Prep Talk Blog > October 2010

Halloween in AdmissionsEvery year, I have one overpowering goal during this season, which unnerves my family and troubles my friends and coworkers alike: Make my house look like Halloween exploded all over it.  I’m not just talking about decorating -- I’m talking about the Shock and Awe of Halloween decorating.

The only thing standing between me and this Halloween extravaganza is my wife’s common sense.  She has limited me to one (yes, just ONE!) major Halloween purchase each year.  As a result, she thinks my obsession will be kept in reasonable check.


Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, there are MASSIVE inflatable Halloween decorations.  Actually, the technology has pretty much been around for a few decades at least, and it’s less of a miracle than a minor convenience, but that’s beside the point.

By purchasing just ONE item I can get the instant gratification of adding a MASSIVE decoration.

It seems to me there is nothing so basic to our culture right now than the need for this immediate return on investment.  Food that we can make in 5 minutes (I’m fuming with impatience by minute 4), access to shows online that we can watch when we want -- like Veruca in Willy Wonka, we want it all NOW.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that savvy college and university admission recruitment experts are capitalizing on this by creating ways for you to believe you are applying faster, hence the rise of the “snap app.”  These go by many names: VIP application, express application, etc., but all share a common trait -- they arrive in your mailbox already (mostly) completed, and make your application a BREEZE.

Sort of.

In reality there is nothing new about these applications.  A handful of us admission types were mailing prospective students partially completed applications back in the late ’90s.  It was really effective -- so why did we stop?  For most of us, the internet took over!

Once online applications became the main way most of you applied (and WAY cheaper and faster for colleges to process) those of us who sent personalized applications moved away from sending any paper.  In fact, at this point, many competitive colleges don’t even print paper applications.

Into this void comes a marketing company with a simple plan.  “Admissions Office,” says the company, “You need more applicants. We have this nifty idea.  We’ll use PAPER applications, already mostly filled out, and convince the students that they are really special if they get one, and so get you a bunch more applicants.  Yeah, most may never come, but it will really help make your numbers look good in the ranking if you get a bunch more applicants, right?”

So the question for you is, if you receive one of these lovely forms, should you use it?  My answer is, “Heck NO!”  While it looks a lot easier, it’s likely even easier to complete the institution’s online application.  For many of you, your high schools have come up with really elaborate ways to track where you are applying so that your transcripts get matched up with your application records in a timely manner.  These “snap apps” appear to throw a monkey wrench into many of those systems.

Since many early action and decision deadlines are November 1st (Shameless plug: including Mason!!  Apply Now!!  Don’t Wait!!), I suspect, as a special holiday treat, many of you will find these delightful applications, dressed up as a special service, hiding in your mailboxes.

So be aware, the snap/fast/VIP/quick application may be more trick than treat.  I’d get into more detail, but the Halloween inflatables in our yard keep blowing the house fuse.  I think next year I’ll need to have the house rewired to better support the display – or buy a field generator.  Either way, feel free to come by for candy – I’ll leave the porch light (and the fog machine) on.  Be seeing you.

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Earlier this month, Forbes released its list of the country’s most expensive colleges, based on the schools’ tuition, fees, room and board for the 2010-2011 school year. Here is the list, with a link to learn more about each institution.

1. Sarah Lawrence College
Location: Bronxville, New York
Cost: $57,556

2. Columbia University
Location: New York, New York
Cost: $54,385

3. Bard College
Location: Annandale-on-Hudson, New York
Cost: $54,275

4. Wesleyan University
Location: Middletown, Connecticut
Cost: $53,976

5. Vanderbilt University
Location: Nashville, Tennessee
Cost: $53,660

6. University of Chicago
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Cost: $53,604

7. Harvey Mudd College
Location: Claremont, California
Cost: $53,588

8. Trinity College
Location: Hartford, Connecticut
Cost: $53,380

9. Georgetown University
Location: Washington, DC
Cost: $53,340

10. Bates College
Location: Lewiston, Maine
Cost: $53,300

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Standardized College Entrance Tests, Fake Political Rallies, and Cyber-Stalking ComediansI am so torn. Both Stephen Colbert and John Stewart are coming to the area for dueling rallies. I really want to attend both, and hopefully meet them, have them recognize my comic brilliance, and name me the official college dean of both “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” -- or just go ahead and give me a show of my own.

Sigh. Mixed feelings and unrealistic expectations -- sounds a lot like the college admissions process. 

Few things in the college admissions process bring out these emotions as much as standardized college entrance tests. In my speeches, I joke a lot about how much I hate the SATs, but the truth is -- I love them as much as I hate them. 

