Jun 30, 2010

8 Simple Test Prep Tips You Can Take to the Beach

Outside of basic process questions, test prep is the most frequently voiced concern among parents of college-bound high school students. When to begin? What company to use? What tests should be prepped? Are tutors worth the investment? The list goes on.

Although research indicates that most students experience only minimal gains as a result of test prep classes, even small improvements in scores are worth some effort. Fortunately, this effort doesn’t necessarily mean going out and purchasing the most expensive package from the most prestigious company in town. There are other options, many of which can be explored during the summer months.

Consider these ideas and see where they might fit into time at the shore:

Sign-up for the ACT/SAT Question of the Day: Since we know you’re on the computer, why not take advantage of these free services and register. You can “passively” prep by simply answering the question that sweetly pops up on your screen every day. Check your answer and compare how you did versus the thousands of other high school students taking the quiz like vitamins every morning.

Work the Free Online Prep: Keeping in mind that the SAT and ACT are really paper-and-pencil tests, you can benefit from working with online test prep programs. Number2.com, INeedaPencil.com, and 4Tests.com offer sample tests and loads of test-taking tips (as do the College Board and the ACT).

Get SAT and ACT Booklets: Remember those little paperback booklets your guidance counselor tried to hand you every time you walked in the office? I’ve got a secret: they each contain a full-length sample test complete with answer grids. Some of us collect them so as to accumulate free full-length tests to use as practice exams. Stop by your local high school and get a booklet or two (if they still have them). And then, get up early one Saturday morning, assign a designated timer from among household members, and take a complete test. The truly dedicated will actually score the thing and go over results.

Use Official Study Guides: As much as I hate promoting these products, the Official SAT Study Guide and The Real ACT Prep Guide are the only ones to use. They contain official practice tests (saves the trouble of collecting old booklets) and lots of advice. Again, because college entrance exams involve sitting at a desk and working with a No. 2 pencil, don’t buy the computer software. Instead, take several published practice tests over the summer (see above).

Go High-tech: The good news is that you can work on test prep without looking too nerdy by downloading a few simple “apps” for your mobile PDA. The flashcard vocabulary builders, especially those that allow you to enter new words like gFlash-Pro, are really effective. The device may set you back, but the software tends to be very inexpensive.

Read: If you don’t do anything else to prepare for the SAT or the ACT, make time to read over the summer. I don’t mean Teen Cosmo or Sports Illustrated. Try to get reading lists from key classes like AP history, literature, or language. Even if you’re not taking AP’s, find out what you’ll be required to read next year. You can ask friends who’ve completed the classes or maybe even contact the school. Regardless, reading ahead really helps. But if great works of literature don’t work for the beach, try magazines. Look for scientific journals or read popular culture articles in The New Yorker. Remember that magazines as well as books are available at your local library.

Write: I don’t care what you write, but write. And write in complete sentences. Paragraphs are good too. Just don’t limit your written communications to texting or IM-speak. These habits are actually harmful insofar as you risk losing your “ear” for correct grammar and syntax. Start a blog, write grandma, bother your Congressperson, or begin drafting college essays—it really doesn’t matter. If you’re reading good books, enroll in an online literary group like the Big Read or Shelfari. Not only can you share ideas but your writing will improve, especially if you succumb to peer pressure and clean-up sentences or check spelling.

Find a Buddy: Lots of your friends are going through test prep anxiety. Gather a few together and form a support group to take practice tests or otherwise kvetch about college admissions. The wise high school student learns the value of study groups early. They work as long as you don’t spend the entire time socializing.

So the good news is that there are ways to prepare for standardized tests and have fun. It may take a little self-discipline, but whatever.

Jun 29, 2010

Stanford Expands Pilot Interview Program

Stanford dean of admissions Richard Shaw recently announced that the Office of Undergraduate Admission will extend its pilot interview program to a third year and again offer an optional alumni interview to applicants attending high school in the metropolitan areas of Atlanta, Denver, London, Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland (OR), and Raleigh/Durham, as well as the state of Massachusetts.

In addition, Stanford decided to expand the pilot program to include students in the Washington metropolitan area. For the 2010-11 admissions cycle, alumni will be scheduling interviews for students in the District of Columbia, as well as in the states of Maryland and Virginia.

"Our pilot program is just that - experimental and exploratory, nothing more," said Shawn Abbott, Stanford' former director of admission, in earlier correspondence related to the second phase of the program. "All regions were chosen based on lengthy research and discussion about our yield, diversity and alumni volunteer resources in each location."

Last year, approximately 2500 of 32,000 Stanford applicants received alumni interviews. Admissions officials insist that interviewed students receive no unfair advantage or disadvantage in the interview process and point to statistics showing the admission rate among interviewees was in line with Stanford's overall admission rate of about 7.2 percent.

Characterized as “successful,” the Stanford interview program is designed to be both informative as well as evaluative. Alumni are asked to:

• Share their Stanford experiences with prospective students; and
• Convey their impressions of candidates to the admission committee.

The Stanford website contends that alumni are “Stanford’s most authentic voice,” and they are encouraged to take part in what is considered to be an “important admission initiative.”

