Monday, November 21, 2011

Seeking Experts Who'll Help Her Get to College

This is a heartwarming, upbeat story about a young woman in Boston, Nathaly Lopera, who's determined to get to college. She takes an hour long bus ride to school in a wealthy suburb. With extracurricular activities and tutoring at night, she often gets home around 10 p.m., then starts homework.

She's getting advice on SAT strategies, her essays and applications through an organization called Let's Get Ready, which in 2011 has helped 2500 high school students through 63 programs in the Northeast, using more than 1000 college student volunteers.

Let's wish Nathaly all the best. The colleges that select her will be smart; the school she selects will be fortunate.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Despite Crazy Costs, Stats Say the Degree Is Still Worth It

Yes, it is worth it to get a college degree -- the numbers prove it. Here's an overview of studies that confirm the college bonus: each year of college adds about 6-10% of annual income. And people earning higher incomes are more likely to have jobs with good benefits, and that means decent health care coverage that can lead to better health.

Apparently such studies don't always factor in the cost of going to college or those darn loans. Still, whether we like the system or not, there are undeniable advantages that come with the diploma.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

College Mom Bloggers -- Sharing the Challenges, Tips and Insights

I'm apparently not the only mom out there who feels the need to share the family's college adventure. There are tons of us -- and now there's a list of the "30 Best College Mom Blogs." I am honored to have made the cut on this list, compiled by Online College

By the way, I also blog for, for the Parental Guidance blog collection, on college admissions issues.

Happy reading.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Could It Be, A World That Is SAT-Free?

Wake Forest would rather see students spending their Saturdays doing community service or playing in a youth symphony rather than in tutoring sessions or taking the SAT or ACT. This seems to verge on college admissions heresy.

But the dean of admissions at Wake thinks it's the way to go, as she points out here. It sounds sensible to me, and as we have heard at college information sessions, the GPA is considered a better gauge of college performance than standardized tests.

But for now, most schools still want the scores, and as a result, we want them to be as strong as reasonably possible. I am certainly counting on just one or two takes on the test. Colleges do not like to see, for instance, four sets of scores. And besides, there really are better ways to spend Saturdays.

Meanwhile, our teen has started an online coaching program that emphasizes short, consistent daily prepping rather than several-hour classroom marathons.

We'll see how it goes. What's your thinking on these standardized tests?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Would You Want Your Child to Go to Happy Valley, Land of Moral Blindness?

Penn State does have its share of problems right now -- lack of controls, deficiency in ethics and humanity, some misguided students. Another one is rolling admissions, with the first deadline Nov. 30. Now that we know how many blind eyes exist at that campus, would you want your child to attend?

Here's a discussion of crises and how they affect admissions. Schools like Duke have dealt with messes related to athletics and have seen some admissions drop-off -- but nothing lasting. Others, including Virginia Tech, have seen far more horrific events. They all recover. Penn State will, too. But it does make a parent think.

Do we really know and fully understand how and why colleges act? Why Virginia Tech waited so long to alert students to a killer on the loose? Why no one at Penn State followed through on terrible accusations?

Maybe the punch list of what our children (and we) are looking for in a college should include how the administration responds to serious, possibly life-threatening, events. Or whether there is a pattern of putting athletics first. So search major papers that would cover the school. See if you can discover whether the schools seem to be run by good and rational people who put students and academics first, who set strong ethical and moral standards.

It just might make you feel better, or force you to suggest your child think through college options a little more carefully.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Crazy yet? Helpful reminders during admissions stress

There must be thousands of college admissions myths out there. And every fall, as applications are being filled out, an updated version appears. I am a sucker for these lists -- and I can either feel smug about knowing it all or occasionally learn something.

Here's the latest myth collection from a good education blog at The Washington Post -- and to make sure the myths were accurate, I asked admissions officers from a public and a private university to vet them. They thought the list was solid, even if one of the admissions people felt most parents already know the truth behind the myths.

The first myth -- It’s best to set your heart on one school and really go for it -- is, of course, clearly wrong. But the explanation of why it's a myth raises a point I've been thinking about. Do you tell your friends and the family beyond your home where you are applying, or is it easier to keep it to yourself?

If I were in high school, I'd go for the zipped lips school. Have your reaches, targets, safeties -- and be able to explain to myself, parents and guidance counselor why I've chosen them, but beyond that I'd keep it to myself. The pressure's high enough without worrying about what friends will think if you don't get into the colleges you'd aspired to attend.

The one other myth that fear suckers me into believing is cost -- that everyone pays, except for a few brilliant or deserving applicants, the price listed in the brochure. Just ain't so. The average student pays just 42 percent of the so-called sticker price, based on formulas related to merit and need.

Whew! Now, just have to wait 17 months or so to see if that's true. But who's counting?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Wrapping Up the Common App?

Well, you are not alone. It is expected that 3 million students will apply to 463 colleges and universities that use the Common App. That's up from 2.39 million in the 2010-2011 cycle -- and we thought that was a bad year!

Here are some tips from the director of Common Application, Inc. Some of the points deal with deadlines for various documents that need to accompany the Common App. But the first reminder is about something that has caused problems in the past -- the essay. Be sure to preview the essay before sending it; make sure your length is within the 250-500 word guidelines. It will get cut off if it exceeds the length, even by a few words. And that won't look good to colleges that will expect, at minimum, that students can follow directions.

And there is help when you run into trouble. The Common App has a support team available to answer students' questions - and team members generally get back to students within 35 minutes.

But don't test that system by waiting an hour before your deadline to discover that you have a question that needs an answer right away. That might be the ticket to bad news. Schools are deadly serious about deadlines.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Don't Make These Mistakes on the College Application

There's little you probably haven't already heard from counselors, books, online sources about the college application process. But here are some that are worth mentioning to your kids, from Unigo's panel of experts.

According to them, some of the less obvious mistakes include:
-- discrepancies between any self-reported grades, scores and those of official reports
-- writing samples that are so polished and perfect, with not-so-hot scores and grades in English
-- disciplinary problems included in the high school transcript but not explained elsewhere
-- a version of a lawyer's excessive/impossible billable hours: extracurricular activities that, when added up, would leave no time for homework, classes or sleep. The example given was a student who claims to do crew 20 hours a week and jazz band 20 hours a week

Nearly all the experts interviewed emphasized the need to proofread, though one said she'd heard that some admissions people like to see a typo or two -- it indicates the kid did the application by himself without adult supervision.

Now that sounds like a comment that should be ignored. Mistakes are not the way to demonstrate authenticity, that quality so sought by colleges.

I also blog on college issues at, Parental Guidance.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Let's Review Decision Plans

Maybe because we haven't lived through the admissions process yet, I have difficulty keeping certain facts in my head, such as the difference between early decision and early action. So here's a quick review. And you can also look at the College Board explanation here.

Think of admissions as non-restrictive and restrictive.

Non-restrictive plans have no strings attached. You can apply to as many colleges as you wish and don't have to commit until May 1.

These include Regular Decision (apply in January, learn about the decision between mid March and April); Rolling Admission (applications are reviewed as they arrive and then decisions are sent either as soon as possible or on specified dates); and Early Action (apply by an earlier deadline and receive a decision earlier than the usual date).

This approach makes sense for most students. It means more time to apply; allows colleges to see first-semester senior year grades; enables families to compare all acceptances and financial packages; and gives the student a few weeks to decide where to attend.

Restrictive plans include Early Decision (apply to just one college and agree to a binding commitment to attend if accepted; usually apply in November, learn outcome in December; if accepted, all other applications must be withdrawn) and Restrictive Early Actionn (apply early to only one college but the student is not committed to attend; usually apply in November, learn in December; don't have to make decsion till May 1 but not offered by many schools).

Early decision makes sense only if the student, without a doubt, knows that College A is the first choice. This can be one of the most competitive cycles for admission, but colleges also like to see students so interested that they are willing to commit. This is not a smart approach if you are seeking financial aid.

Hope this helps.

I also blog on college issues at, Parental Guidance.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fiske Speaks - We All Listen

The Atlantic recently ran an ambitious series on college admissions-related topics. I immediately gravitated to the interview with Edward Fiske, editor of the most popular and most well-thought-of college guide, Fiske Guide to Colleges.

Fiske begins the interview by stating that the biggest mistake parents make, at least in the beginning of the process, is not understanding the importance of "fit." We're too worried about our kids getting into the prestigious school -- whether it's the right school for our kids is not important.

Changing one's mindset isn't easy. And unfortunately the US News & World Report college rankings play right into that sort of thinking. As he puts it, these rankings answer the question, "What's the best college?" But the question should be, "What's the best college for me?" He gives kudos for the amount of data collected for the reports, but suggests that it would be much better if the data were used by a student who had his own weighting system.

