College Applications Benefit From Focus

Until colleges start honestly looking for students who aren’t hyper-focused, I find myself having to make clear that students who drill down on their interests early on in high school will be better positioned to tell a clear, focused story in their college applications, and might have an advantage. Being well-rounded is fantastic, but colleges are looking for students with something unique, a specific talent, skill, goal, or interest to add to value to their next class. With a more focused application, you hand the reader of your file precisely what they are looking for—you make it easy to see your value add, and sadly, fit into one of the many boxes they try to place applicants in.

There are some other arguments toward being more narrow, focused. You may love all five (or more honestly, ten…) clubs you are in and the three sports you play, but how much can you meaningfully contribute to all of these activities? Chances are not that much, and by spreading yourself so thin, you’re not making much of an impact in any single one of them.

If you want to have a bigger impact, while at the same time create a profile that might be more appealing to admissions officers, try to narrow down your interests and corresponding activities by the end of 10th grade, and think about how you can engage more meaningfully and at a higher level in the one or two things you love the most. It’s a bonus if these activities relate to your potential college major, or support it in some way, as well as demonstrate a commitment to serving someone other than yourself. If you are not sure what that means or how that translates in a college app, email us.

Drilling down on your interests to develop a clear story or narrative for your college apps will go a long way in the admissions process, and is one of the focus areas of our college counseling work with high school students.

Remember, colleges seek to build a well-rounded class comprised of students with unique talents and skills, not a class full of unfocused students or generalists. If this changes, we will definitely be posting about it here!

 

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There’s More to College Than Where You Get In

David Coleman, CEO of the College Board (a company I can’t say I am a huge fan of most of the time — because I am anti-testing) wrote an article that had some wonderful points, and that I hope is an honest reflection of perspective the company is taking into consideration. All of us in this business (those of us with a heart, morals, etc.) do, I believe, think deeply about the impact of our work. Are we hurting or helping? It’s a fine line and a question that I hope my clients and the readers of this blog know that I think about a lot. I hope to always keep my work in “check” in this way, and make sure my values (integrity, empathy, transparency) and my team’s approach to this work is known:

Ensuring students have appropriate college options is our top priority. In order to make this happen, we aim to set realistic expectations and attainable goals. Once realistic expectations are established and viable goals set, we provide students with the guidance, resources, and support they need to navigate the admissions process successfully. In doing so, we aim to help students create the time and space necessary to work smarter, not harder.

We strive to empower students and believe that a student-driven approach to finding best-fit colleges and universities is the only appropriate approach. Finally, we believe that transparency—around all aspects of the college admissions process—matters. We hope our honesty and expertise can demystify the college admissions process so that students can tackle their applications and make final decisions with confidence.

We also strongly believe that the process of drafting and revising application essays is the first step toward becoming a college-level writer. With that in mind, we view our role in the essay process as closer to that of a tutor than an editor; all edits and comments are not simply corrective, but also instructive. Through reviewing and actively engaging with our feedback, each student can improve as a writer and as a thinker throughout the essay-writing process—arriving at college more than ready to tackle the heavy writing load.

Anyway, here’s the article—highly suggest counselors, students, and parents give this one a read!

The crazed pursuit of college admissions helps no one thrive. And while the Varsity Blues admissions scandal shines a light on families that break the rules, it’s time to consider the unhappiness of families that play by them. While competition for seats may be inevitable, students scramble to do ever more to get into college—and give away more of their childhood to do so. This competition might seem a problem only for middle class and wealthy families. But students of modest means suffer most when applying to college becomes an endless list of tasks requiring time and other resources.

As the CEO of the College Board, I see this arms race up close. We administer the SAT, a test that helps admissions officers assess the reading, writing, and math skills of students across the country and around the world. We also administer the Advanced Placement program, which helps students earn credit for college-level work they do while in high school. We know these tools to be useful, but we also see how they can contribute to the arms race. The College Board can and will do more to limit the excesses—more on that below—but there is more at stake than which tests kids take or don’t take.

The statistic that should worry us most is this one: According to a 2014 study by Gallup and Purdue University, only 3 percent of students have the kind of transformative experience in college that fosters personal success and happiness. Three percent. Even as the pressure of college admissions haunts students throughout their adolescence, whispering premature anxiety into questions of what to learn and how to spend time, the admissions process as we know it often misses the heart of the matter: What kind of education is really worth investing in? What is it that students should be doing, not just to get into college, but to succeed there and live a good life after they graduate?

Having listened to hundreds of admissions officers, school counselors, parents, and students, and after reflecting on my own experience, I believe there is a healthier model to prepare young people to excel. There are durable ways to invest in children that will help them thrive in college and beyond. As the Varsity Blues scandal works its way through the legal system, the broader question is whether there’s a productive path out of the current admissions madness—a way to fill students not with anxiety, but with a deeper devotion to learning.

In the Gallup-Purdue study, the type of college that students attended affected their sense of well-being after graduation more than what they experienced at whichever institution they chose. The 3 percent of students whose lives changed for the better—who, according to Gallup, had the types of experiences that “strongly relate to great jobs and great lives afterward”—had three features in common: a great teacher and mentor, intensive engagement in activities outside class, and in-depth study and application of ideas.

These three shared features are all about intensity—not just participation in college life, but active engagement. They require students to move beyond merely doing something and toward becoming devoted to something. They require a depth of commitment that will serve students well throughout their lives. And yet nearly nothing in the admissions process tells students that these are the keys to their success.

1. Find great teachers.

At the College Board, we regularly convene first-generation students on the threshold of college to help them plan their future. These students have been remarkably resourceful in navigating their path to college, yet they have much less to say about how they will succeed once there. I have asked hundreds of high-school students what choices they will make in college that will most shape their success. Students talk about which major they will choose, who their friends will be, or which clubs they’ll join. They never say that their most important decision will be who their professors are. In general, students are extremely passive about seeking out great teaching.

