A great new web site, same old rants


For those of you wondering (you know who you are) why there haven’t been any new posts here of late, I’ve moved!!! Not from Mason, of course – when you’re already at the best University in the world, there’s no reason to leave. The blog, however, needed some new functionality and, much like the author, would benefit greatly from a facelift. While I’ll have to wait for any personal improvements, I’m very pleased to announce that my blog is now part of My College Options. MCO is, in turn, part of the National Research Center for College and University Admissions, a group I’ve worked with on and off for over twenty years. Some time on Saturday this site will begin redirecting you to the new upgraded location. Look for me there, and keep those comments, good and bad, coming. Be seeing you.

Fairness and Influence in College Admissions


Sharing is caring, right? From an early age we teach children about the importance of treating their friends in ways they want to be treated in return. As they grow older we continue to tell them over and over that all people have the same rights and the same chances to reach their dreams.

As a result, fairness becomes a huge issue for kids. My eight year old says, “But that’s not fair,” approximately 2,374 times each day. At least 2,373 times a day I reply, “Well, life is unfair.”

And so it begins.

This childlike belief in fairness results in one of the most central misconceptions about the admissions process: the widespread assumption that the process is fair, unbiased, and equitable.

Yeah. Right.

For those of you not paying attention or too preoccupied with the latest Paris Hilton scandal, universities are under heavy scrutiny on the fairness issue. It all began last year when a flagship Midwestern university had emails printed in the press revealing blatant influence by politicians in efforts to get unqualified students admitted.

Pardon me while I fail to be shocked by this.

While the particular incident last year was really blatant, politicians (who often control our budgets) advocating for constituents seeking admission to institutions is nothing new. It’s just one small example of the overall unfairness of the admissions process, which (let’s be honest) pretty much reflects the condition of our society.

Shameless Plug: Speaking of political influence, Mason students plan to be among the most politically influential in the country; at least according to Princeton Review and Huffington Post, both of which named Mason among the most top ten most politically active campuses in the country.

Nonetheless, unfairness in admissions is usually less about politics than it is about money. Fair or not, many students get access to better schools and/or grow up in environments where getting a college degree is assumed from birth. Test preparation programs, some argue, tilt the balance to those who can afford them. Tutoring and help with essays are also within reach of the affluent, along with hundreds of other boosts students can get if they can afford them. Let’s face it – it’s just plain better to be rich than poor.

Furthermore, apart from better preparation and guidance opportunities, there are many other seemingly “unfair” considerations that may work for or against students in the process. Admissions officers balance the interests of the institution and its constituents against fairness to applicants. This gets particularly difficult at schools like Mason that are picking from among very highly qualified applicants. A colleague from a similar school once told me, “we could have enrolled the next group of applicants instead, and the profile of the class would have been just as likely to academically succeed.” At that level of competition, influence has greater potential to sneak into the process.

That being said, I believe that Admissions officers, in most cases, do their best in good faith to instill as much fairness into the process as possible. Admissions, however, is focused as much on meeting the goals of a college or university as it is about serving its applicants. The faculty, alumni, and current students all have to be considered. Isn’t it logical for children of alumni and faculty (who are in turn more likely to be long term supporters of the school) to be given advantages in the process? Using the same line of thought, how should admissions consider children, friends, or employees of its major donors?

So no matter what you learned as a toddler, I’m here to tell you that life is often unfair (and, in other news, two plus two still equals four). There are, however, right and wrong ways that this fairness gets applied. Good news: you really don’t need to worry about this – there are PLENTY of great schools that are very likely to admit you even without special influence or connections. More on that when I have time, after I return a call from…well, never mind who.

Be seeing you.

How to find the hottest…school?


Everybody in Hollywood understands that reviews are a matter of opinion, and that efforts to get people to watch your movie/show will often include activities that have nothing to do with making the show better. As a result, armies of publicists seek to get stars on covers of magazines and included in the various “hot” lists.

