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.

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Tattoos, vacations, and high school quality


I made it back safely from my “vacay” in Wildwood, NJ where I narrowly resisted the urge to join the crowd and get a tattoo. Sadly, my wife vetoed the massive Mason logo I planned to go across my back.

Before I left last week, I spoke at Mason’s Washington Youth Summit on the Environment and gave my incredibly entertaining rant that gives the inside scoop on college admissions. Once again, I got the usual question: “how does my high school influence the admission process?”

This age-old question is normally prefaced by some of the following excuses:
• “My school is so huge, and so incredibly good, and it’s nearly impossible to rank in the top because everyone is above average.”
• “My school has a tough grading policy, so that makes me look worse than kids in easier schools.”
• “My school is lousy. I have bad teachers, awful facilities, and no challenging courses. I can’t get a challenging course load, and had rotten preparation for high school. Few students even graduate, so just getting through my school is harder than getting perfect grades at schools with more support.”
• “I know university ‘X’ hates my school and/or loves other schools way more.”
• “My school is so small, just being ranked number 2 in the class keeps me out of the top 10 percent; in fact, I have to duck just to get through the tiny, wee doors…”

Remember all those times nice teachers told you there are no stupid questions? They were wrong. Even with all the explanations above, the question remains fairly idiotic because…
• Admissions officers know schools pretty well, and even if we don’t know your school (we probably do), we get a profile that explains the context of your school. Admissions officers understand how to balance the impact of different schools – largely by looking to see if you challenged yourself given what was offered and are competitive in the wider context of the admissions pool as a result.
• …and even if we didn’t balance different schools, you’d never know its significance– we might like bigger schools, smaller schools, or even average-sized schools that happen to have great curling teams.
• …and even if we didn’t balance schools, and you knew its significance, admissions officers wouldn’t be any more consistent with evaluating you in the context of your school’s status than they are with any other admissions factors. Therefore, it would always differ from year to year and from reader to reader.
• …and even if we didn’t balance schools, and you knew its significance, and we were 100% consistent, you still wouldn’t know how your school was viewed by any particular admissions officer and how that affected you in the long-run.

DISCLAIMER: There is one exception: if everyone from your high school applies to the same college or university, that institution will often be tougher on admissions. Not fair, but that’s the reality.

And the biggest reason that this is PRETTY MUCH A NUTTY QUESTION (drum roll, please…) you probably can’t do anything about it!!!! Are you really going to move schools on that chance that you could possibly get into some specific college or university? Of course not. How about just stay in your school, do the best you can, and remember that you don’t need to settle on just one college or university. If some institution doesn’t want you because of your school (however unlikely that is) you’ll find plenty more that DO – and there are probably WAY better things to stress over…like how much it will cost to have a large Mason tattoo removed…
Be seeing you.

How to live your life – what you want versus what we might


I’m at the Washington Journalism and Media Conference blogging on my new iPad. Last night I did my usual speech on college admissions, and even after giving it for 20 years, I’m still amazed at the insane factors high school students consider in the admissions process. A few examples:

How will college consider the quality or ranking of my high school?
Why would anyone care? Apart from the reality that it probably makes next to no difference at all, are you really going to consider changing schools? If not, how does knowing help you at all? It doesn’t– It only adds unnecessary stress.

What classes should I take to increase my chances of admission?
I have a longer post somewhere about AP/IB/dual enrolment, but this question always makes me really sad. Unless you are doing something entirely nutty, like substituting study hall for AP physics, and assuming your course load is reasonably competitive, you have no way to know how your course choices will impact your admission. What you DO know is that some courses interest you more than others and that challenging yourself is important. Isn’t that enough to guide your choices?

I know this sounds naïve, but students and families give us WAY too much power over their life decisions. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities, and there are probably dozens that could be wonderful for you. Out of those, many will admit you simply FOR DOING THE THINGS THAT ARE BEST FOR YOU. Read: That’s what’s best for you, not for admission.

Shameless plug: clearly what the best for many of you was attending the WJMC. If you are a great student and interested in the environment, check out the Washington Youth Summit on the Environment starting in 9 days.

Be seeing you.
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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.

Interview rant and advice


I received a slew of questions about an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on use of interviews in the admissions process. The main points of the VERY long article are:
1) Most interviews are really a sales pitch – a chance for the college or university to improve their chances of getting you to enroll
2) Some interviews do have an impact on the decision, but usually only at the margins
3) There’s no way to know which kind of interview you are getting – the sales pitch or the admissions impact – so you should assume the latter even though it’s likely the former.

I’m torn today between blasting the whole admissions process and offering advice on interviews. Since it’s my column, I’ll do both.

Blast: The whole admissions process is pretty subjective. I’ve found very few offices that have any idea of how to use writing samples, recommendations, or extra-curricular involvement in a way that they can then correlate to student success. As the article explains in some excruciating detail, college interviews as part of the admissions process tend to be even less useful than other admissions factors. You can trace that to all the research from hiring in the business world that documents how even experienced interviewers aren’t likely to learn much about how a prospective employee will perform. Fortunately, MOST of the decisions are made MOSTLY on academic records, so interviews, essays, and the rest count a lot less in the process.

Advice:
 Basic: dress nicely – no flip flops (I don’t CARE if they’re Manolos – the admissions officer won’t know that!) and please, try not to wear clothing with the logo or name of some OTHER university. Speak clearly, be nice, play well with others.
 Advanced: Get to know the university or college by reading their propaganda (also known as the website and brochures), and be ready to explain with great enthusiasm all the reasons it’s your FIRST CHOICE. Be specific – extra points for obscure details on faculty and academic programs of interest. Practice interviewing skills such as looking interested and laughing at the interviewer’s lame jokes.
 Expert: The schools that really do know how to do this are looking for self-awareness, motivation, and leadership (the same goes for those that know how to use essays well). Hone your public speaking skills as if you’re auditioning for a guest spot on Glee.

Had a good (or really lousy) experience on an interview or advice you’d like to share? Let me know and maybe I’ll feature it in a future column. 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!

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.