Episode 80: Is It Time for the College Essay?

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As the college search for many of you begins in earnest this summer, here’s one way to ruin your summertime: Start talking to your child about completing the college application essay. Now, as you all know, some colleges require more than one essay and usually the second and third supplementary essays for those colleges, for example, are shorter and more geared to a specific question related to the college itself than the main essay, like the one in the Common Application. We gave one perspective on college essays way back in Episode 22 and another in Episode 49 when we recounted some sad experiences we had reviewing the college essays of about 100 kids in a top New York City high school. Today, let’s talk about that main essay.

Episode 80: Is It Time for the College Essay? on USACollegeChat podcast

In this episode, we would like to chat about what might be at the crux of the problem in putting together a compelling essay–and that is sounding original and impressive when the applicant is still a 17-year-old.

1. The Common Application Essays

Remember, first of all, that not all colleges require essays, particularly community colleges. But let’s start with the Common App “personal statement,” which most students who have to write any essay will find themselves writing. Since over 600 colleges take the Common App, these essay prompts are likely in your child’s future.

The Common App essay prompts are the same as last year’s and, for that reason, the Common App people can tell you which prompts were the most popular. Here is the breakdown as of last January (quoted from The Common Application website):

Among the more than 800,000 unique applicants who have submitted a Common App so far during the 2015-2016 application cycle, 47 percent have chosen to write about their background, identity, interest, or talent – making it the most frequently selected prompt; 22 percent have chosen to write about an accomplishment, 17 percent about a lesson or failure, 10 percent about a problem solved, and four percent about an idea challenged.

I have to say those figures seem entirely understandable to me inasmuch as I, too, think that the essay prompt that proved to be the most popular is likely to be the most straightforward to write about and the most likely to be easily adaptable to most kids’ situations. But let’s look at the exact wording of all five options (quoted from The Common Application website):

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (47 percent)

2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (17 percent)

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? (4 percent)

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. (10 percent)

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. (22 percent)

On the whole, I think these are reasonable prompts and relatively interesting prompts (without being overboard interesting) for high school seniors, though I do think that the writer has to be careful to bite off something that he or she can chew. For example, students, I wouldn’t suggest choosing global warming as a problem you’d like to solve unless you can say something very specific, unusually persuasive, and ideally somewhat original about it. It’s hard to propose the solution to an international crisis in 650 words.

2. Hugh Gallagher’s Essay

When I was in Maine this weekend, college admissions expert Allen Millett told me about a college application essay that was news to me–though I guess people who do online dating have been stealing from it for years. Allen had heard about it some time ago from his colleague at New York University, the college that admitted the student who wrote the now-famous essay. That student was Hugh Gallagher, who said this in his 2008 video interview with The Wall Street Journal:

It was 1989 and I was applying for colleges, and I thought it was really absurd for them to ask me at that age, you know, who I was or what I’d done because I hadn’t done anything.

I feel as though truer words were never spoken.

Anyway, Mr. Gallagher wrote the following essay in response to a question about significant experiences or accomplishments that helped define him as a person (that is, of course, a 17-year-old person):

I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently.

Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row. I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook Thirty-Minute Brownies in twenty minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.

Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries. When I’m bored, I build large suspension bridges in my yard. I enjoy urban hang gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.

I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie. Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don’t perspire. I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail. I have been caller number nine and have won the weekend passes. Last summer I toured New Jersey with a traveling centrifugal-force demonstration. I bat 400.

My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles. Children trust me. I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations with the CIA.

I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are all paid.

On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down. I have made extraordinary four course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven. I breed prize-winning clams. I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin.

I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery, and I have spoken with Elvis.

But I have not yet gone to college.

Mr. Gallagher’s point is, I believe, obvious. This essay doesn’t solve your child’s problem of writing about himself or herself; it just points out how difficult getting a grasp on what a reasonable accomplishment or talent or interest or problem solution might be.

As with all assignments, the more time your child has to think about the essay and sort through his or her young life to consider what might make sense to write about, the better off you all are. And here is some excellent advice that I can’t imagine anyone will take: Try writing about a few different ideas to see which one works best. I know that sounds like more work–and, in a way, it is–but all writers know that often many attempts have to be started and abandoned before a piece of good writing takes shape. I had an English teacher once who reminded the class that the word “essay” comes from the Old French “essai”–meaning a trial, attempt, or effort. So, it is perfectly reasonable to write several essays–that is, to make several attempts–before finding the one that actually works best.

