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.


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!


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!


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:  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!