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The Brave New World Of College Applications

In college admissions, college application, Researching Colleges, Tuition Costs, University of California Application, university rankings on May 31, 2012 at 11:19 am

Back in the old days, say in the year 2005, the only worry you really had when applying to college in California was whether or not you would get in.  Now, not only is it harder to get into college, you also have to worry about  how politics (and the economy) are impacting the universities to which you want to apply.  Most of the problems you will face, from finding a school to paying the ever-increasing tuition to getting into the more and more crowded classes have a common cause: funding.  And funding is a function of political priorities as much as it is a result of economic swings.

Bear with me while I explain,  and then I will offer a simple strategic proposal after I  outline the current situation.

We could start with the fact that Cal State students launched a hunger strike earlier this month in response to tuition increases and cuts in courses and enrollment.  Their solution is focused on administrative pay, which is a satisfying target, but won’t solve the problem.  The problem is much bigger.

In March, the Cal State system announced that it is planning to cut up to 3,000 staff members for the 2012-2013 academic year, as well as slashing enrollment–this seems assured if the tax initiatives on the ballot for November, 2012, do not pass.  Even if the initiatives do  pass, Cal State schools will not be accepting transfers next Spring, meaning the twenty-five or so thousand community college students who are ready to move on to a CSU will have to wait half a year.  This means that the current best-case scenario amounts to a freeze in enrollment while services are cut.

If this outrages you, put it into perspective:  the system has experienced increasingly severe cuts for the last decade, and at this point it has the same amount of money as it did in 1997, but it has 90,000 more students to serve. Decades of cuts have accelerated in the last four years, and something has to give, so plan not only on paying more tuition per term at a CSU, plan also on spending more time in school because you can’t get the classes you need to graduate.

More time in school means spending more money, so factor an extra term or two in as an additional cost when you set up your application list.

Moving on to the University of California system,  the regents are proposing a 6% tuition increase for this fall–this is on top of the increases already planned and implemented–and this increase is almost certain since the U.C. regents say it is based on whether or not funding will be increased for 2012-2013 (hint:  it almost certainly won’t be.)  This will put the total tuition for 2012-2013 at 12,923, plus other fees.   As a result, students attending a U.C. this fall can expect to pay about twice what a student paid in 2007.  Worse yet, if the tax measure on the ballot for November fails to pass, U.C. regents will meet to “consider” an additional  double-digit increase effective for the next term.    Yes, at least 10% will be added on to the planned 6% in the same academic year.  The sky is indeed cracked and it will start falling in 2012 if more revenue is not generated.

The focus of rage at this point is misguided but understandable–the hunger strikers I referenced above are upset about administrative salaries, and I agree that it is unfair for admins to get raises while students are hit in the wallet, but saving even tens of millions dollars by freezing or cutting admin pay is the proverbial drop in the bucket relative to cuts of at least 750 million dollars  for U.C. and Cal State for this year alone.  It might help a little to cut admin pay, and I don’t think any administrator anywhere should be getting a raise when profs and students are taking a beating, but it’s a symbolic act to cut admin pay, not a solution.

Keep in mind that increased tuition accompanied by fewer class offerings are not the only effects of budget cuts.  Instructors are increasingly hired as adjuncts and lecturers, which means you increasingly have part-time teachers who are paid less and don’t get the benefits of full-time professors and who teach larger and larger classes. Everything from research to maintaining quality of instruction is compromised as the system cuts costs.

Meanwhile, understanding what is going on is more difficult due to the economic troubles of an entirely different industry–journalism.  Local reporting is mixed in its quality, with ABC 7 in L.A., for example, putting out reports like this one, in which the reporter writes about how the U.C. system still has “pricey” constructions projects going “gangbusters.”  The reporter finally explains that these projects were funded through bonds, often seven or more years ago, but the headline and focus of articles like this one–which doesn’t really explain anything until the article is halfway through–creates confusion about what the real problems are.  Construction which is currently underway has nothing to do with the  budget crisis we have right now, but it’s hard to tell that if you are scanning articles like this one.

And the problem is clear, if you step back a bit:  the collapse of the housing bubble and deep recession of the last four years have not so much caused  university funding to collapse as they have revealed the deep structural problems in education funding in California, problems which go back to the year 1978 and Proposition 13.  And speaking of going back to future, Jerry Brown was governor when Prop 13 passed, and while he opposed it strenuously and publicly, he also bowed to the will of the people and implemented it to the letter after it passed.

Governor Brown is nothing if not forthright, and just as he did in 1978, he is presenting the citizens of the state with a clear alternative:  vote in November to raise taxes or the budget will be cut even more severely. If you understand state budgets, you know this means big cuts for next Spring, but even bigger cuts for the fall of 2013.  And I mean the kinds of cuts that are causing me to tell my college advising clients who live in California  to apply to multiple universities outside of California.

And I am going further than that:  I am telling my clients who are planning to go to college in the fall of 2013  that, if the ballot initiatives fail in November 2012, they should plan on going to college out-of-state and even outside of the United States.  Going out of state or out of the country can be close to the cost of going to school in California now,   and in many places outside of the (formerly) Golden State, students will be more easily able to get the classes they need and so to graduate on schedule, which also saves money.

With current U.C. increases planned to push tuition above 18,000 dollars over the next four years, and with the potential for that to increase  to over 20,ooo dollars a year by 2017 if the tax initatives fail, going out of state is looking like a good bet to be on par in tuition and expenses or an even cheaper alternative, if you search widely and well.

As an example, out of state tuition at the University of Oregon  is currently in the 25,000 range for out-of-state students, but cost of living is lower than at many U.C. schools, and if the November tax initiative fails, tuition in California will race to catch up or pass out-of-state tuition in many states, including Oregon.  Oregon has its own severe budget problems, but they do not currently have the catastrophic potential of  those in California, and with U of O looking at an endowment  and other strategies to boost funding, along with tuition breaks at smaller schools like Southern and Western Oregon, I expect costs in Oregon to be significantly more stable and potentially cheaper than in-state California tuition by 2018, and if you go to a WUE school, it could be cheaper within a year or two. Add to that the fact that U of O is seeking more out-of-state students, and you also have a comparative advantage in being admitted in the first place.

Before moving on, I want to reinforce that Oregon and Washington have serious budget problems and face continuing increases in tuition, which is why you should be looking internationally as well, but relative to California, Oregon and Washington schools are becoming more attractive.  See this report for a breakdown of what is happening in the sunny west.

So that’s the takeaway:  if you live in California, apply to universities in at least two or three states, and you should also be looking at universities beyond U.S. borders.  In fact, nobody should be applying only to California or even solely to West Coast universities.  But don’t assume that leaving California means everything will be hunky-dory.    Do your homework in assessing the budgets for all universities in all states in which you plan to apply.  Most places are suffering.  It’s just far worse in California than anywhere else.

In the near future, I will be writing in more detail about the situation outside of California and outside of the United States, with analysis on specific schools in Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Canada and Great Britain as well as Ireland, but this content will only be available in full to my  subscribers and clients.

Good luck and Godspeed in researching colleges, and be sure to look up budget matters–or hire me to help you with that.

Finding The Right University: Some Resources

In college admissions, college application, common application, University of California Application on May 22, 2012 at 11:28 am

College Search and Evaluation Software and Websites

Most of the people I help with college applications can be categorized in two ways:  those who are fixated on a list of big-name universities which are the ONLY places they can possibly consider applying to, and those who are overwhelmed by the information available and so feel paralyzed and unable to choose.  I usually start with the college names they know in both cases and then move on to things they may not have considered, such as this question: Would you want to live there if the university was not located there–a good thing to ask about a place where you are likely to spend at least four years of your life.

In addition to asking questions beyond the status of the university, which in itself is no guarantee of a good experience, it helps to use some of the excellent sources of information that are available today.  I have elsewhere discussed some of the books that can help with the college search, but increasingly the best information is available online.

