Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Getting past disappointing Early Decision news. . .

The past six weeks have been stressful in our household--my daughter's already strenuous daily load of homework became nearly unmanageable with the addition of college applications to complete.  She's not finished yet, but several applications have been submitted and she sees light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

Last week notifications of early decision and restricted early action admissions caused a lot of upheaval at my daughter's high school.  It seemed the large majority of those who applied early were deferred to the regular applicant pool--or denied.  It was both heartbreaking and heart-warming to watch the process of my daughter's friends sharing their news--both happy and disappointing. Her
friends were uniformly supportive of one another. . . but I'm sure the disappointment lingers for many.

How can we help seniors put the application process back into perspective and restore their sense of equilibrium and self-confidence?

I'd like to suggest two articles for both parents and students, which I'll briefly summarize below.

The first, "What it Takes,"was published in the Stanford Alumni Magazine November/December 2013 issue:  Ivan Maisel, a Stanford alum himself, investigates the  complex process of college admissions at highly selective schools like Stanford.  He outlines several causes for the exponential uptick in the numbers of applications these schools receive: 1) Thanks to publications like US News and World Report, "brand consciousness" has increased the perceived value of elite schools, 2) Electronic submission of college applications has also made it easy for students to apply to multiple schools, and 3) Highly selective schools with large endowments are able to offer very attractive financial aid to students who in the past would not apply because of cost.

Talking to Stanford Admissions Dean Rick Shaw, Maisel discovers that while 80% of applicants to Stanford are capable academically, even if only the very best students from half of U.S. high schools applied to Stanford (about 5,000 schools), Stanford could still only accept about half of those--or 2,500 students.  Shaw explains that there is no "formula" for admitting students, yet circumstances are important.  One year a tuba player might be high sought after for the school band, another year five tuba players might apply at the same time.  Stanford uses a committee system to ensure quality control and counteract individual bias; still, the volume of applications now means only one "read" of any given application is guaranteed--about 15 minutes of a committee member's time.  Wow. 

Aside from these statistics I suggest you read the article for its inclusion of the story of an alumnus whose daughter was rejected from Stanford--consequently devastating both her and him.  The alum's ability to recover from his disappointment provides an instructive example for all of us who secretly harbor the wish for our child to attend our alma mater.

The second article, "Surviving Early Decision Blues" by Rebecca Joseph appeared in the Huffington Post on December 13, 2013.  Joseph recommends several coping strategies among them:

--Parents need to work through their own grief and then help motivate their student to finish finals and continue the application process.
--Students should re-evaluate their college list and consider adding more schools.
--Parents should help their student recover his/ her sense of pride.
--Most important, parents need to help their student understand that he/she will find a good college fit--"it may not be their first choice, but it will be their best choice," Joseph assures us.

Hope you can take a short breather from the college application stress to enjoy the holidays.  But don't close down the Common Application account yet. . . .

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"Seasoning" the Personal Statement

Over the past few months I’ve been working with numerous seniors as they draft their college essays.  Students begin and end the process at different rates and respond to deadline pressure in varying ways.  If your student is just starting to draft his or her essays now it’s certainly not too late—but I still recommend writing multiple drafts over a period of days or weeks if possible.  Here’s some advice about letting essays “season” or marinate between drafts and suggestions for “seasoning” the essay with one’s own unique voice:

1) Once you complete your first rough draft, put your essay aside, at least for a few days.  As you revise your draft, make sure you have included specific examples to illustrate any general observations you make.  In addition to showing what you did, however, be sure to explain WHY.  This explanation may be interwoven in the body paragraphs or be included as part of your reflection at the end of the essay.

2) Make sure to “go deep” in your conclusion by taking time to reflect on how a particular event, experience or relationship has affected you.  If you describe your personality traits or “qualities,” consider how these traits help define you and your values.  Avoid empty generalizations like “I learned that change is difficult” or “I know now never to give up.” 

3) Remember that your essay should reveal something about yourself that isn’t apparent in the rest of your application.  It’s not just a catalogue of your achievements or a suspenseful tale of struggle; instead, the topic you choose may highlight how you gained a skill or attitude.  Approach the essay as a chance to show an important side of your personality and or values.  Follow the advice from Tufts Admission Officer Dan Grayson who commented: “What I want to know can be boiled down to three broad categories--How do you think about yourself? How do you think about the world? How do you think about ideas?”  In other words, write not so much what you did, but HOW you have been affected by your engagement in the world so far.

