Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Turning the Tide

If you have access to the internet, have turned on a TV, or read a headline today you probably caught wind of the new Harvard Graduate School of Education Making Caring Common report entitled "Turning the Tide Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions" that was released today. In case you missed it, this is a report, endorsed by many college and university admissions folks, that attempts to address the troubling direction that college admissions is going and suggest healthier alternatives for both students and schools.


An Op-Ed by Frank Bruni was also published yesterday in anticipation of this release. 

Included in the report are recommendations, some of which, I'm pleased to say, have already been a part of the school culture that Eleanor Roosevelt High School is trying to build. However, these goals can only be accomplished with buy-in from our students, parents, and guardians, so I hope that you will read through the report and reflect on how you can be a key player in making these recommendations a reality. 

Some examples:
  • The report recommends ". . that students engage in forms of service that are authentically chosen—that emerge from a student’s particular passions and interests— that are consistent and well-structured, and that provide opportunity for reflection both individually and with peers and adults."As you are all aware, ElRo asks students to submit 20 hours of community service per year to demonstrate their connection with the community around them. We have a designated Community Service and Internship liaison (Ms. Genova-Hall) to help support students that feel they need extra guidance in accessing opportunities. I've said many times in multiple forums that our aim is for students to engage in their world. The requirement of community service aims to push students past the point of just going through the motions to complete service hours and instead help them find ways to use their passions as jumping off points for building up year after year of meaningful and authentic connections in their local, regional, national, or even international community. While things like raising money or participating in awareness campaigns are a start, a better way to demonstrate caring is for students to engage directly with those that are impacted. Raising money for breast cancer research is good, serving as a patient escort for individuals seeking breast cancer treatment is even better. Making posters about recycling is good, becoming a Central Park teen park ranger is better.
  •  The report recommends "Colleges should tell students that taking the [standardized] test more than twice is very unlikely to meaningfully improve students’ scores." It has always been my recommendation that students sit for either the ACT or the SAT twice and taking the test more than that is not a useful or productive way to spend their time. Twenty years from now, you won't look back on endless sessions with a tutor as an experience that shaped your personality. Using that time to volunteer, or read classic literature, or get an internship at a museum very well could have a lasting impact on your life trajectory. 
  •  The report recommends "Admissions offices should convey to students that simply taking large numbers of AP or IB courses per year is often not as valuable as sustained achievement in a limited number of areas." At ElRo, we make a conscious effort to be transparent about our policy to limit AP enrollment. 10th graders can take up to one AP course and 11th and 12th grade students are typically limited to two AP courses. This long time policy is in place to help students both manage their mental/emotional health and to help students make the connection between sincere academic interest and advanced coursework. We have been long time resistors of the "AP Arms Race" and I'm happy to see this report will encourage a continuation of those policies. 
  • The report recommends "Admissions officers and guidance counselors should challenge the misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges and that only a handful of colleges create networks that are vital to job success." I make a concerted effort to help re-frame the idea of what makes a 'good' college. I'm constantly recommending places like the schools found in the 'Colleges That Change Lives' network and a common refrain in my meetings with students is to encourage a well balanced list of reach, target, and likely schools. The name on your college diploma that matters most is your name, not the college's. You control much of your success via your drive, tenacity, ambition, and willingness to trust in your own ability. 
The content of this report is enough to fill hours of philosophical discussion and entry after entry on a blog like this one. I present these highlights and links to encourage you to think about these things in your own family and reflect honestly about if you are part of the identified problem or (hopefully) part of the solution. 
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Friday, December 18, 2015

2015 Redesigned SAT Pre-Test


I've decided to take the redesigned SAT in March. When I tell people I'm doing this, the most frequent response is: why would you want to do that?

My reasons include:
  • I took the SAT and ACT my junior year of high school over 15 years ago. Considering that a large part of my work revolves around giving advice and interpretation of these tests, it seems like having more recent exposure could be useful. 
  • The exam is being redesigned starting in March of 2016 and I want to take the new test alongside the Class of 2017 to stand in solidarity with them in the face of this new exam
  • The College Board has partnered with Khan Academy to give free online preparation to all students. As an adult who has been exposed to the topics on the test 15 years ago but not made use of these particular skills lately, I'm curious to see how much of a difference Khan can make. 
  • Much attention is paid to the pressure and anxiety students face when taking standardized tests. I wanted to replicate these conditions for myself and see if that could help me better relate to my students. Doing drills or taking a practice test at home just isn't the same as sitting for the test under real testing conditions. 
I plan to begin my Khan Academy preparation in earnest in January. Before today, the only thing I'd done was take a few of the skills assessments (this helps Khan determine what skills you are strong in and which need improvement). Then, this morning, I sat for my first online practice test. Khan has 4 full length practice tests available online. But each one is only unlocked when you complete the one before it. I figured I should take my first test now before I do any formal prep so that I can get a baseline of where I'm starting.

