Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sometimes Life Really Isn't Fair

It's not always teen angst.

The music students at our high school had been preparing for the winter concert for months. And this concert was a big deal. In the past, there were three separate concerts, for band, orchestra and chorale. Last night all three groups were to be on stage together -- and all the parents were there. It was a full and enthusiastic house.

The freshmen concert band was playing its second piece when something really odd happened. The district superintendent went onstage, said something to the music teacher who was conducting, and he brought the the music to an end. Then the superintendent announced we all needed to evacuate. About five minutes later, the concert was canceled. There was a nearby bomb scare -- not even related to the school -- but the police played it safe.

Our kids had rehearsed during three class periods yesterday, they were excited and ready to shine. Then, their big night came to a halt. Their frustration, anger and disappointment was understandable.

The concert has been rescheduled for early January. But in all of the excitement, I didn't think to watch the CNBC program on The Price of Admission: America's College Debt Crisis. Probably would have made me even more depressed.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Take the Time to Look for the Essence of Your Teen

A lot of admissions-related news right now focuses on early decision and application procrastination.

Let's take a break from all of the college stuff and just spend some time marveling about our teens. I know that isn't easy, sometimes, when they don't accomplish tasks in our time frame, or don't clean their rooms as requested, or get a disappointing grade. It's time to take a few minutes to look at our teens, without the layers of our self-imposed expectations.

I think that if we are honest, most of us will be pretty proud and amazed that we have such great kids. We'll each find a different child after we've stripped away those things, that 10 or 50 years from now, just won't matter.

When I do this, I see a daughter who has good friends of all ages; is kind to children; enjoys music and wants to make it a part of her life beyond high school; can hold her own in a conversation with adults; has wonderful enthusiasms that make her happy; perseveres despite setbacks, and does so with a positive attitude; loves family traditions, particularly those related to holidays.

Here's to our teens! Here's to remembering what is really important, and also being understanding -- to ourselves -- when we revert to the traditional nagging parent. Of course, that is behavior we will try to overcome in 2011 even if we know it's impossible.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

We Can't Talk Enough About Money

I recently attended a session at our high school given by a financial aid officer at a local college.

He reviewed a number of issues, including key points about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). New in 2011-2012 will be a major redesign of FAFSA on the Web (FOTW) that includes the ability to retrieve data from the IRS that may be transferred to FAFSA.

He also listed two other strategies for making college more affordable: accelerated learning (taking two classes each summer can shorten the stay in college by a semester, for example) and living off-campus, which enables the room and board costs to be paid monthly, rather than in a lump sum. Finally, he stated that students who have some financial stake in the process (even if it is just paying for books or personal expenses) seem to take their college experience more seriously. I can't verify that, but it sure makes sense.

Meanwhile, here's a nice tidy list of financial aid myths -- good reminders for those of us just starting to think about financial aid.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Wait is Over for Many, But Not All

I'm talking about Early Decision (ED) -- either a beautiful thing or a concept that has gone horribly wrong, depending on who's talking. As a refresher, if a student is accepted early decision, usually in December, it is a binding decision. Many experts think it is a good approach IF the college is the first, second and third choice and has programs that mesh completely with the student's interests.

Here's The Choice's take, The New York Times admissions blog by Jacques Steinberg. He is trying to give voice to all sides, including the college perspective.

If you read the comments following the Steinberg post, you will taste elation, relief, depression, perseverance. But one particular post touched me -- from a parent of a happy daughter who nonetheless worries that the college admissions process is sapping life and joy from kids.

"Our family is thrilled for her. She has worked so hard at so many things, and she deserves whatever validation she can get. At the same time, as a college admission consultant and a parent, I believe that the admission environment our kids are subjected to is deeply unhealthy. We are sliding further away from what should be our focus–our children’s love of learning–to a fixation on winning some prize.
Our kids are far too stressed, too unhappy, too pressured to be able to do anything for the simple pleasure of just doing it.

"I share my daughter’s joy, but lament the fact that it’s been mostly absent these past four years."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Can Education About Fears Lead to Higher SAT Scores?

I have no idea. But this site offers its subscribers excerpts from books (usually nonfiction)that it thinks look interesting. A book it just featured, called Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, by Taylor Clark, is due out in March 2011. As the publisher's marketing materials state, "Nerves make us bomb job interviews, first dates, and SATs. With a presentation looming at work, fear robs us of sleep for days. It paralyzes seasoned concert musicians and freezes rookie cops in tight situations. And yet not everyone cracks. Soldiers keep their heads in combat; firemen rush into burning buildings; unflappable trauma doctors juggle patient after patient. It's not that these people feel no fear; often, in fact, they're riddled with it."

The author says, "When you think about it, it's one of the great ironies of our time: we now inhabit a modernized, industrialized, high-tech world that presents us with fewer and fewer legitimate threats to our survival, yet we appear to find more and more things to be anxious about with each passing year. Unlike our pelt-wearing prehistoric ancestors, our survival is almost never jeopardized in daily life. When was the last time you felt in danger of being attacked by a lion, for example, or of starving to death? Between our sustenance-packed superstores, our state-of-the-art hospitals, our quadruplecrash-tested cars, our historically low crime rates, and our squadrons of consumer-protection watchdogs, Americans are safer and more secure today than at any other point in human history.

"But just try telling that to our brains, because they seem to believe that precisely the opposite is true. At the turn of the millennium, as the nation stood atop an unprecedented summit of peace and prosperity, anxiety surged past depression as the most prominent mental health issue in the United States. America now ranks as the most anxious nation on the planet, with more than 18 percent of adults suffering from a full-blown anxiety disorder in any given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. (On the other hand, in Mexico - a place where one assumes there's plenty to fret about - only 6.6 percent of adults have ever met the criteria for significant anxiety issues.) ...And as the psychologist and anxiety specialist Robert Leahy has pointed out, the seeds of modern worry get planted early. 'The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s,' he writes. Security and modernity haven't brought us calm; they've somehow put us out of touch with how to handle our fears.

"Fortunately - and not a moment too soon - a flood of cutting edge research from psychologists, neuroscientists, and scholars from all disciplines is now coming together to show us what fear and stress really are, how they work in our brains, and why so much of what we thought we knew about dealing with them was dead wrong."

Now, I am not recommending the book; I don't know how much science vs. conjecture is used in the arguments. But as we go through auditions, standardized tests and hard physics exams, I must say I am curious about the content.

Thanks to friend and colleague Andrea Axelrod for passing this along to me.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Reading the PSAT Scores

PSAT Update: the scores have arrived at area schools and will be reported to parents and students at various times depending on district and school policy.

Linda Auld, of Suburban Learning Center and a Mom's College Cram Course panelist, has some pointers to help all of us interpret the scores.

1. Look at both the Section Score (20-80) and the percentile score. The percentile will give you information as to how the score compares with other sophomores or juniors who took the test.

2. Identify some schools that you and your student may be considering. Are the section scores within the range of scores reported for accepted students? If so and you are satisfied with the score range, your student may need only to review test strategies before taking the next PSAT or the SAT. If not, you may need to consider whether you feel that a more intensive prep program would be worthwhile.

3. Look at the skill category sections. Are there specific sections that were difficult for your child? If so, practice should be geared to those specific areas.

4. Analyze the test question and answer section. Determine:
-- Did the student complete each section?
-- Were the incorrect answers on easy, medium or difficult questions?
-- How many questions were omitted? Were they easy, medium or difficult?
-- On the math portion, how did your student do with the grid-ins?

5. Look carefully at the test book. (If you did not receive it with the scores, contact your guidance counselor and ask for your child’s booklet.) Did your child use active reading strategies, such as underlining or note-taking? Did he/she eliminate answer choices by crossing them out in the booklet? Did he/she mark questions when uncertain of the answer so he/she could return to them if there was time left after finishing the section?

As Linda points out, "Careful analysis of the skill category sections will help you determine the type of preparation your child needs to undertake before the next round of testing."

Linda, thanks so much for these tips!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I Feel Guilty but Can't Stop Myself

Call this a "A Mother's Lament," sung in the key of guilt.

It's tough being a teen, and it's tough being parents who want the best for their children. By that, most parents mean a successful secondary education that can lead to many options for college and beyond. To most of us, "successful" implies great grades, superlative scores, extracurricular activities that demonstrate a passion beyond the classroom.

But there are days when I don't like myself: when I go on too long -- with a child who got it before I even raised whatever topic it was -- about some school-related subject. Or when I start obsessing (in silence) about PSATs and grades of a student who is conscientious and does make the effort.

Then I read about a new film, being shown almost exclusively at schools and community organizations. It's called "Race to Nowhere," and it looks at the question we're all grappling with. How do we maintain sanity and balance when kids are being pushed -- by schools, parents, coaches and their own inner drive -- to get into highly selective schools that may not even be suited to their interests and temperament.

