Aug 31, 2009

Universal Application Offers Huge Advantage for Some Students

Athletes, performing artists, and others with multimedia stories to tell can now use the Universal College Application (UCA) to upload files, videos, and other digital content in support of applications to any participating college or university. Responding to complaints from college admissions officers frequently forced to chase down computer disks and videos mailed separately from applications, the makers of the UCA added a feature allowing students to provide a link to online content they feel gives the college additional information, demonstrates a particular talent, or highlights an activity. This means an applicant can upload and send with ease audition videos, links to websites, pictures of Eagle projects, as well as recruiting or personal video supplements. Can you beat that?

Enjoying a whopping 500% increase in school participation since going live in 2007, the Universal Application is used by 80 colleges and universities, most—but not all—of which also use the Common Application. From the student perspective, the forms are very similar with the major difference being the unique upload feature. Unlike the Common Application, the UCA does not insist that participating schools require recommendations and an untimed essay or graded paper. Any accredited institution that upholds NACAC’s Statements and Policies of Good Practice is eligible to join the UCA consortium.

According to Josh Reiter, President of ApplicationsOnline, “We are most concerned about customer service. The site is monitored 24/7 and last year, our average response time was only 7 minutes.” While the forms and technology are designed to be user-friendly, questions still crop up in the middle of the night, and staff is always there to answer. They cannot provide feedback on essay topics or give driving directions to colleges, but they will walk a nervous student through the steps necessary to complete required information and send “customized” applications with the click of a button.

After two years of successful operating experience, the UCA projects continued growth and greater visibility as users learn to differentiate among applications and take advantage of the opportunity to upload digital content. If this concept catches on, the essay will lose its role as the sole source of “personality” in a college application. With a little creativity, students literally can attach a face to their documents.

Aug 29, 2009

Giving Back to the Community

Students passionate about community service may want to consider the nearly 90 colleges and universities participating in one of several scholarship programs supported by the Bonner Foundation. Created to foster commitment to volunteerism and community spirit, the foundation provides select campuses with scholarships and programmatic support designed to enhance student engagement in sustained community service work during four years of undergraduate education. Bonner currently offers the country’s largest privately-funded service-based college scholarship program with the goal of rivaling academics and athletics as a third major source of merit scholarship money.

Colleges and universities are chosen to participate in one of the Bonner programs based on their support for low-income students, community involvement, and their desire to work with other institutions sharing a common commitment to promote a culture of service on their campuses. Individual Bonner scholarships are awarded through a process integrated with college admissions and may be used as recruitment tools by participating schools. To receive Bonner scholarships, students must attend one of the approved colleges.

Since 2007, Widener University has participated in the Bonner Leaders Program through its Presidential Service Corps. The PSC is a group of motivated students who have exhibited leadership skills, success in intellectual and academic pursuits, and a “passion for making positive contributions to society” through volunteerism. On a recent visit to the campus, I was impressed by the level of commitment and variety of service projects managed by PSC students. They are working with Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the United Way, Salvation Army, and the March of Dimes. They support food and clothing drives, opened a college access center, staff educational and arts programs, as well as volunteer in nursing homes and child development centers. Most recently, 12 PSC students completed an international service trip to Jamaica where they built two houses and helped a needy school and orphanage.

In Virginia, six schools have earned the Bonner distinction: Bluefield College, Emory and Henry College, Ferrum College, Lynchburg College, the University of Richmond, and Washington and Lee University. These or any other Bonner colleges and universities are worth considering for students with special interest in or dedication to community service—with or without the financial support.

Aug 27, 2009

How Much Harder Can Score Choice™ Get?

After advising students to check directly with colleges concerning individual positions on SAT Score Choice™, I decided to do a little research on my own. This is what I found: it’s not easy to discover school policies on testing. In fact, it’s a real headache.

It may be that most colleges and universities don’t recognize how confusing the new Score Choice policy is and haven’t addressed it yet on their websites. They’ll find out once students start trying to submit scores through the College Board and a link appears reading, “Help me choose test scores” and a dialogue box flashes that reads in part, “You’ve chosen not to send a test score that was recommended in this college’s or scholarship program’s SAT score-use practice….” Say what?

At least one website I reviewed had not been updated on the matter of standardized testing since 2006. More forward thinking schools have separate web pages dedicated to Score Choice. For example, Georgetown University sternly advises:

“Georgetown University does not participate in the Score Choice option available through the College Board or the similar program through Educational Testing Service (ETS). Georgetown requires that you submit scores from all test sittings of the SAT, ACT or SAT Subject Tests. Georgetown evaluates thousands of competitive applicants each year for admission; access to your full testing profile enables the admissions committee to fully and fairly assess your individual strengths in comparison to the entire applicant pool.”