Yet according to Shawn Abbott, "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...suggest that they appreciated the additional information about each interviewed candidate - though admit that rarely did their own evaluations change as a result."

Applicants in the selected areas will be offered alumni interviews for both Restrictive Early Action and Regular Decision applications. Interviews for Restrictive Early Action will take place from approximately October 1 to November 20, 2010, and Regular Decision interviews will be scheduled from about January 1 to February 20, 2011.

As in previous years, interviews will be offered only to students who attend high school in selected zip codes within the designated geographic areas. Students may not travel to a pilot area to have an interview and you are asked not to “call or email the Office of Undergraduate Admission to request an interview and/or to find out if you are eligible for an interview.”

Jun 28, 2010

The 2009-10 Common Application Goes Off-line on July 15

Time is running out for anyone still planning to file the Common Application for the fall of 2010. The 2009-2010 online form will close at 11:59:59 pm Eastern Time, on Thursday, July 15th. If you pay attention to these things, that’s two weeks later than in previous years. The newly revised 2010-2011 form will appear on August 1, 2010—a month later than usual.

Students interested in applying to any of the 32 Common App member institutions with rolling deadlines on or after July 15 may still submit the paper version of the application by mail. Locally, this list includes Hood College, in Frederick, Maryland. Before sending anything off, however, you may want to check with the colleges to see if spots really remain open in the class.

By the way, it’s been a huge growth year for the Common App. Overall registrations rose by about 15 percent over last year to 913,188 and counting. Submissions went up by 20 percent, to over 1.9 million applications sent. And 27 new member colleges and universities were added to the roster. Effective July 1, the Common App will have 414 members, including 47 public institutions and 2 international members.

Even though the 2010-11 Common App Online will not go live until August 1, many members will finalize “supplements” before then. Students wishing to get a head start on those essays can either contact colleges directly or scan individual websites for next year’s topics. Keep in mind that the main Common App essay questions are not changing and you can access them by downloading the “preview” form.

Another early bird route to consider would be the Universal College Application (UCA) which goes live on July 1. The UCA is currently accepted by 75 colleges and universities including Johns Hopkins, Towson, and Stevenson Universities in Maryland, as well as Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. And remember that UCA has a very handy upload function that supports sending files, videos, and other digital content.

The next few weeks represent a transitional period in the college application business, as we move files from one cabinet to another. Consider it a good time to get organized, as the various admissions players retool and get ready for the 2010-11 application season.

Jun 26, 2010

Campus Visits Top the List of College Search Tools

Tapping the views of students visiting their site, Cappex recently published survey findings from 1300 college-bound seniors who just completed the college search process. Students were asked what helped introduce them to college options, what helped them get a feel for colleges, and what resources aided them in narrowing down their choices.

The answers were right out of a college counseling textbook: campus visits are key to all phases of college search and significantly outweigh in importance online and other resources including parental advice, college fairs, and high school counselors.

Many students start their college search by talking to family and friends, consulting with counselors, and visiting college websites. Once they get basic information, they typically arrange for campus visits.

Even with this sequence of events, Cappex found that visits are by far the single most influential resource for introducing students to colleges and helping them understand what attributes appeal to them. College websites are the second most influential resource followed by parents and generic college search sites.

Cappex also probed how students were able to get a “feel” for specific colleges under consideration. Not surprisingly, campus visits were cited by over 75 percent of the seniors as most influential. Individual college websites followed at 54 percent, and all those glossy mailers from colleges trailed at 37 percent.

It appears that parents suddenly become more important in the process when it comes time to narrow down the colleges to which students apply. Although campus visits still topped the list, parents came in second closely followed by college websites. College admission officers and mail from colleges tied at a distant third.

As far as benefits to be derived from a college visit, getting an “authentic campus experience” is the number one response. There’s nothing better than “experiencing a day walking around a campus and nearby town” to get a feel for the place.

Also important were the ability to understand the geography or size of the campus and the opportunity to see what classes are like, check out housing, experience a typical day on campus, and observe students. Less important outcomes included understanding political views on campus, getting a feel for weather, and checking out food.

But there are some drawbacks to college visits. About 44 percent of respondents indicated that campus visits are hard to manage and pay for. In many cases, it’s just too difficult for students to see all the schools they are considering. Even so, college visits fundamentally help students make decisions throughout the college search process.

To help you plan campus visits, local colleges have arranged summer tours (note most colleges are closed on holidays and holiday weekends):