I encourage my clients to use the information sources below to help narrow the search–I offer suggestions and give them information that falls into the gaps, so to speak, but your average searcher for a good university could do much of the work a college counselor might be paid to do (which is one of the reasons I prefer the title “College Advisor” and put most of my time into intellectual and essay development).  By sending my clients to the sites below and helping put the information in perspective, I can almost always help my clients with a good, varied list of colleges to pursue.  I suggest starting with somewhere around twenty names, then reducing this list to ten or twelve colleges–I used to recommend ten, but in these times, a few more apps is a good idea. So the first step is to empower yourselves, folks.   Take charge of your search, starting with the following sources:

Software And Sites You Should Definitely Use (if you can)

The College Board

www.collegeboard.org

If I may compare the college application game to the rackets, the College Board is the Godfather.  They have a finger in every pie and control much of the important data.  Go to their site, pick a college name and search—this will take you to their Big Future college search engine, which has all kinds of useful data and information—for example, cost estimates are broken down not just by in and out of state but also by on and off campus.

The Common Application

https://www.commonapp.org/CommonApp/default.aspx

Continuing with my rackets analogy, if the College Board is the Godfather, these guys are the consigliere.  Much of the information on the Collegeboard site can be found here, but focused specifically on the hundreds of universities using the Common App.  Not quite as detailed as the collegeboard, but you are most likely going to set up an account here and you might as well check out what they offer.

College Navigator

http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/

If the College Board is the Godfather, this is the Oracle of Delphi.  This is a federal website and it is built right on the source of education statistics for the U.S.  The site is a function of the Institute of Education Sciences, which is essentially the data clearing house for education facts nationally, among other things.  Graphics windows that open up when you search are not flashy, but the layout is very easy to use and clear, and  you can see very detailed breakdowns of costs from tuition to room and board to an estimate of extra expenses, as well as test scores and pretty much any other statistic you might want, though some of the numbers may be a year behind.   Go now if you haven’t already.   They are the data set, really, that everybody else uses.

Naviance

www.naviance.com

If your school or district has not purchased this service, then you are only going to be frustrated in reading this; if so, convert your frustration to political action and advocate that the board or school purchase Naviance.  Naviance is an institutional software package and service, meaning that it can be purchased by school districts but not by individuals.  There are legitimate institutional reasons for this limitation.  If your district does use Naviance, it will perform most of the functions of a traditional college counselor by providing a highly accurate picture of your chances of gaining admission to a particular university—this feedback is specific to your profile and to your school’s profile.  This includes scattergram reports updated annually for your school.  See Cappex, below, for more on that.   Of course, Naviance can’t read your essays and evaluate them, nor is it very good at figuring out if you are going to get an athletic or music scholarship, to name a couple of very important admissions factors.  But  if your school does have Naviance, Congratulations!  Go see your counselor posthaste.  If you do not have access to Naviance, the two sources above and those I list below can help you approximate Naviance.  In any case, any prediction made by Naviance or any other service is a based on data, in other words is based on the past, and the past is becoming less and less reliable as a predictor of the future except for the general truth that every year it is becoming harder to gain admissions to most selective universities.

Apps and Sites That Are Worth A Look

Cappex

www.cappex.com

Cappex is trying to be a free version of Naviance, with a dose of attitude.  They even have  scattergrams  for the schools they discuss.  Scattergrams are xy graphical representations of results on student applications, with GPA and ACT/SAT score as the two factors represented.  This means that, like all of these predictive tools, we can’t factor in essays, talents, et al, and we don’t know exactly how large the sample is for the Cappex data either, but they do claim to show the results of all of their members who applied, and this number is definitely growing.  There are many other nice features here—their profiles of universities, which include the scattergram,  are reasonably informative and can quickly give you an idea of where you fall among applicants–the most selective unis are shifted way up toward the top right in the scattergrams . . .

College Ray

http://collegeray.com

A good statistical site with a lot of data, presented in a straightforward fashion.  It is searchable and has statistical info like that offered by the College Board, et al.  It’s not clear where they intend to go with this site—it was developed by Harvard undergraduates for the HackHarvard web app incubator–but it offers good info in an easy-to-use format.

Admissions Splash

www.admissionssplash.com

This is a Facebook app that works with around 1,500 schools, matching your profile with the schools and giving you a prediction of your chances to be admitted.  This is a numbers only site—GPA, SAT/ACT—so essays, talents and other factors are not weighed.  This is true of all the software or apps which predict admissions chances, though Naviance, above, has more specific information  and theoretically should be  a bit more accurate.  Still, Splash is worth a look as you search.  It will give you a score range from 1-100 and chances are calculated from “fair” to “great.’  They claim to have a 90-97% predictions.  Keep in mind that you are providing private information—while they have no plans at the moment for using your data, they have not “determined” the long-term use of the data.  In addition to the calculator for predicting admissions, they have a question and answer function and a blog on topics related to college and college admissions.  As with college confidential, almost none of the information offered by individuals can be validated and you are probably wasting your time reading a bunch of responses which purport to offer “insider’ info.

Unigo

www.unigo.com

This is a participant driven site—think of it as the Yelp of universities.  Or you might think of it as an attempt to create a college student Borg.  Good for some idea of aspects of your potential colleges that are not readily clear in statistics—social life, for example—but I always wonder what the basis for comparison is—how do you really know how to rate the social life at your school against that of another?  Without, say, attending both?  An epistemological mystery, but anecdotally this site is useful for things like reviews of dorm life to what the stereotypes of students at the school are, or is.  They also (claim to) rate schools against each other.

Can Give Interesting Information But Probably Not Worth The Time

College Confidential

I like most of the “official’ info, by which I mean the commentary the adults in charge offer, but the various chat threads and discussions of how to finesse an app to a particular school are pretty much sliced lunchmeat.  The discussion threads do have occasional tidbits of good information, but it’s like looking for a pearl in the tanks of a sewage plant.   Buy a rabbit’s foot instead of spending time reading the chat(ter).  The people who work at universities in or with insight into admissions have frequently lambasted the information offered here, with good reason.

College Application Success: The Seven Rules

In college admissions, college application, common application, Common Application Essays, Harvard Application Essay, Researching Colleges, Stanford Application, UC Santa Cruz Application, University of California Application, university rankings on March 29, 2012 at 11:46 am

College App Jungle’s  Rules of College Admissions:

1. There are no secrets to admissions though each university does have priorities which shape admissions. Beyond looking at the information colleges provide about how they evaluate applications, spending time trying to figure out if there is a “secret handshake” which will give you admittance is a waste of time.

This doesn’t mean that all things are equal and no strategy is necessary.  I strongly recommend that you carefully research universities and craft your application to match the schools which you want to attend–more about this below.  But those who spend hour after hour on the chat threads on College Confidential, hoping to find something guaranteeing them an acceptance letter from their favorite school,  should instead spend the time working on their essays.

Maybe you know a guy who knows a guy who knows that U.C. Berkeley is looking for engineering students who are the first in their families to go to college, but . . . so what?   Even if this is true (and it was recently) this kind of “fact” changes each year. Every university has dozens of priorities for admissions, priorities which are revised both before and during the admissions process each year; as students are admitted and categories fill, numbers  like the SAT average and ethnicity  for applications and admits also change.  Early on, the college may be looking for students who fit a particular profile, but once that fills or starts to fill, they can shift the priority to a different category .

Why?  The universities have one eye on you and another eye on things like their ranking in the U.S. News and World Report.  The take away is that you can’t spend time worrying about things which will change even as apps arrive at the college.

As an example of an admissions priority which is changing, San Jose State is currently embroiled in a controversy over giving preference to students coming from Santa Clara County, where the university is located.  For this year, they have backed off from eliminating this preference, but facing 60 million dollars in budget cuts right now, they are likely, within another year or so, to eliminate it.  Why? You could say that,  to be fair to all applicants in a statewide university system,  they can’t act like a local school, but more realistically  this move seems designed to allow more space for students who will pay more–foreign and out-of-state students, for example.  This will also increase their selectivity and so tend to improve their national ranking.

And this is only one of many preferences facing evaluation and possible revision this year for San Jose State alone, which like the rest of the Cal State schools  uses the supposedly simple objective admissions process; add to this the priorities assigned to various schools and majors within the university,  and you have some idea of how complex the calculus is for every school.  Do the same for a holistic admissions university and it’s even more complex.

See my last post for more information on how universities assess applications and what a holistic versus objective evaluation entails, and look below for my link to the U.C. Santa Cruz evaluation to see a detailed list of factors considered–keep in mind that these vary to some degree from school to school, even within the U.C. system.