The movie, by the way, was made by a mother who decided to start documenting kids' lives after her 12-year-old's stomachaches were diagnosed as being caused by school pressures.

I'd like to see "Race to Nowhere" but I am not sure what can be done about the pressures we're all guilty of placing on our children.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

We Just Think We're the Center of the Universe

It has been said, and I am sure it is true, that the East and West coasts are where college admissions takes on a life of its own -- as monster. In these two locations, the whole process transforms itself into a ravenous monster that tortures students and their families for two years or so, then consumes them in one mighty gulp.

Is it like this in other parts of the country -- or do kids, high schools and parents take a more reasoned, less frantic approach?

The New York Times' "The Choice" blog will help us see how students in another part of the country react to the pressures and fears through the posts of six Denver-area seniors. Here's background on the kids and The Times' reasoning behind this addition to its blog. I think this is one I'll follow. We could all use some perspective.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Our Kids Face A Different World...

But will they be prepared for it? More student loans because the economy stinks. Likely fewer opportunities for well paid jobs. A lingering sense that this was not how it was supposed to be.

Maybe these are morose musings on a Monday, but a story about cuts to language departments in colleges somehow reinforces my concerns. New students may no longer major in French, Italian, Russian and the classics.

We're at a period when knowledge of another language (or two) has never been more critical. At breakfast today, a friend suggested that our teen's best bet would be to take Chinese in college. I understand completely. But it seems that instead we are setting up our kids to be second class citizens in a global world.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

And We Think Our Kids Are Under Pressure?

Just to bring us all back to reality, here's an instructive and touching story about a young Chinese immigrant woman who hopes to get into college as a first step in bringing her family out of poverty. She has spent a good part of her life as translator for her parents: dad now unemployed, mom trying to bring in a little money through sewing and doing alterations.

Her current struggle, of many, is crafting her college essay. She is getting help through a tutor from 826 Valencia, a nonprofit funded by the author Dave Eggers that helps low-income and immigrant students improve their writing and helps teachers get their students excited about literary skills.

I read somewhere that some parents spend up to $40,000 on tutoring and various advisers to help their children get into the best schools -- whatever they are, right? I'm rooting for the volunteer coach and the young woman!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Parent/Student Prep for PSAT Results

PSAT results will be released soon. Are we ready? If the scores are strong, congratulations are in order. If they could be better, it is not the end of the world but a call to action.

Do we know how to react if they are disappointing -- and do we know why they might not be as strong as expected?

I consulted with panelist Linda Auld of Suburban Learning Center. She has some good suggestions for us, whether we're parents of sophomores or juniors.

"I recommend that BEFORE the PSAT scores come back you have a conversation with your child about the testing experience. Things to consider:

1. Did they feel rushed? (Even if they answered all of the questions they may have rushed through the ones at the end.)

2. Did they know what to expect or did some of the question types surprise them, particularly double fill-ins and quantitative reasoning questions?

3. Were there questions that they had no experience with before (particularly in math and/or vocabulary words that they had never seen before) and what did they do (guess/skip it)?"

Linda also suggests that parents consider these points:

1. What do you feel was the student's motivational level? Was your teen trying to do well or just going through the motions -- a possibility especially for those who had to take it on a Saturday morning.

2. What amount of prep work did your child do before the PSAT - did he/she review prep materials thoroughly or just give the sample booklet a cursory glance?

As Linda says, "Thinking about these things BEFORE you see the results can help you better evaluate the scores."

We'll be posting more thoughts about the PSATs in the coming weeks, so please watch for additional insights.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

From the Front Lines -- As Parent and Head of Admissions

Two Mom's College Cram Course panelists are involved in college admissions and are also moms with teens making college decisions. It gives a new dimension to the blurring of work and home.

Judy Aaron is vice president for enrollment at Pratt Institute, one of the major four-year art schools in the country. She seems to share the emotions that we civilians go through. But she also has some sensible reminders for us.

"Having gone through the admissions process with my daughter and now my son, I can say that it is frustrating, anxiety-producing, and ultimately rewarding as the process becomes clear and your kids begin to make progress. The common application has evolved in the last few years to include on-line teacher recommendations, so it has eliminated much of the work of printing out the forms, addressing and stamping envelopes, and then getting it to the teachers.

"The difficult part is selecting the colleges, particularly at a time when your kids may not want to talk to you much. You have to be patient and provide little bits at a time. Some will take the initiative and go on the web; others won't, and you will have to help more.

But get this -- she thinks the process, that she lives through at work every day, can be just as difficult for those in the business. "The part that we don't realize as admissions professionals is how easy it is to lose track of the requirements of a particular school or the deadlines if you don't have a system for remembering and logging them in. My staff is always exasperated by students who fail to submit materials in time to meet our requirements, but I now understand how easy it is to forget to send an SAT score to a college you included late in the process.

"Again, the common application makes it very easy to keep track of the application submission, the supplement, the payment, and the recommendations, but you have to keep track of transcript submissions and SAT score submissions on your own. Dartmouth does a great job of reminding students immediately after they receive their application and supplement of what else is needed. That becomes a trigger for you."

Good golly, if admissions people think this is complicated...

Monday, November 29, 2010

Funding College in Times of Divorce

Paying for college isn't easy -- as we all know. It is a painful process. Even if families have tried to fund 529s, there's likely never enough. Especially if there are children within a year or so of each other. As one panelist says, the reality is that while it is a good exercise to look for scholarships, they are difficult to obtain unless there is serious financial need or the student can qualify as a minority. As for merit scholarships, they are scarce.

Then add the complication of divorce. Think about this situation: a single mom, who describes her salary as average, knows that legally the dad's financials must be used for the aid forms. He has indicated he might not contribute; he thinks it's optional for him to do so. So she doesn't know how she will manage with one child a sophomore, the other a junior.

One of our admissions experts says, "You’ll definitely want to speak with the financial aid offices at the schools your children decide to apply to. Having two children in college at one time often makes a big difference in the amount of financial aid you’ll receive. Unfortunately, as long as their dad is still in the picture, there is an expectation at most colleges that he contribute, too."

Her advice to parents who are negotiating divorce settlements: "Make sure college is part of the conversation."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I Have Been A Slacker

So how can I get upset with our teen for not accomplishing all that I think she should? I apologize for the lack of posts.

Panelists, however, have provided great insights for upcoming posts -- so stay tuned for new input next week.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and remember what's really important things as we count blessing during the holiday season.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Highly Wired, With Mixed Results

The New York Times has an exhaustive piece on digital distractions facing teens, and how they are/are not coping with them. Maybe I am regressing; maybe I have trouble concentrating on just one task. This is one long story.

But read it to get an idea of what our kids are doing when we think they are studying. And also learn about the results of kids' fixation on all things digital. One teacher cited has her class read a book aloud because they don't have the attention span to read unsupervised.

What can we do? Two pieces of advice for parents:
1. Challenge kids to develop a balance of at least 50 percent educational, 50 percent recreational. Have them ask themselves who's in charge, the teen or the technology.
2. Set a good example, or at least a better one than you may be offering now, related to Blackberry use or Facebook time or games.

How do we as parents answer that question of who's in charge? I sure need to show some improvement myself.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Writing for Hire -- When Students Are the Clients

Chagrined, that's what I am. My husband, who has been blogging about communications issues for nearly seven years, spotted a first-hand account of a custom-essay writer in the Chronicle of Higher Education that I had missed. He posted a piece about it yesterday, so now I am playing catch up.

Read this and weep. This guy works for a custom-essay company whose employees write original essays on demand. That means that it's likely the student won't be caught through standard plagiarism software since nothing is being directly copied. Most of this guy's business is from graduate students, sometimes ESL students who seemingly don't feel up to the task of writing a major paper.

Some kids will always be more sophisticated in their writing than others. Some may not be stylish writers, but will be able to do a good job in developing an argument in response to a question, forming strong supporting arguments and creating a persuasive tone.

Others, lazy or feeling inadequate, may pay for papers by ladies of the write. (So sorry...) This situation gives me a new appreciation for the need for a writing portion on standardized tests.

Have any of you found sure-fire ways to boost writing skills? Not sure how to squeeze parent-given writing assignments into an already crowded schedule. Guess I will be counting on teachers to hold our students to high standards -- and help them understand how to master this critical skill.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When There's Music in Your Teen's Future

If your teen is interested in music, and wants to continue with music in college, you may want the student consider a few questions.
-- Where does music fit in her life?
-- Is is a music major that is of interest, or just staying involved in some way?
-- Does he want to improve his skills, or stay at the same level?

Once that is established, it's on to thinking about the kinds of colleges that might make sense. First, there are independent conservatories that focus just on music, including The Juilliard School, Boston Conservatory, Mannes College, etc. Then there are music schools incorporated into larger universities, such as the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, University of North Texas College of Music or Westminster Choir College of Rider University. Then there are schools that are more integrated into universities, offering a broader range of degrees and giving students the opportunity to pursue non-music courses. Wikipedia is the source for this list.

