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 118: It’s the Colleges’ Turn To Beg!

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Since Decision Day is almost upon us, we are going to refrain from giving any more general advice. If you want specific advice for your teenager, call us. That’s free advice available to parents with seniors until April 30 at 11:59 p.m. New York City time

So, we are in our new series, which we are calling Colleges in the Spotlight. Last week, we shone our spotlight on Spelman College and its fellow HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). Today, we are headed to the West Coast to take a look at the University of California, Los Angeles, which we talked at length about way back in Episode 39 of our virtual nationwide college tour.

As we said then, UCLA was started in 1919 as the University of California’s Southern Branch and its star has been rising ever since. By many accounts, it now ranks academically with well-known and highly regarded UC Berkeley, the university that UCLA was the Southern Branch of. When we recorded Episode 39, UCLA’s incoming freshman class average GPA was 4.25, with comparably high SAT scores. UCLA serves about 28,000 undergraduates and a total of about 42,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. About one-third of its undergraduates are Asian, and about one-quarter are white. About 80 percent are California residents. UCLA’s undergraduates study in 125 majors across five schools and colleges: College of Letters and Science and the Schools of the Arts and Architecture; Engineering and Applied Science; Theater, Film and Television; and Nursing. And the Bruins play some great basketball, have won more NCAA titles than any other university, and have produced 250 Olympic medalists. It looks as though any candidate would need to be exceptional to get into UCLA these days.

Given those remarkable statistics, it is even more intriguing to listen to today’s episode in which the tables have now been turned: The college is trying to convince the students to come (rather than having the students try to convince the college to accept them). You might have noticed your friends who have seniors of their own travelling the country in this last week or two to take their kids to “admitted students’ days” so that everyone can get one last look before making the big decision. Well, I believe that a lot of those visits include a hard sell by college administrators, who have crafted the perfect sales pitch to convert admitted students into enrolled students. Why? Because, as we have said before, colleges are looking for a high “yield rate”–that is, the percentage of students who actually enroll from those who have been admitted. This yield rate affects the way some people judge a college and its attractiveness and its prestige–and it undoubtedly affects some of the many independent college-ranking systems as well.

1. “UCLA Works To Seal the Deal”

So, let us take you to an article written recently by Teresa Watanabe in the Los Angeles Times, entitled “UCLA works to seal the deal with thousands of freshmen admitted for fall 2017.” You should read it, if only for its great human interest angle and the personal stories of real seniors faced with real decisions. We will give you just some highlights here.

Let us start by saying that the article focuses on the work being done by UCLA’s vice provost of enrollment management, Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, to convert admitted students into enrolled students. The article tells the story of Ms. Copeland-Morgan’s hard sell to a group of 11 Los Angeles high school seniors. Really? The vice provost of enrollment management is meeting with 11 students? At some colleges, 11 might be almost a noticeable number of a small freshman class, but the UCLA freshman class is bigger than a lot of colleges’ total enrollment. That sounds like a lot of meetings for Ms. Copeland-Morgan.

The article notes these statistics:

[UCLA] sent out letters of acceptance to about 16,000 high school seniors last month and is now working to seal the deal with enough students to fill 4,350 freshman seats.

Last year, 37% of those offered admission accepted, a yield rate topped only by UC Berkeley among the University of California’s nine undergraduate campuses.

Copeland-Morgan told the [11 students she was talking to that] they were elite scholars who were selected from a record 102,000 applications from all 50 states and 80 countries. (quoted from the article)

Let’s look at these brand new numbers. First, UCLA was clearly quite selective in choosing to admit just about 15 percent of its applicants. It is a public university, after all. Second, as I do the math, UCLA needs only about a 27 percent yield rate to fill those 4,350 freshman seats. Last year, it got a 37 percent yield rate. Consequently, it looks to me as though UCLA is probably in fine shape–maybe too fine, if it gets the same yield rate and has to find room for an extra 1,500 freshmen!

