Prep Talk Blog > December 2010

Defining the Perfect Gift, Like the Perfect College Applicant, Can Be ElusiveGifts are tricky.  You want to get the people in your life something that truly expresses your feelings for them and that they will love and cherish all their lives.

Good luck.

Whether it’s Ralphie in A Christmas Story pining for a Red Ryder BB gun and then nearly shooting his eye out, or that incredibly awful clay thing (Mug?  Ashtray?  Modern art?) you made for your mom in first grade, gifts rarely get the results we expect.  You’d think we could fix this by just asking, “What the heck do you want?”  Somehow, however, that rarely works.  Instead, friends and family alike provide any number of inconsistent responses like “I really don’t need anything,” “anything you make me will be fine,” and, “actually, probably just this particular item that’s impossible to find and incredibly expensive, but I certainly don’t want to inconvenience you in any way.”

Of course, what they really mean is, “I am going to judge you by the gift you give me, so it better be an incredible expression of your affection and deep understanding of my personality, or I will conduct a campaign of passive aggressive retribution that will run well past New Year’s Day and, if you are LUCKY, will have concluded before the groundhog sees his shadow.” That’s a lot of pressure.

What College Admissions and Gift-Giving Have in Common

Unfortunately, answers about the college admissions process can be similar.  My favorite is when prospective students ask what college admissions committees look for in extra-curricular involvement.  This seems to result in one of two possible responses.  The popular response early in my career focused on being “well-rounded.”  This indicated that students would best position themselves for admission by showing talents and activities outside of their primary areas of interest, and the more the better.

That answer seems to have been supplanted in popularity by the advice that it is crucial that an applicant demonstrate “passion.”  While this would seem a wholly inappropriate response (and one, I must admit, that can cause those who join me in having the humor of parenting a tween to giggle incessantly).  The meaning, however, is generally promptly explained, usually in laborious detail, as encouraging students to show depth of involvement in some area, on the assumption that college admissions committees will give the larger emphasis to students who have done a lot in a concentrated area of interest.

So you should be involved in a lot of different things, preferably outside your primary area of interest.  AND you should focus your involvement to your primary area of interest.

These are the kinds of responses that makes college applicants want to put out our eyes -- Red Ryder BB gun optional.

In the spirit of the holidays, I offer you this gift: It is nutty to pick your extra-curricular activities by what you THINK will influence the college admissions process.  One admissions officer or committee may like diverse involvement, while others prefer depth.  Or they may change their minds from day to day.  You just can’t possibly know, so why bother?  Your BEST bet is to do things that interest YOU, not that might (or might not) be of interest to a college admissions officer.

Speaking of extra-curricular involvement, a holiday season Shameless Plug: Check out this Mason graduate student performing as a Radio City Rockette!

I hope this advice is helpful, but no need to thank me, or get me a present.  Really.  I mean, if you happen to find an extra first edition of Action Comics #1 with the first appearance of Superman (market valued at just under $500,000) and you felt that it was a gift you just HAD to give me, I suppose I could accept it, just to make sure YOU feel good.  Yes, I’m all about giving.

Be seeing you.

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Provided by College Parents of America

'Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the house
College applications were stirring, waiting the click of a mouse;

The essays were done, saved as word docs with care,
In hopes that high SAT scores soon would be there;

The 12th-graders were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of acceptance letters danced in their heads;

And Mom with shrinking checkbook and Dad with plunging market cap,
Found it difficult to relax for a long winter's nap;

When from the guidance office there arose a big clatter,
All students in town wanted to see what was the matter;

Away to the windows they flew like a flash,
Turning off their I-pods, and their backpacks were stashed.

The sun shining on the new-fallen snow
Blinded the view of the seniors below,

When, what to their wondering eyes should appear
First trimester report cards, they were finally here!

Grades for English and math and science and music,
Hadn't school just started, these grades were awfully quick?

More rapid than cheetahs, these grades as they came,
The students whistled and shouted, and called them by name:

"Now A-plus, and B-plus and C-plus and F!"
On pass/fail, incomplete, the shouting nearly made one deaf.

To the top of the wait list, to the bottom of the ladder
The students assumed that grades would be all that mattered.

But recommendations and public service and sports and ballet
Will also be factored by schools on D-day.

Now back to their houses, these students they came,
Looking for scapegoats to complain of and blame.

Then, in a twinkling, the news of the grades went away,
Some old friends had come over and they wanted to stay.

These friends were a year wiser, back from college on vacation,
Ready to tell of their exploits, with no procrastination.

They were dressed in school colors, from their head to the foot,
The school spirit they acquired, had certainly taken root.

With a bundle of preconceptions, they had left in the fall,
And now they were back home, with an urge to tell all.

Their message to their friends, who were still in high school,
Was quite simply to know that when it comes to colleges, there are no rules!

Another thing they wanted to share, but parents not to hear
Was that holiday cheer actually goes on all year.

And finally they wanted their younger friends to know,
That whatever and wherever the college they decided to go;

It would work out just fine, if they put in effort and care,
This at too many schools is exceedingly rare.

Now one thing that girls noted as they spoke in the noise,
Was that far too many colleges had far too few boys.

