Friday, April 30, 2010

Do Prep Courses Really Increase Scores?

Freshmen parents at our high school found out earlier this week that students could take the PSAT for free this weekend, courtesy Kaplan. I thought our teen should take it -- why not -- but was voted down. It was probably a good decision on several levels.

Clearly Kaplan knows how to do marketing -- the shock of low scores can translate into business. But do these courses, offered by a number of companies, really improve scores? I remembered something from The Wall Street Journal last year. The article focused on a study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling that found "SAT coaching resulted in about 30 points in score improvement on the SAT, out of a possible 1600 (research done before the addition of the writing portion), and less than one point out of a possible 36 on the ACT..."

The other finding: fake SATs such as those given by the testing companies are perhaps tougher than the real thing, therefore allowing the appearance of greater score gains when the official SAT is taken.

Finally, there will be plenty enough time to worry about scores -- and work on improving them once our teen takes the PSAT in October.

As for the test companies, they may have their place. But carefully weigh the cost vs. actual results before signing up.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Are Some Parents Just Nuts When It Comes to College Stuff?

When Mom's College Cram Course began, I mentioned the blog to two friends I respect. Their responses were similar. They asked what the big deal was: you choose, you apply, you get in or you don't. Roughly a generation older than I, they both recall a straightforward process. I suspect they think I am wasting my time or have become a little obsessive.

Maybe they are right. Certainly getting in to college is more complex -- SAT, SAT 2, AP, enough activities/the right activities, enriching summers (educationally or entreprenurially), difficult discussions about money -- and that's for openers. But maybe it's parents who have aided and abetted this transformation, which has grown even more intense over the past decade or so.

Look at this piece about educated professional moms who have gone on teenager leave. They felt they needed to be on the ground, organizing and coaching and pushing full time. Is this what it takes -- or is it infantilizing the soon-to-be-adult? In writing this blog, am I taking a modified approach to the same act?

On the other hand, my teen and I attended a session at the high school last night. Guidance counselors spoke about making the transition to sophomore year. About 15-20 percent of freshmen and their parents attended. The teen and her friends were bored; parents who have already been through the drill may not have found it worthwhile; but I learned a few things. Or perhaps I was just doing homework for the blog.

Maybe I am being too judgmental. Who's to say what is over- or under-involved parenting? In the end, let's hope we simply do what's right.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

There's Always Another College

It never occurred to me that I could transfer once I got to college, not that I would have known where to go. Today, 60 percent of students in the U.S. will transfer before receiving their undergraduate degree. Who knew?

That's according to a study just released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Do guidance counselors discuss transfers as a strategy? Do they tell the students that a solid GPA is what will help them transfer into the college of choice, along with solid grades in transferrable courses? There's good information to consider if your teen thinks that a transfer may be in his future.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Do Yourself A Favor - Give Public Institutions A Look

In reading the reams of seasonal stories about the college admissions process, it sure seems that this is the Year of Diminished Expectations. Students have found it ever more difficult to get into the school of choice. For some, the choices were narrowed from the start by parents whose own expectations of sending the kids to brand-name schools were diminished by economic conditions.

Maybe a careful reading of the Kiplinger Report on Best College Values will bring some clarity to parents of today's freshmen through juniors. There are fine educations available, at fair prices, if we can just shed biases and pre-conceived notions of what is best for our teens -- and our own esteem.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Helping Teens Maintain Their Health Despite Stress

In all of this college admissions stuff, do we put enough emphasis on looking out for the health of our teens? Of course there will be late nights finishing up important assignments; of course there will be anxiety related to the process.

But are we, as parents, watching for signs that it is becoming more than garden-variety stress, perhaps not even related to college concerns? Do we even know what to look for? Or do we assume the tiredness, some depression or other changes, all come with the territory.

I just came across a hospital-sponsored website for teens that provides answers for a range of questions that appear to be painfully real. The thoughtful, detailed answers seem helpful. Just as important, the person responding shows respect and concern for the teen's issue.

Where do teens turn when they've got questions that they choose not to ask parents or counselors -- or know it is beyond their friends' expertise? A serious, reputable site such as this one is a great resource. So are family friends or relatives your teen trusts.