Appearing to leave the decision to students, Washington and Lee University also provides guidance:

"Beginning with the March 2009 administration of the SAT, students will have the option of participating in the new Score Choice program, or they may choose to have all their SAT results sent to W&L. Washington and Lee recommends students NOT participate in Score Choice. This will mean that all SAT results will be sent to us, ensuring that our Admission Committee has access to a student's best scores."

And goes on to warn:

"Students who decide to exercise the Score Choice option for reporting SAT scores to W&L must be very careful to specify that we receive the results of each SAT administration representing that student's highest score for each section of the test."

After evidently receiving a number of inquiries, UVA’s “Dean J” recently created a separate post labeled Score Choice on the Notes from Peabody blog:

"When we read your files, we are only interested in seeing your very best scores. We set up our system to pluck the best composite ACT score (we don't recombine the sections) and the best of each section of the SAT (sometimes called super scoring). If you take the SAT more than once, we will only see your best score from each of the three sections. I'm really not interested in anything but the best scores. Just send your reports through the official channels and the application system will make sure we see the highest scores."

While not referring to the program, the College of William and Mary indirectly suggests that multiple sets of test scores are perfectly acceptable:

"If an applicant submits multiple test scores, we use the best overall combination of the highest scores achieved on each section when reviewing the application."

James Madison University politely “asks” that students submit all scores but does not appear to make it a requirement:

“JMU accepts and recognizes both the SAT and ACT, [sic] we ask that you send all of your scores. When reviewing test scores we use the highest individual verbal and highest individual math scores from the SAT. For the ACT we use your single highest composite score.”

The University of Pennsylvania, on the other hand, “requires:”

“Penn requires that applicants submit all testing results from each administration of the ACT, SAT, and SAT Subject Tests. We evaluate only the highest of your ACT Composite scores, the highest score on each section of the SAT, or the highest single testing result from multiple sittings of any SAT Subject Test.”

And Stanford will put up with no “hiding:”

“Applicants must self-report and submit all SAT scores or all ACT scores and cannot elect to 'hide' any scores with either testing agency.”

Finally, the most humorous and factual take on Score Choice comes from Dean Andrew Flagel, of George Mason University:

“I don’t really have any problem with the policy, but you should know two things. First, it’s unlikely to make ANY difference to your admission. As I’ve written many times, colleges and universities will use your best scores, and use the best portions from different sittings (so English section from one time, Math from another, to get your best total score). Also, the few schools that really care about seeing all of your scores are STILL MAKING YOU SEND THEM ALL.

In other words, there are [sic] a group of schools that won’t let you use score choice, so it really doesn’t matter. For the sake of simplicity I call these the ‘So incredibly uptight universities that if we placed coal under their seats we’d all have diamonds’ or SIUUTIWPCUTSWAHD schools, or ‘annoying’ for short.

At the other end of the spectrum you have schools that know that you’re more than a test score, many of which not only embrace score choice (despite the reality that it’s largely meaningless) but even go so far to offer score optional admissions. We can call these the ‘Schools that actually care’ institutions or ‘George Mason University for short.”

Aug 26, 2009

Score Choice™ Is a Total Disaster

Heating up the college counselor professional message boards of late has been an intense discussion of the meaning of SAT Score Choice™. I can't help but think a debate on the meaning of life might be much more fulfilling if not more easily resolved.

Billed as a gift from the College Board "[d]esigned to reduce student stress and improve the test-day experience," Score Choice has blown up into an incredible mess. Posts on various email lists positively bristle with frustration as counselors try to parse out meaning from a sketchy and badly conceived program. No one seems to have a handle on how to interpret guidance from the College Board muddied by stern warnings from colleges refusing to participate fully in the program. And senior year hasn't even started for most students across the country.

Fearful of continuing to lose market share to the ACT, the College Board threw together a program that was originally marketed as giving test-takers the option of selectively reporting SAT Reasoning and Subject test scores. On the surface, it sounded both simple and sensible. After all, the ACT had been offering "choice" since time immemorial, and it seemed to work fine. But something about the financial motivations suggested by a system that appeared to allow unlimited test-taking combined with the whiff of gamesmanship emanating from certain test-taking sectors began the program's decline into full-fledged chaos. Professionals in the field balked as the new program appeared to give advantage to those who could afford to take the test multiple times and shore-up performance with expensive test prep classes or tutors. Colleges rebelled once it became clear that part of their prerogative in score review was being usurped by the College Board. Students stopped automatically sending scores to colleges as they tried to understand the implications of various conflicting reporting requirements. And the rest of us stood back as the whole thing began to unravel.

