Why the financial aid conversation should happen early

Why the financial aid conversation should happen early

If you’re just beginning the college search and application process, the number of things to consider can seem overwhelming: Big school or small? Research university or liberal arts college? Urban or rural? Close to home or far away? As costs have skyrocketed over the past few years, however, college admissions have increasingly come to revolve around one major question: is it affordable? (more…)

How to write those pesky “why this college” essays

Ah, Christmas break… A whole week to sleep late, hang out with your friends, and stuff yourself with leftovers. Unless, of course, you’re a senior trying desperately to finish your college applications. Even if your main essay is done, you might still have a bunch of supplements waiting to be done. And if that’s the case, then chances are some of those supplements include the perennial “why this college?” question.

In some cases, you may not be able to answer entirely truthfully (I needed another safety school, my parents are making me apply), but even assuming that you actually want to attend most of the schools you’re applying to, this question can be hard to get started on.

If that describes your situation, this post is for you.

The first thing to understand is that “why do you want to attend x university?” is not a trick question. Admissions officers are not looking to be flattered, or to be told how prestigious their institution is. They genuinely want to see what appeals to you about the school, and whether your interests and needs are aligned with what it has to offer.

They also want to know whether you’ve visited, explored the website, read the course catalogue, etc. (Don’t worry if you live too far to visit, or couldn’t afford to – as long as you’ve shown sufficient interest, it won’t matter.) Just how seriously are you taking your application to their school?

This is not just about judging applicants, by the way; it’s also about managing yield. As soon as colleges send out their acceptance letters, the balance of power shifts, and colleges must anxiously try to woo students away from their competitors. The percentage of admitted students, known as the yield rate, affects their rankings. So it’s in their interest to try to identify the students most likely to attend. A student who seems knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a school will therefore have an edge over comparable applicants with lukewarm or general statements. Your goal, in part, is to persuade the admissions committee that there is a real chance you will attend school x if admitted.

But if you’re not sure how to go about actually generating an essay, here’s a roadmap.

The key to writing a successful “why this school essay” is to be as specific as possible.

In general, you want to avoid clichés such as “rigorous courses” or “renowned faculty” or “stunning campus.” Pretty much every school has the first two, and when a school has third, they’re used to applicants mentioning it – a lot. Instead, focus on explaining how the school is a good match for you in particular, and vice-versa.

A good way to check whether you’ve accomplished this is to plug in another school’s name and see whether the essay still fits. If it does, chances are you’ve written something way too generic.

That isn’t to say you can’t come up with a general template that you adjust for each school, but the essays should not be interchangeable.

So start by thinking about the subjects you’re most likely to major in or, if you’re not sure, think about which classes you enjoyed most in high school. Was there a topic or unit you particularly enjoyed (e.g. genetics in Biology, the Civil War in History)?

Was there a paper or a project you were particularly proud of? Is there any field you’ve had a little bit of exposure to but couldn’t study at the high school level (e.g. archaeology, sociology)?

Do any of your academic interests carry over into your extracurriculars (e.g. computer science and robotics club)?

Go on the website of each school, find the relevant departments (the main page will usually contain a link to “academics” or “departments and programs”), and look through the undergraduate classes.

Are there any courses that sticks out as interesting or unusual? Anything that makes you think, “Wow, that sounds really interesting?” Make a note of those classes, and write a few sentences explaining why they’re so appealing to you.

Are you interested in doing an internship, working in a lab, or studying abroad? See what the options are for those things.

If you’re applying to school in a city, look into what sorts of opportunities there are for local businesses. Don’t just say you want to be in an exciting/dynamic/diverse urban environment that will expose you to different kinds of people. Talk about what companies might like to intern with, and how the school in question can help you gain practical experience in a field.

Remember that at some schools, research can be difficult for undergraduates to get involved in; the best opportunities tend to be reserved for graduate students. If a school makes it easy for undergraduates, especially freshman, to conduct research from the start, that’s something to talk about.

What about the structure of the curriculum? Are there distribution requirements, or is there an open curriculum? Maybe you like the fact that a university cares about ensuring that its students gain competence in specific areas, or maybe you’re the sort of intensely focused, self-directed studier who would excel in a more open system.

