This time of year, my inbox overflows with students seeking support as they make their final college choices. Virginia Tech or UVA? Wake Forest or UNC Chapel Hill? JMU or Elon? The questions are valid and are extensions of the conversations we’ve been having all along: what do you want to study? What do you want in a college? What are your non-negotiables? Often we just talk through the options—looking at location, major, cost, etc.—and the obvious choice pops up. However, I occasionally get the student who just swirls in the decision, made dizzy by the possible options and input from others.
Saturday, I was at Virginia Tech for Hokie Focus, aka, admitted student day. I walked onto the hotel’s elevator and was greeted by the sister of a friend I’ve known for longer than I’d like to admit. She was in town to tour her daughter around Tech. We chatted a bit; she knew what I did as I had worked with her W&M older daughter. This daughter, however, just couldn’t decide between schools. “Virginia Tech has a strong PT program, but it’s at Tech,” says the mom. “She got into William & Mary, which is where she really wants to go, and I think she’ll choose there.” I invisibly roll my eyes and then this cartoon popped into my head.
This is the time of year I find students (and parents) looking for the right thing in the wrong place. It’s understandable in a way. For the last year of their lives, at least, they’ve been mired in college rankings: national reputations, departmental strengths, best food, excellent Greek life. And what’s more (and what’s worse) is that their friends (and parents) have been too, which means each time a student mentions a school they get reinforcement—positive and negative—about their choices. All of these voices start to drown out the student’s, making it difficult to decide based upon her own actual needs and wants. Instead, these students inevitably make a choice based not upon the best fit but on what’s the best shirt she can wear on May 1, College T-shirt Day at school or how great it will sound to say, “I’m going to Cornell” rather than JMU.
I know how this story will turn out for the VT/W&M student; after all, I’ve known the parents and heard their language for a while. She’ll end up at W&M. W&M is a great school with a great reputation and could be a great fit in many other ways, but it is not a school known for its great PT program or its great rate of articulation from the undergraduate PT programs to advanced ones. She will go to W&M because her parents—W&M and UVA grads-- have spent years pooh-poohing Tech. She will look for her quarter in the wrong place just because the light’s better—and she will never find it.
So, what’s the message I’m trying to offer here? Do not be swayed by others’ opinions. As Frank Bruni discusses in his great work, “Where you go is not who you’ll be.” You do not need to impress your friends with the fancy T-shirt. You do not have to justify your decisions. Your first act of adulting is not in deciding where you’ll go to college. Your first act is in not deciding based on what others have to say.
A mom of a client emailed the other day:
"I found this link to "real actual essays that colleges liked." I'm curious what you think! Most are very different than my way of thinking."
Before even opening the page, I knew what I would find. Great, well-constructed narratives offering insightful, pithy, and meaningful language to aptly and fully explain the exact nature of who the student is. I was right, and then I was irritated.
Here's my response to the fretting mom:
I read the essays, and they are what I feared they would be: super strong, interesting essays. Why is that necessarily bad? It's not--if your'e a naturally gifted writer. However, what if you're just a normal 17-year-old boy who thinks in images or in 3D? What if writing is torturous for you, and just getting the words on the page is fully exhausting?
The implication is that an essay other than literary perfection--complete with well-constructed metaphors and deeply humbling insights--will fall short of an admissions offer. This isn't true. While a well-written essay--such as the one by Max Amar-Olkus--can certainly help ameliorate other deficits, regular old essays can also gain an admissions offer too.
I worry that the stress of not living up to these perfect essays will keep students seeing their own stories and their own writing styles as less than. In fact, what particularly bothers me is that all of these essays are written in similar narrative styles. Where's the variety? Where's the difference in voice? Where's the juxtaposition of tone with content?
I realize I'm on a bit of a rant, which is certainly not aimed at you. It's aimed at all the books and websites that purport to give examples of essays that worked, but neglect to show less impactful or less well-constructed narratives that also worked. It's akin to looking at Vogue and thinking, "Gee, I'm a size 6 and too damn fat to be considered pretty." Vogue and these websites create an ideal that is set too high, which causes undue stress for the majority who will certainly miss that mark.
During my writing seminars this week, I showed the students intros from students' essays and then told them where those students went to college. The example really helped them understand the expectations, possibilities, and impressions--and lowered the anxiety as they realized that the essays they could actually write could still be considered admissions worthy.
