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.


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.

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.

 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.

A belated 2009 Year in Review

A belated Happy New Year, or, for those of you who are high school seniors, happy nearing final application deadlines and waiting for colleges to send you their decisions!

As we close out 2009 and head into a bright and shiny new decade, there’s a veritable avalanche of best events, songs, movies, and Michael Jackson tributes of the year. Not wanting to be left out, and based on exacting and exhaustive study and research conducted largely this morning in my recliner, in no particular order here are my favorite admission stories of the year:

1. Score choice – The CollegeBoard reintroduced “score choice” to their system, meaning that test takers and decide which test scores to send out to colleges and universities. This caused great anxiety, although the ACT has had this policy in place for some time. Mostly it caused mayhem and confusion since most students either a) had no idea it was going on or b) if they did, were freaking out over which scores to pick. Add to the mix that many colleges and universities required that you send ALL scores and ignore score choice, and you have a great atmosphere – if you like chaos. This largely fell on overworked high school counselors trying to explain conflicting and often poorly explained policies to very anxious students and parents. For all this fun, the data continues to indicate that score choice has no impact on admission – that schools will continue to use your best scores no matter how many they receive, so the chaos has virtually no purpose at all!

2. Illinois sells admissions – at least, that’s what the headlines indicated. The reality is that some legislators and administrators in Illinois clearly felt, from the tone of their emails, that admission decisions should overlook standards if there was potential to gain money, either from donors or state legislators. On the other hand, the idea that donors or legislators DON’T have ANY influence on the admission process is just silly. The reality is that admissions officers will usually only admit applicants that have qualifications indicating they can likely succeed at our institutions, but at competitive institutions we receive far more qualified applicants than we have admission slots, and institutional self interest does become a factor. How big a factor donor potential (or past giving) or legislative influence…or singing, dancing, or basketball talent…should have in the process is a source of ongoing discussion. From the articles, however, you would think that Illinois invented this idea. And not a single article referenced the college movie classic, “Back to School” with Rodney Dangerfield.

3. Admissions Uncertainty!!! In other news, the media found out – much to their shock and dismay – that admission is unpredictable. They were so blown away by this insight that they continually blamed it on the economy, as if this was some kind of new occurrence. They interviewed students who didn’t know where they would get in and admissions directors agonizing over not knowing who would enroll…which, for some reason they failed to mention this, would have likely been the same responses they would have gotten BEFORE the economic downturn.

4. Colleges offering late discounts – Although the economy didn’t create as much uncertainty as the media hype suggests, many colleges noticed that students were considering less expensive options. Several of the REALLY expensive schools took aggressive steps to respond. My guess is that the discussion among leaders at these expensive schools was something like, “Hey! If we just sit back and let students start picking less expensive schools, the public might realize that there is no rational justification for our incredibly inflated prices, so we’d better get busy and make any offers necessary to hold onto our market position – now pass the caviar and prep my limo.” Or something like that. In any event, many institutions made offers WAY after student commitment deadlines in May, calling students with messages like, “We suddenly realized that we’d really like you to enroll so even though we only offered you two dollars in financial aid before now we can offer you twenty five thousand dollars if you’ll just dump that other school and come here.” Strangely, these offers actually worked pretty well – watch for new stories in 2010 about students who took these offers and now, in their sophomore year, find their financial aid packages back at two dollars.

5. Loss of Jack Blackburn – Jack was a great mentor to hundreds of admissions professionals and among the best minds in the field. As I wrote then, if heaven is well managed, they will move quickly to put Jack in charge of their admission process.

6. Common app gets less and less common – The common application was joined by a few competitors, while the participating schools added even more supplemental forms, individualizing an application meant to be common. Will one size ever really fit all?

7. In one of the great acts of hypocrisy of the year, an article was published attacking colleges and universities that added score optional admission policies as doing so (gasp) in their own self interest. Of course, the author failed to mention that his company was being paid to do a huge contract for “a major testing company.” Seems like a guy who would be great in the Illinois legislature.

8. Headlines were made that you could predict how much you would make partially based on what school you attend, although if you bother to read the articles, like this one they actually say that which college you attend still doesn’t have much, if any, influence on future income – it’s all about your talent and your achievements (and if they studied this as well, how much money your family already has).

9. Privacy was a hot topic again on many fronts. Gossip sites about colleges came and went. High schools gained access to posting a lot more information about who admitted students with what scores and grades through their data systems, creating horrifically misleading information for future applicants since the scores and grades weren’t linked and had no context. Students continued to “friend” admissions officers than post wildly inappropriate content to their Facebook pages, leading some admissions officers to the shocking conclusion that some high school students may, at times, break rules. Some admissions officers claimed to be conducting exhaustive searches of Facebook for negative content on applicants, leading them to be awarded the “creepy adults” of the year award. Better yet, a couple of stories surfaced on applicants and their parents posting false and misleading information about OTHER applicants, believing that they would increase their chances for admission if they could stick it to other students. Isn’t technology wonderful?