Outside of family, though, no single factor comes close to the impact of a great teacher on students’ success. Former U.S. Education Secretary John King describes how a New York City public-school teacher effectively saved his life after he lost his mother and father. He says that as a young African American and Puerto Rican man from Brooklyn in a family in crisis, he might well have ended up “shot or in prison” but for great teaching.

Even for students who confront far fewer challenges, seeking out and finding the right teachers pays enormous rewards. In my high school in New York City, there was a tough and engaging teacher named Mrs. Grist. I asked whether I could take her government class, and I went on to study psychology with her as well. Mrs. Grist was among the most forbidding people I had ever met, yet she made the subjects she taught intense and urgent. I was stunned when she asked me whether I needed a recommendation for college. Her offer gave me confidence in my step, as if her hand were behind me.

Mrs. Grist’s approach to teaching helped transform my college life as well. I arrived at college disoriented by large lectures and huge reading lists. I knew I was a slower, more deliberate reader. I could be intimidated by racing through books I did not understand. I was not self-sufficient to do my best work on my own and needed a great teacher to inspire me.

So rather than accepting the typical first-year roster of large introductory courses, I began a hunt. I used those first days of the semester, before schedules were set in stone, to find classes where I felt at home. I will never forget how much I relaxed when I walked into a small philosophy class that taught only one book. Instead of racing through a book a week in a big survey course, I immersed myself in the world of Plato’s Republic with a gifted teacher, Professor Ferrari. Rather than dazzling us with his expertise, he asked questions as if he, too, were reading the book for the first time.

In effect, I was attending a very different college from that of so many of my classmates. They carried around piles of books that they might at best skim before class; I was kept up at night by the handful of old books on my shelf. They were more engaged in what was going on outside class, and studied in binges for midterms and finals; I read my few pages, often with a sense of defeat, but there were moments when the centuries separating the authors and me would melt away. I worked daily for my teachers—looking forward to the next conversation, usually in class, sometimes in office hours, where I seldom saw another classmate. All these students who had fought so hard to pry open the doors of college didn’t know to knock on their teachers’ doors.

Finding great teachers and insisting on learning from them is a form of resistance. You must push the rules and the system. One of the most misleading things we say in education is that a good school will “give you an excellent education.” A great education is never given—it is taken. The ancient myth of Prometheus is more honest; the gods do not give Prometheus the flame—he steals it.

2. Pick an activity (or maybe two).

Religious tradition testifies that immersion changes lives. Research agrees; the College Board reviewed dozens of studies to find the factors that most predict success. After grades and test scores, the factor that most predicts college success is follow-through—that is, students’ sustained effort and growth in one or two extracurricular activities while in high school. Students who devote themselves to an activity are more likely to succeed later in areas such as campus leadership and independent accomplishment.

Devotion to one or two activities—not several—advances you. Competition to get into college has metastasized into a race where more is better. We have sacrificed the productive ideal of nurturing excellence in one thing for the mad rush to submit a résumé of too many things.

The typical application for college today has eight to 10 spaces for students’ activities outside class, and parents and students have become convinced that the more spaces filled, the better. Long lists cultivate busy mediocrity rather than sustained excellence. To get into college or to earn scholarships, it is much more effective to be very good at a small set of things than to check off a long list.

MIT recently revised its application to include only four spaces for extracurricular activities, and admissions officials there are evaluating whether they can move to three. Brilliantly, the school also removed the space for students to put any activities from ninth grade on their application. From MIT’s point of view, ninth grade is a safe harbor—a year to change your mind, to try different things without regard to your track record.

MIT is not alone. “Not only at Maryland, but broadly across the admissions community we’re more interested in the few things students are devoted to over a sustained period of time rather than a long list,” says Barbara Gill, associate vice president of enrollment management at the University of Maryland.

Time is one of the great inequalities in our society. The Harvard researcher Richard Weissbourd is right to demand that college applications honor the work some students do to support their families. For lower-income students, it is defeating to ask them for a long list of activities outside class. We need to do all we can to ensure that they have the time, resources, and space to pursue passions in-depth outside class—but also not penalize them if work and family obligations get in the way.

In wealthier communities, the scramble for credentials often leads to premature professionalism and intensive regimentation. These artificial structures we invent to fill applications hinder the development of genuine interest and commitment. Young people become less authors of their own fate than soldiers enacting the battle plans of their parents.

Personally, I was lucky. In high school, I began debating and found that I loved it. (My parents didn’t share my enthusiasm—after debate practice, I was too argumentative—but they left me to it.) I didn’t have much else going on outside class, so I could fill my time researching evidence and practicing for the next fight. But I wonder how today’s overscheduled students find time to explore any one extracurricular—whether it’s a sport, a musical instrument, or anything else worth doing—in any depth. The key challenge for our young people is not to master more activities, but to learn that mastery requires doing one thing at a time.

3. Learn to love ideas, even when it hurts.

The luckiest people in life develop enduring fascinations and spend time honing their skills and learning new ones. They experience regularly the internal satisfaction that arises from encountering new ideas. With its focus on external measures of success, such as grades and test scores, the college-admissions scramble does little to communicate the importance of growth and exploration. For young people to be happy in college—and to excel there and the rest of their lives—they need to open themselves to new subjects and ideas that can captivate and motivate them. That process necessarily includes doing things they might not immediately like.

Most of the time, we misunderstand how students learn to love a subject. Listen to parents talk: My child loves math. My child loves to read. When parents say this, they mean their child enjoys something and is good at it. It sounds harmless and encouraging, but it excludes the possibility that children might someday find meaning in ideas and subjects that do not come easy to them. Difficulty can be the starting point of love, rather than a signal to abandon the subject matter entirely. To say I hate math is to say that you retreated too quickly. The question is not whether you like or excel at a subject from the outset, but whether the subject is lovely and worth knowing. Loving to learn requires that you move beyond your initial distaste to discover a subject’s power.

