Sep 30, 2009

College Prowler is Now FREE!

I have some great news for fans of The College Prowler. For the first time ever, the entire collection of single-school guides is now available absolutely FREE of charge at Students, parents, and counselors can view all the most up-to-date information from all the Prowler guidebooks by entering the website and clicking on “All Schools” under “College Search” on the homepage. That’s more than 45,000 pages of content on more than 270 schools.

High school students naturally seem to gravitate to the slightly irreverent, but always entertaining college reviews contained in the handy little booklets produced by Prowler staff. Recruited from school newspapers and journalism or English departments, student reporters at each campus randomly survey between 75 and 150 of their peers to generate school-specific content including editorial reviews, direct quotes, and a few miscellaneous but helpful statistics. Letter grades (A through F) reflecting student opinion are generated in various information categories including academics, local atmosphere, campus housing and dining, athletics, weather, nightlife, and transportation—to name a few. Some of the reviews can be frank and a little unsettling especially when addressing issues such as substance abuse and sex on campus. Nevertheless, the information tends to be up-to-date, engaging, and to the point. And, readers have access to biographical information on the authors from each school—no more anonymous marketing statements originating directly from the dean’s office, as is often the case with other guides.

Until recently, the complete collection of College Prowler guides was offered online as a subscription for $39.95 per year. Although competition from other campus reviews and guides no doubt contributed to the change of heart, the value is still there. Along with school profiles, the Prowler website also offers college search tools which students should find useful. To make best use of these tools, students will need to register, but the information required is absolutely minimal and the Prowler folks promise not to fill mailboxes with spam generated by registering (like other college search engines).

Individual guidebooks as well as the complete compilation of school profiles may still be purchased on the Prowler website. Experienced high school students know that the little orange books are great for taking along on college visits and confronting tour guides with annoying questions. Prowler is working on expanding the list of schools to 300 by next April and is always recruiting new salaried reporters on campuses already covered to keep their reviews on the cutting edge.

Sep 28, 2009

For NACAC, College Board, and Yale: Score Choice at the Convention

As various sessions at NACAC’s 65th annual convention grappled with larger philosophical issues of standardized testing in college admission, those of us in the trenches took every opportunity to seek clarification on the policies with which we must deal in the here and now. While I respect and appreciate the need for discussions of validity and bias, I spent much of my time wandering from session to session picking up bits and pieces of information on how the average high school student or counselor is supposed to interpret test submission policies and adapt these policies into coherent, responsive applications. It wasn’t easy.

At the NACAC trade show for vendors, I spent a huge amount of time discussing the issue of SAT Score Choice™ with its most ardent defender, Brian O’Reilly, Executive Director of the SAT. “Everyone hates change,” he confidently assured me. “Besides these kids are much more computer savvy than you are. They clearly understand the instructions.” While vaguely wounded by his suggestion that my inferior computer skills had something to do with misunderstanding or not understanding instructions related to SAT score report requests, I felt duty bound to advise him that the program was causing enormous stress for everyone involved, particularly the students. With a dismissive wave of the hand, Mr. O’Reilly counseled me to wait a year at which time he predicted everything would settle down. After all, the College Board was simply “responding to consumer requests” by introducing Score Choice. In response to my complaints about the PDF on score use practices and the college search profiles, he announced that staff was working diligently to make corrections and add colleges he claims “never responded” to repeated inquiries. “It’s not our fault if the information is inaccurate,” he asserted. “We can only report what they tell us.”

The folks at Princeton Review, in their session on Score Choice, expressed an entirely different point of view. With much to gain through increased use of test prep services resulting from changes in score reporting, Sonia Petrie stood firm in her belief that the College Board policy was nothing short of a cheap effort at gaining market share and increasing revenue from fees charged. “It needs to go,” said Ms. Petrie, who went on to predict it would not last beyond this year. Given Mr. O’Reilly’s commitment and the investment made by the College Board to date, that seems unlikely.

On a more personally satisfying level, the session entitled “Alice and Alex in Wonderland—Charting Their Paths in this Confusing World of Admission” confirmed my suspicion that colleges are largely unaware of the confusion and upset being caused by variations in test score reporting. After spending 4 or 5 staff meetings devoted solely to the issue of Score Choice last spring, Yale settled on its policy of requiring all scores. All scores—all SAT Reasoning, Subject and ACT scores. The feeling was that Score Choice encouraged repeated test taking and advantaged those who could afford to do it. While all scores have always been available to admissions staff, Marcia Landesman, of Yale University, assured the audience that what she saw on her computer was only the highest scores. Yes, she could dig through the folder, but what was the point in “looking for the lowest?” Ms. Landesman confirmed that Yale clarified its policy after receiving my suggestion that schools were making things unnecessarily complicated by not specifying their policies in plain terms. Several other schools including the College of William and Mary as well as McDaniel College have made similar changes. But the biggest news to come out of Ms. Landesman’s presentation involved reporting of ACT scores. Although all ACT scores must be reported, Yale applicants will only be required to submit one official ACT score report. Scores from other sittings may be self-reported on the application form. This is Yale’s concession to the extra cost involved in requesting additional reports from the ACT. I take this as good news/bad news, as the door opens a little further to potential abuse or ignorance of the requirement. Then again, if it took the fine minds of Yale 5 full staff meetings to parse out the meaning of available score reporting policies, I hope they can only imagine what confusion exists at the high school level.

Saturday's session entitled "Update on Admission Testing" added little information relative to Score Choice beyond what may be found in session handouts. Mr. O'Reilly went over the process of requesting scores emphasizing the ease with which students who "beta tested" the program handled all instructions. Unfortunately, his response concerning the process of sending scores from multiple "sittings" was a little unclear. NOTE: Students may elect to send scores from more than one sitting in a single report to an individual college or university. And, they may go back at a later date, change their minds, and send additional scores from however many sittings they wish. In other words, Score Choice may be used more than once in the process of sending scores to any single college or university. Clear? Nancy Rehling, of ACT Inc., was largely spared questions concerning changes in college score report policies, although she was aware of additional expenses incurred by students in many cases.