American University: The admissions “Green Room” is open from 9-5, M-F. Tours and information sessions are offered at least twice per day M-F.
Catholic University: The admissions Office is open M-Th, 9-5 and Fridays until noon. Daily campus visits are scheduled for 10:30 a.m., M-F.
College of William & Mary: Information sessions and tours are offered M-F, at 10:00 and 2:30, through August 19. Select Saturday tours are also available at 10:00.
George Mason University: Information sessions and tours are offered M-Sat. throughout the summer.
George Washington University: Information sessions and tours are scheduled twice daily M-F in July, with an additional session offered on Saturday mornings in August. Interview times are available throughout the day.
Georgetown University: Information sessions followed by tours are held several times during the day M-Sat. Reservations are required.
Goucher College: Information session followed by a tour held M-F, at 10:30 am and 2:30 pm. Interviews may be scheduled directly after.
Johns Hopkins University: Tours and information sessions offered twice per day M-F, plus Hopkins "preview events" are available most Saturdays in July.
Loyola University of Maryland: Group information sessions followed by tour are held M-F, 9:00 am and 1:00 pm. Interviews may be scheduled immediately after.
Towson University: Tours and information sessions are offered M-F throughout the summer.
University of Mary Washington: Daily tours and information sessions are scheduled M-F, at 10:30 and 2:00.
University of Maryland: Tours and information sessions offered twice per day M-F, at 11:00 and 2:00.
University of Richmond: Information session followed by tour held M-F, at 9:45 am and 2:15 pm.
University of Virginia: No reservations necessary. Information sessions and tours offered M-F, at 10:00 and 1:00, and Sat. 10:00.
Virginia Commonwealth University: An information session followed by a tour held M-Sat., at 10:30 am, except on holidays and holiday weekends.

For the complete Cappex report and a few good charts, visit the Cappex website.

Jun 25, 2010

U.Va. Board of Visitors Gives ‘Thumbs down’ to Dining Hall Design

In the middle of a spirited budget debate during which the University of Virginia agreed to a $2.4 billion operating budget, the U.Va. Board of Visitors (BOV) voiced surprisingly harsh criticism of a proposed design for the expansion of Newcomb Hall.

A project estimated to cost between $16 million and $18 million, the dining hall renovations include a two-story entry with a skylight which university architect David Neuman referred to as a “new portal” for the University. But the Board wasn’t so sure.

The new fa├žade for the west side of Newcomb Hall is at the heart of what U.Va. insiders refer to as “Central Grounds” and is among the first buildings many visitors—including prospective applicants—see when they emerge from a nearby parking garage. The architects for the project proposed to replace 30- and 40-year old additions and bring the entire structure into the 21st century.

Board members, however, criticized the design as “vanilla, institutional-looking” and generally not reflective of the Jeffersonian “neo-classical” architecture of surrounding buildings. “I just don’t think it says ‘University of Virginia,’” complained board member Robert Hardie, adding that it looked “heavy” and disconnected from the rest of the building.

The objections renewed a long-running discussion about whether U.Va. founder and chief architect Thomas Jefferson would approve of deviations from the look he originally designed. The BOV is evidently sensitive to the University’s image and found the design woefully short on Jeffersonian ideals. So the plans will return to the drawing board.

In the meantime, interior renovations to Newcomb will go forward. Presumably our third president wouldn’t object to those.

Jun 23, 2010

10 Strengths and Experiences Colleges Look for in High School Students

Every few years, the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) surveys member consultants to determine what they think colleges want to see from high school students applying to their institutions. The results published in a report titled, “Top 10 Strengths and Experiences College Look for in High School Students,” represent the collective wisdom of many of the most experienced and knowledgeable advisers in the field of college admissions.

Last week, the IECA released the results of the 2010 survey. According to IECA members, number one on the list is an academic curriculum that is both rigorous and challenging with the inclusion of Advanced Placement (AP) and/or International Baccalaureate (IB) coursework—if offered.

Additionally, IECA members felt grades need to show an upward trend. Mediocre grades in the freshman year may be overcome by demonstrating that grades improved with maturity, as colleges are most concerned with where a student is intellectually at the time of application and not four years earlier.

Solid standardized test scores, consistent with academic achievement, appeared as number three on the list. IECA members thought tests are seldom enough to secure admission alone, but poor scores can be difficult to overcome especially at more “selective” institutions.

Educational consultants also support the importance of showing passionate involvement in a few activities by demonstrating leadership and initiative. Depth, not breadth of experience, continues to be most important. According to the IECA membership, colleges are clearly interested in what applicants may be able to bring in the way of meaningful contributions to their campuses.

Moving up on the list was the importance of the essay. This could reflect increased reliance on more holistic candidate reviews especially among test-optional colleges and universities. The essay was viewed as more important at smaller private liberal arts colleges, a large percent of which have already moved to diminish the role of standardized testing in their admissions.

Rounding out the top ten is “demonstrated enthusiasm to attend,” an item that first appeared on the IECA list a few years ago. This reflects the desire among colleges to admit students who seem most serious about actually attending their institutions. Yield, or the percent of admitted students actually attending a particular institution, may be a factor here.

Interestingly, “financial resources” did not appear among the top ten despite the current economy. Also considered of less importance by IECA educational consultants were the personal interview, legacy status, and “demonstrations of responsibility.” Creative supplements—videos, uploads, or websites—appeared very low on the list.

Located in Fairfax, Virginia, The IECA is a nonprofit professional association of established educational consultants who assist students and families with educational decision-making. Members—and I am one—must meet IECA’s professional standards and subscribe to its Principles of Good Practice. The complete list of the “Top 10 Strengths and Experiences Colleges Look for in High School Students,” may be found on the IECA website.

Jun 22, 2010

To the Class of 2014

As the Patriot Center and other area graduation venues roll out the red carpet and polish the podium, reality should be setting in for seniors transitioning from top dogs in the high school hierarchy to lowly freshman at the bottom of the college heap. But before the ink dries on those newly-minted diplomas and you sneak off for beach week in the Carolinas, I want to take advantage of one last opportunity to offer thoughts on your next great adventure.

