Jul 29, 2009

That Was Now

For rising juniors looking forward to enduring one form or other of US History during the coming school year, I share your pain. It’s a rite of passage. Even if your parents and I had less US history to learn—it having effectively ended with the Truman administration, we still had to spend at least one full year of high school knee deep in explorers, civil war heroes, WWI battles, and Hitler’s march across Europe.

But I have a plan to ease you into whatever it is you dread come September, be it US, AP US, History of the Americas, or Virginia History. As part of my low stress/no stress summer prep program, I am recommending tuning in to BackStory with the American History Guys. No kidding. There’s no heavy lifting here. In fact you can download a relatively painless dose of history (including back programs) onto your iPod and go about your business of jogging, mowing the lawn, sunbathing, or otherwise zoning out around the house.

Now here’s the secret: BackStory is an entirely enjoyable way to learn US History. These three guys are funny and entertaining. And unlike historical movies like Mel Gibson’s Patriot or Oliver Stone’s JFK, this stuff is true. Starting with topics ripped from today’s headlines, BackStory spends an hour exploring historical context from the point of view of the three “History Guys,” each of whom represents a century in American history. Other historians (including Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust), people in the news, and outside callers provide the show with “color.” You can find the History Guys on Facebook, you can subscribe to their newsletter, or you can listen locally on WAMU, the NPR affiliate.

If an hour is too much of a commitment, you can find 90 second snippets of American history offered by Central Washington University free of charge at the iTunes store. I particularly enjoyed the “Entertainment and Teen Culture” segment since it squarely placed blame for the roots of teen rebellion on my grandmother. Or if you want to dig a little deeper, check out some real university professors in iTunes U. Recommended lecturers include Yale University’s David Blight and Stanford’s Jack Rakove, both of whom offer fairly specific US History courses online. In addition, The Do It Yourself Scholar recommends three survey classes from Temple College (TX), the University of Alaska Southeast, and UC Berkeley.

Why all the sudden interest in US history? “Because that was now…and this is then”—The History Guys.

Jul 28, 2009

Black Listed

In a carefully worded press release designed to generate sales of its latest college manual, the Princeton Review debuted the results yesterday of surveys conducted with 122,000 students attending schools designated the 371 best colleges in America. Within seconds, the Princeton Review website crashed or at least became inaccessible as thousands of interested parties raced to learn which schools earned distinctions on the 62 published ranking lists. I know this because I was simultaneously trying to verify information for yesterday’s post on salaries and could not for the life of me understand why the system kept denying access to last year's list of top party schools.

This morning, various news sources picked up the Princeton Review release and I can already see stories rolling out across the country as schools are asked to react to placement on such glamorous lists as “Happiest Students” or the less flattering “Dorms Like Dungeons.” Naturally I had to sneak a peak which necessitated opening yet another account in my cat’s name and thereby exposing my mailbox to waves of print material from various test prep sponsors and a few colleges paying to use the mailing list generated by those seeking to learn what 122,000 unscientifically polled undergraduates have to say about the institutions they attend. All I conclude is that it might be better not to be among the 371 best colleges in America than to appear on the “Least Beautiful Campus” or “Is This a Library?” lists.

While the Princeton Review press release gently tries to steer interest in their latest list of green rated schools and earnestly directs attention to the winners in such categories as “Best Financial Aid,” most press will inevitably flow toward schools listed as “Lots of Hard Liquor” and “Reefer Madness.” I’m not a particular fan because no one looks beyond the sensational headlines for methodology, and unattractive labels tend to stick. Pity the school described as “where fun goes to die” or the college where professors are described as inaccessible. While high school students might be intrigued by various party designations, parents view some of these lists in the way of cautionary tales—schools to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, the urban legends that spin-off from these stories tend to have a long half-life and reputations aren’t easily rehabilitated. Mention the University of West Virginia in this area and you’re guaranteed to get a response more in line with its party reputation than its standing among the few colleges offering petroleum engineering.

I suppose the moral of the story is that for some colleges, publicity—any publicity is welcome. For others, these kinds of rankings produce an ongoing headache of trying to explain the unscientific nature of the study or to laugh away a survey presumably conducted in the spirit of good fun. There will be colleges issuing press releases of their own in the next few days, while others will seek not to publicize less flattering standings. There will be those that try to capitalize on the survey while others will avoid the discussion entirely. You can tell a great deal about a school by how they spin the Princeton Review rankings.

