How to find the hottest…school?


Everybody in Hollywood understands that reviews are a matter of opinion, and that efforts to get people to watch your movie/show will often include activities that have nothing to do with making the show better. As a result, armies of publicists seek to get stars on covers of magazines and included in the various “hot” lists.

The education equivalent of that is THE RANKINGS. Colleges and university officials whine and cry about the rankings each year, moaning that they have little or nothing to contribute to students’ understanding of their educational options. Meanwhile meetings take place across the country where those same officials plot and scheme to raise their placement on these same lists.

This schizophrenic behavior isn’t really all that hard to understand. The rankings are, for the most part, hooey. That’s a technical term meaning, “a lots of statistical data that doesn’t actually mean a thing if you’re trying to determine the quality of a school.”

With all due respect to Bob Morse, my longtime acquaintance that runs the U.S. News rankings, his very well-known list is a great example. It starts with a massive survey of college presidents and deans of admission. This is like starting a ranking of the best new cars with a survey of auto company CEO’s. Fortunately, I genuinely feel that Mason is the best university – ever – and I have no hesitation indicating that on the survey…which should give you some idea of how these things work.

The USNWR surveys are “balanced” by statistical data that is completely accurate, impossible to manipulate, and corresponds exactly to the quality of each institution. No. Wait. I mean the opposite of that.

One of the biggest factors, for instance, is how much money each school spends and earns. “What the heck does how much money a school earns and spends have to do with whether it’s the right school for me?” Good question. With money as a huge factor, of course, it guarantees that the rankings won’t change all that much from year to year, which is great if you’re, say, selling magazines to people who expect to see the same names at the top of the list each year.

I doubt, however, anyone really cares whether or not the rankings are accurate. Does anyone really believe that People magazine REALLY knows who the hottest people are in the world?

Very slowly there are some better tools being developed. The National Survey of Student Engagement does some great work trying to look at outcomes, what actually happens to students while enrolled at colleges and universities, and U.S. News has been publishing some of their results as well.

Shameless Plug: among the efforts to provide new and different ways to look at the rankings, three years ago USNWR added a list for the hot “up and coming schools to watch.” I’m not above bragging that Mason has been in the top ten for all three years. What does that mean? No more than the other lists. But, if your college decision is going to come down to just a ranking, I suggest that you might as well use the USNWR “up and coming schools to watch list.” I’m just saying…

Speaking of useless top ten lists, this very amusing list of educational screw ups showed up in my twitter feed courtesy of the Huffington Post.

The bottom line is that the rankings can be an interesting shortcut to developing your interest list, but don’t get sucked into thinking there’s a lot of substance behind them. My suggestion: build your own ranking based on the things you think are most important. Send me your suggestions for what should go on that list and I’ll post them in a future column. Who knows – maybe we can control THE RANKINGS of the future!

Be seeing you.

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Faith, Admissions and the Internet


URGENT NEWS: The internet is not always entirely correct.

Shocking, I know. What’s more startling is that many of the websites that you rely on to get your information on college admissions are actually not all that reliable.
In fact, I had a student (who I dearly hope will enroll at Mason next year) confess that she relies on one of these sites as her “college admissions bible.”

Holy inappropriate religious reference!

Here are some of the many reasons why it’s a bad idea to rely entirely on college advice websites:

1. Most sites are trying to sell something (usually college loans) and care much more about the sale than about presenting accurate information. These sites will post just about anything to get you to their homepage where they can inundate you with their own advertisements for the best student loan ever or the most gimmicky product on the planet. HINT-if the first few pages keep redirecting you to loan offers, that’s a bad sign.
2. Many of these college websites are only trying to make money. Period. Here’s how it works–The people that build the site focus on featuring the most popular schools so that their link pops up on your eager google search. However, when you enter the site, you also see attractive features on schools you’ve never heard of (often for-profit schools). Don’t be fooled. These sites earn a lot of money in exchange for presenting these schools to you (whether they are quality institutions or not). HINT-if you can’t even get to any information without being bombarded by ads first for some totally irrelevant service or school, that’s a really bad sign.
3. Those that do care about accurate information and don’t manipulate the data are still often post misinformed and dated information. However, they might not be entirely to blame for this one. Colleges and universities are notorious for providing very little useful information that would tell them apart from one another. As a result, sites like these try to fill in the gaps caused by a persistent lack of transparency. HINT-if the site praises a campus as, “really modern; indoor plumbing newly installed,” that’s a truly and spectacularly bad sign.

On the other hand, I totally get why so many of you worship these sites. Face it, we all love and crave ratings, scores, and lists of any kind (regardless of accuracy).