The good news he shared? Fiske thinks that colleges are doing a far better job orienting kids to college through special programs and seminars. And he has found that colleges as a whole are paying far more attention to undergraduate research.

Nobody's bragging about party schools anymore. Now that's a huge improvement!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Finally, Good News About Some Colleges' Costs

I've got to hand it to Seton Hall University. It has figured out a way to gain some positive headlines, enhance the quality of its student body and demonstrate that maybe the cost of attending college doesn't have to rise every blessed year.

Here's the story. If candidates for admission to the Hall have a combined 1200 on the SAT in math and verbal and graduate in the top 10 percent of their class, they will be eligible to pay about $10,000 in tuition -- in direct competition with the cost of Rutgers -- at a savings of $21,000 over the usual Seton Hall tuition. If the student maintains a 3.0 average each year, that reduced rate will remain in effect throughout their time at SHU.

My questions: if it is that easy to lower tuition, why don't richer schools do it? And, a related question, will other students' fees go up to subsidize this new program?

But wait, here's another innovative concept, at Randolph-Macon College. Randy Mac now offers a guarantee of graduation in four years. Here are the stipulations: the student has to keep up with coursework, meet with advisers (and not change their major senior year, or take a year off, etc.) If so, the college guarantees graduation in four years -- and if a needed course isn't available or bad advice is given, the school will foot the bill for the courses needed to graduate.

This is a big deal, since today only 80% of students in private colleges graduate in four years; the number goes down to 50% for public colleges. So when the four years are exceeded, it's that much more for tuition, that much more in loans.

There is a sense of grandstanding about both schools' actions -- but maybe we need more gestures of this sort to get us all thinking about how this college cost thing might be dealt with more creatively.

Any ideas?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Science of Applying to Art and Music Schools

You think the personal essay is tough? Imagine what it's like to apply to an art school or conservatory. It means providing a portfolio or recordings or possibly auditioning. That sounds pretty scary to me.

Kids involved in the arts can talk to their counselors and arts/music teachers for tips. But if you are at sea about what might be requested, take a look at this collection of tips.

It's basic, but will get you and your teen thinking about college vs. conservatory, or art school vs. a college with a great fine arts department. And here are some additional points to remember about the arts application process, including my favorite: "Parents, take a chill pill."

That means in this gyrating and ugly economy, many parents want their kids to major in something practical, that will lead to a good job. And they fear that will not be the case with the arts. But, arts students are generally skilled at presenting and are accustomed to taking and acting on criticism.

So, applause for the arts!

Karen Horton blogs at Guidance

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Getting Your Head Around Those Applications

Ah, how to answer some critical questions on college applications.

Our teen isn't at this point yet, but here's Q&A that addresses some issues I hadn't thought of, from whether to indicate a major (yes, if you have one); does the student have to indicate the other schools being applied to (no); some hints on writing the Common App essay; and how to explain to a college that a student has learning disabilities.

So, though it's still summer, it's not too early to start thinking about these questions, and discussing the topic with your teens.

After all, everyone can think more clearly when not under the pressure of a deadline.

Friday, August 5, 2011

How Do They Do It? One School on Merit Scholarships

Here are some insights on how one head of admissions/financial aid gives out merit money.

This example represents just one school, the University of Rochester. But it may give us all a look at the process of apportioning largesse. Imagine this: Just for expressing serious interest through interviews, discussions with financial aid people, etc., can be worth $3000. Every "A" grade nets $62. Coming from outside New York State, well, that's good for $2,000.

So on days when we are all worried about money and portfolios, it's good to know that colleges may be looking out for our kids, and our purses.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Virginia's Struggle with In-State, Out-of-State Balance

Some states have what seems to be an enviable problem: colleges that kids from other states really want to attend. One of the most obvious examples is Virginia -- particularly the University of Virginia and William & Mary. A long time ago William & Mary rejected me. Sounds as if it would be no different today.

These schools are so popular that in-state families complain about the inability of their children to be accepted. And sometimes they blame the out-of-staters, as described here. A state legislator wants to put even greater restrictions on the numbers of accepted students from out of state.

It's a real problem. Here in New Jersey, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get into state colleges because the economy is forcing students who might normally have gone elsewhere to stay in their home state. We don't seem to have the influx that Virginia faces.

As easy as it is to understand the frustration of Virginians who see carpetbaggers coming in and taking their kids' spaces, it's also true that college should be a horizon-expanding experience -- and that would include gaining the viewpoints of students from all over the country, and the world.

What do you think? Should state schools be more restrictive when it comes to who's accepted?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Try, Apply and Never Look Back -- Good Advice for College and Life

Try, apply and never look back. What great advice! I found this gem at the end of this list of myths about college.

The gist of this advice, by Steve Loflin, founder and CEO, National Society of Collegiate Scholars, is that if teens are interested in a particular school, they shouldn't let the belief they can't afford it or can't get in stop them from applying. Instead, teens should do their best and see what happens. You'll have more regrets if you don't try than if you do. And if you give it your best shot, you might get in; if you don't, you move on to the school that wants you. Loflin even noted that some recruiters or potential employers ask where the applicant applied to college, finding that as revealing as where they attended.

Of course, parents may be realists and understand the likelihood is slim for admission to a certain school. And of course it would be foolhardy to apply only to those schools considered a reach. But maybe sometimes parents should keep their pragmatism to themselves. Hey, you never know.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sallie Mae Has Some Issues

So be sure to do a little investigation before you get too involved with her. Sallie Mae is, according to the website, "the nation’s No. 1 financial services company specializing in education." This corporation has 23 million customers, provides loans, tuition payment plans and other products to help students pay for college.

Sallie Mae, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, is also big business, managing or serving $238 billion in education loans and administering $37 billion in 529 college savings plans.

I am particularly bothered by one bullet in a recent mailing: "Get the money you need. Borrow up to 100% of your school certified costs of education." There's nothing in this mailing that counsels on the downside of college debt -- particularly what could well be more than $100,000 if indeed a student elects to cover all costs through Sallie Mae loans.

It also does a lot of marketing, with direct-to-student mailings. And a lot of people -- students, parents, co-signers -- have had lots of problems dealing with the company's aggressive collection techniques, as just some rudimentary Googling reveals.

The company also has a tuition refund insurance policy that will give a family back tuition money if an ill student must pull out of college. The policy returns all the money for illness or injury but only 75% for mental health-related withdrawals. Read this article to learn more.

It might not be a bad policy -- the article argues that it may be too generous -- but think carefully before signing up, particularly since mental health issues are the primary reason kids withdraw from college.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hard Evidence on Financial Value of College

Who knew? Dishwashers, childcare workers and hairdressers are among the group of workers who receive a significant salary increase just by going to college, up to an 83 percent increase for dishwashers who went to college vs. colleagues who did not. These findings are discussed here in an op-ed by David Leonhardt.

We're definitely at a point where all sorts of experts are wondering if college really pays off, particularly at a time of high unemployment and equally high debt loads for graduates. This year college loan debt is higher than credit cards, reaching a trillion dollars. A college grad with loans averages about $24,000.

I've argued that it is a major loss to the U.S. that we don't value and pay skilled technicians more, so that there can be actual, respected career paths for woodworkers and plumbers and electricians. But that is not the case, and we are left with this situation: "Sending more young Americans to college is not a panacea," says M.I.T. economist David Autor. "Not sending them to college would be a disaster."

Leonhardt's final assessment on whether college is necessary rings true. He describes those skeptical about the value of college as well meaning people, almost always with college degrees who are going to make certain their kids go to college.
"But in the end," he says, "their case against college is an elitist one -- for me and not for thee. And that's rarely good advice."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Search for Scholarships Can Yield Decent Results

I've heard so many people say there are lots of scholarships out there; you just need persistence in looking for them. I thought it was an urban myth and it has seemed like a waste of time to me, time better spent working on homework or personal essays.

One young man went on a serious scholarship quest, netting more than $22,000 in 22 scholarships ranging in size from $500 to $4,000.

OK. Maybe I was wrong.

I was impressed at his approach and his organizational skills in tracking these scholarship opportunities. But part of me wished he'd been as successful at applying to schools as to getting money. He had good grades and a good story - he'd worked one summer in South Africa. Yet he was only accepted by two of the eight schools to which he applied.

But he helped me see two advantages to the scholarship hunt I'd never considered.
-- Since most of the scholarships were local, he was interviewed by people in the organizations offering them; he gained lots of interview experience.
-- He had to write essays for most of the applications. Again, worthwhile practice, with a purpose.

So give the scholarship search a shot. There's no harm and it's possibly a good and lucrative experience.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Why Can't Americans Teach Their Children How to Speak -- Other Languages

I am embarrassed to be an American when we travel -- on my own behalf and on behalf of my country. Europeans are often fluent in several languages. When we were in Spain recently, even shopkeepers in tiny produce stores could communicate with us. We at least tried to respond in our host country's tongue.