2. Grades and test scores are the most important factors in evaluations of college applicants.

You can count on grades and scores to be the first but not only consideration as your application is evaluated.   If you are a top student in a good school, if you have excellent SAT/ACT scores, a broad set of activities and a clear area of specific excellence  and passion, you will be admitted to most schools you apply to.  If you do not fit this description, you may have fewer options, but fear not:  there is a college with a spot for every student in the country with decent grades and test scores.  You may have to go further afield, of course, but you are not forever doomed by a few C’s and B’s.  As for GPA, it’s your unweighted average that is directly compared and which is used in the averages the universities publish with their profiles of admitted students; your weighted average does matter as it establishes your class rank, and can be used as an additional factor in direct comparisons, but the unweighted GPA is the first thing assessed, along with SAT/ACT test scores.

3. Some things do trump grades and test scores, but these tend to be very specific and very obvious exceptions.

Your favorite university is, in fact, looking for you if  you show a clear ability or potential to excel at something of value to the institution– if you are a recognized musical talent with decent grades or a mathematical prodigy or a 6’4″ All-CIF high school linebacker running a 4.5 second 40 yard dash and bench pressing 350 lbs, for example.  But even with exceptional skills in some area, such as tackling other large, fast people, you must still show that you have the academic chops to survive as a student at the specific school, though some entities, like athletic departments, may supply assistance in the form of tutoring.

If you want this quantified further, a 2008 study showed that players on top 25 football and basketball teams had SAT scores 220 points below the average for the rest of the student body at these schools.  Obviously elite athletic programs get priority at many schools.

Unfair, you say?  Not from the institution’s point of view.  It has its own priorities, with money and reputation near or at the top of the list, and sports are important both to boosters and to most students.   So are many other talents.  If you doubt my claims, see my entry about admissions stats for early 2012 and scroll down to my discussion of Stanford for further details on the importance of athletics.  It seems that the football team is important even at an intellectual paragon like Stanford.

The next rule is for the vast majority who  do not fit the exceptional niches that most universities set aside and who do not have a perfect academic record.

4. It’s okay to be human.  A few B’s and a  C will not kill your chances of admission to any but the most competitive universities, especially if you show a desire to push your limits by taking challenging classes in which you are not always perfect.  As you create your application portfolio, your  essays and extracurriculars can  reveal important and valuable aspects of you that can offset relative weaknesses in your grades or test scores.  Good recommendations are also important.  For an example of a the kinds of additional factors, see the U.C. Santa Cruz website, where they list fourteen factors used in making evaluations–they are, for example, giving  California residents preference (at least as of this year’s applicants), something that other U.C.’s  are moving away from (as I pointed out above, they get more money from a nonresident. . . )

My advice:  Try to keep things in perspective as you prepare for college.  I have known a few Valedictorians who were really living miserable lives in order to “win” academic honors.  I think it’s better to be less than perfect and to enjoy your life rather than to live in torment over every grade point.  There are many schools you have not heard of where you could be perfectly happy and be well educated.  If you are a resident of a western state, see my post here for more information on finding a good university in the West and potentially saving a lot of money as an extra boon.

5. The college application process starts early.  In fact, it should begin no later than the Sophomore year in high school.  Even the Freshman year in high school is increasingly important, if not as part of your GPA, then as part of your overall academic trajectory (they want to see increasing difficulty and challenge in your class selection from year to year). I think this is unfair and unwise–many people struggle to adjust in the first year or two of high school, and there are myriad examples of successful people who did not excel early–but this is the way things are going as competition for admission to selective universities increases.

On the other hand . . . a student who stumbled early should not give up.  The holistic schools will look at other aspects of your application that may explain or offset some academic    shortcomings.

You should make a serious effort to establish relationships with counselors and cultivate relationships with teachers, for you will need recommendations.  Try to develop these relationships early and in a sincere way, which requires something from you as well as from them.  When dealing with teachers, show interest and be helpful when possible–and show an interest in the academic subject of the teacher,  not just in yourself and your opinions.

By your Junior year, you want your counselor to know your face, your name and your important interests.  If you are a Junior and haven’t talked to your counselor, there is no time like the present.

Be straightforward about your desire to work with your counselor as part of your application process.  Ask them for their advice–they are usually knowledgeable  if not expert, and people like to share what they know, so let your counselor talk.  If your counselor seems less than eager, on the other hand, it might have to do with budget cuts that have loaded them with 500–or more–students.  Be polite and persistent.

6. Essays are Important and can separate you from your competitors.  And in the essays, as in your activities, authenticity matters.  Your application self and your real self need to have a clear relationship.  If your verbal score on the SAT was 550 but your essays read like Zadie Smith wrote them,  your app will not do well, even if your SAT math score was perfect.  Most experienced admissions readers can predict your SAT verbal from reading your essays, and if you farmed your essays out to one of the ghost writers offering their services on the internet, you are most likely doomed,  not just for a lack of academic skill, but more importantly because you lack integrity.  Getting editing help and reader input on your essay is fine; faking it is not.

This can be a gray area when you seek editing–as an example, I do detailed, line-by-line editing and suggest better phrasing as well as offering more holistic evaluations of essays, but ultimately my client’s essays are theirs.  My job as an editor is to give them ways to reshape the clay that they provide, but the essays are and must be student material.  Any editing help provided must be both sensible and sensitive as well as honest.

For a holistic school, like all of the Common Application schools, authenticity means more than your test scores and class rank.  In general, the admissions readers genuinely try to construct a full picture of you from your materials, from grades through essays.  Many students try to create a false self in their essays, just as these same students may be dabbling in many activities just to get them on the “resume.” Find a way to say something authentic in your essays–this can take time and will involve reading for some of the recent prompts for supplemental essays.

7. Activities are important, especially those that show a long-term interest and commitment, but for authentic intellectual development, reading widely is the best approach.     Reading is one of the best ways to add authentically to your general knowledge and to deepen your understanding of the world, and many college applications recognize this in their essay prompts, which either ask for or allow books as topics.  This does not mean that you should start reading the most serious possible literature immediately.  In fact,  I link you here to an excellent essay by Michael Chabon, one of our best contemporary writers,  on his love for comic books, with a vigorous defense of their value. Yes, reading comic books is –oh, excuse me, I mean reading graphic novels– is intellectually respectable, or at least it can be.    So go ahead and start with the supposedly lightweight, but be sure to move onward and outward from there.  You might try going from comics to Chabon’s The Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, for example, or from Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels to his, well, novels, like American Gods.

In addition to being generally useful, a good reading program will pay off in the application essays.  Your life will most likely have a few important episodes that might work in an autobiographical essay, but the number of experiences available to you through books is relatively limitless.  With the Common App and most holistic universities using essay prompts which directly address books or for which books are a good topic, reading is a good place to put in some time.

I have previously discussed writing about books, and will be addressing this again in future posts, but you can’t do a good job writing about books if you do not start reading early.

If you are already a Junior, and don’t read  beyond what is assigned in school, it’s a bit late but not too late.  I will have some suggestions for reading programs over the summer for all types of students in a later post.

Those are my rules, or guidelines, if you will.  Look for more posts in the near future on writing about books and other application matters.

The Secret of College Admissions: How College Applications Are Evaluated

In applying to college, college admissions, college application, common application, Common Application Essays, university application information on March 2, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Who should read this post:  Anyone who will use the Common Application; anyone who wants to apply to an Ivy League school or to any other elite school;  anyone who wants to understand how college applications are evaluated; anyone who needs to write a college application essay; in fact, anyone applying to any college in the United States should read this post.

Objective Evaluations

This post will be focused on undergraduate evaluations.  For graduate evaluations, look at specific posts, such as my Brief on the Law School Application.

First things first:  there are two basic ways to evaluate college applications, holistically or objectively.  Without digressing into discussions of the relative fairness of standardized tests or the objectivity of grades, the objective method focuses on grades and test scores “only.”  This seems like a simple and fair way to evaluate, but it’s not actually as simple as it seems.