Caveat: This practice test was completed on a computer. The real test will be on paper. I also skipped ahead in the CR and W sections because I had minutes left and was ready to move on. On a real test, that won't be possible.

Impressions:
  • The first Reading section has 65 minutes to complete 52 questions. I completed everything with 26 minutes to spare. I opted not to go back and review and triple check my answers, mainly because I wanted this performance to be purely skills based. I was willing to miss some questions. On the real test, I suspect I won't feel this way. 
  • The second section is the Writing and Language section. You have 35 minutes to complete 44 questions. The format used for these questions is not to my liking. There are two different sets of numbers jumbled up in passages -- one referring to the sentence number and one referring to the question number. Talk about confusing. I was able to get it mostly sorted out but for a 16 year old, I think this will be challenging. There just has to be an easier way to get the point across. I finished this section with 9 minutes to spare. This portion sometimes asks the test taker to be a sort of editor - making adjustments and improvements to the text. This is tough because for a person who isn't a strong reader or already struggles with grammar, it is hard to read the full passage with so many small (or sometimes not so small) errors. 
  • The third section was the Math section with no calculator. Oh boy. Talk about timing issues. I COMPLETELY ran out of time. Like didn't even make it to the free response questions and was guessing in the last 20 seconds just to get something entered in for the multiple choice. This is definitely going to be my weak spot and will take the most energy for practice. 
  • The last section is the Math section with the calculator. It has 38 questions in 55 minutes. I did better on the timing here but still had to do a lot of guessing because I just couldn't remember how to do that math they were asking. 
In the end, I scored a 1330. I got a 600 on the Math and a 730 on the Reading and Writing. I'm pleased with the score. It is higher than I expected it to be. Considering how long it has been since I have done the majority of the math included on the test, I was not expecting to get a 600. I was a pretty strong math student in high school (due to studying, not innate understanding) and last took math in college when I took intermediate Calculus my first semester of my freshman year. I know that my biggest work will be refreshing my memory on the steps needed to complete these math problems. I also, admittedly, have never been strong with mental math and the no calculator portion is going to be an extra large hurdle.

This score is lower than the score I got in high school and higher than the score I got in 8th grade when I took the SAT for CTY. I'm not setting any specific goals in terms of the score I want to get, I'm more just curious about how Khan Academy will impact my score. How much can I teach myself using the online demos and practice questions?

The experiment will continue in 2016 . . . .

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Redesigned SAT


Yesterday I attended a professional development at the College Board that shared some additional insight into the redesigned SAT. I have a vested interest in this both because ElRo students will be taking this test in the future and because I myself will be taking this test in March.

Here are some of the things that I learned:

- All Critical Reading passages will come from real texts - nothing will be generated just for the exam. These will be real world examples of actual things a person could read outside of the SAT.

- The 'Command of Evidence' section will now featured paired questions. A paired question means that there will be one question the student answers and then the next question will refer to how they got their answer to the first question. In other words: explain why you selected the answer to question 1 for your response to question 2.

- The essay is now optional and will occur LAST (it used to be first). It will now be 50 minutes in length. The prompt is already out and online, the only thing that will vary from test to test is the source material. You will no longer be asked to defend your opinion. You will instead be asked to explain how the author of the source material makes their argument.

Here is the currently published prompt:

"As you read the passage below, consider how [the author] uses
  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.
Write an essay in which you explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience that [author’s claim]. In your essay, analyze how [the author] uses one or more of the features listed above (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of [his/her] argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage. Your essay should not explain whether you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how the author builds an argument to persuade [his/her] audience."

-  There will be a much larger focus on Algebra on the redesigned test.

- There will be 'founding documents' included on the exam - historical documents that relate to core issues like liberty and freedom

- There will be no more points lost of wrong answers. Only points gained for correct answers. There will also only be 4 answers to choose from instead of 5.

- The redesigned PSAT from this fall is only going to be out of 760 for each section. This is because there is alignment between the exams and there is a small amount of content (about 40 points it would seem) that is on the SAT but not on the PSAT.

The redesigned SAT will be offered for the first time in March of 2016.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mid Year Grade Reports


When you hit a point in the college application process where you feel lost - take a few deep breaths and go back to basics. I've had multiple panicked conversations with students in the past two weeks who are trying to fill out the transcript request form and get to the last box and don't know what to do.

The last box on the transcript request form asks if you need me to send mid-year senior grades to the college. Many students appear to be confused or tripped up here but I promise there are no trick questions. The form is simply asking: do you need this college to get a copy of your senior report card? If you do, check the box. If you don't, leave it blank. If you aren't sure - look it up!

Let's break it down:

Senior grades or mid-year grades are exactly what they sound like: your senior report card. 