Our daughter did well - she was able to understand several speakers and managed to conduct several transactions on her own. The trip certainly made her more confident and she enjoys Spanish. But when I hear people move effortlessly from one language to another, I am jealous and humbled.

I took French and German in high school -- and got great grades. I could read and write (somewhat) but I could not confidently speak -- and I'd say I have lots of company. Just think of the hours all of us have spent in language classes. What do we have to show for it?

Now, New York State's famously tough Regents tests will, after this year, no longer measure what's been learned in French, Spanish and Italian classes. You can still take classes, but there will be no statewide gauging of success. And I just learned that the Spanish lit class our high school offers as a final, in-depth study of the language, will likely be cut for budget reasons.

I doubt that when our teens head off to college that their skills will improve. Why are we such a nation of language louts at a time when clear communication becomes more and more critical?

Je ne sais pas.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No Meritocracy at the Top Colleges

Is college admissions to the nation's top schools rigged? Need only the affluent apply?

I certainly don't believe it's rigged in any classic sense but there sure are inequities. And these lead to a class/economic divide.

No matter the occasional heart-warming stories of smart, plucky kids from poor neighborhoods making it to the big time of the Ivies; no matter the daydreams of middle class kids with the grades and scores to get them into a highly selective school. The top colleges, for the most part, select students whose image reinforce the notion that elitism is alive and well.

As this column points out, the president of Amherst, Anthony Marx, decided others needed a chance, too, and created a model that encouraged more low-and middle-income students to attend. Why did he think a change necessary. Marx mentions a Georgetown study that found that the class of 2010 at 193 of the most selective colleges had only 15 percent of students from the lower half of the U.S. income spectrum, while 67 percent came from the top 25 percent in income.

One of the significant changes Marx made was to admit transfer students primarily from community colleges.

More schools are looking at how to diversify while still having an exceptionally gifted student body. Cheers to the colleges who are working hard at being more fair.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

My High School Does Walk of Shame

I have always been proud of my education at Western High School in Baltimore, the oldest all-girls public high school in the country. When I went off to college, I was as prepared academically as fellow freshmen from private schools. Good school, great teachers, a character and confidence-building experience.

But Western has really screwed up this year. First, there was a guidance department failure, it appears. Transcripts and related materials were not sent to the colleges the girls applied to. As a result, the students might not have gotten into the schools of their choice.

But that, to my mind, is not the worst thing Western did. Get this. It had a rule that only girls heading to four-year colleges could walk in the graduation procession. Even if they met all requirements for graduation, even if they are headed to a community college or into a profession.

At a time when students are graduating from college in debt, when we know that one size does not fit all when it comes to post-high school graduation and that community college can be a fine option, the Western rule was insane.

PS: the rule was suspended and all graduates were able to walk in the grand procession, as one group, proud graduates of Western High.

*** Also follow my posts at's Parental Guidance section.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Soon It Will Be Summer, But Don't Forget Thoughts of College

As much as teens need a break from the early morning risings and pressures of homework and projects, they can't shove thoughts of college too far back. Summer is a great time to think about schools and what kind of place might make sense.

Here's an overview, particularly geared to juniors. From thinking about which colleges to visit to mapping out a testing schedule. After all, do you really want to take SATs at the same time you're taking AP and subject tests?

The truth is, I can't remember when I started thinking seriously about colleges. But there was enough time to visit a number of colleges. And that, as the article above points out, is really important. The more contact with the school, the better.


You can also follow my thoughts on admissions on

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Happy Mother's Day to all Moms -- Especially Those with College-bound Kids

Don't we all wish we'd appreciated our parents more? And if we did appreciate them, did we let them know it?

Because of the blog, I think about college a lot. And recently I've been thinking back to a long ago Mother's Day, when I graduated from college. My mother was so proud of me, and so thrilled to have such a momentous event occur on her day.

She deserved the happiness. She and my dad had worked hard/budgeted carefully to pay for college. And four years later, they had their very own Duke graduate. I remember that I did not share the absolute elation. I didn't have a job lined up yet and I would be heading back home to Baltimore, clueless about my future. Why do I suspect I didn't tell my parents how grateful I was.

I've found a stash of the many letters my mom sent me while I was at school. They were filled with the everyday stuff about her friends, my grandparents, how work was treating my dad, how my brother was doing in high school. I understand now how much she missed having me around -- the letters were a surrogate for face-to-face chat.

And I apparently expressed anguish about some difficult classes and even about my social life. She offered good, straightforward good advice. There were also letters in which she was upset with me -- about something in a previous note, or something I said on the every Sunday phone calls. Who knows what foolishness I said at 18, or even 20.

I am already wondering how I will react when our one and only child heads to college. I sure hope I have things to keep me busy. I miss her already.

But I still have plenty of time to drive her crazy, and she will sweetly reciprocate. My mother's day gift to my child -- maybe I will start some form of meditation so that I can remain calm in times of deadlines and angst. So that I can be, at all times, a good, supportive mom through the challenges ahead. Involved but not suffocatingly so. Questioning but not tormenting. Understanding but firm. All the usual mom stuff, multiplied by a thousand.

Happy Mother's Day!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Excuses, Excuses

Mom's College Cram Course has not disappeared. It's just that I have been spreading my wings as a blogger on college admissions issues for -- and true to form, have struggled a bit in the past week with the mechanics of a more complex blog program.

But dear reader, you will continue to see my musings and concerns here. And please let me know what's on your mind when it comes to all things college.

Monday, May 2, 2011

On Days Like This, College Madness Seems a Little Less Important

Our daughter was in first grade on Sept. 11, 2001. It was a day when the only thing that seemed to offer hope was that beautiful blue sky, the sky that had also ushered in devastation. Thoughts of college were a long way off then -- but we also didn't know, at that moment, when we'd see normal again.

So today, nearly 10 years later, the world has a shorter to-do list. And we need to be grateful for our heroes, dead and alive, who've enabled us to continue living our lives in relative comfort and safety. So that we can squander untold hours worrying about college and how much is too much to spend on getting our children ready for what is, in the end, just four years of their lives.

Let's celebrate the good, in the now. College will take care of itself (with a little help from dedicated, determined parents).

Also follow Karen at Guidance.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

When Good Majors Turn Bad

Remember the days when we thought we could follow our dreams, choose a major that gave us pleasure, stretched our minds. We knew we could figure out something to do with it -- or else were certain that some employer would perceive our brilliance and hire us. We might not get rich, but we'd be doing something we liked.


Those days are gone. And it pains me that kids need to start thinking about their majors in high school. But in order to identify prospective colleges, it sure helps to know which would have strong departments in the likely major. Now, more and more, high school kids are already thinking about finding majors that will pay the bills.

Here's a list of what the Daily Beast calls the 20 Most Useless Degrees. It looks at how many jobs will be available to majors in English, theater, music, and so on, and what mid-level pay might be. It's not pretty. These are useless majors because the recipient of a degree in them may have few employment options.

But as we turn pragmatic (a justified decision, of course), just think about what we will lose. Schools will suffer even more -- not enough English teachers. Opportunities to hear music will shrink -- no musicians. Fewer horticulturists might mean fewer public gardens. And with fewer psychology majors, we may have fewer therapists. Just when we really need them.

Friday, April 15, 2011


It's time for spring break, one of the last non-college related trips we'll be taking for a while. I'll be back the week of April 24. But here's one more take on the year's admissions news.

OK. Now it's time for the post-mortem on the 2011 admissions process.

Yes, the news seemed dismal and all over the place. As guidance counselor Sue Boer at Columbia High School in Maplewood, NJ, said, "We are having trouble making heads or tails of admissions. It is hard to see any rationale."

But she balanced the insanity with an admissions tidbit that was fascinating. She added, "What we have discovered, however, is that schools are noting interest on the part of students. They keep a log of when the students call with questions or information and those that show the most interest are more likely to be accepted. Please note that it is the student’s calls that are logged. They really do not want to hear from the parents."

This intrigues me because it is something in the process that is within the student's control. Now, of course, this doesn't mean that emailing, calling and touring can make up for mediocre grades. What this demonstrated interest, as it is called in the college trade, does show is that the student is going beyond the usual required communications, that the student really does care about getting in.

And it's a reminder that we -- the parents -- need to stay out of the process, other than completing the FAFSA forms.

Here's another take on the top trends this year. Please enjoy.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Can a Book Change Lives?

For several years I've heard about Loren Pope's Colleges that Change Lives, especially around this time of year when kids have found out they didn't get into the prestigious/well known college they'd hoped for. It's cold comfort for kids who sought the bright lights of the Ivies and got a cold shoulder.