An example of a system that uses this method is the California State Universities, including  specific schools, such as the two Cal Poly campuses, Long Beach State, et al.  These schools do not require any supplemental material, such as essays, with the exception of some specific programs and specific categories of students, such as transfer students for  the Architecture major at Cal Poly, or Graphic Arts and Fine Arts majors at most schools–Cal State Long Beach is an example–for which portfolios and other supplemental materials are required. (CSLB is ranked #58 in the country for fine arts, and it’s “in” Los Angeles, which also puts you in one of our big art markets.  There are only a few Ivy League schools in the rankings above CSLB and a couple of U.C. schools, if that gives you some perspective.  I have more to say about having some perspective and widening your search below as well as in my last post, where I discussed evaluating schools based on majors and cost.  See the U.S. News rankings here for more details on the rankings in Art).

Special Admissions Categories in Objective Schools

Objective schools, like the holistic schools,  do set aside places for various categories each year, from athletics to out-of-state students, among other categories; individual departments may ask for spots to be set aside for particular kinds of students as well, and these numbers change from year to year.  This is not widely understood–many people assume that objective schools only look at tests and grades, but  even this so-called “objective” evaluation is more complicated than it seems, and not just because other factors than your grades and test scores may matter.

Even your grades are open to interpretation, based on factors like your class rank and the profile of your school, both of which can also factor into an “objective” assessment.  If you are a top ten-percent student  at a good high school and you score well on standardized measurements, that means something different than the same ranking at a low-scoring high school.  So a grade is not just a grade and a class rank is not just a class rank.  On the other hand, a computer can do almost all of this processing as the school tweaks the software to meet the needs that year, and they have profiles on most high schools based on applications and data on students who enrolled in the past.  Not a lot of direct human intervention is needed, aside from specific categories of students the school will seek that year, and even then, the initial analysis is mostly automated.

Holistic Evaluations and Common Application Schools

Evaluations at holistic schools are even more complex.  So-called “subjective” elements, such as essays, play an important role.

An easy way to quickly distinguish between objective and holistic schools and systems is this:  if they require essays for all applicants, they are holistic.  The most well-known holistic application is the Common Application, so I will simply quote it here to define the holistic approach:

Membership is limited to colleges and universities that evaluate students using a holistic selection process. A holistic process includes subjective as well as objective criteria, including at least one recommendation form, at least one untimed essay, and broader campus diversity considerations. The vast majority of colleges and universities in the US use only objective criteria – grades and test scores – and therefore are not eligible to join. If a college or university is not listed on this website, they are not members of the consortium. Sending the Common Application to non-members is prohibited.

So any Common App school is de facto a holistic school.  But does that mean that all the holistic schools are the same?

No.

For example, some holistic schools use committees which discuss many applicants, particularly in Early Decision.  Some use a small number of readers–two or three, most commonly–and a kind of referee.

Let’s look at the last kind first, which I will call the triumvirate model.  In this evaluation,  your file,  including various test and grade information, letters of recommendation and essays,  most often gets two readers who give it an evaluation; if both give it a clear thumbs-up, determined by some high baseline number that is a composite of the different parts of the file, then you are in. Assume for this example that the school uses a 1-9 scale and that the cutoff for definite admissions is a rating of 8 out of 9.  If one reader gives it clear approval–giving it a 9 out of 9 overall rating, for example–but the other reader gives it, say, a 7 out of 9, then the file would get a third reading from the “referee,” who could even be the dean in charge of Admissions, though in a large institution, might be an assistant of some kind.  They won’t generally just do an average of the two readers. An 8 and a 9 would be in, but the 7 in the example above would probably trigger a third reading by a final arbiter.

And less tangible factors play a role in each reading.  This is one of the reasons why I have spent so much time in earlier posts discussing the ancient idea of the rhetorical triangle and have focused on how to approach your audience in your essays.  Grabbing a reader with your essays will help if other parts of your information are a bit weak.

Grades and test scores are still the first consideration in the holistic evaluation, but they will evaluate other factors for all applicants, not just those fitting a category they want to emphasize in admissions.  Like the objective evaluations, the first thing that holistic schools will look at is the SAT/ACT and GPA/class rank numbers.  But essays, letters of recommendation, a transcript trajectory  showing that the student has taken five “solid” subjects every semester, taking on challenges and steadily increased the difficulty of classes, all of these things matter.  And the personal, “gut’ response of the reader matters.

It is here that the application essays, recommendations, the summary of an interview, if there was one, and other personal information can play a role.  In particular, strong essays that click with other elements of the admissions information you give can turn your reader into an advocate in a committee discussion and in the notes they append to your file.

Institutional Priorities and Special Categories

As I mentioned earlier, needs within the institution also establish priorities.  For example, a university may decide that certain factors should be weighted more heavily to bring in students who will add something to the institution.  Maybe the college has started a cycling team and wants to recruit good cyclists and has applicants who did well in the Junior racing series of U.S. Cycling.   An applicant like this may have SAT scores a hundred points below the average, as well as having a few B’s and maybe a C, and he or she may not have a wide selection of outside activities, but because he -or she–fits this category established as a priority, he will be approved right away.  More obvious are the big team sports, which seek athletes who can compete at whatever level the university fits, but the school might also want actors or singers or brilliant mathematicians who are otherwise relatively mediocre academically.  Up to 40% of spots at some holistic schools may be held for special categories.

Not fair, you say?  Too subjective? Maybe, but employers do this all the time, looking for basic skills but also for less tangible elements, like “leadership ability” and being a “team player.”   Most universities using holistic evaluations do have a category for “leadership” or for the contribution the applicant is likely to make to the campus community, and these traits can be measured in ways that may not seem obvious to a layman.  Interviews do matter in making these determinations, for those schools that use interviews.

Even more aggravating to the layperson may be the idea that a “legacy” student, one whose relatives, brothers, sister, cousins, parents or significant donor uncles get priority for admissions.  Not fair, again?  Maybe.  But in an era when tax dollars for education are much diminished and when many private school endowments are depleted, the institution has a right to please donors or simply to create a grateful alumni pool from which it can draw support.  Money not only talks, it can  determine who walks in the door.

All of the factors I outline above and many others may come into play in a holistic evaluation. Which are most important is  determined on an annual basis by the indivdual institutions, and as the class traits change during the process of admission, the weighting given to various factors can also change.  So what is the secret to admissions I promised?  Read on:  I’ll get to that (cue the suspenseful music).

Committee Evaluations

In addition to using a limited number of readers and a “referee,” as in the “triumvirate” system,  some holistic schools use committees in which a larger number of readers convene to discuss applicants–say nine people.  This is the committee system.  Typically a university cannot do this for every applicant–a committee is too slow and cumbersome for the thousands and thousands of apps that most universities receive today– so what you end up with is a hybrid system.  The “referee” or judge used in the reader model is replaced largely by the committee, who meet to discuss students who are in a gray area, not quite in but not out either.  In the early stages of the application process, as when the Early Decision applications have come in, the committee will discuss specific cases who applied for Early Decision and who have merits but also have shortcomings, and in doing so help establish parameters for the current year’s evaluations as applications continue to come in.  The Dean in charge of admissions would generally chair this committee, and in this case would serve as the final judge and arbiter in the event of a close call.   In  Early Decision, many of the students who are judged by the committee will have a chance to be considered again as the Regular Decision applications come in, or in the next round with a school that uses Rolling Admissions.

In addition to discussing individual students, this committee, at its early meetings and as the year progresses, will be looking at statistics, such as the average SAT and GPA of its applicants, and this discussion will occur with one eye on the ratings the institution itself is getting from, most importantly, the U.S. News and World Report’s annual report on and ranking of universities, but also other ratings and evaluations.  They do care about P.R.  They will want to be either holding their own or moving up in rankings such as these and that will influence their choices as the year moves forward and as their own stats evolve.

This is why your chances of enrollment can actually change during the application season, and this makes for a difficult calculus for all but the best and most unusual students.

Know this also:   many universities use outside or external readers to assess applications.  U. C. Berkeley, for example, has been doing this for some time. They simply can’t afford to keep enough full-time people on staff year-round to account for the massive workload of the applications season.   And this will be increasingly true due to the rising number of applications at selective schools and the increasing budget pressures they face.  The material in your applications must speak to multiple readers, many of whom will never meet or talk to each other about you and none of whom you are ever likely to meet.

So now for the secret to admission–you can’t know what they want.  Give up on secrets.  If you feel like I suckered you into reading the post, at least you know something of value.

