Sunday, November 8, 2009

Advice for America's college-bound: Wait

Parents of high school seniors across the country have hired me as an admissions consultant. They want assurances that their children will be attending top colleges a year from now.

Again and again, I say: "I hope not."

To their surprise, I explain that I'd rather see most of these young men and women far from a campus for a while. I urge them to bus tables in a restaurant, apprentice for an architect or pull weeds on a community farm. In their free time, I add, they should devour a stack of great books.

During nearly four decades as a high school guidance counselor, I had generally recommended a "gap year" only to students who needed to mature. But in this wheezing economy, when jobs are precious and even state colleges are increasingly expensive, I have become a believer in the educational and financial benefits of taking a breather.

I've watched too many students get caught up in the admissions arms race and spend their high school years preening for colleges. They rocket through advanced-placement classes; they push their SAT or ACT scores to the 98th percentile. Yet they don't slow down to reflect on who they are and who they want to become. Soon after plunging into their dream engineering or pre-med program, many realize that they aren't cut out to be engineers, doctors and the like.

Others have been hurtling from activity to activity since preschool and can't deal with unstructured hours. They waste their first year of college watching Jon Stewart online when they should be reading John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty."

Pausing for 12 months also gives a family a chance to make a realistic budget. The average student-loan debt among graduating college seniors last year was nearly $23,200; I've met plenty of middle-class youngsters who are shackled by $70,000 or more in debt before they even begin graduate school.

Several European countries promote a "13th year" that allows teenagers to earn money, take some courses and travel. President Obama inadvertently gave a boost to the gap year by increasing Pell Grant awards for students from low- and moderate-income families next year. Some families are reportedly delaying college until the extra money is available.

American colleges need to encourage gappers. Reed College, a liberal arts school in Portland, Ore., allows admitted students to defer entrance for a year, after submitting a plan for their activities that year, and nearly 7 percent take up the offer. The son of Reed President Colin Diver took a year to learn carpentry. H. Keith H. Brodie, a psychiatrist and president emeritus of Duke University, told me recently that he believes freshmen who delay college for a year tend to be more altruistic and empathetic because brain development continues into late adolescence. He advocates gapping so long as students have a mentor, a plan for intellectual growth and a commitment to do public service.

There is a bonus for colleges and students in making the gap year widespread: It will ease the stress of the admissions process. Students who don't get into their first- or second-choice school during 12th grade will have another shot. Or maybe - just maybe - the extra maturity will allow them to realize that college is about the fit, not the brand.

Ultimately, the gap year could put private consultants like me out of business. That's a fine side benefit. It would make the admissions game more equitable for students, no matter when they decide to go on to college.

• Gwyeth T. Smith Jr., a college admissions consultant in Oakdale, N.Y., was the subject of the book "Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges - and Find Themselves."

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Asian Disadvantage in College Admissions

Asians may face tougher college admission process, study finds

The Daily Princetonian

By Melanie Jearlds

Asian applicants may face discrimination in the admission process at many elite universities, according to data from a recent study conducted by sociology professor Thomas Espenshade GS ’72.

According to the data, not all races are considered equal in the college admissions game. Of students applying to private colleges in 1997, African-American applicants with SAT scores of 1150 had the same chances of being accepted as white applicants with 1460s and Asian applicants with perfect 1600s.

The results of the study come three years after Jian Li, a rejected Princeton applicant, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. He alleged in the complaint that he had been discriminated against based on his race when he was denied admission to the University.

Espenshade noted that he did not initially use the word “discrimination” when discussing the results of his study. Though he found a 140-point SAT score discrepancy between accepted white and Asian students, he did not have access to what he called “soft variables,” like extracurriculars and teacher recommendations.

“The data we had is only part of the data that admission deans have access to,” Espenshade said. “If we had access to the full range of info, it could put Asian candidates in a different light. This so-called ‘Asian disadvantage’ does not necessarily mean that Asian applicants are being discriminated against.”

Also, since the study used data from 1997, “it would be desirable to replicate the study on more recent data,” Espenshade said. “It’s kind of hard to know how and to what extent things might have changed in the meantime.”

When asked about University admission policies in light of Li’s complaint, University spokeswoman Cass Cliatt ’96 told The Daily Princetonian in September 2008 that “Princeton does not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin, and our admission policy is in full compliance with Title VI of the [Civil Rights Act of 1964].”

Because his study did not include research done about Princeton’s admission policies, Espenshade said that he had “no empirical basis for having an opinion” about whether or not any possible discrimination occurred at the University.

Espenshade also noted that Li’s complaint does not mark the first time these concerns have been raised.

A look into Harvard’s admission policies in the 1990s showed that, after preferences for legacy students and athletes was removed, there was no discrimination against Asians based on race.

Still, Espenshade said he was surprised that Li decided to file a complaint against only Princeton, as Li was also rejected by Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Penn.

Yet Li’s sentiments are in line with Espenshade’s perceptions of the feelings of the Asian members of the University community. Espenshade explained that his informal conversations with Asian have led him to note the general feeling that they are held to a higher standard in college admissions.

“When Jian Li filed his complaint, it reinforced in their minds that they have to be twice as good as everyone else,” he said.

Espenshade also found in his study that low-income minorities, but not necessarily low-income white students, had an edge in admissions.

Also, according to the results, which will be published in a book to be released in December, the very richest applicants generally had lower acceptance rates than similarly qualified but less wealthy students.

Though Espenshade said he doesn’t know what could account for discrimination in admission policies, he noted that a lot depends on what universities are looking for in the perfect candidate.

“What I have concluded is that every university has in its mind an ideal shape of its entering freshman class,” he said. “If the shape of the applicant pool differs, then there is sculpting that has to be done.”

Monday, July 20, 2009

UC regents panel recommends major budget cuts

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The University of California's Board of Regents should adopt a plan today to cut $813 million from UC's budget, a regents committee recommended Wednesday, even as professors, researchers, nurses and other UC employees argued strongly and loudly at the regents meeting in San Francisco that doing so would destroy the world-class university.

"Disinvesting in the University of California is like eating our seed corn," astronomy Professor Sandra Faber of UC Santa Cruz told the regents. "The university is the most powerful economic engine in the state," but its future is in jeopardy because UC is already having trouble attracting and retaining the top-flight academics the university depends on, she said.

One after another, UC's 10 campus chancellors told the regents about brilliant professors being lured away by more lucrative salaries from other prestigious universities, while they've been forced to lay off or eliminate the positions of hundreds of employees.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said it will take students an extra half year to graduate, the result of courses being eliminated. Others echoed that problem and said they've already reduced library hours, barred access to qualified students, shrunk research budgets and quit recruiting faculty.

"How many vaccines or ways to protect our planet from climate change won't be had because of these cuts?" asked Chancellor George Blumenthal of UC Santa Cruz.

The spending reductions have been made necessary by a loss of $813 million in funding from the state, which is grappling with a $26.3 billion budget deficit.

Cost-cutting plan

The regents' committee recommended a cost-cutting plan by UC President Mark Yudof that closes the university system's budget gap in four ways: faculty furloughs, increased tuition (approved by the regents in May), debt restructuring and campus-by-campus cuts intended to address about 40 percent of the shortfall.

Yudof vigorously defended his plan as the only way to address a steady decline in state support for the university, but he borrowed a line from a speaker and said it was, in fact, "an anti-stimulus plan."

"We have a plan that is fair, but no one is happy with it," he said.

Earlier in the day, UC employees marched loudly outside the Mission Bay campus where the regents met, shouting "Layoff! Yudof!" and "Chop from the top!" The protesters were joined by UC critic Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who evoked the Berlin Wall and People's Park and even Vietnam as he vowed shifting more control of UC finances to the state. (His bill to do so is stalled in the Legislature.)

Challenge to regents

But Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, a regent, upstaged some of the drama by challenging the regents and each chancellor to "stand up and fight" instead of passively accepting the cuts. He urged them to endorse AB656 by Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont, a bill making its way through the Legislature that would tax oil companies and direct the money to California's colleges and universities.

"We can fight fiercely in retreat, or we can stop and fight fiercely for the university," Garamendi told his colleagues, winning applause from the professors and other employees in the audience.

Regent Monica Lozano, chair of the Finance Committee, said it was inappropriate to put the chancellors on the spot, and they didn't respond to Garamendi. But the lieutenant governor succeeded in firing up enough of the regents that they agreed to consider the bill - or at least do a better job of presenting UC's woes to state lawmakers and the public.

In the end, the regents committee voted 11-1 to recommend that the full Board of Regents adopt Yudof's plan when their meeting resumes today. Only Garamendi voted no.

Read more:

Before College, Costly Advice Just on Getting In

The New York Times

July 19, 2009

The free fashion show at a Greenwich, Conn., boutique in June was billed as a crash course in dressing for a college admissions interview.