College is THE SHOW. You've made it out of the minor leagues and into the majors. That's great, and you deserve all the credit in the world. But be warned—the transition from secondary to post-secondary education can be a little tricky.

It might surprise you to learn that the rate of college freshman dropouts is estimated at about 1 in 4. Of course this varies among institutions, and many dropouts do eventually find their way back to school. Still, recent studies show that only a little over half of those entering post-secondary institutions as freshmen graduate in six years. For mom and dad about to shell out serious money, this is an alarming statistic.

And what are the most-frequently cited reasons for dropping out? The obvious ones are homesickness, too much partying, academics, and finances. College is very different from high school, and some students simply aren’t prepared for the temptations or the challenges.

To address these problems, many colleges offer transition programs over the summer or just before the start of school. If your college offers such opportunity, take it. Not only will you make friends, but you'll also learn the shortest path to the dining hall. And don’t underestimate the value of spotting a friendly face on move-in day or in the first class you attend.

If you're still concerned about the college transition, talk to friends who've been there, counselors, and your parents. We all have stories about goofy roommates and ugly rush parties. Now that you're entering the college club, maybe you can hear a few. My brother-in-law's freshman roommate existed on a diet of Styrofoam cups. He didn't last long.

You might also want to hear what experts have to say. I like The Professors' Guide because it lays things out in easy-to-grasp lists like 15 habits of top college students and 15 secrets of getting good grades in college. Or listen to an interview with Stanford’s Dean Julie, who works almost exclusively with freshmen (scroll down the page for the recording and skip the ads at the end). Yes, the bottom line is ask for help when you need it.

Last year, the New York Times offered excerpts from college commencement addresses which go nicely with a column this year by Nicholas Kristof, entitled “The Best Commencement Speeches Ever.” One of my personal favorites is the address given to Stanford grads by Steve Jobs, in 2005. In all of these these, you’ll find much good advice offered to college seniors whose numbers you’ll replenish in the fall.

But for now, enjoy your moment at the Patriot Center or Constitution Hall. Then turn the page and think of yourselves as members of the class of 2014!

Jun 21, 2010

The Last 18 Years in Rap

Flocabulary hits it again. If you’re a recent high school graduate or just waiting to finish up your secondary school career at Herndon or Chantilly or wherever high school with one last blast of Pomp and Circumstance, here’s your life in review.

Starting in 1992 with over 4 million American babies born, Flocabulary takes just under 4 minutes to hit nearly every major headline of the past 18 years and ends with a very cool salute to the 3.3 million high school grads in the class of 2010.

From Forrest Gump (1994) and the Atlanta Olympics (1996) to the birth of Harry Potter (1997) and the crosses at Columbine (1999), the rapid fire images inspire as the lyrics recall what it’s been like to grow up from one century to the next.

But “we all remember the hour, when we heard that two planes had hit the towers.” And those 4 million babies were just reaching the half-way point in the lives they live today.

The Last 18 Years in Rap is a special gift to the high school class of 2010, with lyrics by Escher. If you’re not familiar with the weekly current events project promoted and brilliantly executed by the hip hop poets behind Flocabulary, check it out. They’re on break for the summer, but promise to be back with more headlines and rhymes in the fall.

Jun 19, 2010

8 Steps to College Success

COLLEGE OF ST. BENEDICT—Harvard Professor Richard Light has spent a lifetime studying what leads to the most “successful” undergraduate experience. Over 20 years of research enriched by the views of nearly 2500 students led to advice he shared with the more than 120 college consultants attending the recent Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA) Conference held on the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University campuses.

According to Dr. Light, successful college students will

1. Get to know one faculty member reasonably well each term or semester. Research shows this is the single best way to engage fully in the life of the campus.

2. Explore at least one entirely new topic or course every semester. Replicating your high school course load is not particularly productive or satisfying.

3. Develop a strategy for making tradeoffs between “investing” in new classes or activities and “harvesting” the benefits of known skills. Successful students experiment with the new but also continue to build on what they know they’re already good at.

4. Focus on time management. Students who make adjustments to and are aware of issues in time management are far more likely to succeed in college.

5. Pick classes in the first or second year that will support choosing a major wisely. Knowing something in advance about departments and majors saves time and aggravation in the long run.

6. Try to relate what goes on inside the classroom to life outside of class. Forming these kinds of connections gives more meaning and depth to academics.

7. Engage in a wide variety of extracurricular activities. There exists a very strong correlation between campus involvement and overall student satisfaction with college.

8. Seek out diverse views. Successful students will reach out to people whose views do not necessarily correspond to their own.

Students who make the most successful transitions from high school to college either learn or are instinctively aware of many of these lessons. It’s not rocket science, but a surprising number of college-bound seniors take little time to reflect on the fundamental differences between high school and college. And this isn’t good.

So after you come back from the beach or when things get slow at your otherwise exciting summer job, spend a few minutes thinking about your personal strategy for college success. Set some goals and pack up Dr. Light’s advice to take along with you to college. It will be far more useful than the digital TV or your Xbox 360.