Keep in mind, for holistic evaluations and supplementary materials, that everything you write must be designed with your audience in mind.  At the same time,  you can’t change yourself to pander to a reader.  This sounds like a paradox, but you are making choices about what to share and how to present yourself all the time, and you alter your “personality” in significant ways when you talk to your peers informally and when you talk to, say, a teacher–but you still show aspects of your authentic self.  So you already know something about appealing to your audience.

If you want some certainty about your chances of admission, you need to  be one of the top ten or fifteen students at a very good school, get good SAT scores and write very good essays.  See the various sources I mentioned in my previous post to look up what a competitive SAT is at various schools.    If your school is not so good, be in the top five or three students.

If you are like most people and do not fit into these categories,  the problem then has to do with strategy but also with your own desire.  You will suffer in direct relation to how strongly you want something you may not get.  I suggest that a strong dose of perspective will help you.  Yes, an elite school is a nice thing on a resume, but it doesn’t guarantee much of anything after your first job.  It may help you get your foot in the door at a place that might otherwise not have looked at you, and the various Old Boys and Old Girls networks of elite schools may help you as your career moves forward, but the successful people I know were not successful because they went to a particular school.

If skills are what you want, you can get a great education at hundreds of schools outside of the Ivy League, Stanford, U.S.C. and the University of California system (the most popular examples in my area).  You need to expand your college search if you are only looking at the elite schools.  If you have a 3.9 and think going to Amherst instead of Princeton amounts to a failure, you are probably going to inflict unnecessary pain on yourself.

Be sure to consider individual majors and programs as you research schools.  As an example, I would recommend looking at the schools listed above Cal State Long Beach  in the Fine Arts major I linked above.  Count the Ivies that are above C.S.U.L.B.  This is an instructive exercise which can be repeated in many majors and may help you relax.  I talk about this at length in multiple posts, including my last post, in which I discuss options for students in the Western U.S.  Don’t give up on your most desired schools,  by any means, but do add some schools that you know you have a good profile for.

As for increasing your chances, look at your “objective” measurements and, if  you want to improve your SAT scores, for example, you should first focus on classwork and practicing the actual test by getting the College Board’s SAT book, which as of the last edition, has ten practice tests.  Take them all in the year before your first (or next) SAT test.  Research shows that taking actual tests under test conditions  is the best way to improve test scores (Don’t give yourself all day to take the practice tests–use the official time requirements and do it all at once).  Test boot camps do have bang for the buck, but spending about thirty bucks on a book will also yield good results, for a factor of magnitude less money than a boot camp.

And that is good advice for everybody.

One final thing about the elephant in the room which I have so far ignored:  ethnicity, otherwise known as race.  It is a factor in establishing special categories and it is the most important at many schools, but it is only one category.  When I hear somebody complaining that “race” eliminated them, I have to point out that their athletic ability or inability to sing or to calculate probabilities in their heads also eliminated them. As did their grades and supplementals.   I will write about ethnicity soon, as much is likely to change soon, now that the Supreme Court has decided to hear a Texas case challenging the use of race in admissions.

Early College Admissions Data For 2012: What It Means For You

In college admissions, college application, college essay, university rankings on February 17, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Who should read this post:  parents and students considering applying to a university in California; parents and students who are beginning to investigate or just jumping into the college applications process; parents and students interested in application trends in California universities; those who want to explode the myth that a good football team is vital to a university; and anybody who wants evidence that Stanford students are bigger tailgaters than Cal students.

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.

It’s the best of times if you are running one of the elite universities; it’s the worst of times if you are applying to one of these schools.  But never fear, Reader, I will offer you some suggestions for dealing with the rapidly increasing demand for the insufficient supply of seats for qualified applicants.  Let’s begin by looking at some of the numbers that are out for this year.

The early signs are that admissions demand has dropped for the most competitive Ivy League schools, but this is not true for most of the selective schools as a category and is specifically not true for the more popular schools on the Left Coast–Stanford and Cal, for example, saw significant increases in demand  again.    We await word on early admits and anything else from USC as of this writing.  (Note to Tommy Trojan:  The kids are anxious.  Please hurry.)

In fact,  large increases in applications were the rule for California universities, so this post will focus on some numbers for  California schools; in a later post I will give you some analysis for the East Coast universities and we’ll also be looking north at some of the big state schools in Oregon and Washington which are often overlooked outside of the region.  Near the end of the post, when I discuss *Cal Poly, I will look more closely at what the numbers really mean–simply looking at raw numbers such as increases in total applications is a good place to start planning, but it doesn’t tell much of the story beyond what common sense already suggests:  more people than ever are competing for about the same number of seats at popular universities.  Other stats will help you analyze the true probabilities for your own admission.

Keep in mind when viewing the numbers that the universities are also strategizing as  they compete for spots on college rankings, spots that are determined in part by how selective they appear to be.  Many of them try to increase applications by recruiting students in order to turn down a large number, and by doing so appear to be a more selective (and therefore both more rigorous and more desirable) university.   And they all estimate how many students will actually enroll when they come up with an acceptance number–in many cases, a third or less of those accepted will actually enroll and attend classes, even at sought-after universities.

Here is a rundown of some of the numbers for some of California’s more competitive campuses (with a mostly unscientific  analysis on the influence of football teams on college applications, in case you needed another metric.). 

Stanford

Call it Good (Andrew) Luck for Stanford, but this year the Cardinal received a total of 36,744 freshman applications by the  January 1st 2012 deadline.  This is a 7 percent increase from last year and a new record, surpassing last year’s  34,348 applications for the Class of 2015. To put this trend into context, around 32,000 students applied for the Class of 2014 and approximately 30,000 for the Class of 2013.

The Director of Admissions at Stanford, Bob Patterson, had expected a drop this year due to Harvard and Princeton reinstating early admissions.  It was not to be, and Patterson blames–or gives credit, depending on your point of view–to  the Stanford football team going to the Fiesta Bowl and more specifically to Andrew Luck.  For those of you who trash talk college sports, what can I say?  Football is one of our great cultural artifacts.  Historians and archaeologists will one day excavate  the earthquake-broken ruins of the Stanford Stadium and Bear Stadium to research the folk rituals of early-20th Century Americans.  Certainly Patterson believes that this year’s stats suggest that the best and brightest of high school seniors were swayed by heroics on the turf, and he should know, right?

Cautionary note to Stanford admits:  in keeping with the theory that history repeats itself, expect Stanford to revert to football mediocrity  again soon.  See the post-John Elway era if you have any questions.

U.C. Berkeley

Speaking of Bear stadium, Cal saw an even  larger jump in applications, with 61,661 students applied for freshman admission, a record number and big increase from the 52,920 students who applied for 2011-12.  I’ll save you the calculation:  this is a one-year increase of 16.5%.  I’d be interested to see data on whether the Ivies lost a significant ratio of California natives to the U.C. system, given the dip they saw this year.

This is tough news for students wanting to apply to Cal, to be sure, but sports-haters, this one’s for you:  the Cal football team did improve from their losing season the year before, but only to 7-5 in the regular season, followed by a loss in the Holiday Bowl.  An improved record for the football team over last year but not enough to explain the huge jump in applications to Cal.  Clearly this is a triumph for the geeks over the tailgaters.

On the other hand, Cal’s jump was below the rise for the UC  overall, which saw a systemwide average increase of 19 percent with the most popular campus remaining U.C.L.A.  Speaking of which . . .

UCLA

A record high 91,512 students applied for fall 2012 admission to UCLA.  UCLA has had, in fact,  the highest number of applicants to any four-year university in the nation in recent years.

Let’s look a little more closely at the numbers for UCLA:  Overall, applications for fall 2012 admission jumped by 12.7 percent over last year, with an 18.1 percent increase in freshman applications for a total of 72,626.  there was a  4.3 percent decrease in transfer applications, down to 18,886. Freshman applications from California residents rose by 7.5 percent, from 48,578 in 2011 to 52,231 this year, despite the fact that the the state has not projected any increase in the number of students graduating from California’s public high schools. 
Let’s see,  UCLA football in 2011:  6 wins and 7 losses in the regular season.  No correlation with the rise in admits here.
State Universities
If you are depressed by the U.C. numbers, I strongly suggest that you consider applying to schools in the Cal State system.
San Diego State and Cal Poly have been the most selective State University campuses, but with admissions rates around 30%, these are excellent choices as alternatives to the U.C. system, with some of the programs at these schools considered among the best in the country–engineering and architecture at Cal Poly, for example, have national reputations.  Of course, these are also very difficult programs to get into, with far lower admissions rates than  Cal Poly’s less demanding and less in-demand majors. 
The Cal State System overall received 665,860 applications overall during the priority application period,  a 9 percent increase over the previous year’s record fall application cycle, when the CSU received 611,225 applications.  Compare this to the 19% increase for the U.C. system and throw in the fact that you don’t have to write another essay for these folks and you should choose to do some research on Cal State campuses and send in at least a couple of apps if you want to go to school in California.
San Diego State

San Diego State University received 69,225 undergraduate applications for the fall 2012 semester, the most applications ever received by the university.

