Episode 171: Why the College’s Academics Matter–Obviously

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Today’s episode is about Step 8 of your kid’s summer homework. That’s 8 out of 14 steps, all of which are explained in our series of episodes this summer and also, with more examples and details, in our workbook How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Workbooks are still available from Amazon if you want one for your son or daughter.

Step 8 is about the topic that most people think is most critical to choosing a college–that is, academics. Most people would say that it is what college is all about–or, at least, mainly about; or, at least, hopefully mainly about. Our College Profile Worksheet from the workbook has six questions in this section, which can be answered by reviewing each college’s website.

1. Schools and Colleges

First, let’s talk about the divisions that make up universities, in case your son or daughter has any on his or her Long List of College Options (that’s LLCO, for short). And, by the way, we hope that there are at least two or three. Here is what we explained to students in the workbook:

As you know by now, universities and large institutes (like Massachusetts Institute of Technology) are made up of schools and/or colleges that focus on different disciplines. Some of these institutions are composed of a small number of schools/colleges (say, four or five), but some are composed of quite a large number (as many as 15 or more). Some schools/colleges are only for graduate or professional students, who already have a bachelor’s degree; examples of these are law, medicine, dentistry, and veterinary medicine. Some schools/colleges within a university or institute are only for undergraduate students. And some schools/colleges within a university or institute serve both undergraduate and graduate students. You have to do some careful reading when researching which are which, but you will find all of them listed in the Academics section of a college’s website.

By the time you answer this question for five or six institutions, you will see that lots of their colleges/schools have the same name, like Business, Management, Education, Health Care, Social Work, Journalism, Engineering, and Architecture. Some have quite similar names, like various versions of Arts and Sciences for the liberal arts and sciences school that virtually all large institutions have. But some have really novel and interesting names, too.

You will need to figure out which school/college you are most interested in applying to because many institutions will not let you apply to more than one school/college within the institution. Think hard about that right now, while you are taking the time to read about all of them.

Question 19 asks your kid to jot down the schools/colleges within each institution on his or her LLCO and, then, to check off the ones that serve undergraduate students and double check the one that he or she is most interested in.

2. Academic Departments and Majors

Next, your son or daughter will need to go two steps further: first, to look at the academic departments at each institution and, then, to look at possible majors. This is what we said in the workbook:

Universities obviously have more departments across all of its schools/colleges than smaller liberal arts colleges have. There is often an alphabetical listing of all of the departments in the Academics section of a college’s website.

You can’t possibly write them all down and don’t need to. Just start focusing on the ones that interest you most. Even if you are not sure what you want to study in college, you will need to narrow the field in order to complete most college applications.

We know that this will begin to seem like a lot of detail if you are not at all sure what you want to study. Unfortunately, many college applications will ask you to specify a major. Some applications will also ask you to specify a second choice and even a third choice for a major. We say “unfortunately” because we know that many high school students are not ready to make this decision yet. We also know that many college students change their minds after they choose a major–even after a couple of college semesters. All that is to be expected from college freshmen and sophomores.

Nonetheless, you are likely to have to make a tentative decision about a major in order to complete at least some of your college applications. So, now is the time to start that research.

Getting a head start on thinking about majors will also give you a chance to talk to your high school teachers about your choices. For example, those of you who imagine majoring in biology and going to medical school eventually will notice that large universities have many majors within the Biology Department. If you can’t figure out which exact major(s) would be right for you, you won’t make a convincing case for yourself in your application.

Question 20 asks your kid to jot down at least several academic departments that he or she is interested in, and Question 21 asks him or her to jot down at least several majors that he or she is interested in.

3. Core Curriculum

Now, let’s dig a little deeper into what, if any, core curriculum each institution offers. This is what we wrote:

For the purpose of this discussion, we will refer to this centuries-old curriculum concept as a “core curriculum,” though you might hear it referred to as a “general education curriculum” or as “distribution requirements.” What it means is that all students in a college or in a specific college/school within a larger university or institute are usually required to take one or two courses in each of a broad range of academic disciplines, such as mathematics, or in each of a broad range of groups of disciplines, such as natural sciences, languages and literature, social sciences, and so on. Each college seems to have its own unique way of defining core requirements, and some definitions are more understandable than others.

