Admissions officers gather, pontificate

As the financial markets twist in the increasingly uncertain winds and while your college application deadlines begin to approach, admissions officers are gathered in Seattle debating heady issues of the day. I’ll try to cover several of the hot topics in the coming days, including a new report on how schools should use the SAT (that looks A LOT like a report from 1999), perceived and real issues in financial aid, the role of parents in the process, and a variety of other issues related to access to higher education.

One of the most interesting places at the conference is the massive vendor exhibit hall, where dozens of companies explain how their products are the best ones to help us convince you to consider our schools. You won’t see the kind of swag you might expect at a private industry tradeshow, although I was happy that some new honors program (I think maybe trying to compete with National Honors Society) has toy lions that I think my six year old will appreciate. I felt ok accepting it as a gift, since I have no influence whatsoever over what kind of honors program any high school offers, and told them so. Apparently they’re worried they’ll have a lot of lions left over. I was also excited to get silly putty from the ACT booth. I’m the state representative for Virginia to the national ACT assembly, and administer the largest score optional admissions program in the country, so I don’t think I’ve committed a breach of integrity by taking some silly putty home with me.

A number of the vendors provide ways to get your name – some for outright purchase, others in what’s called “lead generation”, where they get you to tell them you’re interested in Mason (of course you are!) and then sell me your “pre-qualified” name. The coolest of these has a huge wii game system set up to entice us into the booth (kicked your tail in tennis, Ryan!).

The hot “new” marketing toy this year is text messaging services. Look for a lot of opportunities for you to communicate with potential schools via your mobile device. I know – u can’t wait!

I’ll try to highlight some of the cooler websites and tools that I found, but my favorite is currently The Education Conservancy. The sites isn’t exactly cutting edge, but the group seeks to try to improve the ethical level of the profession and process of admissions – a great goal (and the founder, Lloyd Thacker, is a great guy. One of those people I greatly admire even when we totally disagree).

Speaking of places I disagree with Lloyd, I had a chance to meet with Bob Morse, the head of the rankings at US News and World Report. Despite Lloyd’s feelings to the contrary (Education Conservancy HATES the ranking systems – believes them to be something approaching evil), Bob is a really great guy with very entertaining perspectives on the admissions process. I’ll write a bit more about the rankings (beyond bragging about Mason), but suffice it to say that I think Bob and the US News crew do the best they can to provide a reasonable service, while recognizing that their mission is to provide accurate information that SELLS MAGAZINES (which they do spectacularly well), not to fix the admissions process. The trouble for me is when students are mislead about how to use the rankings (look at the data and see for yourself if their criteria relate to what you want from a school) and WORSE when colleges and universities change their whole direction to try to manipulate those rankings.

The funniest moment so far was when a friend (who I promised not to name in the blog) suggested that colleges start conducting interviews like speed dating events. She said, and I quote, “the motto for the events could be “if you can’t hit it in three minutes, go home'”.

I’m off to several very important meetings where very important people will speak at great length on how this admissions organization should be organized and who should coordinate budget approval functions. No really – that’s my morning. Sigh. Be seeing you.


Admissions officers gather to plan your fate

My postings will be somewhat erratic the next few days (ok, more so than usual). I have traveled west to Seattle, Washington for the annual National Association for College Admissions Counseling national conference. Admissions officers, guidance counselors gather to discuss the great issues of our profession. Also, we spend a lot of time talking with “cutting edge” vendors that will use “exciting new products” to help us promote our schools to you. As I get a few minutes at the computer, I’ll try not to make too much fun of the marketing techniques that they hawk (which are decidedly NOT cutting edge), the studies they produce (which say the same thing our studies have said since 1999), and the discussions I overhear. Once I get all of this out of my system, I’ll get back to talking about recommendations, then on to new topics. Be seeing you!

Shameless Plug: Mason top among Global Universities

As much as I make fun of the rankings, I may have to rethink my position if they keep being so favorable to Mason. The latest is from a Chinese Institute for Higher Education that annually ranks world universities. Mason was named as one of the top 100 North and Latin American Universities!

Mason is a intensely global institution, with students from more than 125 countries and more than 75 native languages spoken on campus. International programs are some of our most popular majors, whether in the most traditional sense of International Affairs, or through newer innovative programs such as Global Affairs or Conflict Resolution. More on our world-spanning outlook is on our Global Web Site.

Dos and Don’ts for your admission essay

Some simple suggestions to round out my series on your admissions essay:

Write multiple drafts, get help with reviewing your document, and proofread. Allow TIME for revisions and reflection.
Be especially careful of how your document cuts and pastes into online applications – with many you may have a perfect essay transformed into (in technical terms) gobbleygook.
Keep the length UNDER the listed maximum. There are no points in this game for volume.
Use all the classic techniques of good writing: well organized, strong opening statement, strong conclusion.

Slip in any “isms” (racisms, agism, etc).
“List” – I get a slew of essays each year that try to include everything the applicant has ever done. Boring, and you have other places to list your involvement, etc. Use the essay to tell the reader more than a list.
“Blame” – I know that it’s different for YOU, that it really is (insert sibling/teacher/cab driver that wronged you name here) that done you wrong, but this is not the time or the place for venting.

Also bear in mind the great debate of college essays. Many many many of my esteemed colleagues will tell you to “be distinctive,” “don’t write what everyone else does,” “Skip writing about your trip overseas – everybody does that.” Two big problems – it’s REALLY hard to be distinctive when we read THOUSANDS of essays – are you just supposed to MAKE UP some kind of great adventure? More importantly, what you find distinctive may not be all that great for that particular reader. Maybe that reader LOVES travel – maybe he/she loves the places to which YOU traveled! Maybe they truly hate people that excel at yodeling while on a unicycle – however unique that may be.

