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

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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

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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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Episode 138: It’s Early Decision/Early Action Time Again

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Let’s open today with an acknowledgment of a reasonably impressive milestone. We have just passed the third anniversary of our podcast. That’s three whole years of trying to put the college applications and college admissions process into perspective and within the grasp of the all-too-many parents and teenagers who have been left out of the conversation. When we started the podcast, we thought that it would be most helpful to parents who had not been to college themselves and to their first-generation-to-college kids. But we have found that parents of all educational backgrounds have learned from the episodes, and we are, of course, happy about that. As Marie and I say almost every week, “Here’s something we didn’t know ourselves, and we do this for a living.” As with all things, there is always more to learn.

Speaking of learning, as we come to this episode in our series Researching College Options, I must admit that I would like to re-edit our new book How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students. Marie hates it when I say this; but, like all authors or maybe just all English majors, I know that I could make that book better (even though I have to admit that it is already pretty useful).

Today’s episode is about something we left out of the book, but should have put in. So, if you have the book (and, if you don’t have it, go get it right now at amazon.com!), you all should add one more question at the end of our 52-item questionnaire about things your teenager needs to find out about a college before applying.

Here is the question we missed and the topic of today’s episode: “Does the college offer an Early Decision and/or Early Action application round–or, perhaps, even more than one such round?” And we should have added: “Jot down all of the particulars of these early admissions plans, including how restrictive they are when it comes to whether you are allowed to apply to other colleges at the same time.” I am constantly surprised about how little parents know about Early Decision and Early Action plans, and they could make all the difference for a kid.

1. Why We Are Infuriated

So, for those of you who were listening to USACollegeChat about seven months ago, you will recall that we tackled this Early Decision/Early Action issue then. However, it is even more timely now here at the beginning of October, and we think that it is worth recapping for all of you who have kids just starting their senior year. As many of you know, November 1 or November 15 (or thereabouts) is the Early Decision and/or Early Action deadline for most colleges, if a college has either of those early admissions plans in place. So, that is just a few short weeks away, and decisions about whether to make those early applications need to be made ASAP.

As we said back in Episode 108 and Episode 109, I find this Early Decision/Early Action game infuriating. I continue to be infuriated on behalf of teenagers and their families who are in the midst of figuring out how to research and apply to a whole bunch of colleges, which is hard enough without having to calculate the advantages and disadvantages of Early Decision and Early Action options at some of those or all of those colleges and how those options interact, often poorly, with each other. I believe that lots of parents find this to be a daunting task. So, let us help.

2. Early Decision Cons

Let’s look first at Early Decision, the older of the two options and the one that started us all down this now-confusing and controversial path. Many years ago, it used to be that a student could apply to one college under an Early Decision plan (the only type of early application available)–meaning that the student would apply early, get an answer early, and agree to attend that college if accepted. For students, Early Decision was?and, in fact, still is–a binding decision. In other words, if you get in, you go.

Perhaps the most important reason that some educators and many parents grew to dislike the Early Decision option was–and likely still is–that a student accepted under this plan had to agree to attend the college before he or she had any other acceptances and before he or she had any idea what scholarships and other financial aid might be offered by any other colleges. For students who depended on financial aid to pay for college–and that’s more and more students these days–having to choose a college without being able to compare financial aid packages put those students and their families under unnecessary and, some would say, unfair financial pressure.

When we talked about this issue months ago, we quoted from Frank Bruni’s excellent New York Times column entitled “The Plague of ‘Early Decision.'” You should go back and read his piece again. Mr. Bruni wrote this about his view of the biggest problem with Early Decision at selective colleges:

[Early decision] significantly disadvantages students from low-income and middle-income families, who are already underrepresented at such schools. There’s plenty of evidence that applying early improves odds of admission and that the students who do so–largely to gain a competitive edge–come disproportionately from privileged backgrounds with parents and counselors who know how to game the system and can assemble the necessary test scores and references by the November deadline.

These students also aren’t concerned about weighing disparate financial-aid offers from different schools and can commit themselves to one through early decision. Less privileged students need to shop around, so early decision doesn’t really work for them. (quoted from the article)

Did we really need one more thing about college admissions that disadvantages low-income kids or kids from racial and ethnic minorities who are underrepresented in colleges? Clearly, as a nation, we did not. Regular listeners will recall that, recently in Episode 132, we spoke about a study of grade inflation in high schools that shows that the grade inflation trend disproportionately favors students from whiter, wealthier high schools. Is Early Decision just one more strike against kids who need a fairer shake?

Mr. Bruni also gave us one memorable statistic from a well-to-do Boston suburban high school, noting that “while 60 percent of the seniors there submitted early applications seven years ago, it’s above 86 percent now.” (quoted from the article) And that was last year, so who knows how much higher that number can go this year? The point is that lots of kids are applying to college early, and that is going to make it just that much harder for your kid this year.