There are three categories of colleges--

1) Schools that require senior grades. Example: Syracuse.
Evidence of this policy:
http://admissions.syr.edu/apply/firstyearrequirements/appchecklist/

Note you see in the requirements list: "Senior Year Grade Report" - other terms you might see include: 7th semester grades, mid-year report, or senior grades.

2) Schools that don't allow senior grades. Example: Penn State.
Evidence of this policy:
http://admissions.psu.edu/info/future/firstyear/apply/  

Note you do not see anything about senior grades in the requirements list. In fact, they also don't consider teacher letters of recommendation "Penn State does not require letters of recommendation, nor are they used in a student’s evaluation (unless required for a specific program)."

3) Schools that will look at them if you send them, but don't require them. Example: Fordham. Evidence of this policy: http://www.fordham.edu/info/20541/how_to_apply

Note, you don't see any mention of rules mandating submission of senior grades. But, you also don't see any mention that they are not allowed.

You are in charge of 10 applications (or less). I am in charge of approximately 1,400 applications. I sadly do not have every school's policy memorized and since most schools fall under the third category I have no way to know if you do or don't want your grades sent. You have to tell me, that is why the box is there :)

If you are applying to a school where grades are optional, and you feel not so confident in your senior grades, DON'T CHECK THE BOX. If something drastic changes and you change your mind later, you can always tell me via email (please list every school name, please don't just send an email saying 'send all my schools my senior grades.')

So when will grades be sent? Early round schools (EA/ED/Priority/REA/SCEA) will have senior grades sent after the first marking period. Regular Decision schools will have grades sent in January after the second marking period (the middle of the year, hence mid-year). All deferred students from Early will automatically have their report card sent in January since the college is saying they need additional information before their can make a final decision. (Though, I should add, this will only happen if the student accurately records being deferred in Naviance. If you don't record it, I won't know you are being considered in Regular.)

Reminder: Your mid-year grades will come in the form of your report card. So teacher comments and attendance records will also be included. (Psssssst: this is the part where you are inoculated against senioritis). 

Like most of the the college process - when things seem overwhelming just slow down. Read the instructions. Be mindful. It will speed up my document processing if your forms are accurate, which helps you in the long run because it means your application becomes complete faster.

One more week until November 1!

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Saturday, October 3, 2015

NACAC San Diego Day 3



The last three sessions of the conference happened today.

I started my morning at a session about letters of recommendation at highly selective colleges. The presenters gave insight as to what information is most useful and general guidelines for writing effective letters. The theme was mainly to emphasize that the role of a letter of recommendation is to place the student in context and help the reader understand how the student operates in comparison to their peers. This doesn’t only mean repeating how their grades stack up compared to the rest of the class. It means giving background on things that might not already be included on the application. For example, one of the panelists shared that she was having an issue with a student who was late for a meeting with her. When she went to go find him, she discovered that he was in the cafeteria tutoring a peer in AP Calculus. This anecdote gives context beyond the fact that he is a strong math student, but that he is also someone willing to sacrifice his own timeliness to help a peer understand complex coursework. There was also an emphasis on keeping letters to one page (something, with over 100 letters to write per year, I already do). There was also some discussion of helping put the the student in context compared to the rest of the state/nation. This might mean pointing out that a student is in the top quartile band of test takers for males in the state, etc.

Perhaps the most buzzed about session of the conference this year though was the session I went to next: The Coalition For Access, Affordability, and Success. For those that haven’t seen the press release from earlier this week, there is a group of about 80 colleges (all of whom graduate at least 70% of their students in six years and who are either private and meet full demonstrated financial need or are public and have affordable in-state tuition for residents of their state) who are rolling out a new approach to the college search and application process called the Coalition Application. In full disclosure, I also feel obligated to share that I have been asked to join the Coalition Counselor Community (CCC), a group of 46 high school counselors and CBO representatives from around the nation to serve as an advisory board to the Coalition, so I have a bit of a unique perspective. For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to present the comments that were brought up in the session with limited personal comments of my own. I do this partially because I’m in a fortunate position to have a way to directly comment to the Coalition Board via the CCC and partially because this has been a highly volatile topic of discussion in the counseling community over the past week and I don’t think a blog post is the most productive forum to use as a soapbox.

Some background: two years ago, the Common Application 4 went live and there were admittedly some major bumps in the road. Students were frustrated, school counselors were putting out fires left and right, and colleges felt betrayed by the roll out of an application that clearly hadn’t been well tested and wasn’t technologically sound. Reading schedules were impacted, hours of overtime was put in, and many colleges felt they needed to take action. Discussions turned from the theoretical to the concrete when the Coalition was founded in June of 2015 and this group has now made public their plan to roll out a brand new way to reach students: using technology and reflection to serve as an alternative to the Common Application for these 80+ partner schools. 

