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.