Next, look at housing and extracurricular activities.

Is there anything unique or unusually appealing about the housing system? (One former student of mine wrote, for example, about a school’s system of pairing freshman roommates that he thought was “brilliant.”) Is there a residential college system? Special-interest housing?

Look at clubs. What activities have you enjoyed the most in high school and want to continue participating in during college? Or maybe you’d be the most enthusiastic member of the school’s quidditch team.

Finally, choose one memorable/interesting/quirky (but not too weird) thing that sticks out about the school for you. It can be very small – maybe you were just impressed by how open and welcoming all the students you met on your visit were – but it should be unique to that school.

If focus on these things, you should have no problem churning out 250-300 words pretty quickly.  

The new administration, Common Core, and the new SAT

Reuters’ Renée Dudley has come out with yet another exposé about the continuing mess at the College Board. (Hint: Coleman’s “beautiful vision” isn’t turning out to be all that attractive.)

This time around: what will happen to the new supposedly Common Core-aligned SAT if Common Core disappears under the incoming, purportedly anti-Core presidential administration? 

As Dudley writes:

The Core’s English Language Arts standards call on students to grapple with important readings, including hallowed U.S. documents such as the Declaration of Independence and works of American literature. Coleman’s redesigned SAT embraced the same concept. The Core’s reading standards “focus on students’ ability to read carefully and grasp information … based on evidence in the text” – a pillar of the new SAT. And the Core’s math standards call for “greater focus on fewer topics” – another principle echoed in Coleman’s new SAT.

Former College Board vice president [Hal] Higginbotham was among the first to raise concerns about hitching the SAT’s future to the Common Core. 

In his February 2013 response to Coleman’s “beautiful vision,” Higginbotham noted that some states wouldn’t begin implementing the learning standards until the 2014-2015 school year, the same time period in which Coleman wanted to launch the redesigned SAT. It would take years for teachers and students to get fully up to speed on the new curriculum, he and others argued.

“That circumstance leads me to wonder whether all students will have arrived at the starting line at the same time and whether the playing field for them will be level,” Higginbotham wrote in his memo to Coleman. Some students might be “more comfortable and competent than others in what will be presented” on a test aligned with the Common Core, he wrote.

As a consequence, a Common Core-based SAT “will inadvertently favor students from those geographies that have made the most progress” with the standards, Higginbotham wrote. Such a situation “raises fundamental questions of fairness and equity.”

and later: 

It’s unclear how Trump’s election – and his choice of a Common Core opponent for secretary of education – might affect the SAT and the College Board. Coleman hasn’t spoken publicly about the president-elect’s views.

I’ve followed Dudley’s series of articles on the Common Core with great interest, and for the most part, I think she’s done a very valuable service in terms of revealing some of the more serious problems plaguing the new exam — problems that include the recycling of recent exams so that students received the same exam they had already taken, the leaking of test forms before the exam, and the inclusion of items that did not meet the specifications set out by the College Board. 

In this case, however, Dudley’s reporting inadvertently (I assume) encourages some fundamental misunderstandings about Common Core, what it actually involves in terms of curriculum, and how it relates to the redesigned SAT. 

A few key points here.

First, in regards to the idea that Common Core could be uniformly rescinded: the federal government’s role in CCSS is limited, at least in terms of imposing the standards. CC was adopted by individual states, and individual states will decide whether to retain or abandon the Standards (or pretend to abandon them while renaming them State Standards).

To be fair, Dudley does mention that CCSS was adopted on a state-by-state basis; her concern is that anti-Core sentiment at the top may translate into more states dropping the Standards. 

That, however, brings me to my second point. As Diane Ravitch points out, the DOE may be effectively outsourced to Jeb Bush and Co., major proponents of Common Core. Coleman even released an announcement *praising* Betsy DeVos’s appointment as Secretary of Education.

Despite nominal political divisions, all of these people are effectively on the same side, at least where charters, school “reform” (privatization), school choice, etc. are involved. There may be degrees of disagreement over, say, the value of vouchers or the accreditation of for-profit vs. non-profit charters, but they are basically ideologically aligned. 

