Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Redesigned SAT Experiment

As I hope you all know by now, the SAT is launching a redesigned exam in March of 2016. This change will impact the Class of 2017 and beyond and has already be the source of many discussions between and amongst students, parents, school counselors, and colleges.

After reading a book about a mom who set out to get a perfect score on the SAT, I thought it might be interesting to put my money where my mouth is and sit for the redesigned exam along with the rising juniors. My goal in doing this is a little different than hers (I'm not super focused on getting a 'perfect' score), but I am hoping to show some solidarity with the Class of 2017 as they too are faced with being the first to take the redesigned exam.

I'm not going to get a tutor or spend huge chunks of my life in a test prep class, but I am planning to also try out another new product that the College Board is rolling out: free online test prep with Khan Academy. The site just went live last week and students (or their college counselors) can create personalized online accounts where free diagnostics, practice questions, and exams are available to all. This is the College Board's attempt to fight back against prep that is driven by socioeconomic status - allowing all students, regardless of income, the chance to get exam practice directly from the test provider (CB is working in collaboration with Khan Academy - something no other test prep company can claim).  I take a little issue in the assumption that an online self-moderated portal can compete on a level playing field with an in-person tutor/group class, but I do respect the effort to make free prep available to those that are self-disciplined enough to seek it out. I don't suspect it will greatly impact a huge portion of test takers, but for those on the fringe who really are able to take the help and run with it, I think it is a great thing.

So, I tried my first two diagnostics this week - one in Reading & Writing and one in Math. The diagnostics are untimed and you are encouraged to just do your best so the portal can get a sense of what level you'll need to start with. For the first time in awhile, I was flooded with memories of taking standardized tests and the indecision that comes along with picking among choices that often tempt you to be torn between 2 or 3 different answers. Even though I knew it was just a diagnostic and even though it was for a test that literally has zero impact on my future, I couldn't help but be a little on edge as I pressed submit after finishing the ten questions. To my delight, I got ten out of ten correct on the Reading & Writing -- things were looking good!

A few days later, I decided to give the Math diagnostic a try. This one I was avoiding a bit because I was going to be starting with a diagnostic for the section without a calculator. (The redesigned SAT is going to have some math where a calculator is permitted and some where it isn't).  To give you some background, I've never been amazing with math but I have been amazing at working hard at math. What that means is that in elementary school when I moved classes between 3rd and 4th grade I unfortunately missed the units where we learned multiplication and long division. I've never, even now, learned my times tables and mental math is not my strong suit. Even with this gap in my math education, I focused really hard on catching up and was able to make it to AP Calculus BC during my junior year of high school. I then continued on to Math Topics, the most advanced math class in my school, even though it wasn't required for my high school diploma. So as you can see - my history with math is a complicated one. I found great success with the material, but it has never come to me naturally. As I start to prepare for this redesigned SAT next March, I'm confident that nothing on the exam will be something I've never seen before (there isn't any Calculus on the test) but I also haven't solved a math problem since my first semester of college in the fall of 2000, so I am going to need a lot of practice to get back into fighting shape.

Anyway - long story short - the math diagnostic for the portion with no calculator was hard. Like hitting road blocks no idea what to try next hard. Like getting 4 answers correct out of 10 hard. I know I'll get better with practice, but I think in the age of digital everything where every student has a calculator on their phone in their pocket in day to day life, this no calculator section is going to be a hard sell.

I'm going to try and continue with Khan Academy between now and March, giving you periodic updates here on the blog. Any current 10th grade student who wants to give Khan Academy a try, be my guest! There are certainly worse ways to spend a few hours per week this summer.

Because I suspect many students will just opt for the ACT - this redesigned SAT isn't as crazy a deal as it might seem. Students will be taking a redesigned PSAT this fall, so that should help give students additional information if it is worth taking.

(On a semi-related tangent - anyone interested in taking a Kaplan group course for the current SAT in preparation for the October 2015 test can register at: http://kaplanatschool.com/eleanorrooseveltny  The course begins in August. Be sure to use the discount code 150CLASS to get the lower price negotiated for our school)


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thanks TCU and Trinity University!

