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 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.


Could iCarly hold the Secret to College Admissions?

For those of you who haven’t gotten the chance to read my bio, I’m a dad. For parents like me, the opportunity to humiliate our kids is one of the greatest joys that we can experience. Through the miracle of technology, I can do so on a vastly wider scale than was possible for my parents. For instance, my eight year old son loves the show iCarly. Apparently, this is a huge secret that could permanently destroy his street “cred” if it were ever to be accidentally revealed. Consequently he feigns disinterest when our friends’ daughters insist on watching the show.

Pretending interest/disinterest, it turns out, is an important talent well beyond your elementary years. While it’s unlikely to impact your popularity in high school, the level of interest you show in a college or university has a surprising impact on admissions decisions. Surveys from the National Association for Admissions Counselling (motto – “We’re a pretty big deal even though you’ve never head of us”) show that “demonstrated interest” is an increasingly important factor in the admissions process. That means that colleges and universities, especially the most competitive ones, will look at how many times you visit, call, email, and tweet about your unmatched desire to attend their precious institutions. They will also look at how early you apply, as well as whether you bother to mention in your essay that you believe your life (and possibly existence as you know it) may come to an end (or at least be shattered in some way) if you are not admitted to their school.

This often leads to madcap situations worthy of a reality show where students attempt to show their passion for institutions. Many end up rapidly crossing that thin line from, “I’m really interested,” to, “I’m a crazy stalker.”

Much like being an iCarly fan, however, there is a dark side to demonstrated interest. Many of those schools that make the most use of demonstrated interest in admissions decisions, use it in exactly the opposite way when awarding financial aid and scholarships. In other words, if the school thinks you want to go there badly enough, then they assume you’ll still come even if they give you less money.

Fortunately, we don’t play those games at Mason. You can feel free to shamelessly admit that we are the best school EVER and that your life will only be complete if you attend. Yeah, I get that a lot.

In the end, my advice is that it’s probably best to just be honest. Speaking of honesty, my son has asked me to formally announce that he does NOT like iCarly and that I was really referring to his friend Logan from across the street…no, really. I don’t watch either. Although Sam is hilarious.

Be seeing you.

May 1 – commitment and tantrums

Like most admissions deans and directors, I spent most of the day yesterday, the May 1st national enrollment confirmation day, tracking student commitments to my institution. For many years, May 1 marked the end of admissions officers’ anxiety; at that point, we pretty much knew who was (and who wasn’t) coming to our colleges and universities.

Not any more.

Admissions e-lists are filled this time of year talking about “melt,” which describes the number of students who commit to our institutions but never enroll. That number used to fairly small and consisted largely of students who had major changes in their circumstances, mostly health- or wealth-related.  Each year, however, more students are willing to commit to more than one institution. Admissions officers whine about this, calling such students unethical, and rely on guidance counselors to police the issue.

Around this time last year I suggested that colleges and universities accept, and even embrace, this “double-depositing” and pretty much got flamed by a number of colleagues for such a shocking concept. Here’s a sample of what I wrote:

“I really like when the argument gets all fired up as a debate on ‘ethics’. It seems particularly charming that the same universities that are sending massively manipulative marketing materials (oh how I love alliteration!)…then call students unethical for not being able to make up their minds by May 1 … it isn’t unethical, it’s a purchasing decision…You can place deposits on any number of items (say a car, just to draw the comparison most likely to inflame my colleagues), and decide NOT to make that purchase without being in the least unethical, can’t you?”

I was right, this unhinged people, although not one actually gave any reasonable argument for saying it’s about ethics.  Still, I recognize that simply accepting multiple deposits from students is unlikely to be embraced. So instead, a few new suggestions:

To make this all more open and honest, here’s some radical thinking. Perhaps the May 1 deposit deadline could go be a date for half-refunds. June 1 could become the new final deposit date. Between the dates, colleges and universities can openly do all the things they try to do on the sly now – renegotiate aid packages without academic or fiscal justification; promise better housing/orientation/classes to those who commit sooner; threaten to kick, scream, and hold their breath if the applicant goes elsewhere, etc.