Particularly destructive for aspiring college students is the myth of the “numbers person” or the “word lover,” ignoring the fact that we all have minds and hearts capable of both. (Feeling at home in both domains also makes tests such as the SAT and ACT much easier.) If you don’t at first like math, seek out a better teacher, practice harder, find a connection to something else that interests you. The paradox of loving to learn is that it requires managing pain.

Being a good learner does not require that you keep doing everything without any regard to whether you enjoy it; pleasure must emerge as an essential dimension to those areas to which we devote ourselves. But even when you are engaged with a subject you love, it too can be difficult and forbidding at times. Yet even when you love something at first and are drawn to it, devotion sustains you when it becomes difficult and forbidding. We know that people love to read when they are first defeated by a book, and then reread it to see what they missed.

We need to dispense with platitudes such as “Learning is fun,” and instead admit that learning is often painful. A real love of ideas begins when students stop doing only what they are good at and realize that through practice they can discover new worlds of understanding and joy.

Even without federal indictments of parents who sought an unfair advantage, it’s clear that the American college-admissions system has created unproductive anxiety among families while doing little to foster the kind of devotion to learning that makes an education meaningful. All of us who are involved in this system—including the College Board—should reconsider what we can do to stop the madness.

Advanced Placement can help students discover and pursue a passion, but not if too many courses suffocate their time. Some students cram their schedules with AP courses to burnish their applications. While data show that taking up to five AP classes over the course of high school helps students succeed in college, there is no evidence that more than that is better. We therefore recently announced that taking more than five AP courses should provide no advantage in admissions. Students can take more AP if they want, but not to get into college.

And we need a far humbler view of the SAT. When the SAT began, it was an aptitude measure designed to gauge intellectual potential. We revised the exam in 2014, and the era of trying to measure aptitude is finally over. The new SAT assesses nothing tricky or mysterious: a focused set of reading, writing, and math skills students learn in school and use widely in college. The new SAT does not tell students or anyone else how smart students are, or how capable they are of learning new things. It only says something about whether students have yet attained the reading, writing, and math skills they will use to gain knowledge in college or career training; it makes no statement about what they are capable of learning.

We need to change the culture around exams such as the SAT. They should never be more than one factor in an admissions decision. Low scores should never be a veto on a student’s life. Students should have confidence that if they practice their math and reading skills, they will improve, which is exactly what we are seeing when students practice for free on Khan Academy. Students should take an exam once and, if they don’t like their scores, practice and take the test once more. If they still don’t like their scores, we should offer many other ways for them to show their strengths to admissions officers.

Let’s fashion a new invitation to higher education. We must invite families to invest in durable excellence rather than fragile perfectionism. Students should sacrifice far less for the sake of getting into college and do much more to thrive within and beyond it.

This article originally appeared in theatlantic.com

 

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Academic/Career Exploration for Pre-Business Majors: Free Online Courses

There are so many awesome (and free) beginner level courses online, it is a missed opportunity to not take advantage of at least one or two if you plan to study business in college. Here are a few of my favorites—many are self-paced—that you can sign up to take now.

Yale: Financial Markets

Michigan: Risk, Return & Valuation

Michigan: Bonds and Stocks

UVA: Introduction to Personal Branding

Penn:  Social Impact Strategy: Tools for Entrepreneurs and Innovators

Illinois: Financial Planning for Young Adults

To take the course for free, select enroll now and the option that reads “Full Course, No Certificate.” You will still have access to all course materials for this course without paying. Contact us if you have questions about Coursera classes and how they translate, and are useful, on college applications.

 

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June Action Plan – By Grade

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

 

Juniors:

  • It might seem like a silly piece of advice, but many students are not aware that each school has a set of application instructions that are not located on the actual online application. I suggest you read them before tackling the application process.
  • As you begin your essay work, open a Common App account, and begin filling out the base data (Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities). Unlike in past years, if you open up an account now, it will not be deleted before August 1, 2019. There is no better time than now to get your CA base data underway.
  • If you’ve finished testing, it is time to review your college list and application strategy. Pinpointing your top 5 or so schools now can help you maximize your time over the summer doing research and outreach.
  • If you are not finished testing, continue to prep.
  • If you have summer college visits planned, take advantage of the summer slowdown, and prepare meetings with your department of interest ahead of time. Interview if possible, too. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative. Extended research and outreach can make a big difference in your admissions outcomes.
  • Many colleges don’t proactively ask for online resources yet, but you may have an interest in creating a digital portfolio (LinkedIn, SoundCloud, personal website, and/or blog). If you do, aim to complete it over the summer.

Sophomores:

  • Continue working on your resume.
  • Come up with a plan for test prep. Summer before junior year is a great time to begin test prep! Here are a few resources to get you started if you are not quite ready to work with a tutor 1:1: = PSAT, ACT, SAT, SAT on Khan.
  • Thinking about how to explore your academic interests this summer? I hope so! There are tons of options, and you should be doing something “academic” this summer if possible. Please note: something “academic” is not limited to a class or formal academic program. Examples of ways you can explore your interests at any time of the year = Khan Academy, Coursera or edX, Ted Talks or Ted-Ed.
  • Volunteer work is also always beneficial. It can be helpful to choose a few volunteer engagements and stick with them through high school/12th grade, so try to pinpoint something you will enjoy and plan to stick with it.