Some colleges have quite strict requirements, meaning that there are many different requirements that have to be met, which might add up to 10 or more courses before it’s all over. Some colleges have far fewer requirements for either the number of courses or the exact courses that have to be taken. And some colleges have no core curriculum at all.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the purpose of a core curriculum. The concept comes from the liberal arts tradition, where students are supposed to be well rounded in their studies and in their understanding of the intellectual content and issues raised in many fields. People in favor of this tradition would say that students do not know exactly where their careers and lives will take them and that the ability to solve problems and think critically across a range of academic subjects could make a difference in how well they succeed in their careers (likely in their multiple careers) and indeed in their lives. It is no surprise that many liberal arts colleges as well as the arts and sciences college/school within many large institutions would require and proudly support a core curriculum for its students. . . .

Another advantage of a core curriculum is that it causes students to look into academic fields that are rarely taught in high schools–like anthropology or sociology or art history or linguistics. Without require­ments in a variety of academic fields or groups of fields, many students would never take a look at some of these fields and would never know what they had missed.

Now, let’s talk about those colleges that go one step further and require certain courses of all students–the actual courses, not just a number of courses in certain academic fields. . . . When a college decides to require specific courses, it is because its professors feel that those courses are most critical to developing the foundation for more advanced college study and/or to developing a broad understanding of and ability to engage in the modern world. . . .

In our virtual college tour, we often talked about the core curriculum requirements of a college. We did that for two reasons. First, we were truly impressed with some of them, even though we could tell that they would be quite challenging for students. Second, we knew that some students would love the idea of a core curriculum, while other students would hate it.

Question 22 asks students to check off whether each college on their LLCO has a core curriculum and, if so, to jot down the exact requirements listed on the website.

4. Study Abroad Options

And now, one of my favorite topics and one that I feel quite strongly about! We wrote this to students:

When you were making your LLCO, we suggested that you put one college outside the U.S. on your list. We were serious about that. By the way, you are likely to find that the college you picked is actually cheaper to attend than a private college here in the U.S., and you will see that many colleges offer degree programs taught in English.

But, for those of you who don’t want to go to a college for four years in another country, take a close look at the study abroad options available at each college on your LLCO. These days, many colleges have fantastic study abroad programs, which make it logistically easy for you to study outside the U.S. These programs are already carefully set up, and they offer housing and other support while you are there. Some colleges have their own campuses in foreign countries, while others partner with a foreign university.

Some colleges strongly encourage their students to take a semester abroad. And a few colleges even require their students to study abroad. [See the workbook for examples.]

For future reference, if a college you love doesn’t have its own study abroad program, don’t forget about what the American Institute for Foreign Study (AIFS) has to offer. Based in Stamford, Connecticut, AIFS operates a wide range of outstanding summer, semester-long, and year-long programs in over 20 countries on five continents. . . . All of our firsthand experiences with AIFS have been fantastic.

Question 23 on the College Profile Worksheet asks students to jot down the study abroad options that the college offers–both locations and programs, including any important details.

5. Grading Practices

And, finally, here is something we didn’t start thinking about ourselves till more recently, and I regret that. Here is what the workbook says:

We bet that grading practices are not something most students consider before choosing a college–perhaps because they assume that colleges are quite traditional when it comes to awarding final course grades. Most colleges do, in fact, use some kind of numerical scale (typically, with a 4.0 as an A) or letter scale (typically, from A though F). These traditional grading practices might seem just fine to you.

However, there are some colleges that are anything but traditional when it comes to evaluating student progress. For example, take Hampshire College (an excellent and innovative private college in Amherst, Massachusetts), where students receive written narrative evaluations from professors on their assignments and as their final course grades. No numbers and no letters. . . .

Colleges that use narrative evaluations instead of traditional grades praise their value in teaching their students more about their own strengths and weaknesses, in getting their students to focus on their learning instead of on their grades, and in building better and more stimulating relationships between their students and their professors.

Who knew this was an option? Question 24 asks students to check off whether the college has a traditional grading system and, if not, to jot down the way that student work is evaluated instead.

Well, that brings us to the end of six critical questions about what your kid’s academic life might be at college. And what could be more important than that?

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Episode 123: A New Look at Colleges North of the Border

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Last week in our Colleges in the Spotlight series, we took you to the U.K. to consider what it might be like to attend college full time outside the U.S. We looked specifically at Richmond, the American International University in London, a unique university dually accredited in the U.S. and the U.K. We hoped that taking a close look at Richmond–and, more generally, at the value of full-time study at universities abroad–might persuade some of you to leave your geographic comfort zone.