4) Be careful not to let anyone who reads your essay write any part of it for you, even suggesting different vocabulary or phrasing.  Helping you cut out unnecessary, unclear or repetitive sections and correcting grammar mistakes is fine —re-writing whole sentences isn’t.  Your “voice,” your particular style of writing, is a critical part of the essay itself.  Stanford Admissions Director Rick Shaw explains, “We want to hear a 'voice'—that's a critical component.” 

5) But don’t worry about being “unique” with your topic or your approach.  Be yourself and write honestly—your uniqueness will come through both in how you reflect on your experience and in your voice. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Writing the “Why us” Supplement Question on a College Application

The "Why Us?" Supplement

By now, many students have completed one or several drafts of their Common Application and UC application essays.

But for private schools, an equally important question often included as a writing supplement through the Common Application asks students why they are interested in a particular institution. Don't make the mistake of answering this prompt quickly or generally.  Often, this response gives admissions staff a critical way of discerning your real interest in and knowledge about their school.

1) Look over notes or reflect on your impressions from your campus visit if you made one.  What aspects of the school appealed to you most?  Did you duck into a class, eat a meal in the cafeteria, chat
with a current student?  What did you learn about the school that you didn’t know before?

2) Research the school’s academic and extra-curricular programs on its website to find specific examples of the features that attract you to it:
            --Read the school’s mission/vision statement and see how it resonates with your ideas about your higher education.  
            --Browse through departments, programs and majors that interest you and note what the requirements for specific majors are.  Jot down titles of classes that you would like to take.
            --What are the college’s general education or distribution requirements—classes you’ll need to take outside your major.  How are these courses organized?  Are the requirements flexible?  Or do all freshmen take some sort of common core in the humanities for instance?         
--Jot down the extra-curricular activities you may want to join—including clubs, sports, community service opportunities, internships, undergraduate research.
            --Are you interested in study abroad programs? What does this college offer?
            --Describe the college’s academic and social atmosphere as it pertains to your learning goals or extra-curricular interests.  (Does the college offer small seminars or large lectures?  Themed housing? Off campus internships?)

3) Focus on two to three specific aspects of the school that are important to you.  Give concrete, detailed examples.  Write concisely.

1) Use the same response with only minimal editing for each college.  There is no one-size-fits-all essay, even for colleges with similar profiles and curricula. 

2) Describe the campus’s beautiful setting as one of its important attributes.  Focus on academic programs primarily.

3) Use flattery or refer to the college’s prestige or rankings.

Drafting the “why us” question shouldn’t be too difficult or time-consuming, but do use the prompt as a way to reflect again on why you chose this particular school and to craft a thoughtful and unique response that reveals why the college is a good fit for you.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Applying to University of CA campuses—tips from the UC Counselors’ Conference

Last week I attended a UC Counselors’ Conference at UC Davis.  Admissions directors from each of the 9 UC campuses updated us on current enrollment, new programs and new facilities.   Other UC admissions professionals  gave presentations on completing the UC application.  It was a very informative conference so I wanted to highlight some of what I learned in a blog post.
First, in listening to all of the 9 presentations, I was struck by how strong many  of the campuses
are in science (STEM programs) and science research.  UC San Diego, Berkeley, Davis, Riverside and Merced all have superior programs in various scientific fields, and each would be an excellent choice for someone interested in either basic science or health fields.  All 9 campuses offer engineering.  Currently the program is impacted at UC San Diego and some of the other campuses require applicants to declare the major on their application.   While arts and humanities were not as featured during the conference, we did learn about the new film and television major at UCLA and the UC Santa Barbara Admissions Director emphasized her campus’s College of Creative Studies. 
To learn more about specific universities’ programs and majors I recommend planning a campus visit this fall.  Several schools are planning a special “Preview Day” for prospective applicants on October 19: Davis, Merced, and Santa Cruz.  For the first time, UCLA Undergraduate Admissions is also hosting an open house on September 28.   Other campuses are hosting campus and virtual tours throughout the fall.
Tips about the Application Process:
--As you fill out the application, be sure to have a transcript on hand to record grades accurately.  (You will need to submit an actual complete transcript by July 1 and it’s very important that all the grades match.)
--Avoid acronyms and abbreviations wherever possible.  They are very hard for admissions staff to decipher.
--For the personal statement, present yourself as if you were giving an interview.  Reflect your intended major or field of interest if you have one.   Use “I” statements. 
--You can split the two essays that total 1,000 words however you like as long as both essays are at least 250 words.
Overall, we learned that the number of applications each year is increasing at a rate of about 11%, which makes all the universities competitive, though some schools and programs are more selective than others. Admissions staff evaluate applications using 14 different factors to place student achievement in context.   Each campus follows its own review process for applications and makes its own decisions.  Contrary to urban legend, it is best to apply to multiple campuses, as long as they “match” your interests, in order to better your chances of admission. 
Dates and deadlines:
October 1—the UC Application opens—register online.
November 1-30 –the period to submit applications.
Early January—update any scores from tests taken in the fall.
March—notifications received by email.
May 1—intent to register due.
We learned that between 60-70% of applications are submitted during the last three days before the deadline!  Hope your student is not one of these this year!  On November 28, Thanksgiving Day, the Help Desk will be closed.
Aside from these tips and warnings, I highly recommend applying at least one University of California campus. The financial picture in California has substantially improved recently, which prevented budget cuts this year and has even allowed for some modest spending  increases.  The UC system still offers  a superior education at a “bargain” sticker price compared with many other public universities. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Time Management through the College Application Process