Jul 27, 2009

Paycheck U

Which schools produce graduates earning the highest paychecks? That’s a question PayScale.com attempts to answer each year through a survey conducted of site users willing to provide detailed information on how much money they’re making, at what profession, after having graduated from which college or university. This year, 1.2 million college grads participated in the annual income accounting which neatly breaks schools into subcategories including top state universities, engineering schools, party schools, and top overall paycheck producers. Although the survey methodology is based on self-reported data and may not be highly scientific, the results are worth considering if return on investment is one factor in how you think about colleges. Note that the data considers only those college grads whose education went no further then bachelor’s degrees, so high rollers like doctors, dentists, and lawyers don’t skew survey results.

Not surprisingly, engineering schools produce the best starting salaries.

Engineering Schools

Starting Median Salary

Mid-Career Median Salary




Harvey Mudd College









Rensselaer (RPI)



Cal Tech



Polytechnic Institute of NYU






Carnegie Mellon



UC Berkeley



The only Virginia school appearing on the engineering list is Virginia Tech which comes in 25th place with a starting median salary of $52,000 and a mid-career median of $97,400.

Virginia, however, does somewhat better in the top state universities category:

State Colleges and Universities

Starting Median Salary

Mid-Career Median Salary

UC Berkeley



Colorado School of Mines



Georgia Tech



NJ Institute of Technology



UC San Diego



Cal Poly



Univ. of IL Urbana-Champaign


$ 99,700

UC Santa Barbara


$ 98,400

VA Tech


$ 97,400



$ 97,200

The top overall producers for starting salaries were Loma Linda University ($71,400), MIT ($71,100), Harvey Mudd College ($71,000), Cal Tech ($69,700) and Stanford ($67,500). The highest median mid-career salaries went to Dartmouth ($129,000), Harvard ($126,000), MIT ($126,000), Harvey Mudd College ($125,000), and Stanford/Princeton ($124,000). Beyond the top ten, Virginia public schools are represented by the College of William and Mary (27), George Mason University (46), James Madison University (118), Old Dominion (122), and Virginia Commonwealth University (196).

And as for the top party schools?

Salary Potential

Party Potential*

College or University



U of IL—Urbana Champaign






UC Santa Barbara



U of Colorado-Boulder



University of Texas



University of Florida



Pennsylvania State University



University of Alabama



Arizona State University



Randolph Macon (VA)

*Based on the Princeton Review 2009 Top 20 Party Schools.

Jul 26, 2009

VA Private College Week

Be there or be square! Virginia Private College Week begins tomorrow and ends Saturday, August 1st.

Jul 25, 2009

Blog in Review: Two Months In

Blogging is not without its highs and lows. On my official two-month anniversary and after 50 posts (including some that began as email communications last year), I can report the following:

1. Collegiate Snuggies: After what seemed like an interminable delay, the makers of Collegiate Snuggies finally launched their product employing the same annoying video that so successfully marketed the original blanket with sleeves. With 51 college logos from which to choose, you’d think they’d do something a little more creative.

2. Unigo: To quote Mark Sklarow, Executive Director of the IECA, “Kudos" to Unigo for amending a negative post on an otherwise positive website dedicated to helping high school students understand the college admissions process. After receiving push back from a few of us in the field, Mike Dang dug a little deeper and found more about independent college counselors to love.

3. Chauffeurs International: Many thanks for linking up with College Explorations. I am completely delighted to add drivers to my growing list of dedicated readers.

4. IECA: The IECA blog is a goldmine of advice and information targeted to independent educational counselors and others with similar interests. It is an honor to have my work listed with other member blogs.

5. Do or Die: The College Admissions Process: No other post has come close in terms of popularity. The video, made by high school students, really is funny—especially the part about the parents.

6. New York Times: Steinberg’s response to the controversy generated by his front-page piece was less than satisfying. By ending on a negative note, he effectively erased any good that may have come by grudgingly admitting his characterization of college counselors was way harsh.

7. CollegeHumor.com: You know you’ve made it when your work appears in satire or as grist for the college humor mill. But if anyone can explain what this means (the original is much funnier), please do.

I’m waiting for the blog to go viral.

Thanks everyone.