This morning I attended a breakfast hosted by TCU and Trinity University, two colleges located in Texas. I am always eager to expand my knowledge of new regions of the country and it was great to get to hear a little bit about these two schools. Let me start by also reminding New Yorkers that a common concern that some parents/students have when I try to talk about leaving the Northeast is that there is a fear that they don't want to go to a part of the country that isn't open-minded/liberal/diverse/you get the idea. Yet, the irony is that in stereotyping the non-coastal parts of the US as backwards or prejudiced or too full of people that don't think like me you are perpetuating the issue of using preconceived notions as grounds for making decisions (which, let me remind you, is what you said you didn't like about these so called close-minded places). I'm not suggesting that there aren't real differences in society based on regional location, only that citing intolerance for other viewpoints as your reason for being intolerant of other viewpoints is circular logic.

Fort Worth - TCU Campus - Frog Fountain
TCU stands for Texas Christian University. Yep, the word Christian is right in the name. But before you start making those judgements we just talked about, know that not everyone on campus is from Texas, not everyone on campus is Christian, and not everyone on campus is religious. At breakfast we learned the topic of religion usually comes up when students are commenting on one of two things: 1) The school not being Christian enough or 2) The school being too Christian. In other words, there are all types of people on campus who are able to find their niche, completely separate from the religious affiliation. (For anyone curious though, there is no required religious participation and more than just Christianity is welcomed on campus, they have a Hillel people!) Over 40% of the 8,500+ students come from outside of the state. Located in Ft. Worth, TCU is in a city and with that comes things like internship opportunities at major companies. With approximately 25% of the student body made up of students of color, they are doing the same as (if not better than) schools in the Northeast with diversity enrollment, so say goodbye to your fear of the student body being homogeneous.  Full price tuition is about $50,000 per year but merit scholarships are a very real possibility (the traditional range for merit awards begins with an SAT score of 1850+, aka half of the ElRo class) - easily bringing the cost down to more like $30,000 with their Dean's scholarship.

Trinity University is located in San Antonio - another blue dot in the sea of red you might be imagining when you think of Texas. Despite the name, Trinity University is no longer religiously affiliated and hasn't been for more than 60 years. A small college (2,200 undergrads) the campus has about one third of the students coming from outside of Texas. It is a welcoming place, as evidenced by the fact that they made headlines five years ago when a transgender student rushed a sorority. (On the topic of Greek life, all chapters are local as opposed to national and less than 20% of the students participate in Greek life). Similar to TCU, most ElRo students would be pleasantly surprised to see the potential merit package they might get from Trinity. The college is transparent about the fact that a 90+ GPA and 1220+ SAT (on the first two sections) can mean a possible scholarship of $12,000-$15,000 per year - and there is even a more modest scholarship range for students slightly below this threshold.

These two schools might not be right for everyone, but I do encourage all students to push their comfort zones and look outside the box to find hidden gems tucked all around this great nation. Don't be afraid to try something new. Schools like these are thirsty for New Yorkers to join their ranks, give them a chance to show you what they can offer.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Admission Accomplished 2015!

Last Friday, the senior class gathered to celebrate their college admission accomplishments and announce where they plan to enroll in our annual Admission Accomplished event. It was a morning full of positive buzz and energy and I share the excitement with our students!

We did things a little differently this year, allowing students to submit a personalized picture for a slide show that is now running in the lobby on our new digital screen (posted outside the Principal's office where the old bulletin board used to be). For the past few years, we had done a paper map posted on the bulletin board with students writing their name on a 8.5in x 2 in slip of paper to share with the community where students planned to enroll. This year, with the removal of the bulletin board, the DOE's change with the cell phone policy, and the school's BYOD internet initiative, we took a risk and tried this new version to allow for increased student creativity and ownership of this event that simultaneously embraces technology in our every changing world. Students submitted a wide variety of slides and I've had a great time looking at how many different ways students opted to share their decisions. The old paper map has been replaced with digital slides with dots indicating on a map where students plan to enroll. There is also a paper list divided by geographical region that is up next to the screen for those who don't want to wait for the slideshow to run its course. The paper map version of Admission Accomplished always posed a challenge for regions with high concentrations of students, where stickers would cover up entire cities (or states) making it very hard to decipher the locations they were trying to represent. The idea with the slides was to give every student an equitable chance to share their enrollment choice (and use a little creativity along the way). I know change can be hard, but I thank those students who were upset with the change for coming to talk to me about it directly. Coping with change is a really important life skill for college (and beyond)!

As with every year, some students opt not to participate in the public announcement of where they are going to attend school in the fall. There are many reasons why a person might opt out and I respect their decision. I never force anyone to broadcast their enrollment choice. However, I know how curious everyone is to hear where the Class of 2015 has been admitted and where they are going so please enjoy the list below that lists all the colleges where this class was admitted.