The session opened with a transparent disclosure that the Coalition is a work in progress. They have lofty goals and they know it. They want to level the playing field in admissions, giving low income students the chance to better understand how to be matched with high quality colleges that will reduce their debt burden. They feel that technology, and this Coalition site, can help to do that by giving students a virtual locker. This locker will be a place to store academic achievements, upload video, write reflective essays, and keep track of their high school involvement both inside and outside of the classroom. Students will have the ability to share their locker contents with the influential adults in their lives, and even its been proposed with the colleges themselves, to get feedback in the years leading up to the fall of senior year. These locker items can then be utilized in the 12th grade to include in their Coalition Application. The locker will be rolled out in January of 2016 and the application is proposed to go live in the summer of 2016. This is a pretty major power play from some of the most selective colleges in the country. They are taking a bold stance in saying that the college application process should welcome innovation and that the market share of the Common App was turning into a monopoly.  They believe there is room for more than one option for students. Coalition schools want more autonomy in their application design than the Common App was giving and they feel that the transactional nature of applying to college during one semester of senior year is missing a chance for innovation and creativity.  The aim is make the application to college more reflective—a chance for, in their words, self-discovery.

Before opening up for questions, the presenters commented on the three themes of repeated concerns they have already heard this week.

1)   Concern: This will feed the frenzy. Response: They hear us. They reiterated that colleges will not have access to the student locker contents and will not be viewing anything in advance. If a student puts a paper there in the 9th grade, it won’t be shared with anyone unless the student chooses to share it. The locker can be used by any student, even students not planning to file a Coalition Application.
2)   Concern: Feedback was that the word "portfolio" was bad - it sounds evaluative. Response: They are calling it a locker now. It is not evaluative. Aim is to help student see their own progress and connect their work in high school with their path to college.
3)   Concern: This will create additional work for students and counselors. Response: For some students/counselors this will be less work because colleges that used to have their own separate non-Common App application will now all be able to be submitted on one platform. (Example Given: a student can apply to Maryland, Clemson, Emory, and Smith on one site. The current system would require three sites).

The following topics were brought up during the discussion. Again, I’m listing them here without my own comments. I’ll leave it to you as the reader to ponder:
  • If the goal of Coalition is to help not overburden the school counselor, but this is rolled out without segmented communication to the different stakeholders, the questions will be directed to the school counselor who now has to serve as the liaison to explain what this is, what it means, and how to use it.
  • Instead having essays on the Coalition Application, call them reflections
  • Won’t this longer process favor wealthier students who have the ability to get better and higher quality feedback? Is there going to be a surge in demand for independent college consultants?
  • Will students be so busy preparing for their college application that they miss out on high school? Are we pushing kids toward goals they aren’t developmentally ready for? Are educational psychologists and mental health professionals being consulted to keep cognitive development in mind?
  • Is having that feature of getting feedback on the locker contents letting everyone play college counselor, even if they may not be qualified to do so? Perhaps an answer to this could be that there would be transparency to show who exactly has given feedback and what their relation is to the student.
  • From a college admission perspective, who is going to be evaluating the Coalition Applications? How will this change the reading/committee process?
  • If this was born from the ill-conceived and rushed roll out of Common App 4, is this roll out also being rushed? Is there a risk that the speedy timeline will result in the same kind of difficulty for everyone involved? People feel they need hard deadlines with lots of advance notice.
  • If the mission is access, why are some colleges excluded?
  • If the aim of this initiative is college access, why isn’t this application only for low income students? (Many of these comments/questions got applause from the audience – think of it like Congress clapping at the State of the Union-- but this comment/question got, by far, the longest and loudest sustained response from the room)
  • How will student privacy issues be addressed? How can the feedback feature maintain confidentiality and privacy?
  • Colleges, even with the best of intentions, might think they know what it is like on the high school side of the desk, but they have no idea. Is involving school counselors this late in the game, three months before the locker goes live, a problem?

Frankly, we ran out of time. I’m certain these issues are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the thoughts that counselors and colleges had in the room. I’m eager to continue the dialogue via the CCC and will sit back and watch, like everyone, how the Coalition’s first year goes.

My final session of NACAC 2015 was about the redesigned CSS Profile. Frankly, the best thing I took from this session was a helpful analogy to help families understand the purpose of the Profile. If a GPA gives you an overview and a full transcript gives the details, a FAFSA gives you an overview and the CSS Profile gives the more nuanced details. 

Just like every year, I leave NACAC feeling energized and renewed. Working as a college counselor alone in school with 560 college bound students is a lonely job. I'm fortunate to have a network of New York City colleagues that proactively meet together every few months, but being lucky enough to be supported by the PTA and my administration to attend a national conference of this scale every year is something I value deeply. I recognize the privilege I have and take this time to reflect on the thousands of other counselors that work in the trenches and don't have the chance to participate in this yearly gathering. Until next year-- in Columbus, Ohio!