The NACAC Counselor College Fair produced everything from blank stares to defensive responses from colleges asked to consider making alterations in their web pages that would help students understand specific score reporting policies. Again, the prevailing view was “business as usual.” Because colleges and universities are very clear on their individual policies, everyone else should be as well. Schools missing from the College Board PDF and without complete College Board profiles suggested they would look into the problem—maybe. Those with the most restrictive score reporting policies had no solution for the cheating issue and were quick to remind that consequences for getting caught were dire.

So, the ball is slowly moving down the field. After a number of heated discussions in various NACAC sessions, it appears that colleges and universities are waking up to the role they are inadvertently playing in making the admissions process more complicated than ever. Yes, Score Choice isn’t their fault. But whether they opt to clarify policies, ensure the College Board correctly reports those policies, and make web searches simple and direct is under their control. While I’m not a lawyer, it seems to me that an ambiguous contract is construed against the writer. I think that this should also be the case with regard to SAT Score Choice. If colleges and universities are not clear on their websites, it is their fault—not the fault of the student if mistakes are made.

Sep 27, 2009

SAT Score Choice™ and The New York Times

After nearly a week “moderating” my response to Bill McClintick’s statement concerning SAT Score Choice™, The New York Times finally printed my comments:

The issue of Score Choice became enormously complicated when a handful of colleges and universities elected to deny students the option of participating in the program for various reasons some of which suggested by Bill McClintick's response. Georgetown, Penn, the University of Washington, Pomona, Rice, Stanford, and Yale—to name a few—are requiring submission of all SAT scores with slight variations on the theme involving SAT Subject Tests. Note that not all of these schools use the Common App.

Certainly it would be easier to ignore the “self report” questions on any application, but why would a college or university ask if they didn’t want the information? In the provision of test scores, whether through self-reporting or by official score reports generated by the College Board, it is important that the student adheres to stated school policies. Unfortunately, these are not always clear on school websites or in College Board school profiles (which naturally make no mention of the ACT).

Moral and ethical issues abound here as applicants decide which scores to report. In my research on the implementation of the SAT Score Choice program, I contacted many colleges and universities and came to the conclusion that not all of them fully understand the change in reporting procedures. In the meantime, applicants are struggling to fulfill requirements that are not clearly stated while schools seem to believe that if they haven’t changed policies, it’s business as usual.

I am glad this issue is finally getting some attention. Perhaps NACAC can encourage colleges and universities to make a better effort at simplifying a process that has become way too complicated.

Nancy Griesemer

ACT Limits Test-taking to No More Than 12 Attempts

In one of the stranger press releases of the 2009-2010 college application season, the ACT recently announced that future test-takers would be limited to no more than 12 attempts at the test—writing or no writing. In other words, no one will be allowed to take the ACT more than 12 times over the course of a lifetime.

Before you stop laughing, let me point out that the ACT has long had restrictions on how often a student may take the ACT. In the past, the test could only be taken once per national or state test date (initial or makeup), and there had to be a minimum of 60 days between retests for other testing programs (Special or Arranged Testing, Project Testing, Residual Testing). Effective this year, the new retest restriction limits the number of times a student may test ever! And the ACT sternly warns that if you violate this restriction, your scores will not be reported or will be cancelled and your fees will not be refunded.

If you just finished taking the ACT for the first, second, or even third time, you probably have difficulty envisioning the possibility of 12 attempts. The most obsessive test-takers would be hard pressed to get up to 12 tries without starting some time in kindergarten, and few imaginations go in the direction of standardized tests when conceiving torture or other forms of bizarre hazing rituals. What could possibly drive a person to this extreme?

It turns out that people take standardized tests for a living. Among the more reasonable excuses come from those in the test prep industry who simply want to keep sharp and experience a little of the pain annually inflicted on high school students forced to take entrance exams to get into college. A darker side of the industry actually hires test-takers to steal questions. Stanley Kaplan evidently got his start by doing something similar, long before the College Board actually released retired tests for students to use as practice. Nancy Rehling, Senior Program Manager for the ACT, advises that their studies show mysterious test-takers appearing at various test sites as many as 45 or 50 times. They don’t typically finish the test and after using superior memorization skills often walk out or fall asleep at their desks. And this is considered very disruptive.

I still think it’s a good idea for test prep instructors to experience the thrill now and again—once every year or two. For the rest of you, we’re cutting you off at 12.

Sep 25, 2009

College Admissions Advice from Those Who Know: Part Two

They’ve seen it all. Members of a local high school graduating class left behind a treasure trove of college admissions advice in their responses to the prompt, “What suggestions would you offer rising seniors that you wish someone had given you before your senior year?” Last week, they covered the importance of grades, organization, and application strategies. Here’s the second installment:

  • When choosing which colleges you want to apply to, don’t follow the crowd. Just because everyone else is applying to the Ivy League schools doesn’t mean you should. Find the colleges that are right for you—don’t waste your time applying to schools that aren’t a good fit just because it’s what is expected from you.
  • Don’t live by scattergrams, use Fiske Guide, start looking for scholarships now, there are a lot of them and many are easy to win if you are willing to take the time.
  • Get your stuff done early, then you can relax when you watch your buddies working furiously to get their college essays and recommendations turned in.
  • I applied Early Action to a school that was a safety for me, and it made the process a whole lot easier. I also had schools with different deadlines that allowed for me to get decisions earlier and on a rolling basis, so by April I was already in 4 colleges. Also, don’t stress! Find schools you like, visit them if you can, and you’ll make the right decision. You WILL get into college.
  • Nag your parents to complete the FAFSA and CSS-Profile on time (or just do it yourself).
  • If you’re going to be needing scholarships for your freshman year (especially if you don’t think you will get any financial aid), start looking them up in the fall. There are lots of scholarships that you meet the requirements for, that expire by the time you finish college applications.
  • Find the right college, not the “known” college.
  • Be aware of scholarship opportunities DURING the entire process. Do not just look at a few at the beginning of the process and expect them to follow you; some require initiative.
  • Don’t be set on one school.
  • Research your schools well before applying; often some schools have merit scholarships that you have to apply for when you apply to the college. Really try and have a good mix and variety of schools where you apply. You find that your interests, personality, and situation might change in just the 7-8 months between applying and hearing back!
  • Get more sleep, don’t stress out too much.