Thanks to Anthony Mazzochi, professor, performer and supervisor, Fine Arts, Columbia High School.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Among Latest Admissions Trends: Note to Seniors -- Don't Slack Off

U.S. News & World Report may no longer be much of a news magazine (just a monthly now and starting in January, only available on newsstands and not by mail as it emphasizes an online presence), but it still has those reports wrapped up -- as in its many guides to colleges.

Here's its latest take on admissions trends called "Eight Big Changes to College Admissions in 2010 and 2011." Much comes from the National Association of College Admissions Counselors' recent report, which we looked at a few weeks ago. But the findings are worth thinking about.

For instance, class rank isn't as important due in part to high schools no longer offering rankings to colleges. So the colleges look at how challenging the classes are -- and most would prefer to see a B in a challenging course than an A in an easy one. Essays remain a critical part of the application -- and that is paired with another trend: increased auditing of applications including the use of plagiarism software.

Another area that is getting more attention? Senior year. Schools are looking more closely at those last semesters; they want to make sure that the courses taken continue to get more difficult -- the best way to prep for college course loads.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Early Bird Catches the Admission?

First, the primer on early decision (E.D.) and early action (E.A.).

Applying early decision makes sense when students know, without any doubt, that Old Ivy is absolutely the school of their dreams. Here's why, courtesy of the College Board.

Early decision plans are binding. Your child agrees to attend the college if accepted and if the college offers an adequate financial aid package. Although your child can apply to only one college for early decision, applying to other colleges through the regular admission process is allowed. If your child is accepted by the first-choice college early, all other applications must be withdrawn.

Early action plans are similar to early decision plans, but are not binding. If accepted, your child can choose to commit to the college immediately, or wait until the spring. Under these plans, your child may also apply early action to other colleges. Usually, candidates have until the late spring to let the college know their decision.

In both cases, the students need to have researched schools extensively, be sure the college is a first choice because it is a good match academically, socially, geographically, etc.; meets or exceeds the admission profile for SATs, GPA and class rank and has had a consistent academic record.

Here's a comment from a college admissions officer/Mom's College Cram Course panelist who is now dealing with E.D. applications.

"I think the basic reason E.D. numbers are up is because regular decision (R.D.) numbers will be up, too. It’s really a vicious cycle – kids apply to more schools, so accept rates go down, so kids apply to more schools, etc. The Common Application does make it easier to apply, and it’s no secret that schools use it to keep application numbers healthy. But it does mean kids don’t have to jump through hoops to apply to colleges given all the other things they’re dealing with senior year."

She adds, "As for E.D. specifically, at our school we’ve been very open about the fact that our acceptance rate is at least 10% higher for E.D. than for R.D. That, in turn, has increased our numbers for Early, but I don’t think unfairly. Every year I speak with students and parents who are disappointed in the R.D. process because our school was the first choice, and I know from my experience that the student would have looked much more appealing in the Early pool. (These are non-financial aid cases.) Actually, the financial aid issue is the one that keeps us from filling the class with a high percentage of E.D. applicants. We recognize that many students do need to compare packages."

Thanks to our panelist for taking a break from the E.D. process to share her insights.

Friday, November 12, 2010

I Never Considered Myself Xenophobic, And I Am Not, But...

New Jersey colleges are piggybacking on a federally funded project to gain more international students. The Study New Jersey website provides information about the state's colleges and the forms needed to attend school here. Officials describe it as a way to add all-important diversity to campuses and to create "lifelong friends for the United States."

Before I read further into the story, I knew another critical reason: these students pay the full, out-of-state tuition -- about double what New Jersey students would pay. No wonder we want them. And indeed, that is one reason given for this program.

But that begged another question -- would students paying retail receive preference over New Jersey kids, whose high-property-tax-soaked parents were counting on a break, finally, from the Garden State? In a news article, the Rutgers admissions director "dismissed the suggestion" and said it wouldn't happen since the school has gotten increasingly selective. Not sure that was a real answer to the question. And it seems to me that public colleges need to be sensitive to the fact that they will be receiving more applications from in-state during this tough economy.

Maybe I am shortsighted. Maybe I just don't get it -- after all, I can't believe how much is spent on the Rutgers football program. It will be interesting to see how many international students are attracted to New Jersey's schools.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Taking a Cue from Football -- Fining Teens for Bad Behavior

I don't pay much attention to sports but I saw this article in The Wall Street Journal about New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and was intrigued. "The suddenly no-nonsense, etiquette-obsessed New York Jets have introduced a series of fines to punish Mr. Sanchez for his nagging habit of negative body language." He is going to get fined for pouting, slouching, blaming someone else for his own mistakes, and so on. It think this is a brilliant idea that can easily move from the football field to dining room table.

Imagine if your teen were fined every time she rolled her eyes or he blamed poor teaching for a bad grade? As responsible parents, we would hold those fines in an education escrow account. Then, around senior year parents could count up the cash and then realize they'd collected so much from their acting-out offspring that they could fund a week or so of college.

Good manners do pay!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Getting to Know Campuses Inside Out

It's the season of campus tours. We've talked about the desirability of doing college tours starting in sophomore year -- it's a way to get a feel for the campus, the kids, the classes, maybe even spend a night in a dorm.

Here's a pragmatic suggestion for freshmen and sophomores. Make friends with juniors and seniors. Maintain the relationships. Then, if they go to a school your teen is interested in, maybe an overnight can be arranged. But be sure to send your teen off with a host/hostess gift of really good snacks and other college fare.

Here's a nice summary of how to prepare for these tours, when to take them and what should be accomplished.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sifting through the Online Resources

Remember, I am still a novice at this college admissions stuff. I also have a sense of wonder about all that technology can do. Combine those qualities and you get my reaction to CollegeWeekLive, something I just learned about from a friend whose son is a high school senior.

This is a free program. Just register and then take a look here for a set of FAQs that explain how it works. It's essentially a virtual college fair. You, or your teen, can visit the college "booths," at times conduct live chats with admissions officers and even students from featured schools and just plain learn a lot without leaving home. Of course it doesn't substitute for a campus visit, but it's a great way to get a feel for a school and to learn some basics about it. All part of the selection/winnowing process.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Silence Doesn't Make Suicide Go Away

Backpacks, 1,100 of them, were arranged neatly across a gym floor at Montclair State University in New Jersey. The backpacks, some with photos and remembrances, represented the 1,100 college students who committed suicide in 2009.

The exhibit, called "Send Silence Packing," was part of a national Active Minds conference on college student mental health and suicide prevention. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for college students, behind accidents and homicide. For all of us parents of teens, note that 14 percent of high school students have seriously considered taking their own lies, according to Center for Disease Control data.

What can we do? Start talking about it -- with our kids, at schools, everywhere. And as parents, before we send our kids off to college, we ought to find out what kind of mental health support systems are available. Maybe we need to add that to the list of things to consider about prospective colleges.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Money Talks at Colleges; Money Talks Should Be Held in Families

Here's a cheery bit of information to end the week . Dean Sklaris has been a college administrator, has taught, consulted with the ACT and now has his own business advising families on college matters.

He mentions that 100 colleges now cost more than $50,000 a year; that admissions and financial aid are not separate activities but entwined, and that it is easier to get in if parents can pay the full bill; that those who get financial aid are the kids the schools really want -- star athletes, brilliant students or those with special talents.

Sklaris' advice is to consider the financial issues early, and discuss them as a family. "If parents want to pay less, they need to understand which colleges want their child most and why. They must consider cost early in the process, and be realistic in considering schools that are not among the top brands. There are hundreds of 'hidden gems' across the country, and families who approach the process strategically stand a better chance of finding them."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Putting the Guesswork into the AP

Guessing, something we all do, every day, in nearly every aspect of our lives, has long been discouraged on College Board tests such as the SAT and AP. In fact, students were warned against random guessing in the most forceful way possible -- a wrong answer penalty.

On the other hand, the ACT, which has gained far more test-takers in recent years, doesn't have that penalty. During the summer, the College Board announced there would be a change in how AP tests are scored. To date, AP scores have been scored this way: total amount of correct answers minus a fraction for incorrect answers.

As the College Board states, "If you have SOME knowledge of the question, and can eliminate one or more answer choices, informed guessing from among the remaining choices is usually to your advantage."

The new grading feature will apply to AP tests taken in May 2011. Don't start holding your breath quite yet for a similar change on the SATs.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Grading 529 Plans

Mutual fund expert Morningstar has just published its seventh annual report on 529 plans. The report looks at 53 of the largest plans, focusing on the underlying investments, performance, manager, track record of the fund company and fees. Some were very good, others below average, particularly in terms of weak performance and high fees -- always a bad combination.

