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

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.

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!

Shameless Plug: Mason students get more awards


A couple years ago our Provost took the unusual step of hiring a full time faculty member whose only job is to help our students obtain academic awards and fellowships. The results have been impressive with students winning more Fullbrights and Truman Scholarships, among others. This is probably another reason Mason rates the highest among universities to watch (I did mention that we were ranked number one in the nation in that category, didn’t I?). Be seeing you.

Shameless Plug: Mason in the news


The media attention driven by Mason being ranked as the Number One School to Watch in the Nation reminded me about all the attention Mason faculty receive. I get asked all the time how we get them so much coverage in so many places. The truth is that our faculty (and students) tend to not only be leaders in their field, but also working on relevant issues. Our Mason Gazette provides a list of some of the top faculty quotes, with this week’s edition including The Washington Post, USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor, and Al-Jazeera. A quick google news search for George Mason University finds, just in the past week, our faculty quoted several more times in The Post, and in The New York Times, Businessweek, The New York Daily News(a great analysis of the presidential race by Dr. Jeremy Mayer!), de Volksrant, The Mail and Guardian, The Independent, and The Washington Times.
I’ve worked at schools where we had huge strategy sessions to try to figure out how to get our faculty placed in the media. Fortunately, we don’t have to spend our time on that at Mason! Be seeing you.

Shameless plug: Mason Sports


One of the incredible perks of being Dean of Admissions is you get great tickets to a wide variety of sports (my six year old thinks it’s perfectly normal for all the players and cheerleaders to know his name, and that every kid gets the mascot to swing by his birthday party). It’s a much better deal if the sports at your school are GREAT. As a result, the past few years have been an amazing time to be part of Mason. I’m particularly partial to Basketball, and had just as much fun watching our team win the CAA Championship this year as when we went to the Final Four in 2006 (ok, ALMOST as much fun).

Mason also scored in the national rankings, with Men’s Volleyball at number 11 and Women’s Lacrosse at Number 9! My son is also a soccer addict, and coach Greg Andrulis has an amazing team, and of course Swimming and Diving is always competitive at Mason, and we were thrilled to have Kate Ziegler representing Mason in Beijing at the Olympics.

You can check out all the NCAA Division I teams, not to mention the spirit groups, club sports, and recreational sports (yes, there is a Guitar Hero competition). Be seeing you!