Freshmen:

  • Continue working on your resume.
  • Explore your academic interests this summer! If you are unsure what they are, that’s even more reason to get out there and do some exploring. Figuring out what you do not like is often just as important as figuring out what you do like. Please note: something “academic” is not limited to a class or formal academic program. Examples of ways you can explore your interests at any time of the year = Khan Academy, Coursera or edX, Ted Talks or Ted-Ed.
  • Volunteer work is also always beneficial. It can be helpful to choose a few volunteer engagements and stick with them through high school/12th grade, so try to pinpoint something you will enjoy and plan to stick with it.

 

 

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There’s More to Being Human Than Achievement

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Wonderful article by Scott Jaschik on how one high school in Palo Alto—a community not unlike NYC and the metro area—is taking a small but mighty stand against the toxic culture created around college admissions. The conversations taking place at this high school should be and thankfully are taking place at others around the country, and I am hopeful that more and more families will begin to see that there is so much more to the high school and college experience than where you go. It is it time for priorities to shift and for people to start getting real, and it has been time for a while now. Please give this one a read!

Fighting ‘Toxic, Comparison-Driven Culture’

If you live in a certain kind of suburb, you know some of the ways that students and parents boast about getting into the “right” colleges. The casual references to planning for Cambridge or New Haven. The decals or bumper stickers on cars. The constant questions about “where is your son/daughter applying/going?” The process builds the kind of competitive environment that adds to student stress and leaves many feeling inadequate because their college goals don’t include attending the most prestigious of institutions.

Then there is the college map, which at elite high schools is a feature of the end of the school year. A map of the United States shows all the places students will be off to in the fall. Students give permission to have their names linked to the map’s locations, so everyone at elite colleges can learn how many are headed for the Ivies and which ones. At The Campanile, the student newspaper of Palo Alto High School, the map has been an annual tradition. The image above is from a few years ago (and we’ve cropped out the lists of student names and their college destinations). Palo Alto High School, located in the backyard of Stanford University, and attended by children of professors and Silicon Valley executives, year after year sends many students to what are considered the best colleges in the country.

This year, in the wake of the admissions scandal that has focused attention on parents who seem more focused on prestige (at any cost) than finding a good match between student and college, editors of The Campanile decided on a new approach. They killed the map.

“The Post-Paly Plans Map has historically been one of The Campanile’s most highly anticipated pieces. Though its intended purpose was to celebrate the postgraduation plans of every senior, the reality is the map contributes to the toxic, comparison-driven culture at Paly,” wrote the newspaper’s five co-editors in chief in an editorial announcing the decision. (Paly is how they refer to their high school.)

“Our community fosters a college-centric mind-set, which erodes one’s sense of value and can lead to students with less traditional plans feeling judged, embarrassed or underrepresented. This worldview sets the bar for achievement extremely high and punishes anyone who falls short. We believe the burden of improving Paly’s environment falls on the students. If we don’t shift how we talk and think about college, the culture will never improve. This is the reason we decided not to publish the map this year.”

The editors surrounded their editorial with boxes in which some members of this year’s senior class discussed their college choices — and among those sharing their stories were students who turned down more prestigious for less prestigious colleges.

Gila Winefeld wrote, “At Paly, there’s kind of a norm of going to the ‘best,’ most selective college you can get into. Sometimes other factors that can be important like proximity to home and money fall to the wayside, but I realized a lot of those factors were important to me and my family … There were definitely some instances where people, even if they didn’t say it straight to my face, implied that if you’re a good student, why aren’t you going to a ‘better’ college, a ‘better’ school. I had a few different options I was looking at and I had some more prestigious options so a lot of people were very shocked when I told them that I had decided … One person even asked me, ‘Oh, do you not care at all?’”

Several students wrote of their pride at going to community college and the stigma associated with such a choice.

Bryan Kagiri wrote, “Personally, I think community college is a great, great plan. The stigma is that if you aren’t going to a four-year people look down on you. I look at it the opposite way — if you’re going to a two-year that means you’re confident enough that you can help yourself out. I don’t understand why there’s such a negative view on community college, because I think it’s a great idea financially and mentally for a senior.”

Along with the student voices was that of Arne Lim, an alumnus who is mathematics instruction supervisor at the high school. He wrote that the admission scandal is “not a by-product, it is a direct product of believing you have to do whatever you can to get your kid into this school … We hate those [U.S. News and World Report] rankings here, we absolutely abhor those rankings. You will always hear … college is a match, it is not a reward.”

Previous essays in The Campanile make clear that — whatever the sentiments of the editors of the newspaper — others at the school look down on those who deviate from the Ivy path.

“On college shirt day last year, a day that is intended to enable students to show pride for their post-high school plans, a student wore a Foothill College shirt with the words ‘Sorry, Mom’ written on the back. This message exemplifies the shame that many students planning on attending community college may feel due to the Paly’s culture of excessive competition. Students should not be made to feel this way about their college choice,” said one essay.

It continued, “The choice to enroll in a community college is often regarded as inferior in the broader Paly community due to a culture of intense competition. While it is rare for students attending community college to be explicitly shamed, the general attitude when one discloses that they are attending a community college is much less congratulatory than the attitude towards students who announce they will attend a more high-profile school.”

For the editors in chief, the theme of college admissions as a corrupting influence — one they addressed in killing the map — is also something they have written about previously.

Last month, as news of the scandal spread, they wrote in another editorial:

“Throughout our time at Paly, we’ve witnessed — and, admittedly, sometimes contributed to — the ugliest parts of this culture. Paly fosters a goal-oriented student mind-set, and we often allowed this mind-set to dictate our own self-worth and our view of our peers. As seniors, we have emerged from the dark cloud of the college admissions process and have witnessed firsthand the way that it erodes one’s sense of value and place,” wrote the editors, Leyton Ho, Waverly Long, Kaylie Nguyen, Ethan Nissim and Ujwal Srivastava.