If your family is like mine, this fall is already stressful for your high school senior.  Balancing schoolwork and extra curricular activities is always difficult but add applying to college to the mix, and the schedule appears almost unmanageable.  No wonder your teen may be having trouble prioritizing working on his or her applications.

As I talk about time management with my advisees and my daughter, I realize different students find different methods for organizing their college application process.  Yet I think the HOW is just as important as the WHAT.  By this point, most students know what steps they need to accomplish to finish their college applications.  We parents might help our teens better by discussing with them how they plan to manage their tasks, rather than constantly reminding them of what tasks they need to accomplish in any given week. 

Here are a few suggestions to help students devise an effective time management method—

1) Remember Stephen Covey’s popular time management system back in the 90s?  Covey’s son Sean adapted his father’s Four Time Quadrants as an effective tool to show teens how to prioritize their activities in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens. Covey labelled the Four Quadrants
as: Procrastinator, Prioritizer, Yes-Man, and Slacker.  Too often urgent homework deadlines or club/sport activities take the place of more important but less time bound goals.   Here is a recap of Sean Covey’s Habit Three: Put First Things First.   After prioritizing daily, weekly and monthly activities, fill out your own Four Quadrants chart and highlight the tasks that appear in the second quadrant. 

2) Make a master list of all the tasks you need to complete the college application process from registering on the Common Application website, to signing up for standardized tests, to asking teachers for recommendations.  Using Covey’s Four Quadrants, prioritize the items on the list.  At the beginning of each week, identify a block of time you can devote to college applications.  Include a few of the to-do items from the master list on each weekly schedule. 

3) Use an online calendar to set up self-paced “deadlines” for college essay drafts.  Schedule these deadlines least a couple of weeks before any real application deadlines to allow for feedback from teachers/ other trusted adults or friends, revising and editing.  Include automatic reminders sent to email a few days before each deadline.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Back to School College Checklist for Seniors

I hope parents and seniors alike are heading into the new school year with energy and enthusiasm!  These next few months until the finish line for college applications in January will require many tasks.  Here are some important items to add to your  senior’s to-do list for the fall:

      1)    Make an appointment with your college counselor and/or guidance counselor.  Counselors will be preparing an important document this fall—the Secondary School Report (SSR)—which puts the academic and extra-curricular activities a student completes in context of the whole school community. It also evaluates the student's achievements and personality.  The better you know your counselor, the better the counselor can tailor this report to your strengths.

      2)    Ask 2 teachers in academic subjects (not electives) to write recommendation letters.

      3)    Register for any SAT or ACT tests you intend to take or re-take this fall.

      4)    Finalize your college list. Ideally, it should contain 8-10 schools.  Multiple UCs or CSUs can count as one if you wish.  Make sure your list contains a balance of safety, target, and reach schools.  To narrow down choices, try this method from Mamlet and Vandevelde’s guide College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step:

Choose one safety college on your list where you definitely plan to apply, most likely will be accepted, and would attend. Label this college “College A.”  Then compare it to every other school on your list asking yourself, “Would I prefer to attend this college or College A?”  Anytime the answer is “College A” you can take the other college off your list.

5) Focus on performing well in your classes this semester. Make school a priority over extra curricular activities and sports (not always easy to do).