Jun 18, 2010

Local University President is Recognized for Contributions to 'Academic Freedom'

As this year’s graduation season draws to a close, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is recognizing commencement remarks given by Trinity Washington University president Patricia McGuire by awarding her the prestigious Alexander Meiklejohn Award for Academic Freedom.

This award is given to an American college or university administrator in recognition of an outstanding contribution to academic freedom. President McGuire was selected for her 2009 remarks at Trinity, in which she denounced the “religious vigilantism” of those who opposed President Barack Obama’s commencement address at the University of Notre Dame.

In the citation for the award, the AAUP noted that “President McGuire called the pressure against Notre Dame ‘one of the angriest and most aggressively hostile efforts to block a commencement speaker ever endured by any American university.’” In her remarks, President McGuire challenged graduates to “engage with our culture, not shun it” and suggested that “Catholic universities must have the same high intellectual standards as all universities, nurturing academic freedom as the bedrock of excellence in scholarship and teaching.”

The AAUP citation recognizes President McGuire’s commitment to academic freedom by “speaking out on topics other college presidents will not touch.” It goes on to say, “[President McGuire’s] passion for justice, for the salutary benefits of open and rigorous debate, for what is simply right did not allow her to keep silent. Her voice has provided inspiration, encouragement and guidance to the leaders of Catholic colleges and universities across the country.”

Heading toward her 22nd year as president of Trinity Washington University, Pat McGuire is credited for “saving” the school by rebuilding the Catholic women’s college into a well-regarded university with particular success in reaching out to local Black and Hispanic students. She is an active voice in the community and it’s no surprise that her commencement remarks were targeted to questions of justice and freedom. They were adapted into an op-ed entitled, “The Real Scandal at Notre Dame,” published by Inside Higher Ed.

The AAUP’s Alexander Meikeljohn award was established in 1957 and was last awarded in 2003 to Molly Broad, then president of the University of North Carolina.

Jun 16, 2010

The List of ‘Test-Optional’ Colleges Continues to Grow

Slowly but surely, colleges and universities are beginning to roll out application policies and procedures for the coming year. And, one of the most closely watched developments among admissions junkies is usually the growing list of ‘test-optional’ colleges and universities.

In general, a test-optional admissions policy establishes rules by which students may choose whether or not to submit SAT or ACT scores when applying to certain colleges. Some test-optional schools will not accept or consider test scores at all. Others require them for placement purposes only or will eliminate the requirement just for those students with higher GPA’s. Although lists of test-optional schools exist, it's always best to check directly with the individual college or university to determine if and under what circumstances standardized tests should be submitted.

So far this spring, four institutions have dropped their ACT/SAT admissions test requirements for all or many applicants. According to Fair Test, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, this brings the total to 843, including almost half of the US News & World Report “Best Liberal Arts Colleges.”

Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, is the most recent college to announce a test-optional policy for all applicants next year. According to Dean of Admission Nancy Davis Griffin, “Six years of data show that, at Saint Anselm, the best predictor of academic success is a record of academic achievement in rigorous high school coursework.”

Also ending a requirement that applicants submit ACT or SAT results is Southern New Hampshire University. SNHU President Paul Le Blanc announced, “We have built and admissions process around knowing students personally and holistically. Standardized tests offer one vantage point…But we know so much more about a student by the time we accept or deny, including their academic abilities, that not having the test scores means very little.”

Ursinus in Pennsylvania and St. Michaels’s College in Vermont also announced test-optional policies for the fall of 2010. Ursinus Vice President for Enrollment Richard DiFeliciantonio explained that the school’s admissions research showed the best predictors for academic success at Ursinus are “high school grades and rigor of curriculum.” A point with which St. Michael’s director of admission Jacqueline Murphy agrees, “This makes official something we’ve always done in practice—and that is, focus on a holistic review of the student—his or her high school record, including strengths of program selected and grades in those courses.”

Locally, Christopher Newport University, George Mason, Roanoke College, Trinity Washington University, Goucher, Salisbury University, and St. John’s of Annapolis are among those colleges and universities choosing to deemphasize standardized tests in their admissions decisions.

According to Fair Test, more announcements about new test-optional policies are expected. At least two dozen additional colleges and universities are currently “reevaluating their entrance exam requirements.”

Jun 12, 2010

US News & World Report May Change Rankings Methodology

US News & World Report rankings guru, Bob Morse takes lots of flack at gatherings of college counselors and others connected with the world of college admissions. As the director of data for USNWR, Morse developed the methodologies and surveys for the America’s Best Colleges and America’s Best Graduate Schools annual rankings. He is both responsible for and guardian of the most lucrative magazine editions produced annually by USNWR.

Confident in his methodologies, Bob Morse usually goes to great lengths to defend how he does what he does. But that’s not to say he isn’t listening. Every now and again, he tweaks his methodology. And at a recent meeting of the Association for Institutional Research he announced a few proposed changes including

• Adjusting the current peer assessment survey by adding high school counselors’ rankings of colleges as part of the academic reputation component
• Including the admit yield (the percentage of accepted students who actually enroll) in the rankings, as a “proxy” for student views of a college
• Increasing the weight of the “predicted graduation rate”
• Eliminating the “third tier” from all rankings tables and extending the ranking to the top 75 percent of schools in each category (National Universities, Liberal Arts Colleges, etc.).