That is a 15 percent increase over last year at this time,  when SDSU received 60,085 undergraduate applications for fall 2011. The previous record for SDSU was 62,330 undergraduate applications received for fall of 2008.

Among the 69,225 fall undergraduate applications are 50,705 freshmen and 18,181 upper-division transfer students. Freshmen applications are up 14 percent, while upper-division transfer applications are up 19 percent.  And no, the university is not expanding its capacity to absorb the additional applicants.  As a percentage, fewer will be accepted this year, as is true with most selective universities.

SDSU football had an 8 and 4 regular season record in 2011.  Not their best season but not their worst either.  The  verdict is:  no correlation with applications.  Must be a pretty intellectual school.


Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

*For those of you outside California, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo is a popular State University which  has highly reputed engineering and architecture schools, among others.  It is in some ways an even better choice than Cal if you wish to work in Silicon Valley or want to have an  engineering or architectural career in California.
 Cal Poly has issued an early, round number of 45,000 applicants for next fall.  This is up from 41,000 applicants last year.  To give you a comparison,  go back about 20 years and Cal Poly had 13,441 applicants.  Applications have trended upward every year since, and  CPSLO has had over 40,000 applicants annually for several  years running.
But What Do These Numbers Mean?  How Can I Create a Strategy?
The continuing increase in overall applicants to all of these schools is also grim news in terms of the raw numbers with whom you will compete next fall, but fear not, reader, there is hope, especially if you are diligent in your research about colleges and even more so if you have the foundation you need in grades and test scores.
I will be looking more closely at a number of schools in the coming months, but let’s use Cal Poly as our first example for this year, since it is a competitive State school and represents a kind of medium between a place like Harvard and the typical no-name, nonselective school.  Cal Poly also stands out because their administrators have been pretty frank in their public statements about enrollment and budget matters.
As an example, Cal Poly admissions director James Maraviglia estimated earlier this month that there will be 3,860 undergraduate slots actually filled, including transfers, for the fall of 2012.  He added to this that he assumes no further cuts to the budget by then, which is a decent bet since the real cuts will come early in 2013 if governor Brown’s tax increases don’t make it at the ballot box (and even if the tax increases fail next November, those applicants who are enrolled as of September would remain enrolled, though they might spend the better part of a decade getting through all the classes they need after the cuts eliminate any professors below the age of 45. Just kidding on that last stat [I hope]).
Understanding Admission Rates and Enrollment Rates
So what happened to that 30% acceptance rate I quoted earlier? Does this mean that a lowly California State University actually has the admit rate of an upper tier Ivy-League school, at 8.5%?   Nah.  Cal Poly’s admissions rate is around 30%–according to The Princeton Review, it was 33% two years ago–but of course only about a third of those people accepted actually enroll and show up. This is reflected in Maraviglia’s estimate that they will have slots for 3,860 students.  This is down from the number of slots open last year, but the admit rate will still be generous, and if you really want to go there and they admit you, they have to give you a spot, even if they blew it on their estimates and too many Freshmen show up.  If you’ve ever wondered about those news stories in which a university suddenly doesn’t have enough dorm rooms and is putting up Freshman students in fleabag motels, now you know–they had more students who actually enrolled after being accepted than they expected.  Woe to the Director of Admissions.
Compare Cal Poly to UCLA, which the Princeton Review’s most recent stats put at a 23% admit rate, with 37% of those 23% who actually enrolled.  Compare that again to Harvard, which in the Princeton Review’s stats has only a 7% admissions rate and fully 75% of those admitted actually enroll.  Yikes!    Presumably most of the others went off to places which are almost as selective, like Stanford which, in the same year, had a 7% admissions rate with 72% of those enrolling and Princeton, which had a 9% admissions rate with a comparatively lower 57% enrolling.  I guess Princeton is the “safety” backup choice for Harvard and Stanford admits?
The Take Away:
Students applying to California schools face increased competition for admission.  However, as you go about planning for your applications, keep in mind the fact that  no universities enroll every student that they “accept.” So start by distinguishing between the number “admitted”  or “accepted”and the number who actually enroll in order to get a more realistic idea of the school’s exclusivity.  This is something that you should take a close look at for all of the schools on your long list as it will help you create a shorter list.
I advise against applying to more than ten or twelve colleges at the most, and that you look beyond the big-name and nationally known universities; given the number of students admitted, schools like Cal Poly should be on your list, especially, in the case of Cal Poly, if you want to study in a technical area and if you like the idea of a small town in a semi-rural environment with easy access to superb beaches.  Which is another point:  would you really like to live for four (or more likely five or more) years in the places you think you want to go to school.  Be sure to consider geography and also look into specific schools and programs within the universities or better yet, start with programs and let that lead you to universities.
Who does have the best programs in your are of interest?  Where would you like to live, in what kind of setting with what kind of weather?  If you haven’t started listing schools yet, try starting with those questions.
And you definitely need to look at some stats; I would get a copy of the Princeton Review’s The Complete Book of Colleges or, if you want to save some money, go to http://www.collegeray.com, a fairly new but good stat site put up by a former student of mine, among others, and using much of the same data sources as the Review people.  Look at the stats and compare the accepted rate to the next number, which shows the percent who actually enrolled (yield).  You can start to draw your own conclusions about the strategies and goals of the universities you are looking at most closely.
Football Teams and Selectivity
As for the football team and the demand, we have to give the final victory here to Stanford.  In fact, given the correlation this year, it looks like Stanford students are much bigger football fans than students at pretty much anywhere else.  Is this the new Tailgate U?  Let me know what you think.

The College Application In 2012-2013: Services and Options

In college admissions, college application, personal statement on January 26, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Dear Readers:  

In 2012-13, the CollegeAppJungle will be moving into a new phase. In Free Access,  I will continue to offer an open-access menu of articles on topics of general interest to college applicants at the graduate and undergraduate levels on The College App Jungle.

In addition to this free, Level 1 content on The College App Jungle, I will be offering a personalized and complete suite of additional information and services to paid subscribers and to clients who retain WordGuild College Counseling or WordGuild Writing Services.

I offer intellectual development programs and college application portfolio development as well as support for essay and writing development focused on the college application process.  You can get full access to our written material using the Subscription Level and you can get  coaching, editing and personal development through Client Level Services at an hourly rate or by purchasing a development and support package which will give you a full set of college application essays and a portfolio of extracurricular activities.  See below for further details on these levels.

The Subscription Level will offer complete access to all articles and analysis, to include  instructions for writing all of the prompts of the Common Application for 2012-2013, as well as the Universal Application, various University of California and private school prompts, including but not limited to Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth and most other “elite” universities.  For examples of the kinds of content which will be available in Level 2, see my entries on the Harvard PromptHow To Write About Books II and Final Words On Writing About Books, as well as my entries listed below for the Common Application.

Full access to these and all other posts is included in subscriptions payed now and includes weekly posts on these topics through January of 2013.  The price for a subscription through January 2013 is 15$.  Send an e-mail to wordguild@gmail.com and include the text “subscription, please” and I will send you an invoice.  After payment through a secure site, you will be given full access for this year’s college app info and analysis.