Jul 24, 2009

Snake Oil Salesmen

It appears that either Jacques Steinberg or Penn’s President Amy Gutmann may have been doing a little light summer reading. In an oddly coincidental turn of phrase quoted by Steinberg in his controversial New York Times article, Dr. Gutmann employs the term “snake oil salesman” when referring to the role of independent counselors in the college admissions process. “I guess there are snake oil salesman [sic] in every field…and they are preying on vulnerable and anxious people.” Insulting, but not original it seems.

In her newly released novel entitled Admission, Jean Hanff Korelitz makes a similar reference:

“He had a horror of the so-called new rules of admission, the outsmarting and end runs and decoding now rampant out there, the snake-oil salesmen promising to package and sell your kid to his or her school of choice.” (p. 211)

A graduate of Dartmouth University, Ms. Korelitz worked as a part time reader for Princeton’s Office of Admission during the 2006-07 school year. This experience becomes the backdrop for a fictional examination of the life and loves of a perimenopausal admissions reader who symbolically carts folders containing applications to Princeton up and down the east coast. Recommended by Oprah as one of “25 books you can’t put down,” Admission was reviewed in Steinberg’s column The Choice by a high school senior who concludes after reading the fictional account of a typical college admissions cycle, “High school seniors may also take comfort in thinking that they weren’t rejected on their merits, but because the admissions officer was off her rocker.”

In her acknowledgments, Ms. Korelitz extravagantly praises The Gatekeepers, Steinberg’s insider account of the college admissions process at Wesleyan University, as “…the best depiction of how the [admissions] process currently works.” While Dr. Gutmann can be excused for a little annoyance at former Admissions Dean Lee Stetson’s decision to spend his retirement profiteering from his experience at Penn, I can’t help but wonder if her quote might have had roots elsewhere. I just wish she would publicly explain, apologize, or retract.

Jul 23, 2009

UVA Class of 2013: Most Diverse, Best Qualified, and Increasingly Engineer

Closing the books on the 2008-09 admissions cycle, the University of Virginia (UVA) Office of Admissions announced an incoming class characterized as the “most diverse and best qualified” in school history. It’s been a tough year with the death of long-time admissions dean Jack Blackburn and the subsequent transition to a new administration under Gregory Roberts. The turn in the economy brought further complications as state residents applied to UVA in record numbers producing a more than 20% jump in applicants for spots in the class of 2013.

As if the change in leadership and deluge of applications weren’t enough, UVA switched to the Common Application, implemented a paperless application process, and went to an all-online reading procedure. But everyone seems to have survived as the Office of Admission recently notified students on the wait list for first year and transfer applicants that no further seats were available. I imagine more than one UVA staff person hit the beach with a sigh of relief.

For those keeping track, here are some numbers provided by the UVA Office of Admission:
  • The applicant pool increased from 18,048 in 2008 to 21,839, from which UVA made offers to 6,775 students or about 31% of the students seeking admission. Last year, offers were made to 6,274 students.
  • About 49% or 3,308 students accepted offers of admission. UVA officials expect a summer “melt” of about 60 students who will drop out before the official census in October, bringing the class close to the target enrollment of 3,240 or slightly less than the 3,260 who enrolled in the fall of 2008.
  • The class of 2013 boasts of impressive qualifications: 88.5% ranked in the top 10% of their high school classes (up from 87.6% last year) and SAT scores were up by about 10 points from a year ago. The median score on the critical reading and math sections of the SAT rose to 1350, with the middle 50% of the entering class scoring between 1250 and 1430.
  • Virginians make up 67% of the entering first-year class.
  • An estimated 205 students qualified for full need-based, all-grant packages under UVA’s AccessUVA financial aid program, up from 170 last year.
  • The first-year class appears more diverse than ever with 303 African-Americans (up from 280 last year), 203 Hispanics (up from 125), 212 foreign nationals (up from 189), and 27 Native Americans (up from 7).

Although admissions officials anticipated more in-state students and fewer non-Virginians would accept offers, numbers only changed slightly from the previous year. “More families are concerned about how to pay for college,” said Dean Roberts. “But in the decision to come, the recession didn’t affect this class as much as we thought it would.” He goes on to note, however, that one curious trend had the office scrambling as many students who were initially accepted into the College of Arts & Sciences requested a switch to the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Most were accommodated.