3. The U.K. Weighs In

And now let’s cross the Atlantic and see what is going on with college essay writing in the U.K. Earlier this spring, the BBC reported that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), which handles the process of admitting students to British universities, had noted that “[u]niversity applicants are overly reliant on a few ‘hackneyed phrases’ in their personal statements” (quoted from the article “University hopefuls urged to keep applications ‘personal'”. The BBC article quoted the UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook as saying that “[t]he personal statement is supposed to be personal.” In the U.K., the essay focuses on why applicants are planning to study a particular course or subject and on any skills or interests they have.

To prove the point about “a few hackneyed phrases,” the UCAS published a list of the 10 most popular opening lines used by the over 700,000 applicants in their personal statements last year. Here they are (as reported in the article):

  1. “From a young age I have (always) been..” and then typically “interested in” or “fascinated by” (1,779 applicants)
  2. “For as long as I can remember I have…” (1,451 applicants)
  3. “I am applying for this course because…” (1,370 applicants)
  4. “I have always been interested in…” (927 applicants)
  5. “Throughout my life I have always enjoyed…” (310 applicants)
  6. “Reflecting on my educational experiences…” (257 applicants)
  7. “Nursing is a very challenging and demanding (career/profession/course)…” (211 applicants)
  8. “Academically, I have always been…” (168 applicants)
  9. “I have always wanted to pursue a career in…” (160 applicants)
  10. “I have always been passionate about…” (160 applicants)

So, maybe our U.S. college applicants are more creative than our U.K. friends, but maybe not. The lesson here, students, is don’t put the words “I have always…” in the first sentence of your essay–unless you want to be like thousands of young Brits.

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Episode 79: What To Do This Summer

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

Welcome back to our summer series, entitled The Search Begins. Again, this series is dedicated to those of you–primarily the parents of juniors–who are starting a focused college hunt now. However, today’s episode is going to be useful to all high school parents as kids gear up–or wind down–for the summer. A note to families with younger high schoolers: It might be time to get a jump on preparing for college applications.

What To Do This Summer on USACollegeChat podcastLong ago in Episodes 15 and 16, we talked about extracurricular activities, internships, volunteer service, and part-time jobs that students might undertake after school during the school year in order to give a boost to their college applications.

Whether your child will be completing The Common Application (which is currently used by over 600 colleges), the Universal College Application (which is currently used by about 45 colleges), or an individual college’s own application (when a college does not use either one), we said then that there will likely be a section that asks your child to make an elaborate list of activities that he or she participated in while in high school (though there are some exceptions to this, especially among community colleges and some less-selective colleges). Having something to say in the activities section of the application is important in order to show that your child is a well-rounded individual, who is likely to contribute to the college community outside of the classroom. We will talk more about activities during the school year in an upcoming episode.

But, as we mentioned back in Episode 18, many college applications also ask the applicant to detail what he or she has done each summer while in high school. Knowing this now will help you work with your child to plan significant summer activities, which are useful not only in filling out college applications, but also in making your child’s out-of-school life richer and more meaningful.

If your child needs to work in the summer to help support your family, then that has to come first. But, hopefully, there will be some time when he or she can also engage in some activities designed primarily for academic or personal enrichment. If your child is looking at a selective college, then summer should not be viewed as a time to rest and fool around, but rather as a time for your child to pursue some interest or perfect some talent or learn something new or do some good for others–at least part of the time. Here are some broad categories of activities you should talk through with your child immediately since some of these opportunities will be closed very soon.

1. High School and College Study

Some high schools and school districts offer summer courses that allow students to take more advanced courses or different courses from those they take during the school year. Accelerated or enriched high school study in the summer is a time-honored tradition and would be a very reasonable summer activity, from a college’s point of view.

But, even better, would be study at a college. U.S. colleges have more summer programs than you can count for truly interested and/or reasonably bright high school students. You can’t scroll through Facebook these days without seeing sponsored ads from a variety of colleges for these programs, including from some of our nation’s top-ranked colleges. Some courses are part of full-time residential programs on the campus; others are not. Some college programs are not academic at all, but rather sports related. Unlike taking free public high school courses, programs at a college can be expensive; but, fortunately, scholarships are often available.

How do you find such a college course? Well, Google it, of course, or resort to the old-fashioned way of reading the newspaper. Colleges in your hometown likely advertise in the newspaper (even in hometowns as big as New York City). Your child’s high school should have information and brochures as well. Out-of-town colleges that your child might be interested in attending are also a great idea, because a summer course there is one way for your child to get to know the campus–even if not the college and its students–like an insider.

One final note: If your high school does not offer students the opportunity to take college courses of any kind during the school year (perhaps through an Early College or dual credit arrangement), then a course taken at a college in the summer–especially one that earns college credit–would be a particularly attractive option for your child. Being able to say on a college application that you have already taken and succeeded in a college course somewhere at some time is, obviously, an advantage for an applicant.