So, now we're coming up against some deadlines. The Common and Universal applications came on line July 1st, and students are completing forms asking very direct questions about test scores. Early Decision applications begin to come due around November 1st, and the rest will need to be submitted early next year. Schools with rolling admissions would like to begin the process of considering candidates with benefit of whatever standardized test scores are available now. Confused about terms and conditions, students who would have ordinarily begun sending scores to schools or even completing applications are frozen in place. Those who thought they had a free pass to start taking SAT's in the fall of junior year are crying foul now that certain name institutions are requiring submission of all scores despite the original intentions of Score Choice. High schools that report SAT's on transcripts fear consequences of accidently sending a blocked score, and counselors are sensing a number of ethical issues on the horizon as the decision whether or not to send scores ultimately rests with the test-taker. Or so we have been led to believe.

The College Board is not making anything easier by providing garbled instructions and producing charts that look like a programmer's nightmare:

And imagine—this is followed by a 46-page list of participating schools and various school policies, which by the way, appear to be shifting as questions multiply. Here is a sample of what some area schools have posted:

College/University SAT Score-Use Practice Descriptions
American University Highest Section-Version 2
Catholic University Highest Section-Version 2
Christopher Newport University Highest Section-Version 1
College of William & Mary Highest Section-Version 2
George Mason University Highest Section-Version 1
George Washington University All Scores
Georgetown University All Scores
Johns Hopkins University Highest Section-Version 2
University of Mary Washington Highest Section-Version 2
University of Maryland College Park All Scores
University of Virginia Highest Section-Version 2

Unfortunately, the single best source of information rests with each college to which a student is applying. Read through all instructions, and if questions remain, contact the school directly. No one can make reporting decisions on a student's behalf, but you need to be clear with the College Board which option is being selected for which school. And, you need to be clear with yourself whether the option selected corresponds to the reporting requirements of individual schools. BTW, to take advantage of the four free score reports, students must provide school names and designate reporting options within nine days of taking the test. Is this really the way to reduce stress?

Aug 24, 2009

High-Tech Test Prep

What’s the quickest way to get mom and dad to spring for a new iPod Touch or invest in a spiffy new iPhone or Blackberry? Tell them it’s for SAT prep. Yes, thanks to a growing squad of entrepreneurial geeks who got where they are today by "dialing toll free" or otherwise acing college entrance exams, exciting new technology is being introduced which is bound to revolutionize test prep through the use of clever iPhone/iPod applications or “apps” downloaded via Apple’s iTunes Store. And the price is right. After the initial equipment investment—less than an SAT prep class—apps go for between $0.99 and $4.99, the latter capitalizing on name brands in the test prep industry such as The Princeton Review.

In the old days, enterprising students made flashcards. They came in 3x4 or 5x7—your choice. These days, flashcards are made through Google’s online spreadsheet service and magically transported onto devices more commonly used for listening to music or texting friends at odd hours of the day and night. Using the technical wizardry of gFlash-Pro, students can make electronic flashcards, discretely study a cardset using a nifty autoshuffle function, devise multiple choice practice tests, and otherwise learn vocabulary or related standardized test material without looking like a total nerd. Cards can be based on vocabulary lists and definitions painstakingly typed onto any 2 column Google spreadsheet or may be obtained by downloading the same information from websites offering lists of SAT words. Obviously, you learn more if you do the work rather than letting others do it for you. Nevertheless, the process is simple either way.

Beyond the task of creating flashcards, iTunes offers a growing menu of pre-packaged standardized test prep apps. Most of the SAT apps are targeted to vocabulary development. SAT Words5000 ($0.99), while not yet rated, offers definitions and flashcards for 5000 “collegiate” words (in English or Japanese!); SAT Vocabulary Hangman ($3.99) supports 992 words; and the Princeton Review SAT Vocabulary Challenge ($4.99) promises mastery of 250 of the most commonly tested SAT vocabulary words. Watermelon Express offers a number of apps including SAT Prep, SAT Prep Reading, and SAT Prep Writing. Designed by an SAT tutor with almost a decade of experience, 411 Prep: SAT Math provides 450 different kinds of test questions in a flashcard format as well as an advanced portion for students shooting for a math score of 700 or higher. And Chemistry SAT II Prep Lite, while featuring a trademark flaming pumpkin, may be downloaded free of charge by those hoping for a brief brush-up before the Chemistry Subject Test.

If your exploration of the iTunes Store has gone no further than looking for the latest version of Frogger or Sheep Launcher Plus, than may I direct you to a more educational or parent-friendly department. It won’t hurt to add a few SAT apps to your toolbox of low-stress or high-tech test prep devices. Who knows? It may mean a visit to your neighborhood Apple Store.

Aug 22, 2009

And Common App for All?