Whether you agree or disagree with the USNWR rankings, there’s no question about its popularity among college-bound students and their families. And be assured that colleges and universities are very sensitive about where they rank each year—even if they protest loudly about the foolishness of it all. In fact, some go to great lengths to manipulate numbers and jockey into better position when they think no one is looking.

In the most recent USNWR ranking, the College of William and Mary, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and UVa appear in the top 50 USNWR National Universities. The US Naval Academy, Richmond, and Washington & Lee rank in the top 50 Liberal Arts Colleges. And Hood College, James Madison University, Longwood, Loyola of Maryland, Mary Baldwin, and the University of Mary Washington rank in the top 25 of regional Masters Universities.

On his blog, Bob Morse invites comments on the proposed changes to the USNWR methodology. So far, the response simply repeats criticism consistently leveled at USNWR. If you have something to add to the discussion, leave a comment on Morse Code. Oh and copy us below.

Jun 10, 2010

What Will College Freshmen Be Reading this Summer?

Setting aside the politics of their commentary, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) recently put together a fascinating review of summer reading programs required of incoming freshman at colleges throughout the country. Unlike more familiar “required reading” assignments designed for high school students to get a little ahead or at least keep in the practice of reading over the summer, the college programs are more targeted to helping “start the conversation” during freshman orientation.

So what are the freshmen reading this summer? Based on an analysis of 290 programs, the top books this year are This I believe (an essay collection assigned at 11 colleges), Enriques’s Journey (an immigrant’s story assigned at 10 colleges), as well as Three Cups of Tea (the story of building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan) and the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (ethics in research). The last two are assigned at 9 colleges.

The study, entitled “Beach Books,” looked at the themes and politics of the books selected for freshman reading and concluded that books about multiculturalism, immigration or racism were most popular (60 colleges). Next were books covering environmental issues (36 colleges), the Islamic world (27 colleges), New Age or spiritual books (25 colleges), and issues related to the Holocaust or genocide (25 colleges). NAS also reported that 46 of the choices have a film version, 29 are about Africa, 9 are related to Hurricane Katrina, and 5 are about dysfunctional families.

Several local colleges have incorporated summer reading into their freshman orientation activities. Students at George Washington University will be reading Half the Sky by Nichola Kristop and Sheryl WuDunn, and at American they will read The Moral Underground by Lisa Dodson. Going more toward the classics, St. Mary's College of Maryland has assigned first-year students The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

At Salisbury University, freshmen will read “A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League,” by Ron Suskind. The subject of the book, Cedric Jennings, will be Salisbury’s Convocation speaker. And taking the theme of life-changing journeys back to its literary origins, Catholic University assigned Homer’s The Odyssey.

“The Odyssey bears directly to what you’re about to do,” said Dr. Todd Lidh, Catholic’s director of the "First Year Experience," in his comments on the assignment. He goes on to explain that the first four books are “about Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, and his quest to find out who he is and who he comes from, what to believe and what to discard, who to trust and who to avoid. And he does this by leaving home—just as you are about to do.”

And so for college-bound seniors, the journey begins.

Jun 8, 2010

10 Links to the Most Memorable Graduation Gifts Ever

If you want to break from the herd of indistinguishable gift card givers or you hate shoving a few bucks in an envelope, consider a graduation gift that is memorable, significant, and maybe even useful—go logo! Students on either side of undergraduate—newly admitted or newly minted—love logo gear and you'll look very cool giving it.

“Part of the fun of being invited to a graduation celebration is selecting a gift,” said Kathryn Hollis, as she ran between parties celebrating graduates of various DC area high schools. “University bookstores are always great sources for logo merchandise, but there are independent companies licensed to sell keepsake items that are actually welcomed gifts.”

It’s really pretty easy. Simply let your fingers do the walking and check out the following website suggestions:

College Bookstore: This time of year, bookstores do big business and frequently sell out of the most popular items. Nevertheless, it’s a good first stop on the college logo tour. Simply enter “bookstore” in the search function located on the college website and a link should appear. Note that many bookstores are run by Barnes and Noble and that a gift card to the college bookstore always “fits.”

Team Shop: In addition to typical bookstore items, many college athletic departments or boosters maintain separate team shops where you can find logo gear. Use Google or your favorite search engine and enter the college name and “athletics.” Not all these sites sell team products, but it’s worth a try.

Amazon: In its pursuit of commercial dominance beyond books, Amazon features an impressive selection of college logo gear. After entering the name of your targeted college or university in the Amazon search, you will be presented with a list of relevant departments including Sports & Outdoors, Books, Clothing & Accessories, and Home & Garden. Some products are sold directly by Amazon, but frequently the items will come from independent vendors selling under the Amazon umbrella.

UGrad Shop: This site features classic products ranging from cuff links to sports coats. Seasoned shoppers recommend UGrad’s service and price. The collection of colleges featured on the site includes Georgetown, University of Maryland, UMBC, UVa, and Virginia Tech.

Ebay: If you’re looking for a slightly offbeat or keepsake item, try Ebay. Not everything is “used” and if that’s not a problem, you might find “collectables” such as college prints and old fraternity pins or barstools and used flip flops.