Client Level Services range from editing on specific essays to  a full college application service offering a suite of services to include:

  • Free access to all areas of the CollegeAppJungle and a complete essay and personal application portfolio development program with:
  • An assessment and planning phase in which I meet with and assist students in creating an Intellectual Development/Experience program and an Activity Program–note that this must be done at the latest early in the summer before the Senior Year. This planning phase may be initiated through a personal meeting in the Local Program for those living in or willing to come to my immediate geographical area,  or we can “meet” more economically via e-mail, phone and, as necessary, via Skype for those who live outside my area or who wish to choose the more economical Distance Program. I prepare the student for the intellectual experience/book questions which appear on most supplemental applications and I also assist in developing an activity tied to a student’s current interests which enhances specific areas of the application.  Both programs also provide content for application essays.  This opening meeting and planning should be completed by mid-July of 2012.
  • Guidance and Calendaring on the ID/E and Activity Programs through the summer and into the fall of the Senior year.
  • Preliminary Essay Drafting for specific university prompts from August into December of the Senior year.
  • Detailed Editing and follow up to complete up to 4 application essays.  Additional essays may be added on a per-piece rate.  This phase runs from August through January of the Senior year.

You can start preparing as early as the Sophomore year and I will work with you on an hourly rate or you can purchase a package of all services listed above.  Contact me for more detailed information and prices for the Client Level program at:

wordguild@gmail.com


Philosophers Debate College Admissions

In college admission, college admissions, college application, common application, university application information on September 9, 2011 at 9:06 pm

To be technically correct, two philosophers engaged in an interesting and informative dialogue about the admissions rat race with a professor of education. I am speaking of a recent episode of Philosophy Talk, featuring Stanford Professor Emeritus John Perry and Stanford Philosophy professor Ken Taylor. This is a brilliant radio program and is always worth a listen, but for those who are currently running the admissions steeplechase, this episode is a must.

The Ed Prof in question, Mitchell Stephens, is the author of Creating a Class, a study of the university applications process. The message Stephens conveys is that the competition is ferocious for a particular subset of elite schools, and he believes that this is for a very good reason: successful, middle class parents have absorbed the lesson that it is not only harder to attain a middle class life today, it is also harder to sustain a middle class life through adulthood. He argues further that being in the right university–at the right lunch table, as he memorably phrases it–can make a difference, because of the associations that come with the elite names, like Yale or Stanford–or the associations that don’t come with the names of little-known schools. University names create assumptions about their graduates. Coming from a more elite school as an undergraduate will help you in the next step, whether that be employment or in applying to grad school.

I have to admit that he is right, to a large extent, but this is the result of a sort of feedback loop between such universities and those who want to attend them.

I also believe that one of the philosophers in particular, John Perry, makes a convincing case that we still do have a great university system in California, as well as a great community college system (and that most of the other states have good to excellent systems). Perry points out that it is still possible for students to move from a community college to a (relatively) prestigious university before going on to an excellent graduate program or job. He argues further that a student can find, say, a German instructor at a community college who will give instruction just as good as a German professor at Stanford. And students can improve the “brand value” (my term here) at each step of the process–from community college to a good university to a top-ranked grad school. I guess Perry should know, since he’s been there and followed a path like that himself.

The take away of Perry’s argument is this: those students–and parents–who think that they will live or die by their Stanford or Yale or University of Chicago application need to get a paper bag and start breathing into it (do people still deal with hyperventilation in that way, or have plastic bags become ubiquitous?) In the event that plan A fails, they also need to have a well-though-out plan B, and C and even D, and I think that at least plan C should include a good, out-of-state university, preferably one with relatively low tuition.

If you already know what you what your first choice is, it makes sense to spend time looking at other options instead of finding out everything possible about your first choice. You will hopefully arrive there anyway and will be able to see if all for yourself. There are some exceptions to this when choosing a major, of course. Oversubscribed majors turn away many more students in relationship to less popular majors at the same schools. But there are certainly places where you could be happy and well educated that you do not even know exist. And you won’t know they exist if you don’t look. Also keep in mind the cost factor. Other costs tend to mirror tuition costs, and it will almost certainly require more money to live and eat near Harvard than it will around the University of Oregon.

In previous posts I have discussed some of the other options to consider, particularly for students from California, where I am based. In addition, I have written about the college admissions game, in which many institutions actively recruit qualified students in order to be able to turn down a larger percentage of applicants and therefore become a more “selective” and more prestigious university. Those are the rules of the game, but you have a wide latitude to decide if you are going to play with the “elite” or find an excellent alternate choice–or both.

Welcome to the Jungle

In college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement, university application information on August 30, 2011 at 10:29 pm

College Advising and Essay Development, from Singapore to San Francisco.

The College App Jungle is my blog devoted to the  world of college applications.  The pursuit of college admissions can seem increasingly Darwinian, but my hope is that this blog will provide you with the context and means to have a fulfilling and successful transition into college.  In that spirit, you can scroll through my archives to find over 100 posts covering all aspects of the college search–a clickable table of contents for a selection of popular topics can be found below.

I work with clients from as close as the high school down the road from me and as far away as international schools in Singapore and Europe.  Last year, my clients were admitted to all top Ivies, Stanford, the University of California, U Texas, Johns Hopkins, NYU and many more, with all of my college advising clients receiving multiple admissions.    Read on for detailed information on college applications, data, and how to write your essays.

This site is an old-school informational service, short on gauzy pictures and long on detailed and dense analysis and information.  In addition to maintaining this blog as a public service, I offer a full slate of  college advising and application services, ranging from self-assessment and college selection to the best essay development and editing service in the field.

Upcoming Events and News

College Application Essay and College Advising

Contact me for personal essay coaching and college advising appointments in June and July.  I work one-one-one, in person and via Skype, to help you begin your college essays, and if you need college advising and target school help, the sooner you get started, the better.  The Common Application Prompts have already been released, and early applications are in full swing by early November.   You don’t want to be working out where to apply and what essays are required as you also juggle  new projects, classwork and school essays as the new school year begins.  Enjoy your senior year more by starting the application process early. To inquire about my college application and editing services,  you can reach me directly via e-mail here:  Contact Me.

(One Warning--while the 2017-2018 Common App prompts were released this spring, so that you can choose and write your single Common App essay as of now, please do not set up your Common App account yet–all existing accounts will be deleted in late July, 2017,  when the portal goes offline before reopening for the  2017-2018 application year.  This has happened in previous years in the last half of July, with the portal reopening  between July 31 and August 1st, as a rule.  In addition, individual colleges will be making any official changes to their essays and other requirements at that time, so check with me on this site and with university websites for additional changes for this year–and don’t be alarmed if your college of choice does not have its essay prompts ready when the Common App does go live.  Some of the most elite schools have been late to the game in recent years.  Harvard, for example, posted their essay prompts in mid-August last year.)

You can also visit my business portal at: UniversityGatesAdvising to quickly review some basic information on the college application scene (like the sometimes odd terminology used in admissions) and to see client testimonials.

College App Jungle Contents and Links

The Secret of College Admissions:  How College Applications Are Evaluated

Common Application and Common Application Essays

Common Application Update 

College Application Trends, Statistics and Advice

Ivy League Admissions Data for 2016-2017–See the most recent data available on admissions

Advice on the College Application Rat Race

Researching And Selecting Colleges:  Go West, Young Person–an old post, but still so true, for those looking to get great bang for their tuition buck.

College Application Success:  The Seven Rules–timeless advice on how the system works

The Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompts (These have  been unchanged since 2011)

More on the Stanford Supplement Prompts

University of Chicago

I have a soft spot for The University of Chicago Essay Prompts, because they are often so brazenly weird and even when they seem a little too-cute pretentious, they are interesting.  Because  U Chi allows applicants to choose and write an essay addressing any of their old prompts, I keep all of my old posts on them up–for example, have a look at:   Prompts for 2015-2016. Or just click below for old prompts that you may still write about.

The Mantis Shrimp Prompt:  How to Write About It

The Chicago History Prompt:  There’s More To It Than Meets The Eye

Those Chuckleheads:  The Chicago Joke Prompt–How to Write About It

Writing About Books- Part 2 (2011)

How to Persuade: The Rhetorical Situation

The above is not a comprehensive list of posts but gives you a representative sample.  You may browse further using the Archive link.  

In the twenty years that I have been helping students navigate the application and essay process, the essay itself has become much more important. The reasons are clear. Over the last decade, we have seen increasing numbers of qualified high school students face decreasing numbers of seats available in our universities.

