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?