Parent attacks high school

This was a new one for me. I received an email yesterday from a parent blasting away at her daughter’s high school. I assumed this was part of a strategy for admission – that the parent wanted me to put aside poor grades based on claims of how horribly the school mistreats her child. That may seem bizarre to some, but to those of us in admissions it’s not an uncommon claim, although one made more often by students than parents. In this case, however, the student hasn’t applied to Mason. In fact, the mom claims her daughter has no plans to do so. Instead, this is a message sent to institutions across the country just to let us know how badly the school treats students. I won’t get into the claims, having no idea whether or not they have merit, but take the email as one more example of the admissions process hype being out of hand. I hope, sincerely and deeply, that sending such a note to colleges has no impact. The opinion of a few college admissions deans on a particular high school’s policy shouldn’t change that policy one bit. Sadly, I think the mom may have found a strategy that will get results, as the school may quake at the idea of ramifications for students applying to colleges across the country – something I think is totally out of the question. If it works, lord help us if it gets press. Next thing you know we’ll be getting letters from students and parents about everything and anything they want to change at their schools. I, for one, can’t wait to weigh in on school lunch menus. Be seeing you.


Does dropping an activity hurt your admission chances?

I received a message from a mom in a debate with a dad over their son’s activities. He’s currently lettering in two varsity sports, active in many other activities, and wants to know if dropping one will hurt his chances for admission to college.

As with everything involved in admissions, few colleges will tell you exactly how they use extra-curricular activity in admissions, and the truth is there’s rarely a formula. Some of the most competitive institutions claim to take it REALLY seriously, although that doesn’t always appear to line up with their admission decisions. In any event, I think it’s unlikely to be a factor (unless he was planning on being recruited for the sport he wants to drop!). A few reasons:

1) With the possible exception noted above, very few schools get around to spending any time looking at extra-curriculars – they’re really only a borderline issue, even for the highly competitive institutions. Whether it’s too much noise in students resumes or the range of ways students are involved, unless they’re recruited for talent (arts, athletics, etc) it’s a very low scoring factor in the decision process
2) He has a long term commitment in another sport for those schools that do want to look at longer term commitment as a factor
3) He can turn this into a positive – “I made the very difficult decision to focus on just one sport and give up another to put my energy in my academics. As you can see from my great senior grade improvement, when I focus…” – that makes for one of the strongest arguments in favor of that student in most admission committees (recent improvement with a good mature explanation of how they improved)

Bearing all of that in mind, you have to wonder whether that’s even the right question to ask. I kind of hate the idea that you’d keep playing a sport you no longer love, or for that matter stop playing one you still do, just so it might help you get into a college. There are PLENTY of colleges and universities, and no evidence that getting into any particular school will make much of a difference to your career, income, happiness, etc., despite all of our marketing to the contrary. Somehow we’ve managed to create an impression that you need to make every decision in a way that helps you navigate our process, and then we won’t tell you for sure how that process works. What a system! Be seeing you.

Can success prove that admissions officers get it wrong?

I received a great e-mail this week from a parent of a Mason student. A while back the student was denied admission and then filed an appeal. The appeal was granted, and now the student is on Mason’s dean’s list. The parent takes this as evidence that admissions processes in general (or at least ours in particular) don’t work, that initially denying a student who proved to be so successful proves that admissions officers are making fairly arbitrary decisions.
For the most part, I entirely agree. As I’ve mentioned before, the admissions process isn’t a terribly imperfect tool, using very limited data on and interaction with applicants to try to predict their performance in college. Everyone who works in the field is very aware that we really don’t succeed at this goal, that there are many students we don’t admit who would be just as successful, if not more so, than the students we do accept.
Of course, most very competitive schools know they are picking among well qualified applicants for limited space. As a result, our goals are as much about class mix, student profile, and rewarding past performance as they are about predicting grades in college.
The parent is correct that we sometimes just plain get it wrong. Maybe more than sometimes. On the other hand, in this case we got it right. The committee did take a second look, and while we rarely overturn a decision in appeals committee, in this case it certainly seems to have been justified. I also believe increasingly colleges will be looking at accepting larger numbers of transfer students, giving you the opportunity to prove what kind of student you will be college, rather than relying on the limited data we have at the freshman admission stage. So maybe, just maybe, this process will get a little easier to understand, and a little less stressful. That is, until we start getting ranked on the profile of our transfer class – then the whole cycle of picking a certain profile so that we get a higher rank so that students with a higher profile select us will resume. In the meantime, my advice is to keep in mind exactly what this parent said to me- that the process is subjective and arbitrary. While many of my colleagues will disagree, it’s true enough that you should use that knowledge to try to keep the process in perspective – not being admitted, especially at first, clearly doesn’t mean you won’t be a spectacular success. Be seeing you.

