Thanks and the SAT Rap

Happy Thanksgiving! You know what this holiday means, of course…that’s right, college application deadlines. Most of the country is busy trying to re-create the quality intellectual experience of Big Brother by gathering numerous family members into the same small space for extended periods, offering endless opportunities for nerve fraying drama. High school seniors, however, know that the emotional impact of these interactions pales compared to the stress of trying to get your essays drafted and your applications submitted in between answering endless questions from grandma about, “what you’re going to do with your life.”

Shameless plug: As your stress levels mount, don’t forget that December 1 is Mason’s deadline for application submission if you want to be considered for our Honors program and/or scholarships!

Before I give in to a turkey induced semi-comatose state, from which I plan to awaken only to eat pie and grumble about some sports team, I wanted to pass along my annual reminders for the season to try to keep the stress in check, and to give thanks to the people helping you through this process.

High school guidance and college counselors, take very little time to enjoy the holiday. They are busy making lists and checking the twice – for transcript submission, for letters of recommendation, and for dozens and dozens of forms that must be submitted, all with various deadlines. No matter their caseload or their school, they work long hours, generally with little recognition from the school or students as to how crucial their role is in the process. Please – let them know how much you appreciate what they are doing for you…and, of course, there’s no better time to suck up to the people who are writing your recommendations…

My other holiday wish for all of you is to keep this process in perspective. Don’t let the cranky deans of admission grinch up your holiday season. Just keep reminding yourself that there are LOTS of wonderful colleges and universities, and LOTS of paths to success. This process, despite the messages often conveyed by our marketing, does NOT decide the rest of your life – you do.

A post to the national admissions e-list reminded me of both why I so appreciate my colleagues on the high school side, and that this process works best when not taken TOO seriously. The students of Williamsburg Charter High School in Brookyln, NY have produced their own rap video about the SAT…among my least favorite parts of the process, and the one that unreasonably causes the most stress. Give it a listen, let them know what you think of it…then go back in, tell grandma you’re going to be a huge success, and have another helping of family, friends, and food. Be seeing you.


2012: predicting the end of the world or admissions: whichever comes first

The web (and even Southpark) seems abuzz with “news”, based very scientifically on the promotional efforts of the movie, 2012, that the Mayans predicted the end of the world. I realize this seems rather gloomy news for Thanksgiving week, but fortunately I don’t believe that it’s all that easy to predict the future. I get reminded of this every year when I hear from educators and families convinced that they KNOW who will get into particular colleges.

Horse. Hockey.

The belief that admissions is predictable is just one of the three great myths of the college admissions process (I covered the other two, that admissions is fair and that admissions is simple a while back), but it may be the most persistent.

One of the main sources of this confusion is that there is a ton of data you can find that LOOKS like it will help you predict admission. This is true to some degree – it’s unlikely you’ll be getting into the most competitive school with failing grades and lousy scores. The data, however, is often misleading, suggesting that you can make very specific correlations between particular grades and/or scores and admission decisions. Unfortunately, you won’t ever have all of the information you need. Colleges don’t explain, in any useful way for predictive purposes, how they weigh grades, compare scores with grades, weigh essays and recommendations, etc. If you just see a range of grades, for instance, you don’t know how those compare to scores (did the one low score correspond with a valedictorian level GPA; was the low GPA tied to a perfect score?). And then, of course, there are different schools, different courses, different grading scales…and colleges just don’t tell you how they handle any of that.

Of course even if you did have all of that data on how any institution handled those matters in prior years, you still wouldn’t have everything you need to predict admission. You don’t know which of their applicants were children of alumni, had their family name on a building, or were athletes, class leaders, or world class dancers.

