SAT score choice policy – new fun, same stress

In the interest of disclosure, I recently accepted a nomination to be the Virginia representative to the national assembly for the ACT, which, some argue, is the only competition for the SAT. I don’t think that makes me biased, since I’m also a member of the Collegeboard (motto: “You’ll be a member if you know what’s good for you.”), and since I’m generally a fair-minded and unbiased person (did I mention that George Mason University is the best college on the planet?).

Actually quite a few of my colleagues, admissions and guidance officers, are REALLY negative about the Collegeboard, even many who are members. They don’t come right out and call them the evil empire, but they do tend to all hum the Star Wars “throne room theme” every time a CB representative walks into a meeting (that’s the one they play for Darth Vader, although I’m sure you all knew that).

Unlike those colleagues I generally think the Collegeboard (Motto: The most important educational organization…EVER) tries to do good in the broad sense, and was probably trying to do so with their new score choice policy. As I wrote a while back when they announced this new a policy, in a nutshell, you can choose which of your scores to send to different colleges and universities. The ACT has had this for quite a while, and for most of that time Collegeboard (motto: We didn’t change our policy – you just misunderstood us) bashed that policy, but, now that they have it they seem to like it fine. Even though I’ve written about this before, the anxiety level over the change that I’m seeing on list servs, web sites, and in the media leads me to share once again.

I don’t really have any problem with the policy, but you should know two things. First, it’s unlikely to make ANY difference to your admission. As I’ve written many times, colleges and universities will use your best scores, and use the best portions from different sittings (so English section from one time, Math from another, to get your best total score). Also, the few schools that REALLY care about seeing all of your scores are STILL MAKING YOU SEND THEM ALL. In other words, there are a group of schools that won’t let you use score choice, so it really doesn’t matter. For the sake of simplicity I call these the “So incredibly uptight universities that if we placed coal under their seats we’d all have diamonds” or SIUUTIWPCUTSWAHD schools, or “annoying” for short. At the other end of the spectrum you have schools that know that you’re more than a test score, many of which not only embrace score choice (despite the reality that it’s largely meaningless) but even go so far to offer score optional admissions. We can call these the “Schools that actually care about” institutions or “George Mason University” for short.

My buddy Brad MacGowan, Guidance Newton North High School (MA), wrote this to the admissions list-serv: “I think that if you asked adolescents if they would like to be able to “hide” some of their SAT scores to “reduce student stress and improve the test-day experience” their first reaction would be an emphatic “YES!”. I also think that if you asked counselors who work with adolescents on a daily basis, and have been through one or more admission cycles, if this will “reduce student stress and improve the test-day experience” you would get an emphatic “WHAT?”. The consequence of this new policy will be more testing (for those who can afford it), more test prep (for those who can afford it), and more stress (for everybody). But that doesn’t matter because it also means more revenue (for you know who).”

In other words, there is SOME possibility that the Collegeboard (motto: Why take a nickel if we can get a quarter? Educationally, of course), added score choice because the SAT was losing some market share to the ACT, or because score choice encourages students to sit for the test more times (ok, just really the wealthier students that can afford more tests). I believe, however, that the Collegeboard was trying to a good thing, since if this was just about making money they would be better off just adding another mandatory writing test. Be seeing you.


Rules for dating (getting admitted to) a college or university

Every few years there’s a new series of books on dating that discourage you from showing any interest whatsoever in the person you want to date. You probably know how that works – don’t be the first to call, don’t act too excited to go out, NEVER be the first to admit you like the other person, never buy them a really expensive gift just hoping she’ll agree to consider a date…sorry, thought process interrupted by a flashback.

Anyhow, getting into college is generally considered the exact opposite. The more enthusiastic you are about a college, the more they want you. You’d think that’s a no-brainer – that any university would of course want enthusiastic students, but actually it usually has more to do with marketing. Colleges want to admit fewer applicants, and have more of the applicants they admit say yes – it helps with different rankings, and there’s a common belief that the more applicants we deny the more desirable our institutions become.

As a result, colleges and universities use different methods to determine just how interested you are. At the most basic level we just take your word for it if you bother to tell us in your essay or in a separate statement. Some colleges ask you, either in the application or at other times in the recruitment process, what other institutions you are considering (even though we’re not supposed to do that anymore). This all seems innocent enough, until we begin factoring that into admissions decisions, guessing whether the other universities will admit you, and if so whether you’ll pick them or us.

In case you had any doubts about how sneaky we colleges can be, we don’t just use what you tell us. Some colleges use evidence of interest, which may range from how many times you visited or called, to how you originally contacted us (yes, you might actually be considered differently at some schools if we met you a college fair, herd from you by email, or if you responded to a mailing we sent). Worst of all, we might even use things that have no relation to your interest in our school: some universities will look at the list of other places you are sending your SAT/ACT scores, and/or the list of institutions where you’re submitting your FAFSA. Many not only use that to determine where else you’re applying, but actually consider the order of schools related to your interest.

If you want to be as tricky as we are, you can try to manipulate this side of the process – make sure your top choice school is listed first on your SAT/ACT/FAFSA, make sure you visit, write and call (bear in mind, as I often note, the fine line between advocating for yourself and stalking – you know who you are).

