Will hyper-involvement help you get admitted (and would that be worth your time)?


I have a house less than a mile from Mason’s campus.  This is a huge advantage as my commute is whopping five minutes.  This has obvious benefits, among which is residing in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.  This is particularly interesting as a parent – the unofficial motto of the region was taken from The Prairie Home Companion: “All of our children are above average.”

This was made most clear to me when we stuck my kid in storage (also known as day care) at the advanced age of four months.  My wife and I soon after attended a gathering of parents whose children were stored (I mean nurtured and educated, of course) at the same place.  I found a group of parents with kids in the same age range, 3-6 months old, engaged in a VERY SERIOUS conversation about what languages their kids were studying.

Not how many they spoke at home.  How many they were studying. Three to six months old.  Really?

With my typical sarcasm, I responded that our son had recently learned to blow raspberries quite successfully.  The parents in the group managed, at best, a weak response to my clearly superior sense of humor, and asked whether, if our son was not enrolled in language lessons, he was too busy with other classes, like gymnastics or swimming.

Did I mention he was four months old?  I told them we hadn’t made it to swimming lessons but that we did manage to bathe him…occasionally.

At this point, I believe, several of the parents immediately called protective services.  We’ve wised up since then.  Our eight year old now plays soccer and basketball, takes guitar and piano lessons, and speaks fluent Yiddish (and by fluent, I mean that he knows a handful of wildly inappropriate phrases. I, of course, have no idea where he might have learned them).

The reason I’m blathering about all this in what is (arguably) a blog about admissions:

1)   This local obsession with toddler involvement continues throughout the country into high school, where students are over-involved, over-scheduled and just plain overwhelmed. 
2)   Parents and “experts” complain that students have no time to be kids, as they are busy scheduling high school internships in between band right after soccer practice while they volunteer at homeless shelters.
3)   All of that hyper-programming is often blamed on the admissions process.

I wonder whether there’s really a problem.  Did the pioneers stop their kids from working in the fields after school so they could “have time to be kids”?  If given more time, will teens use the freedom to rest or expand their minds with great literature and art – or will they just sit around updating their statuses and gawking at YouTube videos?

On the other hand, scheduling every minute of your life in order to get into college is nutty:

  • Extracurricular activity isn’t nearly, remotely, or in any way as important as your academic records;
  • You never know what admissions officers are looking for anyhow – especially if they’d prefer to have a student deeply involved in one thing compared to the applicant involved, in one way or another, in every club and activity available;
  • And most importantly, it’s a dumb way to live you life.  If you’re doing all that stuff because you love it, have a passion for it, and/or can’t bear to live without it, fine by me.  Trying to join every single activity that MIGHT give you some miniscule assistance in some mythical admissions process, however, is deeply misguided. 

Shameless Plug: Speaking of over-involvement, my team is busy getting everything finalized for Mason’s incredible Washington Journalism and Media Conference next week. Over 150 students from across the country competed to be recognized as THE future leaders in journalism and media, and to come to D.C. to meet with some of today’s best know experts in the field.

Since you can’t know what we want (or don’t want), you can feel free to make choices based on what actually interests you, as opposed to what MIGHT interest us (the admissions office).  Isn’t that better?  Be seeing you.

Cheating Harvard and Lying on Your Application


Once upon a time, an illustrious student applied to Harvard claiming to be from one of the best prep schools and one of the best colleges in the country with amazing scores and great grades.  He lied.

While this has been widely reported in the media, most of the reports have been very easy on Harvard’s admission office.  One of the experts in the field went so far as to say that, given the thousands of applications schools receive, documents just can’t be verified.

Poor Harvard.  So many applications, so little time.

One the one hand, that’s just plain silly.  This guy faked transcripts.  Maybe I can see, given the right computers and blah blah, slipping that document past someone.  If, however, a school has at least a couple of nickels to rub together (and who has more nickels than Harvard?!), perhaps they could invest in a nice document imaging system.  Nearly every reputable college in the country (and the applicant was claiming to have attended MIT) uses really fancy transcript paper that shows all kinds of stuff when you scan the document.  This makes copying or scanning the document challenging – and lets us know it’s a real document.  Did the student go so far as to obtain that paper?  If not, how the heck did he get it past the office?

Let’s, however, give poor over-worked Harvard (cue violins) the benefit of the doubt on the transcripts.  They also accepted the applicant’s fraudulent SAT scores.  I can’t speak for every institution, but Mason downloads scores directly from CollegeBoard.  We go back and verify with CB data most that come in from the high school or the student directly. 