Pros and Cons of Dual Enrollment

A recent US News article notes the rapid expansion of students taking college courses while still enrolled in high school. I’m a big fan of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, although not to crazy extremes (did you really need 36 courses this year? Does EVERY student in your school really need to be in AP?). On actual college courses while in high school, however, I always caution students and parents to carefully consider several issues.

1) How courses count – Not all colleges will accept dual enrollment credit, and if they do it’s still possible it won’t count towards the specific requirements of the major you enter at the institution you choose. In other words, they may have a specific course required that is different than the one you take, so you may not get any credit for the course, or you may get some but not be able to use it. On the flip side, just because a college allows you to take a course doesn’t mean your high school has to accept it – some students take the college course in hopes of filling a graduation requirement, only to find out the that the college course can’t be used that way. Always check with your guidance office if you plan on using college credit to cover any of your high school requirements.
2) How the courses look on your record – Bear in mind that college courses aren’t weighted the way most AP and IB courses are in high school. Your ‘B’ is just going to stay a ‘B’. Even great students often see a small dip in their initial college grades compared to high school, and that’s after colleges offer orientation and all kinds of support systems. Most dual enrollment students get very little support from the colleges – you’re just considered guests or visitors. As a result, I’ve seen many straight ‘A’ students in tears over getting their first ‘B’, which isn’t at all a bad grade in the challenging upper-level calculus class they’ve chosen, but a system shock to them. Remember that nearly every college and university admissions process requires that you send transcripts from ANY institution you attended. That means that even if you get a bad grade, and you can get a bad grade, you have to send it in.
3) Scheduling – while there are some college courses offered on high school schedules, most students trying dual enrollment take courses on the college campus on that institution’s schedule. It’s hard to schedule, for instance, two or three days a week (most colleges offer Mon/Wed, Tues/Thurs or Mon/Wed/Fri schedules) when your high school schedule is the same every day. It also means potentially sacrificing your spring break (since the college will likely still be having classes that week). Or it might mean giving up some extra-curricular activity since college course times often run through the end of the school day.

My advice on these is to carefully discuss with your high school guidance office before making a decision. I recommend usually taking these courses in your senior year (then you’re likely to get the college grades after the admission decision process, especially if its a spring class, so you get the benefit of showing that you’re gung ho without having to risk showing a bad grade at decision time). Most colleges do keep in mind that college grades are unweighted and aren’t deterred by a strong student getting one slightly lower grade – but that’s MOST colleges, and only if it’s a SLIGHTLY worse grade. If you really bomb the course, expect it to stand out on your record if the admissions office has it when reviewing your application.

One last thing – remember that, at most institutions, professors and students aren’t told which students are from high school, new freshmen, or upperclass students. Don’t be surprised if your son or daughter is invited to parties, rushed by a greek organization, or asked out on dates. I realize I’ve just provided ample incentive for many students to see dual enrollment as a GREAT idea, but I’m thinking that maybe some of you parents might see it a bit differently. Be seeing you.