Finally, don’t OVER estimate the importance of the essay. I am SO tired of reading pieces from “experts” that claim certain things on an essay “got a student admitted.” Most of the time it’s not about the essay – it’s about the academic record, and, to a lesser extent, test scores. And if it is an essay, you’ll never KNOW if it was the essay. So when your buddy says, “Wow, I got into Mason because they loved my essay written in Haiku,” be skeptical. Be very skeptical. Be seeing you.

Shameless Plug: Mason Goes Green(er)

Among the many many many things I love about this place are all the ways we do well by doing good. Case in point is all the work being done at Mason around the issue of sustainability.

Of course, Mason gets a lot of attention for our faculty efforts in this area, most notably in the past year for Abul Hussam’s research on removing arsenic from drinking water, for which he was named a Time Magazine Hero of the Environment. I’m just as proud, however, of the comprehensive, and leadership, approach Mason has taken to the whole sustainability issue.

Now we can add to all of that the only academic partnership on the subject with the Smithsonian Institution. The new program includes a joint degree and new facilities at a joint conservation campus on a 3,000-acre research station in Front Royal Virginia.

Conveniently, our colors are already Green and Gold…Be seeing you.

What to write in your admissions essay?

When the question is open ended (“Tell us about yourself.”), stress levels seem to increase. Bear in mind that no one knows for sure what any individual reader will want or get from an essay. That being said, I suggest you try to include two main points: Why the school wants to have you there, and why you want to go there.
The first is talking about what you will contribute to the campus. Many admissions officers (particularly those who act incredibly pretentious and uptight) will talk a lot about your “passion” – “we want to see that you have passion, what that passion is, how that passion will cause you to be successful and donate much money so we can place you and the name of your passion on big buildings.” It’s particularly encouraging when the admissions officer making this explanation is doing so with all the passion and enthusiasm you had on the way to take the SAT.
It seems to me what they mean is what you really care about/makes you special. For me, it makes sense to tie that into why you want to go to that particular place – how are you going to contribute to that community with your “passion” (clearly we don’t mean something that will get you listed on Most colleges will say that an intellectual passion tends to be more compelling. So computational neuroscience may be more impressive than “I like to help people,” which is probably still better than, “I like Manga comics and it’s all I really want to do.”

In your fanatic zest and zeal for some “passion” that will impress admissions officers, don’t forget to suck up. By that I mean that colleges really do want to know that you REALLY want to go there (more on how colleges use that factor in an upcoming post). This used to be time consuming, typing out each essay with a different college, but now can be as simple as merging in the right name for “and there’s no where I’d rather be than…” (be careful with those when you cut and paste – every year I get at least a few that say, “rather be than…Brown.” My immediate reaction is that I should grant them their wish NOT to go to Mason).
I suggest, however, putting a little more thought into this part of your essay. That doesn’t mean it has to be longer (DON’T make it longer!), but that you should try to include at least one or two reasons why it’s such a great school for you. You might say, for instance, “George Mason University is the school I want most because I want a place with a truly global outlook and to connect with opportunities to solve real world problems the way you can with an incredible suburban D.C. location,” or words to that effect. Warms the cockles of my heart. If you can tie that into your intellectual interests, so much the better.

Next, a little more insight on Do’s and Don’ts in your essay, then (finally) on to new topics. Be seeing you.

College application essays: can funny get you an admission?

Essays seem to cause a lot of stress. It seems strange to me, but the stress seems to increase when the topic is broader. When they ask specific books you’ve read or people that influenced you, somehow that seems easier than, “tell us about yourself.” This seems especially odd since most applicants I met spend much of the day talking (texting, twittering) about themselves. It appears the transition from blog/facebook/phone to application is, to put it mildly, challenging.

A number of you will try to be funny. Here’s a hint – if you have to TRY to be funny, this is a huge mistake, and may be in error even if you’re the next Seinfeld/Tina Fey reincarnation. Many of you, of course, aren’t funny. You might check with friends – if they’re REALLY good friends, they’ll tell you. Even if you are, however, you have no idea if the admission counselor(s) reading your application have any sense of humor at all. An example to illustrate:

A few years ago I received a hilarious essay about all the truly horrific things an applicant had done in high school. These started with truancy and shoplifting, and escalated to vandalism and general mayhem. While you might not think that would be amusing, it was incredibly well written and I thoroughly enjoyed reading, even laughed out loud a few times at a particularly ingenious prank (involving, and I am not making this up, live pigs, a motorcycle gang, and a lot of honey). I was very impressed when I got to the end to find out that the student had made it all up to make herself seem more interesting – she was a strong student, and had never been in a day of trouble in her life. Average involvement, average leadership – she just felt she needed to get our attention. Wonderful – I have it my highest rating for committee.

The other counselor (I was in a system then where two people read and scored each file – if the decisions matched, then it didn’t go any farther) denied her.

It turned out my counterpart reading that particular file was, to say the least, not funny. She would make a great guard at Buckingham Palace. I’m guessing she never got past the line in the essay about the honey (makes me smile again to think about it). It took a fair amount of explanation in committee for me to get the applicant past the very strong negative rating that second reader had given.

The point is – you’re reader may not be funny, and may not get YOUR sense of humor, so you may want to consider whether this is the best time to try out your standup routine material. Personally, I also hate applicants trying to be overly cute. A few years ago someone got the bright idea (back when we still used this stuff called “paper) to cut their essay into puzzle pieces and make us put it together and write across the back “XXXXX University is where I fit in!!!!”. Actually, there were a lot more exclamation marks. I must have gotten a few dozen of those. I hope I denied all of them.

So – think twice about funny and cute. Next up, what you SHOULD write about. Be seeing you.