Prep Talk Blog > July 2010

The Right Choices for You Will Be the Right Choices for College AdmissionsAt the end of last month, I was at the Washington Journalism and Media Conference, attempting to blog on my new iPad, which seemed a bit like trying to ride a novelty scooter in a mountain bike race, but it looked much cooler. On Wednesday night at the conference, I delivered my speech on college admissions. And even after giving the speech for 20 years, I'm still amazed at the insane factors high school students consider in the admissions process.  A couple of examples of what high school students ask me:

How will college consider the quality or ranking of my high school?  

My answer: Why would anyone care what your high school ranks? Apart from the reality that it probably makes next to no difference at all, are you really going to consider changing schools? If not, how does knowing help you at all? It doesn't -- it only adds unnecessary stress.

What classes should I take to increase my chances of admission?  

My answer: This question always makes me really sad. Unless you are doing something entirely nutty, like substituting study hall for AP physics, and assuming your course load is reasonably competitive, you have no way to know how your course choices will impact your chances for admission to a specific college. What you DO know is that some courses interest you more than others and that challenging yourself is important. Isn't that enough to guide your choices?

I know this sounds naïve, but students and families give admissions officers WAY too much power over their life decisions.  There are more than 5,000 colleges and universities, and there are probably dozens that would be wonderful for you. Out of those, many will admit you simply FOR DOING THE THINGS THAT ARE BEST FOR YOU.  Read: That's what's best for YOU, not for college admissions.

Be seeing you.

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Don’t Become Overwhelmed and Overscheduled Because of College AdmissionsImageI have a house less than a mile from Mason’s campus. This has obvious benefits, among which are my 5-minute commute and residing in the Washington, D.C. suburbs. This is particularly interesting as a parent -- the unofficial motto of the region was taken from “A Prairie Home Companion”: “All of our children are above average.”

This was made most clear to me when we stuck my kid in storage (also known as day care) at the advanced age of 4 months. Soon afterward, my wife and I attended a gathering of parents whose children were stored (I mean nurtured and educated, of course) at the same place. I found a group of parents with kids in the same age range, 3-6 months old, engaged in a very serious conversation about what languages their kids were studying. Not how many were spoken at home. How many they were studying. Infants? Really?

With my typical sarcasm, I responded that our son had recently learned to blow raspberries quite successfully. The parents in the group managed, at best, a weak response to my clearly superior sense of humor and asked whether, since our son was not enrolled in language lessons, he was too busy with other classes, like gymnastics or swimming.

Did I mention he was 4 months old? I told them we hadn’t made it to swimming lessons but that we did manage to bathe him -- occasionally.

At this point, I believe, several of the parents immediately called protective services. We’ve wised up since then. Our 8-year-old now plays soccer and basketball, takes guitar and piano lessons, and speaks fluent Yiddish. And by fluent, I mean he knows a handful of wildly inappropriate phrases. I, of course, have no idea where he might have learned them. The reason I’m blathering about all this in what is supposed to be a blog about college admissions:

  • This local obsession with toddler involvement extends throughout the country into high school, where students are overinvolved, overscheduled and just plain overwhelmed.
  • Parents and “experts” complain that students have no time to be kids, as they are busy scheduling high school internships in between band and soccer practice while they volunteer at homeless shelters.
  • All of that hyperprogramming is often blamed on the admissions process.

I wonder whether there’s really a problem. Did the pioneers stop their kids from working in the fields after school so they could have time to be kids? If given more time, would teens use the freedom to rest or expand their minds with great literature and art -- or would they just sit around updating their Facebook statuses and gawking at YouTube videos?

On the other hand, scheduling every minute of your life in order to get into college is nutty:

  • Extracurricular activity isn’t nearly, remotely, or in any way as important as your academic records.
  • You never know what college admissions officers are looking for anyhow -- especially whether they’d prefer to have a student deeply involved in one thing compared to being involved, in one way or another, in every club and activity available.
  • And, most importantly, it’s a dumb way to live life. If you’re doing all that stuff because you love it, have a passion for it, and/or can’t bear to live without it, fine. But trying to join every single activity that MIGHT give you some miniscule assistance in some mythical admissions process, however, is deeply misguided.

In the meantime, since you can’t know what we want (or don’t want), you can feel free to make choices based on what actually interests you, as opposed to what MIGHT interest us (the admissions officers). Isn’t that better? 

Be seeing you. 

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Once upon a time, an illustrious student managed to get into Harvard with amazing scores and great grades from one of the best prep schools and one of the best colleges in the country. He lied.

While this has been widely reported in the media, most of the reports have been very easy on Harvard’s admissions office. One of the experts in the field went so far as to say that, given the thousands of applications schools receive, documents just can’t be verified.

Whoa Nelly!

Cheating Harvard -- and the College Admissions Process in GeneralOn the one hand, that’s just plain silly. This guy faked transcripts, and I can see, given the right computers, etc., being able to slip that document past someone. However, if a school has at least a couple of nickels to rub together (and who has more nickels than Harvard?), perhaps they could invest in a nice imaging system. Nearly every reputable college in the country (and the applicant was claiming to have attended MIT) uses really fancy transcript paper that shows all kinds of stuff when you scan the document. This makes copying or scanning the document challenging and confirms that it’s a real document. Did the student go so far as to obtain that paper? If not, how the heck did he get it past the office?

Now let’s give poor, overworked Harvard (cue violins) the benefit of the doubt on the transcripts. They also accepted the applicant’s fraudulent SAT scores. I can’t speak for every institution, but Mason downloads the scores directly from The College Board. We go back and verify any that come in from the high school or the student directly with CB. 

On the other hand, since the student was transferring, maybe the Harvard admissions office wasn’t that worried about his scores, which makes sense. And since they were REALLY GOOD (and whose wouldn’t be, if we were picking them ourselves?), why check further?

Let’s move on to how this exposes the DIRTY SECRET OF COLLEGE ADMISSIONS -- wait for it: 

College applicants lie. 

The even dirtier secret is that we probably don’t catch most of those liars. Applicants submit all kinds of recommendation letters, lists of extracurriculars, and claims of awards and achievements. For the most part, colleges make no effort to verify the authenticity of these submissions. There are rare exceptions. For example, with the Internet so readily accessible, the applicant claiming to have appeared on “Big Brother” and “America’s Got Talent” is easily referenced. The applicant falsely claiming to have won the East Podunk Service Commitment to Youth Who Are Far Less Lucky Award is unlikely to get caught. 

In fairness, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, these factors are far less important to admissions decisions than academic records. I should also note, for all those tempted by the knowledge of admissions offices lack of verification systems, that the penalty for getting caught is generally steep. Most admissions offices, if they believe that any part of the application has been falsified at all, will deny the applicant. You won’t get a reason, just the denial. 

So we’re not that good at catching you, but we offer a really strong disincentive. How many of you think that works? 

Be seeing you. 

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Do you think it's fair if college admissions professionals "google" you or look at your Facebook profile during the admissions process?
Yes. If it's out there, it's fair game.
No. If it's not part of my official application package, it shouldn't be considered.
I don't know.
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