Yet the proposed “looks” — a young man in seersucker shorts, a young woman in a blue blazer over a low-cut blouse and short madras skirt — appeared better suited for a nearby yacht club. After Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions at Kenyon College, was shown photos of those outfits, she rendered her review.

“I burst out laughing,” she said.

Shannon Duff, the independent college counselor who organized the event, says she ordinarily charges families “in the range of” $15,000 for guidance about the application process, including matters far more weighty than just what to wear.

Ms. Duff is a practitioner in a rapidly growing, largely unregulated field seeking to serve families bewildered by the admissions gantlet at selective colleges.

No test or licensing is required to offer such services, and there is no way to evaluate the counselors’ often extravagant claims of success or experience. And Ms. Duff’s asking price, though higher than many, is eclipsed by those of competitors who may charge upwards of $40,000 — more than a year’s tuition at many colleges.

In the last three years, the number of independent admissions advisers (as opposed to school-based counselors) is estimated to have grown to nearly 5,000, from about 2,000, according to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a membership group trying to promote basic standards of competency and ethics. While initially clustered on the East and West Coasts, counselors are making inroads across the country.

The consultants association has made a particular target of counselors who boast of helping nearly all their clients gain admission to their top-choice colleges.

“When you say things like, ‘We know the secrets of getting in,’ it kind of implies that it’s not the student’s ability,” said Mark H. Sklarow, executive director of the association, in Fairfax, Va. “It suggests that there’s some kind of underground code.”

A reputable, experienced counselor might, for a few hundred dollars, help a student compile a list of prospective colleges, or brainstorm topics for an essay. But others demand tens of thousands of dollars to oversee the entire application process — tutoring jittery applicants on what classes to take in high school or musical instruments to play, the better, their families are told, to impress the admissions dean.

Never mind that admissions officers say that no outsider can truly predict how a particular applicant might fare. “I guess there are snake oil salesman in every field,” said Amy Gutmann, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, “and they are preying on vulnerable and anxious people.”

While the going national rate for such work is about $185 an hour, a counselor in Vermont and another in New York City are among those who charge some families more than $40,000. Their packages might begin when a child is in eighth grade.

“It’s annoying when people complain about the money,” the Vermont-based counselor, Michele Hernandez, said. “I’m at the top of my field. Do people economize when they have a brain tumor and are looking for a neurosurgeon? If you want to go with someone cheaper, or chance it, don’t hire me.”

Dr. Hernandez, a former Dartmouth admissions officer, says she counsels as many as 25 students in each high school grade each year. She also offers four-day “boot camps” every August in a Boston hotel, charging 40 incoming high school seniors as much as $14,000 each.

Lee Stetson, who retired in 2007 after three decades as dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, now has a counseling practice near Philadelphia, where he charges as much as $15,000 for his junior-senior package. Unlike many competitors, Mr. Stetson says he cautions his small group of clients, maybe seven students a year, that he will not handicap their chances of admission to a particular college, nor button-hole former colleagues on their behalf. “I’m hoping they see me more as someone who understands the process,” he said, “than someone who can influence the chances of acceptance.”

While Mr. Stetson was one of the most influential admissions officers in the country, the extent of other counselors’ experience may be more difficult for parents to divine.

On her business Web site, Collegiate Compass, Ms. Duff says she brings “firsthand perspective to today’s admissions landscape,” borne of her earlier work “as a reader” in the Yale undergraduate admissions office. While outside readers help evaluate some candidates’ files, they typically have no decision-making authority.

It is not uncommon for other counselors to exaggerate their backgrounds. Ivy Success, in Garden City, N.Y., which charges some clients nearly $30,000, says on its Web site that its counselors have “years of experience as admissions officers to help you gain an edge in this competitive and uncertain process.”

Victoria Hsiao, a partner in Ivy Success, said in an interview that she had worked as an admissions officer at Cornell for several years in “the late 1990s.” But Jason Locke, the director of undergraduate admissions at the university, said there was no record, or memory, of Ms. Hsiao doing such work. (Mr. Locke did confirm that she graduated from Cornell in 1996.)

Asked about the discrepancy, Ms. Hsiao said she had mainly assisted the admissions office as an alumna who conducted interviews. She also said a partner, Robert Shaw, had been an admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania. Asked about this in an e-mail message, Mr. Shaw said he had been only “an assistant,” from 1987 to 1988.

“Don’t remember all the details,” he said, adding, “We really don’t want to be a part of your article as we’re not a service for the masses.”

Admissions officers say that for many students, the advice of their high school counselors should suffice. Those applicants who might benefit from supplemental counseling — like those at urban high schools with overworked counselors — are often among the least able to afford such services.

Regardless, colleges say parents should be wary of any counselor’s claim of being able to lobby for a candidate’s admission. While noting that there are “genuinely rational and knowledgeable folks out there doing this work,” Bruce Poch, the dean of admissions at Pomona College, adds, “Some of the independents leave me looking for the nearest emergency shower.”

Though none of the counselors said business was off in the struggling economy, some are making adjustments. Having initially presented the fashion show outfits as serious, Ms. Duff later said she had intended to “create a lighthearted environment,” the better to promote two new advisory DVDs she is offering, “at a price that is accessible.” (One for $45; two for $80.)

Katherine Cohen, the founder of IvyWise in New York City, has a team that charges from a few hundred dollars to more than $40,000. But she also has been emphasizing a spinoff called ApplyWise that for $299 helps students assemble their application in ways reminiscent of Turbo Tax.

Dr. Cohen, a former reader at Yale, is a member of the independent consultants association — despite a claim on the IvyWise Web site that runs afoul of an association admonition. “Congratulations,” it blares, “100 percent of IvyWise students were admitted to one of their top three choices in 2009!”

Fewer than one of every five admissions consultants can claim to be an association member. Bill Dingledine, a longtime educational consultant in Greenville, S.C., is among those advocating even more stringent certification offered by the American Institute of Certified Educational Planners. It requires counselors to pass a three-hour written examination.

The concept has yet to catch on, at least in part because many counselors’ practices are already booming. Asked how many counselors had sought, and won, that certification last year, Mr. Dingledine had a ready answer: about 20.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Weighing Price and Value When Picking a College

Weighing Price and Value When Picking a College

The Wall Street Journal
June 14, 2009


Facing shrunken savings and borrowing options, parents and students are making some tough trade-offs in choosing and paying for college, suggesting some shifting attitudes toward higher education may endure beyond the recession.

Old dreams of adult children earning degrees from elite, door-opening colleges or “legacy” schools attended by relatives are falling away in some families, in favor of a new pragmatism. Other parents and students are doing a tougher cost-benefit analysis of the true value of a pricey undergraduate degree. As parents wrestle privately with such emotional issues, many say they wish they’d begun years earlier to assess their values and priorities, long before their children’s college-decision deadline was upon them.

Tough College Tradeoffs

Throughout her childhood, Sarah Goldstein imagined attending New York University, says her mother, Rose Perrizo of Sharon, Mass. Sarah’s grandmother is an NYU alum; Sarah lived near campus with her parents when she was small. “In her mind, Sarah was always headed there,” Ms. Perrizo says.

But as Sarah’s college choice loomed last year, Ms. Perrizo, a real-estate appraiser, and her husband, Richard Goldstein, an attorney, “were agonizing over whether to pay $52,000 for one year at NYU, or $18,000” at their state university, Ms. Perrizo says. Both regard a bachelor’s degree as “only the beginning” of higher education for students like their daughter, who is interested in international studies; they hope to help with her graduate-school costs.

Finally, they sat down with Sarah and gave her a choice: They’d pay her way at the University of Massachusetts, or half her costs at NYU and she could borrow the rest. Sarah chose the debt-free route, but she was upset. The choice “was really hard,” she says; her peers, disdainful and heedless of costs, asked, “why would you want to go to a state school?” But after a successful year in the honors program at the University of Massachusetts, she is happy with her choice. Looking back, Sarah says, “it wouldn’t have made sense to pay $50,000.”

Ms. Perrizo says Sarah has learned an important lesson. “It’s like shopping at Loehmann’s vs. Bloomingdale’s. I’m teaching my daughter to be a good shopper and to pick value.” Ms. Perrizo’s only wish is that she had started talking about college costs earlier.

Such thinking challenges what Joseph Losco, an expert on the history of education, calls “one of the strange things” about the economics of higher education: “Universities and colleges don’t compete on price.” In fact, some college administrators fear lowering their sticker price will hurt their image, says Dr. Losco, chairman of the political science department at Ball State University, Muncie, Ind. Consumers have been complicit, largely because of what Ms. Perrizo calls “the baby-boomer notion that parents should give it all up for the kids.” In a May 2008 survey of 720 parents of college students by Gallup and Sallie Mae, a student-loan company, 46% said they had never, at any point, ruled out any colleges for their kids based on costs.