So, what's the end-all here? Don't feel you have to be anyone other than the best you that you can be. If you're a great writer, then wonderful! Use this time and space to practice your art and shine. If you're a workaday writer who can craft logical, organized writing, then do that. You don't have to be a size 00 to be beautiful. You're fine just the way you are. It's going to be ok. Trust me.
As an active IEC in Virginia, I constantly stalk Twitter and Instagram of the top Virginia colleges to get real-time information about decision release dates and times. Usually the feeds offer sneaky and non-specific details ("Check in with us later!"). However, imagine my surprise when I saw the February 17 Instagram post above from Mildred Johnson, the Director of Admissions for Virginia Tech.
While it too offered the expected information ("...all remaining decisions will be posted on the evening of March 17th."), it offered a little extra ditty that literally had me sitting at attention:
"We will continue working tirelessly, enjoying your essays and ZeeMee pages...."
ZeeMee pages? Wait? Someone's actually reading them? As I headed next to Twitter, I found this link offering a full article about Virginia Tech's use of Zeemee in college admissions with Johnson saying that ZeeMee helps ensure a "personal and approachable" process during application review. For this application committee, a partnership with #ZeeMee provides a more well-rounded process.
Panic immediately set in here. While ZeeMee, a multimedia profile where students can post videos and documents supporting their activities, has been around for a while, I had never considered having my students fill out a profile before. Why? Why work hard on another task if no one is going to view it? However, if Virginia Tech, a top 100 National University by US News and World Report, is using ZeeMee, then I owe it to my students to strongly encourage them to consider the site.
ZeeMee currently partners with a host of universities: Baylor, Elon, Carnegie-Mellon, Wash U. St. Louis, and University of Mary Washington. With the list growing, ZeeMee is making my list of encouraged tasks for Class of 2018 students.
July before senior year, many students sit down to start completing the Common Application. They happily fill out the demographic questions, yell up the stairs to mom, "Hey! When did you graduate from that college? What's your degree in again? And what's your job title?"
However, the texts start coming (these are teens after all), when they get to the section on Academic Honors. It's that adjective "Academic" that throws them off. The panic ensues when they realize there are five spaces for those awards.
What do you put in those spaces? Here are our thoughts:
If we missed something, let ForWord Consulting know!
The letter arrives in the mail. Nice stationery, official letterhead, likely from the National Student Leadership Conference or something similar.
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You really want to attend a specific college when you graduate from college. Let's call it "Dream School." You've got banners from Dream School hanging on your wall and you regularly sport Dream School's colors on jersey day. Walking past your college counselor's office, you see a brochure for Dream School's Summer Program, and you quickly pick up a copy--and decide to apply, hoping your attending the summer program will give you a leg up during the admissions process in a year.
According to this Washington Post article, your attending Dream School's Summer Program might not help as the programs might not be staffed by regular employees, might not focus on the university's specific strengths.
The article makes solid points, ones worth seriously considering when choosing a program. However, there are many excellent summer programs out there that do immerse you into the academic experience at Dream University with dream professors. You just need to be cautious in your choices and reasons. Ask yourself, why do you want to attend a summer program? What's your ultimate purpose? If it's resume padding, then consider whether or not you'd be attending if you weren't applying to college. Are you truly interested in the subject? Passionate about it? Unable to learn more from where you currently are?
Curious students wanting to better understand their futures and explore their passions can--and do--benefit from the programs. However, students should first join a program because of what they can get from it, rather than what the program might be able to offer in the future.
It's two days from May 1, otherwise known as Decision Day. Many students are rejoicing that they got into their first choice. Others are happy to have gotten in anywhere. But there are still many other students wondering why they didn't get in.
The answer just might be Big Data.
Colleges want to know if a student is really going to attend and then spend its recruiting dollars on that student. Sarah Lawrence College uses the big data it collects to increase its yield rates. "How interested an applicant was is heavily correlated with the student who is going to be a good fit and stay on past the first year.”
However, colleges not only want students who want to be at their schools but also "students that will be successful.” To do this, schools analyze your data to determine your likelihood of completing a college program. What data are they looking at? Well, of course they're interested in your test scores and grades, but they're also interested in your social media.