They added, “Frankly, no one can be blamed for valuing the glitz and glamour of a prestigious institution or high GPA. But there’s more to being human than achievement — we think the drive for traditional measures of validation can force students to miss some of the most valuable lessons and experiences high school can offer.”

Source: Inside Higher Ed

 

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May Action Plan – By Grade

With AP exams, the SAT/ACT prep, and finals coming up, May is a busy month so the action plan is light. Juniors should be gearing up for essays in addition to finishing up testing!

Juniors:

  • Consider this process as you would a class from here on out! You’ll need to carve out time for it every week.  Starting early means you can be flexible—but this won’t be the case later this summer and once school starts.
  • Have you pinpointed two teachers to ask for letters of recommendation? Now is an excellent time to decide who to ask.
  • Some colleges have opened up their on-campus interviews. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative. And optional should not be considered optional!
  • Open a Common App account. Accounts rollover year-to-year, so there’s no better time than now to open an account and familiarize yourself with the system.

Sophomores & Freshmen:

  • Firm up summer plans and a tutoring schedule if you plan to start prep for the SAT, ACT or Subject Tests.
  • Work on your resume!

Recommendation of the Month:

Someone recently reminded me of the power of Ted Talks. I was sent this list a while back. I can’t recommend highly enough taking some time to do a quick search on TED for talks in your areas of interests. They are fascinating, and, great fodder for essays.

 

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SAT Subject Tests Tips from Noodle Pros

The first SAT Subject Test date is less than a month away. The Subject Tests — sometimes referred to as “SAT 2s” — are often required for admission to top-tier universities, but they are much less discussed in education circles and online. Because of this, we get lots of questions about what’s on them, how are they used, and how to prepare for them.

Noodle Pro, Nick Bacarella, has developed an SAT Subject Test series exclusively for the Noodle Pros blog.  In this series, students will learn everything they need to know about these subject-specific cousins of the regular SAT.  Within the series, Nick tackles each subject test individually to familiarize students with the content and test structure.

SAT Subject Test Literature

SAT Subject Test Physics

SAT Subject Test History

 

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The Right Way To Choose a College

Dr. Pope is a co-founder of Challenge Success and a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. She is the author of “Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students.” This essay is adapted from “A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More than Selectivity,” a report published by Challenge Success in October.

Please read her important article!

Does the brand name of the college you attend actually matter? The best research on the question suggests that, for most students, it doesn’t.

Challenge Success, the research and advocacy group that I co-founded at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, conducted an extensive review of the academic literature on the subject. We found that a school’s selectivity (as typically measured by students’ SAT or ACT scores, high school GPA and class rank, and the school’s acceptance rate) is not a reliable predictor of outcomes, particularly when it comes to learning. As common sense would suggest, the students who study hard at college are the ones that end up learning the most, regardless of whether they attend an Ivy League school or a local community college. Similarly, the 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index, a study of over 30,000 graduates, found no correlation between college selectivity and future job satisfaction or well-being. The study showed that graduates were just as likely to score high (or low) on a scale measuring their “thriving” whether they attended community colleges, regional colleges or highly selective private and public universities.

Research does suggest that there is a modest financial gain from attending a highly selective school if students are the first in their families to attend college or come from underserved communities. But the difference in financial outcomes between the low-earning and high-earning graduates of top-ranked schools is greater than the difference between students from such highly selective schools and graduates of non-selective schools, including community colleges. As Greg Ip noted in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week, “The fact that smart, ambitious children who attend elite colleges also do well in life doesn’t mean the first caused the second.”

A study of over 30,000 graduates found no correlation between college selectivity and future job satisfaction or well-being. Would such findings have mattered to the parents involved in the college admissions scandal that has unfolded over the past two weeks? Probably not. In a society that is hyperfocused on achievement, credentials and status, it isn’t surprising that some parents are willing to sacrifice just about anything, including their integrity, to get their child into a top-ranked school. Unfortunately, many high school students also have a “cheat or be cheated” mentality when it comes to getting the grades and test scores that they believe they need for future success. More than 80% of students at high-achieving schools cheat in one way or another, according to surveys of over 145,000 students conducted in recent years by Challenge Success.

Today’s admissions scandal should serve as a wake-up call. As a society, we need to reexamine the purpose of college and the underlying issues that lead families to be so obsessed with status or brand that they jeopardize their own children’s healthy development and well-being. In surveys conducted by my group, three-quarters of high school juniors and seniors list planning for college as a top source of stress or worry in their life, well above relationships and family issues. More and more students are reporting severe sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide as they struggle to meet the unrealistically high expectations foisted upon them. The ultimate irony is that, even when these students do end up in selective colleges, many of them continue to struggle with mental and physical health issues, and often lack the independence, resilience and sense of purpose they need to graduate and enter the workforce.

What would a better approach look like? If the name of the school they attend doesn’t make a difference for most students in the long run, what does? It turns out that what students do at college seems to matter much more than where they go. The students who benefit most from college, including first-generation and traditionally underserved students, are those who are most engaged in academic life and their campus communities, taking full advantage of the college’s opportunities and resources. Numerous studies attest to the benefits of engaged learning, including better course grades and higher levels of subject-matter competence, curiosity and initiative.

Studies conducted in recent years by Gallup-Purdue also show a strong connection between certain forms of engagement in college and future job satisfaction and well-being. In particular, they found six key college experiences that correlated with how fulfilled employees feel at work and whether they thrive in life after college:

  • Taking a course with a professor who makes learning exciting
  • Working with professors who care about students personally
  • Finding a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals
  • Working on a project across several semesters
  • Participating in an internship that applies classroom learning
  • Being active in extracurricular activities

And yet, as important as these various forms of engagement seem to be, relatively few college graduates say that they experienced them. While more than 60% of graduates strongly agreed that at least one professor made them excited about learning, only 27% strongly felt that they were supported by professors who cared about them, and only 22% said the same about having a specific mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams. Just under a third strongly agreed that they had a meaningful internship or job or worked on a long-term project, while just a fifth were actively involved in extracurricular activities.