NCAA College Store: This site advertises as having the "largest selection of college merchandise anywhere." There are over 550 colleges and universities from which to choose, and the selection of products is nothing short of amazing. Look for some real bargains among sale items.

Vineyard Vines: Check out the college collection for everything from boxers and loungewear to ties and tote bags. The "preppy" designs are unique and very much in vogue among undergrads. It’s so popular that many college bookstores have “exclusives” on their Vineyard Vines products.

Alumni Gifts: This is another all-purpose logo gift site featuring products from 400 colleges and universities, including George Mason, Catholic, George Washington, Loyola Maryland, the Naval Academy, VCU, VMI, Radford, and Washington & Lee. Shipping is free on orders over $50.

Collegiate Snuggie: The blanket with sleeves comes in over 50 college logo designs available on the Snuggie site or at Target or Walgreens. They are enormously popular among undergrads who wear them to sporting events, class, and to study—sometimes.

Magnolia Lane: These unique pottery and ceramic items periodically show up at local Hallmark Stores and include UVA and Virginia Tech in the product line. You can shop directly from the manufacturer, but a better price point is at invitationbox.com.

Jun 7, 2010

It’s Getting More Expensive to be an Overachiever

Parents of high school students enrolled in the Fairfax County Public School (FCPS) system will be digging deeper into their pockets to cover several new fees contained in the budget recently approved by the FCPS School Board. And those most affected will be families with high achievers in academics or sports or both.

Effective this coming school year, Fairfax County will be levying a $75 testing fee for all Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) tests administered to students in the county. The College Board charges $86 for each AP test and rebates $8 to schools to cover the costs associated with proctoring and administering the program. With the new FCPS fee, families will be going from covering none of the AP charges to paying all but $3 per test. IB tests and associated expenses are a little more complicated, and even with the new charges, a large portion of the total cost of IB testing will continue to be shouldered by the county.

In addition to the testing fee, a $100 per sport participation fee will be charged for students playing Virginia High School League sports. If your daughter plays field hockey in the fall, runs indoor track during the winter, and is the girls’ lacrosse goalie in the spring, you’ll now be shelling out an additional $300 to cover the cost of being on the teams.

School Board member Patty Reed is concerned about the failure of the FY 2011 Approved Budget to protect high school families from what she calls excessive fees. “…a family with two high school students who each take four AP or IB classes and play two sports in a single year, will now pay a total of $1000 in sports and testing fees for just one year,” commented Ms. Reed.

Although provisions are in place to cover expenses for low income students, the new fee schedule is going to be a shock for most parents—especially those with college-bound students who are encouraged to take AP classes and be involved in extracurricular activities including sports programs. But county parents should take heart. They are not alone.

In Frederick County, Maryland, it costs $90 per sport to play on a high school team. In the Boston suburbs, it can cost as much as $975 per family for students to play on a high school team—even if they sit on the bench the entire season. And many school systems have always charged testing fees. In fact, some tack on a little additional to cover incidental expenses associated with administering the tests (click here to see a state-by-state breakdown of AP fee policies).

So colleges, take note. All that pressure to achieve is slowly getting more costly—and not just in Fairfax County.

Jun 4, 2010

Do Colleges Pay Attention to the SAT Writing Score?

If you’re still hanging on to the notion that the SAT writing score doesn’t count in college admissions, I hate to disappoint. Many colleges and universities not only care about the writing score, but are placing increasing faith in its ability to predict college performance.

But let’s back up a minute. Responding to historical concerns about the overall usefulness of the SAT, the College Board launched a “new” SAT in March 2005. The test essentially morphed into three parts—Critical Reading, Math, and Writing. In addition to eliminating those pesky analogy questions, the new SAT added a 25-minute essay writing component to accompany a revised multiple-choice grammar section.

The essay—written in response to a specific prompt—is drafted in pencil and later scanned into a computer for posterity. The essay score counts for about one-third of the overall writing score and is combined with the multiple-choice section to produce a scaled score of between 200 and 800. The average writing score for 2009 high school graduates was 493—down one point from the previous year.

It’s worth noting that colleges may request to read the essay as written (remember it’s in the computer), but few are bothered unless they suspect something is amiss or there is a major disconnect between the application writing sample and the SAT essay.

While some colleges and anti-test advocates continue to grumble about the validity of an unedited essay written in 25 minutes on a previously unknown topic, an increasing number of schools are giving weight to the SAT writing score in admissions. In fact, some schools are using the writing score to place students in appropriate first-year writing classes.

In 2008, the College Board released a study analyzing data submitted by 110 colleges and universities and found that writing is “the most predictive section of the SAT” for forecasting first-year college performance. Both the College Board and the University of California (in a separate study) determined that the writing section is slightly more predictive than either math or critical reading.

The following will give you an idea of how well successful applicants to local colleges scored on the SAT writing section (middle 50% of first year students):

American University: 580-690
College of William & Mary: 610-710
George Washington University: 600-690
Goucher College: 540-650
Howard University: 430-660
Johns Hopkins University: 650-730
Loyola University of Maryland: 550-640
St. Mary’s College of Maryland: 560-670
Towson University: 500-580
UMBC: 530-630
University of Mary Washington: 530-630
University of Richmond: 580-690
University of Virginia: 610-710
Virginia Commonwealth University: 480-580

Local colleges not listing writing scores and presumably not using the score in admissions include Georgetown, George Mason University, Christopher Newport University, Catholic, University of Maryland-College Park, and James Madison University.

