Should you discuss mental health issues in your college essay?

Should you discuss mental health issues in your college essay?

Image ©Nickshot, Adobe Stock

 

As regular readers of my blog may know, I periodically trawl the forums over at College Confidential to see what’s trending. Recently, I’ve noticed a concerning uptick in the number of students asking whether it’s appropriate for them to write about mental health issues, most frequently ADD and/or anxiety, in their college applications.

So the short answer: don’t do it.

The slightly longer version:

If you’re concerned about a drop in grades or an inconsistent transcript, talk to your guidance counselor. If these types of issues are addressed, the GC’s letter is the most appropriate place for them. If, for any reason, the GC is unable/unwilling to discuss them and the issues had a significant impact on your performance in school that unequivocally requires explanation, you can put a brief, matter of fact note in the “is there any additional information you’d like us to know?” section, but think very carefully about how you present it. Do not write your main essay about the issue.

The full version:

To understand why these topics should generally be avoided, you need to understand what information colleges are actually seeking to gain from the personal statement. Although it is technically a personal narrative, it is, in a sense, also a persuasive essay: its purpose is to convey what sets you apart from the thousands of others with equally good grades and scores, and to suggest whether you have qualities that make you more likely to thrive at university x than the other 10 or 15 or even 20 applicants clamoring for that spot.

Now, whether such thing can actually be determined from 650 words (with which some students receive significant help) is of course questionable; however, the bottom line is that, adcoms are looking for students who will be successful in college. Discussing one’s inability to focus or intense aversion to social situations does not exactly inspire confidence, even if a student insists those problems have been overcome. Leaving home, dealing with professors and roommates and more challenging classes… Those are all major stressors. There is a tacit understanding that of course some students will flame out, have breakdowns, etc., but adcoms are understandably hesitant to admit anyone who is already at a higher risk for those issues. You want them to be excited about the prospect of admitting you, not debate whether you’ll really be able to handle college. (In fact, I had multiple students with various issues who were not truly ready for college and who did flame out—colleges have good reason to take these things seriously.) This concern goes beyond any particular student’s well-being: graduation rates get factored into rankings, and every student who doesn’t make it through drags that statistic just a little bit lower.

Besides, if your grades are iffy, it is extremely difficult not to sound as if you are making excuses. You are much better off talking about an experience or interest that will make them look past the transcript and think, “Hey, I really like this kid.” And the reality is that if your grades are that iffy, you’re probably not a competitive candidate at super-selective colleges anyway. Selective colleges are looking for applicants who are on the way to fulfilling their potential, not for ones who need to explain away chronic underachievement.

In addition, one thing applicants—and sometimes their parents—have difficulty wrapping their heads around is the sheer number of applications the average admissions officer has encountered. Situations that may seem extreme and dramatic to adolescents who have recently confronted them may in fact have already been experienced—and written about—by thousands of other applicants. A 17-year old may believe that describing their anxiety in morbid detail will make them seem complex and introspective, but more likely it will only come off as overwrought and trite.

I know that might sound harsh, but please remember that admissions officers are coming at this process with no pre-existing knowledge of you as a person, only a few minutes to spend on your essay, and hundreds of other applications to get through. They are also under intense pressure to ensure that the appropriate demographics targets are being met and all the various institutional constituencies (coaches, development office, orchestra conductor) are being satisfied. They’re not ogres, and they’ll try to give you the benefit of the doubt, but if yours is the fifth essay about overcoming anxiety they’ve seen in the last 48 hours, they will look at it and reflexively think, “oh, another one of these.” That is not a first impression you want to make.

Now, are there exceptions? Yes, of course, but they are rare. In all the time I did college admissions work, I had exactly one student successfully mention anxiety in an essay. It was, however, introduced in the context of a family tragedy that had profoundly shaped the student’s life; given that background, the discussion seemed natural and matter of fact rather than overdramatized. Even so, I made the student take a good week to think about whether that topic was truly the one they wanted to write about.