But, in case a trip across the Atlantic (or the Pacific) seems too big a geographic leap for you, today’s episode lets you stay a little closer to home. We are going to look at colleges in Canada, our close ally and important trading partner to the north. Let me say that I have known about colleges in Canada for decades, first because of a childhood Canadian friend and later because McGill University in Montreal has been an increasingly popular college choice for students in the Northeast for many years now. Then, six years ago, my nephew, who was raised in Seattle, decided to attend the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and had a great four years there. So, it has been with some interest that I have read a variety of articles in the news in the past six months about the new appeal of Canadian colleges for U.S. students.

And, let us remind you, that you should go to amazon.com and get a copy of our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. The workbook will help your teenager know what questions to ask about colleges of interest to him or her and will help your teenager research the answers. Let me say, by the way, that one of our favorite sources of college information, the National Center for Education Statistics’ College Navigator, does not provide data about colleges outside the U.S. So, if your teenager likes our notion of studying full time outside the U.S., he or she will have to dig a little harder to answer all of the questions we pose in our book.

1. The New Statistics

So, what’s all this about Canada? Well, in an article about two months ago in The Washington Post, Susan Svrluga wrote about the increased interest of U.S. students in Canadian universities and the possible reasons for it. Here are some of the statistics she provides in the article: 

  • Applications to Canadian universities from students outside of Canada are on the upswing, and the number of international students studying at Canadian universities has doubled in the past 10 years.
  • Twice as many students as usual have been looking for information on the Universities Canada website since last November. The website “offers profiles of Canadian universities, a large study programs database and helps you plan your university education. The information on [the] site is provided by Universities Canada and its 97 member universities.” (quoted from the website)
  • Some of the best Canadian universities have seen dramatic increases in U.S. applications: a 25 percent increase at McGill; a 35 percent increase at McMaster University, a public research university in Hamilton, Ontario; and an 80 percent increase at the University of Toronto.
  • And the price is attractive, too. According to The Washington Post article, “At the current exchange rate, tuition and fees are about $13,000 less for an international student’s first year at the University of Toronto than they would be at Harvard, and $11,000 less than out-of-state rates at the University of Virginia.” So, as we said about Richmond last week, the cost of attending some excellent universities outside the U.S. is surprisingly reasonable, though not necessarily cheap.

The Universities Canada website offers eight reasons for attending college in Canada. All of them are good, but I can see how the following four might resonate with some U.S. students and with other foreign students who are looking for a safe college environment and secure future:

Affordability: While Canada’s quality of education and standard of living are among the highest in the world, the cost of living and tuition fees are generally lower than in other countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom.

Support services: International students benefit from services to help them transition to living and studying in Canada: orientation activities, student advisors, language support, academic associations, social clubs and other programs at their educational institutions.

Cultural diversity: Canada ranks among the most multicultural nations in the world. Regardless of ethnic origin, international students feel at home in our diverse and welcoming communities and campuses.

Opportunity to stay in Canada after graduation: International students have the opportunity to work during their studies and after they graduate. University graduates may also be eligible to transition to permanent residence in Canada. Visit the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website for more information. (quoted from the Universities Canada website)

The Washington Post article quoted Ted Sargent, a vice president at the University of Toronto, which recruits outside Canada, including in the U.S. Sargent said, “Canada is having a moment. It is a time of opportunity. . . . A lot of people know that half of the people in Toronto were not born in Canada. Canada is a place that is focused on attracting talent from around the world. . . . That messaging about diversity and inclusivity is very resonant today.” One can see how Canada’s open arms are appealing to the students and their families who are concerned about the ramifications of the Brexit vote in the U.K. and who are concerned about some of the new proposed immigration policies in the U.S. The Washington Post article offers several insightful anecdotes about individual students, including a long story about one Syrian graduate student’s difficulties in getting back into the U.S. after a trip to check on the humanitarian medical work he had been doing in Turkey.

Interestingly, Universities Canada published a statement after our president’s first executive order about immigration. Here it is:

“Universities Canada does not typically comment on executive action being taken by another country, but we do so today because of the real impediment this new executive order poses to the free flow of people and ideas and to the values of diversity, inclusion and openness that are hallmarks of a strong and healthy society.” (quoted from the article)

2. Check Out Universities Canada!

I think it is worth it for you and your teenager to check out the Universities Canada website and read some of the profiles of the universities that you will find there. As Americans unfortunately are with many things about Canada (including its history and government), I think we are quite ignorant of its higher education system. That seems ridiculous when many top Canadian universities are a lot closer to where some of us live than universities in a distant part of our own country. We likely know more about Canada’s ice hockey and baseball teams, its actors and singers who have big careers in our country, and our television industry’s use of Vancouver to film some of our favorite shows than we know about its universities. I think once you see some of its universities’ reasonable tuition rates, you will be sorry you didn’t think of Canada sooner (this is also true for graduate programs, by the way).