Next week, the seniors give advice on interviews, contacting professors, and back-up plans.

Sep 24, 2009

NACAC Brings 5370 to Baltimore

Over the next several days, I will be joining 5369 other college admissions professionals at the National Association for College Admission Counselors (NACAC) 65th annual conference, in Baltimore, Maryland. Already I can tell tht it's going to be an excellent adventure. This morning's session on FAFSA alone was well worth the price of admission. Look out, I'm going to have lots to say about the FAFSA4caster, College Prowler, Score Choice, and the ACT.

While I'm on the road picking up insider tips I can pass along in the blog, I will leave you with a few of my favorite posts:


Sep 23, 2009

Tips for Hiring a College Consultant

College consulting is definitely a growth industry. The Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) reports membership has more than doubled over the past five years. The number of high school seniors hiring consultants to assist in the college search and application process has risen to 160,000. And these are typically suburban, public school families earning between $75,000 and $100,000 per year.

But as with any rapidly growing profession, there are some quality control issues that families need to be aware of when hiring or contracting with businesses providing college counseling services. To avoid wasting time or money, families should consider 9 key factors in the selection of a college consultant:

1. Credentials: Make sure the consultant is credentialed. Time spent in an admissions office or within a high school guidance office does not necessarily translate into highly qualified. Ask about specific college counseling certification or membership in organizations with established and rigorous standards, such as the IECA or NACAC. Steer clear of counselors without formal training or education and those with very limited relevant experience.
2. Continuing Education: Certification and membership are not enough. Counselors keep current by attending any of the many continuing education programs offered by organizations ranging from the College Board to NACAC to the local community college. Look for specialized training and think twice about a counselor who has not kept up with continuing education relevant to the profession.
3. Conferences and Networking: Professional conferences offer opportunities for counselors to learn about policies and trends in the industry. They also serve to reinforce networks and ties which can be extremely important in the counseling business. Consultants generally attend at least one major conference per year and otherwise keep up-to-date by regularly reviewing information posted on professional discussion boards.
4. Campus Visits: Counselors should visit no less than 12 colleges per year—preferably two or three times that many. Those who spend all their time behind a desk are losing touch with all that’s going on in the way of new construction, technology, and campus personalities. Ask how much time a counselor spends touring colleges and if they’ve recently visited any of the schools in which you are interested.
5. Fee Structures: Counselors offer a variety of packages and hourly rate plans. Make sure the fees are stated up front, in writing, and clearly document what services will be provided. Ask for a contract to review in advance of any meetings.
6. Convenience and Availability: Whether working over the internet or on a one-to-one counseling basis, make sure you know how and where services will be provided (your house or mine). Ask how available the consultant will be to answer questions outside of formal counseling sessions. Try to minimize extraneous time spent driving and never expect to be kept waiting for an appointment. College counseling should not become another time-consuming extracurricular activity.
7. Writing Sample: Most college counselors are extremely articulate and many are accomplished writers who publish newsletters, author columns, or maintain blogs. Ask to see writing samples. Don’t depend exclusively on what may be a professionally developed website. This is particularly important if you expect to receive writing or essay support.
8. Integrity: The counselor you hire should subscribe to the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice and accept no compensation from colleges, universities, or other institutions in exchange for placement. Most independent counselors also accept no compensation or special consideration from schools, test prep services, tutors, lenders, or financial aid advisors in exchange for recommendations or references.
9. References. Ask for them. If a counselor advertises that he or she has served over 1,500 clients, this should be no problem. Even if the list is smaller, names and phone numbers of satisfied customers should be readily available.

If a counselor promises admittance to any college or university, walk away. If he or she claims to know the secret formula employed by all colleges to make admission decisions, keep walking. Don’t limit yourself to ivy specialists. Look for someone who will empower the student to make sound decisions and who will gladly support the entire family throughout the college admissions process.

Sep 21, 2009

Fall Is A Great Time To Visit Area College Fairs

Fall is in the air, and college reps all over the country are hitting the road. It’s college fair season, and you are cordially invited to attend one or several fairs depending on where your favorite colleges or universities happen to visit this year.

With the downturn in the economy, these large free gatherings of college admissions reps are bound to be very popular as families look for ways to save money by reducing travel or skipping a few campus visits. If you’re well into the college application process or just beginning to think about what lies ahead, a college fair can be a great way to gather information and meet admissions staff some of whom could eventually read your application.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACC) offers the following reasons for high school students and their parents to seek out college fairs:

1. Personal Contact: Fairs promote direct contact with representatives from hundreds of colleges in one place—usually a convention hall. It’s an opportunity to speak with a human being instead of relying solely on websites or the internet.
2. Aid Information: Some fairs have separate presentations on financial aid options and how to go about obtaining financial assistance. Colleges also provide school-specific information, with many handing out separate pamphlets on their own financial aid programs.
3. Free Advice: Some fairs offer counseling centers where students can get more general guidance on colleges and the college application process. They may also have resource centers for those seeking specific information on testing, financial aid, student loans, or state scholarship information.
4. Budget Savings: Driving to a nearby fair is a good deal cheaper than visiting a bunch of colleges in which you may or may not have real interest. While there’s nothing like setting foot on a campus to get a feel for it, fairs can help parental travel budgets by whittling the list of schools students feel they must visit.
5. Demonstrated Interest: If a student attends a college fair and signs up to be on a mailing list or takes time to meet with a rep, it may go down as “demonstrated interest,” which could help improve chances of acceptance down the road.