For those of us with teens in high school and no very young ones, the report may not be too useful. In fact, you may want to pass on looking for your plan's ranking. Ignorance may not be bliss in this case, but reality may bring you to tears.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

AP Economics

I'll never think about AP the same way again. I thought they made our students more competitive and maybe might allow them to move beyond some 101 courses freshman year. Thanks to a story in the St. Petersburg Times, naive me is now better informed.

In Florida, which ranks No. 1 in the country in the number of students taking the tests, school districts pick up the tab which can go as high as $86 for each AP test taken. Families are thrilled because they save testing fees and then, it's estimated they will save over $40 million in fees and tuition this year thanks to courses skipped.

But somehow, when seemingly everyone is taking an AP course, how can they make a student more competitive? This fall, most incoming freshmen at Florida State University were able to exempt a semester. University of Florida freshmen had enough credits to exempt two semesters.

The issue of placing so much weight on AP tests -- and paying for them -- has led to an inevitable result: as participation rates have risen, passage rates have gone down. And Florida is wondering if this is such a good deal for the state.

And I am wondering whether AP courses are losing their glow if taking them is the norm rather than the exception. Not that I want our teen to forgo them...

Monday, November 1, 2010

Take a Breath - Remember What Matters

There are days when I feel foolish, spending time on thinking and writing about the college admissions process. Of course understanding the process is necessary as is providing informed guidance and having freewheeling discussions about college with our teens. But it is just college, for gosh sakes.

Here's what really matters. Life, family, caring for others. In the past several weeks a dear and long-time older friend had a stroke: she is recovering but her life will never be the same. A lovely young neighbor has had health issues. And the beautiful, smart and talented mother of a dear friend died. Yes, she was 87, but her decline was so fast, so difficult for her and her family; so very sad for her friends.

It puts things in perspective. Let's appreciate and love our teens -- in this moment, at this age, even if they sometimes make us crazy, even if they don't do things the way we would, even if they don't get into the schools they wanted -- or we wanted for them.

In reading Ted Sorensen's obituary today, a somewhat related thought occurred to me. As much as we hate to admit it, success often comes on the wings of luck. Here's what President John Kennedy's speechwriter (an oversimplified adjective for a man's full and long life) said about himself in his autobiography, Counselor. "I still believe that the mildest and most obscure of Americans can be rescued from oblivion by good luck, sudden changes in fortune, sudden encounters with heroes,” he concluded. “I believe it because I lived it.”

We never have total control of when our dearest leave us, or of news that isn't to our liking. So let's take charge when we can -- and show our family and friends, every day, how much they mean to us.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Numbers May Not Lie, But Not All GPAs Are Created Equal

Grades from the first marking period will soon be in the mail. I can't remember specific grades from my first report card in sophomore year, but I am sure it will be similar to our teen's. Stronger in the liberal arts, better in geometry than algebra, not so hot in physics but not for lack of trying.

Nor do I remember my class rank out of 400 or so students. It was respectable, I think, but maybe not stellar, for the reasons above (algebra and science).

Here's a take on the issue of GPA and why it is so difficult to compare grade point averages from different schools. One admissions officer calls it "precision guesswork." It's because rigor of classes, even cultural and geographic variations, can affect a GPA, and provide challenges in comparison.

As imperfect a measure as it is, the GPA remains an important element of student selection for this one reason: it has proven to be the strongest indicator of the ability to complete college, at at time when, according to a study a few years ago, it takes nearly 50 percent of college students six years to finish a four-year program.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

If You Can Stand It, More on Money

Aside from various calculators available for families to help determine their contribution to college, there will now be more help from colleges, since each college is different in how it grants aid, and in what form.

By Oct. 29, 2011, all colleges that participate in Title IV student aid programs (assuming that is most schools) must post a net price calculator on their Web sites, providing that school's data to show estimated net price information to current and prospective students as determined by the individual student's situation. Here's a summary of the law, under What's New on this U.S. Department of Education bulletin.

Good news for sophomore families -- a little more enlightenment!

Some other interesting news on college costs comes from the 2010 "Trends in College Pricing" and "Trends in Student Aid". Public universities raised tuition and fees nearly 8% in 2010 to cover shrinking state support and private colleges increased 4.5% But there was also a large increase in financial aid, supplied by federal government sources, which lowered the amount actually paid.

My concern: how long can the Feds keep up the largesse?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Parents' Lament -- Where Will the Money Come from?

By the time your teen is in high school (and given today's economic environment), there may not be a lot of opportunities to boost the college fund. But whether you're in good shape to pay for college or losing sleep over it, it is still important to have The Talk. That's when you sit down with your teen and discuss all elements of college admissions, including cost. The Talk may involve some probing on the parents' part as well as offering some guidelines.

Vince Pattillo, a certified financial planner and a certified college planning specialist, puts it in simple terms. Have the student focus on what she wants to be when she grows up. It doesn't have to be precise, but just a general sense is useful in this exercise. Then start identifying schools where the student will excel and get a good grounding for the next step -- the best graduate school possible. He recalled someone who went from associate degree to Rutgers to a Wharton MBA. This may not be the path we've dreamed of for our kids, but it's one that works if the student is driven and determined.

Whatever direction is taken, it must be paid for. Here's a good place to start grasping your family's contribution in paying for college.

Meanwhile, if your child is a sophomore and you are looking ahead to writing those big checks in less than three years, here is some sensible advice from Vince:
-- if you haven't done so, speak to an expert who can look at your financial situation and offer advice.
-- if you don't have a 529 plan, don't start one now; the fees will kill you. Instead, just be diligent about saving and keep it in a conservative fund.
-- manage your own expectations, and help your child manage his; be open-minded and look for the right fit, not necessarily a school with a famous name.
-- parents and child, be patient with each other. You've got some exciting (and maybe a little stressful) times ahead.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gauging the State of Admissions

Want some fascinating reading? Take a look at the recently released 2010 State of Admissions study by the National Association for Admission Counseling (NACAC), based on 2009 data.

The study received headlines for data that showed only 65% percent of colleges saw an increase in applications, versus 75% last year. And 29% showed declines, the largest percentage since 1996. Research relates this to "changes in student enrollment choices" linked to the economy.

What was intriguing to me is on page 22 of the document, a chart that shows an overview of the relative importance of factors in the admission decision in 2009. Of considerable importance to colleges are grades in college prep courses (86.5%); strength of curriculum (70.7%) and SAT/ACT results (57.8%). Class rank comes in at 16.3%/considerable importance; 42.2%/moderate importance.

I was surprised at the rankings of some items I thought would be more important. Again, I am a novice. Anyone else surprised?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Parents, Back Off -- More Tales from the Front Line Part 2

Who knows whether we're doing a good or could-be-better job in raising independent, college-ready teens? Are we all, even subtly, guilty of too much helicoptering? What are the other issues that get in the way?

Sometimes it takes a little perspective. Our pediatrician panelist observes the parent/child dynamics during routine visits to the doctor's office.

"From about the age of three to four, I will usually address the child/patient first when asking a question, to 'hear it in their own words'. This often sheds a lot of light on why a patient is in the exam room. I then turn to the parents to fill in the gaps and clarify the reason for the visit. Often a parent speaks over the child, and dismisses their answers, or continues to answer for them. I think that there are always small opportunities in life to enable kids and help them grow toward being independent adults.

"Fast forward 10 years and some of the parents may still dominate the visit, not allowing children to speak for themselves, a skill that fosters healthy mental development into an adult."

Someone who has been in tutoring for years sees the situation this way: "There is a college for everyone and no one right answer to the many questions that are raised in the admissions process." But there are obstacles. She thinks the cell phone and internet have changed the parent/child relationship dramatically. And she doesn't see it stopping once the children are admitted. The parents continue to edit their children's papers well into college and to offer advice. She also sees these patterns continuing; friends who are in constant contact with their children who are already in careers or marriage.

Our admission officer panelist says, "My own theory is that a generation ago only the privileged and very, very bright truly had access to the most selective colleges. Now that the doors have been opened (happily), the competition for the limited number of spaces has increased, resulting in parents feeling that they have to do whatever they can to help their students. I have no problem talking with parents throughout the process, but there are always the extreme cases where the parent is clearly taking over. Let’s just say that they’re not doing their kids any favors."

And one parent panelist says, "I think that lots of non-issues get in the way. Other than encouraging your children to keep their eye on the end result, and not lose their minds from the pressure (which I think is the most important thing that a parent can do for their kid during high school), I think a lot of the other stuff is just distracting noise."

Are true-life stories such as those in this blog distracting noise, perpetuating the same old issues? She doesn't think so: "I do think hearing about other people’s experiences and frustrations. It's helpful because it allows you to get a sense of how far off-base you might be drifting, or it might reinforce an idea or philosophy that you have that seems to be working."

That's good to hear.