So, what are the best universities in Canada? I thought a decent source might be the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2016?2017, which lists the top 980 universities in the world. If you don’t know it, Times Higher Education is a weekly publication based in London. Its website explains its rankings this way:

[Ours] is the only global university performance table to judge world class universities across all of their core missions–teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook. The top universities rankings use 13 carefully calibrated performance indicators to provide the most comprehensive and balanced comparisons available, which are trusted by students, academics, university leaders, industry and governments.

For the [World University Rankings], [our] in-house data team now ranks 2,150 institutions worldwide, with 1 million data points analysed across 2,600 institutions in 93 countries. In 2016, the global media reach of the rankings was almost 700 million. (quoted from the website)

That’s a lot of institutions and a lot of data. Just so you know, the five top-ranked institutions worldwide, according to this list, are the University of Oxford, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Here are the top six Canadian universities, along with their world ranking, according to this list. So, if you have a smart teenager, you might want to start with the profiles of these, available on the Times Higher Education website:

  • University of Toronto–22
  • University of British Columbia (with a student body that is 25 percent international)–36
  • McGill University–42
  • University of Montreal (the only French-speaking one in the top five)–103
  • University of Alberta (in Edmonton)–107
  • McMaster University–113

Of course, just as there are in the U.S., there are many other great universities in Canada. Your teenager doesn’t have to go to one of the top six anymore than he or she has to go to one of the top six in the U.S. or one of the top six in the world. The Universities Canada website can give you all the information you need about many universities to start your search.

3. A Personal Reflection

Maybe if we had written our new book this week instead of a couple of months ago, we would have added another requirement for building your teenager’s long list of college options (or LLCO, as we called it). If you don’t already have the book, we ask that your teenager put together an LLCO that includes two four-year colleges in each of the nine geographic regions of the U.S., at least two public flagship universities, and one college outside of the U.S. All of this is, of course, designed to get you all outside your geographic comfort zone–where, undoubtedly, some of the best higher education is happening.

So, if we had written the book today, we might have said that your teenager’s LLCO should also include one Canadian university. Given everything we have just read, it wouldn’t have been a bad idea.

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Episode 121: No Harvard for You!

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Today in our current series, Colleges in the Spotlight, we want to look at a great article published in The New York Times by an award-winning journalist writing a very personal piece. Although the title of our episode is “No Harvard for You,” it is really about many colleges a lot like Harvard–highly selective, prestigious, private colleges, which have disappointed a lot of kids this March and April. This is an unusual perspective and a memorable one. Special thanks to my friend, Regina Rule, school board member in Manhasset, New York, who posted this article on Facebook. I probably never would have seen it without her.

1. Michael Winerip’s Article

Let me quote first from The New York Times blurb about the article’s author, Michael Winerip, so you can see just how impressive he is:

Mike Winerip hasn’t held every job at The Times, just most of them. Over nearly 30 years, he has written five different columns–Our Towns, On Sunday, On Education (three times), Parenting and Generation B.

He has been a staff writer for the magazine, investigative reporter, national political correspondent, Metro reporter and a deputy Metro editor. . . .

In 2000, he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his exposé in the Times magazine of a mentally ill New York City man pushing a woman to her death on the subway. . . . In 2001, he played a leading role on the team of reporters that won a Pulitzer for the series “How Race Is Lived in America.” (quoted from the article)

And there is plenty more. There is no doubt that Mike is a smart, perceptive, and accomplished guy. Clearly, he is someone worth listening to. You should go read his entire piece, entitled “Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard,” published in The Times on April 29, 2007. Yes, 2007. It might as well have been yesterday. Perhaps his words are even more true now.

Let’s listen to the beginning of his piece:

On a Sunday morning a few months back, I interviewed my final Harvard applicant of the year. After saying goodbye to the girl and watching her and her mother drive off, I headed to the beach at the end of our street for a run. 

It was a spectacular winter day, bright, sunny and cold; the tide was out, the waves were high, and I had the beach to myself. As I ran, I thought the same thing I do after all these interviews: Another amazing kid who won’t get into Harvard.

That used to upset me. But I’ve changed. 

Over the last decade, I’ve done perhaps 40 of these interviews, which are conducted by alumni across the country. They’re my only remaining link to my alma mater; I’ve never been back to a reunion or a football game, and my total donations since graduating in the 1970s do not add up to four figures. 

No matter how glowing my recommendations, in all this time only one kid, a girl, got in, many years back. I do not tell this to the eager, well-groomed seniors who settle onto the couch in our den. They’re under too much pressure already. Better than anyone, they know the odds, particularly for a kid from a New York suburb.