Some fairs offer pre-registration options, but most are walk-in events. Prepare for the fair by looking at which colleges plan to be in attendance and highlight those you want to visit, including a few less familiar schools. It’s a good idea to print out a handful of labels with your name, mailing address, phone number, month and year of high school graduation, and an email address. These can be quickly applied to mailing list cards, leaving more time to meet with reps. Be sure to bring a backpack for all the materials you will be receiving, but remember to only take what you need. And finally, ditch your friends. You’ll get much more out of the event if you do it on your own.

Some of the most popular DC area fairs are the NACAC National College Fairs (Baltimore and Washington DC), the NACAC Performing and Visual Arts College Fairs (Washington DC), the Fairfax College Fair (Fair Oaks Mall), Colleges That Change Lives, and College Expos (Baltimore County and Dulles Expo Center). Other popular fairs include the Black College Expo and the Hispanic College Fair. You can also check individual college websites for travel schedules and lists of smaller fairs scheduled throughout the fall and into spring.

Sep 19, 2009

Colleges Fumble Score Choice™

As the 2009-2010 application season kicks into gear, it’s evident that a number of colleges and universities still have not gotten the message about SAT Score Choice™ . An informal review of college websites shows that few institutions have adjusted their standardized test instructions or otherwise provided specific guidance on school policies in response to the change in reporting options. In fact, some schools have not updated their web pages from as far back as 2005. The problem is so bad that in many cases it is nearly impossible to discern where a school stands on score reporting.

Why is this a problem? It’s a problem because colleges aren’t considering how difficult the question has become for students trying to complete applications and request scores from the College Board. For confirmation, just look at the heated discussions generated on student message boards. Confusion and bad advice are tangled with ethical and moral dilemmas that could be easily solved with a little more information. Of course the easiest solution is just to send all scores to all schools, but not everyone wants to do that.

In a recent communication from the College Board, I was advised that in addition to the PDF contained on their website, information on school Score Choice policies can be found by searching each school’s College Board profile. While this is true in most cases, searches for Cal Tech, Brigham Young University, Tulane, NYU, the University of Denver, and other schools produced messages indicating the information was not available. Some of these colleges weren’t even listed on the College Board PDF--as if they didn't exist. To make matters worse, several school websites were so difficult to navigate or impossible to interpret that the question remained unanswered even after taking College Board advice and going directly to the school for guidance.

Compounding the problem, test prep organizations and news sources released charts or lists purporting to show participation in Score Choice. One frequently-circulated chart shows Johns Hopkins, American University, Beloit, George Mason, York College, and others as requiring submission of all test scores and NOT participating in Score Choice. Not so. While maybe late to the game, all these schools have agreed to allow students the flexibility of reporting whatever scores they want.

And the fun doesn’t end there. A number of the colleges and universities listed by the College Board as requiring all scores don’t appear from their websites to have this policy in mind. For example, Duquesne, Barry, Stetson, and Susquehanna all suggest a level of flexibility in score submission on their web pages that may be inconsistent with the information provided by the College Board on their school profiles.

So what’s the solution? Colleges and universities simply need to amend their websites to include a statement laying out their Score Choice policy. Clarification, discussion, and/or mention of the ACT in relation to the program would also be helpful. A student should be able to use the search function contained right smack in the middle of a school’s homepage to discover in one click what scores a school requires vs. what scores they would prefer to receive. And polite terms such as “request” or “recommend” or “ask that” are not helpful. Just spit it out: may a student use Score Choice or not? And if this policy extends to the ACT’s, such as in the case of Georgetown, simply say so.

There’s no reason for colleges and universities to make this situation more difficult than it already is. If it’s a matter of expense to revise websites, I recommend going to the source of the problem and asking for reimbursement.

Sep 18, 2009

College Admissions Advice from Those Who Know: Last Year’s Seniors

For the most part, the college-going members of the high school Class of 2009 have already reported to their respective colleges and universities. But as luck would have it, at least one particularly articulate group of former high school students left behind some serious advice for classmates and others knee-deep in the college admissions process.

Over the next couple of Fridays, I will share their unedited thoughts and responses to the prompt, “What suggestions would you offer rising seniors that you wish someone had given you before your senior year?” This information is pure gold!

  • Go visit every college that you are interested in. Sometimes you may think one particular college is good just because of the name or prestige, but several times you may not enjoy the academic and/or social environment.
  • Work during your junior year to really get a good feel for the type of school you want to attend. In the beginning of my senior year, I had anticipated working at the same pace I had in previous years. While junior year was definitely focused on doing well to get into school, senior year was the time I worked hard to make that happen. With that said, you’ll spend a lot more time in the fall applying to schools and will have to adapt your studying habits accordingly (your weekends will be spent writing essays and you’ll have less time to do homework for classes).
  • Of all the parts of your college application, put the most effort into your grades.
  • I highly suggest you start working on your essays little by little during the summer before senior year. Get done with your essays early and you will have time to get a lot of input on how to improve them.
  • Start the college application process as soon as possible. It seems like a huge burden, but it will go so much better if you finish things sooner rather than later. There are a lot of factors going into your application, and if you wait until the last minute you may not have time to re-do things that need to be re-done. Deadlines are deadlines.
  • Complete an application for another school before completing one for the school you really want to go to. Completing applications gets easier with practice as you get more comfortable with the format and process.
  • First semester is considerably worse than junior year, but it pays off 4th quarter. Also, talk to your counselor, but make sure you’re doing what you want to do.
  • Do your homework—don’t apply to colleges that you don’t actually want to go to.
  • Maintain good grades throughout your entire senior year. Start preparing your college applications during the summer or during any downtime that you have. Even if you don’t have the writing prompts for the real application, write a couple general essays about something that had a profound impact on your life, or who you admire and why, or anything else along those lines. During your first semester, do not put anything above your academics (like extracurriculars or athletics). Enjoy your senior year.
  • Plan ahead and stay on top of the details.