For families who are interested in sending students outside the U.S. to study in the summer, there are certainly programs to be had. Just Google them. This is almost an irresistible summer combination–college study and seeing the world. Great for college applications and great for life!

2. Family Travel

Quite a few students have close family connections in other countries, often in the country that their parents emigrated from. Many of these students go home to these countries during the summer to visit relatives for several weeks or more, often making it difficult for students to engage in summer programs set up by their schools or in their local communities. Students can take advantage of these family trips–for example, by keeping up with a native or second language, by visiting cultural sites, or by working in a family business–and find something interesting to write about on their college applications.

Other families might take a short trip to a different part of the U.S. or to a different country near or far. As always, giving students a close look at important historical sites or art museums or architecturally magnificent buildings or geologic wonders makes it possible for them to write in more detail and more interestingly about these summer activities on their college applications.

3. Internships and Volunteer Work

We have made the case several times that engaging in internships and/or volunteer work lets a college know that a student is responsible and dependable, takes initiative, and, depending on the assignment, cares about others. From the student’s side, an internship or volunteer assignment helps the student explore career interests and potential college majors.

Summer is also a great time to think about politics–especially this summer, of course. Local, state, and national office-seekers can use plenty of extra hands to stuff envelopes, put up posters, and get voters to declare their intentions. Media-savvy teenagers can often reach out to voters in ways that older adults do not entirely understand. A summer in a political campaign is a powerful way to learn about American government and political science firsthand.

Summer is also a great time to pursue a volunteer assignment in a hospital or nursing home. Many high school students–and indeed college students–interested in attending medical school and/or pursuing a career in health care look for these volunteer opportunities, so interested students should pursue this kind of assignment right away.

Summer internships–in which a student has a chance to try out a future career field, under the mentorship of a successful individual already working in the field–are even harder to get than volunteer assignments, so students should have already been looking for those. Parents, remember that high schoolers will be in competition for internships with college students–and, more and more, even college graduates–which makes an aggressive search even more important.

As we said back in Episode 18, summer is also a great time to talk with local church youth groups about mission trips to nearby or far away urban or rural areas in or outside of the U.S. where teenagers can do a host of volunteer jobs for the young, the old, the sick, or the homeless–from cleaning up a park to repainting a house to playing games to serving a hot lunch to reading aloud. Having teenagers do work that helps others, while under the supervision of caring adults, is a win for everyone.

4. The New Report

In Episodes 61 and 62, we looked at a new report that grew out of a meeting a year ago hosted by a Harvard Graduate School of Education project called Making Caring Common. The meeting brought together college admissions deans, high school folks, and others to discuss the state of college admissions. The report is entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions. While we have been critical of the actual commitment of the many excellent colleges that endorsed the report to see their recommendations through to implementation, the report does interestingly take an in-depth look at the importance of community service for high school students. Here are two recommendations from the report:

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

So, what does it all mean? As we said back in Episode 61, it means that the service should be something that your teenager is actually interested in and invested in; that the service should be something your teenager thinks about, talks about with other kids and with adults, and learns from; that the service last at least a year; and that the service may be something that your teenager does in order to support or help your own family, such as working at a paid job if financial help is needed or taking care of a younger sibling or an elderly relative if that kind of family support is needed. I think that the report’s notion that the service last at least a year is particularly significant. In other words, the college might not look so favorably on a one-week community service project in the summer–unless perhaps a student did several of those projects summer after summer.

Authentic, Meaningful Experiences with Diversity: We encourage students to undertake community service and engagement that deepens their appreciation of diversity. (quoted from the report)

While the report goes on to talk about its own notion of what meaningful experiences with diversity are, the basic idea is clear: work in and learn from activities conducted with racially, ethnically, and nationally diverse groups of kids, classmates, and/or adults.

So, what if that “meaningful, sustained community service” that includes “authentic, meaningful experiences with diversity” could happen this summer–and just as important–summer after summer to build up to the year-long recommendation the report makes? And, better still, what if summer volunteer work could be combined with volunteer work after school during the year to build up to the year-long recommendation the report makes? What might that look like?

