Episode 143: High School Students Can’t Write

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Last week when we talked about college application essays for what seems to be the millionth time in our three years together, we suggested that you go back and listen to Episodes 98, 99, 106, and 110 if you have a senior at home with college application essays due now and over the next few weeks.  As I said last week, I have been spending some time in one of New York City’s most exclusive high schools to help two classes of seniors with their essays.  As a result, I have been thinking hard about the sorry state of the writing skills displayed by some of our best public school students–and, of course, what to do about it.

1.  One of My Favorite Stories

As we mentioned back in Episode 99, no one–not me, not you, not the best English teacher you ever knew, not the most expensive college consultant you can find–can truly fix a kid’s writing in the middle of trying to get his or her college application essays created, edited, and submitted on time.  The situation is too pressured, everyone is too anxious, and there is too little time.  So, let me tell you my favorite story about how to solve the problem.

As we said back in Episode 99, in the more than 100 Common Application main essays I read and edited last year (and that number does not include all of the supplemental essays that I also read and edited), I found one essay that was surprisingly well written, including from a grammar and mechanics point of view.  (By the way, this year, I have also read one, maybe two, really good essays from students in that highly respected school.)  Last year, I called the best writer aside and said to him, “How did you learn to write like this when none of your classmates appears to be able to do it?”  His answer was immediate and seemed exactly right to me.

He said that he had worked regularly with a writing tutor since he had been in ninth grade.  His tutor went over his written work and showed him how to improve it.  He said that she had worked shoulder to shoulder with him in many, many sessions.  I got the feeling that she was relentless and demanding.  He said that he did not enjoy the tutoring and did not enjoy writing now.  But he sure could do it, and he knew that he could do it.

In my experience with high school students and with younger professionals who have worked for me and with my own three children, this is what it takes to improve someone’s writing.  It is not lessons taught from the front of a classroom–although some grammar and mechanics lessons undoubtedly should be taught from the front of the classroom for openers.  Rather, it is painstaking discussion and editing of the student’s own work, while the student watches and learns and absorbs and understands the reason for every change that is being made.  This shoulder-to-shoulder editing process has to be repeated and repeated and repeated–until the student becomes almost as good at it as the teacher is.  It sounds slow and laborious, and it is.  But it works, and I am not sure that anything else does.  This is writing tutoring, not writing group instruction.

Here is the rest of the problem, which is already clear to every teacher in the U.S. and, I hope, will now be equally clear to all of you parents who are listening (if it is not already).  Today’s middle school and high school English teachers cannot serve as writing tutors for each of your kids–and that is precisely why so many of our high school students will not learn to write well enough for college.  Imagine trying to correct the written work of 150 students on a line-by-line basis–or even of 100 students or even of 50 students–day after day and week after week, while talking through those corrections with each student one by one.  And, of course, that’s not all English teachers have to do.  I am not defending overworked English teachers here; I am merely stating the obvious–something so obvious that I can’t believe more schools haven’t tried to solve it rather than just looking away and pretending the problem doesn’t exist.

I recently said something pretty objectionable to two classes of quite smart high school seniors–at least, they thought it was objectionable.  I was talking about their draft essays that I had just read and tried to edit.  Some were so poorly conceived and written that I really couldn’t even edit them.  Here is what I said:

“This writing will not get you through college.  You might think that it will, but it won’t.  You might think that it will because you are going to major in mathematics or chemistry or engineering.  But it still won’t.  That’s because each of you will likely have to take at least a couple of humanities courses that will involve writing essays or papers or research papers in order to graduate.  And when you do, this writing won’t get you through them.”

2.  Talking to a National Audience

Last February, I had the occasion to speak at a national conference of teachers and administrators from Early College high schools.  I called my presentation, “Your Seniors Can’t Write.”  Parents, listen to what I said to see what you might do in your own kid’s high school to help us solve the problem.  It’s going to take all of us, and I believe that nobody’s voices should be heard any louder than yours.

I started by asking the audience, “What’s in your junior year and senior year English curriculum?”  I am guessing, I told them, that it is literature heavy:  American, British, or world literature, especially if you have standard grade-level courses that all students take (even if you have some honors and AP levels of those courses).  If you have a variety of semester electives as your curriculum, I continued, you might offer a writing-focused course or two, most likely journalism.

Then I asked this, “Is a curriculum focused on teaching literary works–novels and short stories and plays and poems and speeches and literary essays–as well as great nonfiction works the best way to improve students’ writing?”  I told them that, usually when I make a presentation at a national conference, I believe that I have “the answer” to a problem that people in the audience are trying to solve.  But this time, I said, “Today, I do not have the answer, and I am hoping that you do.  Today, I have just the problem.”  I warned the audience members that I intended to put them into small groups toward the end of the presentation so that they could work out some ways to solve the problem.

Nonetheless, I said, I was willing to go first and offer an idea to get the conversation started.  I opened with an anecdote.  Last fall, I said, I asked two classes of juniors in an elite New York City high school what they would like to study in the upcoming spring semester.  The students were all in a standard year-long American literature course at the time.  In the interest of full disclosure, I had just had a long discussion with them about the quality of the writing of the seniors I had been working with and I had also analyzed the writing of a few of their own junior classmates impromptu–kids who thought they wrote quite well (but who soon realized and then stated bravely in front of their classmates that they didn’t).

