Piranha 3-D and Admissions Myths

I get easily frustrated with people who force complex interpretations of everything. This is particularly true at certain universities where professors appear to worship complexity. As much as I appreciate a really substantive cerebral experience, I also realize that Piranha-3D doesn’t have an elaborate subtext to illustrate the perils of the socio-industrial complex’s influence on the global environment. It’s about a bunch of really mean fish that eat, purely for audience entertainment purposes, really attractive people.

One of the reasons I started writing about admissions (the other, of course, is the chance to brag about Mason) is that at times it seems everyone who writes on the topic has an attitude consistent with those colleges that seem to pride themselves on their disconnect from the “real world”. So-called admissions experts appear determined to make the topic seem complex, defying understanding by anyone without decades of experience in the field. This leads to the obvious conclusion that an applicant needs enormous expertise to have any chance of success.

I disagree.

Shameless Plug: Unlike most institutions, Mason is especially well known for our real world connections, in fact our professors are in the news all the time. If you don’t believe me, Google it. In case you’re too busy to Google, you can just check out one of our most often quoted faculty members interviewed on the Scholastic website about ways teachers can help develop curiosity in students, or follow my Twitter account for regular updates.

Those efforts to make obscure the relatively simple led to the Great Myths of College Admissions
• Admissions is fair
• Admissions is predictable
• Admissions is complicated

In reality, admissions decisions often give unfair advantages, are unpredictable to the point of often appearing random, yet are based on a system that is simple to the point of absurdity.

The biggest myth of all, however, is that there is a SECRET to admissions. People believe there is some special trick, gimmick, or schtick which, if only they had knowledge of it, would all but guarantee admission to some particular college or university.


These bogus stunts often include some special essay topic or some special club you can join – or worst of all- some company that charges a fortune for claims of inside advantages. There’s never any evidence that any of that works, other than that story about somebody who got in at some point by writing that essay, 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 (nearly, mostly, almost completely) all about your grades.

Better grades are the BEST way to increase your chances of admission. That’s really about it…except that when I say “grades” I really mean your whole academic record: the high school you attend, the quality/rigor of your courses, the trends of your grades up or down (up, of course, if better), and the comparison of you to other students and applicants from your school. 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 simple, clear-cut, transparent evaluation accounts for the VAST majority of your admission decision.

I’ll get into more detail about how all of those issues factor into academic records in the admission process in some future posts, but in the meantime here is a really simple piece of advice that is sure to help you in any admission process: get good grades. Also, when you go swimming, watch out of the piranha. Especially if you’re particularly attractive.

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.

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.

Money for College, part I, in preparation for the snowpocalypse

As I sit here preparing to wage war on the snowy elements, another skirmish comes to mind. Following closely behind the frenzied battle arena that we lovingly call the admissions process is the every-bit-as-stressful and, if possible, even less well understood challenge of seeking funding for college.

I’m by no means a financial expert (really – ask anyone) and will make no attempt to guide you on investment strategies, fiscal positioning, or appropriate debt loads (which, since we’re in the D.C. area, appear to be fine as long as your within one or two trillion dollars of your target). Since even the basic terms we use in the funding for college process can be confusing, however, I’ll use this and the next couple of posts to provide a broad overview of the college funding process (unless, as usual, I get distracted along the way).

Although we call them by LOTS of confusing names, there are really just two basic types for funding support for college that doesn’t come out of your family’s pocket: merit-based and need-based aid.

Merit-based aid is awarded for something you are, have done, or might yet do. It includes, for the most part, what we typically call “scholarships.” Scholarships can be awarded for being a great student, a great athlete, or a great artist. They could also, as I’ll explain further, be awarded for being the only one-eyed, red-haired, tuba playing engineering student at some particular school, although that’s obviously less likely.

The vast majority of merit-based aid is used, to put it bluntly, to buy students. A nicer take is that colleges have goals for our incoming students. We want them to be smart, talented, popular, and, preferably, incredibly successful with a tendency toward long-term donations. As a result, we offer discounts to those students we want most. Calling them discounts, however, would conjure up unfortunate images of clipping coupons and/or car sales, so we use the far more civilized “scholarship” term to make everyone feel better.

It’s important to understand that, in general, admissions officers try really hard to be fair in our admission decisions. Fairness, however, can take a pretty good smackdown when it comes to scholarships. That’s because institutional goals often have more to do with perception – building institutional reputation – than student achievement/quality. Many schools, for instance, never ADMIT that they grant scholarships based on just test scores, and yet offer merit-based aid for national merit semi-finalist status, an award based on…wait for it…just a test score. In general, test scores tend to be WAY more important in scholarships than in the general admission decisions, as is rank-in-class and grade point average (often of the weighted variety). While not universally true, these measures gain more traction in most scholarship award processes as colleges seek to improve measures that raise their rankings profile and/or reputation.

Shameless plug: Speaking of reputation, one of my favorite recent graduates sent me a Facebook message early this week letting me know she had TURNED DOWN the FBI position she was offered (and for which I had recommended her) because the job she took with the company where she interned is SO AMAZING that she’s decided to stay with them. Yes, there are THAT many opportunities in the Mason/D.C. area!!

Most academic scholarships are awarded based on documents you complete when you apply for admission. Some schools have no additional paperwork and just use the admission application. Others (like Mason) add additional essays while others have a completely distinct scholarship application. These differences don’t necessarily have anything to do with how hard or easy it is to get awards – the processes just differ from school to school, so be sure to check carefully for any supplemental questions or documents you might need to complete.

Next up, the answer to the burning question, “How in the heck did THAT kid get a scholarship!!!??!!!” to be followed soon after by, “Is it possible that need-based aid could be ANY more complicated!?!”. 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 http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052748703438404574597952027438622-lMyQjAxMDA5MDEwODExNDgyWj.html 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.