Thanks to Dr. Jacquelyn Detweiler, Tina Squyres, Linda Auld and Kathy Phillips

Friday, October 22, 2010

Parents, Back Off -- The Unexpected Results of Too Much Attention -- Part 1

So, I sent a note to the Mom's College Cram Course panel, venting that I was tired of reading about helicopter parents, that I doubted it was such a big problem. I was informed that I was out of touch. Several panelists also pointed me to a recent series of opinions on "Have College Freshmen Changed?"- The pieces are worth reading -- and they just may cause some attitude adjustment.

Here's a sampling of areas covered/some do overlap: students are in touch with their parents an average of 13.4 times a week; they don't feel the need to make new friends since they can so readily stay in touch with high school friends; parents view students as an investment, a human asset class, and that the investment must be protected (give me my money back, my kid flunked a course...); parents aren't preparing our kids to be the young adults they should be when they arrive at college but allowing them to stay in a familial cocoon far too long.

Think about your own experience; it might have been like mine. I called home once a week, maybe wrote an occasional letter though I received far more. I was on my own as were my new friends, making decisions, determining which courses to take, doing foolish things that we didn't necessarily feel compelled to share with parents.

So please absorb the points made in the Times and then on Monday, I will share some personal comments from our panelists.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Sophomore Parents' Night -- What the Year Holds

At last night's Sophomore Parents' meeting, a counselor asked for a show of hands: how many parents were already anxious about the college process? A number of us raised our hands. Then he asked, how many of our kids were anxious. I didn't see a single hand go up. I suspect we should take some cues from our teens, at least this year.

Meanwhile we received an overview: testing this year (PSAT, done; subject tests, to be considered); a reminder of the parents' role in the college process -- co-pilot, not pilot; acknowledgment that all years are important (not just junior) because all years are reflected in the GPA; and a tip to start looking at the counseling department's newsletter for descriptions of summer enrichment programs, along with scholarship information.

Then, just as a preview experience, I went to another meeting and joined the last part of a talk given by an admissions officer from my alma mater. Even in 15 minutes I learned a lot about the school's approach to admissions.

But the most important thing I heard is something we all must remember. A student controls 75 percent of the admissions process -- which schools to consider, apply to and then which one to select. Of course, that 25 percent left to the colleges themselves is critical. But the breakdown does provide us all with some perspective. Free will is still a major part of the process.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Doctor Is In -- Helping Our Kids Learn Good Habits

Not enough sleep, not enough breakfast. That's how our teen goes to school some days. I know better, but boy, is it tough to win kids over to the sensible side (of caring parents who can be a pain).

So I asked Dr. Jacquelyn Detweiler, a pediatrician who has a great way with teens, for her thoughts on issues related to teen health.

"Good health habits are exactly that, habits; these are often difficult to instill in a typically rebellious teen, who is in excellent health.

Most important: Sleep , sleep, sleep. I have not meet a high school student yet who gets enough. Their bodies are changing tremendously at this age. They have multiple stressors from varying from social pressures (do I have sex, should I try a cigarette, do I try marijuana, do I drink etc......), a large workload at school, hours of homework, with extracurriculars on top of that. Then we throw in being well-rounded and having to worry about college when you are barely through high school. Here's what teens should know:

1. The average teen needs 8-10 hours of sleep. Most get 6-8 hours or less. Reaction time (for driving and sports, for example) are all reduced on less sleep, as well as concentration and performance.

2. When you are stressed, the immune system is stressed, functions poorly, and kids are more likely to get sick. This in combination with the poor diet of the average teen increases the chances of a prolonged illness.

3. Eating a well balanced diet, getting plenty of rest, taking a multivitamin with Calcium and Vitamin D, all increase your ability to fight off illness."

Dr. Detweiler also told me about a common complaint/problem she often sees between September and December, especially in junior year.

"It's fatigue and malaise. When I take a good history I find that the teen is up at 6 a.m. for school, has an after-school activity, and then homework from evening until midnight. Once in awhile their bodies can tolerate this but not continuously on a daily basis." She points out that there could be medical disorders causing the fatigue, such as thyroid problems, anemia, vitamin deficiency, Lyme disease, mononucleosis and depression.

She adds that any of these conditions can become overwhelming and lead to a depressive mood -- with the condition occurring simultaneously with school-related exhaustion.

Our job: to do the best we can to demonstrate how necessary good health habits are (by our actions and maybe the occasional well-targeted emailed article to the target teen), to be on the lookout for health problems and to know when to give it a break.

Good luck to us all!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

PLAN Problem Solved

Sometimes things that make sense aren't that easy to achieve. I'd written about how I thought it would be smart to have students take the ACT PLAN (the pre-ACT test) around the time of the PSAT in sophomore year -- to get a sense of which seemed a better test going forward for the individual student.

But, I learned, if your teen's high school offers everyone the PSAT, chances are they won't offer the PLAN. And the ACT people don't keep a list of schools in a given area offering the PLAN (so that your teen could possibly take the test elsewhere). A nice person at ACT told me our school could request a single PLAN test to be administered to our teen. That wasn't what I had in mind.

Her guidance counselor gave me the best advice: stop obsessing about it, just buy an ACT or PLAN practice book, and have our daughter take the PLAN under test conditions -- timer, etc. That should achieve what I want.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Reaction to Bad Grades As Determinant of Future Grades?

Progress reports came in this weekend. With the exception of one course, the news was good. And the problem course, well, it was expected and a tutor has been scheduled.

It occurred to me that how a student reacts to grades and reports may provide an indication of what's to come. I found an interesting piece from Psychology Today on that subject. It looks at fixed mind set (I did badly and I am stupid and there is nothing to do about it) and growth mind set (Sure, I didn't do well on this math test but that doesn't mean I don't understand it and I know I can improve.)

Neither one test nor one course is destiny. Not if students are encouraged to shape their own destinies by believing in themselves and notching up the effort.

Friday, October 15, 2010

It's Late, and This Physics Problem Is a Killer

Somehow, even with the most difficult lit or history homework question, there are ways to sort through it, do a little more research, start writing and then find yourself with a plausible response.

That would not be the case with physics, or algebra II or calculus. So who ya gonna call? One site that is getting raves now is Khan Academy, It's a not-for-profit open source learning project with the mission of providing a world-class education to anyone, anywhere. It won't provide the exact answer to a specific problem, but it does offer a teaching video and then exercises centered on highly targeted areas, such as parametric equations or introduction to mechanical advantage.

Another well-thought of site is The Math Forum @ Drexel/Ask Dr. Math which also has an online tutoring component for help with a specific problem. There is a cost -- the fee starts at around $35 a month for unlimited, 24/7 assistance.

Don't do anything desperate when neither you nor your teen can figure out the velocity problem. Simply seek immediate professional help.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Things This Blogger Does for You, Dear Reader

So, I signed up (and paid for -- a huge step on my part) a four-part online course called Inside the College Admissions Process, hosted by Jacques Steinberg, national education correspondent for The New York Times. It's to be an inside view, with interviews with several deans of admission, of the selection process. And then I was going to provide Mom's College Cram Course readers with the highlights.

And I will, one day, once I am sent information on how to get into the course. There seems to be a problem with admissions to the course on admissions. Will start to share when I am able.

On the financial aid front, President Obama wants Congress to extend a tax break called the American Opportunity Tax Credit, that provides as much as $2,500 a year per student for expenses such as tuition, books and other related supplies. It might be worth contacting your congressman if you think it is worthwhile.

Meanwhile, this is my 100th post. So please let me know what is useful/what more is needed, so the next 100 can be fully tailored to parents' needs.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

PSAT Day for Sophomores Too

This morning it begins. Our little chickadees start running the college-testing gauntlet. At our high school, sophomores (and juniors, of course) are taking the PSAT -- Preliminary SAT as it is officially known, or Practice or Predictive as it could also be called.

So while I am finishing another cup of coffee, my sophomore will be enjoying/enduring more than two hours of demonstrating strengths in critical reading, math and writing skills. It really is a warm-up test for the sophomores -- and maybe for parents, too -- as we truly enter the college-prep phase of our families' lives. To be followed by that first progress report, Sophomore Parents' Night, our teens' first serious college-related session with their guidance counselors, report cards, decisions about subject tests, and so on.

The College Board, which seems to think of everything nervous kids and parents need to know, has a helpful, calm-inducing piece that is worth reading. The main takeaway from the College Board is: Are you in ninth or 10th grade? Yes? Then relax. The PSAT/NMSQT shows skills you’ve learned and skills you may still need to work on before you go to college. It does not expect you to perform as well as students in 11th grade, and you still have time to learn and improve.

Learn and improve! Remember that when the scores come back in December. Meanwhile, our teen went off to the test happy: she got to sleep in a bit more today and she was excited about taking this first step. Good for her.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Where the Boys Are (or Aren't)

Stories like this have been running for at least the past five years. For a number of reasons (girls are better students, have better grades and are more likely to be selected by colleges; boys are less likely to complete college; and demographics related to income and race), some schools are seeing more girls than boys on campus. I suppose that reverses generations of the opposite situation, but it is worrisome if the trend continues.