Jul 22, 2009

Park That Thought

When I went away to college, I frankly gave very little thought to the quality of the amenities package I could expect as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. I knew the water in the pool at the Weightman Gym was reputed to be very cold, but what fool would be sampling the waters if you could pass the mandatory swim test? Hot tub? I don’t think so. Climbing wall—well maybe, if you count getting over the brick and mortar façade that surrounded the women’s dorm. Computer access? Yes, but the darn thing took up an entire city block. Parking? Not likely unless you paid off one of the proprietors of the many mob-own lots that surrounded campus. Then again, who would think of bringing a car to Philadelphia? I certainly didn’t.

But times have changed. The twenty-first century college student expects a certain quality of life. Running late to class? Can’t find a parking spot? Don’t stress: the University of Southern California (USC) offers daily valet service. You can toss the keys to an attendant Monday through Friday, 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Or, you can make a parking reservation online for expedited service. Columbia University and Cal State Sacramento also offer some combination of valet and “premium” parking for students. New York City, I understand, but what’s the parking issue at Cal State? Then there’s Florida International University, where you can leave your car with the valet and order up a wash and wax while taking your accounting midterm or attending an anthropology lecture.

High Point University in North Carolina also offers a valet service, but ups the ante with the availability of a concierge desk, free treats from a roaming ice cream truck, and a hot tub conveniently located in the center of campus. The High Point concierge handles maintenance requests, gives restaurant recommendations, sends out dry cleaning, and provides automated wake-up calls effectively doing away with one particular excuse for missing class. Gee, and I was impressed by the free yellow bicycles conveniently parked on racks located around Eckerd College for student use and the no-charge washing machines offered in all Stanford University dorms. I guess my standards must be low.

Jul 20, 2009

Got Talent?

Students in the performing and visual arts have fantastic opportunities to meet representatives from colleges, universities, conservatories, and other educational institutions with specialized programs designed to further talent through post-secondary education. If you play an instrument, sing, dance, or have particular artistic ability, you should consider attending one of seventeen Performing and Visual Arts (PVA) College Fairs sponsored by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Targeted to students interested in pursuing undergraduate or graduate study in theater, visual arts, graphic design, music, dance, and other related disciplines, these fairs bring together experts who provide information on educational opportunities, admission requirements, and financial aid. They also advise on portfolio development and auditions. Free and open to the public, PVA College Fairs do not require pre-registration although the opportunity to register is offered online for several fairs scheduled in specific areas of the country. Our nearest fair is scheduled for Sunday, October 25th, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

For students specifically interested in visual arts, the National Portfolio Day Association sponsors a series of Portfolio Days in 38 US and Canadian cities. During these events, students receive free advice, counseling, and critique from some of the best academics in the art business. A couple of years ago, I attended a Portfolio Day at the Ringling School of Design, in Sarasota, Florida. It was one of the more inspiring experiences I’ve had as a college counselor. Kids literally drove from the furthest reaches of the country to make the event and stood in lines clutching portfolios, paintings, sculpture, pottery, and other art works. There were sketchbooks, works in progress, and finished pieces—some small and others quite sizeable. At the head of each line, experts from NASAD-accredited colleges took considerable time to offer support, constructive criticism, and to give pointers on how to go about building a portfolio. I was knocked out by the caring and help so freely offered. No one was hurried and every question was answered. Several (not all) participating schools were even willing to accept portfolios on the spot as the visual portion of an individual application.

Portfolio Days begin in late September and end in late January at the Ringling School. Free and open to the public, the events require no registration and operate on a first come, first served basis. Students in our area can attend on Saturday, November 7th at Virginia Commonwealth University (Richmond), Saturday, December 5th at the Corcoran College of Art and Design (Washington DC), or Sunday December 6th at the Maryland Institute College of Art (Baltimore MD).

Note these events are not restricted to seniors or others in the process of applying to college. Underclassmen are strongly encouraged to get a head start by taking advantage of the opportunity to get free advising from experts in the arts. High schools don’t always offer specialized arts counseling, and the application processes can be a little complicated. But between the PVA College Fairs and Portfolio Days, help and information are readily available.

Jul 19, 2009

Who Are These People?