Speaking of dance, shameless plug time. Despite my tremendous lack of artistic talent I periodically get invited to parties with our arts faculty, who I presume invite me largely out of pity (I’ll take it). As a result, on Saturday I went to a fabulous party hosted by Mason faculty member Susan Shields, one of my all time favorite dance/choreographers. Her husband is now one of my all time favorite cooks, but that’s beside the point. At the event I met another Mason faculty member, Boris Willis. Boris teaches in the dance department AND our program in computer Game Design (what a combination!) and blogged a dance a day last year. I think he and I could be friends if it wasn’t for this blinding jealousy that threatens to consume my soul…

So where was I?
Even if you did know all the ways colleges use admissions data AND knew which applicants were special cases, you also have to bear in mind that the needs of institutions change from year-to-year. I might really need more players of double-reeded instruments, more women in my engineering program, or more students from the west coast. Those issues aren’t published anywhere, but are critical aspects of how colleges shape their classes.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, applications are evaluated by people. This may come as a shock to those of you who assumed that admissions offices were populated by soulless demons intent on your personal misery, but mostly these are people who care a great deal about students. These very caring individuals will each have their own perspectives, ideas, quirks, and, possibly, mental instabilities, so naturally their interpretations of your scholastic record, not to mention your essays, may vary widely.

This lack of predictability is, I suspect, one of the main reasons why students submit so many more applications now then they did just a couple of years ago, which makes admission rates look lower, which makes students apply to more colleges, which lowers admissions rates, which…well, you get the picture.

I realize that this uncertainty causes more stress. The best advice I can give hasn’t changed much in all the time I’ve been writing this blog – don’t take this process personally, and don’t get too focused on one school (unless, of course, it’s Mason). There are lots of great schools out there for you (some almost as great as Mason) and your success will depend much more on how you do in school than which one you attend. Try not to worry about the Mayans’ predictions either – just relax and have another helping of turkey. Be seeing you.

Twihards, Gleesters, and Senior Stress

Thanks to the strange convergence of Glee and Twilight/Vampire Diaries mania, the incredible pressure of high school is clearer than ever (would it KILL Bella to think a little more seriously about college? Well maybe, but even so…). And if the danger of Slushies-in-the-face and the undead aren’t enough, you seniors have the added exasperation of the admissions process.

First, of course, you are all but required to agonize over where you will apply. Unfortunately, getting your applications submitted doesn’t usually ease your burden in the least. Apart from the stress about whether or not you’ll get admitted (more on that soon) you have the awful, gut-wrenching torture of messages from colleges about your applications – messages seemingly designed for the express purpose of driving you into therapy (or possibly a relationship with the undead).

A recent discussion on the e-list of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling focused on one perennial source of this exasperation, commonly referred to as “lack letters.” These are messages, sent through the postal mail along with email, text and, quite possibly, directly into your brain letting you know that materials MIGHT be MISSING from your application.

A good friend, Patrick O’Conner, guidance counselor at the Roeper School in Michigan and former president of the admissions association posted a breakdown of one such message and the explanations he provides to his students. It is so good (and translatable to pretty much any high school) that I asked his permission to include it for your enjoyment. Sample message excerpts from the college/university are in italics, with Pat’s response below:

“Our Records Indicate…”

It seems pretty amazing at first. You just sent your application in last week, and the day after you hit “submit”, you gave your counselor the form they need to mail in to complete your application. Now there’s a letter from the admissions office waiting for you at home. Did they say yes? Did they say no? It’s a thin envelope, and people say that’s usually bad news from a college, right?

Yes, but in this case, it’s not the bad news you think it is.

“Thank you for your application. Our records indicate we have not received your high school transcript. Please contact your high school counselor and have them submit a transcript just as soon as possible.”

You’re confused at first-you did that already.

Then you’re really confused-you did that already.

Then you’re angry-you did that already! What’s going on here?

What’s going on is you’re part of a large number of students who are getting these letters needlessly. There are three reasons why:

1. When you submit your application electronically, the admissions computer checks to see if your transcript has been “checked in”-in other words, if the transcript has been sent, opened, and entered in the computer. When does this check happen? About the same time you give the paper form to me-so of course it’s not there. The computer then generates the letter, and it’s nightmare on your street.