As the roster of colleges and universities using the very popular Common Application grows to nearly 400, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of post-secondary schools still use their own carefully devised application forms. To be a member of the Common Application system, schools agree to promote access by using a holistic selection process that includes objective as well as subjective criteria such as at least one recommendation form, one untimed essay, and broader campus diversity considerations. Since the Common Application went online, total college participation in the program has taken off and application numbers increased significantly as students find it all too easy to hit the button and apply. In the first 24 hours of going live this year, created 3064 new student profiles—35% more than last year at the same time.

Yet despite Common App advantages, not everyone wants to be part of the club and most colleges continue to stick with their own documents. Whether they believe the Common App is lacking in one way or another, not reflective of school priorities, or too difficult (too easy) to use, these schools persist in doing it their own way.

One such school is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bucking the trend, MIT rolled out a new application substituting three short answer questions (200-250 words each) for the old “optional” essays which drove everyone nuts trying to decide whether MIT really wanted the additional information. The old application asked students to show or describe something they created. This gave my son the opportunity to show off a 3D face he spent months creating as part of a larger facial recognition project. Others pursued different ideas and sketched stick figures or printed out photos of their Eagle Scout projects. Those who knew “optional” usually meant “required” and who weren’t all that creative, simply cranked out another page-long essay.

But before anyone gets too excited about the new options, please be aware that the team in the MIT admissions office is dabbling in the trendy area of noncognitive assessments. The new questions are not particularly subtle attempts to get at tricky and hard to quantify noncognitive traits such as leadership, resilience, and creativity which are usually designed to help students who might not get in based on grades and scores alone. For MIT, the new application is designed to filter out less interesting geeks and surface more interesting multi-dimensional applicants who will contribute to the wider MIT community instead of holing up in their rooms with their computers as friends.

While the Common Application generally serves to streamline the process of applying to college, there are good reasons why colleges might continue to invest in developing separate applications or supplements. Looking for traits or qualities that enrich campus culture or trying to determine sincerity of interest through such questions as the infamous “Why Penn” essay are the most obvious means of accomplishing this. Sorry kids, there’s no free lunch. If a school asks lots of questions, they want to learn more about you even if it causes additional work. If they learn more, they’re more likely to make a better and more informed decision. Or so we hope.

NYT Revisited

While having no desire to scratch at an old sore, I wanted to share (with permission) the nice response I received to my complaints about the NYT article on independent college counselors from Dr. Amy Gutmann, President of the University of Pennsylvania:

I’m sorry you were disappointed with my quote in Jacques Steinberg’s recent New York Times story about independent college advising. I was responding to a question posed to me about unscrupulous and uncertified counselors who charge huge amounts for undoubtedly unknowledgeable advice. I was very careful not to so characterize most – let alone all – counselors, and I was very clear on this point – that there are many knowledgeable counselors who are certified and perform a valuable service.

Most admissions counselors are of great help and value to their clients and their families. But as you point out, as in any business, there are an unscrupulous few who tarnish the good work and reputations of others such as you. This is completely in keeping with what I said. I’m very sorry the one sentence that was quoted of mine came across otherwise.

With best wishes for an enjoyable summer,

Amy Gutmann

I never doubted for a moment that the quote came from a larger conversation on the matter of college advising. It’s wonderful, however, to have this strong endorsement relative to the quality and importance of contributions made by independent counselors to the field.

Note that several of those interviewed by Jacques Steinberg complained loudly about the article’s slant, including Mark Sklarow, Executive Director of the Independent Educational Consultant's Association (IECA). In fact, Steinberg tepidly revisited some of the controversy and the Times found it necessary to issue a correction at the request of one independent counseling business appearing in the article. Editing error?

Aug 21, 2009

A New Gig: DC Examiner

As if all this blog stuff isn’t enough work, I’ve decided to expand my base of operations by writing for the D.C. Examiner online. To get hired, I had to submit writing samples, agree to a security check, and provide yet another photo reflective of my “personality.” I also had to learn to use new software and find new image sources to illustrate my articles. Luckily, I have a stash of photos from my many trips to colleges around the country, and I expect to avoid copyright issues by using them.

If you are a regular reader of the College Explorations Blog, you will recognize some of the posts—only illustrated! I’m also filling in or removing detail so as to focus more on the DC metropolitan area. stresses that Examiners are not bloggers, but rather credible sources of local news and information. I’m not giving up the blog—just expanding its audience a little by sharing a few posts.

If you have ideas, pictures, or press releases on college admissions or any of the quirky aspects of the college experience, please feel free to send them along. Although I read hundreds of documents each day, I’m bound to miss something really useful or interesting. I can be reached by emailing

Thanks for making this so much fun!