College names in bold indicate that at least one student plans to enroll there next fall.

Adelphi University
Alfred University 
Allegheny College
American University
Arcadia University
Babson College
Bard College
Baruch College of the CUNY
Bates College
Binghamton University
Borough of Manhattan Community College of the CUNY
Boston College
Boston University 
Brandeis University
Brooklyn College of the CUNY 
Bryant University
Bryn Mawr College
Bucknell University
California State University, Fresno
California State University, Long Beach
California State University, Sacramento
Champlain College
Chapman University
City College of New York CUNY
Clark University
Clarkson University
College of Staten Island
Columbia University  
Cornell University
CUNY - New York City Technical College
CUNY-Macaulay Honors College
DePauw University
Dickinson College
Drew University
Drexel University
Earlham College
Eckerd College
Elon University
Emerson College
Emory University
Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts
Fairfield University
Fairleigh Dickinson University
Florida Institute of Technology
Florida State University
Fordham University 
Franklin University Switzerland
George Mason University
Georgia Institute of Technology 
Goucher College
Grinnell College
Guttman Community College
Hamilton College - NY
Hampshire College
Hunter College of the CUNY
Indiana University at Bloomington
Iowa State University 
Ithaca College
James Madison University
John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the CUNY
Johns Hopkins University
Johnson & Wales University
Juniata College
Kenyon College
Lafayette College
Lehigh University
Lehman College of the CUNY 
Lewis & Clark College
Loyola University Chicago
Lynn University
Manhattan College
Maryland Institute College of Art
Miami University, Oxford
Michigan State University
Monmouth University
Mount Holyoke College
Muhlenberg College
New York City College of Technology
New York Institute of Technology - Manhattan
New York Institute of Technology - Old Westbury
New York University
North Carolina State University
Northeastern University
Northwestern University
Oberlin College
Occidental College
Pace University, New York City
Paul Smith's College
Pennsylvania State University, Erie: The Behrend College
Pennsylvania State University, University Park 
Purchase College State University of New York
Purdue University 
Queens College of the CUNY
Quinnipiac University
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Rice University 
Ringling College of Art and Design
Rochester Institute of Technology
Rutgers University-New Brunswick
Saint Louis University
San Francisco State University
Savannah College of Art and Design
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Shenandoah University
Sheridan College Institute of Technology & Advanced Learning
Siena College
Simmons College
Skidmore College
Smith College
St. John's University - Queens Campus
State University of New York at Albany
State University of New York at New Paltz
Stevens Institute of Technology
Stony Brook University
SUNY College at Brockport
SUNY College at Cortland
SUNY College at Geneseo
SUNY College at Oneonta
SUNY College at Potsdam
SUNY Fredonia
SUNY Oswego
SUNY Polytechnic Institute
Swarthmore College
Syracuse University
Temple University
The College of Wooster
The George Washington University
The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute
The Ohio State University
The University of Alabama 
The University of Arizona
The University of Iowa
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 
The University of Scranton
The University of Tampa
Towson University
Tufts University
Tulane University
Union College
University at Buffalo The State University of New York 
University of California, Davis
University of California, Irvine
University of California, Los Angeles
University of California, San Diego
University of California, Santa Barbara 
University of California, Santa Cruz
University of Chicago
University of Colorado at Boulder
University of Connecticut
University of Delaware
University of Hartford
University of Hawaii at Hilo
University of Illinois at Chicago
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Kentucky 
University of Maine
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
University of Maryland, College Park
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
University of Miami
University of Michigan
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
University of New England
University of New Hampshire
University of New Haven
University of North Carolina at Wilmington
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pittsburgh
University of Puget Sound
University of Rhode Island
University of Richmond
University of Rochester
University of San Francisco
University of South Florida, Tampa
University of Southern California
University of St. Andrews
University of Vermont
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Vassar College
Villanova University
Virginia Tech
Warren Wilson College
Waseda University- Japan
Washington University in St. Louis 
Wellesley College
West Virginia University
Wheaton College MA
York College of the CUNY

Here here for the Class of 2015!!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