I said, “Would you prefer to keep doing American literature or would you prefer to focus on writing?”  Virtually every one of these college-bound students voted to switch the curriculum to writing.  Unfortunately, no school administrators were listening.

3.  An Idea for Solving the Problem

So, here was my idea for improving high school English curricula. (By the way, for more than three decades, I have written high school English curricula that are used in states all over the U.S., and I never did what I am about to suggest.  Why?  Because, sadly, I had not seen the problem up close the way I have in recent years.)

I suggested that all high school students take an intensive writing course in the spring semester of their junior year.  It would be best, of course, if all high schools in the U.S. would do this so that no student’s college admissions chances would be hurt by a course that colleges thought was odd, or not rigorous enough, or out of the mainstream.  If I could, I would wave my magic wand right now and make that happen in all U.S. high schools.

My course would focus on expository writing, on academic writing.  It would not include any creative writing, like poetry or short stories or plays, which many high schools like to do and perhaps do very well.  It would not include any literary analysis, because most of us do not write like that once we get out of college.

One thing it would include is the college application essay.  Students would write more than one main essay for more than one of The Common Application prompts (whatever the prompts are at the time).

I had a high school English teacher many years ago who explained to us that the word “essay” comes from the Old French “essai”–meaning a trial, attempt, or effort.  So, it is perfectly reasonable to write several essays–that is, to make several attempts–before finding the one that actually works best.  I know that’s going to sound like more work to kids–and, in a way, it is–but all writers know that, all too often, many attempts have to be started and abandoned before a piece of good writing takes shape.

In my course, students would also write several essays targeted to the most commonly used topics for supplemental essays in college applications–in fact, both a long and a short version, so the word count would always be appropriate, depending on the word limit of a particular college.  That is not a hard thing to do, and students will find that three or four essays well done can be used over and over again, with minor editing, in various college applications.

But wait just a minute.  In my course, there won’t be writing of only 650 words or fewer.  (Parents, you should know by now that 650 words is the limit for The Common App main essay.)  No.  There will also be a research paper of many pages–maybe more than one.  Here’s why.

Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, and, more importantly, he’s a really smart guy.  Marc wrote an article last January in the Top Performers Education Week blog entitled “Our Students Can’t Write Very Well–It’s No Mystery Why.” Let me read you the sobering opening paragraphs of Marc’s article:

My organization decided a few weeks back that we needed to hire a new professional staff person.  We had close to 500 applicants.  Inasmuch as the task was to help us communicate information related to the work we do, we gave each of the candidates one of the reports we published last year and asked [each of them] to produce a one-page summary.  All were college graduates.  Only one could produce a satisfactory summary.  That person got the job.

We were lucky this time.  We are more often than not disappointed at the subpar writing ability of the applicants for openings at our organization.  Many applicants are from very good colleges.  Many have graduate degrees.  Many are very poor writers.

Their lack of writing ability does not auger well.  When we look at what they have written, the logic of the narrative is often very hard to find. It would appear that their lack of writing ability stands as mute testimony to their lack of thinking ability.

How, we ask, could this have happened? . . . [H]igh school students are hardly ever asked to write anything of significant length.  Why not?  Because in this age of accountability, they are not tested on their writing ability.  By which I mean that they are not asked to submit to the testing authorities 10- or 15- or 20-page papers . . . .

This point is critically important.  There is only one way that we can find out whether [students] can write a substantial research paper–by asking them to write a substantial research paper and looking carefully at the result.  If we do not ask them to produce this product–over and over again, as they get better and better at it–then they will not be able to do it well.  If they have not done the work, then neither their teacher nor the engines of the accountability system can assess it.  If this sort of serious writing is not done and–in our accountability-oriented environment–is not assessed, then it will not be learned.  End of argument.

Well, in my new high school English course, I don’t need to have my course’s research papers submitted to and assessed by outside evaluators–although that is actually both an intriguing and a feasible idea–but I would like them to be assessed by the teacher.  Not really assessed, so much, as edited line by line, with the student sitting there and hanging on every word.

By the way, I care almost nothing about grades in my course.  I don’t want the teacher to spend time “grading” things.  I have friends who are English teachers who constantly worry about having to grade things–a lot of things and quickly–so that they can substantiate a report card grade eventually.  In my course, I want the teacher to spend time working with each student individually on every sentence that student writes.  I could easily support every teacher’s giving every student an A in the course–as long as every student kept writing and working hard at it and improving.

I might just have one of those research papers that Marc is calling for be about individual colleges or, perhaps more generally, about issues in higher education.  I told the audience at the conference that Marie and I had just written a new workbook for high school students entitled How To Explore Your College Options.  I explained that the workbook was literally an explanation of an 11-page questionnaire that, we thought, every high school student should fill out about any college he or she might be interested in attending.  In my course, after each student does the research to get the answers to 52 key questions about a college, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have the student write up the findings so that other students might benefit from them.  Students in a class could create their own guidebook of college profiles for a variety of colleges–and learn to research and write at the same time.