Aug 19, 2009

ACT Goes After SAT Market

Like The Little Engine That Could, the ACT is slowly but surely gobbling bits of standardized test market share from the College Board, makers of the SAT and associated test paraphernalia. Today’s announcement that average ACT scores remain relatively unchanged from last year (21.1 on a scale of 1 to 36) is not nearly as interesting as looking at the growth experienced by a test previously known mainly to Midwestern high school students. This year, 1.5 million took the ACT—up 25% over the last 5 years, even as the total number of high school graduates declined slightly from 3.34 million in 2008 to 3.32 million in 2009. And look at this: Virginia test takers increased a whopping 66%, with Maryland and D.C. increasing by 54% and 52% respectively.

Why would this be? There are lots of reasons, but an important part of the ACT growth can be directly linked to increased use of independent college counselors who initially got the ball rolling while school systems remained stuck on the traditional SAT route. Through networking and professional training, independent counselors discovered and loudly communicated to high school students that virtually every college and university in the country will accept the ACT or the SAT . It makes sense. Why would one exam be under the sole domain of a specific geographic area of the country, especially when it tests different things using different methods to project college performance? So word went out, students successfully submitted ACT scores, and low and behold, ACT numbers went up. And, if I’m any judge, they will continue to go up this year.

Historically, the ACT is a first cousin to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which many of us took annually in grade school (even before computers were there to score them). It is a “curriculum based” achievement test designed to measure skills necessary to succeed in the first year of college. Five states (Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Wyoming) require that all students take the ACT to graduate—sort of like the Virginia SOL’s. Some counselors believe it’s a good test for smart students who don’t test well. I’m not sure about that, but I do know that about one-third of all high school students will do better on the SAT, one-third will do better on the ACT, and one-third will do exactly the same. So why not try both especially if colleges consider them equally acceptable?

For those with scorecards, here is how our area fared this year:


Tested in 2005

Tested in 2009











































Of all the Virginia students taking the ACT, 88% indicated an interest in obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Scores were sent to virtually every major public and private post-secondary institution in the Commonwealth. The most frequently listed major/career interest was Health Sciences, and three amazing Virginia high school students scored a perfect 36 on the Composite.

Tweeting with Washington and Lee

Thanks to Washington and Lee University, I received a huge lesson on Twitter. It’s not like I’m totally unaware of Twitter. Obviously I blog and I’ve read studies on how colleges use Twitter to inform prospective students and keep current with alums through university-controlled affinity groups. I know that high school students really don’t Twitter that much (not as much as we originally thought), and before last week, I’d never been the subject (as far as I know) of a "Tweet."

So imagine my surprise when hits to my blog began to take off. At first, I thought, “Oh boy, I’ve done it now. The Stanford Office of Undergraduate Admission has unleashed its alumni association and I’m done for.” But curiously, the hits were not going to any of the Stanford posts. Instead, this amazing group of wildly varying IP addresses was heading toward the post entitled, “Sink or Swim,” guided by a Tweet from the W&L news group.

It’s no secret that tracking software gives me some fundamental information about my readers: country of origin, state, city, referral source if there is one, and sometimes (not always) organization. What I learned about Washington and Lee University by following my hits told me more about the school than reading a score of viewbooks or examining every page of a website. I learned the school either graduates and/or continues to maintain close relationships with folks from all over the world—London, Belgium, Thailand, the Philippines. And, I saw that they come from every region of the country and are employed (if their computers speak the truth) by a fantastic number of corporations, universities, government entities (including the US House of Representatives), and nonprofits. They’re also engaging, as no other post to my blog has received so much comment—and funny at that. While not scientific, my small study of W&L made a fantastic impression that added to what I already learned while on tour: this must be a neat place to go to college!

Aug 17, 2009

Why A Duck?

Because to become a University of Oregon Duck, any high school applicant may receive automatic undergraduate admission by simply achieving a 3.4 GPA—regardless of grade scale or weighting policy or whatever. If your transcript contains both weighted and unweighted GPA’s, UO will take the higher to qualify for automatic admission—they want to accept great students. Go Ducks!

Not even the Marx Brothers in their famous Cocoanuts routine could complain about this opportunity for solid B students to gain admission to a wonderful school in a beautiful part of the country. And evidently, so many have discovered this secret that University of Oregon officials had to lift the automatic-admit GPA from 3.25 to 3.4 for the 2009-2010 admissions cycle. Since about 70% of this year’s freshman class was admitted under this policy (including lots of Californians shut out of their system), little room was left for the UO admissions committee to make selections from among the rest of the applicants. This potentially created problems filling specialized positions in the Marching Duck Band or the mighty Duck football team. And, these aren’t just Oregonians. About one-third to 40% comes from out of state to enjoy the college town atmosphere offered in Eugene OR and the 295-acre UO campus lined with 2000 varieties of trees.