But this was one, truly unusual case that proved the rule. For pretty much anyone else, my advice is to work on finding a topic that you enjoy writing about (and that others are likely to enjoy reading about); that presents you in your best light; and that demonstrates your readiness to thrive in college. That doesn’t mean you need to be relentlessly positive; just don’t go out of your way to fly red flags where none are warranted.

 

 

 

The ACT is not a “curriculum-based” test (and colleges aren’t biased against it)

The ACT is not a “curriculum-based” test (and colleges aren’t biased against it)

Image © Antonioguillem, Adobe Stock

 

The notion that the ACT is a curriculum-based test is one of those hoary old ideas that, like so-called “obscure words” or the “guessing penalty” on the old SAT, has apparently now achieved zombie status. In fact, I confess I thought it had more or less disappeared into the ether until I encountered it on Instagram (yes, Instagram!) of all places. And by a test-prep company no less. That made me realize it wasn’t nearly as gone as I thought. Hence this post.

The confusion stems in large part from the fact that way back, the ACT was originally designed to be aligned with a generic high school curriculum—“originally” meaning “in the 1950s.” At that point, the exam did actually test some pieces of specific factual knowledge. In the late 1980s, however, the original Social Studies and Science tests were replaced with the current Reading and Scientific Reasoning tests and, presumably recognizing that students’ exposure to specific topics varied dramatically as well as wanting to compete with the SAT, the ACT moved towards testing more general reasoning abilities.

By that point, however, the ACT had already been around for three decades and was firmly established in people’s minds as a “curriculum-based test,” just as the SAT continued to be viewed as an “aptitude” test long after the College Board ceased to make any such claims. (Indeed, I’ve recently come across college-counseling handbooks put out by highly-ranked public schools in which the SAT is referred to as the “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” even though that moniker was officially dropped more than two decades ago. Old habits die hard.)

So while the ACT does still have a more generally straightforward style than the SAT, that should not be confused with the actual content of the test. Asking questions in a direct way is not the same as testing specific factual knowledge.

As is true for the SAT, all of the content on the ACT is tested in terms of application. For example, in the English section, students must be able to recognize things like dangling modifiers and non-essential clauses, but they do not need to know the definitions of these terms per se. Likewise, the Prose-fiction passage on the Reading test does not require any knowledge of literature, nor does the Science-themed passage require any particular knowledge of the various branches of science.

Even the Science test does not cover specific concepts from biology, chemistry, etc., although some familiarity with scientific terminology is certainly helpful. Rather, it is essentially a data analysis section that focuses on test-takers’ ability to interpret graphs and charts. But granted, the fact that that portion of the test is labeled “SCIENCE TEST”— not “Scientific Reasoning” or “Data Analysis” — is reasonable grounds for confusion. (Actually, now that I think about it, calling a test one thing and then not really testing it is frankly a little, well, weird and unnecessarily misleading.)

What I really find concerning, though, is that any company or individual responsible for preparing students for the ACT, or for helping them apply to college, could still make these types of claims about the test. After all, one only need place an ACT English section side-by-side with a redesigned SAT Writing section to see that they are nearly identical. It really makes me wonder how many students are receiving faulty information about the exams, and from people who should really know better.

Oh, and while we’re at it, another ACT myth, namely that selective (east-coast) colleges prefer the SAT. Particularly for parents who applied to college in the 1980s, when there still was an SAT bias, this is a hard to one to shake. But please believe when I say that all — and I do mean all — colleges now treat the SAT and the ACT completely equally. Okay? Every Ivy, Stanford, MIT, Caltech… There is no preference whatsoever.

I’m insisting on this because I suspect when some of these parents hear about the persistent problems plaguing the College Board, they may hesitate to encourage their children to switch to the ACT because they believe that doing so will place them at a disadvantage, but this is simply not true. Students should take the test they are most likely to do well on, with the least amount of stress.

Not everything in the college process can be controlled, but some things can be, and fortunately this is one of them.