Why College Admissions Officers Love the SATs and Other Standardized Tests

First off, I am a fairly awesome test-taker. No, really.  My grades, however, did not reflect this potential, so I was exactly the kind of student college admissions officers like least. Fortunately, I'm far too fond of myself to waste time on self-loathing.

The widespread affection college admissions officers show for these tests, however, isn’t about how we might or might not have performed. The far simpler truth is that standardized test scores make life easy for us. We know they don't mean much, as they have very weak correlations with performance in college (far weaker than grades, motivation, or probably popularity). We'd probably do about as well determining who gets admitted based on shoe size. Nevertheless, we keep using test scores. 

Why, you ask? Well, because it's just so gosh, darn easy. Instead of really getting to know you, and trying to tell the difference between particular schools and classes and such, we can differentiate you from that other kid with the same GPA and similar involvement by the statistically meaningless one or two point difference on a test that represents just a few hours of your life. I know, it’s awesome.

Of course, we want you to do well. In fact, pretty much every college will take your highest score on either the ACT or the SAT. Also, most admissions officers use SUPER-SCORING.  While this may sound suspiciously like a weak plot device from the last season of “Smallville,” super-scoring is when a college takes the best scores from different parts of a test -- say math from one, English from another -- and combines them to provide you with an even higher score. 

When colleges super-score, they usually say something like, "We'll use your best scores, because we CARE about YOU." Riiiiight. Just keep in mind, whether they care about you or not, the higher your scores are means the higher their scores will be too. And trust me; most of them REALLY want higher scores.

Ultimately, this means you really can take the test as many times as you want, and you don't have to worry about earning any lower scores. Of course, if you REALLY don't want to worry about your scores, you can apply to a school with a score optional admissions policy. Say, speaking of shameless plugs, since 2006, Mason has had one of the largest competitive score optional admissions processes in the country. So yes, if you think your scores don't reflect what you've accomplished and/or don't predict what you're capable of accomplishing, and you'd rather we focus just on your academic records (or if you just hate the tests), you can apply to Mason without your scores, because I CARE about YOU.

Yes, there are lots of reasons to love the SATs. On the other hand, it's probably the single part of the college admissions process that causes the most stress, even though the scores have far less influence on admissions decisions than your academic records. So relax, and just take the test again if you’re worried. Meanwhile, I'll be downtown at the Rally for Sanity, or for Fear -- or both. Whatever it takes to finally launch "The Daily Dean.". Or "The Dean Report."  

Until then, I'll keep Twitter-stalking Colbert and Stewart. Then again, maybe I should just send them my test scores. 

Be seeing you.

P.S. If you are into Twitter, and the data would say that you probably aren't, @stephenathome is Colbert's account, and it's hilarious -- almost as good as @deanflagel.  

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My eight year old is convinced that his third grade teacher hates him.  He whines, “why else would she make me write about myself ALL THE TIME!?”  Apparently, the guidelines established by the Geneva Convention state that being forced to write about yourself is a form of torture.

As a result, I have newfound sympathy for those of you, parents and students alike, who are agonizing over college essays.  One of the questions I get asked regularly is, “what topics do admissions officers want for essays?”  I have this bad habit of telling the absolute (and generally unhelpful) truth, “We want to know more about you.”  This results in the expected eye rolling and, I suspect, comparisons of admissions officers to military tribunals (which, at times, I find entirely reasonable).

Of course, it is far easier to offer topics that you SHOULDN’T use.  One of the most common topics I receive (although always under some alternate title) is, “The many reasons I detest doing any work and believe I am entitled to admissions despite miserable grades.”  Others include, “I would have done better if my teachers weren’t all idiots,” or “The many ways I enjoy harming small animals,” and my personal favorite, “I’m coming to your school because my boyfriend is there and I can’t bear to be away from him and why hasn’t he called me back lately?” 

All you’re really trying to do with your essay is give admissions officers some reasons to admit you.  This generally involves trying to tell them two things:  the first is what’s great about you.  This is no time for modesty!  You can use whatever hook you want, but in the end your essay should tell the reader a bit about how great you are.

The second thing, equally important but much easier (and something that should take up little space), is why you want to attend that school.  You can, of course, just mention that, “There’s no place in the whole world you’d rather be than George Mason University,” (an entirely understandable sentiment).  Much better, however, is to go that extra step by explaining why; for example, “I love George Mason University, not just because it is in the best location in the world with incredible access to everything D.C. has to offer, and not just because it is one of the most globally diverse institutions in the world, but especially because that dean of admissions is an incredibly witty fellow and I just want to be where he is.”  Something like that might work, but perhaps a bit less stalkerish.

Before I get flamed by those of you who are regular readers-- yes, I could have labeled that a “Shameless Plug,” but I was just illustrating my point.  Don’t believe me?  Bring on the tribunal!

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.
The poll is closed.


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Don Munce