What Admissions Officers Tell Their Own Kids

The New York Times asked admissions officers from nine schools for the advice they give their own children on finding the school that’s right for them. Here is some of their pearly wisdom:

“Knowing who you are provides a protective armor in a process that can be overwhelming. Not only are you inundated with communication from the colleges, everyone you know has an opinion of what is a good college and what is not, and they feel very free to express it. It’s empowering for a teen to be able to say, ‘I’m the kind of person who…’ ” – Diane Anci, Kenyon College.

“Getting those applications in early is the best way to reduce stress senior year. I want them to do well in their academic courses and extracurricular activities and to enjoy that last year of high school. Why spend it struggling with applications? … Think about it strategically: there are thousands of applications and essays to get through. If you get yours in early, the reader may be more relaxed and in a better mood at that point in the process.” – Clark Brigger, Penn State University.

“When my son was applying to schools, I never read his essay. Parents can sometimes do more harm than good with the essay. My advice to students is to first show your essay to a friend and ask, ‘Can you hear my voice in this? Could you pick my essay from a stack of 200?’ The essay doesn’t have to be about something life-changing or confessional. Smaller topics, written well, almost always work best.” – Stephen Farmer, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

“What I tell students, and my own kids, is that you don’t have to take every advanced class. My high school daughter, for example, is taking advanced math and science courses but chose not to take advanced English and history. You should challenge yourself. For some students this might mean taking the most advanced classes, but it also might mean taking the most advanced classes appropriate for that student, and not spreading themselves too thin.” – Stuart Schmill, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I’m not looking for students to have done any particular activity in the summer; but instead, I’m looking to see how students grew from whatever they undertook. I do see students who are doing magnificent research and that is a great thing. And I see students, like my daughter, who are working as a lifeguard at the pool all summer, and they are both learning from those experiences.” – Laura Simmons, Georgia Institute of Technology

“As my son prepares his college list, I’m going to hand him a spreadsheet. Across the top will be the schools, and down the side will be the list of things he feels are most important to him in a college. When he visits these schools and does his research, he’ll fill in the spreadsheet, and it will be a nice road map for him. At some point, once you visit two or three schools in a day or five schools a week, they begin to blend, and you definitely want some bread crumbs to remind you of where you’ve been.” – Gil Villanueva, University of Richmond.

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Strong Stories Can Overcome Weak Numbers

Writing in The New York Times, Frank Bruni explains how admissions officers at some colleges take the time “to notice details embedded in her letters of recommendation and mentioned fleetingly in bits of personal information.” For example, an applicant to Davidson College had ACT scores and a GPA well below that of most of its students. Her extra-curricular activities were not particularly noteworthy, either.

However: “She’d been reared by a single mother. She had a 6-year-old brother. And for the last few years, she’d spent three nights a week making his dinner and getting him to bed while her mom was at work, earning an income so modest that the teenager met the federal requirements for receiving free lunch at school … And though her high school wasn’t chockablock with counselors, she’d had the good sense to read up on Davidson and, in her application, lay out a mix of cogent, sophisticated reasons that it was right for her … Everything about her suggested maturity, independence, determination.” She got in.

Meanwhile, The Air Force Academy “has a 17 percent acceptance rate … Because it’s free and funded by the government, it feels an extra obligation to be open to all … And because it is preparing its students to be military officers, character matters as much as — if not more than — test scores.” The academy sometimes admits applicants “despite inferior scores, and who nonetheless perform superbly at the academy. One had an ACT of well under 20, and yet she’d earned A’s in A.P. classes at her high school in inner-city Philadelphia.”

“Delving into her background, the administrators concluded that the low ACT was in part a function of a childhood in which she’d bounced around in foster care and even lived with teachers … That she’d nonetheless challenged herself academically and maintained a high grade point average struck academy administrators as remarkable. They admitted her, and she went on to win a coveted award for her performance during basic training. An Academy admissions officer says it’s not about ‘a sad story or a sob story. It’s about: What are the candidates’ life experiences, and how did they react?’”

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If You Are Thinking About Transferring …

The Washington Post: “According to a special report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, a third of students end up transferring to other colleges or universities. Some of these students are transferring from community colleges, but many are also moving from one four-year school to another. New data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that 37.2 percent of college students transfer at least once within six years.”