Although we have talked recently about a steady decline in college enrollment in the U.S. in Episode 128 and a steady decline especially in male college enrollment in the U.S. in Episode 136, the nation’s very good and great colleges are still doing fine. They continue to have many, many more applicants than they need–both the private ones and the public ones. So, if any of our very selective private or public colleges are on your kid’s long list of college options (or shorter, refined list of college options), your kid is in for some stiff competition from a lot of kids who are ready to commit in November. Any kids who have to overcome any kind of barrier when making their college applications–whether that is financial constraints or English as a second language or lack of college counseling or parents who cannot help?are, sadly, going to be just that much further behind.

3. Early Decision Pros

On the other hand, if your kid is one of the lucky ones or if you can get whatever help you need to get your kid past whatever barriers exist for your family, it seems to us that Early Decision is a great option for you. The larger problem is, of course, that Early Decision could be a great option for your own kid, even if there are too many kids who cannot take advantage of it for one reason or another. With my nonprofit president’s hat on, I have to say that Early Decision worries me increasingly; but with my advocate-for-your-one-kid’s hat on, I am very likely to recommend it to you.

If your own teenager is absolutely clear about what his or her first-choice college is, then Early Decision is the way to go if that college has an Early Decision option. (We are going to talk about Early Action in a minute. Making one Early Decision application does not necessarily preclude also making one or more Early Action applications.)

Why might Early Decision be a good move for your kid? First, your family could get the entire college admissions process over with as efficiently as possible by December. As we have already mentioned, the application is usually due November 1 or November 15, with a decision usually coming in December. If your kid is accepted, you are done. No more worries about not getting into a college your kid loves and no more stress of completing numerous applications! Even though the Common Application cuts down on some of that stress, it means that no more supplemental essays would have to be written and no more application fees would have to be paid.

Second–and this is why we feel almost obligated to recommend Early Decision for kids who are ready to make a serious choice–your kid might actually have a much better chance of being accepted if he or she applies Early Decision. There continues to be a lot of press about this fact. Back in Episode 108, we quoted shocking statistics from an excellent article by Nick Anderson in The Washington Post, which offered acceptance statistics from 2015 from 64 “prominent colleges and universities.” His article was aptly entitled “A college-admissions edge for the wealthy: Early decision.” Go back and take a look at those many, many numbers. And here are a few more: same story, different verse.

These are some facts and figures from an article by Kaitlin Mulhere in Money magazine. Her article makes this important point:

Most selective colleges–specifically, the 100 or so four-year schools that admit a third or less of their applicants–publicize one overall acceptance rate. On its face, that makes sense, and it’s simple for families to grasp. The problem is that many students pin their hopes on that rate, even though it may conceal dramatic differences in the odds for different applicant pools.

Take, for example, Vanderbilt University, where the overall rate was 12% for the fall 2015 freshman class. Yet students either apply in an early pool or the regular pool, which have 24% and 8% acceptance rates, respectively. Nobody has a 12% chance, says Steve Frappier, director of college counseling at the Westminster Schools, a prep school in Atlanta. (quoted from the article)

There are two critical things to notice here. First, there is the simple fact that one averaged acceptance rate–the one that is published widely–actually might mean nothing. Second, there is the simple fact that your chances of getting into a college could be three times as good–or more–if you apply under an early application plan. While this is not true for every college in the U.S., it is true for many selective colleges in the U.S. Here are two more examples of great small private liberal arts colleges from the Money magazine article:

  • Swarthmore College: 35% early decision acceptance rate vs. 10.7% regular decision acceptance rate
  • Colorado College: 31% and 17% in two early rounds vs. 6% in the regular round

The article makes the point that savvy consumers pay attention to the differences among the figures that colleges post on their websites: early acceptance rates, regular decision acceptance rates, and overall acceptance rates. The relationships among these figures change from college to college, so buyer beware!

Those figures have got to make you think twice before you as a family dismiss the notion of applying early. Here is another perhaps surprising statistic from The Washington Post article for a sample of great colleges–the estimated percentage of the freshman class that is made up of Early Decision acceptances:

To sum it up, about half of the seats in the freshman classes of these selective, academically first-rate colleges are filled before the applications of high school seniors applying on the regular schedule are even looked at. You really have to stop and think about these statistics. No kidding. What are your kid’s odds of getting into a place when one-half of the seats are already taken?

Some colleges are publicizing now that students who are accepted on an Early Decision schedule are getting nearly as much financial aid as those accepted on a regular decision schedule, so that’s a good thing for low-income kids who want to better their acceptance chances at a favorite college. And there is usually a disclaimer in college website information that a student may be released from a binding Early Decision acceptance if the financial aid package offered does not make it possible for that student to attend the college–though I have never personally tried to test that.

By the way, is it obvious why a college would want so many Early Decision students? It should be. A college wants good students who really want to be at that college. It doesn’t want to play the admissions game any more than the applicants do.