But, let me not get ahead of myself.  I told the audience that my course would be called College Research and Expository Writing.  Of course, there would be an honors version, and I plan to put every student in it.

4.  It’s Up to You, Parents

Parents, if you have a younger high school student at home, consider talking to your high school principal about the English curriculum now.  See whether you can get a writing course offered–or even required–so that your kid has a better chance at writing not only great college application essays, but also great term papers and research reports and whatever else they are going to have to write once they go to college.  I had a great high school history teacher who made us write five-page papers every week because he knew we were going to have to do that all the time in college.  I never thanked him enough for that great preparation.  Parents, fixing our national crisis in high school students’ writing is way more important than my telling you how to help your kid write a winning college application essay.  And I can’t fix it without you.

By the way, not one Early College high school educator in the audience challenged the title of my presentation, “Your Seniors Can’t Write.”  So, what does that tell you?

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Episode 142: What’s Wrong with Your Kid’s College Application Essay?

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Well, it’s officially November.  Some Early Decision and Early Action deadlines have just passed, and many others are fast approaching on November 15.  There is very little time left for those of you interested in submitting early applications.  As we said at length in Episode 138 and as we have repeated in the past few episodes, we think that all of you should be applying Early Action to all of the schools on your list that have an Early Action option and that some of you should be applying to your first choice under the Early Decision option.  So, think about that one more time while there is still time!

I thought a long time about whether to do today’s episode on college application essays.  It seems like such a tired topic–one that everyone gives advice about–and we have done a number of episodes on this topic already, though not since last February (go back and listen to Episodes 98, 99, 106, and 110).  And yet, I continue to be surprised at how little many parents and teachers know about the common and supplementary essay requirements in college applications.  I am in the throes of reading and editing The Common Application main essay for about 60 high school seniors right now–that is, the main essay that is written to one of seven prompts supplied by The Common App people and that will be transmitted to any of its more than 700 colleges and universities if your kid applies to any of them (which he or she almost undoubtedly will).  Please re-listen right now to Episode 110 if you aren’t familiar with The Common App essay requirement.

As I have done for the past couple of years, I have spent almost a week in the classrooms of one of New York City’s best high schools (indeed, one of the nation’s top 75 high schools, according to U.S. News & World Report).  As a result, I have a few things I would like to say–again–though I am not sure we can say it any better now than we did in those previous four episodes.

1.  The Sad Truth

I am going to talk to you today–as I have done before and hope I never have to do again–about the sad truth that many, many, too many high school seniors cannot write.  I will not talk to you about the many, many, too many grammatical and punctuation and word choice mistakes that I see in 9 out of 10 essays I read.  For an elaborate discussion of those mistakes, go back to Episode 99.  But, trust me, the mistakes are there, and they are inexcusable for high school seniors as well as extremely distracting to any college admissions officer trying to get through hundreds or even thousands of similar essays.  I can’t imagine that some essays, written as they are, even get read all the way through.

Just to recap, I am not going to remind you again to tell your teenager . . .

  • To pay attention to grammar–To watch out for split infinitives, the correct placement of “only” in a sentence, the difference between “everyday” as an adjective and “every day” as an adverb, poorly placed participial phrases modifying the wrong word, incorrect and inconsistent verb tenses, and the lack of agreement between nouns and pronouns
  • To check punctuation–To watch out for random commas inserted for no reason, commas that are left out before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence, periods and commas inside quotation marks always, and the random use of semicolons
  • To be careful about word choice–To watch out for sophisticated or “big” words that he or she would never use in everyday “formal” speech (as when talking in class or to a teacher) and that, therefore, he or she is highly likely to use slightly incorrectly
  • To avoid wordiness and repetition–To watch out for sentences that have too many irrelevant and/or unnecessary words and to watch out for sentences that say the same thing as previous sentences (often in just as vague or unconvincing a way)

I will also not talk to you about the finer points of writing most essays–this college application essay or any other.  For an elaborate discussion of those finer points, go back to Episode 98.  Just to recap, I am not going to remind you again to tell your teenager . . .

  • To make a memorable first impression–To write a great first sentence, which makes the college admissions officer want to continue reading the essay, when he or she has way too many more to read (Back in Episode 80, we told you the most common and boring ways that students in the U.K. started their college application essays.  U.S. kids do that, too!)
  • To make a memorable last impression–To write an extraordinary final sentence, which is his or her last chance to make an impression on the college admissions officer (I learned again in this year’s batch of essays I am reading that almost no kid can write a great last sentence or really a great ending at all.  Many kids ended their essays on a ridiculously grand scale in an overly dramatic way that does not fit almost any teenager’s life story.)
  • To remember what the point is–To include what he or she has learned from the story or experience or reflection that the essay is about or how that story or experience or reflection impacted his or her life (I learned again in this year’s batch of essays I am reading that many kids get bogged down in the details of a story they are trying to tell in the essay and forget what the point of that story is.)


2.  Another Sad Truth

And let me talk to you about another sad truth–the fact that some kids don’t seem to have anything to write about.  Parents, let me make this very clear:  No amount of editing–including by your teenager’s English teacher or by the most expensive college admissions consultant you can find to work with your teenager–can save an essay that is not really about anything.