On the other hand, since the student was transferring, maybe the Harvard admissions office wasn’t that worried about his scores (which makes sense), and since those scores were REALLY GOOD (and whose wouldn’t be, if we were picking them ourselves), why check further?  Fine – I’ll consider letting Harvard off the hook.

Let’s move on to how this exposes the DIRTY SECRET OF COLLEGE ADMISSIONS. 

 Wait for it.

 Applicants lie. 

 The even dirtier secret is – admissions offices probably don’t catch most of those liars.  Applicants submit all kinds of recommendation letters, lists of extra-curriculars, and claims of awards and achievements.  For the most part, colleges make no effort to verify the authenticity of these submissions.  There are rare exceptions.  With the internet so readily accessible, an applicant claiming to have appeared on “Big Brother” and “America’s Got Talent” is easily referenced.  The applicant, however, falsely claiming to have won the “East Podunk Service Commitment to Youth that are Far Less Lucky Award” is unlikely to get caught.

In fairness, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, these factors are FAR less important to admission decisions than academic records (and, the recent Harvard debacle aside, false academic records are much harder to slip past our processes).  I should also note, for all those tempted by the knowledge of admissions offices lax verification, that the penalty for getting caught is generally steep.  Most admissions offices, if they believe that any – ANY – part of the application has been falsified, will deny the applicant.  You won’t get a reason – just the denial. 

 So we’re not that good at catching you, but we have a REALLY strong disincentive.  How many of you think that works?  Be seeing you.

Hurry up and waitlist


A long time ago, when the admissions process was young, colleges and universities realized that the sooner they could get a student to commit to absolutely, positively coming to their school, the sooner they could:

  1. Help the student make a smooth academic and social transition into the community of scholars, and
  2. Begin spending that student’s tuition.

There was a time, or so I’m told, when institutions would try to get students to commit earlier and earlier, sometimes using positive incentives (“commit now and you’ll get the best housing, the best classes, and we’ll give you a puppy!”) or even threats (“commit now or we’ll stick you in the worst housing on campus, give you the worst class schedule, and we’ll kick this puppy”).  This led to the GREAT TREATY OF ADMISSIONS where all the colleges and universities agreed to give students until May 1 to make their decisions and not use incentives or threats (except in cases where they can be sneaky enough to get away with it).

 Apart from there not actually being any such treaty*, giving admitted students time to make up their mind about which school to attend seems like a very reasonable and prudent thing for colleges and universities to do.  That all goes out the window, however, for students on a wait list.

 A high school counselor launched a heated online debate recently when she complained about a college admitting one of her students from waitlist and then requiring an IMMEDIATE commitment.  Factions quickly formed on the subject.

 Team A (motto: college would be a lot more fun for us if it wasn’t for all these pesky students) noted that most colleges and universities require students to respond to waitlist offers with an agreement that, should the applicant be admitted from the waitlist, he or she will celebrate joyously and immediately commit, so the requirement for immediate response shouldn’t be a surprise.

 Team B (motto: students rule, college drool) argued that even students with the best of intentions have to do some soul searching once admissions offers are received and that teenagers may have trouble making up their minds quickly (SHOCKING!).  Later, more savvy members of team B noted that most waitlisted students go ahead and confirm somewhere else while waiting to hear from the school(s) that waitlisted them and might be waitlisted by more than one school.  As a result, a well-meaning student can find him or herself committed to one school and admitted from waitlisted at one (or two or three) others. 

 From my seat (it’s a nice seat – lots of lumbar support), this is a tough call. On the one hand, if I’m going to make offers to students on our waitlist, I need to know about their commitments as soon as possible so that I can decide whether to offer the opportunity to others.  On the other hand, it seems terribly unrealistic to encourage students (by only offering waitlist) to commit to other institutions, give them time to accept that decision and even get excited about it, and then give them only hours or days to shift gears.

 While we’re on the subject, the growth of waitlists themselves is particularly troubling, with many schools keeping well over a thousand applicants on the hook until well into summer – more on that soon.  Be seeing you.

 *Note – the May 1 deadline, however it was decided, is part of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling Principals of Good Practice.  This bears a lot of similarities to modern treaties as it is really complicated and, since it’s pretty much unenforceable, relies on the goodwill of the colleges and universities that are members for compliance.