The facts are stark–educators across the country have faced funding cuts that predate the Great Recession, and the ivied walls of academia are no longer impregnable to assault.  Pair that with the awareness that an education at a good college is increasingly a bottom line item for a decent job and quality of life, and you have a supply and demand problem:  If you present a 4.0 GPA to most competitive universities, you are essentially in the middle of the pack.  The result:  your application essays can be vital to your chance of being admitted.  But I have to add something here: it is as bad as it looks if you apply to the same 12-15 colleges that everybody else applies to, but once you widen your list a bit, it looks much better.  See below for links related to statistics and to finding more options than the Ivies, Stanford, Cal and whatever two or three regional favorites dominate the application lists in your area.

The information available on this blog is for the free use of college applicants and essay writers.  Use it to help you get started before you send your work to me.  Topics range from general discussions about the craft of writing to specific discussion of college essay topics and the changing world of college applications. I also review trends in admissions and changes occurring in the world of academia.

The contents of this blog are intended for the use of college applicants and their parents to assist them in the college application process and in developing quality application essays. Please refrain from using this blog for your own commercial purposes. If you wish to duplicate any of this information, please contact me to explain and request the right to do so.  Full access to sample content is available via a subscription.  Contact wordguild@gmail.com to subscribe.

College Application Essay No-No’s

In college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on August 29, 2011 at 6:03 pm

This post is a Golden Oldy, but based on some essays I have looked at recently, I am putting it back up front.

Long ago, in a decade far away–specifically in 1986–the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd interviewed an Ivy League admissions officer named Harry Bauld. Bauld had worked at both Brown and Columbia universities before turning to teaching and writing. In this interview, and in the book which he wrote about the college essay, Bauld’s advice is still apt and shows just how little has changed since the 1980’s.

Bauld observes that the essay is most important for those in “the gray area.” He defines a student in this category as “not one whose academic numbers make you too easy to dismiss or too overwhelming to deny.” I would like to intervene here to point out that, given what the bell-shaped curve demonstrates,  he is talking to the majority of well-prepared high school seniors, most of whom are not immediately disqualified by low GPA and test scores but who are not running valedictory laps, either.

So if you are not one of the top half dozen students in a good high school, Bauld is talking to you. And what he says is: exercise care. In fact, Bauld argues that the college admissions essay can be the “ultimate noose with which a 17-year-old can hang himself.”

Let me qualify Mr. Bauld’s dire metaphor by pointing out that the college essay is not likely to be a deathlike–or even a near death–experience. It will, however, be the first piece of writing that actually affects the lives of most students. So attention must be paid, and we should begin with what should not be done.

Harry has some essay types which he thinks will be duds at best or laughable failures at worst. First among Bauld’s targets is the kind of autobiographical essay which is basically a list of achievements meant to show how unique and appealing the writer is. I will add my view that the immediate problem with an autobiographical essay of this kind has to do with the competition. All high school students share certain experiences, and if they are candidates for college, they also share particular traits and have, for the most part, pursued similar activities designed to plump out the resume which they need these days to be competitive applicants. In other words, you are unique, just like all the other kids writing the same essay, but the result of the typical application process is that you engage in very similar activities and have very similar grades to your competitors. The process itself pushes most students toward the center, and, as Bauld notes, if you are part of the drab middle, you won’t stand out to the poor essay reader who is flipping through essay after essay after essay . . . .

This  is the challenge: how to stand out without offending.

Bauld goes on to list five more types of essays which should be avoided at all costs.

The first he calls the “My Favorite Things” essay. In this type of essay, the writer presents a series of things she is passionate about–or in favor of–and often juxtaposes this with a list of things she does not favor. The structure says it all: it’s much like the top or bottom ten lists offered by certain comedians and media personalities. This has become a pretty tired trope and tends to provoke vague generalizations and inarguable claims (e. g, I am opposed to nuclear proliferation, pollution is bad for the planet, etc).

Bauld next identifies an essay he calls “The trip essay.” You go on a trip, tell the reader about it, and manufacture some important “life lesson” to attach to your sojourn in order to show how broadly experienced and thoughtful you are. Unfortunately, “manufacture” and “Life Lesson” say it all. Any time you impose a moral on an autobiographical tale, you are in dangerous territory. At the least, you are probably taking yourself too seriously, and you are also more than likely imposing some interpretation on your story after the fact and might even be making some things up to make it convincing. Either tactic is inauthentic, at best.

The third type is “the three D essay.” Bauld describes this as the kind of essay in which the applicant argues for his own Determination, Drive and Discipline. Bauld finds this kind of essay dull. I agree, not because determination, drive and discipline are bad things, nor because your reader can say that you don’t possess these qualities (unless your GPA and other information give you the lie, in which case it wouldn’t matter anyway). The problem is that this is a kind of bland, formulaic writing which offers no complexity and which requires no insight into the self. A comic-book hero from the 1950’s might write an essay like this.   Hi, my name is Clark Kent, aka Superman, and I am a clean-cut and disciplined fellow who always does the right thing . . .

The fourth type of essay Bauld calls “The Miss America Essay.” He refers here to the moment in the Miss America contest when the would-be’s step up to a mic and offer their insights into world affairs and the important challenges facing the world. While still looking great in a swim suit. Need I say more?

Finally, Bauld offers what he calls the “Jock Essay.” In this, a high school athlete offers an account of lessons learned from sports, or how sports taught him to have the discipline, et al, necessary for success. This sounds suspiciously like the third kind of essay, in my opinion, but Bauld, as a longtime reader of college app essays, may feel that this needs to be a separate category because so many people create this kind of essay.

Bauld goes on at great length and offers good examples in his book, which is still one of the best on offer. Have a look at your local bookseller, or if you must, on Amazon. Buy it if you wish, but my suggestion is to start writing immediately. I will add to this that I don’t think that you necessarily have to avoid writing about a trip which was an authentically powerful experience for you, nor should you eschew the topic of athletics if you are an athlete, and if you are passionate about some world problem or political topic, by all means, write about it.

Just be sure to write from an authentic place and don’t create some sort of stereotypical narrative with a predictable outcome. Life isn’t terribly predictable, even if your life so far seems to be.

In an upcoming post, I will address Bauld’s categories at more length and show you how you might approach one or more of these essay types which Bauld so heartily condemns. As he says himself, the most important thing is that you “come alive on the page.”

Writing The Essay On An Influence: The Demons Are In The Details

In college admission, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on August 26, 2011 at 8:54 pm

My last post introduced the essay on a personal influence, which was the focus of Prompt Three and Prompt Four of the Common Application in recent years, and I suggested some exercises to get you started. This post assumes that you have some material ready to work with. If you don’t, have a look at my last post. If you do, carry on!

In the post that follows, I will examine an essay about an influential father and his flower stand, which is one of a dozen essays I have seen already this year that use a parent as an influential figure. The fact that many people use this subject does not make this a bad topic choice–in fact, this shows what a great topic this is, if it is handled well.

The two most common truisms of writing are these: Write what you know and Show, don’t tell. This post will focus on the second of these as I examine the use of detail in narrative essays. Let’s start with the example of a father as an influence, which was the topic of a Prompt Three essay which I recently edited. The author agreed to let me use his essay, though I limit the amount of detail I provide to curtail copycat efforts.

The author of this essay told the reader his father had a floral business at which he worked very long hours, that a national chain had opened up a similar business several blocks away, and that his father had responded by working even harder and so had succeeded. The honesty, hard work and skill of the father had trumped the brand recognition and franchised power of the other store. As a result of watching this unfold, the author of the essay, who was struggling to balance football and a heavy school load (demanding sports and academic schedules are de rigueur these days), had learned to be more organized and to get things done in a timely manner. Problem solved

But a big problem for this essay remains:

This post continues with a  discussion of this specific essay and an explanation of how to improve this kind of essay in general, including what kind of detail to include and where to include it.

To get full access to this and all other posts by WordGuild related to college essays and application writing, put “subscription please” into an e-mail, along with your first and last name, and we will send you an invoice from Google Checkout/Wallet.  

The fifteen-dollar subscription fee  gives you access to  all existing and future posts through January of 2013.  This includes 2-4 new posts per month and will include detailed analysis on all new prompts for the Common Application in 2012-2013 as well as numerous Ivy League and other application prompts, including Stanford and other “elite” schools  for the 2012-13 application period.   I do write posts addressing specific prompts when multiple clients/subscribers express interest; feel free to contact me with your requests after subscribing.