Next week, the seniors give advice on early action, scholarships, and financial aid.

Sep 17, 2009

You're More Than Just a Dot

In case you haven’t heard, scattergrams, such as those produced by Naviance (or Family Connections to you guys in Fairfax County) have become the latest obsession of college admissions junkies. Parents are more likely to fit in this category than students, but the growing fixation on the power of a dot to determine where a student may apply to college is truly troubling.

If you think about it, heavy reliance on Naviance—whether by parents, students, or guidance counselors—represents yet another step toward the total automation of counseling services. Since school systems have overburdened their counselors with myriad responsibilities from test administration to lunchroom duty, time for any kind of counseling within the school day is severely limited. So, we go to computers to provide data in place of personalized college guidance. And, this is a real problem insofar as folks are taking the information as gospel and using it to limit opportunities or lower the bar for their applicants.

In a nutshell, Naviance (Family Connections) scattergrams are graphs of SAT scores on the horizontal axis and GPA on the vertical axis. Thanks to the magic of computer gimmickry and proprietary algorithms, a separate graph is generated for each college to which students from a specific high school have applied within the last (typically 5) few years. A mark is made on the graph for each applicant that shows (supposedly without identifying the individual) their GPA, SAT score, and the outcome of the application (accepted, rejected, waitlisted, accepted from the waitlist etc.). Because they seem so full of useful information, scattergrams are like a drug to the truly addicted, as clusters of little green dots appear to foretell a student’s acceptability at any given college or university. And everyone in the college admissions race craves insider information. Only these dots are no more predictive than your average crystal ball, as past performance is no guarantee of future results!

Here are a few reasons you should kick the scattergram habit:

  • Scattergrams can’t predict anything; they only provide a historical reference.

  • Graphs tell you nothing about the stories behind the applicants—quality of essays, recommendations, or the level of extracurricular involvement.

  • The scattergram can’t tell if an application was poorly prepared, sloppy or late.

  • The data doesn’t report if an applicant is a recruited athlete, first-generation, a legacy or has parents who built a new library.

  • The GPA data comes from final transcripts not what colleges saw at the time of application, and there is no accounting for individual trends in GPA (upward or downward)—the number is absolute.

  • The scattergram doesn’t say a word about suspensions or other disciplinary actions that may be very confidential and have a huge impact on acceptances.

  • No information is provided on whether an application was submitted early decision (ED) or early action (EA) which can sometimes have an impact on admission.

  • The scattergram doesn't indicate if a student arrived late, texted, or chewed gum during his or her interview.

  • There is nothing on the scattergram that speaks to majors or if a student indicates an interest in a major that doesn’t even exist at a particular school.

  • Scattergrams are based on SAT scores, but an increasing number of students are submitting ACT's only and their applications are judged on the basis of those scores.

  • The GPA data doesn’t tell how many honors or AP classes a student took nor whether a student fulfilled the academic prerequisites a college requires or suggests.

  • Nothing in the system takes into account a student’s need for financial aid which can have bearing on acceptances to “needs sensitive” colleges.


  • Output is only as good as input so if students elect to "opt out" of the system or if the data is carelessly entered, results are compromised.

  • The system is of no value if no one from the high school has ever applied to a particular college.

  • Individual data can sometimes be easily identified and result in a public airing of acceptances and rejections.

A scattergram is only a guide, not a promise. While the dots may suggest a general trend, students should not be overly intimidated or put off by threatening clusters. College advising is an art not a science. Talk to your counselor. In the end, we’re all potential outliers!

Sep 16, 2009

Campus Crime

A well-publicized tragedy on any college campus is bound to bring out the worst parent nightmares. The horrific murder of Annie Le, in a research lab on the campus of Yale University is no exception, especially as it seems to run counter to all the commonsense safety advice we offer students. She was working during the daylight hours in a secure area of the university. There was nothing to suggest that she took chances or was otherwise in danger. It should not have happened.

When touring campuses, parents often ask questions about security. They are routine, and tour guides are always prepared with answers detailing the locations of blue light call boxes or the availability of 24-hour security patrols. While this information is helpful, tour guides are almost never equipped to deal with more specific questions concerning the frequency of major campus crime such as assault or burglary. And parents sometimes want this information.

One important resource for parents or others interested in researching crime on specific college campuses was developed by the Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE), within the US Department of Education. The Campus Security Data Analysis Cutting Tool provides customized reports on instances of campus crime including murder, manslaughter, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, and arson. Data are drawn from the OPE Campus Security Statistics Website database to which information is annually submitted by all postsecondary institutions receiving federal aid.

For those interested in obtaining campus crime information, a number of different searches are available on the OPE site. Reports may be generated for a single campus or for a group of campuses. On campus criminal offenses are reliably reported with residence hall offenses a subset of those. Off campus data, although very relevant, is not provided. It’s important to note that the data reported represent “alleged” criminal offenses reported to campus authorities and/or local police agencies. Because some statistics are provided by non-police authorities, the information on the OPE site is not directly comparable to data from the FBI’s uniform crime reporting system.

While these statistics may be interesting to review, they cannot predict the future and don’t truly reflect the massive effort made by colleges and universities to keep students safe. They may, however, suggest the kinds of trends or improvements in campus security which parents find reassuring.

Sep 14, 2009

DC Is A Great Place for College Students

According to a report recently released by the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), Washington DC is the fourth-best metropolitan area in the country in which to attend college. Topped only by New York, San Francisco, and Boston, Washington beat out Los Angeles, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Atlanta for large metropolitan areas with populations exceeding 2.5 million.

Distancing itself from other more familiar rankings, the AIER College Destinations Index assesses a location’s “broader learning environment” based on three separate indicators: Academic Environment, Quality of Life, and Professional Opportunities. Academic Environment subdivides into 5 factors including research and development expenditure and the number of college students living in the area. The Quality of Life section computes the number of arts, entertainment and recreation locations available to students as well as the percent of workers 16+ who commute to work via public transportation, bike, or foot. Professional Opportunities are assessed by measuring such factors as earning potential and unemployment rates.