To sum it up, here is a brief quotation from the website of Boston University, a very good private university, about the reasons that students should consider Early Decision:

  • Competition is keen. Think about this–would you rather be considered for admission as 1 of more than 60,000 applicants or 1 of just over 4,000 applicants?

  • Applying Early Decision is the ultimate way to demonstrate your interest in BU, which is an opportunity for you to differentiate yourself from the rest of the crowd.

  • Early Decision applicants receive the same consideration for financial aid as regular decision applicants.Last year, BU awarded $55 million in aid to incoming freshmen.

  • If you’re offered admission, your search process will be completed early. You could be one of the first among your classmates to wear your BU sweatshirt and show your Terrier Pride!

4. Early Action

Now, let’s look at the Early Action option, under which high school seniors still apply early–around November 1 or November 15–but they are not ethically committed to enroll at the college if accepted. That is, the decision to apply Early Action is not a binding decision by a high school senior to attend that college. Early Action enables kids to apply to more than one college that offers an Early Action option and to hold onto any acceptances until April–before having to make a final decision among all of the acceptances that come in on both the early and the regular schedules. This plan, understandably, came into being as a result of concerns that the Early Decision option put too much pressure on kids to make final decisions too soon.

In counseling kids myself, I encourage them to apply under the Early Action option to as many of the colleges on their final short list as they can. I just don’t see a downside. Furthermore, I believe kids should apply Early Action to every one of their safety schools if those schools have an Early Action option. It can certainly take the pressure off a student to know in December that he or she has a guaranteed acceptance from a college or two or three well before April comes.

Here is one thing you have to keep in mind, however, for both Early Action and Early Decision. Students have to take the SAT and/or ACT no later than an October testing date to have the scores by early November, and a student has to believe that the scores he or she has by then are about as good as they are ever going to be.

Or here is an option: Apply Early Action to one or more of your safety schools, using your available test scores–that is, schools you can probably get into without improving your scores. If there are more selective colleges that you are holding out hope for, but for which you need better scores, re-take the SAT or ACT in November or December and don’t apply to those colleges until the regular deadline of January 1 or later.

5. Single-Choice Early Action or Restrictive Early Action

Let’s look at a mixed approach that has now been taken by some colleges, including some prestigious ones, and that is an option called Single-Choice Early Action, or Restrictive Early Action. This option means that applicants cannot apply to any other college under an Early Action or Early Decision option, but may apply later on a regular decision timeline. If an applicant is admitted under this single-choice or restrictive option, that student may have until about May 1 to make a decision.

So, Single-Choice Early Action, or Restrictive Early Action, is like Early Decision in that the student is permitted to apply to only one college early, but it’s like Early Action in that the student is permitted to wait until regular decision acceptances come in before making a final decision about enrolling. You can see how that is pretty good for the student and pretty good for the college, though not ideal for either one. This option, we believe, is not nearly as widespread among colleges as either Early Decision or regular Early Action.

6. Other College Admissions Options

Parents: Don’t feel bad when you have to read a college’s website information more than once to figure out what all the application options mean. I have to do that, too. I cannot imagine how a high school kid by himself or herself ever completes and submits a college application anymore, especially if that kid has parents who do not speak English or cannot help for whatever reason.

And here’s another option you might run into: two rounds of Early Decision, or Early Decision I and Early Decision II; and two rounds of Early Action, or Early Action I and II.

So, why Early Decision I and II, with Early Decision II having a later deadline? One reason is that some kids want the college to have access to later college admission test scores or to first semester senior grades, in case either of those is better than earlier scores or grades. Another reason is that a student who gets rejected from his or her first-choice Early Decision college in December can then apply to his or her second-choice college in a second round of Early Decision. Both of these options are possibly great for the student, though complicated, to be sure.

Another reason for having two rounds of Early Decision is that it’s a way for a college to improve its own statistics–in this case, the “yield rate,” or the percentage of students who are admitted and then attend. This statistic might affect a college’s ranking on some list or other. So, that might be reason enough for how we got to this place.

Go back and listen to Episode 109 if you want to hear even more complicated plans, which mix every conceivable Early Action and Early Decision variation. But those are only examples. The only plans that matter are the ones your kid faces at the colleges on his or her list. And they might be crazy enough!

7. The Bottom Line

One last word, parents: Remember that your kid can be deferred when applying early, in which case the application will go into the pile to be considered with the applications submitted on the regular decision timeline. Or, your kid can be rejected, in which case he or she cannot re-apply, in some cases, on the regular decision timeline. So that’s one more piece of the puzzle that you will need to consider.

I know that’s a lot to take in. What’s the bottom line? Apply Early Decision if your kid has a clear first-choice college that you can live with. Simultaneously, apply Early Action to all of the colleges on his or her list (including all of the safety schools) that have Early Action plans. There’s just no downside.

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