To be fair, some kids have a great idea for an essay right away; in fact, some kids, have more than one great idea, though not as many kids as you might think.  I have also found that some kids can come up with a decent topic after a long talk with me about their young lives–about their families, their hobbies, their school activities, their jobs, their career hopes, their volunteer work, their academic failures, and their personal successes.

However, some kids actually can’t come up with anything to write about.  They can’t think of anything that makes them special or interesting or appealing as a candidate for college admission.  But that’s what this essay is:  a way to look desirable to a college, whether your appeal is your brains, your kindness, your insights, your perseverance, your thoughtfulness, your compassion, your generosity, your inventiveness, your quirky outlook on life, your triumph over adversity, or something else.  The college wants a glimpse of you, to be sure, but it had better be an appealing one.

I was chatting recently about this last group of kids–the ones with no ideas for the essay–with one of their teachers.  I was asking why she thought these kids didn’t have anything to write about.  She said simply, “They don’t do anything.”  Of course, they come to school and do their schoolwork–most of them quite well.  Many also take part in the standard bunch of school activities, play on a sports team, and take music lessons.  But how many essays can a college admissions officer read about a kid who loves the piano and did really well in a statewide music competition?  Or learned about perseverance and hard work by playing on the football team?  And here’s my favorite:  learned how to be a more effective person from playing video games (I have read more of those than you might think).  So, what do these kids do outside the box?  What do they do or think or care about that makes them just a bit different and more memorable than a thousand other kids?  What makes them the kind of student a college would want?

Parents of younger high school kids, it is time to start thinking about what it will be like at your house when essay time comes–while there is still time to encourage your kid to engage in activities and causes and scholarly pursuits and cultural events and family life and community life worth writing about in a college application essay.  Here’s why this is so important:  I bet that many colleges would rather accept a kid whose essay is inspiring or enthusiastic or compelling or intriguing–even with a small grammar or punctuation mistake or two–than a kid whose essay is superficially picture perfect, but has no substance.

Parents of younger high school kids, I can make your kid’s essay superficially picture perfect, but I cannot really give your kid an experience that he or she can write an essay about.  Only you can do that for your kid and with your kid, based on the experiences of your lives.  So, start thinking.

And let me remind you again, parents of younger high school students and parents of seniors, don’t forget to check out the seven prompts for The Common Application main essay (see Episode 110).  You will see that they are reasonable options for kids to write about and, hopefully, you might get an idea of how to help your kid–now or next year or the year after that.  By the way, this year’s prompts are very similar to last year’s (with a couple of additions), so there is no reason to believe that they will change totally for next year, either.

3.  Coming Soon in Our Next Episode

So, I feel as though this episode was more of a rant than anything else.  I apologize for that, but this is the third year I have had this college application essay experience.  I don’t want to have to talk to you about this again next year, parents of younger high school students!

Last year, I told the kids I met with at the well-known New York City high school that I mentioned earlier, “You write like third graders.”  This year, I said something even scarier and more objectionable to them.  Join us next week to find out what I said to them and to consider with me how to fix the problem that our high school students can’t write–and that’s a problem much bigger and much more important than whether a kid gets into one college or another.  Unfortunately.

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Episode 141: The Role of Parents in College Applications

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

We are in the last days of October, and Early Decision and Early Action deadlines are just a handful of days or a couple of weeks away. There is still time, but not much for those of you interested in early applications (and we think that should be almost all of you, for Early Action at least). So, what is the role of parents at this critical time? Today’s episode is short and sweet, and it will hopefully affirm what you are already doing, parents, if you have been listening to USACollegeChat.

1. A New Survey

In this episode, we want to talk about a new survey by Kaplan Test Prep. According to its LinkedIn profile, “Kaplan Test Prep (www.kaptest.com) is a premier provider of educational and career services for individuals, schools and businesses. Our job is not just teaching test material, but also giving students confidence in themselves. Established in 1938, Kaplan is the world leader in the test prep industry, offering preparation for more than 100 standardized tests. . .” (quoted from LinkedIn). By the way, this episode is not an endorsement of Kaplan Test Prep, or any other test prep company, because we have not done a careful study of their services or products and their results.

Anyway, earlier this year, Kaplan Test Prep conducted a telephone survey of 354 admissions officers in high-ranked colleges. It seems to have focused on the admissions officers’ answer to a question something like this (I have not seen the actual survey questions, just the answers): “How involved should parents be in the college applications process?” These were the answers of the college admissions officers:

  • Not involved at all–less than 1 percent of college admissions officers
  • Not very involved–6 percent of college admissions officers
  • Somewhat involved–75 percent of college admissions officers
  • Very involved–18 percent of college admissions officers
  • Extremely involved–1 percent of college admissions officers

My personal view here is that parents need to be more than “somewhat involved”–the overwhelmingly favorite answer of those surveyed. Now, it is probably true that there were not definitions of these terms in the survey (at least, they weren’t reported if there were). So, perhaps my understanding of “somewhat involved” is not the same as the understanding of college admissions officers about that same term. Nonetheless, I would say that being in the middle point of any scale on how involved you should be about anything related to the next two or four or six years of your child’s life–and of something that could, in fact, affect your child’s entire future–is not my view. I get it: My view is quite different from the opinions of about 80 percent of college admissions officers, and I am not apologizing for it. It’s probably why we started USACollegeChat to begin with?that is, to help parents know what they need to know to be involved appropriately and effectively and to encourage parents to get involved in this life-changing decision for their kids.