Tutor interview: Valerie Erde of Veridian Prep

Tutor interview: Valerie Erde of Veridian Prep

I’m happy to introduce a new series for this blog: each month, I’ll be posting a short interview with a different tutor. While I no longer tutor myself, I still get asked for recommendations of tutors who use Critical Reader books/methods, and so I’ve decided to introduce readers to these people directly. The first installment, below, is with reading and writing specialist Valerie Erde. Valerie student-taught with me for several months, and her students have consistently achieved outstanding results on both the SAT and the ACT. She recently founded her own company, Veridian Prep

 

Tell us about Veridian Prep

VeridianPrep is a Greenwich, CT and NYC-based test prep, tutoring, and college advisory company that prides itself on a small, but highly experienced, team of subject experts that provides personalized, evidence-based, and structured instruction and guidance to get measurable results for our students and families. We believe that excellent diagnostics, high-quality instruction and materials, and individualized attention have been the keys to our students’ successes.

(more…)

How soon is too soon to be done with standardized testing?

How soon is too soon to be done with standardized testing?

Summer SAT prep has become a rite of passage of sorts for rising juniors, but once school starts again, the timeline can get a little fuzzy. What if that first set of scores, from a test in September or October, seems pretty solid? Is it ok to walk away, or is a retake called for, and if so, when?

Much of the time, I suspect, students’ instinct is to think, I spent all that time prepping over the summer… I have lots of stuff to do now, and I don’t want to have to think about this anymore — can’t I just stop? I want to address this because I think it’s a common question, and the answer isn’t necessarily what people want to hear. Obviously, the desire to get the standardized testing process over with as quickly as possible is understandable; however, prepping early does not and in many cases should not automatically translate into being done early. (more…)

Update on the August SAT scandal

Update on the August SAT scandal

The last couple of weeks have seen some new developments in the most recent SAT scandal. Initial reports stated that some questions from the August 2018 test administered in the U.S. had been leaked in Asia before the exam. Mercedes Schneider did a little bit of digging, however, and discovered that wasn’t exactly the case. In reality, the problem goes a lot deeper—and in this case, the problem doesn’t lie with Asian testing centers or students: (more…)

When do two commas NOT signal a non-essential clause?

When do two commas NOT signal a non-essential clause?

Note: I’m addressing this issue in part because a colleague informed me that it’s popped up in regards to my books on Reddit. If anyone comes across those questions, feel free to direct people here.

Among the simplest and most straightforward grammatical rules students studying for the SAT or ACT often learn is two commas are often used to signal non-essential information: words, phrases, and clauses that are not central to the essential meaning of a sentence, and that can be crossed out without affecting its basic grammatical structure.

The problem, of course, is that commas can be tested in many ways, and that two commas can be present in a given section for numerous reasons. Now, much of the time, two commas in an underlined section will in fact signal non-essential information, but if you’re aiming for a very high Writing/English score on the SAT or ACT, you also need to understand when this is not the case. (To read about information that is non-essential click here.) (more…)

What went wrong with June SAT scores?

What went wrong with June SAT scores?

When scores for the June SAT were released last month, many students found themselves in for a rude surprise. Although their raw scores were higher than on their previous exam(s), their scaled scores were lower, in some cases very significantly so.

An article in The Washington Post recounted the story of Campbell Taylor, who in March scored a 1470—20 points shy of the score he needed to qualify for a scholarship at his top-choice school:

[T]he 17-year-old resolved to take the test again in June and spent the intervening months buried in SAT preparation books and working with tutors. Taylor awoke at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday and checked his latest score online. The results were disappointing: He received a 1400.