Given the research on what matters in college, the best advice for choosing the right one would seem to be finding a place where the student will be engaged, in class and out, by all that the college has to offer. The good news is that engaging experiences of this sort can happen at a wide variety of colleges, regardless of selectivity, size or location. And with over 4,500 accredited degree-granting colleges in the United States, students have plenty of options from which to choose.

Evaluate Colleges by their attributes
Parents can play an important role in the college search process, but they should always let the student—the one who will actually attend the school—lead the way. Here are some practical tips and conversation starters for students as they navigate the college admissions process.

Keep the ultimate purpose of college in mind.

The college years are short relative to the rest of your life. How do you want to spend your time while you are there? Are you hoping to learn new skills in a particular area? Meet role models, mentors and new friends? Be exposed to ideas, people and places you otherwise would not have access to? What kind of “return” do you want on your investment, in terms not only of future finances and career options but also of personal growth and future well-being and satisfaction?

It turns out that what students do at college seems to matter much more than where they go. For some students, the desired return on investment may be strictly monetary. If that is the case, you may want to consider preprofessional schools such as maritime academies, pharmaceutical schools or other schools with specialized business and entrepreneurship programs. These colleges rank highest in lists that measure value added to expected income, and many of them accept all or nearly all of their applicants. If your goal in attending college is simply to maximize your income, attending one of these less expensive programs at a lesser-known school may be worth considering.

Ask the right questions.

What are you most excited about learning, doing and experiencing in college? Consider academic factors such as access to cutting-edge researchers, ways to apply your learning through long-term projects or opportunities to be involved in graduate-level work, and which subject areas interest you most. Make sure that the offerings and core requirements at the colleges you are considering match these interests. What types of places or settings do you imagine you will most and least enjoy? Consider both location and geography. Do you want to be close to home or far away? Do you want to be in a big city or rural area? Do you want to experience cold weather or a sunny locale? How about a big campus or small? Dorm life or off-campus housing? What interests outside of class do you want to cultivate? Since students seem to thrive when they are more involved in campus activities, consider the range of activities offered at the college and where you see yourself fitting in, whether it is sports, arts, service activities, student leadership opportunities or the myriad clubs offered on most campuses.

Are there specific resources, supports or types of classes that would help you to be fully engaged? Check out mental health services, the support system for students with learning differences and community supports for first-generation students and students of color. What kind of advising and career counseling systems are offered? And don’t forget to look closely at financial aid and other scholarship opportunities.

Who do you want to hang out with and get to know? What social scene do you want? An active Greek system? A rah-rah sports scene? A mellow coffeehouse vibe? International students and study-abroad programs? Students who share your religious affiliation or values?

Do your research.

The internet can be your friend as you peruse different college websites, take virtual tours or visit nearby campuses to learn about the type of school you want. Look for schools that match the answers to the questions above. Sit in on a class or two if you can. Talk to current students or recent alumni. Don’t necessarily base your decision on your parents’ experiences or misconceptions, especially because colleges change and evolve over the years.

Enter college with an engagement mindset.

This is critical. Consider how you might make the most out of your time in college by investing in relationships, trying new things, studying hard, reaching out to adults and peers, building empathy and taking appropriate risks. Be sure you know how to balance a checkbook, do your own laundry and handle the inevitable setbacks and stresses that will occur.

Is an Elite College Worth It? Maybe Not

Challenge Success works with K-12 schools across the country to increase student well-being and engagement with learning. Our survey results show that almost half of students are just “doing school,” that is, playing the game in order to get ahead. That’s no way to prepare for a satisfying life of learning and work.

The message that we try to impart is clear: Parents and students must work on a different attitude toward the classroom long before they start thinking about which college to attend. It’s never too early to foster the skills needed for a healthy and meaningful college experience.

After a talk I recently gave in New York, a father approached me to say that, a year earlier, his daughter was choosing between an Ivy League school and a well-known regional college that was ranked much lower. He took her to visit both schools, and on the way home from the Ivy, she told him that she was going to turn it down. She liked the people and programs at the other school and thought she would be happier there.

He was furious, he told me, and didn’t speak to her during the entire ride home and most of the following week. Who turns down the Ivy League? “But boy was I wrong,” he said. “She is now a freshman at [the regional school] and has never been happier. I thought I knew what was best for her, but she was the smart one who knew where she would thrive.”

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Course Rigor is Not a Number

Repost from Dean J at UVA, one of the best straight-from-the-admissions-office blogs out there. I’ve always said, aim for all the cores all four years—English, Math, Science, Social Science, and World Language. She agrees! It can be tempting to want to drop language senior year to double up on science if that is your intended major in interest. I think in some cases it is fine, but that might not be a good option in the eyes of all admissions officers. Read her post below (and here):

I often mention the cyclical nature of admission work. There are certain phases that happen every year and certain issues that come up when we talk to families. I want to address the questions we get about rigor in the high school curriculum.

1. All of your core classes are important.

A lot of people focus on the core areas that correspond to their current academic interest. I’ve even had parents wave off certain subjects because their student isn’t interested in them or they don’t come “naturally” to them. I wish they’d stop this. High school is the time to get a broad foundation in several areas and college is the time to specialize. We are most concerned with a student’s work in four core areas (in alpha order, not order of importance): English, Math, Science, Social Science, and World Language.
At UVA, students don’t even declare a major until the end of the second year in the College of Arts and Sciences or the end of the first year in Engineering and Architecture. The Nursing and Kinesiology students are the only ones admitted directly into a program.

