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.

Advertisements

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.

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.
`

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheating Harvard and Lying on Your Application


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

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

Poor Harvard.  So many applications, so little time.

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

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

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

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

 Wait for it.

 Applicants lie. 

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

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

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

Hurry up and waitlist


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.