NACAC San Diego Day 2


Day two of the conference started with a breakfast hosted by Irish universities. We heard from three college reps who gave reasons as to why an Irish education might be a good fit for international students (aka, kids from US high schools looking to attend college in Ireland). Among their points: Ireland is safe, English speaking, and well respected on the international stage. Unlike the UK system, Irish schools last four years, just like American schools. While the admission criteria is a little different (here, similar to the UK, essays need to be about the course of study and why the student is qualified to pursue the field), the process seems significantly easier than navigating the UCAS system. In fact, one is even on the Common App. The cost is also attractive, particularly because US students are eligible for merit scholarships. While a student would be giving up Federal and State aid to go to college in Ireland, they may still save in the long run net cost in comparison to US Private colleges.

Next, I attended the Keynote address by Sal Khan of the Khan Academy. In anticipation of the speech, I read his book this summer, so I was already familiar with some of his anecdotes and his educational philosophy. I have to admit, he is one impressive man. Unlike a lot of other 'rising star' experts in education, I actually believe he has an authentic passion for his mission. I found him to be endearing and genuine and the additional features he demonstrated from his site were impressive. I myself will be trying the Khan Academy Redesigned SAT prep this winter. Part of why I was a little suspect of him before was that I couldn't help but pre-judge someone that would get in cahoots with the College Board. But I have to say, it seems like this really is just a case of the College Board getting lucky in finding the right man for the job. Their quest to knock the test prep industry down a peg by offering high quality free test preparation and his quest to provide full opportunity to anyone willing to learn really does seem to be a smart partnership for both sides. One of my favorite clips that he showed was this-- a great reminder that if you go back far enough we were once all on a level playing field. Everything you do now, you had to learn. He said that our goal as educators is to help young people find a growth mindset - believing in themselves that working through failures is just part of the process of learning. It was an enjoyable talk, particularly nice because it really had a direct connection to our work (something that all Keynote speakers don't always have). I'm particularly excited to also check out the Khan Academy College Counseling resources - found here.

My first educational session of the day was on understanding student Search. What that means, for those of you not in the industry, is that it was about understanding how colleges utilize the services from the ACT and College Board for purchasing the names of students in order to use that data to guide their enrollment management. I often try at NACAC to attend sessions that aren't necessarily for high school counselors because I think it is useful to be able to understand the intricacies of the other side of the desk. One of the more interesting points that I learned here is that of the search criteria offered, only about 16% of colleges buy names using race/ethnicity as a criteria for selection. I think this speaks to the often over-exaggerated impact of race and ethnicity on college admission. The fear that racial diversity trumps all is not shown in the data. Colleges remain most interested in high test scores, GPA, and perhaps most interesting: Geography (where the student lives). (These criteria each had between 75-98% of colleges using them to buy names).

Next, I attended the session about how students transition from small high schools to large colleges. Many of my college meetings consist of conversations with students about the size of the undergraduate student body and the interest in going to a huge school after attending a small high school. Unsurprisingly, the message of the session was that it all boils down to fit. Some students are able to thrive with anonymity and turning larger schools smaller by finding their niche. Others aren't cut out for life at a huge university and will do better in a small college environment.

The rest of the day was spent at the exhibition hall and counselor college fair. This overwhelming and exhausting endeavor consists of all of us walking around a college fair (just like students) - trying to catch the eye of college reps to have quick conversations. I tend to err on the side of making quick connections via a huge smile, wave, and badge scan so I can be on mailing lists to get the real details throughout the year via email. By the end of the day on Friday, full on exhaustion has set in, but my smile is always wide as ever after getting to see so many colleagues from both sides of the desk.

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Friday, October 2, 2015

NACAC San Diego Day 1


Today was the first official day of the conference. I had the chance to attend an event hosted by SMU, go to two educational sessions, and go to the NYSACAC membership meeting.