5. Spotlight on After-School Programs

Here is an example. For many years, I served on the board of an after-school homework-help and enrichment program for low-income kids, including many new arrivals to the U.S., who would otherwise have gone home to empty apartments. This is a shout-out to you, Adventures in Learning in Manhasset, New York, with its one-of-a-kind executive director Diana Holden. Teenagers from local high schools and adults in the community volunteer in the afternoons to work with Adventures’ elementary-school-aged kids–to improve their reading and writing and arithmetic skills, to get their homework done correctly, to offer them special science and arts programming, and to provide them with the other after-school things that the families of kids in their classes at school provide routinely for their own kids–from Scouts to sports to tap dancing. In the interest of full disclosure, my daughter Polly is doing her master’s degree internship program at Adventures this summer, and my son Bobby did a high school internship there a decade ago. If you ask either one of them, every minute they spent at Adventures is and was worth it.

I read an article recently that proved what I have always believed about after-school programs like these. A study of 6,400 children in England was reported in The Edvocate in mid-May in an article entitled “After-School Activities Help Disadvantaged Students in the Classroom.” Let’s take a look at a few paragraphs from the article:

An academic increase was . . . observed for disadvantaged students who attended after-school programs. They attained higher scores in science, math and English at the end of primary school, lessening the attainment gap between poor students and their more affluent peers.

Academic improvements are not the only benefit documented for children participating in after-school activities. Improved social, emotional and behavioral skills were observed from students who participated in organized activities, in comparison to their peers who did not.

With there being so many advantages to participation in activities including sports, music, language, tutoring and arts classes, many schools are offering school-based clubs as an affordable alternative for poorer students. For disadvantaged students who do not have access to formal out of school activities, after school programming is imperative.

The research could have an impact on policy makers concerned with education, as well as implications for after-school childcare programming.

It is clear that the structure and delivery of after-school activities have a positive impact on disadvantaged students. The importance of exposure to these experiences [is] even more significant for poorer students who may not typically have the opportunity to participate unless the program is offered after hours via their public school. (quoted from the article)

Or, I would say, unless the program is offered after hours via community-based organizations that make up for what some public schools don’t do or can’t afford to do. Having your child volunteer to work with younger students in such a program–both during the school year and during the summer, when those programs offer summer activities, as many do?is a way for your child to make an actual difference in the academic, social, and personal futures of the kids who are enrolled.

And it is a way for your child to make a statement on his or her college application about a long-term commitment to helping all kids succeed. Feel free to have your child quote the same article I did here if your child chooses to write about this kind of volunteer work in an essay on a college application. People who think that having higher schoolers volunteer in after-school and summer programs like these is just an easy thing to do that looks good on an application couldn’t be more wrong. It is much more than that. Show them the proof.

So start looking around for a program like this near you. Your teenager doesn’t have to be a genius to help younger kids do their homework. And, your teenager can offer his or her own talents, too–music, art, sports, or something else. When your teenager wants to play all summer, have them listen to this episode. Because it will be time to do college applications sooner than you think.

Hear about firsthand experiences with community service in this week’s Facebook Live video.

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Episode 78: Are You Looking at Colleges or Party Venues?

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

Last week, we began our new summer series, entitled The Search Begins. This series is dedicated to those of you?primarily the parents of juniors?who are starting the serious college hunt now. In Episode 77, we talked about the number of college applications your teenager would ideally be making in the fall. While a bit dependent on what your teenager is interested in studying and on how broad a range of college options you all want to consider, we recommended between 8 and 12 applications–after carefully thinking through and winnowing down the options.

Are You Looking at Colleges or Party Venues? on USACollegeChat

Recently, I read an interesting perspective on college applications and admissions in The Hechinger Report, which is usually a good source of informative pieces on education. This opinion piece was written by Claire Schultz, a senior at Princeton High School in New Jersey. This fall, Claire will be off to University College London, a public research university in the U.K., founded in 1826 to serve students previously excluded from higher education and boasting alumni from Alexander Graham Bell to Francis Crick (a co-discoverer of the DNA double helix) to all four members of Coldplay, a little band your kids know, who met there as freshmen. In her piece, Claire talks about two issues, offering one solution that is obvious in the title: “American colleges need to end admissions “Hunger Games” and take a page from the U.K. playbook instead.” It worries me that our high school students feel as though they need to solve our U.S. college application and admission problem, but it’s impressive at the same time.

1. Too Many Applications

Claire talks about a topic we have addressed more than once recently at USACollegeChat: the growing number of college applications being submitted, which leads to the increasing selectivity of colleges and lower admission rates, which in turn leads to more applications being made, and so on and so on and so on. This process is, for many students–especially for bright students applying to first-rate colleges–becoming the “vicious cycle” that Claire describes.