This obsession starts at an early age. For example, my eight year old son insists that I score him each time he jumps in the pool. He does not, however, appear to care a bit about the scale on which he is scored, only that his score increases each time. His last jump received a score of 365,492. It was an awesome jump.

However, if you aren’t just on a quest for random numbers and genuinely want some good information, there are some decent sites out there. I’m particularly partial to http://mycollegeoptions.org. In fairness, that should be labeled “Shameless Plug,” as they feature this blog on their site; but, I do think they have solid information and their free college match test is more than a few steps ahead of most of its competitors.

I hope your summer is going well. Whether you’re surfing the information super highway or just jumping into the pool, I hope you receive ratings of biblical proportions.

Be seeing you.

What is the admissions mission?


Do you trust college admissions officers? Do you view us as dedicated public servants working tirelessly to help you achieve your dreams in the most time and cost-efficient manner? Or do you, perhaps, consider us the aggressive sales force behind education, about as welcome as those people in the mall who NEED you stop and try their face cream/hair extension/perfume combination?

I trust that most of my colleagues fall closer to the former than the latter. The reality is, however, that a massive portion of our jobs is to convince a particular group of students that they should enroll at our school – and in many cases, enroll for a particular price.

For numerous years, the federal government has been concerned that the motivation to enroll students surpasses the duty that college admissions officers have to appropriately guide students. As a result, there is a set of laws and policies that preclude colleges and universities from paying bonuses or incentives to recruiters based on numbers of students recruited and from basing salaries on enrollment numbers.

Since recruiting is a big portion of the admissions job, it is not surprising that these laws are nearly impossible to enforce. While few institutions, if any, will officially say that their admissions officers’ salaries or jobs are based on enrollment, there are any number of incidents where admissions officers have been “exited” when targets weren’t achieved. At the other end of the spectrum, those of us that have enjoyed remarkable enrollments tend to be offered jobs at other institutions that are coincidentally packed with raises and promotions.

At the moment, there is a noisy discussion about the use of enrollment incentives at for-profit institutions. The traditional non-profit universities play the part of innocent angels, saying they are shocked at the blatant conflict of interest created by the clear bonuses and incentives that some for-profit institutions use to try to motivate their “sales force.”

Of course, unethical marketing doesn’t require incentives. Many admissions officers are hyper-competitive regardless of their pay scales. Often alumni of the institutions, they have enormous passion for the school’s success. While there is no doubting the sincerity of their loyalty, there is also little doubt that some go over the top in claims of student financial support, academic quality, and graduate job availability.

So, how does this issue impact you?
When the system leans so far towards awarding incentives for enrollment success, many admissions officers reach a point of saying anything – I mean ANYTHING – to get you to enroll.

While I am not a fan of the direct, overt, and excessive incentives and bonuses that some institutions are using, I’m also a realist. My job is, in no small part, to make sure that Mason has an amazing incoming class of students that both reaches targets of quantity, quality and diversity. At some level, no matter how ethical, honest and just generally wonderful my conduct, I am still a partisan for my institution, which, if I haven’t mentioned lately, is clearly the BEST UNIVERSITY IN THE WORLD. This leads me to another…

Shameless Plug: I’m incredibly excited about this Sunday’s start of Mason’s first annual Washington Youth Summit on the Environment. Outstanding high school student leaders are coming from across the country to meet at Mason and at our partner organizations, the Smithsonian National Zoo and the National Geographic Society, for this monumental event. This program builds on the incredible relationship between Mason and the Smithsonian National Zoo, which includes the one-of-a-kind partnership with the Conservation Resource Center and the Smithsonian Mason semester program. With presentations from some of the leading scientists and activists in the field, as well as representatives from every side of the political spectrum, attendees will be exploring how to deal with the enormous challenges posed by current environmental issues.

See what I mean? It all comes down to being a smart consumer. Regardless of the great information/propaganda/shameless plugs you may get from any admissions officer, you should also do your own research on each institution. On the other hand, you are certainly welcome to just take MY word for it. 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.

Colleges and Universities want YOU – part two


Time for even more TRENDY MARKETING EFFORTS FROM COLLEGES AND UNIVERISTIES FOR 2010-2011 (that probably won’t work).

VIDEOS Part I– Mason and three other schools led the way by introducing videos into the application process. Look for a bunch of other schools to follow and then lengthy, silly debates about whether this changes the whole admission process (it doesn’t).

VIDEOS Part II – Colleges and universities try to make their own versions of High School Musical as a way of getting you to notice them. Yes, Yale managed to create one that got some media attention, but that was YALE. Will “Ineverheardof” University be able to go viral with their similarly lame efforts? “Glee,” I think, has nothing to fear.