There are other guaranteed admission policies in effect across the country, but most have restrictions that make them less universally applicable. A more controversial policy in Texas requires the University of Texas to take the top 10% of graduating seniors in any Texas high school. The University of North Dakota posts a chart indicating requirements for automatic admission, and the University of Houston guarantees admission to anyone in the top 20% of their high school class. Other less choosy schools post automatic admissions standards for prospective students to meet. But few are as successful as the University of Oregon in actually improving admissions statistics through this relatively painless admissions policy. In fact, the average GPA for the class of 2013 is 3.68, and that’s with using the lower standard for guaranteed admission.

There are a few strings that come with the Duck offer. Students must graduate from a regionally accredited high school and have 16 college preparatory units with grades of C- or better. They must also submit a completed application by January 15, 2010 (this application will be used to consider applicants for the Clark Honors College). Earlier applications get first choice on housing. BTW, to reach Oregon admissions, you dial 1-800-BE A DUCK. Gotta love it!

Why a duck? No, viaduct. Why a chicken? No, that’s the University of Delaware.

Aug 15, 2009

AU Launches Pilot Test Optional Program

Launching a pilot program targeted to Early Decision candidates, American University (AU) will no longer require submission of either SAT or ACT scores for Early Decision applications. Joining other colleges experimenting with creative ways to diminish the importance of standardized testing in the college admissions process, the AU program underscores the importance of academic performance in a “holistic” review of a candidate that emphasizes qualitative factors such as essay, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular involvement. Students should be aware that under the terms of Early Decision (ED), they agree to attend if accepted. It’s a weighty decision to have to make so early in the senior year (applications are due by November 15th), and not advisable if there is even the smallest hesitation. But, if you are absolutely certain that AU is where you want to spend the next four years, then the “test optional” plan is available along with a few extra perks involving housing and registration.

While the AU policy does not extend to regular admission candidates (except for those ED candidates deferred and moved into the regular decision pool), it does represent a solid nod toward the 836 other colleges and universities across the US currently admitting a substantial number of students without regard to SAT’s or ACT’s. Short of completely dropping standardized tests, schools like NYU, Hamilton, Bryn Mawr, and Furman devised “test flexible” programs allowing students to substitute AP (and other) scores for specific admissions tests. Although well meaning, the choices are beginning to get a little confusing and can add to the general chaos surrounding college admissions. Students are advised to tread carefully and read the fine print. Test optional often comes with a few strings attached.

Some area schools with test optional or test flexible policies include:

  • Christopher Newport University*
  • George Mason University*
  • Goucher College
  • Loyola University of Maryland
  • Roanoke College*
  • St. Johns of Annapolis

* SAT/ACT considered only when minimum GPA or class rank is not met

A complete list of all colleges and universities with these programs is contained on the FairTest website.

Aug 14, 2009

Melt Down

It’s no secret that colleges are getting a little nervous about the start of school this year. As reported by The Washington Post, otherwise self-confident institutions such as Virginia Tech or the University of Maryland hedged bets against students suddenly coming down with a serious case of buyer’s regret by admitting a few extra students to their incoming freshman classes. In fact, according to a survey (subscription required) conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 3.1% of public institutions and 8.7% of private schools admitted more students this year than last. And, as many as one-third accepted late applications or extended their recruiting cycles to lure a few more applicants.

Evidently colleges have cause to be worried about this year’s summer melt, or the slow erosion of class numbers by students deciding to go for other (possibly cheaper) alternatives or those who have decided to postpone or possibly forego college altogether. Because the economy stinks, college applicants and their families are becoming better consumers. They’re looking closer at the fine print and analyzing the impact of total cost of attendance on family budgets or long-term retirement options.

Until recently, colleges have been fairly cavalier about annual tuition increases, seeing opportunities to build newer and better facilities or expand campuses by buying up neighborhood property. The new student centers, dorms, libraries, and gyms are stunning. Christopher Newport’s new library and student center are fabulously appointed with marble and mahogany—worthy of a tour whether or not you have an interest in attending the school. Washington State University has an amazing pool designed in the shape of the state of Washington, and Virginia Commonwealth University has beautiful new dorms some of which offer private baths to undergraduates!

But times have changed and many projected building plans are on hold. Cost-cutting is now more in vogue with colleges trying to find creative ways to save money while retaining educational standards and not infringing on the overall college experience. According to a survey conducted by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU)

• 53.5 percent froze salaries

• 46.8 percent froze new hiring

• 43.7 percent restricted staff travel

• 37.7 percent slowed down current construction/renovation projects

• 30.6 percent delayed maintenance

• 28.5 percent gave smaller than usual salary increases

• 27.5 percent increased tuition less than anticipated

• 19.0 percent laid off staff (non-faculty)

• 16.9 percent cut salaries/benefits

• 15.5 percent canceled planned construction/renovation projects

• 7.0 percent laid off faculty

• 4.6 percent froze tuition levels

• 4.2 percent cut student services

• 3.9 percent cut academic programs

A more recent survey conducted by Yaffe & Co. suggests that two-thirds of private colleges plan to freeze salaries and 53% are cutting benefits. About 9% plan to reduce pay.

