How to find the hottest…school?

Everybody in Hollywood understands that reviews are a matter of opinion, and that efforts to get people to watch your movie/show will often include activities that have nothing to do with making the show better. As a result, armies of publicists seek to get stars on covers of magazines and included in the various “hot” lists.

The education equivalent of that is THE RANKINGS. Colleges and university officials whine and cry about the rankings each year, moaning that they have little or nothing to contribute to students’ understanding of their educational options. Meanwhile meetings take place across the country where those same officials plot and scheme to raise their placement on these same lists.

This schizophrenic behavior isn’t really all that hard to understand. The rankings are, for the most part, hooey. That’s a technical term meaning, “a lots of statistical data that doesn’t actually mean a thing if you’re trying to determine the quality of a school.”

With all due respect to Bob Morse, my longtime acquaintance that runs the U.S. News rankings, his very well-known list is a great example. It starts with a massive survey of college presidents and deans of admission. This is like starting a ranking of the best new cars with a survey of auto company CEO’s. Fortunately, I genuinely feel that Mason is the best university – ever – and I have no hesitation indicating that on the survey…which should give you some idea of how these things work.

The USNWR surveys are “balanced” by statistical data that is completely accurate, impossible to manipulate, and corresponds exactly to the quality of each institution. No. Wait. I mean the opposite of that.

One of the biggest factors, for instance, is how much money each school spends and earns. “What the heck does how much money a school earns and spends have to do with whether it’s the right school for me?” Good question. With money as a huge factor, of course, it guarantees that the rankings won’t change all that much from year to year, which is great if you’re, say, selling magazines to people who expect to see the same names at the top of the list each year.

I doubt, however, anyone really cares whether or not the rankings are accurate. Does anyone really believe that People magazine REALLY knows who the hottest people are in the world?

Very slowly there are some better tools being developed. The National Survey of Student Engagement does some great work trying to look at outcomes, what actually happens to students while enrolled at colleges and universities, and U.S. News has been publishing some of their results as well.

Shameless Plug: among the efforts to provide new and different ways to look at the rankings, three years ago USNWR added a list for the hot “up and coming schools to watch.” I’m not above bragging that Mason has been in the top ten for all three years. What does that mean? No more than the other lists. But, if your college decision is going to come down to just a ranking, I suggest that you might as well use the USNWR “up and coming schools to watch list.” I’m just saying…

Speaking of useless top ten lists, this very amusing list of educational screw ups showed up in my twitter feed courtesy of the Huffington Post.

The bottom line is that the rankings can be an interesting shortcut to developing your interest list, but don’t get sucked into thinking there’s a lot of substance behind them. My suggestion: build your own ranking based on the things you think are most important. Send me your suggestions for what should go on that list and I’ll post them in a future column. Who knows – maybe we can control THE RANKINGS of the future!

Be seeing you.


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.

Colleges and Universities want YOU – part two

Time for even more TRENDY MARKETING EFFORTS FROM COLLEGES AND UNIVERISTIES FOR 2010-2011 (that probably won’t work).

VIDEOS Part I– Mason and three other schools led the way by introducing videos into the application process. Look for a bunch of other schools to follow and then lengthy, silly debates about whether this changes the whole admission process (it doesn’t).

VIDEOS Part II – Colleges and universities try to make their own versions of High School Musical as a way of getting you to notice them. Yes, Yale managed to create one that got some media attention, but that was YALE. Will “Ineverheardof” University be able to go viral with their similarly lame efforts? “Glee,” I think, has nothing to fear.

THIRD PARTY SERVICES – With and others taking over the dating world, it’s no surprise that savvy companies would find a way to do something similar for the often even more stressful process of finding the right school. Some of these programs are just silly, but others may catch on as the new way to search schools. Personally, I like MyCollegeOptions’ service the best, but hey – they publish my posts so I’m entirely partial.

BLOGS – The success of a few blogs (not this one) leads many admissions officers to believe that if only they create their own, suddenly their schools will catapult to the top of the rankings. You’ll see blogs continue to proliferate – mostly admissions officers whining two or three times a year about how many applications they receive and bragging ineffectively about how perfect their schools are. Warning – these tend to be sickly sweet and should be avoided by anyone with a strong gag reflex.

Sad to say, all of the cool, flashy technology in the world won’t make much a difference. Mason is not successful because I blog, include videos in our application process, or tweet. Mason succeeds because:
1) SHAMELESS PLUG: Mason is a great school – great location just outside D.C., incredible faculty, gorgeous buildings and campus, and intensely globally diverse – and if those are things you want, you’ll like it.
2) We tell our story. Sharing the information above through e-mail, travel to your schools, postal mailings, and websites. At the core, the most important part of this process is having a chance to check out the information about schools to see which may fit you best.