To be fair, the Kaplan Test Prep website quotes some crazy things that college admissions officers say that parents have done–perhaps, what a few of the “extremely involved” parents have done. All of these things are obviously terrible, and I want to make sure that you never do them, USACollegeChat listeners. So, here they are quoted, from the Kaplan Test Prep website:

  • “I once had a parent call pretending to be the student, but I had met the student before so I knew how [her] voice sounds. I called the student’s cell phone after to suggest that her mom not pretend to be her and call other schools, because that’s fraud.”

  • “We have plenty of ‘helicopter parents’ who are overly involved. We’ve had parents who wouldn’t let the student speak in meetings even when we tried to engage the student specifically.”

  • “There have been parents who’ve called requesting to change their child’s major because they don’t want their child in that major.”

  • “In some cases we’d get duplicate records due to parents and students both trying to complete parts of the application without talking to each other.” (quoted from the website)

Clearly, I am not defending any of those parents or those actions. But I do believe that those parents are a long way from what reasonable and effective–but more than “somewhat”–involvement looks like.

To be fair, again, the Kaplan Test Prep website also listed some things that college admissions officers believe parents should do during the college admissions process. Here they are:

  • “Parents should be very involved in coaching and advising in the actual decision-making, but it’s also important for students to be the ones most engaged in the process and in contact with the admissions officers.”

  • “Parents should be there for support, but the child should be driving. Like learning to drive, you can be a back seat driver, but let kids steer.”

  • “Parents should guide the student in thinking about certain aspects of the application and provide a sounding board for the students as they are considering their choices.” (quoted from the website)

  • “Parents need to be most involved . . . when it comes to the financial aid process. Students are not knowledgeable in this area and need the most guidance with this.”

Of course, I am good with all of those. But they are a bit vague, except for the absolutely necessary advice that kids cannot navigate financial aid by themselves. Parents can barely navigate financial aid, I believe. So, parents, don’t be afraid to get outside help, if at all possible.

According to the website, Kaplan Test Prep believes that parents could reasonably be “accompanying [their children] on campus visits, making sure they meet application deadlines, or helping them fill out financial aid paperwork” (quoted from the website). I think we all would agree with that. But what else?

Let’s talk about deciding where to apply. While Kaplan Test Prep would like kids to take the lead on that, we want to make sure that you do your part, parents. We would like kids to do the all-important research on the colleges on their LLCO (long list of college options) before narrowing that list down to their final “short list” of colleges. We talked about that a couple of weeks ago in Episode 139.

And, of course, we hope that they will use our new workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students to do that. But–however they do it–parents have to make sure that kids get the answers to lots of crucial questions about the colleges they are considering. It’s a lot of work to find out what you need to know about a college before deciding whether to apply. We can’t stress this enough. In fact, as we have said many times, lots of kids and parents don’t know nearly enough when those application decisions are being made. My guess is that kids will need some strong encouragement from parents in order to do the work required to get all of the information you both are going to need. Remember, we believe that you are going to need answers to 52 questions covering these important aspects of a college (see the questionnaire in our new workbook for details):

  • History and Mission
  • Location
  • Enrollment
  • Class Size
  • Academics
  • Schedule
  • Housing
  • Security Measures
  • Activities and Sports
  • Admission Practices
  • Cost

Talking through the answers to questions on all of these topics and weighing the advantages and disadvantages of as many as 15 or so colleges on your list is something that your kid is going to need your help with. Teachers and counselors at school just do not have the time it takes to do that for every student, for obvious reasons. Even if they did, this is your own kid we are talking about, and you both need to be happy with the decision about where to apply and, eventually, about where to enroll. That is going to take more than being “somewhat” involved.

And let’s talk about college application essays. We have talked so often about these in past episodes (Episode 98, Episode 99, Episode 106, and Episode 110) that I hate to do it again (though I probably will before the season is over). But I will say this now: You must read your kid’s college essays–all of them. Not just the main Common Application essay, but also all the supplemental ones. If you don’t feel confident in your own ability to read and suggest and edit and advise, then find an adult who can. Again, teachers and counselors at school just do not have the time it takes to do that for every student. Period. So, maybe it’s an older sibling or another relative or an internship mentor or someone at your house of worship or someone in a community program. But, whoever it is, kids need an adult to help with these essays. They just do. I am going to vote for “extremely” involved on this one.

I guess I could go on, but I hope that I have made my point. Those of you who know me know that I am speaking as a parent who has sent three kids to college (first as undergraduates and then as graduate students). But I am also speaking as someone who believes that parents want the best for each and every one of their kids and that they want to do their best to help see that their kids get it. So, don’t be afraid to be more than “somewhat” involved, whatever college admissions officers think.

