Aug 29, 2014

What freshmen REALLY don't know

For the Class of 2018, students have always been able to dance at Baylor.

Born in the year France announced an end to nuclear tests and Bob Dole swept the Republican primaries, members of the class of 2018 have always had The Daily Show to give them the story behind the story and have always been able to communicate with “friends” through Facebook. 

Each August since 1998, Beloit College has released the College Mindset List, the brainchild of Tom McBride, Keefer Professor of the Humanities and Ron Nief, former public affairs director. Designed to clue professors into what their new frosh experienced growing up and help them “be wary of dated references,” the list traditionally signals the start of the academic year.

Items on this year's list reflect the cultural and political world views of today’s 18-year-olds, most of whom were born in 1996.  And for the class of 2018,  the intrusions of digital technology are perfectly ordinary as grocery stores they shop in, as well as colleges to which they apply, relentlessly track their every move through increasingly sophisticated use of “Big Data.”  Issues of privacy and digital footprints left all over the internet are very real for this year’s entering class of freshmen.

For the complete Mindset List, visit the Beloit website.  In the meantime, here are some highlights: 

  • During the initial weeks of kindergarten, there were upset by endlessly repeated images of planes blasting into the World Trade Center.
  • Meds have always been an option.
  • When they see wire-rimmed glasses, they think Harry Potter, not John Lennon.
  • “Press pound” on the phone is now translated as “hit hashtag.”
  • Celebrity “selfies” are now far cooler than autographs
  • Hard liquor has always been advertised on television.
  • The water cooler is no longer the workplace social center; it’s the place to fill your water bottle.
  • Women have always attended the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel.
  • Hong Kong has always been part of China.
  • Nicotine has always been recognized as an addictive drug requiring FDA oversight.
  • Students have always been able to dance at Baylor.
  • The Unabomber has always been behind bars.
  • There has always been a national database of sex offenders.
  • Bill Gates has always been the richest man in the U.S.
  • One route to pregnancy has always been through frozen eggs.
  • They have probably never used Netscape as their web browser.
  • Everybody has always Loved Raymond.
  • Affirmative Action has always been outlawed in California.
  • Their collection of U.S. quarters has always celebrated the individual states.

Aug 25, 2014

Writing supplement or member questions: How to find Common App essay prompts

Stanford clearly labeled its essay prompts.

Pixar is famous for sneaking insider references and jokes into movies.  These hidden gems are known as “Easter Eggs” because they require a bit of “hunting” and attention to detail in order for viewers to be rewarded with a “find.” 

And as fans know, Pixar’s Easter Eggs aren’t always so easy to find.  One of the best known eggs is the yellow Pizza Planet truck, which has appeared in every Pixar film since the first Toy Story installment.  But for more obscure eggs, viewers need a little guidance and Pixar has developed an app for that.

So what does Pixar have to do with college admissions?

In what’s turned out to be the biggest and most controversial change in this year’s Common Application, developers have taken a page from the Pixar playbook and created their own version of Common App Easter Eggs by locating essay prompts in different areas of the online application.  

Walking a fine line between “customization” and the original mission of the Common App, which emphasizes commonality over difference, interim CEO Paul Mott gave member colleges the opportunity to move their essay prompts out of writing supplements and into the main body of the application.  This seemingly minor change represented a huge step toward allowing members to individualize or “tailor” their applications to meet their specific needs.

It also helped solve a huge problem with last year’s application by streamlining the mechanics of applying for colleges electing to do away with separate, and sometimes overlooked, writing supplements.

Stevenson is one of the schools that made the decision to move our short response questions from a writing supplement to the institution-specific ‘Questions’ section.  It was our experience that more of our applicants were confused by the writing supplement last year than they ever had been by our pre-CA4 supplement.  We had a higher incidence last year of students submitting everything except the supplement,” explained Kelly Farmer Stevenson University’s director of freshman admission.  “Adding our questions to the institution-specific question screen or what we colleges know as the ‘member screen’ was a good way for us to make sure students saw those questions and knew they were required. From my perspective, we were making a change that was intended to make the process more streamlined for the student.”

By locating essay prompts in the main body of the Common Application, colleges eliminated the need for two separate submissions—the Common App followed by  an independent writing supplement.  Although the process is simpler, admissions offices risk potential delays among students procrastinating essays and short answers.  In addition, until an application is submitted, colleges cannot receive recommendations or other supporting documents though the electronic system, as the Common App does not release these materials until payment is provided.

Because some colleges don’t appreciate this delay and want to get the process rolling as soon as possible to open files or schedule interviews, many have stuck with the two-step plan—first the Common App with the boilerplate personal statement everyone receives, and then the customized writing supplement.

This seems clear enough.  Either the college uses a writing supplement or it doesn’t.   If there is no writing supplement, colleges may locate essay prompts among member-specific questions—provided they require writing beyond the personal statement.  And for the record, many do not.