SUCH Tour: Day 2 Hamilton and Colgate

The Dark Side
The Light Side
The second day of the tour started out with a visit to Hamilton College. Set apart from the other schools we saw (along with most other schools in the country), Hamilton is a liberal arts college with an open curriculum. This means that it is best suited for self directed students who are intellectually curious. There is also a serious emphasis on writing (there is a quill on their quintessential weather vane prominently featured on many marketing materials). Within the open curriculum, students do have the requirement of taking a writing intensive course and a quantitative course, but they can come from any department of their choosing. After a failed foray into founding a women's college (Kirkland) in the late 1960s, Hamilton became co-ed in the 1970s, with a legacy of these two sides of campus referenced today as the light side and the dark side (not too surprising given when Star Wars came out). These dual personalities - one traditional and conservative and the other funky and liberal - still appear to endure and Hamilton sees itself as a home that embraces all types of students with all different personalities. But, those who thrive are described as being 'smart as hell but don't take themselves too seriously." They identify schools like Davidson, Carleton, and Grinnell to be their spirit animals - an impressive group. Note, when it comes to admission Hamilton's unique edge also shines through. They have a testing 'flexible' policy that allows students to submit alternate combinations of subject tests and AP exams in place of the SAT/ACT. They also are open about the value put on demonstrated interest and are a school that does still recommend having an interview. I will say, as a person who has gone on a lot of college tours, I've never seen a tour guide say hello/be greeted by so many people during the course of the tour. He even got an unsolicited hug from his Biology professor while he was explaining the dining options. If you aren't sure why some people are drawn to small schools, that's why.

Our final stop on the tour was Colgate University, located ironically in Hamilton, New York. Again we found ourselves at a school deeply committed to the liberal arts. There seemed to be a constant theme of the value of interdisciplinary study and combining academics and co-curricular life. The 'largest' of the schools we saw at 2,900 students, Colgate is also different from the other three because it has Division I athletics and a core curriculum. The core has been around since 1929 and consists of five mandatory courses: two relating to the Great Books, one on communities and identities, one on scientific perspectives, and one on global engagements. All courses are, you guessed it, interdisciplinary. Greek life is a large part of the social scene, but students can't rush until their sophomore year. Here demonstrated interest is not a huge factor in admission (though, to be fair, almost half the class comes in ED, so that is technically demonstrating a lot of interest. But, they say they aren't paying attention to visits or phone calls until it comes to the waitlist). I would be remiss if I talked about a visit to Colgate without also mentioning the physical layout of the campus. Be prepared for a big hill. If you aren't crazy about walking up/down a serious incline (and doing it in the snow), this won't be the campus for you. At the same time, if you want a built-in way to ward off the Freshman 15 that also provides stunning views of the surrounding town, add this to your list pronto.

A huge thank you to Skidmore, Union, Colgate, and Hamilton for hosting me on this tour. I learned so much about these four schools and can't wait to share that knowledge with ElRo students!

Monday, April 27, 2015

SUCH Tour: Day 1 Union and Skidmore

As a native Midwesterner, part of the fun of college tours is getting to explore new parts of the Northeast. This tour is particularly great because I am getting to see new parts of New York and campuses that are very frequently on college lists at ElRo. The tour includes: Skidmore, Union, Colgate, and Hamilton.

Our first stop today was Union College, a small college of 2,100 students with options in both the liberal arts and engineering. Unique aspects of Union include: working on a trimester system, meeting full financial need of students that are admitted, being both selective and testing optional, and having a campus that was founded in 1795 (that is 20+ years before University of Virginia, for those keeping track). The thread among all of the panels/experiences that we were shown at Union had to do with being interdisciplinary. I got the keen sense that the students who fit in best are those with interests in more than one field, who are interested in learning to think from many different perspectives but who are also willing to delve deep into their specified field of study. I was pleasantly surprised with our quick drive through Schenectady (a 10 minute walk from campus), a place that is clearly experienced an urban renewal. Between 40 and 45% of Union students end up joining a fraternity or sorority-- though rushing is not allowed in the first year. All students are also assigned a membership to a Minerva, which is a community building technique that gives each student a 'home base' on campus-- used partly for housing some students but more to organize social activities and give all students use of a full kitchen. Facilities as Union are almost completely up to date, I didn't feel like I stepped foot in a single place that was dated or run down. I can't help but wonder what historic details have been lost to these renovations, but for a student who values modern facilities and interiors, I don't think Union will disappoint. Located right in between the state's largest state park (Adironack) and the state capitol, there is something for both rugged sportsperson and those who crave the political pulse of urban life. There is a strong connection with practical STEM fields, but still plenty of students studying the liberal arts.