2. The number of APs doesn’t drive a decision.

Plenty of people want to know how many AP courses a student should take to be competitive in our process. We don’t approach applications this way. First of all, not everyone goes to a school with APs as an option. Second, some schools limit how many AP courses a student may take. Third, with the number of AP courses offered these days, you can rack up a lot of APs in just one subject. There could be students with big AP numbers who also haven’t take an advanced course in other core areas.

3. Doubling up in one subject at the expense of the core doesn’t “look good.”

There are some students who are so excited about a certain subject that they want to double or even triple up on courses in that area. I don’t think it’s smart to drop core subjects to load up classes in one area. Cover the core and use your electives to explore your interests.
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For Families: Ethical Parenting in the College Admissions Process

Parents and other primary caregivers shape their children’s moral development in myriad ways. They also often influence every phase of the college preparation, search, and admissions process.

In the following seven guideposts, Making Caring Common explores specifically how parents can guide their teens ethically, reduce excessive achievement pressure, and promote key ethical, social, and emotional capacities in teens in the college admissions process.

1. Keep the focus on your teen

Why? The college admissions process, a key rite of passage in adolescence, can be a wonderful opportunity for parents to get to know their teen in a deeper way—to understand what they are drawn to, hope for, fret about, and value in others and themselves. It is also a vital opportunity for parents to express and model the empathy in their relationship with their teen that supports their teen’s authenticity and is so crucial for teens to develop in their relationships.

Yet our hopes, anxieties, and needs in this process can cause us to misunderstand or subordinate our teen’s needs. We may, for example, tacitly pressure our teen to attend a college to live out our dreams, compensate for our shortcomings, or reproduce our own college experience. When parents compete with other parents or view their teen’s college choice as a public marker of their success as parents, they can both sideline their teens’ needs and flood their teen with fears of shaming them if their college options don’t broadcast success. “The most helpful change that parents and colleges could make in the admissions process,” a high school student told interviewers at the Education Conservancy, is to send the message that “you’re a perfectly good person—maybe even a better person—if you don’t go to one of the top ten colleges.”

During the college admissions process, parents also face their teen’s impending separation from them. The admissions process is often a rite of passage for teens and for parents, a time when parents’ role and center of gravity shifts in ways that can shake loose feelings that can undermine parents’ ability to act in their teens’ best interests. Some parents may cling to their teens more tightly than they should, anxiously asserting what remains of their control of their teens’ life and hampering their teens’ ability to think independently—the infamous “helicopter,” “bulldozer,” or “lawnmower” parents. Other parents, eager for their teen to move on, may prematurely back away.

How? It’s important for parents to undertake the often subtle, difficult work of disentangling their wishes from their teen’s wishes. Because we all have our blind spots, parents can often benefit a great deal from talking to those they respect and trust about the places where their own and their child’s views about colleges conflict, and about how to handle these conflicts.

Parents, too, can be alert to moments when they may be conflating their interests with their teen’s. It should be a red flag for us as parents if we find ourselves peppering admissions staff on college tours while our teen stands idly by, constantly assessing what our teen’s course and activity choices mean for their college applications, find ourselves consumed with poring over commercial college rankings, or feel our self-esteem plummet if a child is rejected at a particular college.

At the outset of the process, parents might ask their teen questions that enable them to better engage in the complex choreography of following and guiding their teen. In the whipped-up, frenzied atmosphere of the college admissions process, parents often need to pause and listen. We might ask our teens whether they feel stress in this process and what is causing it. We might ask whether the process is causing them to compromise their values or making them feel less like themselves, and we might invite feedback on our role: “What role would you like me to play in this process?” “Will you tell me if I’m involved in ways that are making this process harder for you?”

2. Follow your ethical GPS

Why? The college admissions process often tests both parents’ and teens’ ethical character. A small fraction of parents engage in outright unethical practices to give their children advantages: getting psychiatrists to falsely diagnose their teen as having learning differences so their child is granted more time on standardized tests, threatening to sue guidance counselors who write poor recommendations, buying college essays online, or writing anonymous letters to admissions offices that seek to sabotage the admissions chances of other students at their teen’s school. Far more commonly, parents may slip into more subtle forms of dishonesty—allowing their own thinking or voice to intrude in college essays, for example, or looking the other way when hired tutors are over-involved in applications, a trend that appears to be growing (Jaschik, 2017). There’s good reason to believe that many teens lie or at least exaggerate on their college applications, and parents may also either condone or half-consciously overlook these violations. According to several studies, a whopping 80 – 95% of high school students report some form of cheating in the last year, and many of these students view cheating as trivial or don’t see it as a problem at all (Challenge Success, 2012; O’Rourke,  Barnes, Deaton, Fulks, Ryan & Rettinger, 2010; Wangaard & Stephens, 2011). In a survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics (2012), 57% of high-schoolers agreed that, “in the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.” Some parents also give their children advantages without any consideration of equity or fairness in the college admissions process, such as paying private college counselors $40,000 a year (Berfield & Tergesen, 2007)—practices that also constantly fuel other parents’ anxiety that they are short-changing their own child. Some parents discourage their teen from sharing information and resources with their peers, fearing that their teens might end up competing with those peers for the same colleges.

There are many compelling reasons why parents shouldn’t let adults’ thinking and voices seep into college applications or allow teens to misrepresent themselves in other ways. Allowing these misrepresentations sends the message that ethical standards can be ignored if they’re inconvenient and that success doesn’t need to be earned. Adolescence is also a time when teens are both developing strong moral convictions and high ideals and are prone to deep cynicism. They can be razor-sharp alert to hypocrisy and often long for adults who are North Stars, who they can deeply respect and trust (Coles, 1986; Erikson,1968). When parents allow teens to misrepresent themselves, and especially when parents actively participate in that misrepresentation, they can stoke that cynicism and erode that trust. “I know kids,” says Denise Pope from Challenge Success at Stanford University, “who are absolutely mortified when their parents cheat the system. They’re embarrassed and ashamed” (Miller, 2013). Letting teens misrepresent themselves can also send the message to teens that there is something wrong with them: Why else, teens might ask themselves, would my parents write my essay or allow me to misrepresent myself? (Miller, 2013). Misrepresentations can be self-defeating in another sense: They can land teens in the wrong college. When parents or teens try to justify misrepresentations by claiming that “everyone is doing it” or “the system is corrupt,” they also create a very slippery ethical slope that can simply reinforce teens’ conformist tendencies and deprive them of a key lesson in moral leadership— that morality often means going against the herd.