But the problem comes in when students can’t find or are surprised late in the process by unexpected writing requirements.  At least for now, there is no consistency as to where these essay prompts may be found among member questions and there is no guide telling students where to look.

Enter the Easter Egg hunt.

Some colleges make the hunt easier than others.  For example, Pomona places its essay prompt in a section labeled, “Pomona Supplemental Essay.”  Boston University uses the label “Essay Questions;” Stanford has created two separate sections labeled “Short Questions” and “Short Answers;” and Cal Tech draws attention to its writing requirements in a section titled “Required Short Answers & Essay Prompts.”  

Most Common App members, however, go the more generic route and tuck their writing requirements in the section labeled “Other Information.”  But many use sections titled “Academics” or “General.”

And more creative colleges simply make up a name.  Hendrix labels its writing requirements “Granola,” and Sweet Briar uses the title “About You.”

The trickiest essays to find are those using “triggers” to prompt additional questions.  For example, a number of test-optional colleges present essay questions once the applicant has indicated scores will not be provided as part of the application.  Others use answers to questions about majors, honors programs, and/or scholarships to make essays magically appear where previously there had been none.

So what’s the best way to make sure you find all of the essay Easter Eggs?  Systematically go through the member questions and provide answers as you go along.  This will alert you to easily identifiable writing requirements as well as unlock hidden questions which aren’t so easy to spot.  Pay particular attention to test-optional or flexible colleges as well as to honors programs and scholarship opportunities. 

And check with the individual websites.  Often there are clear guidelines as to what the college needs and expects in the way of additional writing requirements.

The Common App promises to eventually provide some help in the form of a listing or map of colleges with writing requirements beyond those clearly labeled as writing supplements.  And similar to what Pixar developed for its fans, there are several apps on the market that sort out the various prompts and their locations.

But absent these aids, discovering writing requirements for each of the colleges on your list really isn’t that difficult. Simply think of them as Easter Eggs.  And be sure to collect all your eggs (prompts) sooner rather than later to avoid unpleasant surprises down the road.

Aug 22, 2014

Business is booming at the ACT

Washington and Lee University

According to a national score report released Wednesday, business is booming at the ACT, as a record 1.84 million high school students graduating in 2014, took what has become by far and away most the popular college entrance exam. 

And unless the College Board has some surprises in its annual report, which is expected shortly, the ACT shouldn’t be too concerned about losing this distinction any time soon. Projected changes in the SAT are drawing even more attention to the ACT, as the College Board appears to be moving its product closer its Iowa-based competitor

While ACT scores remain basically unchanged from last year with a national average Composite score of 21, a record 57 percent of the nation’s graduating class took the ACT—three percent more than in 2013 (despite a smaller graduating class).  Even more impressive:  the total number of ACT-taking high school graduates has increased almost 20 percent since 2010.

Supporting the ACT’s growth in popularity, eight states—Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming—administer the test to all students as part of their statewide assessment programs.  In fact, a total of 11 states administered the ACT to all of their 2014 graduates and five additional states will begin statewide ACT testing in the coming school year.

At the other end of the popularity scale, the fewest ACT’s were taken by students in Maine (9%), Rhode Island (16%), Delaware (18%), and Pennsylvania (19%).

Local numbers reflect national trends as the number of students taking the ACT in Maryland and Virginia has increased over the past five years by 18 percent and 19 percent respectively.

And why has the ACT suddenly become so popular even where it’s not used for statewide assessment? Perhaps it's because the test is considered by many to be more “consumer friendly” than competing College Board products. And at a number of colleges, the ACT with Writing may be substituted for both the SAT Reasoning and Subject Tests—saving the test-taker time, money, and aggravation.

But more important to college applicants is the fact that virtually every college and university in the country will accept either the ACT or the SAT. Because the tests are interchangeable, students may elect to submit scores from whichever test they choose—usually the one on which they scored best.

And they are increasingly choosing the ACT. Ten years ago, only 15 percent of the Washington and Lee incoming freshmen submitted ACT scores, according to Common Data Set information posted on the WLU website.  Last year, 51% of the freshman class submitted ACT’s to WLU. During the same period, the percent of freshmen submitting ACT’s to the University of Virginia went from 13 to 37, and at William and Mary the numbers went from 5 percent of freshmen submitting ACT’s ten years ago to 36 percent submitting last year.

An even more remarkable trend is evident at some selective liberal arts colleges.  Ten years ago, Williams reported no ACT’s submitted among incoming freshmen.  Last year, 40 percent of the Williams freshman class submitted ACT’s.  At Amherst, the percent of freshmen submitting ACT’s went from 11 to 41, and at Swarthmore the percent increase went from 12 to 37.  And while ten years ago none of Haverford’s incoming freshmen submitted ACT’s, last year, 40 percent provided ACT scores.