By the time I meet them, they’re pros at working the system. Some have Googled me because they think knowing about me will improve their odds. After the interview, many send handwritten thank-you notes saying how much they enjoyed meeting me.

Maybe it’s true. 

I used to be upset by these attempts to ingratiate. Since I’ve watched my own children go through similar torture, I find these gestures touching. Everyone’s trying so hard. (quoted from the article)

Let me stop right there for a minute. Parents, how many of you had your seniors do one or more of these alumni interviews? Parents of juniors, many of you have these on your horizon. I used to do them years ago for Cornell, so I know a bit about the way Mike feels. A young friend of mine went through alumni interviews for her applications to Georgetown and Yale and Cornell just a few months ago.

To tell you the truth, I am not sure how I feel about alumni interviews and, for those of you who know me, you know that it is rare that I don’t have a strong opinion about something. I see why a college would use its alumni in this role, and I see why alumni would be willing to take on this task. I did myself, after all. But I am not sure how much alumni interviews really contribute to the admissions process or how valid those contributions are.

In the old days, it seems to me that many more applicants were interviewed at the colleges by admissions officers. Maybe they weren’t any smarter or savvier than alumni, but they were trained in what they were doing. They likely knew what to look for, how to get the best from a nervous kid, and how to represent the college–and its admission process–accurately and fairly. I am not entirely sure that alumni interviewers–or, at least, not all alumni interviewers–can do all of those things. So why continue doing it, colleges?

Here is what Mike says about why he continued to interview for his alma mater:

It’s very moving meeting all these bright young people who won’t get into Harvard. Recent news articles make it sound unbearably tragic. Several Ivies, including Harvard, rejected a record number of applicants this year.

Actually, meeting the soon-to-be rejected makes me hopeful about young people. They are far more accomplished than I was at their age and without a doubt will do superbly wherever they go.

Knowing me and seeing them is like witnessing some major evolutionary change take place in just 35 years, from the Neanderthal Harvard applicant of 1970 to today’s fully evolved Homo sapiens applicant. 

There was the girl who, during summer vacation, left her house before 7 each morning to make a two-hour train ride to a major university, where she worked all day doing cutting-edge research for NASA on weightlessness in mice.

When I was in high school, my 10th-grade science project was on plant tropism–a shoebox with soil and bean sprouts bending toward the light.

These kids who don’t get into Harvard spend summers on schooners in Chesapeake Bay studying marine biology, building homes for the poor in Central America, touring Europe with all-star orchestras.

Summers, I dug trenches for my local sewer department during the day, and sold hot dogs at Fenway Park at night. (quoted from the article)

Mike is right. The escalation in what kids now present as their credentials on college applications has continued in the decade since this piece was written. College applications have almost become parodies of themselves. What more could high school kids do? Is any kid just a kid anymore? Well, if so, that kid isn’t getting into Harvard–or any other very selective college–where even stellar kids aren’t being admitted. Mike continues this way: 

What kind of kid doesn’t get into Harvard? Well, there was the charming boy I interviewed with 1560 SATs. He did cancer research in the summer; played two instruments in three orchestras; and composed his own music. He redid the computer system for his student paper, loved to cook and was writing his own cookbook. One of his specialties was snapper poached in tea and served with noodle cake. 

At his age, when I got hungry, I made myself peanut butter and jam on white bread and got into Harvard. 

Some take 10 AP courses and get top scores of 5 on all of them. 

I took one AP course and scored 3. (quoted from the article)

I wonder if this makes any kid who didn’t get into some Ivy or Stanford or MIT or the like this April feel any better. It probably doesn’t. But it does underscore just how crazy admissions at top schools can be. I keep saying to prospective applicants that these schools could fill their seats with kids with perfect SATs and perfect high school GPAs and incredible extracurricular activities. And I guess it’s true. Of course, these schools would be quick to say that they look for plenty of other things, too. And I hope that’s true, though I would like to see some evidence of it.

One of Mike’s final comments is this: 

I see these kids–and watch my own applying to college–and as evolved as they are, I wouldn’t change places with them for anything. They’re under such pressure. (quoted from the article)

They are indeed, Mike. Parents, don’t forget that. Your kids are “under such pressure.”

I have watched a number of kids go through this recently. Let me take one example of a smart and talented kid who did not get into her top Ivy-like choices, but did get into a fine private university and a fine public flagship university. She chose the private university and immediately applied to its honors program (she had already automatically been accepted into the honors program at the public flagship when they sent her the acceptance). But this private university required a separate honors program application–well, actually there were four different honors programs, each one more impressive than the last.