Talk with your teen about people who might serve as a sounding board. I'll bet you both can agree on a few wise, kind and sensible people that you can trust to provide good counsel, and that your teen can trust to keep that counsel.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Working with Guidance Counselors

I have absolutely no memory of my guidance counselor. So I suspect she did no harm, but wasn't particularly helpful. Or maybe it was me; maybe I didn't let her get to know me.

Given the huge numbers of students each counselor is responsible for -- at least in large public high schools -- it seems to me that teens must take responsibility in making themselves known. Our teen dropped by the freshman counselor to say hello, as did I. This was back in the fall, and she filled me in on some basics: watch what's on Facebook, because colleges do; remind the student that there is no need to stress out (yet?); and it's never too early to think about those essays.

In sophomore year our teen gets a new counselor. I will urge our student to visit early and often. I would imagine it's far more effective to counsel someone the counselor knows rather than a total stranger.

A Public Agenda and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-sponsored study looked at the role of guidance counselors. It wasn't especially flattering. It is difficult to imagine when counselors will be able to provide the time and advice needed, given the grim present and future of school budgets.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Just Being There for Our Teens

The emotional support a teen receives from parents during high school holds enormous benefit. It seems intuitive that paying attention to what is going on, asking questions that may or may not be answered, maintaining high expectations and providing counsel when appropriate goes hand in hand with success in high school and college. That's what a Harvard study found.

Here's my story. Attending college did not run in my family. I suspect my dad did not hear this option discussed at home. He later attended college classes at night but never got a degree. That said, he was a born historian and a damn fine writer. He used these well-honed skills in research and writing published articles and essays. My mother was exceptionally bright -- and was told she could go to the teachers' college, but that was it. In a decision she told me she regretted greatly, she announced she didn't want to be a teacher.

But they were there for me when it was my time. In fact, maybe a bit unrealistically (but it sure felt good), they believed I could do anything, go anywhere. Even though we had fairly modest means they never put any stipulations on where I should apply or might attend. And they figured out how to pay for four years of private colleges for my brother and me. They believed in us and wanted the best for us. They provided the encouragement and emotional support that perhaps they'd lacked during high school.

So at a time when distances between parent and child can grow exponentially, when there is a great temptation to ignore areas that could cause friction or the dreaded teen "look," it's important to remember they are still our children, still under our roof. Teens need us to show interest and concern and delight. Even if they appear to think otherwise.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Is It True? Generalists Are Dead, Long Live the Specialist Applicant!

I'm pondering specialization. Whether sports, intense and demonstrable interest in a specific subject or creative talent, it appears that teens who can demonstrate a specific skill present a pretty attractive package to colleges.

One friend says she knows of a teen who has been involved in intense softball training since middle school. Another tells about her two daughters who each found a sport that meant a lot to them -- and schools showed special interest because of their skills. But the focus could just as easily be music or fine arts.

We're talking personal branding here, aren't we? And sure enough, the issue has been raised regarding college admissions. Dan Schwabl, who seems to have made branding his calling, spoke with Jaye Fenderson last year. She has read applications for Columbia University and wrote Seventeen's Guide to Getting into College.

In the interview, Fenderson said colleges aren't looking for a well-rounded student but a well-rounded student body, "comprised of students with very distinct talents and ideas to contribute to the community. So, it’s important for students to develop their unique interests and abilities and then clearly communicate those in the application."

Whether differentiation comes through grooming, serendipitous and focused committment or the blossoming of a childhood passion, teens' ability to express who they are and what they care about seems to be an important attribute in the admissions process.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Even More Summer Ideas for the Rising Sophomore...or Anyone

Not that this will be something any teen wants to hear from a parent, but what the heck, I will throw it out. Suggest laptop summer school, maybe to preview something the teen is taking in the fall or is considering taking in the future. There's a list of free online courses in The New York Times' Education Life section, including offerings from M.I.T, Yale,Carnegie Mellon and others.

YouTube is even involved, sort of, by offering the first lecture in a series of courses ranging from moral reasoning to modern theoretical physics. A virtual Whitman's Sampler of intellectual delights! So make the suggestion. What's to lose? I'll even give you the Mom's College Cram Course badge of courage for trying.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Look North As You Look Ahead; Canadian Schools Beckon

If you are headed to Canada for a summer vacation, consider stopping at some of the fine colleges. Kim Cook is someone who knows the situation from both sides -- ex-pat Canadian, freelance writer, her family has lived in the U.S. for the past 12 years and her high school daughter is leaning toward a Canadian college. Kim is, essentially, the author of today's blog, and she says we'll be impressed with Canada's schools.