How? Rather than dismissing misrepresentations as trivial or finding ways to overlook them, we as parents ought to be willing to ask ourselves hard, fundamental questions about who we want to be and what we want to model for our children. We can consider whether getting into a particular college is really more important than compromising our teen’s or our own integrity. We can consider with our teens the exceptional cases when dishonesty is warranted in the service of a higher principle—when it means, for example, protecting someone’s life or advancing a vital cause—and discuss whether misrepresenting oneself to get into a college one prefers really qualifies as one of these cases. We can remind ourselves and talk to teens about why authenticity and honesty are critical—especially in this era of “fake news”—and about the necessity of acting in ways that we want to be precedents for others. Just as important, we can explore with teens why they might feel pressured to cheat or misrepresent themselves—do they fear disappointing or shaming themselves or us?—and think through with teens what role we might play in alleviating that pressure.

3.  Use the admissions process as an opportunity for ethical education

Why? Far too often, the college admissions process is eye-opening for young people in all the wrong ways. It’s a powerful introduction to the values of adult society, and many young people are morally troubled, sometimes deeply so, by what they experience. Many students across a wide range of communities are acutely aware that the deck is stacked, that there are vast differences in students’ access to counselors, tutors, and other admissions resources, and that college is simply unaffordable for staggering numbers of families. Many students bridle at the unfairness of favoring certain students in admissions, such as donor and legacy students, full pay students, and athletes. Many also struggle with how much they can embellish their applications and “play the game” without compromising their own authenticity and integrity.

How? It’s clearly critical to create greater equity and fairness in the college admissions system. Talking about these ethical concerns is not a substitute for that. But these types of ethical questions and concerns provide powerful opportunities for helping students take multiple perspectives and develop more mature ethical understandings. Parents can engage their teens in thinking about why well-intentioned people create and participate in unfair systems and to consider the crucial question of how one participates ethically in systems that one may view as unethical in significant respects. Is it ever ok to cheat in a system that one views as cheating you? Parents and teens might explore the many inequities in this process. Why do they exist? What might be done to remedy them? How can one effect change? They might analyze from various vantage points—including from the perspective of college admissions staff or financial aid officers—the case for and against favoring athletes and children of donors and legacies. Students might be asked to imagine an admissions process that they view as fair and high-integrity and to consider who and what needs to change for this system to exist. All of these conversations, of course, need to be guided by key ethical principles, for example, honesty and fairness are important to strive for in all our interactions and honesty should only be compromised when it is outweighed by other ethical considerations, such as protecting others or oneself from serious harm. Parents might also speak directly with students about the reality that there is in, in fact, a certain “game to be played” in this process, but discuss with students both how to play this game—presenting themselves in ways that are likely to be attractive to college admissions offices—while also presenting themselves authentically. It’s a difficult skill that they are likely to need in various settings throughout life.

4. Be authentic

Why? Many parents fail to have authentic, honest conversations with their teens during the college admissions process, diminishing their role as trusted guides and mentors and eroding their capacity to support their teen in expressing themselves authentically. We have talked to many young people in middle- and upper-class communities who report that their parents, for example, say that getting into a highly selective college doesn’t matter in one sentence but then badger them about grades or SAT prep in the next. One parent we spoke to told us without a hint of irony: “My husband doesn’t care whether our daughter goes to a high-status college. It’s fine with him if she goes to Swarthmore (a highly competitive and high-status school).” Other students report that their parents play down high-status colleges only because at some level their parents know that they live in a neighborhood and attend schools that will do the muscling for them. “My parents don’t have to say anything about how important it is [that I go to a high-status college] and I’m still going to feel a lot of pressure in my community to go to one of those places,” a 17-year-old from a town outside Boston says. “The only reason they can tell themselves they’re not pressuring me is that there’s already huge pressure on me.” Still other students view their parents as showing their hand when they protest too loudly about other parents’ intense focus on selective colleges. As one high school student wrote in U.S. News and World Report: “My mom delights in anecdotes about the ridiculous activities of ‘psycho moms,’ her name for mothers who are overly anxious about where their children will attend college. This is how she assures herself that she is not as crackers as these women” (Karlin, 2005). Some parents themselves are aware of their hypocrisy: “We tell our children one day that we just want them to go to a college where they’ll be happy,” a Boston parent tells us, “and the next day we tell them they should go to the best college they can get in to.”

How? As parents, many of us need to reckon with these conflicting feelings and talk to others both about these feelings and about how to discuss them authentically with our teen. We also can try to understand what’s “in the water,” scanning the many school and community factors that may be influencing our teen’s college considerations so that we can talk to our teens in ways that acknowledge these realities. In addition, we can simply ask our teen to alert us if they think we’re sending mixed messages.

Finally, many parents may underestimate what a relief it would be to their teen and the extent to which it would support their teen’s maturity and secure their respect if they stopped dodging and spoke honestly, including at times sharing their own irrational feelings. For example, while it’s important for parents to try to manage their disappointment when their teen is rejected at a college, if parents are visibly disappointed in the presence of their teen, it might help teens a great deal if parents explained why. A parent might explain that they always wanted to attend that college or that they were too caught up in the status of that college and that they recognize that these are their issues to work out.

 

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