She asked me to look over the FOUR essays she had to write for the honors application. Honestly, I would have had trouble writing the fourth one myself. I felt a bit like Mike as I sat there, with my two Ivy League degrees, staring at the essay and wondering what in the world I would have said.

I did what I could to help her, but she did not get into the honors program she applied for (likely a result of her SAT scores, according to the honors program descriptions). Now, I think that is okay. She will do well at the university. She will probably have a great time there (which is actually an important part of the college experience, too, I think). I am fine that she didn’t get into the honors program, but I doubt she is, and I know her parents are disappointed. So, I will say one more time to you, parents: “They’re under such pressure.” At some point, you have to let that go. Once the acceptances are in and the college-going decision is made, it is time to be happy. No more disappointment. Look forward to the fall and a new adventure for your kid. I don’t want to have to remind you again!

2. Next Week

We are going to take a break next week in honor of college graduations and Memorial Day. I am actually traveling to the U.K. to attend my daughter’s master’s degree graduation ceremony at Richmond, The American International University in London. Many of you are making or just made the same kind of trip if you have older kids graduating from college somewhere this month. It is a time for celebration, and we hope you have a great one!

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Episode 120: Lots of College Options in Our New Workbook

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Today, we have figured out a way to talk both about our new book–How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students–and to make good on the title of our current series, Colleges in the Spotlight. As we were writing the book, we realized that we could use a lot of college examples, drawn from our earlier podcast episodes, to illuminate the points we were trying to make. I thought it would be interesting to see just how many colleges were mentioned in the book–and by “mentioned,” I mean that they were used to illustrate the answers to some of the 52 questions that teenagers are asked to find the answers to for each college on their Long List of College Options (LLCO). In a way, these colleges are in our spotlight for things that they are doing right or for characteristics they have that are noteworthy. To find out why we mentioned each college, you are going to have to get the book!

1. Colleges in the Spotlight

So, here we go. Here are the colleges that we thought were worth mentioning–for some reason or other (they are listed roughly in the order in which they are mentioned in the book, and I might have missed a few):

That’s more than 60 colleges, which is actually quite a few. Of course, you can always refer back to the virtual college tour we did in Episodes 27 through 53 for a discussion of even more colleges, organized by geographic region of the U.S.

But the new book doesn’t stop with those 60-plus. We also name some great college towns–“great,” according to one of the lists of great college towns that publications love to compile. Do you know what colleges are located in these towns?

  • College Station, TX
  • Charlottesville, VA
  • Saratoga Springs, NY
  • Asheville, NC
  • Flagstaff, AZ
  • Boulder, CO
  • Santa Cruz, CA
  • St. Augustine, FL
  • Burlington, VT
  • Annapolis, MD
  • Ann Arbor, MI
  • Athens, GA
  • Oxford, MS
  • Iowa City, IA

2. Now, It’s Up to You

Now, it’s up to you. At least, that is what we say at the end of the book. We wrote this to each student, assuming that he or she had done the assignments as they were presented: 

You have done a lot of work to gather information about the colleges on your LLCO. You have completed a College Profile Worksheet on quite a few colleges by now. You have learned more than many high school students know about a variety of specific colleges and about higher education generally. 

So, it’s time to start comparing and contrasting the colleges you have researched. That will be a long process, which will require analysis and evaluation by you and your parents and perhaps other important family members. And it’s okay that it is a long process because this is a big decision for all of you. 

Remember that choosing which colleges to apply to can be every bit as important as choosing which college to attend. In an ideal world, you should be happy with every college you apply to because that will take the pressure off as you wait for acceptances to come in. 

Of course, you might be more excited about some choices than others, but don’t apply to any college that you would not want to attend. That is a waste of your time and money. We are confident that there is a college that you can be admitted to that will make you happy. Even safety schools don’t have to be disappointing choices. If they are for you now, you just haven’t looked hard enough yet! Get busy.

We mean that last point really sincerely: If your teenager’s safety schools are disappointing choices for him or her, you all just haven’t looked hard enough yet. There are great colleges–especially some public flagship universities and some large private universities–that are very likely to admit good students, especially those who come from other states. Having a safety school that your teenager does not want to go to is really not having any safety school at all.