But it's a good time for us as parents to remember why we want our kids to go to college -- and what we really hope they get out of it. Okay. To me that means that college should be a time of learning, discussing, challenging – all in pursuit of finding something that really matters to them and that also allows them to earn a living doing it.

Yesterday I read the used copy I'd ordered from Amazon -- complete with notes and underlines from, I'd guess, a high school student. Then I looked at the Colleges that Change Lives (CTCL) site. It's an up-to-date look at the 40 colleges that comprise the CTCL list. The mission of this non-profit organization? It's "dedicated to the advancement and support of a student-centered college search process. We support the goal of each student finding a college that develops a lifelong love of learning and provides the foundation for a successful and fulfilling life beyond college."

No one can argue with that premise. I confess, though, that as I read about the colleges, they seemed to blur. They are, for the most part, somewhat obscure, small colleges that seem to exist in their own universe. But they share admirable attributes: small classes taught by professors, not TAs; a strong and committed academic community; students who come in as average on paper and then are nurtured, worked hard and are transformed.

The innate goodness of these colleges sounds almost too good to be true. That said, I wouldn't mind if our teen wanted to visit some of them. Still,
In a way, the CTCL perspective is almost radical. Putting the student first! Gosh, I'd bet a lot of colleges might be forced to shut their doors if "students first" became a mandate.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Yet Another Path to Admission -- the Long Way

"We like you, don't have room for you now, but could sure use your help when our sophomore class shrinks due to drop outs, transfers, study abroad or internships."

How's that for a quasi-acceptance letter from the college of your choice?

That's not the actual wording, of course, but it captures the meaning. Some schools are offering guaranteed admission if the student attends another college for a year or so and earns at least a pre-set grade point average.

The advantages to the schools are clear. By not accepting (immediately) students with lower grades and scores, they keep their precious high rankings intact. Then they can fill empty slots -- and keep the cash flow strong -- after freshman year when there is always a loss of students.

I didn't know such an admittance category existed. Our source at a highly selective school said the deferred admission wasn't done there, except in rare cases. But she has seen firsthand that a world of options exists. Her teen was deferred early action by one school, then offered January admission and fall waitlist. Another deferred her early action, then offered her January admission with the chance to study abroad in the fall as part of a special program.

The schools who are getting the benefit of a student for just a year or so are crying foul, suggesting students should be committed to four years -- not two semesters as a holding pattern before moving on to greener campuses. One admissions officer said it was unethical of students to do this.

Oh please. When we see the acceptance rates, hear the tales of kids who did so much right and still didn't get into schools, why is it unethical if they try to make the most of a compromise situation?

Here's what I think. If a student believes admittance at a particular school is a long shot, even with a solid record embroidered with requisite extra-curricular/community activities, but really wants to attend, it would be nice if the application had a spot to declare interest in an unorthodox admittance option.

Who knows? It could happen yet. And maybe that's a path to giving students just a little more say in the process.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Sleuth Before the Big Decision

Not to be annoying, but I have one more consideration to add as students and their families think through college options.

Are you absolutely sure of the health of the program or major you are pointing toward? Take the time for a little detective work before making your final decision.

Why? Some colleges may not be as committed to a program as you are. Penn State just announced cutbacks in its English department,home of a literature doctoral program ranked in the top 15 in the country by the National Research Council; the department is not taking any more students into its MFA in creative writing program. A subset is a nonfiction masters program ranked among the top five in the world.

You'd think Penn State would build on this strength, which, I am sure, attracts prospective English majors because of its stellar reputation. But no, that's not the case in this crazy, economics-driven world. According to a dean, the reason the cuts have been made is because the English department has a smaller enrollment of undergraduate students than other departments.

I get it, on the filthy lucre level. But for an institution to have worked so hard to build a significant, well thought of department, only to tear it down so quickly seems shortsighted, frightening and sudden.

So, before you sign, do a little digging. Make sure you check chat rooms, contact any majors in your chosen field that you may have met, and do a general search to see if the intended college has a history of cut backs in departments important to your teen.

Maybe there won't be any danger signs. Maybe the Penn State situation is an anomaly. But no harm in doing a little more homework before making this big decision.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Parents: We're to Blame in the Arms Race that Is Admissions

Every April, due to news coverage and real-life examples (your teens, their friends), you can't help but feel that the college admissions process has become an anxiety-inducing major industry, not a thoughtful matching of student and college.

But it's our own darn fault.

We can all list the parties responsible for the mess: US News & World Report for its acceptance-rate centric approach to rankings; colleges, for hyping everything from the Nobel laureates they've produced to fantastic food; prep providers; consultants; even the College Board which has never seen an expensive test it doesn't like to administer.

But, guess what? As parents we are aiding and abetting this craziness. We, the parents, who want only the best for our kids. We who say apply to as many schools as you like, who pay for endless tutoring and go on many, many campus visits.

I'm guilty as charged. I don't want to limit the number of schools applied to, and we'll provide whatever preparation seems worthwhile. Here's what is even more insidious. We may be unconsciously encouraging the wrong approach to choosing a college. Who hasn't thought that attending a so-called "good" school may make it easier to navigate career and life? And maybe some of us have even had the fleeting thought that if we're paying so much for the education, it ought to be at a school people have heard of.

Here are some short, to-the-point essays on why the process has gotten out of hand.

The essays' authors don't all blame the parents. Still, we all need to do a lttle self-evaluation. How can we lessen the pressure on our teens? How can we help them look beyond that sacred handful of colleges? How can we encourage them to think carefully about what they want out of college, and then help them work back from that point?

We need to be honest. I will start.

Hi, my name is Karen and I am a college addict.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Commencement Speeches: the Big Send Off or a Rip Off

Walter Cronkite spoke at my graduation. I don't remember a word. But that's okay because each graduation season the top speeches get circulated on the internet, so I can get my fill of clever lines that way -- without having to pay over $200,000 in tuition for the privilege.

I've always thought a high-profile commencement speaker is seen as a little gift to the parents who've footed the big bills. You know, they have bragging rights when they go home after graduation and can quote Bill Clinton or Malcolm Gladwell or even Toni Morrison.

There's an uproar in New Jersey because Rutgers is paying Ms. Morrison $30,000, the first time Rutgers has paid anyone to speak to graduates. The largest paper in New Jersey, the Star-Ledger, is appalled at Rutgers' choice, according to this editorial.

Why not have a student speak, or an impressive graduate who's willing to speak for free. Or somebody famous who so believes in the importance of education that the money isn't kept but is given to a scholarship fund.

But get this. Rutgers paid Snooki $32,000 to appear at a Q&A session about her reality show experience. At least Toni Morrison has won a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sadder But Wiser College Admissions Blogger Tells All

Today, Mom's College Cram Course marks its first anniversary. I started the blog to learn as much as possible about the college admissions process; deadlines and an audience have a wonderful way of keeping me disciplined.

Some of the topics I kept coming back to included selecting which colleges to apply to; funding the education; those personal essays; the purgatory of wait lists; and how teens should spend summers (no consensus, just keep busy).

There's no comparison to how I went about applying to college. Today it's big business -- with advisers, prep courses, essay editors, financial planners. Right or wrong, it's college admissions, American style.

And this process is not going to get better anytime soon. As a parent and a rational being, I find much that is appalling about the admissions process. That includes the ever-declining acceptance rate at some of the most selective colleges. Will the ultimate level of status be to accept none of the applicants? We seem to be headed in that direction.

It bothers me that so many kids are, right now, devastated they did not get into their first choice -- kids who were valedictorians, with perfect SAT scores, who had meaningful extracurricular activities. They played by the rules, worked hard, got their applications in on time and were among the 27,000 who did not get into Brown, or the 32,000 who got bad news from Stanford. Sure, it's an important life lesson in dealing with disappointment and moving on, but should life be so difficult for an 18-year-old?

And I worry about the debt being taken on by kids -- a decision that can negatively affect their whole lives since that is almost how long some may be paying down college loans.

But I also see more clearly that while there is little I can do as a parent to change the present system, I can begin, right now, to remind myself, and our teen, that this crazy process is not a validation of self-worth. Its outcome will only be a small part of the shaping of the adult.

Most importantly, I understand that our kids aren't powerless pawns, aren't victims of this process. They still make the final pick. It's still in their power to get the most they can out of college.

And parents, our job remains the one we've had from the start. Provide guidance, moral support, a few suggestions here and there, unconditional love -- then give them room to begin growing up. They'll manage just fine.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Beware the Sticker Price Mistake

I think about money a lot, and it's generally in three categories: how to make it, save it and spend it wisely -- and that includes college.

My parents didn't go to college. There were many reasons, I am sure, but a primary one was that their parents didn't appreciate the value of education or know how they would pay for it. Here's an updated version of that belief: we can't afford a private college; a state school is your only choice.

As John Nettleton, a certified college planning specialist at The College Financial Network, says, "Parents make the sticker price mistake."