THIRD PARTY SERVICES – With match.com and others taking over the dating world, it’s no surprise that savvy companies would find a way to do something similar for the often even more stressful process of finding the right school. Some of these programs are just silly, but others may catch on as the new way to search schools. Personally, I like MyCollegeOptions’ service the best, but hey – they publish my posts so I’m entirely partial.

BLOGS – The success of a few blogs (not this one) leads many admissions officers to believe that if only they create their own, suddenly their schools will catapult to the top of the rankings. You’ll see blogs continue to proliferate – mostly admissions officers whining two or three times a year about how many applications they receive and bragging ineffectively about how perfect their schools are. Warning – these tend to be sickly sweet and should be avoided by anyone with a strong gag reflex.

Sad to say, all of the cool, flashy technology in the world won’t make much a difference. Mason is not successful because I blog, include videos in our application process, or tweet. Mason succeeds because:
1) SHAMELESS PLUG: Mason is a great school – great location just outside D.C., incredible faculty, gorgeous buildings and campus, and intensely globally diverse – and if those are things you want, you’ll like it.
2) We tell our story. Sharing the information above through e-mail, travel to your schools, postal mailings, and websites. At the core, the most important part of this process is having a chance to check out the information about schools to see which may fit you best.

This answer, however, is boring. Most schools still hope that they can get around giving you GOOD information by giving you information in some new, creative, and “cutting-edge” way.

So prepare yourselves for brochures, college fairs, phone calls, postcards, and text messages along with new blogs, apps, friend requests, and videos with virtually no entertainment value whatsoever. Maybe I’m wrong about what you want to see, in which case I’d love to hear from you. In any case, my advice is to ignore all the propaganda and gimmicks and just try to find some great schools – there are plenty out there, whether they tweet or not.

Be seeing you.

P.S. – A special Mason prize to the person who posts the most outrageous technological marketing effort a college or university makes this year…as judged solely by me. As George Carlin used to say, “They’re my rules – I make them up.”

Colleges and Universities want YOU: Part One


For those of you who are nearing the end of your junior year in high school, it may be hard to imagine, but just a year from now you will more than likely have finished the admission process and decided what school you’ll attend.

In between now and then, admissions officers will be stalking you. This marketing onslaught has probably already begun as dozens, if not hundreds, of colleges and universities purchase your name and contact information and begin pummeling you with strident messages that suggest that your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are only possible at .

I get a lot (A LOT) of calls from other institutions trying to figure out how Mason breaks through all of that noise. These generally take two forms:
A) Tell us what really cool marketing trick/gimmick/fad is working for you, or
B) Please come work for us, as clearly it’s your brilliance and innovation that makes the difference.

As you’ll soon see, most admissions offices haphazardly lurch from trend to trend in the belief that there is a technology out there that will move them ahead of the other admissions offices in the race for you attention. In an attempt to prepare you, the next couple posts will be composed of my list of TRENDY MARKETING EFFORTS FROM COLLEGES AND UNIVERISTIES FOR 2010-2011 (that probably won’t work):

TWITTER – Seems as if everyone who is ANYone has started tweeting, and admissions officers are jumping on this bandwagon with gusto. Never mind that the data indicates that your parents are a lot more likely to use Twitter than anyone your age, or that if you do, you’re more likely following Justin Bieber than any admissions officer. Will you really pick a school, or even look at one, based on a tweet, or is this more of a twick?

FACEBOOK – Of course, this isn’t really new, but in an all-time high for creepiness, admissions officers will seek to friend you in ever greater numbers. If you maintain good privacy on your site (and police your friends’ habit of tagging you in unflattering photos) and you want to friend an admission dean or two, by all means feel free. When they friend you, however, it just seems kinda…ewwwww.

APPS – For the parents who periodically read these posts, “apps” means applications. Not applications to college, but applications for technology platforms and products. Watch for some colleges to introduce their own Facebook and iPad/iPhone apps this year in an attempt to be ultra-cool. But will a Mason app ever compete with FarmVille? Nah

IPHONE TOURS – I have had at least three companies bugging me to create a campus tour that you can download to your iPhone so you can use it when you visit campus. Really? REALLY? You fly across the country and come to campus, and instead of an actual student as tour guide I should have you follow your PHONE? Maybe…

Stay tuned – the second part of my list, with even more obnoxious efforts colleges and universities are investing in to woo you is still to come.

Be seeing you.

Last minute application advice…just in case you need it


The end of the year (and the decade) always lead to a plethora of top ten lists, and since that terminus falls right in the midst of many application deadlines, my own top ten list of things to keep in mind for your last minute applications follows.