2. If you sent your application by snail mail, it’s part of a mountain of letters in the admissions office (remember, everyone tends to apply at the same time) that can take the college up to a month to open. Your transcript is in that mound of mail, as well – it’s just that they happened to open your application first, and it may take another 3 weeks before they happen to open the letter from me.

3. With 49 other seniors applying to between 6-8 colleges per person, you may be number 30 or 35 in line for transcript requests. Since most colleges want me to answer some questions as well as send the transcript, this can take time, along with the other duties I have– like hosting the college reps that visit Roeper, so I can tell them in person how great you are. As the College Counseling Web site states, transcript requests will generally be sent out in 10 school days after they are received. It might be that yours goes out the next day-but at this time of year, it’s more likely to go out on day 9 or 10.

So what do you do? If it’s been less than a week since you sent in your application, wait a week, then call the college (or check online) to see if your transcript is there. If the letter says “We must have your transcript in the next 3 days”, call the college immediately to see if the transcript was checked in after the letter was mailed. Either way, if it’s still not there when you call, bring the letter to me…

…and don’t go crazy. 95% of the time, the transcript is there in Mount O’Mail waiting to be opened. The rest of the time, the college will gladly wait for a second copy to be mailed or faxed. In any case, I’ve never had a student’s decision impacted by a transcript that wasn’t checked in-so it’s still important to get the information in, but it’s not a deal breaker, no matter what their well-meaning records indicate.

Great advice, and my thanks to Pat (and a shout-out for checking out the website for his book, With that in mind you can go back to your regularly scheduled stress – wondering whether Bella will manage to date Finn and whether they’ll win the regional show choir competition or get eaten by werewolves…or both (now THAT’S a show I’d like to see!).

Shameless Plug: Speaking of Glee (sort of…indirectly…not really) I attended one of our phenomenal student dance concerts last week, with some amazing choreography by our own students (way to go Caroline!!), which again confirmed for me that Mason is THE premier dance program in the D.C. region!

Be seeing you.

Parent involvement: a fowl affair

I was up late last night dressing a turkey. Unfortunately consumption of said turkey will not be an option, as the fowl in question is on poster-board, a second grade assignment for my son, which we’ve left to the last minute. The task sheet that came home with poster-board specifically asked this to a “family” project, and so there I was debating with a seven-year-old the most appropriate material to accurately approximate a turkey’s wattle. I, by the way, lost.

This intensive involvement in such a trivial school task may help explain the volume of calls admissions offices receive this time of year from parents. We’ve been trained by the schools to BE INVOLVED. Not surpsingly, this leads to repeated questions wondering just how involved parents should be in the admissions process.


My colleagues in admissions are probably already rolling their eyes, since the conventional wisdom is that parents are already “over-involved” in the admissions process. I hear routinely the complaints about so-called “helicopter” parents – those who hover around their students. Most of you have probably heard the whack-a-doo stories, like the college graduate who brought his mom on job interviews. Along those lines, I’ll admit that my concern gets raised when parents feel the need to speak for their students. One of the more uncomfortable situations are applicant interviews where the parent won’t let the student get a word in edgewise.

Those extreme cases, however, do a real disservice to the vast majority of families trying to work their way through a complex, stressful process with tremendous financial implications. I welcome the shift, still completely bizarre to me, that has prospective students WANTING their parents involved in the process. My colleagues that whine and moan when parents call them asking questions, queries that these admissions officers feel should be left to the applicants, may be (and I say this with a great deal of affection and respect for my peers) ding dongs. Every survey of prospective students I’ve seen finds that the parents have more influence over this process than any other source. No amount of media attention, athletic success, or guidance counselor relations will have the weight in an enrollment decision as mom or dad.

