Recommendations and college admission

There’s been some recent traffic on the e-list for the national association for college admissions counseling (NACAC) about recommendations.  I’ll start with a few posts as an overview, and then get into some of the more controversial issues (unless I get distracted – again). 

Remember that each admissions officer or committee reads THOUSANDS of applications, so this is not a competition to see who sends the most recommendations. The truth is that you can really annoy a reader with a ton of recommendations, especially if they don’t explain different information. Whatever the school asks for is sufficient, although I’d always send at least one from a teacher. A good rule of thumb is no more than one to two more than required. 

When I started my career I was at a school that requested 2-3 recommendations.  The most I ever received, right through today, was 32!!! What was worse, every recommendation looked the same.  There was a saying at the time (a time long long ago when we still used this stuff called “paper” and put your records in things called “file folders”  – yes I know, it’s like we were cavemen), that went, “the thicker the folder the thicker the kid.”  In other words, it was (and is) generally a safe bet that any applicant that sends a RIDICULOUS amount of supporting material has SOMETHING wrong…and that seemed to be the case. 

For starters, every recommendation was almost identical.  They all said something about how “Johnny” (the names have been changed to protect the clueless) was a late bloomer, how his grades didn’t reflect his potential, whata great guy he was blah blah blah.  And I mean VERY similar.  In the same order, mentioning the same things.  As if “Johnny”, that yet to bloom genius, had given the same letter to 32 people he met on the street.

Bear in mind, I was a new counselor with about a thousand applications to read.  I’m trying to get through my list, and here comes this MASSIVE folder for “Johnny”.  As I’m flipping through these very nearly identical recommendations, one after another after another, I realized something.  I hated Johnny. 

Fortunately, Johnny’s grades were truly mediocre.  So I denied him.  Then, I danced.  Wel, maybe not a full dance, but definitely some kind of gleeful expression of joy.  Something between a loud “whoopee” and a stadium wave. 

This, of course, is not the feeling you want to inspire in the person reading your application.  So beware.  Do not be “Johnny”.  If your name is “Johnny”, why do you spell it with quotation marks?  That’s just odd, and bound to confuse people. 

Where was I?  Oh yes, don’t send needless extra recommendations.  Tomorrow, what should you look for in GOOD recommendations.  Be seeing you.


Speaking of propaganda: advice on the SAT from the SAT

As you probably know, the College Board LOVES the SAT and thinks you will too!! They send these nice notes to counsellors every few days about all the ways to improve your testing experience. Since it’s possible some of you may miss these pearls of wisdom, the most recent is pasted below. this is in case you didn’t realize that it’s helpful to have your ticket, writing utensil, and calculator.. also that sleep and food are good. Also, I assume, drugs are bad, but they seemed to miss that. For those of you taking the upcoming test – my condolences and best wishes for a speedy recovery.

As the December SAT approaches, here are some tips that will help you to do your best on test day.

Before Test Day

Get organized:

Make sure you have two No. 2 pencils and a soft eraser. A No. 2 pencil is required to answer the essay and the multiple-choice questions. Mechanical pencils are not allowed. Pens are not allowed.
Have your SAT Admission Ticket and acceptable photo ID ready. You will need your Admission Ticket and photo ID for admission to the test center.
Check your calculator and put fresh batteries in it. You will need a scientific or graphing calculator for the SAT Reasoning Test and Subject Tests in Mathematics. Some questions on the Subject Tests in Mathematics are best solved with a graphing calculator.
Locate a watch to take with you. You can use a watch that has no audible alarm to time yourself—separate timers are not allowed.
Prepare snacks to bring with you. You may stow food and drinks under your chair or desk and consume them outside the testing room during breaks. A healthy snack will go a long way in keeping you alert during the entire test.

Prepare yourself like an athlete:

Get plenty of sleep the night before the test. Your brain will work better if you are rested.
Eat a good breakfast that morning.

On Test Day

Leave your cell phone at home. Don’t run the risk of having your phone ring during testing. It could cost you your scores! We strongly advise you not to bring a cell phone or any other prohibited electronic device to the test center. If your phone makes noise, or you are seen using it at any time (including breaks), you may be dismissed immediately, your scores may be canceled, and the phone may be confiscated. This policy also applies to any other prohibited digital and/or electronic devices such as BlackBerrys, pagers, PDAs, cameras or other photographic equipment, or separate timers of any kind.
Getting to the Center:

In bad weather, check to see if your test center is open. Tune into your local media (as you do for school closing announcements) to make sure that your test center has not been affected. You can also visit starting on Friday evening for a list of test center closings.
Leave early. Unless otherwise noted on your Admission Ticket, arrive at the test center no later than 7:45 a.m. Plan enough extra time in case traffic, weather conditions, flat tires, or anything else slows you down.
Arrange your ride home ahead of time. Testing should be completed between 12:30 and 1 p.m. If you are taking only one or two SAT Subject Tests, the first hour of testing should be completed between 9:45 and 10 a.m., and the second hour of testing should be completed between 10 and 10:15 a.m.
Go to the center indicated on your Admission Ticket. Even if it’s not your first choice, you are only guaranteed admission to the test center listed on your Admission Ticket. Seating may be limited at other test centers, and you will be charged an extra fee for changing test centers.