The education equivalent of that is THE RANKINGS. Colleges and university officials whine and cry about the rankings each year, moaning that they have little or nothing to contribute to students’ understanding of their educational options. Meanwhile meetings take place across the country where those same officials plot and scheme to raise their placement on these same lists.

This schizophrenic behavior isn’t really all that hard to understand. The rankings are, for the most part, hooey. That’s a technical term meaning, “a lots of statistical data that doesn’t actually mean a thing if you’re trying to determine the quality of a school.”

With all due respect to Bob Morse, my longtime acquaintance that runs the U.S. News rankings, his very well-known list is a great example. It starts with a massive survey of college presidents and deans of admission. This is like starting a ranking of the best new cars with a survey of auto company CEO’s. Fortunately, I genuinely feel that Mason is the best university – ever – and I have no hesitation indicating that on the survey…which should give you some idea of how these things work.

The USNWR surveys are “balanced” by statistical data that is completely accurate, impossible to manipulate, and corresponds exactly to the quality of each institution. No. Wait. I mean the opposite of that.

One of the biggest factors, for instance, is how much money each school spends and earns. “What the heck does how much money a school earns and spends have to do with whether it’s the right school for me?” Good question. With money as a huge factor, of course, it guarantees that the rankings won’t change all that much from year to year, which is great if you’re, say, selling magazines to people who expect to see the same names at the top of the list each year.

I doubt, however, anyone really cares whether or not the rankings are accurate. Does anyone really believe that People magazine REALLY knows who the hottest people are in the world?

Very slowly there are some better tools being developed. The National Survey of Student Engagement does some great work trying to look at outcomes, what actually happens to students while enrolled at colleges and universities, and U.S. News has been publishing some of their results as well.

Shameless Plug: among the efforts to provide new and different ways to look at the rankings, three years ago USNWR added a list for the hot “up and coming schools to watch.” I’m not above bragging that Mason has been in the top ten for all three years. What does that mean? No more than the other lists. But, if your college decision is going to come down to just a ranking, I suggest that you might as well use the USNWR “up and coming schools to watch list.” I’m just saying…

Speaking of useless top ten lists, this very amusing list of educational screw ups showed up in my twitter feed courtesy of the Huffington Post.

The bottom line is that the rankings can be an interesting shortcut to developing your interest list, but don’t get sucked into thinking there’s a lot of substance behind them. My suggestion: build your own ranking based on the things you think are most important. Send me your suggestions for what should go on that list and I’ll post them in a future column. Who knows – maybe we can control THE RANKINGS of the future!

Be seeing you.

Piranha 3-D and Admissions Myths


I get easily frustrated with people who force complex interpretations of everything. This is particularly true at certain universities where professors appear to worship complexity. As much as I appreciate a really substantive cerebral experience, I also realize that Piranha-3D doesn’t have an elaborate subtext to illustrate the perils of the socio-industrial complex’s influence on the global environment. It’s about a bunch of really mean fish that eat, purely for audience entertainment purposes, really attractive people.

One of the reasons I started writing about admissions (the other, of course, is the chance to brag about Mason) is that at times it seems everyone who writes on the topic has an attitude consistent with those colleges that seem to pride themselves on their disconnect from the “real world”. So-called admissions experts appear determined to make the topic seem complex, defying understanding by anyone without decades of experience in the field. This leads to the obvious conclusion that an applicant needs enormous expertise to have any chance of success.

I disagree.

Shameless Plug: Unlike most institutions, Mason is especially well known for our real world connections, in fact our professors are in the news all the time. If you don’t believe me, Google it. In case you’re too busy to Google, you can just check out one of our most often quoted faculty members interviewed on the Scholastic website about ways teachers can help develop curiosity in students, or follow my Twitter account for regular updates.

Those efforts to make obscure the relatively simple led to the Great Myths of College Admissions
• Admissions is fair
• Admissions is predictable
• Admissions is complicated

In reality, admissions decisions often give unfair advantages, are unpredictable to the point of often appearing random, yet are based on a system that is simple to the point of absurdity.