Among the top mid-sized metropolitan areas (1 to 2.5 million), San Jose and Austin are ranked numbers one and two respectively. San Jose tops the list in student diversity and earning potential, while Austin gets points for having a high student concentration and a relatively low cost of living. Boulder, home of the largest of the University of Colorado campuses, ranks first for small metropolitan areas (250,000 to 1 million). As for College Towns, honors go to Ithaca NY—home to Cornell University and Ithaca College.

Recent studies by the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area show that no less than 140,000 students study locally in 13 universities and 2 colleges and contribute approximately $12 billion to the region’s economy. Washington ranks particularly high on the AIER index for its concentration of college-age students with 81 students for every 1000 residents. Only Boston with 83 students per 1000 is higher. The region also receives high marks for entrepreneurial activity, low unemployment, and high earning potential.

Sep 12, 2009

More Headaches from Score Choice™

Students who have progressed to the point of actually completing college applications may face yet another SAT Score Choice™ hurdle. As if it weren’t bad enough coping with which application to use (school-based, Common Application, Universal College Application) and the complications of completing those pesky supplements some schools require, students will now have to coordinate carefully which scores they self-report on the application form with which scores they request from the College Board.

When students request score reports to be sent to colleges on their list, they need to make certain that their self-reporting on applications corresponds to which scores are being sent:

  • ACT or NO ACT
  • SAT Reasoning Score Choice—single highest “sitting(s)”
  • SAT Reasoning NO Score Choice—all scores
  • SAT Subject Score Choice—selected scores only
  • SAT Subject NO Score Choice—all scores from all subjects.

Students using either the Common Application or the Universal College Application have the option of “tailoring” self-reported scores by creating alternate versions of their applications and entering test scores for one set of schools and other test scores for a second set of schools. Instructions are provided with both applications on how to create alternate versions, but it’s a headache and one more administrative problem arising from Score Choice. So much for the efficiency of completing one, single application!

It’s up to students to make certain that they are complying with the various Score Choice policies imposed by different colleges. And, these are not always entirely clear. If applying to Stanford, students must report all SAT Reasoning and all ACT scores. They may, however, use Score Choice for SAT Subject Tests as these tests are considered optional. Penn and Georgetown applicants must submit ALL scores including all SAT Reasoning Tests, all SAT Subject Tests, and all ACT's. If applying to Harvard, students may use Score Choice for both the SAT Reasoning and the SAT Subject tests—or not. In the latter case, Harvard will choose the highest scores from all sittings to use in their evaluations. Students may also elect to send ACT scores. Harvard doesn’t care. But again, once a decision is made about which scores are going where, it would seem important to coordinate both application completion and test report requests. Otherwise, the student takes a chance of not complying with a school’s stated score report policies. And that would not look too good.

In a website note prepared to help students understand its policy concerning Score Choice, Pomona College warns:

"When the College Board offered a score choice option several years ago, literally thousands of students across the country lost track of which scores were sent to which colleges. Many students failed to meet deadlines and many colleges based decisions (including the decision to deny admission) based upon incomplete information."

While referring only to previous College Board policies concerning SAT Subject Tests, the advice should be well taken by applicants and counselors.

Sep 10, 2009

Learn About Performing & Visual Arts College Fairs

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) offers a number of wonderful resources designed to support students and their families throughout the college admissions process. For example, the NACAC website contains lists of online materials for students with special needs, multicultural students, and athletes as well as information on financial aid or study skills development. NACAC also sponsors research, surveys, and studies related to college admissions or the concerns of college-bound students.

For the past year, NACAC has begun collaborating with experts to present a series of “webinars” targeted to students and their parents as well as to counselors or anyone with interest in college admissions. For those new to this technology, a webinar is a seminar conducted over the internet. A key feature is the ability to give, receive, and discuss information. This is as opposed to a webcast which does not permit interaction between presenter and audience. In other words, a webinar gives participants the opportunity to ask questions and participate in the presentation. It’s a very useful tool for simulating a classroom experience in the privacy of your home.

This month, NACAC is conducting a webinar on Performing and Visual Arts (PVA) College Fairs, scheduled for Tuesday, September 15, at 7:00 p.m. EDT. For students interested in the visual and performing arts, this is a wonderful no-miss opportunity. Here are some of the topics to be discussed:
  • The basics of a PVA College Fair including areas of interest (disciplines), educational opportunities, admission and financial aid, portfolio days, audition and entrance requirements
  • How attending a PVA Fair will help with the college search process
  • Tips on preparing for the fair

The 60-minute program will be moderated by Mark Rasic, University of Southern California, and the presenters will be Paul Hilner, University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, Tommy Newton, Southern Methodist University Meadows School of Music, and Laura Young, UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. It is recommended that participants use a PC with Windows Media Player (version 7 or higher), as the software is not compatible with MAC’s.

Registration information is available on the NACAC website. The program is free and open to the public. And if you can’t attend, the full presentation will be posted online shortly after the webinar airs.

Sep 9, 2009

A Tale of Two Presidents

More than forty years ago, another president visited another area high school. It was the spring of 1967, and the Vietnam War was raging. The weary man who stepped out of a helicopter parked in a field on the side of my high school bore no resemblance to the vigorous young African-American president whose storybook rise to power was due in part to the many accomplishments of the Great Society. Unlike the students at Wakefield High, the Crossland student body had no advance notice and there was no early press release signaling the message the president wanted to impart. We knew something was afoot when Secret Service agents appeared on the roof of the school and rumors flew about the importance of the guest we were about to receive.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson dedicated the Crossland Vocational Center, in Camp Springs MD, on April 27, 1967. I was a high school junior. While marking the 50th anniversary of the Smith-Hughes Act, a charter pledging federal support for vocational education, President Johnson noted the importance of providing opportunities such that “every young American shall obtain as much education as he wants and as much training as he can absorb and can use.” He outlined the historic struggle for public education and chastised what he saw as congressional efforts to turn back the clock on equal rights and federal aid to education. “Once we considered education a public expense; we know now that it is a public investment.” And standing before a large crowd of very subdued high school students, he reminded us that “…there is nothing more important to freedom in the world, to liberty in the world, to the dignity of man than education.”