College planners study how to recruit you

The Chronicle of Higher Education posted an article this morning about a presentation at the Society for College and University Planning. The report claims to have studied hundreds of thousands of Canadian students to determine how they make up their minds about college. I’m a bit skeptical of the report because it’s based on surveys, and there’s a huge question as to whether you can get accurrate information after the fact about how college admissions decisions are made. When you think about it, many of you who are in your junior year are actively involved in the process now – others may even be working on your decision earlier (shudder). We colleges market you the whole time, and really pummel you with propaganda in your senior year, especially once you’ve been admitted. So a survey is usually a snapshot of a decision after six to twenty-four months of decision making. Even if it is true, it doesn’t tell us how you decide where to apply, only how you decide where to go…
Despite these concerns, look for some colleges to take this data as the gospel and start using it right away. The study claims that students can be divided into four kinds of decision makers: scholars, careerists, conflicted, and drifters. My experience is that most students have healthy doses of all four, but don’t be surprised if these new labels start to guide some of the letters you get. They also claim it impacts student performance in college, so maybe some schools will even use this in their admission process, in which case you want to be perceived as a “scholar”. Let the newest round of mutual manipulation begin! Be seeing you.

Deciding what to do with your life

I was at a concert last night (In case your wondering, Pat McGee Band and Sister Hazel – and a Shameless Plug, it took me just about fifteen minutes to get from campus to the incredible Wolftrap National Center for the Performing Arts). My wife ended up in a conversation with a young lady next to us named Melanie. She’s just moved to D.C. after finishing her undergraduate degree, and we had a great discussion about graduate school. Even though she loves her new job, she said she was surprised to graduate still unsure of what to do with her life.

I hear this all the time. I’m a “channel expert” on, which is a site pretty much dedicated to the issue. It always suprises me that there is so much stress from students thinking they have to know what they want to do with their life even BEFORE going to college, or they think college will answer the question. I think college is a great way to explore your options, but that doesn’t stop just becuase you get your degree. No doubt, quite a few people have their whole life planned out, and are chasing a clear career goal with unwavering dedication. For most people, however, that isn’t the case.

In other posts I discourage you from obsessing about finding the perfect school. I feel the same way about career paths. Unlike searching for a dream school, I do think dream career paths are out there, and if you have one, that’s great. If you don’t, however, you’re far from alone – actually the studies on “millenials” would say you’re in the vast majority. So relax – having options can be exciting, instead of stressful. Be seeing you.

Can you wait until Orientation to make up your mind?

A recent article in the Boston Globe reported on the trend for students to wait longer than ever to decide which college they will attend. Many years ago colleges and universities were using all kinds of scary tactics to get students to commit early – threatening lousy housing assignments, bad course schedules, or even claiming the students wouldn’t have space if they didn’t send large, non-refundable tuition deposits. It’s hard to believe in today’s environment that colleges and universities managed to reach an agreement back then that was great for all students – that we’d all use one commitment deadline of May 1. This gives students who apply for aid on time at least a couple of weeks to make up their mind, and still leave time for colleges to go to waitlists for remaining spaces, or open a few more sections in a popular major.

I hear more and more, however, that students are willing to sacrifice multiple deposits to have more time to make up their mind. This creates a huge anxiety level at colleges not sure when or whether to go to their waitlists, to open more courses, etc. At Mason, for instance, I had WAY more students deposit than predicted, and I’m sure a number of those students are coming to orientation still making up their minds. The Globe suggests that this is about the economy, but I think it’s also about all the hype around college admissions. Students are still looking for that “perfect fit”, and extend their own stress far into the summer. Personally, I’d rather see students take a leap of faith and really try to get revved up, use orientation to network with future classmates and faculty and to increase their sense of belonging to a community (those three factors have great correlation with student success). I completely understand, however, that after being bombarded by our marketing hype students don’t feel they have enough information to settle on a decision in the very short time period we’ve allowed. Add to that the incredible courseload and extracurricular involvement many of you have in high school, and it’s no surprise that the summer becomes less and less a period of increasing commitment and more and more a time of continued exploration of options. Be seeing you.