In the afternoon, we visited Skidmore College. At 2,700 students, it was the larger school of the day. Located in Saratoga Springs, it is a school that describes itself as the best fit for an eclectic student. They have strong connections with creativity and the arts, yet the most popular major is business. Originally a women's college that is now co-ed with a 60/40 split, they do not have a greek system and the social scene was described as laid back. About 60% of students spend time studying abroad and the professor's described the students as ambitious, self-starting, independently minded, curious and comfortable with multiple ways of being. I was particularly struck with the strong campus emphasis on women's rights and embracing the LGBT community. I saw gender neutral bathrooms throughout our tour and the campus is plastered with posters from a student generated campaign called 'Show Your Sport' that displays portraits of student athletes standing as allies for the LGBT community. I also loved the posters up about building consent culture in college. More colleges need to follow this lead (like ASAP). If you are looking for a traditional northeastern college campus with Gothic architecture and stained glass, you won't find it at Skidmore. The school was founded about a hundred years ago in downtown Saratoga but moved to the current campus in the 1970s when they went co-ed and outgrew their original digs. This means that you are going to see architecture that reflects that time period up to the present day (it reminded me in some ways of places like Hampshire and Ithaca). About 40% of the class comes to Skidmore through Early Decision. I appreciated also the transparency offered about the fact that Skidmore opts to be need aware but promises to meet 100% of demonstrated need for students that are admitted. To be honest, I'd rather them take this route than admit students and then proceed to gap them in the financial aid process. As anyone who can see the Naviance scattergram knows, Skidmore is not a strictly numbers based admission process. Aside from the need aware issue, they are also a place that pays attention to demonstrated interest. Or, to put it more accurately, they said they pay attention to demonstrated disinterest. Students are given space to share how they have connected with campus. When a student doesn't have anything to share, their disinterest is being heard loud and clear, along with the arrival of their waitlist letter.

The first day of the tour was a great success. Despite being in relatively close proximity and similar in some surface type of ways, I think there were some clear differences between Union and Skidmore and I'm so thankful to have had the chance to see both of them so I can be more informed when talking to students and families.

Friday, April 24, 2015

College Night Follow Up

Thank you to everyone who attended (and participated in) College Night last week. It was a great event and I'm always pleased to see so many students and parents gaining knowledge about the college process. The intent of the night is that 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students and families can come to learn information so that by the time college applications roll around in the fall of 12th grade they are prepared and know the basics.

Because we are always tight on time, I have to limit the panel discussion at the start of the night to only about twenty minutes. This year, I asked for people to submit questions ahead of time using a google survey. I wanted to use this space here to address some of the questions that we didn't have time to answer.

Is it appropriate to include pictures or links in the application essay or anywhere else in the application?

With the exception of a very few rare cases, I would strongly discourage including links in the application essay. Reason being: if the student is applying to a portfolio program or a visual art major that is looking to see images as part of the application, there will be a separate method for uploading images and using a centralized platform to show student work. If you include a link in an essay one of three things might happen. 1) The reader is reading on paper and a link is useless 2) The reader is reading on a computer, and while the link might work, it will pull them out of their reading portal and require extra time/steps on their part 3) The reader will forward on the link to their colleagues, usually for reasons of being memorable in the wrong kind of way. That isn't to say that this is an automatic application killer, only that the best way to stand out in the application is by being a remarkable person. You can do that without images.

One thing to consider though is that there are some colleges that specifically request creative or multimedia portions of the supplemental application. These could include things like sharing a YouTube link or making a piece or art to connect with the rest of your application. Here you are being given space and instructed to give the reader something that is expected to be visual. Link away.

How do you reconcile a student's need to explore various fields in order to find their passions with the college's desire for students to demonstrate interest/focus in or two areas?

I think the heart of this question is asking: do you want me to be well rounded or do you want me to be sharply pointed? Do you want teens who have dabbled in lots of things to 'find themselves' or should I curate my life and resume to show my commitment to my future career path?  I think the answer is to throw out those considerations entirely and understand that you can't be all things to all colleges. Instead, just be yourself. It is way easier and way more satisfying.

I don't say this to be glib. I say it to be honest with you about the fact that yes, colleges each have their own individual enrollment goals. This sometimes means being super impressed with the prodigy who has dedicated every waking moment to the violin and rewarding that person with admission based on this clear talent. But, that same school isn't looking to enroll an entire army of violinists. For every musical genius, they also need to admit an athlete, and a student body president, and an environmentalist, and a person who is an undecided liberal arts major who just has great grades all around and lots of diverse interests. Instead of trying to work backward from admission to extracurriculars, let your interests be your guide. When I was in high school, I was involved in lots of different things. Some of these things are still connected to what I do now as an adult. Other things are no longer a huge part of my life, but they added value at the time. Your goal doesn't need to be breaking the admission code at every single college. Your goal is to pursue your passions and identify colleges where your interests will be recognized, embraced, and rewarded.