Admissions officers will, I’m sure, cry that June 1 is far too late and blah blah blah about all the ways this would become the wild west instead of a carefully considered process of helping students find best “fit.” New flash – melt is growing because of OUR practices more than any change in ethics among students and families. If we can’t clean up those practices (and recent history says we either can’t or won’t) then let’s at least try to make the process more transparent.

At the same time, and I know how unpopular this will be, colleges and universities should significantly raise deposit fees (many have been at the same level for over a decade while tuition has skyrocketed). With deposits being such a small percentage of tuition, some families see an economic percentage in double depositing.  Remember, these deposits get used toward tuition and housing bills, so the only students who would pay more as a result are those that double deposit. 

In the meantime, my thanks and congratulations to all of you who decided to commit to Mason. You made the right decision. Now you’d better stick to it, because MY tantrums are REALLY loud.

Be seeing you.

Money for College -the finale!

For the most part, admissions and financial aid are honorable professions. My colleagues are generally very ethical people who strive to help students and deeply believe in the importance of their mission and the service they provide.

That being said, sometimes their work this time of year – the months that colleges and universities package financial aid – can seem a little dirty. I’m not talking DIRTY – I’ve yet to hear about a colleague finding a way to engineer financial aid kickbacks or helping the cartels launder money through financial aid. Clearly, however, the process is neither transparent nor easy to understand. For years I’ve listened to my colleagues cry that we’re NOT used car dealers (by the way, I know some very ethical car dealers), but in the end, it comes down to a basic question for most families:

Can we negotiate/change the amount we’ll pay for school?

The very idea that costs, grants, scholarships, and other fiscal issues are malleable raises a slew of questions, and the massive lack of understanding and transparency inspires theories of graft and corruption.

Despite these concerns, there are many very legitimate reasons why financial aid packages and scholarship offers change. The most likely culprit is changing family circumstances. If there’s a significant loss of income – changes in job status or health are the usual sources – financial aid offices have discretion to make adjustments to financial aid packages to reflect changes in your family’s need level. On the merit side, huge change in your academic profile (a massively higher standardized test score, a huge upturn in your grades) can, on rare occasions, lead to a larger scholarship award.

There are, however, less savory reasons schools might shift your offer. In the end, most of these come down to decisions about institutional income and profile. If a school wants your money and thinks they won’t get you without a “discount,” they might be more inclined to up their offer.

Last year, a blind panic erupted in many high-priced schools that the economic downturn would wreak enrollment havoc. As a result, there was a bizarre period where some expensive colleges and universities were sending admitted students new improved financial packages before the students had a chance to ask. In many cases, this happened long after the students had committed to other institutions, creating a delightful atmosphere of seediness and desperation and magnifying impressions that everything in admissions and financial aid is negotiable.


In reality, most schools aren’t going to make any adjustments to the aid they provide and for very very very good reasons. Nevertheless, some do, and before you try to squeeze these institutions, you need to be aware of some realities in the situation. Even at the schools that routinely play these games, negotiation only works in your favor if the school REALLY wants you. If you’re just an average joe for them, they’re not likely to break the bank to enroll you. It’s also helpful if you have unmet need (or need being only met with loans/workstudy). Somehow it makes those schools feel better to change a need award than to add more scholarship. For such schools, and on the rare instances where it happens, it usually works like this:
You had $1000 in need, got $200 in scholarships, $100 in grants, and $700 in loan. You let them know you REALLY want to go there, but too much of your package consists of a loan to afford it while this other school you like ALMOST as much has been more generous (be prepared to prove that!). They come back and say, “Wow, you were right, that is a lot of loan – fortunately we really like you and can give you $300 in scholarships and $200 in grants and now your loan is just $500.” Isn’t that swell?

Now add a WHOLE bunch of zeros and you get the idea.