This is getting tiresome, but today's article in The New York Times screamed for a response (you'll probably find it along about #136 in the comment line-up):

After plowing through almost 135 comments to Jacques Steinberg’s article on college admissions counselors, I darn near threw in the towel on all the work I’ve put into becoming a certified “snake oil salesman” (and this from the President of my alma mater—then again what do you expect from a “carpetbagger” from Harvard?). I’m a huge fan of Mr. Steinberg and respect the work he’s put into demystifying the college admissions process. But why doesn’t he respect me? And why didn’t he interview me or sit in on one of my counseling sessions?

Because there’s no story in me or what I do on a day-to-day basis. As I’ve said elsewhere (college counselor bashing is currently fashionable), there are crooks in every industry and there’s a con around every corner. The high-end counselors publicized in Steinberg’s piece (you couldn’t pay for such advertising) no more represent the college advising industry than Bernard Madoff represents investment services. Over the years, I’ve been taken by ivy-educated physicians, and an assortment of dentists, roofers, and interior designers. Heck, I’ve even been conned by real estate agents, movers, car salesmen, and one horribly incompetent public school guidance counselor. And sure, some parents and students have regrettably wasted money with college advising services.

So why does this generate such anger and earn so many inches of New York Times real estate? I don’t think it’s really about the money or the regulation of the industry. Otherwise, we’d be reading about other pieces of the college admissions pie like test prep services or highly-marketed publications that rank colleges. What I’m reading is more of an indictment of the entire college admissions process. Where is the fairness? Why do some folks have an edge and others don’t? And on a more personal level: Why didn’t I get into my top-pick school? Why didn’t my child have more offers of admission? And, why did my neighbor’s kid get in when everyone knows he’s such a little rat? Because the process has taken over from the goal, which should be to find “fit” and not “prestige” through a professional and humane system of college advising. And, this is what I do at a rate commensurate with that of a good academic tutor.

Why do I have a business? In the rush to cut budgets, an increasing number of high school students are getting lost in huge guidance caseloads. A substantial percent of my clients have never met with a guidance counselor on a one-to-one basis and have no idea how to go about assessing colleges or college opportunities. Does this mean they should pull themselves up by the bootstraps and persevere in the face of adversity? It appears that way from the commenting parents crowing about their personal triumphs or those of their children (it’s amazing how parents internalize the accomplishments of their children in this business). I believe that if you need help whether in calculus, coiffure, interior design, or investment, it’s acceptable to seek it out. Laws of economics sort out how much you pay for the service. And yes, some folks can afford more than others. Does that mean they’ve gained an unfair edge? Not necessarily. I may be a bargain, but I’m really pretty good at working with unmotivated, confused kids who need a little boost when it comes to thinking about colleges. Mr. Steinberg, I challenge you to ask them about the value of my service and stop giving free advertising to those who offer something else.

Jul 17, 2009

Thank You President Obama

A week or so ago, I wrote a post on articulation agreements and how these programs support student transition between two- and four-year institutions. Having completed a practicum with the Pathway to Baccalaureate Program, a project combining the resources of various northern Virginia school systems, NOVA and George Mason University, I have particular faith in the ability of community colleges to address a whole host of academic issues and to serve the most amazingly diverse population of students you could ever imagine—if the system can be reinforced with adequate funding and commitment from those on high.

In any event, it occurred to me mid-way through my explanation of the benefits of these agreements that none of it would work if the community college system failed to provide the courses or support necessary to get the job done. It’s no secret that community college enrollment has been increasing at about 5 times the rate of four-year institutions. I have attended counseling sessions where the parties pieced through complex webs of work, childcare, household responsibilities only to find required courses either unavailable or impossibly scheduled. No, it doesn’t surprise me that the Bunker Hill Community College, located in various spots in and around Boston, would have to offer two very popular classes at 11:45 p.m. That’s right—the classes let out at 2:30 a.m

Thus it has been with great joy that I have been following President Obama’s response to my sincere request that "maybe we should do something about” helping community colleges. His plan to spend $12 billion to produce 5 million more community college graduates by 2020 is filled with commonsense recommendations and guidelines. Comparing this initiative with the GI Bill, the President outlined a proposal that addresses facilities, completion rates, and the very reasons students turn to community colleges in the first place. With this kind of respect from the Administration and hopefully the Congress, community colleges can look forward to a bright future. Maybe then, the jokes will stop and Jay Leno will move on and find some new targets. Actually, I think he already has.