There are, of course, limits. I encourage parents to join students during college visits, edit application essays, and nag about deadlines. [NOTE/shameless plug: Mason’s fall prospective student event is this Saturday, November 14!). I discourage parents from conducting their own tour of campuses without bringing a student along, writing application essays, or submitting applications for the student. This is a vital issue, as the vast majority of complaints I receive each year about problems with the application process are from parents. It appears, for reasons that science so far is at a loss to explain, that being a parent makes the application submission process entirely bewildering. I work with thousands of adult students who have no problems with the process, so I don’t think this is age issue. Instead I’m increasingly convinced that being a parent of a student at a particular time in their educational career (applying to college, for instance) causes a chemical to be released in the body that has a particularly negative impact on the brains neuro-receptors causing the parent to lose the ability to follow basic instructions.

Unfortunately, I suspect that this chemical reaction is not limited to the college application process time period, and may appear first in early elementary school, but that’s just a suspicion. You’ll have to excuse me now – I apparently need to go glue some kind of feathers on a poster-board turkey. Be seeing you.

Essay advice from a high profile guest

Trying something a little different, below is a special guest post from my colleague, Jon Reider, Director of College Counseling at San Francisco High School and former associate director of admissions at Stanford University. It may be a wee bit confusing as I have infused his article with some points (mostly counterpoints) with some notes from yours truly:

Five Traits That Matter in College Admissions
By Jon Reider

College admissions becomes more competitive every year,
Geez, I couldn’t even wait to let him finish his first sentence! Much as I respect Jon, the idea that college admissions is much more competitive isn’t supported by the data. There are a lot more applications, but not so many more applicants compared to the number of spaces available. A small handful of schools have gotten more competitive, but others less so. Of course, Mason is WAY more competitive, but that’s just because we’re so popular. Now, what were you saying?

…and high grades and test scores can no longer make an applicant stand out.
What?! Of course they make you stand out! It’s MOSTLY about the grades!

Students have one shot to personally impress admissions officers – the essays.
And recommendations. And lists of extracurriculars. And at Mason you can submit a YouTube video…

Colleges want to see depth in your personality. A strong essay that harnesses your voice and shows the ‘true you’ often can make a difference in your evaluation.
Unless we don’t really like the true you…

When writing your application essay, consider these five traits that admissions officers usually look for:

Don’t pretend you are a superhero! Through your essay, you need to address the admissions officer who reads it – an adult with their own life experiences, who does not know you but wants to get to know you better. Colleges want students who know they are human and who have developed through challenging themselves.
Hmmm. I see what you mean, but if I could enroll a superhero, I have to admit I’d be tempted. I mean, not Hulk or Wolverine – too much damage to campus. Green Lantern would be a good Mason fit – already has the right colors…

Have you grown with your experiences? Do you look inward and learn from both your successes and failures? Admissions officers look for students who take every opportunity to mature. It is one thing to simply write about what has happened to you, and another to show how you have changed because of these events.
No argument here – insightful seems better than not insightful.

Admissions officers have long days. They might be reading your application at 9am over a cup of coffee or at 11PM before going to sleep. The phones might be ringing in the background. It should not take 110% of their focus to get through your essays. Be succinct and clear. Is that string of 10-letter adjectives really necessary to express yourself, or are you just trying to show off your vocabulary?
yes – short good.

A college is a community, and admissions officers want to know how you interact with others. When writing an essay, try to work in an example of a time in which you brought people together. Perhaps it was with humor, or good-will, or sincerity. The person reading your essay should want to be your friend and not just on facebook.
Unless the admissions officer is an unlikable introvert who really hates the popular people. No really, it happens.

Tell the truth, Jon, is that a word?

If your transcript shows you know how to take a test, you may be tempted to think you don’t need to write about academics. More than grades, however, admissions officers want to know how ideas move you. Will you go to class because you have to, or will you go because you truly love learning? Try to illustrate a time when you were motivated by learning itself, and not just by a high grade.

Jon Reider is the former Senior Associate Director of Admission for Stanford University. He has created curriculum for developing application essays and is the principal advisor to iAdmissions, a unique essay counseling service.
That being said, Jon’s a pretty smart guy, and his points are well taken. And, fortunately, he has a good sense of humor, I hope. Do me a favor and check out his new book, Admissions Matters, just in case he isn’t thrilled with my commentary. Be seeing you.