Most schools won’t participate in this kind of nonsense. The reality is that these kinds of games aren’t generally allowed with money from the state or federal government, so it’s usually only high tuition schools using part of their outrageous cost as discounts to recruit students that can afford these strategies. Instead, most institutions package as well as they can from the start, except in cases of radical changes in family income or profile as described above. Keep that in mind, so when a school tells you they won’t negotiate but still love you, you won’t be mad at them for being transparent, up front, and ethical.

Speaking of ethics, I really had to stretch to work a shameless plug in a around this topic! Fortunately two of our prominent faculty members recently published on somewhat, slightly related subjects. One has a book on the public policy issues around the use of techniques considered as torture; another published a study in conjunction with Yale researchers on how people tend to support conservation but few practice it. On reflection, they’re not really all that related.

One last gasp of worry about the scary things colleges and universities do to shake your confidence: it is worth asking how your financial aid will be calculated for all four years and whether your second or third year support will likely be less (even a lot less) attractive than what they offered you as an incoming freshmen. In particular, watch out for one year scholarships in the fine print. And keep in mind, most of the schools are being really honest and up front with you. Trust me. Be seeing you.

More humbug – admit letters CAUSE stress

Most of you probably assume that getting your applications submitted and receiving your admission letters will relieve all that overwhelming stress you’ve been feeling. That’s definitely the way it should be (and I’m sure is, if you were lucky enough to be admitted to Mason). Unfortunately an increasing number of colleges have found new and inventive ways to screw that up. To explain, a holiday parable:

Once upon a time, college and university admissions officers had a great idea. These wonderful caring individuals thought students should have the crucial information they need to make up their minds about which college or university to attend before any decision deadline. These fine, upstanding admissions leaders felt that those students should have a reasonable amount of time to do so, and should be able to do so without risking losing money or the best dorm room or being threatened by letters that sound like they were drafted by former mafia goons who have gone to work for creditor services.

And so, in a fit of compassion and reason, the colleges and universities agreed on the May 1 deadline – an agreement that, no matter when colleges and univeristies admitted freshmen, the students would have until May 1 to make up their minds. This was particularly important since most colleges and universities can’t get out financial aid information until late March or early April, and a month seemed fair.

Ah, the good old days. Then…or so the story goes…a few admissions officers had an idea. They had an awful idea. (With respect to Dr. Seuss) They had a wonderful, awful idea. The colleges and universities would SAY that students could use the May 1 deadline, but at the same time send very threatening letters. These sneaky admissions officers would claim that they just MIGHT not have ENOUGH space so that they just HAVE to force students to choose sooner. Sure, they know that this is especially unfair to the students inexperienced with the process, with the lowest income and overcoming the most challenges – but hey, they have budgets to meet. So off they went, asking students to commit earlier and earlier, and then refusing to refund deposits when they were sent in haste in response to their threats.

They’d even, I suspect, keep the last can of Who Hash.

Yes, I’m calling them Grinches. Too subtle?

Here’s where I send out a challenge. I’m sticking to the May 1 deadline. I’m so convinced that Mason is the right place for a lot of you and that you can make a good decision given time and good information that I’m willing to take that risk. Some colleges will send you an admit letter that reads like a chain letter, “you’d better send us money RIGHT NOW or else bad things will happen…Elmira Jones of Paducah, Kentucky failed to send in her deposit. She ended up with no room on campus, early Friday morning classes, and her cat died the next day. Don’t let this happen to you.” If you follow my logic, institutions that put on this pressure probably, while I can’t be one hundred percent sure, suck. They suck the life right out of you. That’s right – colleges that break the May 1 deadline could, just possibly, be entirely populated by soulless vampires. I realize that will be incredibly appealing to the Twi-hards in the audience.

For the rest of you, however, I encourage you to stand up for yourselves. If and when a college puts on this kind of pressure, push back. Tell them you want to be guaranteed you won’t lose a good spot if you wait for May 1 to get a chance to compare your options and see your aid packages. And if they won’t, tell them their hearts must be, at least, two sizes too small. And then come to Mason. Be seeing you.

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.

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.