SMU, a medium sized university in Dallas, Texas, did an innovative thing by hosting a lecture with one of their faculty in the morning before the conference started. This was an awesome idea, both because it reminded me of why I loved college so much (I was a 'never skip a class' kind of person) and because it let us see one of their best assets in action. Admission stats can be viewed online, but hearing directly from a professor talking about the subject they are an expert in is at the core of the college experience. We heard from Jeffrey Engel, a History professor about the importance and usefulness of the liberal arts - in this case a specific analysis of how the events of 1989 were viewed differently by America, Western Europe, Russia, and China. These viewpoints then have an impact on foreign policy now and illustrate how the lessons learned in the past can be used to gain a deeper understanding of current conflicts. He spoke on how the study of history - a liberal arts subject - is essential to make economic and business decisions. I especially liked his commentary on how while majoring in business might get you your first job, majoring in the liberal arts is what will get you your first promotion. This is due to the ability to read critically, write well, link interdisciplinary ideas, and see things from a broader context. SMU has about 6,500 undergraduate students and 5,200 graduate students on a campus that looks like something more out of the southeast -- thing white columns, brick, sprawling quads, etc. There are five undergraduate schools: Humanities & Sciences, Business, Engineering, Arts, and Education & Human Development. Dallas offers one of the best placed in the country for job opportunities and the campus is the home to the Bush Presidential Library (the only campus to be able to say they have a Presidential Library on campus). I couldn't help but notice that SMU consistently brands itself as SMU. I'm not sure if it is intentional to avoid boxing themselves in as Southern and Methodist or if it is just habit to use the letters instead of the full name. I am curious though to know how a New York City student would fit in. It was encouraging to hear that on pretty much every metric, if Rice is the number one private college in Texas, SMU is right behind them at number two. Considering about 50% of students are admitted, like USD earlier this week, this is a nice target option for many ElRo students. Reliable academics without insane competition for admission.

The first session I attended was the one on the Common Application. I like trying to attend this one every year so that I can be in the know when students ask me questions. I think most counselors would agree that one of the most exciting changes for this year's site is the ability for students to preview the application, page by page, without going through the motions as if they are going to be pressing submit. This reduces stress and allows students to see how the page will look to the reader. It was also nice to hear about some new initiatives for providing help via both phone and online chat - though it wasn't clear if this was only for counselors or if was also for students. It was also revealed that later this year there will be a Common App App for iPhone that will allow students to track their deadlines and organize their 'to do' list. While it isn't an app that will allow for editing of the application (this makes sense) it will help students as a companion to the web based application site. The final piece of useful information that I gleaned from this session was a new turnkey site for counselors to get ready-made lessons to help support students in filling out the Common App. This site, called Common App Ready, is something we could maybe use in Advisory to help further give instruction to students about how to be more comfortable with the site.

The second session I attended was called 'Behind the Curtain of Financial Aid.' While I'm not sure it was a full peek behind the curtain (this, by design, is kind of hard to do in a panel setting because the inner-workings of aid are different at every single school), it did help me connect a few things that I think are helpful in navigating the financial aid website. The first thing that I hadn't fully connected before was the idea that two schools, both that say they meet 100% of demonstrated need, can offer the same family significantly different packages. This has to do with the fact that while the Federal EFC from the FAFSA is constant at both schools, the Institutional Methodology formula for institutional aid is different at every school. So even if both schools require the CSS profile, they may or may not weight certain factors in their algorithm and that can skew things for the student. So, it behooves the student to research ahead of time how every question on the CSS is, or isn't, used by the college if they are trying to create a list that will yield maximum aid. It was promising to hear about a website that the presenter found helpful in looking through the data surrounding aid and packaging - in fact, the session crashed the site with so many people logging on to check it out. The site is called Common Campus, but I was disappointed to see (once the site was up and running again) that it is a subscription service.

The day of sessions ended with the annual NYSACAC meeting - a gathering of NY professionals from both sides of the desk. It is always great to see so many familiar faces. This year, the NYSACAC conference is being held in Staten Island at Wagner College, which means I may have a chance to be able to participate. I can't wait!

Tomorrow is another long day - starting off with the Keynote address from Sal Khan of Khan Academy!

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

USD and SDSU Tours

Day two of California touring brought me to the University of San Diego and San Diego State University.
This picture was taken out a dorm room doorway at USD. Not a dorm building doorway, an actual dorm ROOM. Repeat, this is the view from a dorm room.
First up was the University of San Diego, USD, a Catholic college with 5,700 students. They were voted the most beautiful urban campus and I can't disagree. It honestly feels like you are walking around a Disney park or a movie set, with the palm trees and the pristine buildings. (In reality, the school is modeled off of a university in Alcala, Spain). A little under half of the students here are Catholic, but it I got the sense that it really doesn't play an enormous role on campus. They are run by an independent board of directors, not a branch of the church, so religious influence is not quite as salient as it might be at a place with priests and nuns present on campus. This medium size school does have a core curriculum and it isn't going anywhere any time soon. Something that DID noteably go away is Early Action - a few years ago the school went back to just having a single regular decision deadline. They might be bucking the trend, but it is a welcome relief to the frenzy that surrounds the November deadlines. Instead, just apply by December 15 and expect to hear back by early March. Academic offerings range from studio art to engineering. In pretty starck difference from the quiet Claremont schools yesterday, USD was buzzing with activity (despite having a similar number of students enrolled - when you combine the 5 Claremonts together). The campus felt busy and dynamic and students walking around looked happy. Maybe the best part though is that the admitted student profile for USD is almost identical to that of the typical ElRo students. They admit about 50% of students that apply, making them a nice way to balance out a California-centric list.