The article continues as Ms. Copeland-Morgan talks to the 11 high school students:

She told them they deserved to attend UCLA, [which] she described as one of the world’s top 15 universities. She also tried to ease their worries that they might not fit in and feel comfortable. The campus is richly diverse, she told them and their parents, with more than a third of its students low-income, underrepresented minorities and the first in their families to attend college. (quoted from the article)

While those words might have been encouraging, especially since Ms. Copeland-Morgan was herself an alumna of the very high school some of the 11 kids were attending, she also noted that “UCLA’s top-notch faculty and staff included people who would help them find classmates to connect with–and keep them on the right path. ‘If we see any of them acting crazy, we’re going to talk to them like our own children,’ Copeland-Morgan said, prompting one dad in the audience to give her a smile and thumbs up” (quoted from the article).

By the way, it wasn’t just Ms. Copeland-Morgan at the sales pitch on behalf of UCLA. According to the article, “[o]ther staff members talked up UCLA’s food, three years of guaranteed student housing, 1,000-plus student organizations and elite athletics, with its teams boasting 113 NCAA championships.” I have to admit that I am surprised that UCLA would send more than one staff member to do this recruiting?or, in fact, that UCLA would send even one. But the article explains that this personal touch has improved UCLA’s yield rate, “especially among minority, low-income and first-generation college students” (quoted from the article). The article quotes one of the newly accepted students attending the sales pitch as saying this:

“I was nervous about UCLA because it’s so prestigious and because of my status as a minority,” he said. “But the staff seemed so friendly and caring. I can see myself walking onto the campus as a Bruin.”

And so the face-to-face hard sells seem to be working. And according to the article, Ms. Copeland-Morgan “said she jumps at the chance to make a personal pitch to students who can help UCLA fulfill its mission to reflect the diversity of Californians.” To that we say, good for her, good for the kids, and good for UCLA.

The article continues on this theme:

[Ms. Copeland-Morgan] and her staff also have . . . enlisted faculty members to help with what she called “culturally relevant” programs to give admitted students and their families a chance to get a feel for the campus. Recently, they sponsored an event, “Your Future is Bruin,” for Latino students, offering Spanish for monolingual parents and play spaces for siblings.

“UCLA has an obligation as an anchor institution in the city to give back in different ways to the community,” Copeland-Morgan said. “This is my passion. This is my ministry.” (quoted from the article)

So, what are the results of this considerable personal investment by UCLA staff, which has to come at a substantial price? According to the statistics quoted in the article, the results are impressive, especially when it comes to underrepresented minority students:

The yield rate for African American freshmen rose to 50% last fall from 44% in 2014, by far the highest among UC campuses.

At UC Berkeley, by comparison, the rate fell to 37% last year from 47% in 2014. UC Santa Barbara’s rate was 23%; UC Santa Cruz, 17%.

UCLA also increased its Latino yield rate to 52% last year from 49% in 2014 and its first-generation rate to 54% from 49% over that same period. (quoted from the article)

Enough said.

2. So What?

So what does this have to do with your senior? First, you should think about whether any administrators and faculty members showed up to make the big sales pitch at any meetings for admitted students you have attended recently. If they did, I believe that means that the college actually cares a lot about whether its admitted students come–and probably for more reasons than just to improve its yield rate. It likely bodes well for the attention that those professionals will give your kid in the future. Furthermore, if the college is reaching out to your teenager because he or she is African American or Latino or the first generation in your family to go to college, then you should be pleased and relieved that the college cares enough to make that effort.

Second, I hope that your teenager got a kick out of being on the other side of the bargaining table–especially if he or she had a grueling applications season and a difficult round of acceptances.

For those of you who have freshmen, sophomores, or juniors at home, you should think hard about going to any admitted students’ days when the time comes, especially if your teenager is trying to choose among several good options. You both should sit back at the sale pitches and let the colleges work hard to get your business. Ask important questions. Demand good answers. Enjoy your time in the spotlight.