A Mom's College Cram Course panelist/admissions officer had restrictions placed on her choices. Her parents, who hadn't attended college either, assumed they wouldn’t receive financial aid and that meant they wouldn’t be able to afford our panelist's private college choice.

As our panelist stated, "There’s no question that state colleges and universities can be excellent choices for some students; my concern is that many people assume it’s their only choice. My advice: at least apply to private universities and see what financial aid you might receive."

As parents, we shouldn't shut down the dream process prematurely. Our teens should be able to consider a wide world of possibilities.

So even if money is an issue -- and it is to nearly all of us -- don't let perceptions about costs limit the application process. What's to lose by applying?

With some planning, there just might be a wonderful surprise.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Parents -- Give the College Discussions a Rest (for a while, at least)

Sometimes even I can't stand to hear what comes out of my mouth.

I'm talking about my more than occasional nagging about all things college. To a sophomore. One who is conscientious, sensible and who will do the right thing -- in her own good time.

In the past month we've visited one area college (whew, the College Board says that is a good first-time choice); our teen has taken a self-quiz to determine what sorts of colleges might make sense (results were completely inconclusive and to her mind, she's more confused than ever); her guidance counselor knows her name already; junior year classes have been selected; and we've got the not-fun part of the summer mapped out.

Our teen will take a preview course in Algebra II and trig, to get her ready for next year's math, and a two week PSAT/SAT prep class to get her accustomed to the test and to help her gain test-taking strategies. There will also be babysitting and other paying tasks, along with, I promise, some fun.

We're in good shape, for now. And I should say nothing more, listen when our teen wants to talk about college, and then just wait for signs of a budding interest in this process.

Let's see how long I can keep my thoughts to myself.

An Update: Last week I shared a Sweet 16 handicapping based on comparing the admissions pages of the two opposing teams. Blogger Eric Hoover selected the losing team as having the best site 50 percent of the time.

Friday, March 25, 2011

It's That Time of Year...Dealing with Rejection

Spring brings heartfelt and revealing articles and columns about handling rejection when the college of choice denies or wait lists a student.

One making the rounds this year is a column by Mitch Ablom. It certainly resonated with one high school senior. A teacher who's on the Mom's College Cram Course panel told me about a student of hers: valedictorian, taking college courses already and getting As, but still deferred from Columbia. The young man said he thought this column allowed him to feel that someone really understood the plight of college applicants.

Back when I was applying to colleges, admissions wasn't an industry and as far as I remember, it wasn't particularly newsworthy. Too bad. I could have used some insights, and perspective, when I was dealing with wait list and rejection pain.

But it does seem to hold true. We all wind up at the right place -- or we learn how to make it right. And that's a life skill we'll all need, at least occasionally.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Sweet 16 Match-Up of College Web Pages

Eric Hoover, a blogger for The Chronicle of Higher Education, has indulged in what even he calls a silly exercise -- he compares the websites of the teams playing each other, so Ohio State vs. Kentucky, Kansas vs. Richmond, Butler vs. Wisconsin, etc., and declares a winner based on his assessment of the sites. It's probably as good an approach to handicapping as any other one.

He's bothered by things such as trite copy, over-used images (enough with students leaning against trees, already) and the inability of so many sites to capture adequately the student experience at Rah Rah U.

It's a fun way to kick off the basketball craziness. And I will let you know how Hoover does!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Money Conversation -- What Are You Saying to Your Teens?

In this series of posts on paying for college, I asked Mom's College Cram Course panelists if they were telling their children to factor in cost as they were thinking about colleges, or were they taking the "Apply, get in, and we'll see what we can do" approach. Here's what they had to say.

"Our pact with our kids has always been do your best in school and we will find a way to send you to your first choice school. We are not limiting choices due to cost," said Tina Squyres. "Our older daughter was given a full scholarship at one school and a decent scholarship at another...neither was a top choice. She chose a school that does not offer merit scholarships."

Another mom, Deborah Gaines, said, "I’ve told my daughter that she will get to go to the school of her dreams when she finds it/if she gets in, even if it means me taking out big loans. That said, she is aware of the financial issues, will be working this summer to save money for school (hopefully to be used for extras like a new computer or a car if she needs one), and knows she needs to be open to the fact that the school may not be one currently on her radar."

Jeanne Hogle is also giving her daughter free rein in the selection process. "Many colleges have very large endowments which reduce the final cost for families dramatically. My daughter is very smart, works hard, takes AP classes, and is studying to get the highest score she can on her SATs."

One of our admissions officer panelists made this point: "I’ve talked with many friends and colleagues over the years who attended private colleges (and whose parents attended college), and their attitude was much more the 'apply and we’ll figure it out' approach. I think it comes down to how higher education is viewed by the family. If it’s considered as essential as owning a home, families look for a way to make it work. If it’s considered a 'luxury' item (my own father’s view back in the day), it’s hard for them to justify the cost."

At our house, well, yes, there are no restrictions. And a quality education is considered an essential part of life. But that is tempered somewhat; our daughter does understand that a less expensive undergraduate school means there might be money to get started in graduate school.

Knut Lundberg, with Factius Financial Strategies, believes students "should have some skin in the game." Whether that takes the form of loans that aren't too onerous, or working during summers or the school year, it's a philosophy that many parents believe in -- including those quoted here. When it comes to paying for college (or at least some of the expenses related to the overall cost), it makes sense for all parties to be involved.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Menu of Life, College Edition

Bear with me. This is college-related.

I've never been good at spending on myself, or on discretionary activities in general. I think about the money too much. And that means when I go out to dinner (other than local, casual places), I spend a lot of time wondering what makes a small portion of cod, however tasty and prettily presented, worth $32.

I sound so provincial that I blush in embarrassment. But now I will go a step further and say something even crazier, something that belies my feminist tendencies. Sometimes I wish for the very old days, when the lady's menu had no prices on it. Then I would select my dinner based on what sounded good, and how hungry I was, or what I was curious about, rather than what it cost.

In fact, I wish colleges could be selected that way. Students would search for colleges offering the best fit, the most simpatico campus, the strongest professors in a given field, and apply to those schools, regardless of cost. The final decision about which college to attend might well be influenced by money, but it would not be the overriding factor.

And that is the way a number of the Mom's College Cram Course panelists are approaching college selection. Starting tomorrow, and then continuing now and again over the next few weeks, we'll look at specific strategies panelists have in mind; whether there is any conscious limiting of choices due to cost; and whether teens are worried about cost.

Monday, March 21, 2011

It Depends on What You Mean by Co-Ed

Two interesting and somewhat related articles popped up recently related to co-ed colleges. First, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights decided it didn't have enough solid information to make an informed decision on whether there is gender discrimination in college admissions. So it suspended its investigation of 19 colleges. Part of the reason? Some of the most selective schools refused to turn over admissions data. Also, for some reason, the commission could only subpoena data from schools within a 100 mile radius of its office in Washington, D.C. -- providing a somewhat limited look at the issue.

The investigation was prompted primarily by anecdotes springing from an accepted fact: nationally, the female to male ratio in colleges is 60/40. The concern was that colleges were starting to accept more men simply to make the ratio more balanced.

Andrew Ferguson, the "he's everywhere" author of Crazy U and senior editor at The Weekly Standard, writes about the practice here. According to him, it's all about politics and colleges wanting to make their campuses attractive to boys and girls. And that means the schools are using quotas to ensure there are enough boys each year, even if they are selected over better qualified females.

It's a complex situation, as is everything related to admissions. So, if a girl doesn't get into a school where she met or exceeded the college's requirements, blame it on quotas. And if a boy gets into a school he never really dreamed would accept him, well, he can thank his likely stars...and quotas.

Is the 60/40 campus an actual social problem? How many students scrutinize these numbers? Is it a big deal, or an invented problem?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Theater/Music Team Scores Huge Win

In the midst of March Madness, we've been consumed by a high school musical. Not that one, a real one. Our teen was in the pit band of The Drowsy Chaperone, and her positive experience and the great outcome made me remember that teams come in all shapes and styles, that a stage and a playing field have much in common. It takes talent, hard work and dedication to win a game, and to win over an audience.

Call me starstruck, a sap for musicals, a doting mom whose doting quickly extended to the entire cast and every musician, stagehand and chorus member. But the one thing you can't call me is a liar. The show was spectacular. Three friends who attended, at different performances, will back me up, including one who has seen more New York theater than most of us combined.

I won't even try to describe the incredibly accomplished singing, dancing, acting, directing and musicianship. Here's a sample, though, and if you want to buy the DVD, let me know.

But back to the March Madness mention. Our daughter doesn't play sports, but this experience gave her the opportunity to be a part of a team, to feel the camaraderie, to understand the gifts each of these kids brought to the production and to practice time management.