10. At the very end of the year a story popped up indicating that women are WAY smarted than men. It didn’t say EXACTLY that, but it did say that there are a far more women than men in higher education, and that this is a source of great anxiety for schools where they are desperately lacking men. A number of colleges boldly spoke up and announced that they were advantaging men over women in their admissions process to counteract this inequity. This led to a civil rights investigation, and I suspect to a new industry. I’m expecting that it won’t be long before I get a message asking, “Is your college having trouble finding a man? We can help…”.

On to 2010, where I’m sure we’ll find new and even more misleading stories for my rants! Be seeing you.

Admissions: it’s all about the grades

While published last year, this post got a slew of views and a few comments, so back to the top it goes:

As an admissions officer, I love hearing about all the SECRET WAYS TO GET INTO COLLEGE. These generally focus on some lame way to send your application, or some special club you can join, or worst of all some company that you pay a fortune. There’s never any evidence that any of that works, other than a story about somebody who got in at some point by sending in their application that way, joining that club, or forking over that fortune.

The reality, unfortunately, is really boring. Here it is (you might want to sit down for this): It’s all about your grades.

That’s really about it…except that when I say “grades” I really mean your whole academic record. To start with, colleges are much more interested in grades in your core academic courses: Math, science, English, social studies, and/or foreign language. Every time I say that someone asks, “but what about band.” I usually say, yeah, maybe, if you’re seeking admission to a music conservatory…but mostly it’s the core academic courses. Usually the same kid (or more often, parent) jumps up and says, “but it’s HONORS band!” Yes, I get it, and no I’m not picking on band, since the question is just as often about debate, art, or a few dozen other courses that I’m sure are very rewarding and interesting. What they aren’t is your core academic courses, which is what admissions offices use. (Updated note: when I originally posted this I got some nifty hate mail from band members – that’s not the term I used, but whatever. For the record – I was in bands, lots of bands. Played the drums. Marched in the Macy’s Parade, won some trophies. Clearly, I’m not hating on band – but, also for the record, that doesn’t mean I don’t think having classes in Band labled “Honors” – and even worse given extra weighting on the grading scale – isn’t silly. Let the new round of messages from angry band members begin!)

To get an idea of your overall academic potential, still generally focusing on those core subjects, we look at trends in your grades (up is better, although best of course is to have stayed up all the way through), the quality of your courses, where you rank, the quality of your high school, etc. etc. All of that is factored, to one degree or another, by admissions officers to get an idea of what kind of student you are, and likely will be in college. That evaluation accounts for the VAST majority of your admission decision.

Of course we know that not all grades/high schools/courses are the same, so I’ll go into detail about that in a few days (or so). Be seeing you.

Don’t let senior year screw up your admission

Just after my post yesterday I heard from a student who wanted to know if the trends in grade issue (up trends better than down trends – up all the way along is best) extended into senior year.

It’s true that, for the most part, junior year of high school is the most important period for admission as a college freshman. That’s because it’s usually the last full year we will get to see when making your admission decision, since most colleges will ask you to apply in the middle of your senior year. Remember, however, that many colleges routinely require some of your senior grades before they will make any decision, and the most recent grades you have tend to get more weight in the decision. Worse, if you’re a difficult decision some schools will wait until they have your midterm, or even third quarter, grades before making a decision.
If that’s not enough incentive to keep your work up as a senior, you should know that even after admission decisions are made, colleges may still use later grades in making scholarship and financial aid decisions (that brings up the issue that your grades and scores can, at some schools, impact your need-based aid…more on that soon).
Finally, keep in mind that all admission decisions are conditional on your keeping up a comparable level of work. It’s not that every college will drop your admission if you finish with an ‘A-‘ instead of an ‘A’, but a large drop in grades WILL get noticed. Last year I revoked about a dozen admission decisions for poor final performance. And it’s ESPECIALLY important not to go crazy and do something that could jeopardize your graduation…not graduating (or getting arrested) will almost surely cause the admissions office to revoke your decision.
But other than that, try to enjoy your senior year…be seeing you.

Live panel on grading scales in admission

Just in case reading the blog isn’t enough to satisfy you, you have your chance to question me in person at a panel discussion hosted by Fairfax County Public Schools on August 25.
The moderator will be Greg Toppo from USA Today. Greg Roberts of UVA (we call them our Southern campus – cue rim shot) and John Latting of Johns Hopkins University will join me as sacrificial lambs/panelists. The event will begin at 1 p.m. in the auditorium of Luther Jackson Middle School. FCPS will videotape this event and (they emphasized this in their email to me this week) press coverage is expected (so I suppose I’ll have to “dress up”).
The program is scheduled to have 45-60 minutes of discussion (take your no-doz!), followed by 15-20 minutes of questions submitted online and at the auditorium. FCPS will provide staff to collect questions, consolidate them and pass them on to the moderator (which means the boxer/brief question you’ve been waiting to ask probably won’t make it through).
The focus questions for the panel are:
1. Do colleges account for different grading policies in the admissions process?
2. Do different grading policies effect differentially decisions regarding admissions, merit scholarships, and honors placement?
3. Do these grading scale admissions practices vary across institutions when classified as in- state vs. out-of-state or public vs. private or based on other characteristics?

Since I’ve already covered all of this in the blog, you probably already know what I’m going to say…but come on out and say howdy if you get the chance. is the link to the location of Luther Jackson Middle School…in case you didn’t know that (I didn’t!). Be seeing you!