It seems that the reasons for this imbalance are vexing,
And schools -- and boys' parents -- find solutions perplexing.

Now during this time of the holiday break,
I'd like to remind you of the promises we make.

We fight for you in Washington, we help you on Main St.,
We want America's colleges to give your child a seat.

We want them to serve you in words and in deed,
And to award you based on your financial need.

We appreciate your support, in fact on it we depend,
So please talk about us, to all of your friends.

Tell them to join us in our continuing crusade,
To empower you to support your children and the plans they have made.

We welcome your feedback, your e-mails and calls,
Happy Holidays to each of our members, to each one and all.

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Reflecting on College Admissions This Holiday SeasonThe family and I headed to Florida this year to spend Thanksgiving with my wonderful 97-year-old Nana Flagel. I have come to the realization that she and her friends in her posh, independent-living community are the geriatric version of Mean Girls. They delighted in telling me all the women they would not let in The Group, while providing truly outstanding holiday nuggets, such as, "Thank God I'm still thin. If I get fat, I'll stab myself with a fork and kill myself."

Nana is pretty much my favorite person to visit. She can both be grateful for everything in her life, yet still want so much more for all of her family. "Are you the school president yet? No? I won't be around forever, you know." She is the queen of motivation.

While I marvel at her still razor sharp mind, I also find myself pondering things I'm thankful for (and maybe you should be to).

Thankful for Choice in College Admissions and More

I'm thankful that there are a lot of choices in college admissions -- and that we have an education system that, for all its flaws and criticisms, is the envy of the world.

I'm thankful that -- and I really believe this -- your success depends a lot more on how hard you work and how talented you are than where you get admitted to college.

I'm thankful that students, parents, and educators are starting to refocus on high school as a time of learning and development, not just as four years of preparing for the college admissions process.

I'm thankful to the team at MyCollegeOptions® and the National Research Center for College & University Admissions™ for letting me blather on in this delightful website, and providing it free to everyone.

I'm thankful to work with amazing people: the dedicated staff of the admissions office at George Mason University, and our students and faculty who constantly amaze me with the ways they are changing the world. I could not be prouder to be a part of a place that makes incredible contributions every day.

Holiday Wishes for Your College Application Process

My best wishes for you this holiday season are that all of you find colleges and careers that will help you contribute, to reach your potential and to enjoy what you do every bit as much as I do. While I adore the chance to take a snarky look at everything in the college application process, I hope you don't miss out on my most heartfelt message: There are plenty of great colleges and universities. You will find many that will both admit you and give you every chance to achieve your goals. Don't let the college admissions process, a truly awful system, have the power to decide your success.

As I've said before, I hope you all (and/or your sons and daughters) get in everywhere you apply, and that you get every scholarship that you want. Of course, I hope most of you pick Mason.

On behalf of all of us at MyCollegeOptions -- and Nana Flagel (who says you look great, but you should still probably keep in mind that holiday pounds still count) -- happy holidays.

Be seeing you.

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Letters of Recommendation for CollegeAs we slam into the joys of the holiday season, I realize it’s perfectly natural to fall into the trap of excess: more presents, more decorations, more Taylor Swift renditions of mediocre holiday songs. It comes as no surprise then that some of you seem under the impression that if you can’t secure a good letter of recommendation for your college application, at least you can compensate by sending A LOT of them.

Oy.

The best letter of recommendation for your college application would be from a recent teacher in an academic subject in a class where you had to work really hard but still got a really good grade. Oh, AND that person needs to really like you -- that would be the most important part. Of course, there are exceptions: You might get a recommendation from a teacher that had a tough class where you got a really good grade during your freshman year. That’s fine as long as that teacher still LIKES you.

However, in students’ quests to assure at least one good letter of recommendation, I often receive many (and by that I mean MANY, sometimes for one applicant) recommendations that often sound like the recommender barely knows the applicant at all. They all sound exactly the same. It’s as if the applicant gave them all the same pre-written letter and just had them sign their names. But that couldn’t be right, could it? Nah.

Not only are those extra recommendations not helpful, but they can actually be a detriment by distracting the college admissions committee from useful information. Whatever number of recommendations a school requires, if you feel a need to send extras, one or two extra is PLENTY. After you find your perfect teacher and they tell us what a great student you will be, the rest of your recommendations should be from people who can tell the college admissions committee other things about you. It might be a coach who can tell us how dedicated you are, a boss who knows how hard you work, or a student group adviser that discusses your leadership skills.

The point is, your recommendations should say good things about you. I advise you to be bold. Ask these people, “Will you write me a GOOD recommendation?” You should be prepared that some of them will respond, “Well, I can write you a TRUTHFUL recommendation.” That’s usually code meaning you did something in the past to really tick off that person. This situation leads to recommendations with lines like, “Jenny’s not a bad student, but she toilet papered my house freshman year.”

Not helpful -- at least to you. I find those hilarious.

So, to recap: Recommendations -- think quality, not quantity. And if you toilet paper houses, try to avoid those teachers as you’re likely on their naughty lists. In the meantime, I’m off to the store as the three giant inflatable holiday penguins populating our yard cry out to me for more company.

Be seeing you.

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Sincerely,

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