The ACT is a first cousin to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which many of us took in grade school (long before computers were used to score them). It is a “curriculum based” achievement test designed to measure the skills necessary to succeed in college-level work.

For the record, our area continues to score very well on the ACT. Virginia’s average composite score was 22.8, well above the national average of 21. The average composite in Maryland was 22.6 and in DC, it was 21.6. Subscores were very similar with Virginia scoring slightly higher in all areas.

And somewhere in the DC region, 46 students earned perfect composite scores of 36—18 in Maryland, 26 in Virginia, and two in the District of Columbia.

For more a more complete summary of ACT national and state test results, visit the ACT website.

Aug 20, 2014

The truth about SAT Subject Tests™

Cal Tech requires SAT Subject Tests regardless.

Fortunately, SAT Subject Tests are not ordinarily part of the admissions rat race. Mostly "selective" colleges either require or strongly recommend submission of these tests as part of the application process.

In fact, Subject Tests appear to be taking on a diminished role in admissions.  This year, four colleges are dropping them:  Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University are now fully test optional, while Olin College of Engineering and Boston College no longer require them at all.

And last spring, Harvard announced a small adjustment in Subject Test policy.  On its website, Harvard notes that “we normally require two” SAT Subject Tests. New language adds, “…you may apply without them if the cost of taking the tests represents a financial hardship or if you prefer to have your application considered without them.”

In an email to alumni interviewers, William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid noted concerns about strong applicants—including many high-achieving minority students—who lack access to solid college counseling.  “Such students often struggle with poor or no advice from the counselors, the expense of taking yet more standardized tests, and even the time required to take the tests, which may interfere with home responsibilities and employment.”

But despite the shift in policy at Harvard and other institutions, there are still a number of reasons why colleges might like to see Subject Tests. 

Sometimes they want specific Subject Test scores from students interested in particular majors or programs of study. Or they might be required of students hoping to enroll in accelerated or specific honors programs. And homeschooled students are often requested to send Subject Tests to confirm what they’ve learned.

It’s definitely something to consider as you develop standardized test-taking strategies in high school, and you might want to schedule specific Subject Tests as they coincide with Advanced Placement or other advanced coursework.

Yet regardless of good intentions, it’s sometimes hard to squeeze in all the testing in time to meet deadlines, especially if you’re planning to apply Early Decision or Early Action.

And if you’re feeling a little panicked about Subject Tests either because you never got around to taking them or because your scores weren’t quite as high as you had hoped they would be, there is an alternative:  a number of colleges will allow you to substitute the ACT with Writing for SAT Subject Tests.

Not only does this represent an economical solution to the problem—you only need to pay for one test instead of several—but because the ACT is given in September, you have a chance to prepare over the summer and take a test that is guaranteed to yield results in time for early applications. In other words, you avoid “rushing” scores from October test dates or worrying about whether or not the College Board will transmit scores in time to meet deadlines.

So for those of you thinking about the ACT solution to the Subject Test problem, here is a list of schools accepting the ACT with Writing in lieu of both SAT Reasoning and Subject Tests:

  • Amherst College, MA
  • Barnard College, NY
  • Brown University, RI
  • Columbia University, NY
  • Duke University, NC
  • Haverford College, PA
  • McGill University, Canada
  • Pomona College, CA
  • Rice University, TX
  • Swarthmore College, PA (see other testing options)
  • Tufts University, MA
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Vassar College, NY
  • Wellesley College, MA
  • Yale University, CT
But note that the opposite of this policy also exists.  Some schools require submission of Subject Tests regardless of whether the applicant takes the SAT or the ACT.  These include
And the fun doesn’t end there. 

Locally, Georgetown University continues to strongly “recommend” three Subject Tests. To the north, Johns Hopkins reduced its recommendation to two Subject Tests, while to the south, Washington and Lee still requires two “unrelated” SAT Subject Tests for students choosing College Board products.  UVa, however, “strongly recommends” the submission of two Subject Test scores whether the student submits SAT’s or ACT’s.

Catholic University recommends either a Subject Test or an AP/IB exam in language for Arts/Sciences and Philosophy candidates. GW requires or recommends Subject Tests for accelerated programs:  BA/MD candidates must take both a math and a science Subject Test, and the Honors Program recommends two Subject Tests.

Several colleges will “consider” Subject Test scores if submitted. Randolph-Macon, William and Mary, and the University of Mary Washington fall into this camp.

No doubt, College Board execs are watching these developments closely. With market share and revenue at stake, each shift in admissions policy has some impact on their bottom line. What started as a conversation about the role of SAT’s and the College Board in admissions has turned into a clear trend toward less reliance on scores and greater flexibility for students.

Thanks to Cigus Vanni, NACAC Professional Development Committee, as well as to the folks at Fair Test and the Compass Education Group for working so hard to keep ahead of shifting sands in standardized testing.

For the most accurate and up-to-date information, students are advised to go directly to individual college websites.