Here's another look at the situation. There are a number of social and cultural implications that don't help either sex.

Co-ed schools as the new mostly all-girl schools? Who'd have thought that?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Don't Be Afraid - Just Be Yourself: College Essays 2010 - Part 3

So we've heard from parents and a teacher who advises students on their college essays. Now it's time to hear from a college admissions officer. She provides perspective and some commonsense pointers.

"When the most selective schools say that the essay is 'considerably important,' we’re saying that it can be a decision maker, though still not as important as other factors. I always make a point of telling students that their essay can be the reason they’re admitted, but it’s almost never the reason they’re NOT admitted (as long as their English teacher approves of the usage and their parents would approve of the content!)

The student who says that he has “three minutes to stand out” isn’t far off base. I read every part of every application, but with over 1,500 to read in three months time, the applicant has only about three minutes to capture my attention. One of my colleagues once said that the essay should be personal enough that if it was dropped on the cafeteria floor without a name on it, someone would know whose it was. I liked that example a lot.

Finally, as far as knowing whether or not the essay was coached, I just assume that most students get some level of help but don’t hold it against them. It’s true that a fantastic essay that doesn’t match the rest of the application would be a red flag, but we usually give students the benefit of the doubt. I recall my student- teaching experience many years ago when I gave a student a B on an essay about chinchillas because it seemed too well written to be her work (she was an average student). It turned out that she had a gift for writing...oops.

The one thing I do look for is the ordinary essay with too many sensory details. I call it the 'sports at sunrise essay: The orange sun was just coming up on the horizon. The grass gleamed with early morning dew. It was the day of the big game, and our team was ready … blah blah blah.' Those always feel coached and over-written to me.

My key piece of advice to students is to allow themselves to be a bit more informal than they would normally be in an essay. It helps them come alive."

Two parent panelists had additional thoughts. One said a friend of hers in a private college in New York could spot the coached essays from a mile away. Another has a friend who interviews for an Ivy. She looks for students' passion about their interests. Without passion, no matter how good they look on paper, they won't get into that school, the friend says.

I suppose that to show unity with our students, we should all attempt to write personal essays. On second thought, bad idea. We'll need to conserve our powers of persuasion to apply toward our teens.

Today, special thanks to our admissions officer and to Kim Cook and Marla Richardson.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself: College Essays 2010 - Part 2

In the last post we looked at the college essay from the parent's viewpoint. Today, we hear from panel member Lauren Fazzio. She is a high school English teacher who is currently teaching a unit on "reflective/personal/college admissions essay writing" with her senior writing students. She has studied the subject of college essays at length and also advises students individually. Here's what she has to say.

"The admissions essay is the only chance admissions counselors have to see who an applicant really is. I ask students these questions (among many others), and have them journal about them:

-- What’s your passion?
-- What makes you weird?
-- What do friends make fun of you for?
-- What has your life taught you, and how?

Once they have some of these ideas, I tell them to start the essay in a story or a moment. For example, if a student’s passion is piano-playing, put us on the piano bench. If a student’s quirk is a messy room, she should walk into the room and write what she sees. If a student’s life has taught him that fear can be conquered, put us in a scenario with description and dialogue where he's facing a fear."

She also provides guidance on the set up for the essay:

"For students who really need structure, I tell them roughly the first third (a paragraph or two) of the essay should be a specific moment or story, the second third should be a more general explanation of the situation (for instance, how typical it was of their life or what it meant to them)and the last third should be how they are now changed as a person because of it." She adds that, "Everyone loves when last lines come full circle, so an echo of the intro paragraph is always nice."

Her conclusion: "As a teacher, the best essays I’ve seen for college admissions (are candid and genuine. They sound human. I think they reflect the kind of student admissions officers would want to admit to their school."

Many schools, through their English departments or guidance counselors, offer sessions on the essay. Make sure your student is taking full advantage of them. The fear of essays can be conquered.

Next post: an admissions officer comments. Meanwhile, here is a recent look at the essay situation.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fear and Loathing: The College Essay 2010 -- Part 1

What makes the college application essay such a popular discussion topic? There must be hundreds of articles and blog posts each year on this rite-of-admissions passage. Tips abound on how to write the standout essay.

Why is it so talked about -- and reviled? Is it that the outcome seems so subjective? (As one mom, who is in publishing, says, two different people can read the same thing and walk away with totally different opinions.) Or is it the sense that just a few hundred words can make or break an application?

So I turned to the Mom's College Cram Course Panel members for their anecdotes, advice and words of caution. In this three-part discussion (running consecutively), we will look at the essay from the front line (parents and teachers) -- and the front office -- admissions.

The College Essay -- From the Homefront

One mom understands why the essay is an important part of the application. As she says, "Life is all about communication, right? Even the most brilliant mathematician has to get his ideas across somehow." She also points out the need for a good editor. And that's the tricky part -- everyone needs an editor for any important piece of writing. But there's editing...and there is over-coaching. More on that later.

Another mom relates how her child's counselor says he wishes schools spent more time reading the personal essay than the transcript, since more can be discovered about the whole child in that missive than in the grades. This mom advises against tweaking or polishing. "Instead," she says, "we have conversations where our daughter can muse and self-reflect -- and those chats have been helpful in finding a topic."

Then there are two reports on the actual writing -- and the time frame in which it was achieved. Despite all we hear about the benefits of essay creation being an organic, ongoing process, reality is often quite different.

"My daughter wrote her essays a night or two before the absolute deadline. While it's probably not preferable to procrastinate to that degree, good writers can get away with just about anything," said one mom. She also recommends the novel Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz, a former Princeton admissions officer who includes excellent essay advice.

Another mom said, "My daughter, who had previously been pretty good at getting stuff done, turned into a procrastinator when it came to the college applications. After the stress of junior year, I was really picking and choosing my battles very carefully. She was adamant that she could handle the process without any help or interference. After a couple of fights about it (and in order to preserve family harmony, and our sanity), her dad and I decided to take her at her word. Other than proofreading the essay for grammar mistakes we offered no advice or criticism on the essay itself. It was rather freeing to leave it in her lap...and since she is at a great school and is ecstatically happy, I am very glad that we bowed to her wishes."

Finally, one mom said, "I hope that my daughter writes with her heart -- and spells everything correctly when the time comes to write her essay." Amen.

Many thanks to Kim Cook, Jeanne Hogle, Marla Richardson, Tina Squyres and Sarah Wohlenhaus.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Community Colleges Get Obama Nod

It was a big day for community colleges. Jill Biden, a community college professor, introduced President Obama at a White House conference yesterday. He called community colleges the "unsung heroes" of our educational system. The day's dessert: a $35 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that will be used to reverse a serious problem. Just about half of the students in community colleges don't get certificates or complete their associates' degrees.

The high cost of four-year colleges and a lousy economy have led to many articles and discussions on the benefits of attending a community college for two years so that the total cost of an undergraduate education (two more years in a regular four-year college) is more manageable.

Seems to me we are asking a lot of these schools which have seen decreased funding by local and state governments. We want them to help out the kids who wouldn't have even considered a community college a few years ago as well as the traditional constituency. And right now, for whatever reason, these schools aren't fulfilling their goal of students ready and able to move on to complete their college education or land a good job as a fully trained worker.

Good luck to our community colleges -- they need it, and we need them.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Financial Aid -- Dark Arts or Straightforward Math?

So, what do 5,000 high school counselors and college admissions officers talk about when they gathered for the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling?

No surprise that one topic was financial aid -- and how naive some parents are about the admissions/aid process. Here's an interesting look at the situation, one that places some blame with parents, some with the schools that don't understand the concept of transparency.

A point to consider. If students receive financial aid, it is important for families to understand, and make sure they are comfortable with, the form it takes: loans, work study, etc. There aren't a whole lot of free rides out there.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Five Things to Do While You're A Sophomore

At Mom's College Cram Course we constantly seek fresh, quality content. Today the blog moves closer to achieving that goal.

We will now, in addition to regular posts, provide informed insights, expert opinions and reports from parent survivors of the college admissions process. The panel is still being built, but we already have a strong core that includes parents with children already in college, or with high school juniors and seniors, an admissions officer from a major private university, a high school teacher, a guidance counselor and a tutor. We'll likely revamp the blog somewhat over the next several months and also alert readers to panel additions.

Let's get started with the first question presented to the panel.

What are the most important things for sophomores to consider/do as they gear up for the college admissions process?