It’s a balancing act for colleges. Summer melt could become more of a flood if prospective undergraduates perceive budget cuts as diminishing the total value of their experience. Turning off the fountains might save money but it makes a lousy impression on anyone getting ready to invest thousands of dollars in a college education.

Aug 13, 2009

Stanford's Pilot Alumni Interview Program--Continued

Earlier in the summer, I wrote a post concerning Stanford’s pilot Alumni Interview Program. Admittedly, I was hoping to grab a little attention by yanking a few chains, as I questioned why the DC area was left off the short list of cities slated for students to receive interviews. I was also a bit glib about the manner in which the program was being offered to a select group of high school students without regard to how this might ratchet up anxiety among students in different or unnamed zip codes. And, I couldn’t resist a poke at what might be evidence of a little western chauvinism on the part of Stanford by pointing out that there are two major U.S. cities that go by the name of Portland—one in Oregon and one in Maine. Of course, little did I suspect that anyone from the Stanford Office of Undergraduate Admission might read the College Explorations Blog.

The following is a clarifying comment I received from Shawn L. Abbott, Director of Admission:

Our pilot program is just that - experimental and exploratory, nothing more, which is why we rolled it out to just 6 regions (and to just 3 more this year). All regions were chosen based on lengthy research and discussion about our yield, diversity and alumni volunteer resources in each location. Of course we would love to pilot the program globally and immediately but training more than 1,000 interviewers was necessary in order to offer interviews to the first 9. We will need thousands of additional volunteers to expand more. More than 400 students apply from the city of New York alone, making this an incredibly tough program to roll out to 30,000 applicants. DC was up for consideration as a pilot city but we determined that the geographic complexity of the District, Maryland, and Virginia would be tough to manage during these first two years. Certain regions were simply easier for us to define, explain and manage (e.g. students are only offered an interview in NYC if they live in one of the 5 boroughs). The jury is still out on whether or not this program is worth our efforts, but at the very least, surveys to alumni suggest they love this opportunity to be involved with Stanford and to meet our applicants. Likewise, admission officers reading the applications from the first 6 cities suggest that they appreciated the additional information about each interviewed candidate - though admit that rarely did their own evaluations change as a result. Thus far, there has been a negligible affect [sic] on our yield of those interviewed and admitted. As a result, we'll expand to 3 more cities and evaluate the program's continued operation.

Mr. Abbott’s previous comment slammed me for indulging in “reckless speculation” about the pilot program and suggested I should have contacted him before posting to the blog. But what fun would that be?

Currently, references to interviews may be found on the Stanford site within the Alumni/Volunteer pages and in one of the admissions FAQ’s. I assume some corrections are being made and we will soon see which Portland wins the interview contest. Sorry guys. I live 14 miles from the White House. Let’s have a beer the next time you’re in town.

Aug 12, 2009

Sink or Swim

On a recent tour of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, I was revisited by a recurring nightmare. As we approached the gym that houses the W&L pool, our tour guide proudly announced that Washington and Lee was one of only 8 universities in the country with a mandatory swim test. And, if you don’t pass you don’t graduate.

Visions of Weightman Hall immediately flashed before me as I recalled the utter humiliation of failing my first university exam—the dreaded swim test. Lucky for future generations of Penn women, the university did away with the requirement not long after I sank midway across the pool in front of a large audience of freshman. In fact, the W&L tour guide was almost correct. Only 11* schools (not including the service academies) still require demonstrated aquatic proficiency to graduate:

As recently as 1977, 42% of all post-secondary institutions had some sort of swimming requirement. Many legends come attached to these tests, the most frequently cited of which involve a wealthy donor and a relative who tragically died as a result of not knowing how to swim. In fact, most requirements came about as a result of an American Red Cross campaign to improve water safety after WWI. At Columbia, tour guides recall that the university began its 75-yard test to ensure that undergraduates could swim across the Hudson River to New Jersey in case of attack--engineering students are exempt presumably because they can rely on raft-building skills to stay afloat. Engineering is looking better and better.

Although each school puts a different spin on the requirement, the Bryn Mawr test seems fairly typical: 10 minutes continuous swim demonstrating 2 strokes; 1 minute treading water; and 1 minute motionless float. Those failing to pass are required to take a swim class which may count toward the mandatory PE requirement if taken before senior year. Note that Dartmouth is not nearly so generous, as swim class does not count toward the school's 3-credit physical education requirement.