Go arts! Go theater! And, ok, I can't help myself: Go, Duke!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

It's All About the Teachers

There is nothing better in the world than a wondrous teacher, one who inspires, instigates, challenges; one who makes a 7:30 AP US History class worth getting up for or an honors music class another highlight of the day. Our daughter has a few good teachers this year, each different in approach but focused on making the classroom a place worth coming to, through their passion for teaching.

In high school I was blessed with some memorable teachers, including one mighty fine, young English teacher who helped me hone my writing, kept class interesting and taught us so much. There were teachers I wasn't impressed with, or just didn't like, too. But I always respected them, for the work they did and the knowledge they were -- for the most part -- imparting.

I remember even back then hearing people say that teachers had it easy -- shorter days and summers off! We all know that is nonsense. Good teachers work long hours, whether in the classroom, working with students after class, grading papers, improving their study plans. Yet in the U.S., we really don't respect teachers, do we? We tend to respect those who make lots of money. And then in New Jersey towns like ours, we really twist things, because we link our astoundingly/embarrassingly high property taxes with teachers' salaries. It just shouldn't be.

There's a new study out that looks at test results of 15-year-old students in more than 50 countries. U.S. students were outperformed -- 15th in reading, 19th in science and 27th in math. This is not good.

The report urged the U.S. to employ common academic standards, use better test to diagnose learning problems immediately and train better school leaders. The No. 1 recommendation: raise the status of the teaching profession.

Maybe by the time our children have children we'll see better outcomes -- for students, teachers, and ultimately, our country. We are falling behind fast.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Love at First Sight on Campus Tours?

We'd recently gone on a tour of our state university, and it was fine. From a parent's perspective, I saw it as an overview, a first step, with future visits more focused on academics (classroom visits, etc.) It seemed to feel like the beginning of a friendship, but not love.

Some schools are trying to grab hearts and minds from the start. UNC at Chapel Hill is now offering more personalized tours. The primary tour will place more emphasis on academic buildings. And a second tour, for certain prospects, will allow longer visits to professional schools and departments.

Chapel Hill admissions people see this approach as a way to differentiate it from other schools. It hopes to attract more top state students for visits and encourage greater numbers of academically attractive out-of-state students to apply.

We're new to the campus tour thing. I suspect tour quality is all over the lot. Or maybe, tours are great if teen and parent really want to like the school. One thing is certain: a whole lot of psychology is going on.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Practice Storytelling to Train for the Essay

So much has been written about the college essay -- avoid cliches, be authentic, be conversational, check for typos, make sure the Common Application doesn't swallow the closing sentence -- that the task may seem overwhelming. But this part of the application can sometimes be a tie-breaker. Why not make it wonderful? Even better, why not make it a great piece of storytelling?

Movie producer Peter Guber (The Kids Are All Right, Rain Man, Batman, Gorillas in the Mist) has written Tell to Win, about the power of purposeful stories. It occurs to me this is the heart of any personal essay, particularly one that must be utterly persuasive and memorable. Here's a brief interview with Guber.

Now let's all work on our own stories. Assignment due in a week.

Monday, March 14, 2011

What the Heck Is a Super Score?

I've been reading and writing about college admissions for nearly a year. I just learned about super scores -- and feel foolish that I'd never even heard the phrase until I attended a basic review of SATs and ACTs held at our local library.

But I still didn't quite understand the concept. Nancy Pullen, director of recruitment at Rutgers, set me straight. "We take the highest score achieved on each of the three sections of the SAT to then make the highest combined best set of scores." It sounds like a good deal to me. But she also said that some schools choose the best total score of all SATs or ACTs taken. You will need to check with the schools.

Okay. I should have known about this. You have my permission to laugh.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Oh No! Daylight Savings Time Lowers SAT Scores

Or something like that. Just wanted to share some bad, who-knew news. Here's an article about the effect of daylight savings on our bodies: shifting our internal clocks in the fall and spring can cause serious sleep deprivation that has an impact in ways I couldn't have begun to imagine.

And here's the kicker. According to the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology and Economics, the time change caused a 16 point drop in SAT scores among Indiana high school kids. Now, I can't read the entire article, and can't provide a link -- so I am not sure I fully understand the implications. But here's the quote from the article mentioned above.

"Until 2006, some of the state's counties observed daylight saving and others didn't; the study compared the results from both. Co-author John Gaski, an associate professor of marketing at Notre Dame, said the results aren't connected to the one-hour loss or gain of sleep because the tests weren't taken close to either time shift. Rather, he believes they reflect the long-term effects on students' circadian rhythms.

"We thought if we got 2 points or 5 points, that that would be a blockbuster — and we got 16 points," Gaski said. Based on how much research has been done on sunlight's effect on our mood, though, Gaski said it shouldn't be that surprising.

"Having clock time so much different from your natural bio-rhythms can't be good."

It's all a part of how we don't properly deal with the known fact of teens' circadian rhythms. Classes starting at 7:30 a.m. just shouldn't exist.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Pell Grants at Risk

I certainly know the term Pell Grants, but I was never sure who was a candidate for them when it comes to funding college. In summary, these federal grants are available for lower income families. The amount, no greater than $5,500 a year, is dependent about need, status as a student (full time or part time), etc. As with anything related to college finance, a FAFSA form must be submitted. The beautiful thing is, they do not have to be repaid.

Today, the largest federal student aid program is at risk. It's being looked at for cuts, along with so much else. Unfortunately, cuts here will severely affect students who look to these grants to get through college, even though Pells would cover just a portion of tuition costs. High school counselors don't know how to advise their students -- and colleges can't give incoming freshmen concrete numbers about aid.

It is only fair that all elements of the federal budget are scrutinized. But our country's future depends on an educated, innovative populace. The effects of our economic meltdown may last a generation -- or longer.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

We Scan the Globe for Admissions Information

Today, I offer a summary of a report from Mom's College Cram Course's Virginia bureau. Christine Amrhine (full disclosure: my sister-in law)and her sophomore son recently attended a college night. They heard from representatives from James Madison University, University of Virginia, the University of Mary Washington, all state schools, and Georgetown.

By the way, just remember that Virginia has an impressive number of well-known, really good state schools. These schools like out-of-state students because they subsidize in-state kids and they lend diversity, an important aspect of the college experience.

Many of the points raised by the college reps are universal, but several are worth repeating. Here are some thoughts on the college search, from the James Madison rep:

* Here's a basic one we sometimes forget -- is the student ready to go to college right after high school? Why?
* Be sure to go to college fairs. (Our school, Columbia, has one on March 16, 7-9 p.m.)
* Go online to look at freshman profiles (GPA, SATs, curricula of the admits)
* Visit colleges when students are there and spend several hours; it's even better if the student can attend a class or so. The worst time to go -- between Christmas and New Year's, at night, when the campus is deserted.

The Georgetown rep discussed the application, and offered these suggestions:

* Let the college know what do you do for fun and who you are. Let admissions see clearly what you bring to the table.
* Georgetown is more focused on SAT than ACT scores. Take the test once or twice, but never more than three times.
* Don't procrastinate on the essay. Georgetown asks applicants to write 200 words on a special talent, but foolishly, 10 to 15 percent of the applicants leave that blank.

The UVA rep discussed the essay:

* Here's an interesting tip on how to get started on the essay. Divide a sheet of paper into four quadrants. In the upper left put "teachers, coaches, counselors," lower left put "friends, peers," upper right put "parents," lower right put "self." Come up with three adjectives that each group would use to describe you. You are a composite of your experiences and the people you've interacted with. Evaluate yourself as a student and as a person.
* There is no substitute for an academic record, but the essay is where admissions can get to know you. It's an opportunity to stand out.
* Explain if you have learned a valuable life lesson through extracurriculars, music, sports, part-time job.
* Think about details. Don't use words borrowed from the thesaurus.
* Write about you, what you'll add. UVA wants to know who you are. If you're hilarious, write a funny essay. If you're serious, don't try to write a funny essay.

We'll save the financial aid discussion for another day. Happy?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

March is a Tough Month -- for Seniors and Admissions Officers

I really can't remember what I was thinking, nearly 100 years ago, while waiting to hear from colleges. Maybe I was keeping myself occupied with working on our yearbook. Or trying to imagine what college life would be like. I was pretty clueless. Though getting into college is a thousand times more complex today, at least teens seem better prepared for their quasi-independent life of academics and play.

But that doesn't make the waiting any easier. And as a parent, I feel the pain, too -- and our wait is two years away. In the spirit of equal empathy for all, try to imagine what it's like for admissions officers as they winnow thousands of applications to reach the magic acceptance number. No question: it's difficult and sometimes painful work, if done right. New Mom's College Cram Course panelist Deborah Gaines, who is mom of a sophomore and The Corporate Writer, shared this piece about Bowdoin admissions.