We mean it when we say, “Look harder.” We hope that our new book will help your teenager look harder, think harder, and work harder to expand his or her LLCO, to get exciting colleges onto that LLCO, to learn as much as possible about each one of them (by completing a College Profile Worksheet for each one), and to feel satisfied when all of the applications are submitted–that is, satisfied that all of the colleges he or she applied to are good choices, just for different reasons. And a satisfied teenager is likely to produce a satisfied parent. Or at least it should.

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Episode 61: New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part One

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This is our seventh episode focusing on news stories about higher education—some that might immediately change your thoughts about colleges for your teenager and others that might take a bit longer to consider.  Today’s story and next week’s story look at a new report that grew out of a meeting a year ago hosted by a Harvard Graduate School of Education project called Making Caring Common.  The meeting brought together college admissions deans, high school folks, and others to discuss the state of college admissions.  The report is entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.

NYCollegeChat Episode 61 New Admissions Report Focuses on Student Service—Part One

In a recent Education Week commentary (“College Admission 2.0: Service Over Self,” January 19, 2016), project co-director Richard Weissbourd said this:

For perhaps the first time in history, a broad range of colleges have come together to send a powerful collective message that what’s important in admissions is not high numbers of impressive accomplishments or long ‘brag sheets.’  Yes, academic engagement matters, but so does meaningful ethical engagement, especially as shown in concern for others and the common good.  The report also redefines ethical and intellectual contributions to more fairly capture the strengths of students across race, culture, and class.  (quoted from the article)

I hope this is true, but I am not totally convinced just yet.  Who signed on to this report?  Well, the list of “endorsers” included every Ivy League school plus an impressive list of about 50 more higher education institutions, including some of our nation’s best small liberal arts colleges, best public flagship universities, and best private universities, including Amherst College, Boston College, Boston University, Bowdoin College, Brandeis University, College of the Holy Cross, Emory University, Kenyon College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan State University, Oberlin College, Purdue University, Reed College, Rice University, Smith College, Swarthmore College, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, the University of Washington, Wabash College, and Wake Forest University.  Incidentally, we talked about every one of these institutions during our virtual tour of colleges nationwide.  They are great schools.

The question now is simply this:  How much do they mean it?

The Report’s Recommendations

The report makes 11 recommendations (the report actually has the recommendations divided into three sections), which I am going to quote for you in these episodes, and we will talk about them one by one.  We will do the first half of the recommendations in this episode, so here we go:

1) “Meaningful, Sustained Community Service:  We recommend that students engage in forms of service that are authentically chosen—that emerge from a student’s particular passions and interests—that are consistent and well-structured, and that provide opportunity for reflection both individually and with peers and adults.  We also recommend that students undertake at least a year of sustained service or community engagement . . . .  This service can take the form of substantial and sustained contributions to one’s family, such as working outside the home to provide needed income.  Just as important, it’s vital that the admissions process squarely challenges misconceptions about what types of service are valued in admissions.  Some students seek to ‘game’ service by taking up high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership.  The admissions process should clearly convey that what counts is not whether service occurred locally or in some distant place or whether students were leaders, but whether students immersed themselves in an experience and the emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience.”  (quoted from the report)

So, that’s a mouthful.  What does it all mean?  That the service be something that your teenager is actually interested in and invested in; that the service be something your teenager thinks about, talks about with other kids and with adults, and learns from; that the service last at least a year; and that the service may be something that your teenager does in order to support or help your own family, such as working at a paid job if financial help is needed or taking care of a younger sibling or an elderly relative if that kind of family support is needed.  To be sure, Marie and I saw kids at the high school we co-founded in New York City who had substantial family responsibilities, which made it very difficult for them to engage in the other kinds of service that students without such responsibilities had the free time to undertake.  I think that the report’s notion that the service last at least a year is also significant.  In other words, the college might not look so favorably on a one-week community service project—unless perhaps a student did those projects summer after summer and during other school vacations.

2) “Collective Action that Takes on Community Challenges:  While individual service can be valuable, we also encourage young people to consider various forms of community engagement, including working in groups on community problems, whether the problem is a local park that needs attention, bullying in their schools or communities or some form of environmental degradation.  These types of activities can help young people develop key emotional and ethical capacities, including problem-solving skills and group awareness, as well as greater understanding of and investment in the common good.”  (quoted from the report)

It strikes me that these community engagement projects could be run by local government agencies, community nonprofit organizations, or religious organizations.  However, these projects are the kinds that could also be run by high schools, which would help not only their communities, but also their students on their college applications.  These projects might be run as after-school clubs or as after-school semester-long or year-long projects of a science or social studies class or as long-term PTA-sponsored efforts.  If I were a high school principal, I would be talking to my teachers and counselors and PTA officers right now about this idea—because projects like these are truly valuable learning opportunities for kids, regardless of their usefulness on college applications.