* Edited from original post.

Aug 11, 2009

Small Campuses

It turns out that the competition for the nation’s smallest colleges and universities is a little complicated and probably not really worth pursuing except as a counterbalance to the previous post. According to the US Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are 424 colleges offering 4-year bachelor’s degrees with total undergraduate enrollment under 300 students. This count includes for profit as well as not-for-profit schools. It also includes an impressive assortment of religious institutions and very specific professional schools.

Perhaps the most famous of the ridiculously-small colleges is Deep Springs, with only 26 male students. Established in 1917 as an educational experiment, Deep Springs is located on a remote ranch in California and enrolls some very very smart young men many of whom eventually move on to the most elite colleges and universities in the nation after spending two years milking cows and discussing Heidegger. Readers of the latest entry in the “admit lit” market, Acceptance by David Marcus, will recognize Deep Springs as the destination school for one of the seven kids counseled by Gwyeth Smith, recently retired from Oyster Bay High School in New York. It’s clearly not an easy school to get into.

With no particular intent beyond simple curiosity, I offer the following list of micro colleges:




Deep Springs

Deep Springs CA


American Indian College of the Assemblies of God

Phoenix AZ


Webb Institute

Glen Cove NY


Shimer College

Chicago IL


Thomas More College of Liberal Arts

Merrimack NH


Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science

Cincinnati OH


Beacon College

Leesburg FL


The Curtis Institute of Music

Philadelphia PA


Art Academy of Cincinnati

Cincinnati OH


VanderCook College of Music

Chicago IL


College of Visual Arts

St. Paul MN


Burlington College

Burlington VT


San Francisco Conservatory of Music

San Francisco, CA


Cleveland Institute of Music

Cleveland OH


Virginia Intermont College

Bristol VA


Chester College of New England

Chester NH


Cogswell Polytechnical College

Sunnyvale CA


Goddard College

Plainfield VT


College of St. Joseph

Rutland VT


Montserrat College of Art

Beverly MA


Memphis College of Art

Memphis TN


Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

Needham MA


Judson College

Marion AL


College of the Atlantic

Bar Harbor ME


Aug 6, 2009

Large Campuses

I recently discovered Cool Colleges by Donald Asher, an extremely well researched handbook on schools for “the hyper-intelligent, self-directed, late blooming and just plain different." A long-time career consultant, Mr. Asher makes no apologies for having very well defined and specific opinions on colleges and the college-going experience. For example, one of Asher’s firmly-held beliefs is that large universities are not good places for students as undergraduates:

“…in large universities students are more likely to report being lonely and isolated, more likely to drop out, more likely to be taught by a graduate assistant than a professor, more likely to cheat, more likely to be unable to name even one friend from college ten years after graduation, less likely to go to graduate school, more likely to be unable to get needed classes, more likely to work more than ten hours a week, and more likely to go through all four or five years of their education without really being changed….”(p. 7)

OK, I’ll buy some of that. But to be fair, there are kids who really thrive in the large school atmosphere, and it’s important to go the extra mile to see if those kinds of matches will work for the individual student. As a service to his readers, Asher includes a list of the largest colleges/universities, but it’s a little out of date. Thanks to the eager research arm of Wikipedia and the US Department of Education, however, I am able to provide more current information:

Largest Public University Campuses as of Fall 2008*






The Ohio State University

Columbus, Ohio



Arizona State University

Tempe, Arizona



University of Florida

Gainesville, Florida



University of Minnesota

Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN



University of Central Florida

Orlando, Florida



University of Texas at Austin

Austin, Texas



Texas A&M University

College Station, TX



Michigan State University

East Lansing, MI



University of South Florida

Tampa, Florida



Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA



University of Washington

Seattle, Washington



University of Wisconsin-Madison

Madison, Wisconsin



University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Urbana-Champaign, IL



University of Michigan

Ann Arbor, MI



Purdue University

West Lafayette, IN


Largest Private University Campuses as of Fall 2008*






New York University

New York, NY



Brigham Young University

Provo, Utah



University of Southern California

Los Angeles, California



Boston University

Boston, Massachusetts



Liberty University

Lynchburg, Virginia



Nova Southeastern University

Fort Lauderdale, FL



Columbia University

New York, NY



Northeastern University

Boston, Massachusetts



DePaul University

Chicago, Illinois



Long Island University

Brooklyn, NY



University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA



George Washington University

Washington, DC



Harvard University

Cambridge, MA



Cornell University

Ithaca, NY



Syracuse University

Syracuse, NY


*Note these lists include single 4-year university campuses with a single physical location. Thus the University of Phoenix and other multiple campus post-secondary schools are not counted.