The biggest myth of all, however, is that there is a SECRET to admissions. People believe there is some special trick, gimmick, or schtick which, if only they had knowledge of it, would all but guarantee admission to some particular college or university.

Not.

These bogus stunts often include some special essay topic or some special club you can join – or worst of all- some company that charges a fortune for claims of inside advantages. There’s never any evidence that any of that works, other than that story about somebody who got in at some point by writing that essay, joining that club, or forking over that fortune.

The reality, unfortunately, is really boring. Here it is (you might want to sit down for this):

It’s (nearly, mostly, almost completely) all about your grades.

Better grades are the BEST way to increase your chances of admission. That’s really about it…except that when I say “grades” I really mean your whole academic record: the high school you attend, the quality/rigor of your courses, the trends of your grades up or down (up, of course, if better), and the comparison of you to other students and applicants from your school. All of that is factored, to one degree or another, by admissions officers to get an idea of what kind of student you are, and likely will be in college. That simple, clear-cut, transparent evaluation accounts for the VAST majority of your admission decision.

I’ll get into more detail about how all of those issues factor into academic records in the admission process in some future posts, but in the meantime here is a really simple piece of advice that is sure to help you in any admission process: get good grades. Also, when you go swimming, watch out of the piranha. Especially if you’re particularly attractive.

Be seeing you.

Admissions deadlines, reckless drivers, and fire ants


The New York Times recently posted an article about high school students anxiously waiting by their computers for the “Common Application” to go live so that they could IMMEDIATELY submit their applications and be THE FIRST to be received by their university of choice.

Yikes.

I’m sure that these are probably the same people who gun their engines on the highway to get in front of me and then immediately slow to a snail’s pace afterwards. In my perfect world everyone would have a special apparatus that gives drivers the ability to launch a platoon of fire ants directly into the car of such individuals. No. Wait. First you would shoot honey at them, then the ants. And I digress, but I think you get the idea.

So I started thinking, maybe the people who send in their applications in the middle of summer have the same idea (about getting in front, not, I assume, about fire ants). Possibly they imagine their applications mercilessly cutting right in front of other applicants. Perhaps they picture the application entering into the admissions office with appropriate fanfare: trumpets heralding the arrival of the first application as choirs sing their praises and skyrockets explode triumphantly overhead.

Or not.

In reality, few offices actually check the dates on the applications; that is as long as it meets the deadline. Applying by early admission and (the evil, awful) early decision deadlines may give some advantages in the decision process, but it’s unlikely that being much earlier has any influence.

There are, perhaps, some admissions officers and/or committees that carefully check the arrival date of each application, but that date is usually an overall COMPLETION date (the date when everything needed for your application is received). In fact, many high schools will send transcripts out in batches, often well after these obsessive summer submitters post their applications. As a result, there’s a good chance that the admissions committee will have no idea who submitted the first application.

The moral of the story is that you can take all the time you want to turn in your applications. Until, that is, the deadline for the college or university of your choice– then you’d better hurry up and get your application submitted.

Shameless plug: in the unlikely event you don’t believe me, and desperately need to get your application to Mason in RIGHT NOW (since we’re surely your school of choice), the application is fully available, including our first of its kind option to submit video essays through YouTube with your application!

So relax…go back to squeezing the last juice out of your summer while you obsessively visit colleges, explore college web sites, stress out about your senior year, and recklessly pull in front of traffic and then slow down…we’ll have your fire ants waiting.

Be seeing you.

Faith, Admissions and the Internet


URGENT NEWS: The internet is not always entirely correct.

Shocking, I know. What’s more startling is that many of the websites that you rely on to get your information on college admissions are actually not all that reliable.
In fact, I had a student (who I dearly hope will enroll at Mason next year) confess that she relies on one of these sites as her “college admissions bible.”

Holy inappropriate religious reference!