3) “Authentic, Meaningful Experiences with Diversity:  We encourage students to undertake community service and engagement that deepens their appreciation of diversity.  Too often, current forms of service are patronizing to recipients and don’t spark in those providing service a deeper understanding of social structures and inequalities.  Rather than students “doing for” students from different backgrounds, for example, we encourage students to “do with”—to work in diverse groups for sustained periods of time on school and community challenges, groups in which students learn from one another.  Importantly, these experiences of diversity should be carefully constructed and facilitated.”  (quoted from the report)

Now, this might be a tall order, especially in some not-too-diverse communities.  I also strongly believe that students can “do for” others without being patronizing.  For many years, I served on the board of an after-school homework-help and enrichment program for low-income kids, including some newly arrived in the U.S., who would otherwise have gone home to empty apartments.  Teenagers from local high schools volunteered in the afternoons to work with our elementary-school-aged kids.  Were some of the teenagers patronizing?  Probably so, even when they didn’t mean to be.  But did they go away with “a deeper understanding of social structures and inequalities”?  Yes, many of them did.  With that said, I also see the value of the “doing with” philosophy.  Could high schools play a role in putting together these projects, where kids from diverse backgrounds work together toward a worthwhile goal?  I believe so; but, as the recommendation says, “these experiences of diversity should be carefully constructed and facilitated.”  That takes a dedicated high school staff member or two or three to pull off.

4) “Service that Develops Gratitude and a Sense of Responsibility for the Future:  We encourage students to take up forms of community engagement, service and reflection that help them appreciate the contributions of the generations before them—how their lives are built on the service of others—and their responsibility to their descendants.  Working within a tradition, whether religious or secular, such as 4H clubs, can help generate this kind of gratitude and responsibility.”  (quoted from the report)

My guess is that this type of service is probably best left to community groups and religious organizations.  Any community project that is devoted to recording or celebrating the history of the area or of its people could qualify.  For example, I can imagine a great project where Brooklyn students volunteer their time to give tours of the historic buildings or do educational events with younger students at Weeksville, which was a community founded by African-American freedmen in the mid-1800s.  That would be a way to honor previous generations and give to future generations.  I can also imagine that, in communities where many high school graduates continue to live and work, intergenerational community service activities between older alums and current high school students could prove rewarding.

5) “Contributions to One’s Family:  The admissions process should clearly send the message to students, parents and other caregivers that not only community engagement and service, but also students’ family contributions, such as caring for younger siblings, taking on major household duties or working outside the home to provide needed income, are highly valued in the admissions process.  Far too often there is a perception that high-profile, brief forms of service tend to count in admissions, while these far more consistent, demanding, and deeper family contributions are overlooked.  Students should have clear opportunities to report these family contributions on their applications.”  (quoted from the report)

Marie and I certainly agree that this is an issue with lots of kids, especially perhaps lower-income urban kids.  I do not think that college applications always make it obvious to kids where they should write about these kinds of family responsibilities.  They can list paid jobs held or other family care activities done during the summer, for example, but those lists do not always give kids a chance to describe their family situation or explain all that they really do.  Sometimes family responsibilities can be the focus of an essay on an application, especially a supplemental essay or the second essay in the Common App where kids are asked to add anything else they want to say.  But I don’t think that these options are really the “clear opportunities” that the report is calling for.  A specific question about family care and support would be better—but I worry that all kids will now feel that this is one more thing they have to be able to respond to in order to get into college, which rather weakens the point of adding the question in the first place.

6) “Assessing Students’ Daily Awareness of and Contributions to Others:  The admissions process should seek to assess more effectively whether students are ethically responsible and concerned for others and their communities in their daily lives.  The nature of students’ day-to-day conduct should be weighed more heavily in admissions than the nature of students’ stints of service.”  (quoted from the report)

Wow.  That is more than I imagine almost any college application can actually do.  The only way I can see to make this happen is to suggest on recommendation forms that teachers and guidance counselors and other adults (like clergy, internship supervisors, and employers) consider this character trait and individual behavior when writing their college recommendations for students.  Some of these adults have a window into the daily or at least weekly activities of students and might be able to comment on how they see a student interacting with others, reaching out to help others, or serving as a role model or leader for others at school, at work, in places of worship, or in the greater community.

So there you have the first six of the 11 report recommendations.  They are an interesting bunch.  More next week!

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • How easy it might be for colleges to take these recommendations
  • How high schools could make a difference
  • How history might have predicted some of these recommendations

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