In the afternoon, I went to the largest school that I'll be seeing on this tour: San Diego State University. This is also the only public school that I got to see. With about 30,000 undergraduate students, the vibe here was understandably different. On our way into lunch we passed by a full-on concert from a student band. This is the kind of school I think people imagine when they picture college in the movies -- an endless list of clubs and organizations, greek life, athletics, many majors, and lots and lots of people. I couldn't help but notice that SDSU has multiple construction projects going on - usually a sign of financial health and expansion. This school also did something I've never seen before, they had their student body president address the crowd. It was neat to hear from her and a refreshing change from the normal academic deans or faculty members. Maybe most noticeable for me was the price. SDSU is $33,962 for out of state residents, and that is WITH room and board. Considering places like Michigan are now pushing $70,000 per year, this is a nice opportunity to get that Division I experience for only a few thousand dollars more than a SUNY. And did I mention it is in Southern California? Because it is public, the admission process is a little different. California public schools have something called A-G requirements and they recalculate self reported grades into a new GPA-- more information about this can be found online. Like any big school, this is only a good fit for students who are going to be responsible about going to 500 person intro level lectures and who can learn in that type of setting. But with understanding of how to navigate the system, it could be a great fit for the right students.

Thanks to these two schools for hosting us. Conference starts tomorrow!

Claremont Colleges Tour


All this week, I'll be working from the West Coast because I'm in California for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) national conference. Today (or by the the time you read this, yesterday) I was able to tour the five Claremont Colleges located in the greater Los Angeles area. I was really excited to get to see these schools in the flesh because I've been adding them to college lists for years. They didn't disappoint! What a unique group of schools and what a great example of how so many 'good schools' can be located in virtually the exact same place and yet still be the right fit of only certain types of students.

Some background: Pomona was the first of the schools to be founded in the late 1800s- the goal being to replicate the Liberal Arts colleges of the East in the burgeoning territory near the Pacific. Over the next 80 or so years, new schools were added in what became the first truly intentionally planned consortium college system in the country. The five undergraduate schools (and two graduate schools) of Claremont fit together like a harmonious puzzle, each with their own separate operating structure, application process, and personality. Scripps college, the only women's college of the bunch, was founded in the 1920s, not surprisingly during the wave of the women's suffrage. Next came Claremont Men's College (later Claremont McKenna), in response to the G.I. Bill and the wave of veterans returning home in the 1940s. The space race of the 1960s gave birth to Harvey Mudd College, a place dedicated to the STEM fields. And last came Pitzer, the higher-ed response to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, a school committed to social justice and social awareness.

These five schools are all small, but taken together they have over 6,500 students on campuses that all butt up against one another. Truly an integrated layout of five small places part of one medium sized family, these schools have some overlap but remain true individuals.

The day started at Scripps College. Scripps is a women's college but that distinction isn't the only thing that sets it apart. Our tour guide said it best when she said, "you know in class how you have students who always do all of the reading? Those are students who should apply to Scripps." In other words, these are young women that don't cut academic corners. They study hard and enjoy it. They are leaders and are active in the classroom-- described as both multi-interested and multi-talented. This isn't a great school for party seekers -- it is a place for students who want a calm and composed college living environment. Passion and hard work are valued and expect to find lots of traditions (a common thread at women's colleges). As an aside, our tour guide also had a great general college search tip: her father used to video tape her after every college tour describing what she felt were the immediate pros and cons of the school. What a fantastic idea! (And perfect to watch at your college graduation party). In her case, she knew Scripps was the right school when she couldn't find anything wrong with it to say for the camera.

Next we headed over to Harvey Mudd College, the school for STEM. It is a liberal arts place, but the range of majors is much more narrow. As in, you can major in life sciences, engineering, math, and computer science. This is not the place to look for an Art History major but it is a place they would like for you to be able to be interested in talking about an Art History coffee table book (**with that said, if you want to take an Art History class, the beauty of the consortium set up is you can take an Art History class, just not at Harvey Mudd). Students here work hard. There is a core curriculum and it is unapologetically heavy. They made a point to emphasize how they are mission driven and that mission is to educate STEM folks who are also socially aware. The original founder of the school was a scientist who walked away from the Manhattan Project. They educate top science and math minds but also require that students take about 30% of their courses in the humaniites. Writing is a huge part of the curriculum, so a student looking to only to crunch numbers won't be happy here. Harvey Mudd described themselves as intense, supportive, and close knit. One parent supposedly refers to the students as 'Geek Marines' -- highly intellectual kids who leave no man behind, pulling their peers across the finish line in the most difficult of classes. The first semester here is pass/fail for everyone - an effort to help soften the blow for students who have been regarded as the best of the best there entire life who might not be used to earning Cs or Ds. The strongest predictor of success is attitude. Students who are able to cope with struggling and put in the effort to earn their keep are the ones that are best able to hang tough. It is fast paced, but full of safety nets to prevent students from falling through the cracks. Most of the overlaps to Harvey Mudd are much larger schools, but they are consistently grouped with places like MIT, CalTech, and Stanford because they put out engineers and scientists and mathematicians that know their stuff. All students are required to do research. There is an honor code and professors put a lot of trust in their students. This is a self-selecting place, it won't appeal to everyone. The 13% accept rate also is an indication that they don't really need to appeal to everyone. They are doing just fine.