She said the Bowdoin description gives her hope for the process. I would agree.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

From the Trenches -- Starting Points for the College Selection Process Part 3

This will be the last in the series -- we will be looking at some concrete things that can be done (dare I say by parents)to jump start the process of figuring out what schools just might make sense.

Here's what Tina Squyres shared. "This is the one place that I stuck my oar in (with my kids’ blessing). To get them started, and since the number of schools that are available is so large, I created a spreadsheet for each daughter. I started with what they want to study (which included for my older daughter music opportunities for non-music majors). The spreadsheet includes information about male/female ratio, SATs, location, number of students, academic/social/quality of life ratings, and a column of notes from the college guides. It is sorted by location in the country (neither daughter is interested in a southern school but they are on the spreadsheet), overall size, and academic rating.

"My older daughter used the spreadsheet exclusively when deciding which schools to visit and where to apply. I’m not sure how my daughter who's a junior will use it, but she feels like it makes the process a little more manageable. Her spreadsheet has 60 schools on it. She probably won't consider smaller schools (under 3,000 students); the southern schools that made the list; and schools where the male/female ratio is skewed heavily in favor of women. That means that her working list is approximately 30 schools...a more manageable list than the several hundred schools found in the college books. It also means that I hope I did my homework really well!"

Kim Cook and Tina have taken similar paths. "Some experts may disagree with this, but frankly once you have some of those preferences, and if you know your kid pretty well, I would do a fair bit of the legwork yourself online in terms of researching schools. I work from home so I could devote an hour almost every day to scouring all of the aggregate sites – Princeton Review, Kiplinger’s, US News, Collegeboard, College Prowler, College Confidential, etc. I delved deep into potential schools websites – you can tell a whole lot about a school from their online image, and from videos, student comments, how engaged the school seems to be with its community and student body. Departmental pages for the subject areas my kids were interested in were an important component of this online research too."

She added something we all need to remember as we face travel to prospective schools. "You can waste a whole college visit trip if you haven’t thoroughly ‘explored’ the school online. We have lots of friends who literally drove up the entrance to campuses and turned around and drove back out – the first impressions were so negative for the kids they didn’t even care to get out of the car! If you’ve driven or flown a long way, that’s a big waste of time. Do a lot of virtual legwork ahead of time, then present the bookmarked pages and your first impressions to your student, let them explore the schools’ websites on their own, and build your list that way."

But, try to make the process as pleasant as possible. Linda Auld, of Suburban Learning Center described a mother/daughter road trip her friend took recently. "They took it easy visiting one college in the morning and then sightseeing, staying in nice hotels, and visiting family/friends along the way, covering five schools, big and small, from Delaware to D.C. Now they have some ideas about big/small, public/private, city/suburban. Their advice: treat yourself nicely and just don't try to do too much in one day!"

We'll change the subject tomorrow, but many thanks to our panelists who responded and shared their views.

Monday, March 7, 2011

From the Trenches -- Starting Points for the College Selection Process Part 2

Today we're looking at how families deal with building a foundation for the college search -- and how they work with their children to sort out the basics.

Our college admissions panelist gives us an honest perspective, one that I feel I lived myself many years ago. When I was looking at colleges, I didn't do much research but did have some gut (though generally uninformed) feelings about what I wanted.

She says, "I can’t help but feel that this is where we fell flat as a family. My daughter’s choices were based primarily on a few factors (in a major urban center, medium to large-sized, not in the South) and she refused to consider anything outside those parameters, although at least it gave us a starting point. I felt that she didn’t really know why she wanted those things (other than not being in the South since that’s where we live), she just did. Now that we’re a month away from final decisions, she’s still happy with those choices, though, so maybe she knows herself better than I think."

She goes on to mention two other young women she knows well. "Our niece the musician chose only schools where there were notable instructors for her particular instrument. I worry that she didn’t look more broadly at the schools themselves, but I suppose time will tell. Our friends’ daughter selected schools based on her desire to major in dance, and now she’s finding that she’s not being admitted to the dance programs, even when she’s admitted to the schools." I hadn't even thought of that admissions nightmare.

Panelist Kim Cook says, "We did a lot of visualizing with our kids in terms of how they saw an average day at college, what were classes ideally like, what should dorm life offer, are you seeing yourself using the gym, do you need a city nearby or would a small funky town be a refreshing change, do you want some nature nearby, how often do you see yourself coming home...We talked through these questions frequently, not just once, and some of the answers began to appear over and over while others evolved until finally we had a pretty decent ‘scenario’ from which to work."

Jeanne Hogle's daughter started getting her admissions moorings in sophomore year, right around this time last year. Till then, she was bouncing around in her thinking about the where and what of college but doctor or lawyer were definite interests. She started talking to an English teacher, who had been a lawyer, and to doctors about becoming one. She also took the Fiske quiz mentioned last week and seems to be pretty focused in her efforts.

Tomorrow, we'll look at some specific steps parents can take to bring some discipline to the effort -- while also taking some pressure off their teens.

If this is giving you anxiety attacks -- because you don't think the process is going well, or you are too involved, or not involved enough (as if anyone knows what the answer is to that one), treat yourself to a quick read on an area of psychological research called self-compassion. The article grabbed me on the first sentence. "Do you treat yourself as well as you treat your friends and family?"

If you answer yes, I want to know how you do it.

Friday, March 4, 2011

From the Trenches -- Starting Points for the College Selection Process Part 1

We've got to start somewhere on this college thing. I had some ideas, but when I have the Mom's College Cram Course panel of parent and professional experts, why should I go it alone?

So I asked panel members how the process began in their families. Responses were great -- from the heart and helpful. So let me begin sharing.

First, I had stumbled across this self-quiz from the Fiske Guide to Colleges -- and one panelist who happens to be an admissions officer and mom -- agreed that this is a good place to start. It helps the teen define a number of areas, from big to small, urban to suburban, serious academic setting to one that is not so intense, etc., that may help narrow the scope of possible choices.

Panelist Barbara Rosamalia suggests Naviance (if your school uses it) which allows searches based on distance from home, sports teams, music and theater, etc. She raises an interesting point -- she has found that students are pretty open-minded, but that it is the parents (consciously or not, I would imagine) who place limits or influence choices. At this point, early in the process, little should be off-limits, I imagine -- if the choices are coupled with some self-awareness.

Dr. Jacqui Detweiler puts it succinctly. She sees three major questions that a teen should ask: big vs. small, location (near, far, city, beach, and so on) and that broad but all-important "other" category -- the "it" factor that simply must be present such as pre-med, or music, or fencing.

In the next two posts, panelists will share their own family experiences.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Crazy U/Crazy Me -- Keeping Perspective During the Admissions Process

I guess at some point many of us think we have a book deep within, though not I. Andrew Ferguson decided to turn the college admissions adventure into a hardback, Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course on Getting His Kid into College. I can't vouch for the content, haven't read the book, but he does seem to pinpoint part of what makes the process so crazy: for every solid, plausible point made about admissions, there is an equally solid and plausible, 180 degree different counterpoint. Arrrrgggghhh.

It could make a mom insane, if she allows it. But none of us will go that far, if we keep our senses of humor and skepticism intact.

Here's an interview with Ferguson, courtesy Inside Higher Ed. It's worth reading -- if only for the worthwhile opportunity to hear a dad's viewpoint.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Game Plan for Life Begins Now

At the risk of sounding over-programmed, unrealistic or downright crazy, I will share some of the steps our family will be taking to get ready for college starting now, in the second half of sophomore year.

We talk about high school a lot -- grades, activities, junior year classes. We're still filling holes in the summer schedule, but there will likely be some math preview work as our teen looks ahead to Algebra II. We're also looking at an overview SAT prep class. It's a two-week summer program. My goal on this: to get her familiar with the tests in a setting more structured than her bedroom; to help her learn strategies and some basic approaches to the tests; to refine even more where she needs to focus special effort. Junior year we'll likely do more intense test prepping prior to SATs.

We've done one college tour, a school not too far away. We'll look at more campuses over the summer so that when we hit junior year, we may have better ideas of where she will want to spend more time -- whether interviewing, in classes or just strolling the campus.

I'd like to see our teen peruse one of those books of majors (will pick one up soon.) She has some ideas and directions, but seeing descriptions of what specific majors entail may be helpful as she shapes her thoughts on which colleges might make sense.

It's a lot of work. But perhaps doing the thinking now and looking ahead to some of the things she wants from life may help her keep focused on what's important. By that I mean a fulfilled and happy life. What college she goes to is really just a small part of that.