Some schools like Ithaca studied social media data "to see which students [are] employing what behaviors ... most likely to enroll and stay [in college] — how many photos they uploaded to their profiles, for instance, and how many ...friends they made. The idea is to learn how interested a candidate is in the college," a college official said.
Need more insight? This FastCoExist article is more clear:
"Even major life decisions like college admissions and hiring are being affected. You might think that a college is considering you on your merits, and while that's mostly true, it's not entirely. Pressured to improve their rankings, colleges are very interested in increasing their graduation rates and the percentage of admitted students who enroll. They have now have developed statistical programs to pick students who will do well on these measures. These programs may take into account obvious factors like grades, but also surprising factors like their sex, race, and behavior on social media accounts. If your demographic factors or social media presence happen to doom you, you may find it harder to get into school—and not know why."
This interesting read from Jeff Selingo, a writer for the Washington Post, discusses the change in how internships have been viewed over the years and what they currently mean to a college-student's future success.
As Selingo notes: "Internships are increasingly the only way for new applicants to get in the door at some companies. Postings for internships now make up a significant proportion of the overall entry-level job openings in several industries, including engineering, graphic design, communications, marketing, and information technology."
But how do you find an internship of note? Well, it's a competitive world out there. I suggest that you start developing professional contacts as soon as possible. Create a LinkedIn account, develop a portfolio and have it on a website, create a strong resume and keep it up to date, visit your career center and ask about alumni who might be hiring.
Don't be afraid to be straightforward with people about your goals. I had one student who went back to see her high-school teacher, one who taught the course she's currently majoring in at college. After visiting for a few minutes, she asked if he knew anyone who might be hiring an intern for the summer. Turns out, he did. He set up an interview and one day later she landed a coveted internship in New York--in addition to three other internship offers from other sources.
This college sophomore is what Selingo calls a Sprinter, someone with "determination and experience." He notes that Sprinters often "move right into full-time work related to their major...."
While Sprinters appear to benefit from having direction early, they also benefit from seeking opportunity. Perhaps Sprinters have always been ahead of the pack, but it seems that knowing how to forge a path quickly through internships can help them toward their future quickly.
Jay Matthews, the education columnist for the Washington Post, just released his rankings of the nation's and the DC-region's most challenging high schools. Matthews' index score is the "number of college-level tests given at a school in the previous calendar year divided by the number of graduates that year." So, in essence, the more AP tests a school administers, the higher its index number.
Matthews purports that all students, even those from areas with weaker educational systems and might lack readiness, can and should take AP tests. While some might suggest that not all students can meet the challenges of the AP tests, administered by the testing behemoth The College Board, Matthews sides with those "who believe lack of progress in U.S. high school achievement is because so little is demanded in most classrooms."
He goes on, as a way of supporting his point: "But what if you have teachers who are skilled enough to grab the interest of many of those habitual slackers and who can show them that struggling with a challenging course is less boring than sitting through a painfully slow remedial course?"
But there's the rub, right? Skilled teachers.
I'm very familiar with the students at the #6 DC-area school on the list, McLean High School, in McLean, Virginia. MHS teachers are extremely dedicated and prepared to teach the students from this highly affluent DC suburb. However, rising class sizes; an ever-increasing budget gap, currently at $51 million, according to Fairfax County Public Schools; and teacher pay that is lower than its nearby counties are starting to cause problems. Last year McLean High School reportedly hired 33 new teachers to complete its 120 person teaching staff: almost a 30% changeover.
While McLean High School still has dedicated teachers who can "grab the interest of habitual slackers," new teachers might not yet have the skill enough to really teach students at the AP level--and this is in an area where the school only has 9% of its students receive or reduced lunch and enjoys a safe and productive atmosphere.
However, apparently schools in more difficult situations are giving AP tests. In the national rankings, many of the schools in the top 10 have a substantial number of students receiving subsidized lunches, including three in Texas: Science/Engineering Magnet (#3, 65%), Talented and Gifted (#6, 31%), and Idea College Prep Mission (#11, 91%).
We might ask this question: To what end? We know that students are taking AP classes and tests, but are they receiving passing scores of 3s, 4s, or 5s?
However, I'm not sure the scores matter. To develop able students, they need rigor and expectation. While results are nice, what's most important is creating a cohort of students who believe they can succeed and are prepared to take on the challenges of college.
A College Counselor who asks and answers the tough questions.