He missed one more question overall in June than in March but his score, he said, dropped precipitously. And in the math portion of the exam, he actually missed fewer questions but scored lower: Taylor said he got a 770 in March after missing five math questions but received a 720 in June after missing just three math questions. (more…)

How to choose a college: a short guide

How to choose a college: a short guide

If you’re a high school junior or senior, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve been inundated by emails, postcards, and perhaps even free “express” applications practically begging you to apply. Some of these schools you’ve heard of, and other you, well…haven’t. At any rate, the sheer volume of mail is pretty intense, if not downright overwhelming. And then there are the schools your guidance counselor recommended, and the ones you found in your Fiske guide, or maybe your copy of Colleges That Change Lives. How on earth do you sort through all the possibilities and winnow them down into a manageable list? (more…)

Native Society interview with Erica Meltzer

Native Society interview with Erica Meltzer

The Native Society, an online platform for innovation and entrepreneurship, recently interviewed me about my experience founding The Critical Reader as part of its NativeAdvice series.

From the interview:

How did you get into the industry?

In 2008, I was tutoring a student for the Writing section of the SAT. I didn’t want her to use up all the questions in the Official Guide, and so I went to the bookstore looking for additional practice material. I looked through the standard offerings and was pretty shocked at how poorly they reflected the actual test. I’d already written practice questions for a bunch of independent companies, but until then, it had never occurred to me that I could write my own materials. But as I looked through the guides on the shelves, I thought, “I can do so much better than this.” (more…)

Should you switch from the SAT to the ACT (or vice versa)? Five ways to help you decide

Should you switch from the SAT to the ACT (or vice versa)? Five ways to help you decide

image by Brendan Church

 

By the summer before senior year, many students find themselves in the following situation: they’ve been prepping for the SAT or ACT for months and have already taken it two or three times. But despite all the work they’ve put in, they just can’t seem to reach their goals. Perhaps their scores are just a bit too low across the board, or perhaps one section remains stubbornly resistant to improving.

It’s not surprising that many students who find themselves in this situation start to wonder whether they should switch from the SAT to the ACT or, somewhat less commonly, from the ACT to the SAT.

I worked with a few students who did ultimately switch tests, and I saw it go both ways. (more…)

Colleges charging $70,000 tuition drop SAT essay, cite $64.50 cost as barrier to equity

Colleges charging $70,000 tuition drop SAT essay, cite $64.50 cost as barrier to equity

Inevitably, Princeton, Brown, and now the University of Michigan have followed Harvard’s lead and announced that beginning with the class of 2023, they will no longer require applicants to submit the SAT or ACT with essay.

On one hand, the decision is understandable. As I’ve written about, the SAT essay is, to put it bluntly, a terrible assignment that bears virtually no relationship to the type of writing done in college. On the other hand, it serves to reveal whether a student is capable of cobbling together reasonably coherent, grammatical prose, which is unfortunately not something that can be taken for granted. Even if an essay score provides very limited information, the actual essay can provide important insight into an applicant’s writing skills. It also provides a check on the personal statement, allowing adcoms to view writing that is indisputably not padded by a parent or tutor. (more…)

When practice scores and official scores don’t match

When practice scores and official scores don’t match

Every now and then, I’ll get a plaintive email from a student who has been diligently prepping for the SAT or ACT for months but can’t quite seem to get their test-day scores to match their practice test scores. Often, they’ve worked through my books and don’t seem to have any problem applying the concepts when they take practice exams. When it comes to the real thing, though, they just can’t seem to make everything work.

This is obviously a very frustrating situation: the fact that these students are able to score well when the test doesn’t count suggests that they’re capable of scoring well when it does count – but in some ways, that just makes things worse. The goal seems so close, yet so far away. (more…)

Squaring the circle: holistic admissions and the problem of “merit”

Squaring the circle: holistic admissions and the problem of “merit”

(image from Wiki Commons)

 

For those of you who haven’t been following the case, a group called Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard for discrimination against Asian-American applicants. The suit follows a similar claim brought against Princeton.

As the New York Times reports:

Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than others on traits like “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected,” according to an analysis of more than 160,000 student records filed Friday by a group representing Asian-American students in a lawsuit against the university.