I have done a lot of muddling -- through college, and at times, professionally. Maybe our daughter will be more firm-footed.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Yet Again, Another Facebook Warning. Please Pay Attention

Kaplan, the test people, recently issued a report on a survey regarding Facebook use by college admissions staff, stating that 82 percent of the 386 participating admissions officers used Facebook as a recruiting tool. It turns out that the statistic also encompasses prospective students who sent a request to friend an admissions officer. Eighty percent of the admissions people say yes, up nine percent from a 2009 study.

So, it's not just about prowling admissions officers digging up unsavory photos or tasteless comments -- it's about students inviting them to do so. Even though most of our kids are pretty smart about this stuff, here are a few simple tips, from Facebook and other sources, about positioning a teen's Facebook persona prior to applying to colleges.

1. Clean up the photos in the Facebook gallery. If there is anything questionable or ambiguous, kill it. If teens see a photo of themselves elsewhere, untag it and try to get it deleted.
2. Use the privacy settings. Make sure what you want private is private. Or make sure what is not protected is a fair representation that you wouldn't mind your mom seeing.
3. Google yourself occasionally to make sure there are no problems.

Facebook is becoming part of our students' applications. It may not carry the weight of GPAs and test scores, but it can be a factor. So be smart about it.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Is the College Admissions Process Morally Ambiguous?

There was a headline in our local paper today about the "moral ambiguity" of characters in a particular TV series. My daughter said she disliked that phrase, thought it seemed over-used to the point that it didn't mean anything. And that was after she'd spent hours working on a history essay about Jefferson, so she clearly grasps the meaning of the phrase.

And maybe I am just in a mood, brought on by a rainy Monday. But it made me wonder: isn't the college admissions process at times morally ambiguous? We tell our kids to work hard, participate in meaningful activities, write thoughtful essays, do well on the standardized tests, and all should work out. But are we really telling the truth? The Huffington Post looked at some 2011 admissions rates and found that based on the highest ever number of applicants, the year is shaping up as a year with some of the lowest acceptance rates ever. Our kids have a dream, do what they are supposed to do, and many won't get into the colleges of their choice.

Maybe it's all the way of the world. For a laugh, look at actions taken by some students (and their parents), have done to get into their college of choice. Bribes, declaring an ethnicity that isn't, etc. There are some good tips, here, too.

Now, I understand that teens need to learn about the real world; that they are usually happy wherever they wind up; and that colleges need to keep up their standards so that appear as selective as possible. Oh well, maybe I am confusing moral ambiguity and life.

But here's an antidote to all of my kvetching. Just read about these kids, chosen as Times Scholars by The New York Times.

Friday, February 25, 2011

First Campus Visit -- A Way to Get Into the Head Game of College

My daughter, a friend of hers and I embarked on that critical first step, the one that brings college just a bit closer. We took a group tour of Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey.

It was my first tour, so there's no way I can compare -- yet. But it seemed to be a good overview: an hour with an admissions officer talking about the school and answering questions, and an hour on a bus touring the campuses that make up Rutgers -- and seeing a model dorm room. Certainly the tour left the girls interested and me better educated about Rutgers and its strong points.

Thank you, Rutgers, for giving two teens their first whiff of higher academics, and encouraging them to start focusing more on their pathway to college.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Student Newspaper -- Good Training that Goes Beyond Writing

I've just been reading the February issue of The Columbian, the student newspaper at our daughter's school. Wish I could share it with you, but it is not online. That's a shame.

It's an impressive display of student thinking, writing, art and whimsy. And it's also an incredible amount of work. The students need to plan, adhere to deadlines, work as a team (not particularly easy for adults, let alone teens), coerce and charm fellow students into getting their assignments done and try to understand school politics.

The editorial this month looked at an event that had occurred in the fall. A student-painted mural called "We the People," created by an AP U.S. History class, was removed by school officials. Nothing was said before the removal and no one had any comments after the deed was done. I have no idea why the mural disappeared and why the administration isn't talking. But I do believe the paper's editorial board handled the issue well.

The editorial began by acknowledging the high degree of freedom the paper has in reporting on news. Then the editorial outlined all that the editors tried to do to learn about what happened to "We the People."

Although they could draw no conclusions because the editors still had no facts, the editorial still managed to raise the issue and teach a lesson on the value of freedom of speech.

Nice work. And congratulations on a fine school newspaper.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Moms and Their Teens - Letting Go

There's a new novel by Karen Russell, Swamplandia, which is getting fine reviews.\

Swamplandia! is set in a down-at-the-heels tourist attraction in Florida that spotlights alligator wrestling. It's about the wonderful and bizarre family that runs it, and a big old bear named Judy Garland. Haven't read the book (yet?), but the reviewer said that a line at the end of the book sums up the book's focus: “mothers burning inside the risen suns of their children.”

Not sure I fully understand the meaning without reading the book, but let me give it a shot. The line could apply to any mother, from Mama Rose in Gypsy to ordinary moms. We're the ones who don't want to relive/redeem our own lives through our children, but who just plain hope we've given them all that they need to succeed, be happy. And, I'd also suggest, we also hope that we can pinpoint some parts of ourselves in that success.

Here's a related article by Harold S. Koplewicz, MD, president of the Child Mind Institute, on letting go of your child, when the time comes. He looks at it from the transitional point of the high school senior/college freshman.

From this parent's perspective, the first 18 years of our children's lives amount to a crazy, meshed process of being protective and supportive and always there while at the same time letting go, bit by bit. If we wait till they are off to college, I am not sure either mom or child is then fully prepared (or able to cope) with the next phase.

As Dr. Koplewicz says, college is just another transition point. Our children will still need us, for which I am mightily glad.

Thanks, Andrea, for sharing this site with me.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Can It Be? FAFSA a Detriment in Admissions?

It's come to this: need blind is dead. Some colleges today are more likely to accept students who can afford the college. I don't think we're at the money-trumps-qualifications stage yet, but it seems to me it's a slippery slope.

Here's a news report that looks at the latest admissions angst.

Williams has begun admitting more international students able to pay the full cost of tuition, and this year it will once again include loans as part of financial aid packages. The article also says Middlebury and Wake Forest have begun to look at the financial aid status of wait-listed students when they consider admission. Tufts University, which used to admit all students on a "need-blind" basis (students were admitted regardless of ability to pay in 2007 and 2008), is once again "need-aware" for some applicants, which means it looks at the applicant's financial status. some noted schools that still have need-blind admissions are raising costs for higher-income families.

From the article: "Mark Kantrowitz, founder of, a financial-aid Web site, estimates that about 5% of the application pool may increase their chances of being admitted by not applying for aid—with international and wait-listed students seeing the greatest benefit. If the school does practice need-blind admissions, he says, ask if that policy also applies to international or wait-listed students."

It's possible we may be facing a new era of admissions. The view isn't pretty.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Sewanee Cutting Tuition -- Cue the Applause

Sewanee: The University of the South is cutting tuition 10 percent. Schools just don't take this step -- and those that have are generally small, unknown.

Sewanee, located the highlands of Tennessee, is noted for its English Department in part due to a bequest from playwright Tennessee Williams. The college is not exactly altruistic in making this move. It believes that doing so will allow it to compete more effectively against state colleges such as UVA and UNC, two colleges to which it loses students it has accepted, and against private colleges such as Vanderbilt and Washington & Lee which are, of course, increasing tuition.

Last September I suggested we start the Tuition Coalition, a means of banding together to decry the high costs. Right now it's still a group of one, but as sole officer of the coalition, I hereby bestow our highest honor on Sewanee. Here's to doing the right thing, whatever the reason!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Colleges, Think About Your Messages

Ever since our daughter took the PSATs as a sophomore, she has been swamped with emails and letters from colleges. She is astounded by the silliness of the correspondence.

As she says, they all say the same thing, in slightly different format: 7 "Must-Know Campus Visit Tips," "Four Things You Need to Know about College," take the "Your Personality...Your Major" online quiz, another quiz called "Major Decision Time," "5 Expert Tips about Scholarships and Financial Aid." And so on, and so on.

Hey guys, sophisticate up. These are hokey, silly and a waste of money -- at least that's how the teen in this household perceives it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Is There Any Time for Good, Old-Fashioned Recreational Reading?

Amidst all of the homework, the prepping, sports, clubs, socializing in person or online, getting a little sleep, is there any reading of unassigned books going on?

First, my personal confession. Though I read print newspapers and periodicals, my weak showing in book reading is a personal embarrassment. How can I urge our teen to read books of her choosing (but not necessarily ones she had read before) when I am not doing it myself.

There is an interesting trend -- an uptick in reading among young people who use e-readers.

If it takes an electronic delivery system to get teens to read, well, I am all for whatever works to broaden their reading menu, give them something new to consider, or allow them to provide an interesting response when asked by an admissions officer what they've been reading.

My husband reads lots of real books. He sets a good example. I do not. So I am going to start reading again. And to hold my feet to the fire, I will report once a week (or so) on what I've read. Who knows, there may still be a book club in my future.