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!