As Steven Singer has written about (link also courtesy of Ravitch), Devos, who has claimed to be opposed to the Core:  

[Is] a board member of Jeb Bush’s pro-Common Core think tank, Foundation for Excellence in Education, where she hangs out with prominent Democratic education reformers like Bill Gates and Eli Broad…

She founded, funds and serves on the board of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), an organization dedicated to the implementation and maintenance of Common Core…

She’s even spent millions lobbying politicians in her home state of Michigan asking them NOT to repeal Common Core…

Next time, Dudley might want to take a piece of edu-speak to heart and “dig deep” before taking anyone in the president-elect’s circle literally. 

Third, the notion that schools can somehow teach a Common Core “curriculum,” and that students who have not used that curriculum (at least on the verbal side) will be at a significant disadvantage, reveals the extent to which popular understanding and coverage of the Core are muddled.

To reiterate: the redesigned SAT does not test any specific body of knowledge related to English, nor does the Core require significant concrete knowledge beyond vague formal skills (comparing and contrasting, identifying main ideas, etc.) whose mastery largely depends on students’ knowledge about the subject at hand.

In the eleventh grade standards, for instance, U.S. Historical Documents are provided as examples — Madison’s Federalist 10 is cited as a source for analyz[ing] how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text, but the text itself is not actually required reading. 

While a handful of documents are mentioned by name (The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address), the primary directive is to analyze “seminal texts” and seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance. (https://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/RI/11-12/)

As for the new SAT, the majority of the Reading questions on that exam are effectively designed to test whether students understand that texts say what they say because they say it — in other words, comprehension. 

The questions are phrased in a byzantine manner, to be sure, but that is primarily to give the illusion that they are testing skills more sophisticated than the ones they are actually testing (and far less sophisticated than those tested on the old SAT). 

The combination of vague standards and quasi-random selection of historical passages for the exam means that the best-prepared students are those who have prior knowledge of the passages in question.

But because the College Board does not publish a comprehensive list of documents, movements, individuals, etc. with which students should be familiar (that would cross the line from “standards” to “content”), preparation for that portion of the exam largely depends on what students happen have covered in history class — which in turn depends on individual schools, even individual teachers. And that is a matter of chance, on many levels. 

Leveling the playing field? Hardly. 

That’s the fundamental problem with the coy, standards-aren’t-curriculum-but-they-sort-of-are game the College Board is trying to play. Students’ ability to employ skills such as analyzing language, identifying main ideas, or evaluating sources, is always to some extent dependent on their knowledge. The unspoken assumption of the Core seems to be that students will of course be learning formal skills in context of a well-structured, coherent curriculum, but that’s often not at all how things work in practice. 

If it is never made clear what specific content students must master, and teachers are trained to focus primarily on formal skills, students probably won’t acquire the knowledge they need to apply the formal skills in any meaningful way.

Failure to understand that means any coherent conversation about the problems with the Core is a non-starter. 

As for the relationship between student performance on the Verbal portion of the SAT and access to a Common-Core-aligned curriculum … Anyone who thinks that a student whose English classes have been devoted to endlessly reiterating the importance of using “evidence” — that is, citing from a text — to “prove” that a book says what it says will necessarily be better prepared for the SAT than a student who has learned something of substance, really does not understand the issues at play here at all. 

Why you shouldn’t always trust college essay books (just say no to community service trip essays)

If you’re a senior still in the throes of writing your college essay, or if you’re a younger student/parent of a younger student trying to get a jumpstart on the college admissions process, you may be in possession of book entitled something like 100 College Essays that Worked, or 50 Successful Harvard Essays.

In general, I have no particular bone to pick with such compilations. I think they often provide a helpful glimpse at a variety of topics, styles, and structures that successful applicants have used in their essays.

Just as importantly, they offer clear reassurance that students need not demonstrate they have imbibed a thesaurus in order to gain admission to the college of their dreams.

So yes, for a student who isn’t sure how to get started, these books provide a highly useful service.

However. From time to time, when I happen to be browsing the test-prep section of a bookstore, I pick up college essay books just to keep abreast of the latest trends. Many of the essays in my favorite such book, 100 Successful College Application Essays, date from the mid-80’s, but as they say, times change… In this case, not necessarily for the better.