Take a look at the stats. Macleans and the Globe publications are the two major sources for rankings of Canadian colleges.

Canadian schools are typically well endowed, so even for international students the cost is on par with in-state U.S. schools, plus merit scholarships are phenomenal. On the East Coast there are several large and small institutions - Dalhousie (big research university in Halifax, Nova Scotia), Mount Allison (small "ivy" in Moncton, New Brunswick.)

As you head west, Kim says, there's McGill (very popular with New Yorkers, a big school in a cosmopolitan city) and Waterloo, University of Toronto, Western in Ontario outside of Toronto and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver -- gorgeous and perfect for outdoorsy kids who like to ski, mountain bike and do water sports.

All are just a plane ride away, the cities and town are well-integrated with the schools, safety is excellent, and with the smaller schools you get a lot for the money: a close knit community, small class sizes, study abroad opportunities and the welcoming Canadian hospitality. And the schools tend to draw a lot of foreign students, which enriches the college education even more.

Kim's question: Why spend $40,000 a year here when you can get two years for that in Canada, all inclusive, with the bonus of an international experience?

Thanks, Kim!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Private College Costs -- An Odd Equality in Prices?

I live to destroy newspapers and magazines. Not the institutions -- I am a great fan of paper versions (am I giving an age range away?) -- but my personal copies. I have ripped out thousands of articles, columns, recipes, how to lose weight articles.

And I have been thinking about writing this blog for a long time. So I have an article from the April 27, 2009 Fortune that raised an issue I'd wondered about. The piece, called "Top Dollar, Lesser School," asks why lower-tier private colleges cost as much as an Ivy.

A mighty fine education can be gotten outside of the Ivy League and other well-ranked elite schools. That is not the issue. The question is how can they charge as much when they lack comparable faculty, resources and prestige?

Blame it on supply and demand (lots of kids wanting to go to college, without an increase in schools) and the so-called "Chivas Regal" effect. That's the belief that a high price tag confers status. Discounting would cheapen the brand, so these schools only discount in the form of a merit scholarship. The top tier schools don't offer those, but do try to help those families with lower incomes.

According to the reporter, the perceived best schools actually undercharge but for many reasons can't raise their prices even higher. I guess we should be grateful for that good news.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

She Who Judges -- An Application Reader Tells All

This article, by someone who reviewed and rated applications to UCLA, ran in the college paper, The Daily Bruin. I don't know (yet) whether this is the typical procedure but it offers an interesting perspective.

Academics drive the score, everything else enhances it, the reader leaerned. Also of note: Readers look for applicants who have taken advantage of their opportunities. “We want to see that students challenged themselves, and are able to overcome any obstacles successfully,” said an admissions officer.

The woman, who received training from the university to understand what sort of student UCLA sought, reviewed 800 of the 57,600 UCLA applications. She usually handled 15 to 20 applications per sitting, spending 30-40 minutes on each. Is my math right? At the high end, the reader was reviewing applications for 13 hours straight. Here's what I wonder: by the 18th or 19th application, how could she even read -- let alone assess?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Woe for State Colleges

A good state school (your own state's, or another's) has always seemed like a decent option when considering colleges. There would be a diverse student body (if a little top heavy geographically), decent instructors and the unfailing and usually generous support of the state. That was then.

This is now. Granted, New Jersey is in deep financial trouble. Also granted: something must be done, no matter how unpopular the actions. But it is still difficult to fathom the long-term effects when $173 million is cut from state universities and colleges. The result, according to the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, will be larger class sizes, fewer faculty hires, less choice in classes, cutbacks in technology and financial aid.

The national economic picture is looking brighter, but it is tough to imagine when things will look better for individuals. Right now it feels as if we are caught in an infinite domino effect that won't be alleviated by the time our freshmen are ready to enter college.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

All-Girls Schools? Research Supports Them

So what do I think about my all-girls' high school education? Best thing I ever did for myself. Did I advise our teen to make the same choice? No way -- different young woman, different era. Yet, there's much to be said for the all-girl approach, though for the most part it's only available through private schools.