Jul 16, 2009

Great Colleges To Work For

Operating from the premise that great places to work generally produce great results—in this case college experiences, I was delighted to see the results from the second annual survey of great colleges to work for conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Based on survey responses from 41,000 administrators and faculty members at 247 four- and two-year colleges (an astounding 43% response rate), the Chronicle broke results into a number of different subcategories including Collaborative Governance, Professional/Career Development Programs, Teaching Environment, Compensation and Benefits, and possibly the most important, Job Satisfaction. Survey findings along with analysis of demographic data and workplace policies produced lists of top schools organized alphabetically to avoid stepping on toes.

In the area of Job Satisfaction, which generally encompasses many of the other categories considered, the following four-year schools rated at the top:

Small (2,999 or fewer)

Medium (3,000 to 9,999)

Large (10,000+)

Birmingham-Southern (AL)

Canisius College (NY)

Baylor University (TX)

Furman University (SC)

College of Saint Rose (NY)

Cornell University (NY)

Gettysburg College (PA)

Elon University (NC)

Duke University (NC)

Hardin-Simons University (TX)

McKendree University (IL)

George Mason University (VA)

Juniata College (PA)

Niagara University (NY)

Georgia Tech (GA)

Lourdes College (OH)

Oklahoma City University (OK)

Lamar University (TX)

Morningside College (IA)

PA College of Technology (PA)

Texas State at San Marcos (TX)

St. Michaels College (VT)

Rice University (TX)

University of Mississippi (MS)

Southeastern Bible College (AL)

Rollins College (FL)

University of Notre Dame (IN)

Sweet Briar College (VA)

SUNY Plattsburgh (NY)

University of the Ozarks (AL)

Survey results cited daycare facilities, flexible work hours, provision of staff housing, and free/reduced tuition as among those elements of work experience contributing to job satisfaction. At Niagara University, free pilates and spinning classes were among the staff benefits that seem to resonate with staff, and the Rollins staff loves the annual surprise day off announced each spring by the school’s President.

But the drum roll for the top four-year institutions in each size category based on the number of times these institutions appeared across the board in individual recognition groups goes to:

Small (2,999 or fewer)

Medium (3,000 to 9,999

Large (10,000+)

Austin (TX)

Canisius College (NY)

Cornell University (NY)

Birmingham-Southern (AL)

College of Saint Rose (NY)

Duke University (NC)

Furman University (SC)

McKendree University (IL)

Emory University (GA)

Gettysburg College (PA)

Niagara University (NY)

George Mason University (VA)

Hardin-Simons University (TX)

Oklahoma City University (OK)

Georgia Tech (GA)

Juniata College (PA)

PA College of Technology (PA)

Lamar University (TX)

Lourdes College (OH)

Rice University (TX)

University of Mississippi (MS)

Morningside College (IA)

Rollins College (FL)

University of Notre Dame (IN)

Saint Michaels College (VT)

SUNY Plattsburgh (NY)

Webster University (MO)

Southeastern Bible College (AL)

York College (PA)

University of the Ozarks (AR)

More information on survey results may be found in the Chronicle supplement produced for this purpose, but a subscription or day pass is required.

Jul 15, 2009

Have You Tried It Lately?

Parents periodically come to me about a son or daughter whose lack of personal self discipline seems to be interfering with his or her ability to prepare for the SAT. Personal self-discipline? After a little parental whining, I generally respond with my usual show stopper, “Have you tried it lately?”

For most of us it’s been at least 25 to 30 years since we took the SAT. And some of us are looking at more than 40 years since we sharpened up the old #2 pencils and headed over to the high school at the crack of dawn to take a college admissions test. We didn’t prep. In fact, I have a dim memory of taking both the SAT I and the SAT II (subject tests) on the same day—one in the morning and the others in the afternoon. Could this possibly be true? Or is this one of those fantasies to be filed along with the 3-mile hike to school in year-round blizzard conditions?

Happily, the mind is a wonderful thing and most of us are mercifully spared the memory of our SAT scores. And for the most part the kids don’t think to ask. Although I routinely suggest signing up for the College Board’s SAT Question of the Day, I’m not sure many parents follow-up on the second part of the recommendation which is to discuss and compare results with their kids. Now and again, I go so far as to propose parents take an entire sample test at the dining room table under simulated test-taking conditions. To the best of my knowledge, no one has risen to the challenge.