But now, “families are much more price-conscious and value-conscious,” Dr. Losco says. A soon-to-be-released Sallie Mae-Gallup study of 1,600 college students and their parents, conducted in March and April, says parents are increasingly anxious about tuition—and students are more skeptical about the value of a degree, compared with the survey from a year earlier.

Chelsea Thomas’s family was proud when she enrolled at Amherst College, in Amherst, Mass., and had an academically rich freshman year. Having a child at Amherst confers “bragging rights,” says Suzanne Thomas, Chelsea’s aunt who shares the college costs with the student’s mother.

When Chelsea’s scholarship expired after her first year, the family faced coming up with $26,000 to keep her at Amherst. That would have meant digging deep into savings that had been set aside for retirement, says her mother, Shelley Thomas.

Whatever It Takes

Relatives and friends pressured them, saying Chelsea “should do whatever it takes to continue” at Amherst, says Suzanne. Instead, the family decided that Chelsea would be happier as a financially independent young adult living close to family. Chelsea returned to the family’s home in Boulder, Colo., last year and became a partner in the real-estate-investment business that her mother and aunt own jointly.

Now 20 years old, Chelsea co-owns two rental houses and is working on a bachelor’s degree at a nearby public university. Chelsea says she misses her Amherst friends and the stimulating campus environment. Still, she adds, a degree from a top school “is worth a lot, but it’s not worth that much.”

Such thinking bucks the cultural view that an elite college degree is “the gold standard for both parents and students ... validating their worth in society,” Dr. Losco says. Now, more “parents are saying, ‘I don’t have the money to get you where you want to go,’ ” he says.

Even when the economy picks up, some of this new price-consciousness is likely to endure. The engines that have enabled college costs to soar—easy credit, home-equity loans and growth in savings—have stalled. Total college costs are already up 67% in the past decade at private colleges and 84% at public four-year universities, based on College Board data, and graduates’ wages haven’t kept pace.

Parents and students are borrowing less for college, the forthcoming Sallie Mae study shows. The percentage of students from middle-income households who are attending state schools is rising, and more lower-income students are enrolling at community colleges, the study shows. “We would expect to see an even greater shift” next year, a Sallie Mae spokeswoman says.

Even for savvy parents who anticipated the costs, the trade-offs for a top-tier education can be steep. Pam Mousseau recalls hearing when her oldest daughter was a baby that a college education would cost $50,000 a year by the time she finished high school. Her daughter is now 19 and a sophomore at a private university, and the cost at many schools has indeed risen to match that earlier projection.

Promises Made

Nevertheless, Pam and her husband, John, have promised their three daughters that they could attend “the best school they get into,” according to John, a portfolio manager. The girls work and will probably take out modest loans, but their parents will pay the lion’s share.

“We always figured we would find a way to do it,” Pam says. The Mousseaus have refrained from taking equity loans against their 91-year-old Maplewood, N.J., home, conserving their borrowing power for college. The kitchen has a 1940s-era Magic Chef stove and ancient cabinets with multiple paint layers. “Some parts of the ceiling have fallen down,” Pam says. But redecorating is on hold. They drive two old cars and haven’t bought a third, even with four drivers in the house. And they’re bypassing vacations they used to take, skiing or relaxing in beach-side rental homes.

“Sometimes I think, ‘I’m 53 years old. Can’t I have a decent kitchen?’ ” Pam says. “But it’s momentary.” She and John both graduated from private universities with their parents’ help, and they want to do the same for their kids. “I’m glad to make the sacrifices,” John says. But with seven years of helping with college tuition ahead, he adds, jokingly, “check back with me in a few years, and see if I feel the same.”

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Admissions 101: Are Low Grades in AP/IB Classes Better than High Grades in Regular Classes?

A few weeks ago, Jay Mathews asked readers a tough question in his Admissions 101 forum - which is better: an A or B in a regular course or a C in a more challenging course like an AP or IB class? Jay sided with AP, saying that all students interested in tier 1 or tier 2 schools should take at least 2 AP or IB courses. Even if that means a C on a high school transcript, Jay argued, colleges will appreciate a student who is willing to take on a challenge. Reader reactions have been pouring in ever since:

eloquensa: “My strategy suggestion is a little different from yours - I don't know about the college front in the C-in-AP/IB-or-A-in-regular argument, but if the student is a little more strategic in course and teacher selection it's a lot easier to avoid that dreaded C.
From my experience with IB, and my friends' experiences with both IB and AP, all IB/AP courses are not equal; some have far more work than others. This may be the inherent nature of the subject, due to the teacher or maybe just the students' preparation level. But they all have the AP/IB label. If one genuinely cannot cope with the heavy AP/IB courses but still wants the resume boost, then pick the easier courses with lighter workloads which are still branded AP/IB. Alternatively, when there is more than one teacher teaching the course, cross a lot of fingers to get the easier teacher(s). I know last year my English teacher offered far more extra credit and a much more relaxed policy on late work than the other two English teachers, and many of my friends at other schools say they have observed the same trends. It takes a bit of talking-to-seniors and may seem unorthodox but is a pretty good last resort if need be. I only discovered I had the easy teachers after conferring with my friends about our comparative workloads, but after that they were banging down their [guidance counselor's] doors to switch.”
researcher2: “From what I have seen students' truly can't have a C or two in their AP/IB classes and hope to get into the quality schools even with the extra ‘stuff’ Jay alludes to. Why, because there are plenty of kids who get at least a B in those courses and also have the extra ‘stuff’ applying to the tier of colleges below Harvard etc.
Since so many kids are applying to college these days, and so many are taking AP/IB courses it is much more difficult for the average student to compete. Maybe a decade ago an average student who attempted the ‘college level’ course could get into a 2nd tier school with a C in such a course, but now it seems that student will need to focus on the tier 3 schools.
I do want to point out though that there is nothing wrong with those tier 3 schools, and to me that is the crux of today's issues with college.
Not only are all students pushed to take AP/IB courses, but they are all expected to attend college and then in some areas (like mine) people get obsessed about ‘name brand’ colleges and the stress is incredible for our kids. Individual interests and individual skills get pummeled, in my opinion.
We no longer recognize that teens are diverse. We no longer recognize the value of certain skills and interests.
If we stop insisting that all kids should take AP/IB courses, or that all kids have to be on the college track, we won't have to worry about the dilemma of ‘is it okay to have a C in an AP/IB course?’”
grcxx3: “I have friend whose daughter is the same age as my younger son (rising junior). They are good friends.
The mom's belief is that GPA (not course rigor) is what counts, so she has had her daughter take all regular/academic classes, no pre-AP/AP classes (which carry a 1.0 extra point). As a result, her daughter has a 4.0 average and is currently in the top 20% of her class.
Now, my younter son has 1 year in an IB/MYP school, so his main subjects came in counting as pre-AP classes. He also came in with a mix of A's and B's (and C's in Spanish...oh well...). This past year he took a mix of pre-AP and regular/academic subjects. His ending year GPA is a 3.6 and his class rank is in the 35% area.
Now, the National Honor Society GPA cutoff is 3.75. My friend's daughter was inducted into NHS in May (with my older son). If my younger son is lucky, he will make the cutoff GPA next year...otherwise, he will certainly make it by senior year.
There is VERY little likelihood of our children competing for a spot at the same school because our values/expectations are very different.....but IF they were....who would the adcom folks want? The one who made the easy As in the regular/academic classes, or the one who chose to challenge himself with more demanding classes (risking getting a B rather than an A)? Both are involved in sports....her's in soccer, mine in golf.
I would certainly hope that the willingness/desire to take more challenging courses would work in his favor."

What do you think? Let us know in the comments, or read other readers' responses in Admissions 101.

By Washington Post Editors | July 7, 2009; 11:12 AM ET

Monday, June 15, 2009

Our College Consulting Competitors

Collegiate Compass is a College Consulting firm based in Greenwich, CT. The New York Times College Admissions blog "The Choice" relayed Collegiate Compass's advice on what to wear to an admissions interview. The results are not pretty, especially considering Collegiate Compass charges $15,000 for college admissions advice.

June 12, 2009, 12:53 pm

Free Fashion Advice for College Interviews, From a $15,000 Consultant

INSERT DESCRIPTIONJennifer Ackerman/THE NEW YORK TIMES Three employees of the Rugby by Ralph Lauren shop in Greenwich, Conn., model outfits Wednesday night at a mini-fashion show of potential “looks” for college admissions interviews.

Shannon Duff is an independent college admissions consultant in Greenwich, Conn., who charges families “in the range of ” $15,000 for the full breadth of her advice about the application process.