High school IS the time to explore lots of fields. You aren't expected to start every single thing in 9th grade and continue it for four years. But you are expected to tell a story through your application. There should be some kind of theme or narrative that helps the reader get a glimpse of your life and what gets you out of bed in the morning. Lead a full life and the crux of this question will become irrelevant. Colleges admit both well rounded students and pointy students. Stop spending time debating which one you should be and be the one you are.

Can a great personal statement make up for a low test score or weaker grades?

To be frank, the honest answer to this question is: probably not. At least not at a highly selective school in regular decision. A great personal statement is certainly not a bad thing to have. But the reality of an essay taking an application from deny to admit is just very very rare. With that said, a great essay can help bring you into the committee room at a highly selective school. It can help you stay on the WL instead of being denied. It can help you be identified for merit scholarships at schools that offer them. But the transcript is the single most important part of an application. For schools that look at testing, testing is usually the second most important part of the application. So for an essay to trump both of those things is unusual.

The better way to look at it is to say that if you are already in range with testing and grades, a great essay CAN help you over the finish line at a highly selective school. The reverse is also true, where at a highly selective school, a student who is in range with scores/grades/extracurriculars a very weak essay can hurt the applicant.

If you have low test scores or weaker grades, don't lose hope. This answer refers mainly to highly selective schools (in my experience, those are usually the schools people are asking about). There are schools out there that admit students from ALL parts of the grade spectrum. There are also hundreds of testing optional schools (www.fairtest.org).


Friday, April 10, 2015

Thanks Vanderbilt!

Thanks to Vanderbilt University for hosting me and 80 (yes 80!) other counselors for a two day in-depth look at life and learning on Vanderbilt's campus. Especially since leaving New York for Tennessee can sometimes be such a tall order, having the ability to speak about a distance campus through first hand knowledge is a huge help in guiding students toward applying to a school like Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt is a medium sized (approx 6500 undergraduates) Research I university located in Nashville, Tennessee. But it is a national university, not a regional one. Only 9% of enrolled students hail from Tennessee. For students concerned about leaving New York and being in the middle of nowhere, this will not be an issue at Vanderbilt. Students can take comfort in the thriving music scene and general energy around campus without fear of being the city puppy who has lost its way.

When applying to Vanderbilt, a student is asked to select one of four 'doorways' 1) Arts and Science 2) Engineering 3) Peabody (Education and Human Development) or 4) Blair (Music). Other than the things you can infer from those names, note that Peabody is not just for teachers, it also houses majors related to psychology and child development and Blair is mainly focused on classical music. If admitted, all students must stay in the college they were admitted into for one year. But then if it is truly the wrong fit and internal transfer process can begin. Vanderbilt combines highly selective academics (how selective? There is somewhere around an 11% admit rate this year, so prettttttty selective) with a school that can also offer Division I athletics. Once you start comparing those stats with other things like size and location in an urban area, the number of schools with a similar profile really does drop and drop quickly.

So who thrives at Vanderbilt? One professor selected the adjective 'risk taker' when describing who succeeds in his classroom. Students are bright, but they don't seem to always believe it (a student we talked to on campus felt embarrassed to admit his 'low' ACT score of 32. We assured him it was not low). Students are ambitious and outgoing with a strong dose of southern hospitality (apparently gained through osmosis since, as I mentioned, this is not a regional school). Admitted students are all leaders in some way --be it as captain of the Lacrosse team in high school or first chair Violin in orchestra.

What makes Vanderbilt unique? For starters, on campus housing is required for all four years. So expect to be a four year member of the community. Then there is Opportunity Vanderbilt-- a financial aid initiative boldly started AFTER the 2008 crash in which all admitted students are awarded financial aid that covers 100% of demonstrated need. Domestic students are admitted need blind. Other than a $2,300 work study component, the only thing a family is asked to pay is the EFC (Estimated Family Contribution). If you are wondering about loans, keep wondering, because Vanderbilt doesn't proactively offer them. Any family that opts to take one (about 23%) does so by choice. They also offer merit scholarships. Again, when we are talking about schools as selective as this, providing merit scholarships is a very very unique thing. (Who gets merit scholarships then? Assume that one must be in the very top of the class with the very highest test scores to be a serious contender. But, also note that merit scholarship consideration is initiated by the STUDENT via an online application. So those winners are self selecting and the school expects them to take the first step by filling out the scholarship application.)