Reshaping this theme for twenty-first century teenagers, President Obama made the same point at Wakefield High School. “What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.” He urged students to take advantage of the opportunities made possible by the educational pioneers of the last century and squarely returned responsibility to the young people who surrounded him in bleachers, “The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.”

Words are forgotten, but inspiration lives on. I may not have exactly remembered President Johnson’s remarks on that beautiful April morning, but I never forgot his visit or why he was there. Forty years from now, I am very certain that the students of Wakefield High will not only remember President Obama’s visit but will have also benefited from his insight on the importance of education. And that’s what we’re here for.

But Will Colleges Know?

Among the nagging questions surrounding the Score Choice™ reporting policy introduced this year by the College Board is the issue of whether or not colleges and universities will be able to “see” or otherwise divine if a student has invoked Score Choice privileges. Setting aside moral and ethical dilemmas posed by a student’s decision to follow or ignore a school’s stated policy, this can be a potentially troubling question for students and counselors.

Under the terms of the program, students have the option of using Score Choice for both the Reasoning and Subject tests. For Reasoning Tests (SAT I), students using Score Choice are offered the opportunity to send scores by “sittings” only. In other words, students may elect to send all scores from one or more sittings defined as a collection of 3 scores (M, CR, W) to a specific college or university. They may not generate their own personal “superscore” report drawing on scores from different sittings. If a student decides to opt out of Score Choice, all scores from all test dates are reported. In this instance, a college (or scholarship program) may select the best scores—Math, Verbal, or Writing—from among all sittings to use in their assessment of a student’s qualifications. Within the Subject Test subgroup, students can similarly elect to send whichever scores they wish to colleges requiring or requesting Subject Test results. Luckily, relatively few colleges require or recommend Subject Tests, and those that do are generally not fussy about use of Score Choice in the selection of scores to be sent from among the individual subject areas.

Although the College Board does provide some guidance in the form of “pop-ups” that appear when a student makes a report request, it is ultimately up to the applicant to be perfectly clear on school policies and do the right thing. Of course it would be helpful if all colleges and universities were clear about their policies on their websites. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, so students must rely on the College Board to be correct in their interpretation and reporting of the rules.

Once a student requests (and pays for) a score report, the College Board sends scores in one of three ways to colleges, universities and other institutions: internet score delivery, CD-Rom, and/or paper. I am assured by the College Board that these reports contain no indication of whether or not a student has elected to use Score Choice either by direct statement or inference. A sample of the student score report is provided by the College Board on their website (note page 2 of the 16-page document) as is a neat little booklet for colleges to use in setting up their accounts. There really is no place for reporting on Score Choice within the data layout for the reports sent to colleges.

Take my experience as a cautionary tale: it took nearly 45 minutes to get through to the College Board on the counselor help line to ask my question.

Sep 7, 2009

Labor Day Blues

Today is Labor Day. For a large group of area seniors, Labor Day represents the last full day of freedom before the traditional start of school takes over their lives. The Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) system has long resisted the pull of pre-Labor Day starts and remains steadfast in its support of local country clubs and the Kings Dominion Amusement Park by providing high school-aged employees unfettered by the demands of homework or other related school activities. Unless participating in fall sports, FCPS students may work until the last day of summer or until the pool closes for the season. It’s an interesting tradeoff for losing a couple of weeks of Advanced Placement (AP) preparation to the competition.

But this year’s FCPS seniors face an even more interesting wrinkle in their march to graduation and beyond. As upperclassmen, they will spearhead the transition to the new FCPS grading policy and will consequently be the first to deal with problems growing out of the long-awaited revision in the system-wide grading scale. Starting this year, students no longer have to achieve 94 or better to earn an A. In addition, the policy around weighting honors and AP classes has been revised to benefit FCPS students taking those classes. Both changes should help students in college and especially scholarship competitions for the coming year.

It all sounds great except the transcripts for the class of 2010 will show three year’s worth of grades under the old policy and weighting under the new policy. The GPA’s provided to colleges will be based on a hybrid of the more rigorous grading scale and the helpful weighting system. Next year, the class of 2011 will be even more confused as their grades will reflect a complicated mix of both policies. Presumably colleges will be able to sort all this out. But is it is very important that individual high school profiles are carefully crafted with clear explanations of what is going on so as to avoid confusion and show seniors in the best possible light. I strongly recommend that parents and PTSA organizations ask to see the revised school profiles that will be sent to colleges. Some will be glossy and detailed; others will be simple xeroxed sheets. You might also want to see copies of profiles from neighboring schools or competing schools to judge how yours compares. Or, take a look at what the University of Michigan and Northwestern University recommend. Remember, these documents are attached to every transcript mailed to every school to which a student applies. For FCPS students, some explanation of the transition to the new grading scale needs to be provided.

Hopefully, the class of 2010 is taking the day off and relaxing before buckling down to the demands of senior year classes, college applications, a few remaining standardized tests, and the delicate balancing act a social life imposes on all of the preceding. If you happen to be near your computer getting ready for the start of school, I have a small gift for you. Take a few minutes to watch Do or Die: The College Admissions Process. The language may be a little rough, but you should get a big laugh out of the absurdities of senior year.

Sep 5, 2009

More College Tails

Pets in a college dorm are usually restricted to minor members of the fish family—something like Tyrone, my son’s sorry-looking beta, or an equally inoffensive ornamental goldfish. But even these come with a set of responsibilities like regular facilities cleaning and/or vacation pet sitting. And anything larger would appear to pose allergy and space issues not easily resolved in typical congregate housing arrangements.