But on Wednesday night at the Rugby by Ralph Lauren store on Greenwich Avenue, Ms. Duff staged a mini-fashion show, free of charge, showcasing “looks” that she and the store manager were recommending for on-campus interviews.

One of the models, James Sawabini (a 21-year-old sophomore at Duke University), looked like he was on his way to meet the commodore of the Greenwich Yacht Club, as opposed to, say, the dean of admissions at nearby Fairfield University. He was dressed in navy-and-white seersucker shorts, a yellow polo shirt with a “royal mending accent on the collar,” a cream-colored, zip-up cardigan sweater and moccasins with no socks. (The price tag at Rugby: over $250.)

Christie Devine, 18, a senior at Fairfield Ludlow High School who is bound for Southern Methodist University, modeled a short, tight madras skirt, complemented by a ruffle blouse and blue, “school-boy blazer.” (over $450.)

As each model walked the store’s makeshift catwalk, the manager, Whitney Bragg, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, provided the narration, as in, “Katie is also ready for any college interview with this fabulous nautical chambrary maribel dress with off-white tipping.”

I’d like to be able to tell readers of The Choice that this presentation was done with tongue somewhat in cheek, but that was not the case. Before the show, I’d asked Ms. Duff, 31, who has both a bachelor’s degree and M.B.A. from Yale, for any “do’s and don’t’s” regarding dressing for an interview. She was emphatic, for example, that jeans were “a no-no,” and that appearing “neat” and “not sloppy,” while still showing a flash of “your own style,” was key.

She also advised against “exposing too much,” whether of one’s ankles, toes or cleavage.

After the show, I suggested to Ms. Duff that nearly every outfit — not least Mr. Sawabini’s shorts — had seemed in violation of at least one of her guidelines, the one about the skin. No, Ms. Duff insisted, many of these outfits were appropriate for summer on-campus interviews — whether with an admissions officer, or, as is often the case, a student working in the admissions office.

To road-test some of Ms. Duff’s ideas, I shared photos of her event with two deans of admission — Jennifer Delahunty of Kenyon College in Ohio, and Eric J. Furda of the University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Delahunty’s review was emphatic and succinct: “I looked at the photos and burst out laughing,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “This whole concept is insanity! The ultimate in ‘packaging’ a student.”

“What does this say to the student that is educationally pertinent — that how you look is as important as your transcript?” Ms. Delahunty added. “I no more pay attention to what a student is wearing at an interview than I check out the car they arrived in.”

“Be yourself,” she added. “Dress like yourself. If that’s a tie–great. If not, don’t wear one to an interview.” There were, she emphasized, no points taken off for jeans.

Over a previously scheduled lunch on Thursday, Mr. Furda’s reaction was similar, and he gave similar guidance. He told a story, from his years as an admissions official Columbia University, about his interview with a student from Delaware whose look was unmistakably “goth” — black pants, multiple earrings, “clunky boots.”

“She told me after the interview that she’d dressed in a way that her parents said she shouldn’t,” Mr. Furda recalled.

“I said, ‘What’s most important is that you’re yourself,’ ” he said.

“She said, ‘I figured if you don’t like me the way I am, maybe this isn’t the place for me,’ ” he added.

At this point, it is probably worth pausing and inviting those of you who’ve been through this process — either as parents or applicants — to use the comment box below to pass on any anecdotes or advice from your experiences. Feel free, also, to to give your impressions of our photos of those outfits.

Ms. Duff, who calls her business Collegiate Compass, says in her promotional materials that one of her main credentials for doing such work was a job as a reader of applications in the Yale undergraduate admissions office, while she was on campus studying for her masters in 2003 and 2004.

She said that she might devote upwards of 60 hours to an applicant who spends as much as $15,000 to be guided through the application process. For $7,000 or so, an applicant would get a limited amount of face time with her supplemented by instruction she had recorded on video.

One purpose of the fashion show was for Ms. Duff to publicize two new DVD’s she is making available to the public — one for $45, the pair for $80 — in which she talks not only about the interview process, but also about college visits. (One tip for sophomores: “Start early.”)

In both videos, Ms. Duff is asked questions on camera by a young woman presented as a high school student.

Her name is Margot Neuburger, and after the presentation I noticed her mingling among the crowd of two dozen or so parents, students and friends of Ms. Duff’s.

Where, I asked, would she be attending college as a freshman next fall?

In fact, Ms. Neuburger said, she would be a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.

Surely, then, she had been a client of Ms. Duff’s, I asked.

No, Ms. Neuburger, 19, explained, she had been merely playing the role of a high school student being counseled by Ms. Duff.

“We met on the train from Greenwich to New York,” Ms. Neuburger said. “We just started talking about sunglasses and then became friends.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Survey reports more students forego "dream schools"

Long Island Newsday

June 9, 2009

A new survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling offers some information about the role the economy played in college choices for this fall's freshman class, finding that 71 percent of high school guidance counselors reporting that more students were skipping over their dream schools in favor of more affordable options.
Also, nearly 60 percent of the 658 high schools that completed the survey said a larger number of students planned to enroll in public colleges, compared to 2008. Thirty-seven percent reported more students enrolling in community colleges, presumably to save money.
Not surprisingly, counselors at public high schools were more likely to report student behaviors changed as a result of economic concerns than those at private schools, and those at schools with higher percentages of students eligible for free or reduced priced lunch were the most likely to report increases in the number of students delaying college or attending commuity college.

-- Karla Schuster

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Countdown to college: Juniors, get serious about college now

Monday, May 25, 2009

- McClatchy Newspapers

OK juniors, you just witnessed the seniors stroll through the college admissions process. For some, perhaps it was more of a hobble, but you can learn from their missteps. Now it's your turn.

Whenever I am asked about what juniors should be doing at this time of the year, I am reminded of the Plan Ahead graphic where there was no room for the "d" in ahead.

If you want to de-stress the college admissions process, it is all about planning ahead. Here are some tips for juniors/rising seniors:

Study hard for finals, AP exams. etc. In many cases these are the last grades colleges will see. They will see the course selections for senior year, but many colleges now offer Early Action and Early Decision programs and their decisions to accept, defer or reject are based on a student's transcript through junior year.

Prepare the first draft of a resume or brag sheet. List all the extracurricular activities, community service, honor/scholarships/awards, summer experiences, internships and employment. Spend the time now to add in the number of hours per week and the number of weeks per year you've been involved in each activity since most applications will request this information.

Talk with guidance counselors, teachers, parents and students about the college search process. Now is the time to actively pursue as much input as possible.

Research colleges of interest. Contact colleges and universities and request DVDs, brochures and other materials.

Visit as many colleges on the list as possible. There is no substitute for a well-planned campus visit. Students will never learn as much from a DVD or even talking to an alumni representative as they will from roaming the campus and talking directly with students.

Begin to work on college essays. Check out the questions on the Common Application ( The essay prompts will likely remain the same for 2009-2010. Many other colleges release their applications around July1.

Stand out this summer. Do something distinctive that speaks to who you are as a person. Try and find something you're passionate about that reflects your community service or academic interests.

Connect with your favorite teacher before the end of the year and ask if he/she will be willing to write a letter of recommendation for you. You are just seeking a commitment now and will provide the appropriate paperwork in September.

Create a calendar with realistic deadlines and manage your time well. Set yourself up to succeed. The summer seems like such a big block of time, but it disappears.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: lee@collegeadmissions;

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. For more information, visit

Private admissions advisers gaining respect


The number of private admission counselors has grown in recent years – especially in hyper-anxious, high-achieving communities — and colleges are more open to talking with them about the students they represent, say counselors and college admission officers.

Danielle Toglia, an admissions director at George Washington University, recently polled counterparts at 25 colleges and found that most now take calls from independent counselors to discuss specific students or the college’s needs for an incoming freshman class.

While about 30 percent of admissions officers won’t take calls from private counselors, she said, "The trend has been that the college side sees independent counselors more positively than it used to." She said they’re particularly open to those who had experience as high school guidance counselors or college admissions officers, because they know the ins and outs of the process.

Toglia’s comments came at a conference of the New Jersey Association for College Admission Counseling in Parsippany this month. Several independent counselors, high school guidance counselors and college admission officers echoed her view.

Private counselors have long been a controversial part of the admissions frenzy. Critics charge they give an unfair leg-up to affluent students who already have extra advantages of expensive test prep classes, enrichment activities and homes in neighborhoods with better schools.

One college that won’t communicate with independent counselors is Georgetown. "There’s an equity issue here," said Bruce Chamberlin, senior associate director of admissions. "We need to make sure we are as accessible to students across all different socioeconomic diversities."

Chamberlin said his office can’t always tell if an independent counselor has helped a student, but sometimes efforts to polish students’ applications go too far. "We find ourselves yearning to understand the adolescent in the essay or the interview," he said. "Be it the coaching or the rehearsals for interviews, both mask in many ways what we’re hoping to get a feel for — the kid."