Though not highlighted much on this tour, it doesn't take much digging to discover that Vanderbilt fills almost half of their class through ED. For a school with overlaps like theirs, that isn't a tremendous shock to me, but it might be to you. This means that the mantra of ED rings true here: if this school is your first choice and you don't want to go anywhere else, you should strongly consider pursuing Early Decision. That isn't to say that you can't be admitted in regular, only that the game of musical chairs ramps up from intramural to Olympian. They are also a school that consistently uses the wait list to shape the class and prevent being overenrolled, so being wait listed really might end up in eventual admission for a sizeable chunk of the class.

Thanks Vanderbilt for a great two days (and letting me wear sandals for the first time in 2015)!

Friday, March 20, 2015

PTA Meeting - College Essay

Many thanks to the PTA for arranging for Harry Bauld to be the guest speaker at last night's PTA meeting. He presented on the topic of the college essay--something he has literally written the book on (See: On Writing the College Application Essay). I had previously read an older edition of the book but was happy to listen to his presentation and have the chance to hear his advice directly from the horse's mouth.

For a full description of all of his advice, the best thing to do is buy the book. But I will highlight here a few of the key takeaways that I encourage students to do when writing the essay:

1) Be authentic. Trying to fit a formula or over-manufacture an essay defeats the purpose. Write about a memory from your life, include details, tell a story that only you can tell.

2) Remember that these essays are being read at a very quick pace. If you repeat a topic that has already been seen 30 times that day, you risk the chance of boring the reader. Frequent trap topics include: 'the trip that changed my life,' 'through participating in X, I learned Y,'  my resume and autobiography in chronological order, and the 'Jock Essay' (aka The Big Game).

3) Be prepared for multiple revisions. If you know how you want your essay to conclude when you start it, you are probably doing it wrong. See where the writing takes you. See where your memories take you. Use writing strategies found in fiction to tell your true story - moments in time from your life.

4) Personal narrative writing is NOT like the writing you already do in school. Trying to think about the essay as a school assignment is taking the wrong approach.

5) Don't disregard the supplemental essay. Don't use it as a place to repeat information you've pulled from their glossy brochure. Do critically think about why that specific college is asking you this question and what will show them that you understand their mission and how you will be a strong fit for their campus.

Another big caveat to help keep this all in perspective is that the college essay is absolutely a significant part of the application process, but the kind of essay this book is focused on is really directed toward more selective colleges. There are a large number of colleges that really do have a numbers driven admission process and stressing over the minutiae of the essay will not have much impact on the end result. The majority of essays that students write are just fine and don't have a huge impact on a final decision. The places where it matters most though are usually at the reach schools and that is why understanding how to maximize the impact of the essay is essential.

Thanks to Mr. Bauld for a great evening!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dear Seniors (and your Parents/Guardians) . . .

In the next two weeks, over 650 unknown application decisions will reveal themselves. Each year, I repost a link to this blog entry that I wrote way back when I first started making posts here. I wrote it because I wanted to offer nuggets of wisdom both to students who were crestfallen AND those who were on cloud nine.

In that same vein of 'must read' ruminations, I hope you've all already seen Frank Bruni's New York Times Op-Ed 'How to Survive the College Admissions Madness.' If you haven't, open a new browser tab and go read it immediately. 

Parents/Guardians: I observe that sometimes your children conflate their academic performance and college outcomes with your love and approval. Even if you think you are already doing a good job of separating the two, have a direct and concrete conversation with your child to make sure they hear you say the words "I'm proud of you just as you are."

Students: You may get the news you want to hear in the next few days. You may not get the news you want to hear in the next few days. Either way, the only thing keeping you from your goals and aspirations is you. I went to an Ivy League* graduate school and had classmates who started at community college. The seal on your diploma doesn't dictate your destiny. Your individual work ethic, your personal value system, your motivation, your creativity, and your talents are what will take you where you want to go.

This is an exciting time. I celebrate with you when you get good news! I'm so sorry when you are denied admission or put on a waitlist when your heart was set on going to that school. But you'll get through it. Don't let a little bit of bad news cloud the rest of the great news that you have to share. I'll regularly speak with parents or students who are dwelling on not getting into one place, but don't acknowledge the six or seven acceptances they do have. Remember in the fall when we talked about how you have to like your likely? That was only a few months ago and you liked the school then.