There is a downside to consider, however, in appearing too interested. If schools think are you SUPER interested they have less motivation to give you financial aid and scholarships. The basic theory is that the most interested students will pay more for our colleges and universities, and many schools, especially the highest priced ones, have REALLY sophisticated models to factor in just how your excitement translates into a lower need to discount your cost.

So there you have it – interest is often a factor, but can also work against you. I guess it’s a bit more like dating than I thought. Be seeing you.

Bah Humbug on your Facebook

As if waiting for admissions decisions while colleges spam you with “holiday greetings” that are really application deadline reminders wasn’t enough to dampen your festive spirit, along comes a new Scrooge.

College Prowler is a company that claims to offer inside information on colleges, while mostly selling stuff, although they only list about 250 of the 4,000 or so institutions out there, even though data on all schools is publicly available. They do not include George Mason University, so clearly they are a worthless tool meant only for your derision, but in case that was insufficient to earn your contempt, the marketing geniuses at this wonderful public service (note voice dripping with sarcasm) have taken it upon themselves to “helpfully” start Facebook groups for many colleges and universities, then using those groups to steer members toward their products…I mean, web site. They have since generously removed themselves as administrators of these pages – if by generous you mean panicked that they were caught and scrambling to avoid legal action over copy right infringement and other terms that are being thrown around.

So, what to do? Most universities with any understanding of the internet do have Facebook groups for admitted students (those that don’t are clearly backward and not worthy of your consideration – but that’s just my opinion). Last year Mason’s was started by an admitted student who very kindly allowed us to join her as administrators. This year we had our own well in advance. Amazingly, even though this marketing company didn’t have the time to get Mason along with thousands of other colleges on their site, they did manage to create a false Facebook group for us. Gee, thanks. Our legal team is looking into it, of course, but in the meantime, check with the colleges and universities to which you were admitted before joining an admitted student Facebook group. Unless you WANT the companies to send you additional spam. Maybe they could gift wrap that for you. Also, maybe you should boycott College Prowler to show them how much you appreciate the attention – why would you want to go to that site when could go visit my buddies at, anyhow!?Be seeing you.

Hug Your Guidance Counselor

In case I have insufficiently vented about this topic, the winter holidays are inconveniently located in the middle of our application deadline season. While I realize most of you have visions of sugarplum-coated dreidels dancing in your heads, or something like that, your guidance counselors are working desperately to get that last recommendation letter out that you accidentally forgot to request until this week, despite a January deadline. Without sounding overly like a suck-up, guidance counselors are the unsung heroes of the college admissions process. In between lunch and bus duty, class scheduling and discipline issues, they try their ever-lovin’ best to convince students everyday to look beyond the same three schools where every other member of the class is applying, help your teachers write better recommendation letters, and try to get their own out along with meeting hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of transcript request deadlines. They get very little thanks and praise, although they often give up most of their holiday trying to help you achieve your goals, even when they think those goals are wildly unrealistic.

Then, to make matters worse, they get ALL the blame. When colleges send out thousands of letters saying that transcripts and recommendations haven’t yet been received, even when they’re actually sitting in mail buckets in our office just waiting to be processed, it’s the guidance counselor who gets the frantic parent and student calls (over and over and over…). When you get in you celebrate with friends and family, but when you don’t it’s often your guidance counselor that tries to keep you focused on all the other options available to you, or who shoulders incredibly ridiculous accusations of having sabotaged your chances with insufficient support.

So, in the spirit of these dreadfully timed holidays, do something nice for your guidance counselor. It doesn’t have to be big, but it is richly deserved. Be seeing you.

Funny email names and deadlines

Sorry to be gone for an extended absence. My only excuse is the INCREDIBLE volume of applications Mason is receiving which has me buried. A couple of things seem to stay the same year after year:

1) Applicants continue to use very embarrassing email addresses. And yes, we pass them around the office. We have a contest for the most offensive, funniest, most humiliating, etc. Unfortunately, since these are actual applicants and real addresses, I can’t post them. Seriously, what are they thinking?

2) Deadline crashing is rampant. Like most colleges, we send out a slew of reminders – email, postcards, letters, phone calls, and yet even so students still seem to wait until the very last minute.   As I wrote recently, you minimize risk of getting documents mismatched by getting in your application well BEFORE deadline. (In case you are planning to apply to Mason, and why wouldn’t you, our final freshman application deadline this year is TUESDAY, JANUARY 15 to get your application submitted. If you miss it, don’t come whining to me.)

A reminder about deadlines:  Some institutions use “in office” application deadlines for ALL materials related to your application, meaning that everything required for your application to be complete must have been received by that date. This is different from what most of us (including Mason) use, which are POSTMARK deadlines. Most institutions will also, assuming your application is submitted on time, accept materials for some grace period after the deadline, but PLEASE don’t count on that – much better to get your materials in as soon as possible.  Some schools even consider when you apply as an indicator of your interest in the school (more on how interest is used in decisions in a future post).

So, to recap – use an email address that isn’t likely to become a source of amusement to the admissions committee, and get your materials in on time (and of course apply to Mason).  Be seeing you.