The most egregiously awful advice I’ve come across, in America’s Best Colleges for B Students, is that students should structure their essays in standard English class five-paragraph format.

That is so wrongheaded in so many ways, but we can start with the fact that the essay is called a personal statement for a reason. You are not supporting a thesis; you are discussing something or someone important to you as a person. Provided the essay reads well, the number of paragraphs is completely irrelevant.

Incidentally, the College Board has also produced a college essay guide (which contains almost no examples of actual college essays – go figure that one out) that gives similar advice. While there is, in an extremely broad sense, a case to be made for certain approaches to reading and writing emphasized by Common Core, there are also instances in which such an approach would constitute an absolute, incontrovertible disaster.

This is one of them.

Following this type of advice could push a borderline applicant without a knowledgeable adult monitoring the process into the “reject” pile at a moderate reach where he or she might have otherwise had an actual shot. So if the College Board is actually trying to improve the college prospects of disadvantaged applicants — those least likely to have a knowledgeable adult monitoring, or even aware of, the application process — they have an awfully funny way of showing it. 

Most books, however, at least emphasize that a personal essay is, well, personal, and that the rules of English class don’t apply.

And to be sure, plenty of the essays these books include are perfectly serviceable. Most are well-written; a handful are genuinely moving.

One problem, however, is that it is impossible to really tell from a standalone essay how much of a role that essay actually played in a student’s admission.

In the absence of a transcript, test scores, extra-curricular activities, recommendations, information about “hooks”, and actual adcom notes, the only thing that can be gleaned with certainty is that an essay was not so poor as to result in a student’s being rejected.  

Furthermore, there is one section some of these books that is consistently, even dangerously misleading. That is…. the infamous “community service trip to a third world country” essay.

For the record, the worst offenders I’ve found so far are the Fiske College Essay Guide (Malawi/Africa) and 50 Successful Stanford Essays (the Dominican Republic).

At this point, I feel obligated to proffer my annual warning about this genre of essay: if you’re thinking of writing something along these lines, don’t.

Do not pass go, do not collect $200, just find another topic and let this one quietly fade into oblivion.

Any essay you write about your community service trip to an impoverished third-world country, during which you discovered how privileged you really are and realized that the poor people there are really better off than the materialistic people in the United States because they’re happy with their subsistence lifestyle, is bound to come off as (at best) naive and condescending.      

It doesn’t matter how shocked you were by the poverty, or how charmingly rustic you found the locals, or how grateful people seemed for your efforts to build a school/hospital/community center, etc.

Committees slog through tons of these essays every year; you don’t need to add another one to the pile. Pretty much every admissions officer you ever ask will tell you to avoid this topic like the plague.

That’s not to say all community service essays are bad. It is, however, to say that the topic is so overdone, and the possibilities for cliché so ripe, that you should proceed with a healthy dose of caution.

If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, both of the guides listed above provide pitch-(im)perfect examples of this type of writing. (Just flip to the “Community Service” section.)

To be honest, I’m really surprised they were included at all. Using them up as examples is at best irresponsible and at worst actively misleading. All I can say is that the Stanford applicant must have been stellar in every respect otherwise.

If you’re looking for some good examples of essays that worked, I’d recommend the sample essays Johns Hopkins posts on its admissions website.

They’re not cliché, but they’re not too far out there either. Most of the writers come off as smart and curious and interesting and thoughtful – people you’d like to get to know.

Wouldn’t you like the person who reads your essay to think that about you too?

The chaos curriculum and learning disabilities

The chaos curriculum and learning disabilities

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a colleague who teaches high school, and she told me about a recent incident that had left her thinking.

One of her students was enrolled in a dance class (in-school) that was holding an open house, and the student invited my colleague to attend. As my colleague watched the class, she became aware that the atmosphere was one of calm and focus. The students were disciplined and respectful, yet the teacher and students seemed relaxed, and the students were clearly enjoying the class.

My colleague was struck by the contrast between that atmosphere and the far more tense atmosphere of her own academic classes, in which she alternately had to plead with, threaten, and cajole students who consistently seemed surprised if not downright annoyed when she expected them to so much as pick up a pencil and copy a couple of sentences from the smart board.

How, she wondered, could this possibly be happening in the same school?     (more…)