Independent advisers say they help clients choose where to apply, organize visits and give feedback on personal essays but don’t actually write them. They say they can give students more individual attention than high school guidance counselors swamped with disciplinary problems and escalating caseloads, especially at a time when public districts are cutting budgets. Private advisers also say they calm overwhelmed parents and spare them from the unsavory job of nagging young procrastinators to finish applications.

According to the Independent Educational Consultants Organization, the average cost of a private counselor nationwide runs about $125 per hour, or $3,600 for a three-year-package, with rates slightly higher in the northeast. Rates at the high end hover around $7,000 for a three-year package, with a scant handful charging more than $20,000.

The ranks of private advisers have grown rapidly in recent years. IECO claims 750 members, almost triple the count five years ago, and says members helped place more than 40,000 students last year. Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, College Coach and other firms have also launched private advising services.

Most clients are upper-middle class, but the students have become more diverse, said Mark Sklarow, executive director of IECO. Beyond academic stars, some need help finding schools that work well with the disabled, or English language learners, or those with special interests in the arts, for example.

Claire Cafaro, an independent adviser in Ridgewood who used to be a guidance counselor at Ridgewood High School, said many college officials recognized that independent advisers could help them find qualified students who were a good match for their schools.

Attitudes toward independent counselors "have really changed a lot," said Cafaro, immediate past president of the NJACAC. "Some independent counselors have convinced admission reps that they know what they’re doing and are valid people who can be trusted. … There is an understanding that high school counselors may not have the opportunity to advocate for their students as much."

Dennis Vasquez, a guidance counselor in Livingston public schools, lamented that unequal access to private advisers has had a discouraging "psychological impact" on disadvantaged students: "They think rich families have the extra help – ‘I can’t afford it, so it puts me at the bottom of the totem pole.’"

Cafaro acknowledged the inequity but said private advisers had no magic tricks, and noted that outside of the most highly competitive colleges, most schools accepted most applicants. "There’s a notion that independent counselors help kids get in in a secret way," she said. "I’d be the first to say the majority of students can apply on their own. I could do my taxes without help but would rather hire an accountant."

One of her clients, David Zrike of Ridgewood, said the money paid off. His daughter Caroline got into her first choice. Ironically, it was Georgetown.

"Since college is one of the most important decisions we will face bringing up children, as well as the most expensive, my wife and I decided that the relatively small investment in an independent counselor was certainly worthwhile," he said. She "helped to make what is an extremely stressful process a little less stressful."


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Colleges Acknowledge SAT and ACT Score Cut-Offs in Admissions

The New York Times

A study released this morning seeks to weigh the benefits of SAT test preparation, and concludes that gains from such courses can be small, but that small gains often matter to admissions offices.

But the study, which will hardly be the last word on SAT test-prep, struck me as newsworthy for another reason.

As part of the report, which was commissioned by the National Association of College Admission Counseling, researchers asked nearly 250 colleges whether they used SAT or ACT scores as a cut-off for admission. Of those that accept the SAT, 1 in 5 said they used particular scores on the test as a “threshold” for admission, at least in some cases; among those using the ACT, 1 in 4 described similar cut-offs.

The good news for most applicants, or at least those whose scores are not stellar, is that more than three-quarters of the colleges report using such scores “holistically.” That usually means the tests are mixed into a stew of many factors being evaluated, including the rigor of applicants’ curriculums; their grades; their activities; their teacher recommendations, and their essays. In fact, when asked to rank the criteria for assessing applicants, most colleges said they give more priority to “strength of curriculum” and “grades in college prep courses.”

But what of those schools with cut-offs? The report does not identify them, or the scores they use. But their policies could put them at odds with the association’s “Principles of Good Practice,” to which most highly-selective colleges subscribe. Among the provisions in that document is a pledge by colleges that they “not use minimum test scores as the sole criterion for admission, advising or for the awarding of financial aid."

Applications have to attract colleges

Fortifying resume is worthwhile.Unique aspects of students help them gain admission.

For the Journal-Constitution

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Hasan Khosravi turned a trip to a science program at Georgia Tech into an ongoing cancer research project.

The Northview High School senior attended a biotech program at Tech with a friend and approached a professor there about a possible research project. The professor liked the idea, and Khosravi is now in the experimentation stage of his research.

“We found a drug and came up with a model to bring a drug inside a cancer cell to rid it of glucose,” said Khosravi, who is the salutatorian of his senior class at Northview. “I took the initiative to start e-mailing a professor about my idea, and he accepted it.”

That golden nugget made its way onto Khosravi’s college application and helped him get accepted to Georgia Tech. He starts in the fall.

Khosravi, who also was accepted to Vanderbilt, Emory and the University of Georgia, plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering en route to a pre-med degree.

Khosravi’s experience is just one way rising high school seniors can beef up their college applications to help get into top colleges.

There is no cookie-cutter formula to bulking up an application. Each should be as unique as the student filling out the forms, and that is what catches the eye of admissions officers.

“It’s a big misconception to say that schools look for well-rounded kids,” Georgia Tech admissions officer Rick Clark said. “A better way to put it is that schools look for a well-rounded class.”

Because of that, college admissions officers aren’t looking for specific types of extracurricular involvement from prospective students. Rather, they seek out qualities students possess as a result of such activities.

Colleges consider grade-point average, SAT or ACT scores and the number of AP classes. But what comes next on the application —- extracurricular activities, personal information and essay answers —- speaks volumes about a student’s interests, personality and dedication.

Clark says an application showing a student worked 20 hours a week for three years in a career-oriented job carries just as much weight as an application that features three years of community-service projects or travel abroad.

Here are some ways high school students can strengthen a college application, according to admissions officers.

Obtain leadership positions

Participation in Governor’s Honors programs or other academic programs like the National Honor Society is impressive. But college officials say that leadership comes in many forms and goes beyond titles. Colleges take notice when students advocate for themselves throughout the admissions process.

“That’s being a leader in a way,” Clark said. Leadership also manifests itself on the job, such as students who may work a part-time job through high school and get promoted or take on added responsibilities in that job, Clark said.

Choose quality over quantity in activities

“We’d rather see quality involvement,” said Jean Jordan, director of admissions at Emory University. Getting involved in things that are important to the student, such as community service, are critical, Jordan added.

Walton senior Angela Morabito and Shorter College freshman Sarah Weaver had what admissions officers are looking for. Both dedicated themselves to intensive extracurricular activities.

Morabito, 17, who will attend Georgetown University, participated in the U.S. High School Diplomats program the past two summers. She spent three weeks in Japan as part of the program last summer.

Weaver, 18, a graduate of Union Grove High School in McDonough, traveled across the country and to Europe as a six-year member of the prestigious Spivey Youth Choir.

These in-depth experiences look good on an application and were instrumental in the students’ choice of study. Morabito will be a culture and politics major in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Weaver is on scholarship as a music major at Shorter.

Set yourself apart in the essay

It’s helpful to highlight these in the essay. “Pick topics that give us information we aren’t going to find on the application,” Emory’s Jordan said. “We want the students to come alive. To use the essay for this is very critical.”

Walton High School senior Brian Slamm, 17, is involved in music and wanted to show that side. He is a percussionist, plays in three youth orchestras and is a member of the marching band and jazz ensemble at Walton.

“In my essay, I compared music to myself,” Slamm said. “Music is an entirely different side of me, and that’s what my essay was about.”

Wear your passion on your sleeve

Students should turn their personal interests into an attractive resume item.

Georgia Tech senior Thomas Christian, a double major in earth and atmospheric sciences, and international affairs, put his passion to work for him. He knew in high school he wanted to pursue a scientific degree and has participated twice in the International Science Fair.

“College administrators can spot students who do something because they want to and those who do it to pad their applications,” Christian said. “Find what you’re passionate about, be it band or the football team. It doesn’t matter. Just engage in something beyond the classroom and be passionate about it.”

That passion also can be displayed in the way students handle the application process. Contact with college administrators, counselors and sometimes faculty members can leave a good impression.

Morabito, who applied to eight schools, kept a list to make sure she had everything covered. She even sent thank-you notes to the schools after the process was over.

Be as detailed as possible

It’s one thing to choose the right activities. Showing that you’ve done them is important, too.

“It’s interesting how many kids are involved in a lot of things but don’t put it down on their applications,” Tech’s Clark said. “They assume that they’ve got this great GPA and that’ll be enough. If it’s (asked for) on the application, then it’s important.”

It’s not enough that students just list their involvement. An accompanying story is always best.

“Everybody has a unique voice,” Clark said. “If you are an Eagle Scout, tell us how you got it.”

