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.

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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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.

WRONG!

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.

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.

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.