For lunch, we next went over to Pomona. We had the chance to eat in the dining hall, probably my favorite part of these tours, yum! The largest and one of the more academically broad of the 5 Cs, Pomona reminded me of a lot of the other West Coast liberal arts colleges. The physical plant is the largest, the streets are the widest, there is more open space. As with all of the schools, the financial aid at Pomona is fantastic. They will meet demonstrated need and go even farther by eliminating loans in financial aid packages. If I had to categorize, I would say Pomona struck me as the most 'mainstream' of the schools. For a student not positive enough about their career path, Pomona feels like the place with the most room to explore (Scripps would also probably be a close second in regard to academic breadth).

Next, we made it to Pitzer. The only test-optional college of the bunch, Pitzer is the most 'alternative' and progressive of the five schools. Even down to the desert landscaping to address concerns of environmental sustainability, Pitzer walks the walk of their mission. They are about human rights, social justice, climate awareness, and cultural understanding. They live and breathe interdisciplinary studies. A person that is the right fit for Pitzer is a person who likes to solve problems through multiple pathways. We got to meet some faculty and I really liked the way one professor put it when she said that she sees her role as helping students with privilege stand in solidarity with those who have less, as opposed to give charity to those who have less. What a powerful idea. The majority of students at Pitzer study abroad. They seek out new perspectives and are open to taking risks. Another way to tell a Pitzer student is by their clothing-- casual is the dress code. Formality just isn't their thing. This shouldn't be confused with casual learning -- thought here is deep and meaningful. There just isn't a need for pretense, no air of rigidity, instead students and faculty value being bold, being creative, and taking the paths less traveled.

The final school of the five that we saw was Claremont McKenna. This school is more focused on economics, political science, and government. We only had two students talk to us on the panel, but they were both awesome. Extroverted, eager, honest, and friendly these are young people that are not wallflowers. Hallmarks of CMC are valuing a pragmatic liberal arts education. Taking things beyond the classroom and making them hands on is the driving force behind the institution. There is an emphasis on leadership and an expectation of an equal balance between what are seen as the three parts of a student's life: their academic life, their social life, and their profession life. These are go-getters. This place is for high achievers who are confident and bright. Different from Pitzer, Claremont McKenna students are more on the formal side of the spectrum. If you see a suit on campus, the student probably goes to CMC. Ambition is king (or queen), being goal-oriented is a must, and the motto is: civilization prospers with commerce.

All in all, it was a lot to see five schools in one day. But, I definitely gained a lot of great insight as to what makes each of these schools unique. Much like the painful Today Show features on the kids that get into every Ivy League school, it would be misguided for a student to apply to and be the right fit for all five of these places. That kind of list means that the student isn't paying attention to the schools and their identities. At most, I can't imagine any one student being the right fit for more than three of these schools. They just differ to much in their missions and strengths. But, for anyone considering a California school, give these 5 a second look. The chance to be at a small school with great financial aid in concert with 4 other adjacent schools is too great of an opportunity to pass up.

Thank you to the Claremont schools for hosting me!

On deck tomorrow: San Diego school visits . . .


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Thanks Siena!


Earlier this summer, I was able to participate in a counselor visit program at Siena College, located in Albany, New York. This Franciscan (Catholic) college proved that it has a lot to offer. The small student body allows for personalized and individualized education. Their founding principles are: Diversity, Optimism, Respect, and Service.

They had, hands down, one of the best student panels I have ever listened to (and this marks my 126th campus visit). The fact that it occurred during the summer is even more mind blowing (typically the options for students to hand pick from is much more limited over the summer since the majority of students are not on campus). What I liked about it is they really presented a wide variety of students, each passionate about their academic interests and reasons for picking Siena. Unique programs include: an 8 year medical combined degree program, an honors division, and a Bonner Scholarship program for students committed to community service.

Siena is now testing optional (yay!) but note that demonstrated interest does count. A little over half of the applicants are granted admission. They are also very supportive of transfer students, so if they don't admit a student they are willing to work with them to find a way for them to potentially transfer in the future if they are seriously interested in Siena.

Overall, it was a really lovely campus visit and Siena was a great host. For students open to going to a small school located near Albany, this would make a solid addition to the list. The staff and students were welcoming and energetic -- two very important things!

Thanks Siena!

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