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Episode 140: The Scandal of Transferring College Credits

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

In our last episode, we talked about narrowing down your teenager’s long list of college options (or LLCO, as we call it in our new book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students), and we discussed several questions to ask yourselves about those colleges as you narrowed down the list. We recommended ending up with perhaps 15 colleges (give or take 5) on your teenager’s “short list.”

One thing we did not talk about was whether you should put a public two-year community college on the list. We have talked about community colleges–the good and the bad about them–back in Episode 113 and more recently in Episode 135. Although we remain concerned about the seriously low graduation rate and the seriously low transfer rate at most community colleges, it is still possible that a community college is your teenager’s best or only choice or best safety school choice.

If you can be sure that your teenager will be admitted to a public four-year college in your state or in another state, personally I would go with that option instead of a public two-year community college option. However, if you cannot be sure that your teenager will be admitted to a public four-year college or if your family circumstances would be too strained (either financially or otherwise) by sending your teenager to a public four-year college, then put the local community college on the short list. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area that has more than one conveniently located community college option, then choosing among those options can be as important as choosing among four-year college options. All community colleges are not created equal–anymore than all four-year public or private colleges are. So do your homework or give us a call.

But today, we want to talk about another topic that relates to community colleges, but not only to community colleges. It is a very important topic if you believe that it might be a good idea to save some money on the first two years of college by sending your teenager to a community college or to a public four-year college before allowing him or her to transfer to a more prestigious or more academically selective public or private college. We have heard this sentiment from parents many times: “Let Susie start out at the local community college and save our money for a big finish at the great private university she always wanted to go to.”

Well, there is a new study out that might make you think twice about that strategy.

1. Losing Credits When Transferring

The study was brought to our attention by reporter Danielle Douglas-Gabriel in a wide-ranging article in The Washington Post in mid-September. Ms. Douglas-Gabriel referenced a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (the GAO), entitled Students Need More Information to Help Reduce Challenges in Transferring College Credits. Here is the opening of the highlights from that government report:

Based on GAO’s analysis of the Department of Education’s (Education) most recently available data, an estimated 35 percent of college students transferred to a new school at least once from 2004 to 2009, and GAO found that students may face challenges getting information or advice about transferring course credits. An estimated 62 percent of these transfers were between public schools. According to stakeholders GAO spoke with, students can face challenges transferring credits between schools that do not have statewide polices or articulation agreements, which are transfer agreements or partnerships between schools designating how credits earned at one school will transfer to another. Stakeholders also said that advising and information may not be adequate to help students navigate the transfer process. (quoted from the report)

Let’s start there. First of all, about one-third of college students transfer (personally, I think that is a lot and I am a bit surprised the number is that high), and over half of those are between public colleges. I am going to guess that a significant number of those are from two-year public community colleges to four-year public universities. The report then decries the lack of clear articulation agreements–that is, spelled-out plans between pairs of colleges that show how the credits a student earns at one college will be counted or will be deemed acceptable by the other college. Never having studied the subject, I am guessing that articulation agreements are probably most plentiful between community colleges and four-year public or private colleges relatively nearby or between various colleges within a citywide or statewide public system of colleges.

So, a little background: Articulation agreements protect students. Obviously, students do not want to lose credits they have earned at a college when they transfer to a new college. This is especially true of students who start out at a community college to save money and then transfer to a four-year college to get a bachelor’s degree. If credits are lost in that transfer and have to be made up at the new college, the whole idea of having started at the cheaper community college just goes out the window!

On the other hand, articulation agreements can also be good for colleges. This is especially true when four-year colleges can market themselves easily and cheaply to graduates from a particular community college as the next step in their college careers. Imagine how cost-effective it is for a four-year college to advertise and recruit students who are sitting in classes on one community college campus. Of course, community colleges also benefit because they can advertise a clear path for their graduates right into a four-year college; that fact might indeed help recruit students to the community college in the first place.

So, here’s the problem, according to the GAO report:

The possible financial implications of transferring depend in part on the extent of credits lost in the transfer. Using [the Department of] Education’s transfer data, GAO estimated that students who transferred from 2004 to 2009 lost, on average, an estimated 43 percent of their credits, and credit loss varied depending on the transfer path. For example, students who transferred between public schools–the majority of transfer students–lost an estimated 37 percent of their credits. . . . Transferring can have different effects on college affordability. Students seeking to obtain a bachelor’s degree at a more expensive school may save on tuition costs by transferring from a less expensive school. On the other hand, transfer students may incur additional costs to repeat credits that do not transfer or count toward their degree. Transfer students can receive federal financial aid. GAO’s analysis showed that almost half of the students who transferred from 2004 to 2009 received Pell Grants and close to two-thirds received Federal Direct Loans. Students who lose credits may use more financial aid to pay for repeated courses at additional cost to the federal government, or they may exhaust their financial aid eligibility, which can result in additional out-of-pocket costs. (quoted from the report)

Well, losing perhaps one-third of the credits you earned when you try to transfer them is frightening. Having to pay again to take courses for credits you thought you already earned or having your financial aid run out before you can retake those credits (either because you have been enrolled for too many years or too many semesters) is equally frightening. All this should make you, parents, want some kind of ironclad agreement signed in blood before your teenager starts down the transfer route. But, alas, I believe you aren’t going to get one.