Here are some of the many reasons why it’s a bad idea to rely entirely on college advice websites:

1. Most sites are trying to sell something (usually college loans) and care much more about the sale than about presenting accurate information. These sites will post just about anything to get you to their homepage where they can inundate you with their own advertisements for the best student loan ever or the most gimmicky product on the planet. HINT-if the first few pages keep redirecting you to loan offers, that’s a bad sign.
2. Many of these college websites are only trying to make money. Period. Here’s how it works–The people that build the site focus on featuring the most popular schools so that their link pops up on your eager google search. However, when you enter the site, you also see attractive features on schools you’ve never heard of (often for-profit schools). Don’t be fooled. These sites earn a lot of money in exchange for presenting these schools to you (whether they are quality institutions or not). HINT-if you can’t even get to any information without being bombarded by ads first for some totally irrelevant service or school, that’s a really bad sign.
3. Those that do care about accurate information and don’t manipulate the data are still often post misinformed and dated information. However, they might not be entirely to blame for this one. Colleges and universities are notorious for providing very little useful information that would tell them apart from one another. As a result, sites like these try to fill in the gaps caused by a persistent lack of transparency. HINT-if the site praises a campus as, “really modern; indoor plumbing newly installed,” that’s a truly and spectacularly bad sign.

On the other hand, I totally get why so many of you worship these sites. Face it, we all love and crave ratings, scores, and lists of any kind (regardless of accuracy).

This obsession starts at an early age. For example, my eight year old son insists that I score him each time he jumps in the pool. He does not, however, appear to care a bit about the scale on which he is scored, only that his score increases each time. His last jump received a score of 365,492. It was an awesome jump.

However, if you aren’t just on a quest for random numbers and genuinely want some good information, there are some decent sites out there. I’m particularly partial to http://mycollegeoptions.org. In fairness, that should be labeled “Shameless Plug,” as they feature this blog on their site; but, I do think they have solid information and their free college match test is more than a few steps ahead of most of its competitors.

I hope your summer is going well. Whether you’re surfing the information super highway or just jumping into the pool, I hope you receive ratings of biblical proportions.

Be seeing you.

Could iCarly hold the Secret to College Admissions?


For those of you who haven’t gotten the chance to read my bio, I’m a dad. For parents like me, the opportunity to humiliate our kids is one of the greatest joys that we can experience. Through the miracle of technology, I can do so on a vastly wider scale than was possible for my parents. For instance, my eight year old son loves the show iCarly. Apparently, this is a huge secret that could permanently destroy his street “cred” if it were ever to be accidentally revealed. Consequently he feigns disinterest when our friends’ daughters insist on watching the show.

Pretending interest/disinterest, it turns out, is an important talent well beyond your elementary years. While it’s unlikely to impact your popularity in high school, the level of interest you show in a college or university has a surprising impact on admissions decisions. Surveys from the National Association for Admissions Counselling (motto – “We’re a pretty big deal even though you’ve never head of us”) show that “demonstrated interest” is an increasingly important factor in the admissions process. That means that colleges and universities, especially the most competitive ones, will look at how many times you visit, call, email, and tweet about your unmatched desire to attend their precious institutions. They will also look at how early you apply, as well as whether you bother to mention in your essay that you believe your life (and possibly existence as you know it) may come to an end (or at least be shattered in some way) if you are not admitted to their school.

This often leads to madcap situations worthy of a reality show where students attempt to show their passion for institutions. Many end up rapidly crossing that thin line from, “I’m really interested,” to, “I’m a crazy stalker.”

Much like being an iCarly fan, however, there is a dark side to demonstrated interest. Many of those schools that make the most use of demonstrated interest in admissions decisions, use it in exactly the opposite way when awarding financial aid and scholarships. In other words, if the school thinks you want to go there badly enough, then they assume you’ll still come even if they give you less money.

Fortunately, we don’t play those games at Mason. You can feel free to shamelessly admit that we are the best school EVER and that your life will only be complete if you attend. Yeah, I get that a lot.

In the end, my advice is that it’s probably best to just be honest. Speaking of honesty, my son has asked me to formally announce that he does NOT like iCarly and that I was really referring to his friend Logan from across the street…no, really. I don’t watch either. Although Sam is hilarious.

Be seeing you.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.