1. Advocate (within reason) – Many applicants have already learned that it’s not all that difficult to contact admissions offices to find out which lucky counselor is reviewing the applications for any particular high school. From there, it’s a short leap to trying to “friend” that same admissions officer in hopes that he or she will look more favorably upon applicants that said admissions officer remembers/knows/enjoys learning about through status updates. There is, however, a reasonable version of this – trying to (briefly!) meet the appropriate admissions counselor when you visit campus or maybe sending a personal note about how much you REALLY want to go that school. Maybe even friend them IF you are very very (very very) careful about your privacy settings and have some confidence that your knuckle-headed friends won’t post something problematic. This week I reached a new level of invasiveness when I received a call from an anxious mother AT HOME. Apparently, and I learn something new every day, I am more accessible than I thought. Bear in mind, there is a fine line between advocacy and stalking – and many of you have already crossed that line and are now flailing in the deep canyon beyond. Yes, I mean you.

2. Quality over quantity – Since you’re already bumping up against the deadline, I’m sure you’ll be happy to be reminded that you are not judged by how MUCH you submit with your application. Actually, in many admissions offices, submitting an over-abundance of support materials is considered a negative. Better one or two really good recommendations, for instance, than a dozen form letters, no matter how impressive the signers.

3. Timing can be everything – Don’t miss the deadline! Get your application in even if other materials are on the way. Admissions offices are used to mail delays, and you may be at some disadvantage if materials are delayed too long, but you can most significantly decrease your admission potential by missing the deadline (Shameless plug: don’t forget – Mason’s deadline is January 15!)

4. Make your list and check it twice (or even three times) – No matter how silly the questions may seem, answer all of them. Every bit as important, EDIT your responses. If the system will let you save an application in process, save it before you submit and get a really good proofreader to look over your work. (Shameless plug – a holiday shout out to Brydin, my tireless, chipper elf who is saddled with editing my musings for this blog – thanks B!).

5. Explanations and not excuses – If your record shows some period of weak performance, explain what happened, but take responsibility for your actions and let the admissions office know why they should believe you will do better. By the way, the worst excuse possible is that the teacher hated you. It leads, even if only in the back of our minds, to the suspicion that the teacher may be right.

6. Still time to show improvement – The best way to show that you can do better is…to do better! If you think you are on an upward trajectory, whether you think your next quarter/semester grades will be much better or your next take of the SAT/ACT is far improved, mention those issues in your application. Ask them to wait for updated records. Many schools do so routinely in any event – so now is the time to REALLY shine.

7. When to stand out and when to sit down – Some of the more bizarre advice I find in other (clearly less honest/accurate) blogs and web sites is that applicants should try to make themselves “stand out.” Have we learned nothing from the geniuses that brought us “High School Musical?” Of course, anyone in high school can tell you that the only safe reason to stand out is some kind of incredible sports or arts success. Standing out for anything else is likely to get your stuffed in a locker, or worse. The same can be said for the admissions process. If you have to TRY to be funny, get noticed, do something outrageously different with your application, you are just as likely to hurt your chances of admission as you are to help. There’s just no way to know if the person reviewing your application has any sense of humor at all (or taste, good judgment, fashion sense…you get the idea). Unless you’re trying to get into a school you consider a total long shot, I’d consider whether standing out is as outstanding as it sounds.

8. Make it personal – Don’t forget to mention how much you want to enroll at the school to which you apply. If that college or university is your first choice, by all means make sure you let them know. Even better, personalize your essay/supplemental statement to tell them (briefly!) why you think you would be a great match at that institution. Be careful, however, when cutting and pasting. As in previous years I have already gotten a couple of applicants with essays detailing how very much they want to go to Cornell University – you can imagine my reaction to such information.

9. But don’t take it personally – Even as I advise you to personalize your reasons for wanted to enroll, try to keep your perspective on the process. The people reading your application probably never met you, and if they did, they barely know you. Their evaluation will largely be based on the materials you submit but mostly your academic record. Once you realize that it’s not about YOU, that the process is designed to focus on a bunch of materials, you may, I hope, be able to take some of the stress out of waiting for the results.

10. Oh the places you’ll go – Most importantly is that the admissions process does NOT, no matter what may hear from admissions officers emails, letters, texts and Facebook pages, determine your success. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the country, and the evidence says which one you attend has very little to do with how successful you will be. Wherever you are admitted and eventually enroll, it is your talent and effort that will determine your future success.

Finally, my New Years/holiday wish for all of you: I hope you get in everywhere you apply, I hope you get every scholarship you want…and I hope you come to Mason (Shameless plug – application deadline still January 15!!!). Be seeing you!