Asian-Americans scored higher than applicants of any other racial or ethnic group on admissions measures like test scores, grades and extracurricular activities, according to the analysis commissioned by a group that opposes all race-based admissions criteria. But the students’ personal ratings significantly dragged down their chances of being admitted, the analysis found. (more…)

The death of the lecture and the decline of reading scores

The death of the lecture and the decline of reading scores

When it comes to talking about improving students’ reading, one of the factors that makes having a coherent conversation so challenging is that the word “reading” itself has two meanings: it can refer to decoding—that is, the literal process of matching squiggles on a page to their corresponding sounds in the English language—or it can refer to the much more sophisticated process of comprehension, which is also dependent on things like vocabulary, ability to navigate various types of syntax, and background knowledge. Although the same word is used to describe both of these abilities, the first meaning does not necessarily imply the second.

And as if that weren’t already complicated enough, there’s yet another factor that is often overlooked: listening. (more…)

Eliminating standardized testing won’t make college admissions fair

Eliminating standardized testing won’t make college admissions fair

The University of Chicago’s recent decision to go test-optional got me thinking: what if Bob Shaeffer over at FairTest got his wish, and the SAT and ACT were not merely made optional but flat out abolished? Let’s assume – as seems reasonable – that the rest of the system would remain unchanged.

So picture it: a world in which every one of an elite college’s 50,000+ applicants (or more) would be judged entirely on his or her specific merits, as a totally unique and authentic individual, and given full and complete consideration unmarred by input from the ACT or the College Board.

Wouldn’t that the result be a better system, a fairer system, a system that no longer punished disadvantaged students who couldn’t afford expensive test prep classes?

Probably not. (more…)

Some thoughts on the University of Chicago’s new test-optional policy

Some thoughts on the University of Chicago’s new test-optional policy

(photo by Bryce Lanham, Wikimedia Commons)

 

The University of Chicago has become the first of the truly elite schools to adopt a test-optional policy, which will take effect for the class of 2023.

From UChicago’s website:

The University of Chicago on June 14 launched the UChicago Empower Initiative, a test-optional admissions process to enhance the accessibility of its undergraduate College for first-generation and low-income students.

A strategic initiative to address key barriers encountered by underserved and underrepresented students, the UChicago Empower Initiative has three areas of focus: the use of technology for greater flexibility in the admissions process, including making submissions of standardized test scores optional; increased financial support, on-campus programming and online resources for first-generation, rural and underrepresented students, with full tuition aid for students whose families earn less than $125,000; and new scholarships and access programs to recognize those who serve our country and local communities. Each aims to empower historically underrepresented communities in the highly selective admissions process by increasing equity and access. (https://news.uchicago.edu/story/uchicago-launches-test-optional-admissions-process-expanded-financial-aid-scholarships)

Chicago’s justification for going test-optional is similar to that of other test-optional schools, but I do think that something a little more interesting is going on here – rhetorically at least. (more…)

More about SAT® vocabulary and zombies

More about SAT® vocabulary and zombies

Recently, a colleague who is foreign-language classroom teacher told me the following story: since she started teaching around a decade ago, she’s always made sure to introduce her beginning-level classes to the concept of cognates – words that are very similar in English and the Romance language she teaches, and that are derived from a common root.

Every previous year, her students had been perfectly receptive to the concept, but this year they would have none of it: they mocked the term cognate as an obscure “SAT word” and insisted that they shouldn’t be forced to learn it.

My colleague then asked her students how they expected to be able to read high-level material in high school and college without a strong vocabulary.

Nothing. Blank stares. (more…)

Read until you get to the period (how to avoid a common careless error)

Read until you get to the period (how to avoid a common careless error)

Not to long ago (5/30/18), I happened to post the following Question of the Day on Facebook:

 

It wasn’t that long ago that putting food in liquid nitrogen was something you’d only see in a high school science class, but it’s also becoming a mainstay of modernist cooking. It’s odorless, tasteless, and harmless because it’s so cold (–320.44°F to be exact), it boils at room temperature and evaporates out of your food as it rapidly chills it.

 

A. NO CHANGE
B. tasteless, and harmless, and because
C. tasteless and harmless, because
D. tasteless, harmless and because,

(more…)