There are two all-girls public high schools in the U.S. that have been around a long time. Mine, Western High School in Baltimore, was founded in 1844. The Philadelphia School for Girls was founded four years later. When I chose an all-girls school back then, there wasn't much choice. Of the four major high schools in my part of town, two were for boys, two for girls. I opted to go to Western after a horrible middle school experience (now I know it's almost always tough) because I wanted a fresh start, the school seemed more academically sound, and I could take two languages.

I soon made many great friends and we studied, laughed, commiserated and, perhaps most importantly, competed with each other. It was healthy competition that helped shape me -- since I didn't do sports and knew nothing of that kind of competitive comraderie.

I made my choice to go all-girls for personal reasons. I didn't know then about studies showing higher academic performance by girls who attend same-sex schools.

My regret was that as I grew academically, I remained somewhat stunted socially: comfortable with children, all adults and girl peers but ill-at-ease with boys. I chose a co-ed college, and the discomfort and shyness lasted throughout those years.

To quote Osgood in our teen's favorite film, "Well, nobody's perfect!" Nor is any education.

Monday, April 12, 2010

College Essays

Maybe I should have gone into essay coaching.

It seems that writing the college essay has morphed from a sometimes painfully difficult, personal challenge into big business. There's money to be made in providing tips, templates, tutoring.

Parke Muth, an admissions officer at University of Virgina, is often quoted on the topic of essays, with good reason. Read his advice on the essay -- and what is wrong with so many of them.

Our teen doesn't enjoy writing. This year, though, the freshman English teacher has focused on memoirs: finding a voice, using original and descriptive phrases. Once the writing began, the assignment became fun, the writing colorful, funny and appealing. It was a useful exercise.

Try encouraging your teen to write this summer, about vacations or a job or tribulations of the past year. Who knows, it might even be the start of one of those dreaded but darn important essays.

Friday, April 9, 2010

What's More Important, Sports or Studies

I have little interest in sports. When I do support a team, I'm a fair weather fan: a team is in the play-offs or the Sweet 16.

Okay, it is wonderful that Duke won. But is there a cost for such success? This column in The New York Times looks at the intersection of sports and academics. When a sport is presumed to be part of a college's DNA, does its academic reputation suffer? Does the school itself allow sports to trump class time?

That was the point raised by a Duke professor this week who cited a 2006 internal Duke agreement that ceremonies and celebrations be held in the evening so that classroom time wasn't lost. Part of me says, What the heck, it's just one afternoon. Another part says, are we losing track of the reason kids go to college? Duke does graduate 92 percent of its basketball athletes. But is the culture tilted more to pursuit of studies, or the sports/social sphere.

It's a situation worth noting as students start thinking about the ideal college fit.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I've Got a Little "Wait" List -- Part 2

I didn't know there was a wait list strategy. The heart of the strategy is simple. As in so many things in life, sometimes you just have to show you care.

So how do students go from the list to acceptance? We have more insights from our guest expert who has been a high school counselor and in college admissions. As he points out, the quality of the candidate isn’t the primary driver — the college has already made that judgment. The level of desire to attend is the vital information that needs to shared with the college.

He suggests that if the wait listee would definitely go if accepted, the student should tell the college that in writing AND should get the high school counselor to back that up with a phone call. This is a serious business — and, of course, can only be done with one college. (He notes that it's fine to express serious interest in more than one wait list — but that is not the same as saying “I will definitely come if you accept me.”)

The high school’s reputation for honesty is also riding on this — if a student says she’ll go and then decides not to, it can do long-term damage to the school’s relationship with the college. If, however, the wait-listing school is the real first choice, this information can make the difference.

There's also the conditional acceptance. An admissions person calls the student and says, “We will take you if you accept, and you have to let us know by tomorrow.”

As for timing... The Universal Reply date is May 1 — so technically, colleges don’t know if they’ve “made the class” until after that date. But if they find that early returns are lagging behind the previous year, they may go to the wait list in April. Ideally, every college wants to get the freshman class in shape as early as possible. But the wait list can have a ripple effect. Some years ago a major college accepted several hundred students from the wait list -- and then those students, who had already told another school they were attending, withdrew. So the second school went to its wait list. And so on...

See, it's just one giant puzzle, not life and death. Even if, right now, it sure feels that way.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

I've Got a Little "Wait" List -- Part 1

The colleges have spoken, and some students have landed in the limbo known as wait lists.

