Mar 17, 2015

Jay Mathews and Dean J clash over who knows best

University of Virginia

It wasn’t exactly a “smackdown” worthy of the WWE, but when Jay Mathews, education report for the Washington POST, crossed the line yesterday by offering his services as a college admissions advisor, UVa’s Jeannine Lalonde (Smith), otherwise known as “Dean J,” made very clear what she thought of the idea.

PSA: If you have questions about #UVA admission, read my blog or call us! Emailing a reporter for advice doesn't make any sense,” tweeted Ms. Lalonde to her 5,333 followers.
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Followers of UVa’s Dean J know she is a very active presence on social media.  She regularly tweets, posts on Instagram, comments on College Confidential, and writes a very popular blog on behalf of Virginia’s admissions department.

She does all this this while putting in an aggressive schedule of high school visits, reading applications, and looking after a very handsome golden retriever she’s dubbed “CavDog" (not his real name) for the UVa “Cavalier” mascot

Jay Mathews, a distinguished journalist for more than 40 years, enjoys a huge national audience from his position at the POST.  He’s also authored a book titled, Harvard Schmarvard, which continues to be widely recommended for insights into the slightly crazed college admissions process.

But yesterday, Mathews strayed into Dean J’s territory by posting an article on how many Advanced Placement (AP) courses a student might need to take for admission to a highly selective college or university—like the University of Virginia.  Mathews is a great fan of the Advanced Placement program and frequently writes articles defending their worth.

Using the University of Virginia as an example, Mathews comes to the conclusion that for most colleges, students don’t need to take nine or 10 APs, although the one very competitive science and technology high school he cited may be an exception to the rule.

At the conclusion of his article, Mathews underscores his confidence as an admissions adviser by offering, “If you too are confused about the admission system, e-mail me.”  He graciously adds, “If U-Va. doesn’t take [the student debating AP classes], other great colleges will.”

But this seemed a little out of line to at least one member of the Charlottesville admissions office, and she said so in a tweet.

The question of how many APs is enough APs is really not so simple and is definitely complicated by where you go to high school, what you want to study, and where you want to study it.  There is no one size fits all.  

And what seems to get lost in the conversation is that the biggest winner in the “How many APs” debate is the College Board, which makes millions of dollars luring increasing numbers of anxious college-bound students into their program.  It’s not the quality of the curriculum or individual class that counts as much as the notch on the belt.

Make no mistake, selective colleges like UVa notice how many AP courses appear on a transcript, and the bar varies as a measure of how much the student has been “challenged” by taking the most “rigorous” curriculum available in the high school.

And the bar for the single Fairfax County public high school Mathews uses as an example in his article appears to be extraordinarily high and inexplicably getting higher for admission to the Commonwealth’s flagship university.

But both admissions experts make good points.  Jay Mathews is right that most colleges and universities don’t expect students to have completed 9 or ten AP classes.   And Dean J is right that if you want answers about specific college expectations, go directly to the source.  

The question of why there even needs to be such a measure remains for another day.

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