But now, the Princeton Review has come up with a mini-SAT test specifically designed for parents. Requiring only about 15 minutes, the quiz covers the basics and promises to convert parents and children from “adversaries to allies.” A far cry from the nearly 4-hour, 190-question exam, the mini-test can be scored and entered into a little competition for Princeton Review party favors. Registering also gets you (or your dog) on their mailing list.

If the Princeton Review quiz leaves you craving for more, you can always sign-up for the real thing, like Sue Shellenbarger, a 57-year old mom and reporter for The Wall Street Journal. In a truly inspiring tale of failure and redemption, Ms. Shellenbarger’s experience suggests a glimmer of hope for the nagging parents among us. It also sheds new light on that self-discipline issue.

I have one final suggestion relative to the test prep question. Before signing on with any particular company or tutor, ask how often staff takes the tests—both SAT and ACT. Truly dedicated test prep professionals have been known to routinely sit for exams. As you might imagine, it helps with empathy and preparation. If you’re really bold, ask for scores.

Jul 13, 2009

AP Prep

The other day the New York Times ran an article on an Advanced Placement (AP) summer prep program I found very interesting. In a nutshell, the Newark NJ school district received $300,000 in federal grant money to put on an intensive two-week class designed to prepare students for AP classes in the fall. The program joins several others across the country offering a head start on demanding AP curricula.

OK. I can already see eyes rolling and jaws clenching. If you happen to be in the group that strongly disagrees with Jay Mathews on the subject of AP classes and would like nothing better than to take him out to the woodshed for a good thrashing, you’re not going to like what I have to say. If you’re a high school student thinking, “Please don’t do another thing to ruin my summer,” I understand. But, hear me out.

For better or worse, AP is here to stay. In fact, colleges are shifting from using AP scores as de facto admissions criteria (yes they typically sneak a peek) to allowing these scores to be substituted for the usual main attraction from the College Board. For example, NYU now allows specific AP test scores to substitute for the SAT Reasoning Test and/or the two SAT Subject tests previously required for admission. Bryn Mawr College, Hamilton College, Furman University and a growing number of other schools are taking similar steps by adopting “test flexible” policies using AP scores in place of SAT’s or ACT’s.

So, if you’ve signed up for an AP class (particularly as an underclassman) and you know it’s going to be freakin’ hard, why not take a little time to get ahead and prepare during the summer? Why wait until midway through the first quarter to hire an AP Calculus tutor after you’ve flunked the first quiz and you’re totally stressed, when you could start working for an hour or two per week with the same tutor in the months before school starts? Get the book even. Or, why not get try to get course reading packets from school or from another student who took the class last year? So what if it changes a little. Reading source material—any source material—is good for you. If you can get your hands on your high school’s AP English Literature reading list, why not go ahead and start reading those books? Guess what. Some of them are pretty good. And here’s a tip for those who can’t talk anyone into handing over reading lists or other AP materials: the College Board provides course descriptions and sample syllabi. This is a sample AP English Literature reading list from which students might be requested to pick two novels:

Alias Grace, All the King’s Men, All the Pretty Horses, Angle of Repose, Animal Dreams, Atonement, Awakening, Beloved, Brave New World, Catch 22, Einstein’s Dreams, Ethan Frome, Frankenstein, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Kite Runner, Lord of the Flies, Montana 1948/Justice, 1984, Obasan, Player Piano, The Poisonwood Bible, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Snow Falling on Cedars, Stones from the River, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Looks great to me! Then again, I was an English major in the last century.

Here are journalists suggested for reading in the AP English Language course:

Roger Angell, Dave Barry, David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Elizabeth Drew, Nora Ephron, M. F. K. Fisher, Frances Fitzgerald, Janet Flanner (Genêt), Thomas L. Friedman, Ellen Goodman, David Halberstam, John Hersey, Paul Krugman, Alex Kuczynski, Andy Logan, John McPhee, H. L. Mencken, Jessica Mitford, Jan Morris, Donald M. Murray, Susan Orlean, Rick Reilly, David Remnick, Red Smith, Lincoln Steffens, Paul Theroux, Calvin Trillin, Cynthia Tucker, Tom Wolfe

Virtually every one of these writers has been published at one time or other in the New Yorker magazine. Remember what I have been saying about reading in preparation for the SAT?

Look, I know you want to unwind and relax during your summer vacation. But if you can read and get ahead on work in a less stressful mode with your toes in the sand, why not?