2. The GAO on Information Availability

Here is what the GAO report said about getting a hold of important information:

While GAO estimated that the websites for almost all schools nationwide provided credit transfer policies, as required by [the Department of] Education, about 29 percent did not include a list of other schools with which the school had articulation agreements. Among those schools, GAO found that some did not have any articulation agreements, while others did but did not list partner schools on their websites. Schools must provide such listings, but they are not required to do so specifically on their website. As a result, students may not have ready access to this information to fully understand their transfer options. (quoted from the report)

Interestingly, the GAO report recommended that the Department of Education require that colleges provide information about specific articulation agreements with other colleges on their websites. The Department of Education did not agree with that and agreed only that general transfer information should be provided to students (well, obviously). What all that means is that you as parents and your teenagers as prospective freshmen and as enrolled students must do your homework relentlessly to figure out exactly what will happen in a transfer scenario. And, we have to caution, don’t expect that homework to be easy!

3. Bright Spots

Ms. Douglas-Gabriel did point to a few bright spots in her article:

Several state higher education systems, including those in Tennessee, North Carolina and Texas, are using innovative strategies to streamline the transfer process. The University of California system, for instance, has “guided pathways” that chart the sequence of courses needed to transfer. Some schools, such as George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College, offer dual enrollment for some majors. (quoted from the article)

And, of course, these are not the only collaborative arrangements out there. So, if your teenager is moving toward a community college with the idea of transferring to a four-year college later or if your teenager is moving toward a public four-year university with the idea of transferring to a different four-year university later, then hope for one of these streamlined processes. Better yet, look for one of these streamlined processes–because some careful planning now can save a lot of heartbreak later.

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Episode 139: Narrowing Your Teenager’s List of College Options

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

Last year, we spent the month of September suggesting some steps to take in order to narrow down your teenager’s long list of college options (or LLCO, as we call it in our new book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students). We talked about a number of filters you might use to narrow down that list, which we hope was really quite long at the beginning. Why do we hope that? Because a long list shows that you and your teenager thought about a wide variety of colleges that might be appealing, perhaps for various reasons. As we have said too many times, there are thousands of colleges out there (most of which you never heard of and don’t know nearly enough about), so don’t be too quick to come up with what we will call “the short list.”

You can go back and listen to Episodes 92 through 96 for a recap of reasonable filters you might apply now to narrow down your teenager’s LLCO. Or you and your teenager can force yourselves to think a bit harder and look at the 52-item questionnaire in our new book. That questionnaire is carefully designed to help you and your teenager judge all of the relevant pieces of information about a college before your teenager, with your help, decides whether to apply. To review, the 52 questions cover these important aspects of a college:

  • History and Mission
  • Location
  • Enrollment
  • Class Size
  • Academics
  • Schedule
  • Housing
  • Security Measures
  • Activities and Sports
  • Admission Practices
  • Cost

Our opinion is that you really shouldn’t have put colleges on the LLCO anymore than you should take them off now without knowing these basic facts and figures about them. Fortunately, it’s not too late to find out, but it will be soon! Even for those of you who are facing Early Decision and Early Action deadlines of November 1 or November 15 (or thereabouts), you still have enough time to find out what you need to know and to decide wisely. As we have said in many USACollegeChat episodes, deciding where to apply is the first domino in this long process and, for obvious reasons, it is at least as important as deciding where to enroll. These application decisions will limit your teenager’s future universe, so be careful.

And, let us remind you of something we hope you already know: Don’t forget to fill out and file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, as soon as possible. There is absolutely no reason not to!

1. The Short List

So, let us be the first to say that we are okay if your teenager’s short list of colleges is still relatively long. Interestingly, the Common Application online system will allow a student to keep up to 20 colleges on the student’s list. Of course, you have a bit of leeway because some colleges do not take the Common Application, so those colleges wouldn’t need to be counted as part of the 20. We know that many “experts” will complain about a long list, including high school guidance counselors or college counselors, who understandably see long lists from seniors as a lot of extra work. But we don’t want your teenager to lose out on a good option next spring because of some extra work for the professionals–or for you and your teenager–this fall.

When push comes to shove, doing 20 applications will be a lot of work, mostly because of the supplementary essays that many colleges, especially selective colleges, require. But it’s doable. I just spent some time with a smart senior going through her LLCO, which had about 25 colleges on it when we started. I think we are down to a more reasonable 15, and I don’t see a reason to try to make her list any shorter. So, what’s the right number for the short list? There’s no right answer, but 15 is probably a sensible average, plus or minus 5. I believe that number is slightly up from the 8 to 12 we recommended in our first book, How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students. Well, live and learn!

It probably makes sense to look at your teenager’s short list now as a group of college options, rather than just as individual colleges. In other words, we believe that your teenager should have a number of bases covered. We looked at several bases to cover last year, but we would like to narrow that down to just three, in order of least important to most important.