I wanted to understand clearly the mechanics of this admissions tool, so I consulted someone with more than 10 years' experience as a high school counselor and as a college admission officer. Here's the primer he gave me:

The central fact is that colleges accept more students than they actually want, simply because kids apply to, and are accepted at, multiple colleges. The same kid is admitted to Georgetown, Duke, and UVA; statistically, each school has only a 33% chance of getting the kid to come. There are only a handful of schools that have “yields” higher than 50%; most competitive schools are in the 40’s or even the 30’s.

So, to get a class of 500 kids, College X has to send acceptance letters to 1,200 applicants. They are, essentially, guessing that they will get 500, based on past experience — but it’s hard to predict exactly. It’s a disaster if they get 520 kids — because they have no place to put them, and there’s no way to withdraw an offer of admission. It’s also not good to get 490 — if only because 10 kids represent half a million dollars in tuition.

So that’s where wait lists come in. If the college comes up short, they go to the wait list to get those missing kids. Now, they don’t want to take three times as many kids as they want. For one thing, taking a lot of kids may raise their acceptance rate by a percentage point; in a world driven by US News & World Report rankings, everyone fights to keep the acceptance rate as low as possible. This is why the candidate’s expressed interest is so important. If the student just checks off the box and mails back the postcard, the college may conclude that the chance of the kid coming if accepted is pretty low — so why bother? It's a different situation if the student responds with more passion.

Tomorrow, Part 2 will look at what is required to break through that list.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Summertime, Should the Livin' Be Easy?

Should summer be a time for teens to relax and play -- or should it be a time for classroom programs that keep skills sharp -- or make them sharper? It may be late to think about summer programs, though given the economy, such offerings may still have open slots. Look for them at the local high school, area private schools, community education programs or at colleges themselves. Here's a sampling of some of the on-campus programs available.

Or maybe you might challenge your teen to think about summer jobs. Today colleges are more impressed with students who show initiative by getting some sort of paid job than those who have spent summers in expensive programs. Sue Shellenbarger with The Wall Street Journal discussed myths of the summer job market recently.

However you wish to go about it, the goal is simple: help your teen stay mentally active and engaged.

Finally, can't resist. Congratulations to Duke, and to Butler. These players demonstrated talent, determination and a never-say-die attitude that did their schools proud.

Monday, April 5, 2010


It's a crazy world when top-tier colleges seemingly brag about how few students they accept. And it's even crazier when the statistics really don't back up the braggadocio. The Answer Sheet, the Washington Post blog by Valerie Strauss about colleges, looks at this issue and offers studies that indicate there are more slots at some of these colleges than before. The post also reminds us that a number of those students applying to the so-called best colleges have no chance in hell of getting in -- their grades and scores make it unrealistic to even contemplate admissions success.

Then again, just as we are seeing documented changes in how people spend and how they think about value and what is important (something good coming out of the ugly, sad and unnecessary recession?), maybe we will start being more pragmatic -- more selective ourselves -- when it comes to thinking about which colleges make the most sense.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Money, Money, Money

Next to what I am going to do about dinner, how we'll pay for college is right up there among my biggest worries.

We've been conscientious, at least when we could be. We started saving for our teen even before there were 529s. A bequest, a bonus or so, a never spent cash wedding gift, and then later, some grandmother estate money, formed the foundation for the college fund. But in recent years there has been no inflow. And what was there wasn't doing so hot, either.

You can easily find costs of colleges on the individual school's websites. But for a quick, dirty and sickening glance, look at US News & World Report.

But remember. That's just tuition. The College Board does a simple breakout of all the categories of college costs.

A bit of wisdom from our financial planner helps keep me going -- you don't need all of the money at once, just a year at a time. Miracles can happen, right?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The College Board Is Your Friend

I was just exploring the College Board site and discovered grade-geared newsletters for parents.

While on the site, I also signed up for the SAT question of the day, found on the newsletter sign-up page. My responses to these questions will reflect badly, I am sure, on my glory days of high verbal scores. And let's not even think about how much lower my low math scores have sunk. Still, it's a good step to take; we will make it a family experience as we discuss our answers at dinner.

There is also a question of the day for ACTs, too.

These questions will offer a touch of reality that will, I hope, make us more understanding of what our teen faces.