This answer, however, is boring. Most schools still hope that they can get around giving you GOOD information by giving you information in some new, creative, and “cutting-edge” way.

So prepare yourselves for brochures, college fairs, phone calls, postcards, and text messages along with new blogs, apps, friend requests, and videos with virtually no entertainment value whatsoever. Maybe I’m wrong about what you want to see, in which case I’d love to hear from you. In any case, my advice is to ignore all the propaganda and gimmicks and just try to find some great schools – there are plenty out there, whether they tweet or not.

Be seeing you.

P.S. – A special Mason prize to the person who posts the most outrageous technological marketing effort a college or university makes this year…as judged solely by me. As George Carlin used to say, “They’re my rules – I make them up.”

Colleges and Universities want YOU: Part One

For those of you who are nearing the end of your junior year in high school, it may be hard to imagine, but just a year from now you will more than likely have finished the admission process and decided what school you’ll attend.

In between now and then, admissions officers will be stalking you. This marketing onslaught has probably already begun as dozens, if not hundreds, of colleges and universities purchase your name and contact information and begin pummeling you with strident messages that suggest that your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are only possible at .

I get a lot (A LOT) of calls from other institutions trying to figure out how Mason breaks through all of that noise. These generally take two forms:
A) Tell us what really cool marketing trick/gimmick/fad is working for you, or
B) Please come work for us, as clearly it’s your brilliance and innovation that makes the difference.

As you’ll soon see, most admissions offices haphazardly lurch from trend to trend in the belief that there is a technology out there that will move them ahead of the other admissions offices in the race for you attention. In an attempt to prepare you, the next couple posts will be composed of my list of TRENDY MARKETING EFFORTS FROM COLLEGES AND UNIVERISTIES FOR 2010-2011 (that probably won’t work):

TWITTER – Seems as if everyone who is ANYone has started tweeting, and admissions officers are jumping on this bandwagon with gusto. Never mind that the data indicates that your parents are a lot more likely to use Twitter than anyone your age, or that if you do, you’re more likely following Justin Bieber than any admissions officer. Will you really pick a school, or even look at one, based on a tweet, or is this more of a twick?

FACEBOOK – Of course, this isn’t really new, but in an all-time high for creepiness, admissions officers will seek to friend you in ever greater numbers. If you maintain good privacy on your site (and police your friends’ habit of tagging you in unflattering photos) and you want to friend an admission dean or two, by all means feel free. When they friend you, however, it just seems kinda…ewwwww.

APPS – For the parents who periodically read these posts, “apps” means applications. Not applications to college, but applications for technology platforms and products. Watch for some colleges to introduce their own Facebook and iPad/iPhone apps this year in an attempt to be ultra-cool. But will a Mason app ever compete with FarmVille? Nah

IPHONE TOURS – I have had at least three companies bugging me to create a campus tour that you can download to your iPhone so you can use it when you visit campus. Really? REALLY? You fly across the country and come to campus, and instead of an actual student as tour guide I should have you follow your PHONE? Maybe…

Stay tuned – the second part of my list, with even more obnoxious efforts colleges and universities are investing in to woo you is still to come.

Be seeing you.

Is college right for you?

In case this blog just doesn’t give you enough of me, I’ve also become a “channel expert” (bascially a blogger in residence) on the ultra-cool  You can check out my recent post there about why and why not twenty somethings might want to check out college at

College admissions reality: stress and parents

Interesting article from the Dean of Admissions at Cooper Union  As some of the comments note, I think that admissions officers have to accept most of the blame for a process and marketing that creates most of the stress in this process.  I’m also not a fan of the whole “helicopter parent” tag, which doesn’t seem to me to be all that different than in the past few years if you factor out the ease of ongoing contact via mobile phones and texting.  I’d write more, but I just got elected PTA president of my son’s elementary school where he’s in kindergarten, and I need to go talk to the principal about making sure my son is getting enough good performance stickers to accurrately reflect his obvious brilliance.  Be seeing you.


Educational content on YouTube

Happy New Year!  A bit off (ok, maybe way off) the admissions topic, here’s a great list of educational resources on YouTube, with credit to Anastasia Goodstein of Ypulse ( for tipping me to the list.

Also, if you get a chance to read Ypulse, you can check out the discussion of how all those evil marketers (your faithful author included) are trying to understand the mystery of communicating with (selling, manipulating) you…

Best wishes for a truly outstanding year, filled with thick admission packages, and even larger scholarship offers.  Be seeing you.