Brace yourselves for the decisions coming out. Prepare for the worst while you hope for the best. But remember that I'm proud of you just as you are.

*But, didn't I just tell the 8th graders that Ivy League schools aren't all they are cracked up to be? I did! And it wasn't! ;)

Image by Ben Wiseman NYTimes

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dear 8th Grade Parents . . .

Ivy Guirlande 

This blog is not typically directed toward middle school students, but bear with me on this. We recently received our 'matches' of who was offered a seat at ElRo by the DOE for next fall.  This list includes some students who are picking between us and a specialized high school (some other students are also choosing between us and a private school). I've been getting phone calls and emails from parents/guardians of these students with offers and I'm hearing one question over and over again: "What percentage of students go to Ivy League schools?"

The short answer is, I don't know. I don't know because I don't keep track of what percentage of students get into any particular group of colleges. The Ivy League is an athletic conference (congrats Harvard, btw, for making it to the bracket). It also happens to be a grouping of particularly old, particularly well-respected, and particularly selective colleges. But, there are more than eight amazing colleges to choose from and giving magical power to these eight is not productive for anyone (other than maybe those eight and their revenue stream generated from application fees).

With that said, I won't keep you in suspense. Yes, we've had students admitted to the Ivy League. Yes, we've had students attend the Ivy League. Yes, this has occurred in the past two years. Yes, we've had students get admitted to the Ivy League and choose to attend a school that wasn't in the Ivy League. Yes, sometimes those schools they choose instead are even public universities (and no, they did not choose University of Michigan, or University of Virginia, or University or North Carolina, Chapel Hill).

This occurs because the cornerstone of ElRo's philosophy is individual fit and personal choices. Ivy League schools are great schools for a lot of people. If and when ElRo students opt to apply to them, I support their applications 110% and celebrate with them if they are admitted. As anyone can see from Ivy League admission profiles, it is common for some highly selective schools to admit fewer than 10% of applicants that apply. As you can extrapolate from that data, it then comes as no surprise that out of the total ElRo student body, we see a similar percentage of students who are in the typical range of admission for these schools. You can't know in 8th grade if you'll fall into that category, but if you do end up there, no matter where you go to high school, you'll be in the running for admission.

Instead of fixating on 'Ivy-ness' I instead encourage students to think about fit. In what environment do you learn best? Do you value competition amongst peers or are you more of a self motivated learner? Do you like feeling like a big fish in a small pond or would you prefer to be in a more homogenous setting? Do you like a traditional setting or one that is more progressive? Do you like writing papers or taking tests? When you consider those things, you very well might end up with an Ivy (or three) on your list. When you consider those things, you might instead uncover a set of totally different colleges that will make your face light up when you talk about them.

In closing, parents/guardians please remember that sending the message to your child that their high school is going to 'get them' into college is not a healthy message to send. Asking what percentage of students go to Ivy League schools insinuates that the high school is the reason for admission. Instead, be reminded that highly selective colleges are looking for outstanding candidates for admission regardless of where they go to high school. Support your child. Embrace their strengths. Celebrate their talents. These are the ways to maximize their admission to the college of their choice. Also keep in mind the rules of basic statistics. Our school has approximately 125 seniors per year. Our average SAT score this year was 1226 out of 1600/1842 out of 2400. Those scores are AMAZING for an urban public high school. Those scores are, however, outside the typical range of admission for an Ivy League school. Thus, it isn't surprising that a specialized school might have a higher percentage of graduates going to the Ivy League. It is just too hard to make a meaningful comparison when the pools of students are so different. But, I'll put it this way: if a senior here has the grades, test scores, and extracurriculars to be in range for admission at an Ivy, they will have equal consideration as their peers at other schools with similar grades and scores and extracurriculars.

I know the 'Ivy' question comes from a good place. Parents and guardians are just trying to exhaust every possible option to give every available opportunity to their child. This is New York City and it can be hard to see the forest through the trees when it feels like the landscape is fiercely competitive. But, do what you can to breathe and trust that you have raised an outstanding child. If they got into ElRo I can promise that they will get into a great college for them, Ivy or not.

As with the considerations made when enrolling in college, I urge middle school students to use a similar process now in selecting a high school. Do you like big or small? Do you want individual attention or can you navigate through on your own? Just like the Ivy League isn't right for everyone, ElRo isn't right for everyone. We want students who want to be here.

If you do pick us, we are SO excited to meet you at orientation and start you on your journey to college.