A few tips for transfer applicants:

  • “Grades in college are the most important factor admissions counselors use to evaluate transfer applicants. According to Andrew Flagel, the senior vice president for students and enrollment at Brandeis University, ‘Grades a student receives in college are far more predictive of how they will do at other colleges than anything else they have done’.”
  • “Some schools will let you simply reactivate your application if it’s within a year or two of the original submission. You’ll have to include a final high school transcript, a college transcript, and one or two letters of recommendation.”
  • “Some schools have a lot of transfer students, which might make for an easier transition. Check out the U.S. News & World Report Education list of schools with the most transfer students. Another good resource … is the Common Data Set. If a school has a high freshman attrition rate, “you know there will be space in that sophomore class.”
  • “It’s important to try to determine how your credits will carry over and how they will be applied to your graduation. Many schools require a transfer student to commit before they will give out information about transfer credits.”
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    High Schools Address The Stress of College Admissions

    The Wall Street Journal: “With growing evidence that students are suffering from the intense competition for college admission, schools around the country are rethinking everything from tests to classes to start times.” For example, superintendent David Aderhold of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District in central New Jersey “abolished midterms and final exams and instituted a no-homework policy during breaks and some weekends.”

    As Mr. Aderhold put it: “We’re not producing widgets. We’re producing citizens of the world.”

    “To deal with the problem of sleep deprivation, some schools have adopted later start times. In 2014, researchers at the University of Minnesota examined data collected from more than 9,000 students at eight high schools in Minnesota, Colorado and Wyoming that had made this shift. The study found that when schools started at 8:30 a.m. or later, teenagers reported lower rates of depression and substance use, fewer car crashes, less absenteeism and tardiness, and higher test scores.”

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    Turning The Tide: Reforming The Admissions Process

    In this morning’s New York Times, Frank Bruni writes about Turning The Tide, a report by administrators from Yale, MIT and the University of Michigan. The report details recommended changes to the college admissions process intended to relieve some of the stress it places on students.

    Mr. Bruni writes: “Focused on certain markers and metrics, the admissions process warps the values of students drawn into a competitive frenzy. It jeopardizes their mental health. And it fails to include — and identify the potential in — enough kids from less privileged backgrounds.”

    “The report recommends less emphasis on standardized test scores, which largely correlate with family income … It asks colleges to send a clear message that admissions officers won’t be impressed by more than a few Advanced Placement courses. Poorer high schools aren’t as likely to offer A.P. courses, and a heavy load of them is often cited as a culprit in sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression among students at richer schools.”

    “The report also suggests that colleges discourage manic résumé padding by accepting information on a sharply limited number of extracurricular activities; that they better use essays and references to figure out which students’ community-service projects are heartfelt and which are merely window dressing; and that they give full due to the family obligations and part-time work that some underprivileged kids take on.”

    “Colleges are … realizing that many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks or slavish adherents to soulless scripts that forbid the exploration of genuine passions. And they’re acknowledging the extent to which the admissions process has contributed to this.”

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    New Study: Your Social-Media Footprint Matters

    Business Wire: A survey of “nearly 400 college admissions officers across the United States finds that the percentage of admissions officers who visit applicants’ social media pages to learn more about them has hit a record high of 40% — quadruple the percentage who did so in 2008 … For context, out of those who do so, 89% say they do so “rarely” while only 11% say they do so “often”. And the percentage of admissions officers who say they have Googled an applicant to learn more about them has remained relatively stable over the past two years, at 29%.”

    In some cases, the admissions officers visit because the applicants suggested it as a way to learn more about their interests and talents. The officers might also be looking to verify awards, or investigate a candidate’s criminal or disciplinary history. Students seeking scholarships may come under special scrutiny, as well. Sometimes, the visit is triggered by an anonymous tip, perhaps submitted by a rival applicant.

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    Will Harvard Become Tuition-Free?

    The New York Times: A “slate of candidates running for the Board of Overseers at Harvard” thinks the university “should stop charging tuition to undergraduates.” They see a tuition-free Harvard as an alternative to affirmative action, arguing “that if Harvard were free, more highly qualified students from all backgrounds would apply, and the university would no longer have trouble balancing its class for racial or ethnic diversity.”

    Asian-Americans, in particular, are thought to be “short-changed” in the admissions process. In fact, a pending federal lawsuit accuses “the university of discriminating against Asian-Americans in admissions. Harvard has denied the allegations.” Both the lawsuit and the slate of candidates are seeking “disclosure of data showing how the university’s freshman class is selected each year.”

    Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal says a tuition-free Harvard is not going to happen, however. “There is a common misconception that endowments, including Harvard’s, can be accessed like bank accounts, used for anything at any time as long as funds are available … In reality, Harvard’s flexibility in spending from the endowment is limited by the fact that it must be maintained in perpetuity and that it is largely restricted by the explicit wishes of those who contributed the endowed funds.”

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