Provided by Associated Content

Thursday, April 30, 2009

University of California plan angers Asian Americans

The University of California is a public university system in the state of California with 10 campuses, nine of which are undergraduate. With a new admissions policy, many Asian Americans are worried over whether they will be admitted in the same numbers as before.

By Terence Chea
The Associated Press
Last updated 4-30-09

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A new admissions policy set to take effect at the University of California system in three years is raising fears among Asian Americans that it will reduce their numbers on campus, where they account for 40 percent of all undergraduates.

University officials say the new standards — consisting of the biggest changes in UC admissions since 1960 — are intended to make the process fairer.

The new policy drops some testing requirements and dramatically expands the number of students who will be eligible to apply. Asians will make up a smaller portion of the applicant pool when the policy takes effect for the new class in 2012.
Asian Americans make up about 12 percent of California’s population and 4 percent of the U.S. population overall. But there are a higher proportion of Asians at California’s elite public universities because they tend to have higher test scores and grade point averages than other groups.

Asian American advocates, parents, and lawmakers are angrily calling on the university to rescind the new policy, which will apply at all nine of the system’s undergraduate campuses.

They point to a UC projection that said the new standards would sharply reduce Asian American admissions while resulting in little change for Blacks and Hispanics and a big gain for white students.

“I like to call it affirmative action for whites,” said Ling-chi Wang, a retired professor at UC Berkeley. “I think it’s extremely unfair to Asian Americans on the one hand and underrepresented minorities on the other.”

Asian Americans are the single largest ethnic group among UC’s 173,000 undergraduates. In 2008, they accounted for 40 percent at UCLA and 43 percent at UC Berkeley — the two most selective campuses in the UC system — as well as 50 percent at UC San Diego and 54 percent at UC Irvine.

The new policy, approved unanimously by the UC Board of Regents in February, will greatly expand the applicant pool, eliminate the requirement that applicants take two admission tests, and reduce the number of students guaranteed admission based on grades and test scores alone. It takes effect for the first-year class of fall 2012.

Some Asian Americans have charged that the university is trying to reduce Asian American enrollment. Others say that it is not the intent, but it will be the result.

UC officials adamantly deny that the intent is to increase racial diversity, and they reject allegations that the policy would violate a 1996 voter-approved ban on affirmative action that allowed admissions officers to favor minority students in some cases.

“The primary goal is fairness and eliminating barriers that seem unnecessary,” UC President Mark Yudof said. “It means that if you’re a parent out there, more of your sons’ and daughters’ files will be reviewed.”

Yudof and other officials disputed the internal study that projected a drop of about 20 percent in Asian American admissions, saying it is impossible to accurately predict the effects. “This is not Armageddon for Asian American students,” Yudof said.

At San Francisco’s Lowell High School, one of the top public schools in the country, about 70 percent of the students are of Asian descent and more than 40 percent attend UC after graduation.

“If there are Asian Americans who are qualified and don’t get into UC because they’re trying to increase diversity, then I think that’s unfair,” said 16-year-old junior Jessica Peng. “I think that UC is lowering its standards by doing that.”

One of the biggest changes is scrapping the requirement that applicants take two subject tests of the SAT college admissions exam. UC officials say the tests do little to predict who will succeed at UC, no other public university requires them, and many high-achieving students are disqualified because they do not take them.

The policy also widens the pool of candidates by allowing applications from all students who complete the required high school courses, take the main exams, and maintain a certain grade-point average. Under the current policy, students have to rank in the top 12.5 percent of California high school graduates to be eligible.

Students still have to apply to individual campuses, where admissions officers are allowed to consider each applicants’ grades, test scores, personal background, extracurricular activities, and other factors — but not race.

The policy is expected to increase competition for UC admission. This year, the university turned away the largest number of students in years after it received a record number applications and needed to cut freshman enrollment because of the state’s budget crisis. (end)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How Harvard Sorts Through 30,000 Applicants

Usually, everything that the Harvard admissions office says is a lie. However, here is an account of the admissions process from a logistical point-of-view by the Harvard Crimson. It is interesting in that it describes the voting process by which applicants are admitted to Harvard.

Don't Touch That File

Even with online applications, in the file room, paper reigns supreme
Published On Thursday, April 30, 2009 1:10 AM

By the end of December, most high school seniors never want to see a copy of the Common Application again. But in the basement of the Harvard College Office of Admissions, a framed four-by-two foot copy of the dreaded application hangs on the wall.

The enormous application—an actual submission from a hopeful applicant—is complete with the student’s name, high school, and address, with rows of “Harvard” written across the header, with a miniscule “Yale” in the middle.

“The biggest kick was that he sent it with a giant paper clip,” says Ian Anderson, the office’s file room director—perhaps the most important cog in the well-oiled machine behind Harvard Admissions. “I think he ended up going to Yale.”

The Admissions Office, where 29,112 hopeful students sent their painstakingly crafted essays, letters, and applications to be reviewed this year, is the most exclusive in the country. Behind this machine are 70 people—from Dean William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 to recent alumni to current Harvard students—who together determine the fate of each applicant, with only 7 percent receiving the coveted acceptance letter earlier this month.


Once students click “send” on their computers or drop their applications into the mailbox, Anderson’s work begins. Physical and electronic versions of applications arrive in the basement of 86 Brattle Street, where Anderson leads a team of students and staff who organize the piles of paper.

The incoming documents—including the applications, secondary school reports, and teacher recommendations—then get scanned, a process that began this year as an electronic back-up system.

“It’s really a security device to make sure we have an electronic record of the applications in case the building burns down,” said Director of Admissions Marilyn McGrath-Lewis ’70-’73.

Every morning Anderson prints applications from the Common Application Web site—through which about 94 percent of the applications were submitted this year.

In addition to processing thousands of applications, the admissions office also receives gifts and trinkets from nervous applicants trying to differentiate their application from the thousands of others. Anderson pointed to handmade soaps, t-shirts, and a crocheted Harvard insignia on his office bookshelf. “The soaps made my office smell great,” he says, laughing.

“The most fun part about this job is the crazy things people send in,” says Elizabeth Adams ’10, who works in the file room. “I have a Crimson scarf in my room that none of the admissions officers wanted.”

All material must first be alphabetized, which is no easy task, according to Adams.

“The first couple weeks you’ll come in and say ‘Ian, what should I do’, but after a while you’ll come in ready to alph,” she says.

The alphabetized paper then gets made into applicant folders, for which Anderson has another “ingenious” system for organizing the thousands of applications, according to Adams, where each applicant has both a red and a manila folder in their file. The manila folder holds the official application, while the red, or “dummy,” folder, contains the student’s essential information and serves as a place holder when the application is being read.

Once the official application and secondary school report arrive, yellow barcode sheets in the folder get scanned. “It’s like working in a grocery store sometimes,” Anderson says. “Scanning tells the system we have the minimum requirement for the folder to be read.”

The students who work in the office create thousands of folders nearly each day.

“You make one mistake and it ripples through the whole run, so we tend to break it down into a much more manageable 900 or 1,000 at a time,” Anderson says.

“Actually, that doesn’t sound manageable,” he adds.


Once an applicant’s folder is made, it joins the nearly 30,000 other folders in the room that makes up the very heart of the admissions office: the file room.

The room contains 255 filing drawers, and the walls are completely hidden by the files, except for a small counter—which had to be cut in half last year to make room for still more files—used for alphabetizing and organizing. On top of the cabinets lie more boxes filled with overflow applications.

The sheer number of applications processed by the office cannot be fully understood until one is in the file room, according to Anderson.

“Every drawer gets so full that you can’t put anything in it,” he explains. “If you’re trying to file this one item, you have to pull out five folders to get one item in, and then jam all five back in.”

After his years of running this essential part of the process, Anderson is familiar with everything that could go wrong—and has a preemptive solution for it.

“You don’t want to have too many drawers open at once, because it tips,” he said. “Once it starts tipping, the drawers slide open and then you can’t catch the cabinet...these things weigh a ton.”

Anderson’s office, which adjoins the file room, contains the tools he needs to keep track of the thousands of sheets of paper for which he is responsible every year. He has a log book—dating back to the eight years that he has worked in the office—that he carefully fills out every day with a running count of the folders made, and the number sent out to readers, or “cleared.”

“See here in July and August,” he says, pointing to his records, “these are the kids who are very anxious and applied before their senior year even started.”

Anderson’s job requires balance, organizational skills, and even working through the winter holidays.

“We are sometimes clearing 2,000 folders on certain days,” he says. “It’s just about keeping every piece moving, you can’t ignore any of it because then you are in deep trouble.”

“I’ve been here long enough that I’ve gotten used to the stress. When you see a lot of things getting done at once, its very fulfilling,” he adds.


Anderson hires about 40 Harvard college students every school year to help in the file room. Students alphabetize, file, and “scrutinize” about once a month, after they have put together many applications.