Jun 2, 2010

10 Reasons Why Every High School Student Should Volunteer

While putting finishing touches on summer plans, don’t forget to leave quality time for volunteer activities or projects. Incorporating service into your life is incredibly rewarding and can definitely be habit-forming--in a very good way!

But as you consider volunteer options, look for opportunities that fit you—your interests and skills. You can be deeply involved in a one-time event or you can sign-on for a couple of hours each week. And by sharing your time and talent with others, you:

  1. Do some good. As a volunteer, you have the opportunity to make a difference—change lives, support a cause, or improve your community.

  2. Test-drive career options. If you think you want to go into medicine, teaching, or even large animal husbandry, spend volunteer hours in a clinic, a school or on a farm. Volunteering opens new vistas and provides an opportunity to explore different career paths.

  3. Polish job-readiness skills. Being dependable, on time, and responsible will not only make you a great volunteer but also prepare you for entering the world of work. In addition, you can develop communication, organization, and invaluable “people” skills, all of which are valued by employers.

  4. Expand your network. Volunteering is a great way to make new friends and build solid connections to businesses, schools, or other community-based organizations. These are the kinds of relationships that tend to grow and blossom, particularly if you find yourself working in a team or supporting a cause. A byproduct of the experience can be a strong personal recommendation for college or a future job.

  5. Challenge your comfort zone. If life as a high school student has become a little too boring and predictable, try volunteering in a totally unfamiliar part of your community or serving a population with which you don’t ordinarily come into contact. Expose yourself to new ideas, challenges and situations that will help you grow as a person.

  6. Hone leadership skills. As a volunteer, you may be presented with opportunities to build supervisory, management, or decision-making skills as a team leader or project organizer. These are talents that colleges and future employers value highly.

  7. Upgrade college portfolio. Yes, colleges want to see that you’ve done something more with your summer than Facebooking. To volunteer is to give strong evidence of character, commitment, and motivation—all of which are plusses in the college admissions process.

  8. Discover an essay topic. The best college essays flow out of personal experience. In fact, essay questions often ask about significant achievements, events, people, or encounters—all of which may be found in the act of volunteering.

  9. Learn something. You learn by doing. And if you’re lucky, you may even be offered specific skill training, which you can take with you long after the event or project is completed.

  10. Do some good. This cannot be overstated.

In the commencement address she gave at George Washington University, Mrs. Obama pointed out that volunteerism is all about “a sincere willingness on your part to keep sharing your enthusiasm; to keep believing that you can make a difference; to keep going to places where there is brokenness and injustice and despair, and asking what you can do to lift those places up.”

So step up and get involved. You really can make a difference!

Jun 1, 2010

Women Seriously Outnumber Men in College

Women continue to account for a disproportionate share of the enrollments at postsecondary institutions. And, they are likely to become an even more dominant presence on campuses over the coming decade, according to research by the US Department of Education.

The numbers, collected and published annually by the department’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), indicate that by 2019 women will account for 59 percent of total undergraduate enrollment and 61 percent of total “postbaccalaureate” enrollment at colleges and universities throughout the country.

Between 1993 and 2007, the percentage of males enrolled in higher education dropped from 45 percent to 43 percent. And evidently, over the next ten years, the percent of males is expected to drop by an additional two points.

Why is this happening? In part, because there exists a gap between sexes in high school graduation rates. Fewer males than females are taking and passing college preparatory courses, and fewer are graduating from high school.

And what does this mean? Well for some, it means it’s going to get harder to get a date for Saturday night or to recruit new fraternity brothers for the local chapter of Phi Kappa Psi. But it’s also going to mean that at some colleges, the standards for admission of women may get even higher particularly at schools determined to keep the balance between sexes even.

Late last year, the US Commission on Civil Rights announced an investigation of DC area colleges to determine whether admissions offices might already be discriminating against women. Nineteen colleges and universities were selected for review. Although findings have yet to be published and the investigation continues, the latest enrollment projections from NCES suggest the possibility of an even larger problem on the horizon, as the percent of women in the applicant pool steadily grows.

In 2008, women accounted for 57 percent of the overall undergraduate population. According to College Navigator—a search engine maintained by NCES—most DC area college enrollments reflect the demographic bias toward female undergraduates:

American University: 62%
Catholic University: 54%
Christopher Newport University: 55%
College of William & Mary: 55%
George Mason University: 53%
George Washington University: 56%
Georgetown University: 54%
Howard University: 66%
Johns Hopkins University: 50%
Loyola University of Maryland: 58%
Towson University: 60%
UMBC: 45%
University of Mary Washington: 66%
University of Maryland: 48%
University of Richmond: 53%
University of Virginia: 56%
Virginia Commonwealth University: 57%

Note that the percent of women currently enrolled at any college or university can be very different from the percent who applied or who were actually admitted. For more information on individual admissions and enrollment patterns, go directly to the College Navigator website.