.


Q: What can my child to do stand out from amongst your applicant pool and improve his chances of being admitted?
A: Students we admit to Harvard we know can do the work and thrive in the academic setting. So in our decision-making process, we often look at the likelihood the student will pursue other interests they have on campus that will enrich not only their experience but the experience of other students at Harvard. We don’t want students to come and study 20 hrs a day and never see the light of day. Getting involved with your classmates is the real experience. The library is closed on Fridays for a reason. Students will often spend 3 hours for every hour they spend in the class doing extra-curricular activities whether it be athletics or various clubs.

The fact of our admissions process is we have to end up not admitting so many excellent kids. I can remember one applicant who had upper 700 level test scores, she was in the upper 5% of her class, an All-American swimmer and she had a great interview. But she wasn't accepted through no fault of her own. There are so many different things that will make a student stand out. Maybe its your overall academic excellence or your research or your singing ability. Maybe it's your leadership ability. Perhas you're not the elected leader but the backbone of the school and people notice it. Not everyone is a leader, but we admit many of them.

- Make sure you take what’s challenging at your school. AP classes alone are not a counting stat for us, because some schools don’t offer them or don’t have as many of them.
- We reach admissions decisions by consensus, there is not voting. Everyone around the table has to agree so there is no reconsideration of decisions.

- We read every application twice. Perhaps the most important part of the application is your essay. This is really your chance to lend your voice in the process and tell us what you are passionate about.
- There’s are far more applicants who didn’t get the perfect SAT or ACT score than those that did. There are also those who have had more bumps in the road than others. That is why we try to look at the whole applications to really understand that makes the student tick.

Financial Aid
The 5 private universities in attendance at Tuesday night's college night (Stanford, Duke Penn, Georgetown and Harvard) made it clear through their presentations that they were among 20 private institutions that adhered to a need-blind admissions process. What this means is that admissions officers do not look at an applicant's family income or financial aid need when making admit decisions.

Much of the advice given by the admissions officers this evening revolved around the fact that the financial aid process, while complex and confusing at times, is fluid and "a conversation". They definitely encouraged parents in the crowd to pickup the phone and call their offices. They also pointed out that unlike the admissions process where decisions are final, the financial aid appeals process exists to help families who feel their financial aid award doesn't accurately reflect your family's circumstances.