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Episode 117: The Best Case for Historically Black Colleges and Universities?

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We know that some of you are still discussing which college your teenager should attend next fall, and we are sure that, by now, you are tired of re-listening to Episodes 69, 70, 71, and 114 of USACollegeChat–all of which we hoped would guide you through these difficult days. So, we thought we would let someone else do the talking today. Not us, but rather a college student–one we found to be remarkably insightful.

This episode will also start a new series, which we are calling Colleges in the Spotlight. Now, to be honest, I am not sure that we can sustain this series for very long, but we do have a few colleges or types of colleges we find ourselves wanting to put the spotlight on because of what they are doing. You will recall that we took a close look at Georgia State University back in Episode 103, and now I wished that we had saved it for this series. If you can’t remember the impressive stuff we said about Georgia State, you should go back and listen again. Really.

Today’s spotlight is on Spelman College and indeed on HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) generally; therefore, the episode is especially relevant for students of color, but not just for black students. You might recall that we talked about the enrollment of HBCUs back in Episode 100. We noted then that HBCU enrollment seemed to be on the rise and that HBCUs were also becoming more attractive to Latino students for a variety of reasons, which were well described in our episode.

And, if you were with us way back in Episode 30, you might recall that we highlighted Spelman, a well-respected all-female liberal arts college, founded by Baptist leaders, which offers 27 majors to just over 2,000 undergraduate women, drawn from most states across the country (with our home state of New York as one of the top five states sending students to Spelman). Spelman has an enviable student-to-faculty ratio of 10-to-1, meaning that students should typically be in small classes and get close attention from faculty members.

For those of you with seniors and with a letter from an HBCU in your stack of college acceptances (maybe even from Spelman!), this episode is for you. And for those of you with freshmen, sophomores, or juniors at home, this episode should make you think twice.

1. Ms. Mitchell’s Piece

As our regular listeners can probably recite by now because we frequently find ourselves talking on this topic, HBCUs were founded to serve students who had previously been excluded from many other higher education institutions because of their race. The three earliest HBCUs were founded in Pennsylvania and Ohio before the Civil War, but many were founded in the South shortly after the Civil War. Those Southern HBCUs share a proud tradition of becoming the first colleges to provide higher education to the family members of freed slaves. Over the years, HBCUs have produced extraordinary leaders in every field of endeavor and thousands and thousands of well-educated American citizens.

Today’s focus is on an opinion piece published in The New York Times by Skylar Mitchell earlier this month. It is part of the On Campus series in the Times?”dispatches from college students, professors and administrators on higher education and university life” (quoted from the website). That makes two weeks in a row we have used the On Campus series to bring you an insight that we thought was extraordinary. Last week, the piece was written by a college admissions office staffer, but this week it is written by an actual college student. And now we are going to stop giving the Times free advertising unless it wants to start sponsoring the podcast.

Because Ms. Mitchell wrote her piece in her own voice, with a rare combination of thinking and feeling for a college sophomore, I would like to read it to you in its entirety. It is not long, but you won’t forget it anytime soon. Her voice is, quite obviously, not our voice, so here are Ms. Mitchell’s own words from “Why I Chose a Historically Black College.” Listen on the podcast or follow this link to read her essay.

For once in my life, I have absolutely nothing to add. She speaks eloquently for herself.

2. Think Again

Ms. Mitchell obviously did a great job in choosing colleges to apply to, and we have tried again and again to emphasize how important that step is. Choosing colleges to apply to is every bit as important as choosing which college to attend–probably more so.

And I believe that Ms. Mitchell did get into some great ones, if Swarthmore and Spelman are any indications. What she had, obviously, were options. And regardless of whether your teenager is as smart as Ms. Mitchell must be, what you need are options. Remember that, parents of freshmen and sophomores and juniors.

And, finally, we will say this one more time at USACollegeChat: Think hard about putting an HBCU on your teenager’s list of possibilities. If we couldn’t convince you before, surely Ms. Mitchell has.

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