“We sit at a file drawer and look at every single piece of paper to make sure it’s in the right place,” says Adams. “We check to make sure the drawer is in alphabetical order, and in each folder the names are correct. You cannot do it for more than two hours without losing your mind.”

Over winter break, Anderson leads a team of students from the Boston area who work full time to put 14,000 folders together in four weeks.

Anderson, who was responsible for more than 40 fellow soldiers when he served in the army before coming to Harvard, says the leadership style demanded by his current responsibilities is comparable but that the people he “commands” here have different expectations.

“Here I spend a lot more time explaining why students are doing what they are doing and the steps they must take to remain organized,” he says, comparing them to soldiers who were more ready to simply carry out the tasks he gave them without question.

And though the student workers have full access to applicants’ materials, they are trained in non-disclosure laws and Adams says they rarely look twice at any of the information.

“You’d think it’s this really glamorous thing where we have all this insight, but when you see the sheer number of materials that we are working with,” she says, “it just turns into paper, almost.”

But despite the monotony, Adams says she thinks it’s valuable to have undergraduates filling this role.

“I think it’s important to have people who care about future of this school, and understand where students are coming from to work in the admissions office,” she says.


Once Anderson and his team’s work is complete, the folders are distributed to the admissions officers’ boxes to be read.

The office employs about 40 admissions officers, who each are responsible for up to four or five geographic areas, or up to 1,500 folders, McGrath, the director of admissions, explains.

“It’s a process of gathering widely and sort of winnowing as comparisons occur over a ten week process,” she says.

The area subcommittee chair advocates for the applicant, “as if he were at a trial and he were the student’s attorney, in a sense,” says Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions.

In the more widely-known part of the process, admissions officers create a reader sheet for each application, which rate the student on their academics and extracurriculars.

After the subcommittee process, all the readers meet in full committee for about three weeks, and go through every school and every person, “asking again if we are sure this is a person we want to accept on April 1st,” Fitzsimmons says. “As far as we can determine, there is no other college that spends as much time in committee as we do.”

Once the full committee votes on each applicant, in a “one person one vote” process, the decisions are made, and the applications return to Anderson in the file room.


Students who are accepted and decide to matriculate have their applications held at the Freshman Dean’s Office where they later form the “nucleus” of what eventually becomes the student’s college record, McGrath says. Once students graduate, the folders go to the University’s archives. Applications from rejected students are kept for three years before they are shredded.

Anderson has a sheet of paper posted on his office fridge, listing the application numbers for the past eight years and the percent increase for each year. “It’s fun to look at,” he says. “When I started [working here] we were at 19,000 applicants, and here we are at 29,000.”

But once the yearlong process finishes, it starts again immediately. There is already one lone box containing applications for class of 2014, waiting to be alphabetized and filed.

Princeton walks lonely road with grading policy

The Daily Princetonian

By Angela Cai
Senior Writer
Published: Monday, April 27th, 2009

On April 26, 2004, the University faculty voted 156-84 to institute a bold policy to curb rising grades. Five years later, no peer institutions have followed Princeton’s lead, despite Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel’s repeated attempts to encourage them to do so.

Undergraduate deans at several peer institutions said in interviews this week that though they are concerned about rising grades and inconsistent grading practices across departments, they have no concrete plans to emulate Princeton’s policy. They cited concerns about the fairness of instituting university-wide grading policies and inhibiting professors’ freedom to assess academic work as reasons for not following Princeton’s lead.

Yet Malkiel told The Daily Princetonian in 1998 that grade inflation “is not a Princeton-specific issue and it really can only be dealt with effectively if other institutions like this try to take effective steps.” Thus, as reports of students at other Ivy League schools blanching at the prospect of a B continue to surface, Princeton students and alumni have expressed frustration at the prospect of being unwilling leaders in an ill-followed movement.

Some statistics show Princeton’s plan is working. A-level grades comprised 40.4 percent of all final undergraduate course grades between 2005 and 2008, down from 47 percent in the 2001 to 2004 period before the grading policy was enacted.

Perhaps precisely because it is working, “grade deflation” — as the policy is commonly known — has not been well received by most students, but Malkiel has stood resolutely behind it. So, too, have the nearly two-thirds of the faculty who voted for the policy. According to a 2006 survey by the ‘Prince,’ 94.5 percent of the faculty who voted for the grading policy in 2004 said they would have voted for it again, while 82 percent of those who voted against the policy said they would do so again.

While the percent of A-level grades has been falling at Princeton, grades have been steadily on the rise at other schools. At Brown, the overall percentage of undergraduate A-level grades exceeded 50 percent for the first time in the institution’s history in the last academic year. A-level grades made up more than half of all grades given at Harvard and Dartmouth in 2007.

According to — a grading data site compiled by Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired Duke professor and grade inflation expert — the average GPA at Princeton was a 3.28 in 2008, versus Yale’s 3.51.

Malkiel said in an e-mail last week that her counterparts “at two other Ivy League schools have requested all of our materials and have been having discussions in faculty committees about the possibility of taking their own actions.”

“I expect to be invited to meet with department chairs at one of those schools next year,” she added.

But deans around the Ivy League gave no indication that they plan to take immediate action.

Though Penn Dean of the College of Arts and Science Dennis DeTurck said he has been watching Princeton’s progress with interest, he noted that Penn has no immediate plans to emulate the policy.

Dean of Yale College Mary Miller ’75 said in an e-mail that in her 28 years at the university, “the Yale faculty has not discussed college-wide grading policy.”

“I would not want to try to guess what they would or would not consider instituting!” she added.

Michele Moody-Adams, the vice provost for undergraduate education at Cornell, said that the faculty there has also “resisted the idea of a general university policy.”

“I’m amazed that your expectational policy even passed at Princeton,” said Moody-Adams, who will take office as dean of the college at Columbia on July 1.

At Dartmouth, discussions about grading policy are currently at an information-gathering level. Student Assembly president Molly Bode, a senior, said in an e-mail that all Arts and Sciences academic departments have been provided with “a list of questions regarding grade inflation to consider and respond to.” A discussion on potential future action is slated for the fall.

Deans at Harvard and Brown declined to comment for this article, and the provosts at Columbia and Stanford could not be reached for comment. Right after a grade deflation policy was passed at Princeton, John Bravman, vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford, told the ‘Prince’ that it was “very unlikely” that Stanford would enact a similar policy.

MIT’s dean of undergraduate education, Daniel Hastings, said that MIT does not and will not grade courses on a curve, adding that grades have been flat at the school for the last decade.

The only other elite institution with a school-wide grading policy is Wellesley College, which instituted its stipulation that median grades for introductory level courses be no higher than a B-plus two weeks before Princeton’s grading policy vote.

Even if an earnest discussion were to begin at a peer institution, it may be years before any concrete action is taken at all. At Princeton, the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing released a report calling for fewer A-range grades in 1998, but the proposal never came to fruition because of faculty and student opposition. Five years later, the Committee released another report, and later that year, the faculty passed the policy.

Though Malkiel has long maintained that other institutions are working to implement similar policies, she recognizes that the process may be very difficult. “It requires a great deal of time,” she said. “If there are other matters high on their agendas, it may be difficult to devote the necessary attention to the effort.”

The fundamental problem that drove the change in grading policy, Malkiel said in her 2007 e-mail “On Grading” to then-undergraduates, was that there was compression of the range of what is considered an acceptable grade. “With compression,” she said, “the A grade had come to cover a spectrum from work that marginally exceeds expectations to truly superior work; the B grade had come to signify work that was barely acceptable.”

DeTurck said he agreed with this reasoning, though he did not see grade compression to be urgent enough at Penn to elicit action. “We’re OK with what’s going on,” he said, adding that if compression becomes more serious, “we will be more inclined to impose some school-wide standard.”

Though Moody-Adams said she would not prefer to see Cornell adopt a Princeton-esque policy because of its potential to “lower grades in a setting where it is not appropriate … such as small seminars” and because of its potential to dishearten students, she said she was concerned about the “decrease in the range of acceptable grade you can give to a student.”

“I don’t think the solution is a formula, but you do need students to be aware that it’s not a shame to get a B or a B-minus,” she said. “I have students looking at a B the same way they see a D in my day. It deeply troubles me.”

While DeTurck said he was also concerned about compression, he noted that part of the rise in grades might be “attributable … to the simple fact that the best students are getting better and better, and so of course you would expect their performance to get better and better.”

Former Harvard Undergraduate Council president Matt Sundquist said the meaning of a grade at Harvard varies depending on academic discipline. “Departments are notoriously easier or harder in their grading, and the culture is that you get better or worse grades depending on which departments,” he explained.

“Certainly the engineering students feel [down] at any institution because they’re doing labs, while other people ... are sitting under a tree reading Nietzsche,” DeTurck noted. “But does that mean the discipline is more difficult or more intense?”