First, we would like to see some variety in the size of the colleges on the short list–that is, size in terms of undergraduate student enrollment. As we said last year, we did not believe then and do not believe now that high school seniors are well equipped to know whether they would prefer a small or large college–or even whether size makes any difference at all to them. We can show you lots of seniors’ short lists that have huge public universities and small private colleges on them, and we are not sure that some of them even realize it. We would like kids to have some size options to consider next spring–after acceptances come in–when they can think more calmly about whether size really makes a difference to them.

Second, it is no surprise to our regular USACollegeChat listeners that I think there should be variety of college locations on the list. Obviously, that means some out-of-state options and some in-state options. But it also means some options in your region of the U.S. and some options outside your region. And, it even means at least one option outside the U.S.

We have talked about studying full time outside the U.S. many times here at USACollegeChat, so go back and listen to a few of our episodes on that very intriguing topic (see, for example, Episode 123 about colleges in Canada or Episode 122 about Richmond, the American International University in London). Because colleges outside the U.S. offer an exciting alternative to studying in our own country, you might not be surprised to learn that these colleges are often popular choices among students at private schools and students from wealthy homes. You should know, however, that studying outside the U.S. does not have to be any more expensive than studying in the U.S., so don’t rule it out without doing your homework.

Third and most obviously (this is the one we won’t have to convince you about), there should be some variety in the selectivity of the colleges on your teenager’s short list. Every so-called expert has some formula for how to make up the list: how many “reach” schools, how many “target” schools, and how many “safety” schools–or whatever your favorite vocabulary is for these three types of college options. We think that this is a matter of common sense and that you don’t have to be an expert to figure it out. Your teenager’s short list should have perhaps two or three selective colleges that might be a reach (they might be highly selective or somewhat-less-selective, depending on how good a candidate your kid is); perhaps two or three not-so-selective colleges that could serve as safety schools (including, ideally, a reasonable and as good as possible public four-year school in your home state or maybe in another state), and maybe 10 or so colleges that seem just about right academically.

2. A Closer Look at Safety Schools

Let’s take a moment to look more closely at the notion of safety schools because we think that they are often chosen poorly.

When I work with a kid to put together his or her short list, I get these two types of colleges on the list as safeties: (1) a public university where I am sure the kid will be accepted; and (2) a private college where I am sure the kid will be accepted.

Now, true, some of this is a matter of experience. But, looking at the data on admitted or enrolled students that you can find on a college’s website or on the College Navigator website will give you one indication of the likelihood of a kid’s acceptance. (By the way, see Step 13 in our new workbook for further detail on this.) And, of course, some of this is a matter of how good a candidate your kid is. A college that serves as a safety school for some kids is a reach school for other kids, obviously.

But, the biggest mistake I see in kids’ short lists is the inclusion of a bunch of expensive less-selective private schools as safety schools when the kid really doesn’t want to go to them. Once you have one decent public university option and one decent less-selective private option on the short list, every other college on the list should be weighed against them.

For example, a young woman I was working with recently here in New York City is blessed with great high school grades and very good SAT and ACT scores. Her safety schools are a good public university in the West and a good private university abroad. I am confident that, given her high school record, she will be admitted to both. Other adults have suggested a variety of additional private colleges that might serve as safety schools for her. For each one, I simply asked her, “Would you rather go to this one than the two you already have, which you are going to be admitted to?” In every case, she said, “No.” Then why have them on the list and why spend time and money applying to them?

You don’t need a lot of safety schools. You need only one or two or maybe three that your kid is happy about and would look forward to going to. A young woman I worked with last year ended up at one of her two safety schools this fall. We chose them carefully to make sure she liked them, and she was, in fact, accepted to both. She ended up at the private one, and she loves it. I knew she would, and that’s why we chose it.

3. Other Colleges on the Short List

By the way, a similar question should be asked of all of the colleges on the short list. Once you can establish that a college (whether it is selective or not selective) is not a place your kid would rather go than the safety school you are sure he or she will be admitted to, take that college off the list.

To be clear, as your teenager and you look over the short list, ask him or her one final question about each college: “Would you really want to go to this college if you got in?” If you and your teenager were diligent in putting together a LLCO this summer and then in narrowing it down, we know that you two know quite a bit about each college still on the short list. We would say that it is likely that you know more about each college still on the list than the majority of students applying to it. But knowing all about a college doesn’t make your teenager want to go there.

I can usually hear it in the kid’s voice when I ask, “Why College X?” The kid is silent for a minute or says something vague. Can your teenager tell you several pros for each college on the short list–that is, several reasons why he or she personally would be happy going there? If not, it might be time to take it off the short list. “My mother suggested it” or “I’ve heard some good things about it” is not a reason to keep a college on the short list.

Now, of course, there are some colleges on the list that your teenager prefers. Maybe there is a first choice; maybe there are several top choices. But no college left on the list should make your teenager feel apathetic or disappointed. Take those colleges off and, if you need more colleges on the short list, then look at some new ones to add. There are plenty out there.

Next week, we are going to talk about a serious problem with transferring colleges in case you are thinking about that as a long-term strategy for your kid as you two are making up the short list. Let me just say, “Buyer beware!”

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