1. Academics. Do well in academic courses and choose the most challenging levels (Honors, AP, etc.) that you can handle when selecting junior year courses. Consider class rank -- a higher rank may be more beneficial than a challenging course that may result in a lower rank. Talk to the counselor about that. Stay focused on grades and keep the GPA high.
2. Test and Prep. Take the PSAT and ACT Plan. Start thinking about what kind of test prep would be most beneficial to the student's learning style when the time comes for prep: group classes, online tutorials or private tutoring.
3. Build the Resume. Find a club/volunteer activity/cause that really matters to the teen, so that it is easy to become immersed. Quantity is not as important as level of involvement; think about a leadership role down the road. Consider balancing a time-consuming activity with one or two requiring less time. Keep a diary of all activities -- or at least a list. It will be useful when writing essays.
4. Visit Colleges. Yes. Now. See as many as you possibly can, on school holidays or vacations. It's a low pressure time and a great way for students to get engaged in the process. By junior year, there is less time for travel because of the intensity of the course load and the stakes are feeling higher. Make it relaxing, but do take notes, photos, videos -- because the schools may start to run together after a while.
5. Develop a Personal Relationship with the Counselor.
There are lots of students, and the counselor will be writing a recommendation letter. The student should stop by, say hi, stay in touch -- starting as soon as possible.

Any additions or disagreements? Please comment. We're all in this together.

Meanwhile, many thanks to parent panelists Kim Cook, Jeanne Hogle, Barbara Rosamilia and Tina Squyres; teacher Lauren Fazzio; and a college admissions officer for their thoughtful input.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Back to School Night and Birthdays Don't Mix

Last night was back to school night and our teen's 15th birthday. The combination was not successful.

I'm generally the parent who deals with school-related activities. But we all decided that dad should meet our teen's teachers, too, and hear first hand about activities and expectations related to each course.

So we plotted carefully how to do a little celebrating in the hour or so we had before being seated in the first period classroom at 7 p.m. We all met at the designated restaurant which was mysteriously closed for the evening. We couldn't determine a substitute place we could all agree on that would also offer a fast enough meal. The result: our teen ate by herself at home while we went to school. It was -- emphatically -- not a good birthday.

It was a good opportunity for us, though, to gain a better sense of her teachers. We can now picture them when she describes something they have said or done. We can understand that she isn't exaggerating about the four-minute dash from one classroom to the next that often takes her to opposite ends of a sprawling, old building. And we can have a renewed sense of confidence that she is in a school that seems to have its values in place and is working hard to be the best it can be -- in academics, extracurricular activities, student support programs.

Now, to figure out how to make up for a rotten birthday.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Beyond Heartbreaking

The news was so stunningly bad. And then it got worse. Two Rutgers freshmen used a webcam to spy on a fellow student, who thought he had privacy in his own dorm room. The two students then shared their ill-gotten images on the internet. What made them think it was okay to spy in that manner? Was it a joke? Did they think they were clever? Were they so cold, unfeeling, that they didn't care how devastating their acts were?

I imagine they were primarily thoughtless and selfish. What was equally appalling is that some comments following the news story from earlier today seem to condone their actions.

I told you it gets worse. Later today it was announced that the third student, victimized and humiliated, killed himself.

So what does this have to do with getting ready to apply to college? It made me wonder how we can prepare our children to deal with others' stupidity and callousness; how do we let our children know we love them no matter what, that nothing is so bad that it should make them consider suicide. How do we teach them not to hurt others in such cruel ways?

And what do we do about the students whose prank led to a fellow student's death? Legally, not much will happen. Maybe we should bring back shunning -- physically and electronically. It might be a several-month period in which they live without benefit of support or sympathy. They just spend time contemplating their deeds -- and thinking about how they and their families would feel if they had been the victims, not the deadly pranksters.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

High Admission Rates, Decent Reputations? Who Knew?

There's an online start-up company called EqualApp (an online college admissions counseling program for students and parents)that has run the numbers and identified 10 schools that have high admissions rates. Here's the report. EqualApp used national rankings, and also looked at geographic, academic and social data.

Case Western, Indiana University, Ohio State, University of Iowa, Ithaca, Drew University are among the 10 schools listed. It's an interesting and pleasantly upbeat way to look at admissions that reminds us that there's more to this process than institutions with single-digit acceptance rates.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Studying Solo or Going with a Group

More and more tests and quizzes dominate our sophomore's planner. Many seem to fall on the same day. I understand that it can seem overwhelming. So of course I've started asking the teen if she would like to try other ways of studying. My suggestion: study groups.

I have no idea if they are effective or not, what the logistics would be (at a home where a parent is around, or in the library after school?)or even whether it would suit our daughter's approach to learning. Let me add that I was never in a study group but had thought that to be with like-minded students who wanted to know material inside/out, this might be both effective and enjoyable (but not too enjoyable, mind you.)

Sure enough, the College Board has some thoughts on the study group issue.

I think it's worth a shot. Does anyone have experience with study groups working -- or not?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Intriguing Admissions Essay Goes Away

Well, for students thinking of applying to Penn, there is one less thing to worry about -- or have a little fun with. For years, there was an optional essay (that many applicants thought mandatory) that asked students to share what page 217 of their 300-page autobiography might contain.

It turns out that admissions readers just couldn't keep up with all the essays on the Common Application as well as the Penn pieces. So out went Page 217. Or was the real reason marketing-driven? A college admissions consultant wonders if the essay's disappearance is meant to encourage more applicants. And with more applicants, the percentage of acceptances shrinks. And that means a higher US News & World Report ranking.

Conspiracy theory or commonsense decision? I'll think about it later, after I figure out what my page 217 would include.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Application Process: Like a Political Campaign?

I'm currently helping a friend in her campaign to win reelection as mayor in a small Southern city. Two years ago she ran -- as a political novice -- to complete the term of the mayor who left midway. She won. Now she is running again for a full term.

It occurred to me that the actions she takes in campaigning bear some resemblance to the strategies used to win admission to college. You've got to get the basics right -- do the best you can to build a strong record, develop a strong support team, file papers on time, communicate clearly who you are and why you should be elected/admitted, etc. Then you wait for results, be it November or April.

I may start thinking about the admissions process as a campaign. But stop me if it looks as if I'm about to stick (S)Elect My Teen signs on some campus lawns.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Forget the Tea Party - Let's Start the Tuition Coalition!

I suppose some could argue that worrying about the cost of college doesn't really help a student get into one -- which is, after all, the purpose of this blog. But it seems that cost will increasingly be a factor for nearly all parents of the college bound, including those of us who started saving when the teens were babies.

To the lay people supporting the expensive college habit, it seems that too much is spent on sports, too much paid to administrators, too many dollars devoted to the incredibly manicured and gorgeous campuses that appeal to us even as we deplore what it takes to achieve the look. Those of us who've seen our own changes in spending during the past few years wonder why the same isn't happening at colleges. (I know, of course, that many public universities have seen their budgets cut, and private college endowments took a beating -- but the relentless upward spiral of costs has been going on for decades.)

Froma Harrop has written a column about the discrepancy between income and the cost of an education.

The Tea Party isn't my cuppa. But a Tuition Coalition? That's a movement worth considering.

NOTE: Back to things we can do something about. Linda Auld, of Suburban Learning Center in New Jersey, has some interesting comments/practical thoughts stemming from the Sept. 9 post on PSATs and the Sept. 16 CliffNotes discussion. Be sure to read them.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Time to Talk Majors, for Sophomores?

It seems as if we were just looking at the Book of Names, trying to decide on the perfect one for our on-the-way child. Now, we just got an email from the College Board, directed to parents of freshmen and sophomores,and it mentions the Book of Majors -- "...the only book that describes majors and lists the colleges that offer them. It provides detailed descriptions of the most widely available undergraduate majors — such as nursing, education and architecture — each written by a leading professor in the field."

Where did the time go? And should there really be such a focus on college majors so early in the freshman or sophomore year? Of course it is always good to be aware of options. I'll confess we had a lighthearted family discussion about possible interests -- and who knows -- maybe our teen will wind up in the major mentioned. Then again, maybe it's good to have several majors in mind, then look for schools that have strengths in those areas. Or maybe this is one of those areas where thinking has changed radically. Educate me, please.

Monday, September 20, 2010

First We Read, Then We Do

Thinking about college can give a family a collective headache and a sense of malaise. (Guess I have been reading too much about Jimmy Carter's book.) We just need to learn how to control the situation as best we can.

For those of you who haven't been through the process in recent years (and that includes my family), what has to be learned can seem overwhelming at this point. And we are just getting started, with a sophomore.

If you are in the same boat, here's an overview of the current admissions situation. It is Philadelphia-centric in terms of schools discussed, but it is still a good summary.

At some point, though, I need to decide what is a helpful read -- and what just scares me. Today I am still a college admissions omnivore.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

SparkNotes, CliffsNotes -- Blessing or Curse?

I guess one's attitude about these "study guides" depends on whether you're a student or in the "other" category. Our teen was having trouble keeping the characters in a play straight, so she went to SparkNotes for a refresher. I knew she'd read the play, and I am all for using the resources available, and yet...

Then this morning, I read a professor's review of the major study guides students use today.