Though the proportion of A-level grades in all disciplines at Princeton has fallen since 2004, there are still gaps across departments. The biggest disparity, however, is not between the humanities and engineering. A-level grades comprised 35 percent of all grades given in the natural and social sciences, 45.5 percent in the humanities and 41.5 percent in engineering, Malkiel said at a faculty meeting in September 2008.

Schools like Columbia, Cornell and Dartmouth are trying to combat such grading disparities by putting students’ grades in context. Student transcripts at Columbia identify what percentage of each class received A’s, while transcripts at Cornell and Dartmouth list the median grade in each course.

The problem with these measures, Malkiel said, is that they don’t change faculty grading practices. “When we had discussions some years ago about implementing such a plan here, we heard significant reservations from both students and faculty,” she added.

DeTurck acknowledged that merely putting pressure on academic departments to curb grade inflation doesn’t work in the long run. “At different times we’ve nudged different departments when the grading standards seemed to be getting too lax,” he said. “That nudge works for a while, but you see a backsliding.”

Prior to 2004, the University attempted to encourage individual departments to tackle rising grades with little success.

Malkiel has long maintained that because the school-wide policy at Princeton has proven numerically successful, other institutions are working to implement similar policies. “I would not be the least bit surprised to see some of our Ivy peers follow in their own way,” she told the ‘Prince’ in March 2006. “Each institution has to work through its own faculty and in its own context,” she added, noting, “That is a long and laborious process.”

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rejection: Some Colleges Do It Better Than Others

The Wall Street Journal
APRIL 29, 2009

Members of this year's record-size high-school graduating class applied to more colleges than ever -- and now, that's resulting in a heavier than usual flurry of rejection letters.

Hundreds of students at high schools from Newton, Mass., to Palo Alto, Calif., have created cathartic "Wall of Shame" or "Rejection Wall" displays of college denial letters. On message boards at, students critique, attack and praise missives from various schools, elevating rejection-letter reviews to a sideline sport.

You're Rejected

Even with impressive test scores and grades, abundant extracurricular activities, good recommendations and an admission essay into which "I poured myself heart and soul," Daniel Beresford, 18, of Fair Oaks, Calif., netted 14 rejection letters from 17 applications, he says. Among the denials: Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago. (He's bound for one of his top choices, Pepperdine University.) When he "realized it was going to be so much harder this year," he started calling in reinforcements, asking teachers and friends to open the rejections for him.

Here, based on my own highly unscientific survey of actual letters, student interviews and message boards, are my picks for this year's most noteworthy college rejection letters -- and the liveliest response by a student.

Toughest: Bates College, Lewiston, Maine. Most rejection letters, in an effort to soften the blow, follow a pattern: We're sorry, we had a huge applicant pool, all our applicants were terrific, we wish we could admit everyone. Bates, a competitive, 1,700-student college, expresses its regrets to rejected applicants and praises its applicant pool. But it delivers a more direct, and perhaps more honest, message: "The deans were obliged to select from among candidates who clearly could do sound work at Bates," the letter says.

The letter touched off a chorus of moans online. One recipient, a 17-year-old high-school student from California, says it "implied that you had been rejected because you s-." Bates Dean of Admissions Wylie Mitchell acknowledges that he had one applicant "take me to task for such an abrupt letter." But he says he carefully considered how to convey respect for applicants and decided that brevity is the best route. The letter aims to clarify that Bates is "denying the student's application, and not rejecting the student," Mr. Mitchell says. He doesn't see counseling recipients as the role of college deans.

Stanford University sends a steely "don't call us" message embedded in its otherwise gentle rejection letter. In addition to asserting that "we are humbled by your talents and achievements" and assuring the applicant that he or she is "a fine student," the letter says, "we are not able to consider appeals." It links to a Q&A that reiterates: "Admission decisions are final and there is absolutely no appeal process." It also discourages attempts to transfer later, an even more competitive process. One recipient, whose heart had long been set on Stanford, cried for hours, her mother says, after interpreting the letter as, "we never want to hear from you again so don't bother."

Stanford admissions dean Richard Shaw says the ban on appeals is necessary because other California universities allow appeals and families assume Stanford does too. Even after sending that firm message, Stanford, which has an admission rate of 7.6%, still gets about 200 attempted appeals. "We care deeply about the repercussions" of the letter, Mr. Shaw says, but "there's no easy way to tell someone they didn't make it."

Kindest: Harvard College. Despite an estimated admission rate of about 7% this year, this hotly sought-after school sends a humble rejection letter.

"Past experience suggests that the particular college a student attends is far less important than what the student does to develop his or her strengths and talents over the next four years."

"I didn't feel a teensy bit bitter about" it, says recipient Evelyn Anne Crunden, 18. Instead, the letter's "warm and apologetic tone ... made me feel proud for having even applied."

Duke University, Durham N.C., also drew raves for a gracious missive emphasizing that it's not passing judgment on individuals, but trying to put together a well-rounded class. Undergraduate admissions dean Christoph Guttentag won particular praise from students and parents for the line, "I know you will find an institution at which you will be happy; I know, too, that the school you choose will benefit from your presence." Says Mr. Beresford, who was one of the 18,000 recipients: "It made me feel like I was a good applicant, not just another rejection."
Work & Family Mailbox

* Columnist Sue Shellenbarger answers a reader's question on teaching young women how to dress for professional jobs.

Mr. Guttentag says he's had particular empathy for rejected applicants since his own daughter was rejected by several kindergartens four years ago. "We know we're imparting bad news, and we just want to make it as human as we can," he says.

Most Confusing: University of California, San Diego. Officials there rejected 29,000 candidates not once, but twice. After sending a first round of rejections, they accidentally sent all 47,000 applicants, including those who had been denied, an email invitation to an open house for admitted students: "We're thrilled that you've been admitted ... join us this Saturday ... and get a glimpse of the powerful combination that can be you plus UC San Diego." The errant message raised some false hopes. "It would be cool if this means they changed their decision," one rejected applicant says he thought.

Less than two hours later came 29,000 re-rejections. "We deeply regret this mistake, because we understand the level of distress it has caused" for many, university officials wrote. "We continue to wish you success." The admissions staff worked all night and through the next two days, making and taking calls, to straighten things out, a spokeswoman says. "We would never intentionally confuse students."

Another surprise package came from Penn State, which sent the hoped-for "fat envelope" with a rejection letter inside. Applicants who receive a fat envelope assume they've been admitted. But Penn State sends a fat envelope to students who have been denied admission to its biggest campus, at University Park, Pa. One mother says her daughter was "so excited then ... No!" She adds, "I had to pick her up off the floor."

The envelope contains information on others among Penn State's 20 campuses where the student is invited to enroll, with the right to transfer later to University Park, says admissions executive Anne Rohrbach. "We've had some people not laugh about that," she concedes. "We don't see them as denials," she says, but as invitations to qualified students the university would like to enroll elsewhere.

Most Discouraging: Boston University. To students who have family ties to the university, its letter begins: "We give special attention to applicants whose families have a tradition of study at Boston University. We have extended this consideration in the evaluation of your application, but I regret to inform you that we are unable to offer you admission." Consideration of family legacies is common practice at many universities. But Rob Flaherty, 17, a North Reading, Mass., recipient, said he felt the wording in BU's letter translated to "we made it even easier for you and you STILL couldn't get in." Admissions head Kelly Walter says BU tries to deliver such bad news "with as much sensitivity as possible." Most applicants appreciate an acknowledgement of their family ties, she says, and she regrets that "our efforts fall short with some."

Biggest Spin: Numerous colleges spin the data in their rejection letters as a well-intentioned way of comforting denied students. University of California, Davis, says it had "42,000 applicants from which UC Davis could enroll a freshman class of 4,600." This implies an 11% acceptance rate. Its actual admission rate is closer to 50%, because many accepted candidates ultimately enroll elsewhere.

UC Davis undergraduate admissions director Pamela Burnett says most applicants understand that actual enrollment rates vary and she hasn't received any complaints that the language is misleading.

Best Coaching: Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick. This 2,200-student institution added handwritten notes to almost all the 600 denial letters it sent this year, explaining areas of weakness, such as math grades or English skills. The personal detail, says Ron Byrne, a vice president who oversees admissions, helps students understand "it's not a rejection of them, and they know very concretely some of the things they can do" to improve their chances if they apply again.

Best Student Response: Living well. As the rejections sunk in, many students rebounded to console each other. After getting rejections from Harvard and Yale, Isaac Chambers, 17, Champaign, Ill., a top student, track athlete, student-government leader and an editor of his school's online newspaper, posted these words of advice for other rejected candidates on "When you're in the dough," he wrote, "fax the colleges that denied you a copy of your rejection letter every day -- letting them know just how badly they screwed up."