Taking the Test

Make sure you use a No. 2 pencil. You must fill in the entire circle darkly and completely. If you change your response, erase it as completely as possible. It is very important that you follow these instructions when filling out your answer sheet.
Keep Focused:

Use breaks to eat or drink any snacks you have brought with you. You will have several breaks during testing. Use them to relax and eat a snack, so you can stay alert.
Pace yourself during the test. Remember, each question counts the same. If you find yourself spending too much time on one question, move on to the next question.

For More Information

Read more about what to expect on test day or what to bring to the test.
We wish you all the best on test day!
The College Board

Is basketball a good reason to pick a university?

Maybe not – but watching our Mason Patriots WHOMP the Drexel Dragons by over FORTY points may change my mind! check out the details at or you can see how they beat South Carolina last weekend to take third-place in the very competitive Old Spice Classic at

I know I just posted a note about basketball a few days ago, and sorry to diverge from the real topic of the blog, but WHATTAGAME!!! Go Patriots!!!

All right. enough hoopla. Back to your regularly scheduled propaganda.

P.S – a few other sites that thought the game was great:

To buy a coach or not to buy a coach – and will it get you admitted to college?

Good debate sent to me by one of my astute colleagues.

My two cents – you can get most of the advice for free on this blog that you would get from anyone who tells you they can get you into a school if you just pay them a wad of cash. If, however, you don’t have a counselor with whom you connect, you really need some personal advice/direction/guidance beyond the brilliance offered here nearly daily, and you have a bunch of cash sitting around, then send it to me. Or, you could hire a coach. Whatever.

Campus admission visit fun part 2

In a recent post I suggested that campus visits can be fun, and that one way to try to achieve a level of enjoyment is to play a game I call “Make the admissions officer cry”.  An important disclaimer  – I do not in any way recommend you in any way harm an admissions officer, even if you can get away with it.  Bear in mind that the same perky individual that rattles off all that data will likely soon be reading your application, or at least sitting in the committee that reviews it, so behave accordingly.  Also, you might check out the prior post about things NOT to do at a campus visit.  My favorite is wearing another schools sweatshirt, which somehow fails to fill me with warm fuzzy feelings about admitting an applicant.

But enough about me, what about you?  You’re sitting there, listed to such fascinating facts as how many square acres the campus has, how many books there are in the library, the faculty to student ratio, and the percent of graduates with jobs or grad school in their field of choice.  You might be wondering, what does all that mean to me?

Not much.

You might it fun to ask some better questions, such as what’s the average walk time between classes (can you even walk, or does it require some kind of futuristic and not yet invented teleportation device to actually get from building A to building Z on time?).  How accessible is the library materials online, and what is my access like across campus?  How many students are likely to be in my freshman classes, what’s considered a large class, and how many large classes am I likely to have?

Basically, admissions repres are trained to spill out numbers that sound good.  As a result, any recent rankings that make us look good will be emphasized (we are regularly rated the best smelling campus in the nation!) while weak rankings will be skipped entirely (really?  I hadn’t heard that Teen Vogue voted us the least likely to be given a cameo on Gossip Girl).  Faculty ratio always comes up since it’s usually lower than class size, especially for freshmen.  Books in the library is one of my favorites – a nice thing to know, but in an area of online access and inter-library loans, likely not a deal maker or breaker for undergraduates.

My favorite is the bit about what students after they graduate – and this is a key opportunity to “innocently” elicit tears.  Most schools survey their grads, and of course the grads that write back about their activities tend to be the most successful.  Let’s face it, after four years of tuition and work the “fry guy” probably isn’t returning too many surveys for the ole alma mater.  As a result, most institutions end up with only a fraction of grads reporting back, and those being the most successful and happy, but the schools tend to report as a percent of the whole.  So the representative smiles and says, “99.99 percent of our graduates go on the graduate school or job of their first choice.”  You respond, “How do you know?”  They, still smiling, answer, “We survey them.”  “Really,” says you in an oh so innocent voice, “and how many of your graduates respond?”

“Um, I’m not sure.”  “Well have you seen the survey?”  “mmm, no not really.”  “Can I see the survey?”  That is usually when you get the tears, and then you WIN!!!  I admit, I’ve yet to make anyone cry with this tactic, but maybe you can be the first…

The point is, don’t just take all those numbers at face value.  And try to make your visits fun.  Also, Mason has an amazing rate of students going on to the job and graduate school of their first choice.  Be seeing you. 

What goes into admission decisions? A look at an SAT essay section grader

I love this article about one of the SAT Essay section graders from today’s Washington Post.

 If you’re wondering, no this hasn’t changed my mind about all the good reasons Mason DOESN’T use the SAT writing score.  But, if for some strange reason you’re applying somewhere else that does use it, now you have an idea who’s reading.  I bet you feel SO much better now. 

admission to college – even Disney gets in on the act

There are a ton of movies about college life, and even a few about getting into college. Few, if any, have even a passing resemblance to what really happens. I doubt the new Disney version will be much better. I got tipped off by the blog “The Teen Scoop” ( about the upcoming “College Road Trip” with Martin Lawrence and Raven Simone. Also Donny Osmond. That combination may be worth seeing, but I doubt there’ll be much related to the real admissions process.

On the other hand, note that the place she wants to go more than any place else is Georgetown University. This seems totally plausible, since clearly the D.C. area is the best place in the world to go to college. Of course, I suspect if they really did visit D.C. area schools in the movie, she’d have ended up at a different George…

In any case, the preview for what I’m sure will be a Oscar favorite is at

PS – no, I don’t normally read Teen Scoop (although I’ll admit to reading every so often), but it popped up on my list of “similar blogs” – which troubles me deeply.