So it came as a surprise when I learned while visiting Eckerd College, in St. Petersburg, Florida, pets are not only allowed, but welcomed in dorms. I’m told pet owners are happy with the policy, and others really enjoy the interaction. Eckerd has permitted pets in dorms for decades and has had as many as 40 dwelling in three residences. Pet housing is typically full, and students are clamoring for more. Obviously, there are rules, some of which have evolved as a result of specific incidents such as the one involving the over-sized boa, but complaints appear minimal and Eckerd isn't about to ask students to leave their furry friends at home.

But Eckerd isn’t alone in its pet policies. Schools worried about losing pet-loving students to off-campus apartments are increasingly loosening pet restrictions in university housing. In fact, the trend has resulted in a ranking of the top 10 pet-friendly colleges by, which considered the kinds of pets permitted and the type of housing and number of units included. Points were also awarded based on school size, how long the school has had the policy in place, as well as prevailing rules concerning deposits or weight/breed restrictions. Here are the results:

1. Eckerd College, FL: Students are allowed to have cats and dogs (under 40 lbs.), as well as snakes and fish in 4 pet-friendly, air-conditioned dorm “clusters.”

2. Stephens College, MO: All students are required to live on campus but may have dogs, cats, hamsters, or guinea pigs on a pet floor for which they must apply in advance.

3. Washington & Jefferson College, PA: Cats, dogs (less than 40 lbs.), small birds, hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, turtles and fish are permitted as long as they have been owned by student families for at least a year and are registered as well as spayed or neutered.

4. Principia College, IL: Seven dorms and university apartments allow dogs, cats, rabbits, caged animals, and aquatic pets.

5. Cal Tech, CA: All dorms allow cats, as well as small caged and aquatic animals, but rabbits and dogs are not permitted.

6. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Students staying in the Ashton Woods apartments may keep up to two “companion animals” such as dogs, cats, rabbits and fish.

7. University of Idaho: Cats and birds are permitted in all of the university’s 4 apartment-style housing buildings; fish are allowed in all dorms.

8. MIT, MA: Cats are allowed in 4 of the university’s dorms as long as owners have the written consent of their roommates, is approved by the dorm’s “Pet Chair," has all shots, is neutered, and is registered with the campus housing office.

9. State University of New York at Canton: Mohawk Hall allows a maximum of 48 pets, not including dogs or snakes.

10. Lehigh University, PA: One dog or cat is allowed to live in each fraternity and sorority house on campus.

Sep 3, 2009

College Is Going To the Dogs!

Canines all over town will want to sit up and take notice of reports coming out of the District’s newest degree-granting postsecondary institution. Beginning this fall, the Humane Society University (HSU) will offer undergraduate degrees and graduate certificates in Animal Studies, Animal Policy and Advocacy, and Humane Leadership. An affiliate of the Humane Society of the United States, HSU is licensed as a higher education degree-granting institution by the District of Columbia Education Licensure Commission and is applying for accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The HSUS is the first animal welfare organization in the nation to receive such authority and distinction.

Targeted to working adults and those wanting to complete bachelors’ degrees, HSU programs are designed to educate students to qualify them for employment with one of the more than 17,000 nonprofit organizations that protect, provide services to, or advocate for animals. For admission to the undergraduate program, students must have already earned junior status or completed at least 60 college credits including general education requirements at another accredited institution. Both online and classroom based courses are offered to students admitted to any one of the three undergraduate majors. In addition, library services are available through a partnership with American University and the Washington Research Library Consortium which includes Catholic University, Gallaudet University, George Mason University, George Washington, Georgetown, Marymount University, and the University of the District of Columbia.

Obviously, the University hopes to attract students interested in animals and animal advocacy. All degree programs are interdisciplinary and each major has a set of core course requirements, capstone and electives in the field of human-animal studies. “The programs are designed for students who seek to advance work on behalf of animals by gaining advanced skills and knowledge,” announced Robert Roop, Ph.D., president of Humane Society University. He adds, “The interdisciplinary curriculum is unmatched by any other licensed scholastic body in the world.” Applications are currently being accepted and registration is ongoing for classes starting October 24th.

Sep 2, 2009

Visitor Parking

I hate to hunt for parking, and I really hate to pay for parking when visiting a college campus. Call it a pet peeve, but if a school really wants to impress visitors and potential applicants, accommodations should be made to have convenient, adequate, and free parking. Sorry, it just should be so.

Sure I know that on some campuses, parking comes at a premium. Huge parking structures exist at both Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). The difference is that the VCU admissions office offers parking validation for visitors, and UCSD does not. Why? Possibly because UCSD feels no particular need to recruit applicants—they have more than enough. Or perhaps there’s a different explanation. While VCU also has plenty of applicants, the school comes from a tradition of southern hospitality and thoughtfulness toward guests. What might this say about campus character or personality? Similarly, the University of Colorado at Boulder shares a devilish parking system with the University of Denver (UD). The difference here is that UD emails parking passes to be placed on dashboards by visitors registering for information sessions or campus tours; UC Boulder lets you pay the fine.

In all fairness, most colleges provide parking for their visitors. To be on the safe side, however, I recommend making sure you understand the nature of the accommodations by searching the college website or calling the admissions office in advance of your visit to determine
  • if visitor parking is available
  • where the visitor parking is located
  • if there is a charge for said parking and how much
  • how to go about obtaining a parking pass
  • the process for getting parking “validated”—if available
  • if exact change is needed to escape the grip of the campus parking system
  • when the work study student who mans the lot goes home (applies mainly to the University of Delaware)

Locally, George Mason University asks visitors to park in the structure nearest to the admissions office and will provide validation covering the full cost. Georgetown University and GW offer directions to nearby structures and coolly expect the visitor to cover the expense. The University of Maryland College Park and AU make available parking permits that are displayed on car dashboards. But the best welcome of all comes from the University of Mary Washington. Although parking is free on campus, it sometimes can be hard to find. So, UMW offers the opportunity to download passes allowing visitors to park in faculty spots. Now, that’s darn hospitable!