So that got me wondering what educators think about them. I was somewhat surprised that a few years ago the guides were a topic in a forum for teachers. Several seemed to acknowledge the guides as facts of life. Others tried to make sure they were testing and asking questions that could not be found at these sites.

My take: if the student has read the assigned book, the guides may help in studying or reviewing specific sections of a novel that may have seemed convoluted. As SparksNotes online copy says, "When your books and teachers don't make sense, we do." Well, maybe.

But don't get me started on a site called GradeSaver, which sells 2,715 literature essays. So that the student can copy them directly and get expelled? Or are they meant to serve as online muse, and no more?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

So What's on Your List?

I've always found the concept of top 10 lists both daunting and silly. How does anyone create such a list (I am talking informative, not Letterman)? And what is their purpose, other than for the list creators to show how wise/clever/incisive they are?

But who knows, maybe I will come up with a top 10 list of things to do/not to do for high school sophomores as they prepare for college. Till then, I will share others' lists. Here's one that reviews 10 costly mistakes related to college admissions. No huge surprises, but there are a few that are worth remembering as teens start thinking about college options and applications.

Mistake No. 3: Colleges are looking for the well-rounded kid. As this Forbes blogger points out, colleges are looking for well-rounded classes. What they don't want to see is a candidate who has dabbled in many activities just so they can be listed on an application. There's no passion there, no depth of knowledge. Parents, as the school year gears up and organizations seek members, remind yourself and your students that this is one instance where less (but not zero) is more.

Mistake 4: The essay better be perfect – and seriously substantive. Of course that is true, but substantive means a full response to the college's questions, using life experiences, possibly. But beware of essays that make the applicant sound like a walking cliche. The college will not be interested.

Mistake 9: We can’t afford Big Name College. If a student is interested in Big Name College because she can handle the academics, believes the college offers the exact program she needs and just plain thinks it would be a good fit, then money should not deter the student from applying. There are scholarships, there are loans.

There are plenty of adult-written top 10s related to college admissions. I wonder what a student-authored top 10 list would include?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

State College Grads Appeal to Recruiters

The Wall Street Journal is out with a ranking of colleges as determined by recruiters from the largest public and private corporations and nonprofits in the U.S. These 479 recruiters were responsible for 43,000 hires in the past year.

According to the recruiters, the top three schools in terms of providing academically prepared, well-rounded students fully able to succeed in the business environment were state schools: Penn State, Texas A&M and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Of the top 25, 19 were public colleges, one was Ivy (Cornell) and five were private, including Carnegie Mellon, University of Notre Dame and MIT.

Increasingly, in this new world that many of us can barely grasp -- of fewer positions, less pay, reduced expectations, higher college debt -- the ability to get a job may increasingly be a critical part of the college selection process.

Are the days now gone when college meant a time to broaden horizons, take courses in areas that intrigue even if they are not ultimately part of the career picture? Do the most selective schools lose a little cachet if their graduates don't seem as prepared for real world work? I don't know.

But these questions may need to be factored in as our teens start thinking about their prospects, for getting into a specific school and for their financial futures.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Subject Tests for Those Not in the Know

As the College Board folks say, Subject Tests let colleges know what is unique about applicants and in what areas they excel. They are one hour, multiple choice tests in math, science, history or languages. There are currently 20 subject tests available. Harvard and Georgetown, the last two colleges that required three subject tests, no longer do. The writing component of the SAT has proved to be a good indicator of success in college, and that element of the SAT has led, in part, to less emphasis on subject tests.

Some educators think that is a real shame. Subject tests measure a student's in-depth grasp of a subject in ways the SAT cannot. Also, coaching isn't all that effective for subject tests -- so they have seemed to be more accurate measures of ability. And even if schools don't require subject tests, the tests do add an extra dimension to an application, providing one more way that a student can stand out.

Subject tests are usually taken at the end of a school year, when a class is completed. Up to three tests can be taken on a single day. So, at least for our sophomore, the first potential subject tests are a 2011 event. Still, it's something to think about as the school year progresses.

Here's a good overview of the subject of Subject Tests.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Do School Year Jobs Pay Off?

Our teen currently has several recurring part-time jobs: babysitting, the occasional cat- and gecko-sitting, the rare koi pond maintenance gig and working at her church one or two times a month. The work doesn't involve an onerous amount of time and she is fortunate since she doesn't need these jobs to survive. They do, however, help her pay for clothes, entertainment and a portion of her monthly cell phone costs.

Her jobs require a level of maturity that indicate she is seen as responsible and trustworthy. But if any of them cut into study time or sleep, they would have to be dropped. School is her most important job right now.

Teens who work longer hours can suffer academically, showing less engagement and motivation, according to a study from 2007. Here's a brief abstract.

As for college admissions officers, they probably see part-time jobs as a demonstration of initiative, organizational skills and so on. But if the work gets in the way of classroom success, they just aren't worth it.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

PSATs, PLANs Greet Sophomores

The three-year testing season begins any day. Our sophomore will be taking the PSAT in school in mid-October and we'll be looking into a fall date for the pre-ACT, or PLAN, too.

Before our sophomore takes the PSAT and PLAN, she needs to be familiar with the tests. Kaplan, the test prep company, is offering our students (and probably all high school students) free, online sample tests. It will probably be useful -- to the students and Kaplan, which gains information that can be used to encourage enrollment in not-free programs. Great marketing initiative, though how helpful such programs are seems debatable. That's for another discussion.

But heck, will certainly advise our sophomore to look at the free stuff.

Taking the PSAT begs the whole testing question that centers on which is the superior, most-preferred, easiest, hardest, best for some, not for others issue of SAT vs. ACT. They are both accepted equally by most colleges, with no bias for or against either. Still, when narrowing college choices, it is worth checking into preferences at specific schools. Meanwhile, to get an idea of peoples' thoughts on the matter, take a look at the comments following a post on the subject.

Which scores are submitted can be decided later. It does make sense to take both this fall to see which plays to your student's strengths.

And may the college testing begin!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Studying New Set of Study Habits

Swell. Just one more thing to undermine parents' position of authority. A review of study best practices -- study at your desk, stick with the subject till you know it, study for long periods of time -- has always been a part of the new school year preparation. Now we learn we're oh so wrong in the traditional approach. This article disabuses us of the sanctity of the rules we hold dearly.

Oh, and also toss the theories about being a visual or auditory learner -- and that certain teaching styles are more effective than others. Apparently these long-held beliefs just can't be proven.

In summary, here's the latest thinking on how to study effectively:

-- shift study sites
-- vary content so not just studying one thing
-- break up study time/avoid cramming if possible
-- self-test

As is pointed out, though, there must be motivation or none of the above will help a poor student become a great one.

So, let's rewrite the rule book and give our students a revised talk on study habits -- as soon as possible.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

To Our Sophomore, with Love

School starts this week. While our teen isn't dealing with the same anxieties attendant with being a freshman, it's likely that sophomore year holds its own set of concerns.

As 10th grade begins for our teen, here are our deepest hopes for her this year and throughout high school:

-- Good friends who'll provide care, support and laughs when parents and teachers just don't understand

-- Engaged and enthusiastic teachers who transmit delight in their subjects and enjoy seeing their students learn and excel; who help students savor the process of learning as well as the completing the milestones of papers and exams

-- Increasing knowledge of self: what makes her happy, what seems most meaningful, how best to control stress and fears

-- A mentor (teacher, counselor, older friend) who will challenge, encourage, listen and advise her to do her best, be her best

-- Parents who know how to support, guide, question in the right amounts, and who know when standing aside is the best way to demonstrate their love

To a happy and rewarding sophomore year!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Do the Basics Now for Personal Statements

On college applications, the personal statement is the essay that helps a college understand who the student is, how she thinks, what she feels deeply about and what sort of student she would make at the specific school. Each school will ask a different question. It's up to the student to demonstrate an ability to reason, be creative, honest -- and to stand out from the thousands of other statements being read by admissions officers.

We still have a week to go before sophomore year begins, and more than two years before these statements must be submitted. But I am going to suggest that our teen get a head start and list the activities she does, from babysitting and gecko-minding (crickets, anyone?) to places visited, memorable people -- anything that has really meant something to her during the past nearly 15 years.

Meanwhile, here's a helpful site on writing personal statements, for preliminary perusal now, or later.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Thinking about Campus Visits?

Now when I see holidays coming up on the school calendar, I start thinking about visiting campuses. Maybe not formal ones, but visits that allow the sophomore to get a taste of a campus. I have heard about the big-deal junior year trips, usually taken by mom and teen, in which as many schools as possible are squeezed into the several days. It gives me a headache to consider the logistics.

But now there is a site that can help. It's the College Trip Planner on the Go See Campus site. According to a press release, it's a first, offering one-stop access to tours, information sessions and related admissions information at hundreds of schools.

It's probably worth testing -- we all need something to keep us organized.