Claire says, “I took a step to remove myself from the system, and applied to schools in the U.K.” Noting that the U.K. system is different from ours, she believes that we can learn something from it. Here is her description of the system in the U.K.:

[Y]ou can apply to Oxford or Cambridge (not both), and a total of five schools. As you apply to a specific subject, you write one single personal statement explaining why you are qualified for the course; you may have to complete a subsequent interview, again on academic merit. There is a set of grade-based entry requirements you will have to make at the end of your senior year, but that’s it. (quoted from the article)

Why not have the Common Application, accepted by over 600 colleges today, limit the number of applications a student can submit from its website, Claire asks? She believes that some students are applying just to apply and aren’t even really interested in some of the colleges they are applying to. She offers her view of college acceptance time at Princeton High School:

For so many top schools, I saw the same students admitted over and over again. I saw other students who were tremendously qualified not get into any of them. I saw some people not get into schools that would have been a terrific match, which they would have attended in a heartbeat, while others who were accepted saw them as safety nets and never really planned on attending. So why do we let this happen? You could argue something about The American Way and ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty,’ but all it really is is a college admission ‘Hunger Games’?dangerously competitive and only the most prepared survive. (quoted from the article)

Unfortunately, probably true–especially at top-ranked high schools. Claire proposes that applications be capped at 10–a number I like pretty well inasmuch as our recommendation last week was 8 to 12. Frankly, I am glad that our recommendation will seem sensible to a kid who has thought as much about this as Claire has. Of course, capping the number of Common App college applications won’t entirely solve the problem because students can apply to other colleges that do not accept the Common App. But her point is still clear: Control the number of applications to optimize positive admissions decisions for everyone.

2. Is It a College or an “Experience”?

So, let’s look at the second issue that Claire brings up, and I think it is even more intriguing. In describing her applications to U.K. colleges, Claire writes this:

There are no essays asking about ‘a journey’ or what celebrity you’d like to have to lunch, no extracurricular jumping through hoops. Plain and simple, are you good at what you do? . . . I’d want to see the focus of the college admissions process brought back to school, if only a little bit. (quoted from the article)

It’s refreshing, I guess, to see a high school student who wishes that college admissions were more about how well you did in your academic studies and exams and how well you can write about what study you plan to pursue in college and why you are well equipped to do that. On the other hand, some U.S. colleges also ask students to write an essay about that topic–though it is typically one of the supplemental essays in an application that has several essays to complete. The difference is, in the U.K., that is the essay.

Claire continues with these observations:

When I applied to U.S. schools, I wrote essays about my biggest fears and hopes and dreams, I was sold student centers and dorm rooms and meal plans. Underneath all of the football games and paraphernalia, I was not being shown a school, I was being sold an experience. These colleges seemed to care less about me as a student than me as a well-rounded, ‘holistic’ individual. When I toured schools in England, I was shown classrooms and students studying in libraries rather than well-polished amenities (most students lived in private housing and cooked for themselves, anyway). (quoted from the article)

Well, that couldn’t be more interesting. It recalls for me a comment that my husband made more than once as we were looking at colleges for our children. He used to say, “Are we choosing a college or a country club?” He was responding to what Claire calls “well-polished amenities.”

Now, I am going to be the first to say that I personally like a well-polished amenity or two. I am okay with great-looking dorms (my daughter certainly had that at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus?suite-style dorms so nice that my husband and I would have been happy to live there, within spitting distance of New York City’s magnificent Lincoln Center). And I am fond of attractive sorority and fraternity houses, too (I lived in one), though I fear that they might be part of what Claire calls “paraphernalia.” And who doesn’t love a good football game, Claire–and baseball game and basketball game and soccer game, etc.? Yes, I love college sports, too (and wrote about them for my college newspaper).

Nonetheless, I do like the idea that Claire saw students at work (and, by “work,” I mean studying) when she visited schools in the U.K.–and that she was impressed by that. Of course, many of our U.S. colleges try to get prospective applicants into a classroom to observe a class firsthand, too–and they should, according to Claire.

So, where does all this leave Claire and me? I guess it leaves us here, as Claire concluded about her U.K. visits:

It was nice to see what I’d be paying huge amounts of money for?not a four-year party, but a school with actual classes and exams. (quoted from the article)

Parents, I am sure that you, too, would like to think that you are paying for a school–for the professors, for the instructional facilities, and even for the intellectual camaraderie of the students. Do you want kids to be happy at college? Of course you do. But do you also–and more significantly–want them to revel in what they are learning and believe that they are learning from the best and brightest professors anywhere? I bet you do.

Claire’s view suggests that, during the recruitment of new freshmen, U.S. colleges–at least some of them, anyway–have tipped the scale a bit too far toward “well-polished amenities.” She would like them to tip the scale back a bit toward “actual classes.” So, U.S. colleges, are you listening–just in case you want to pick up a few students like Claire (and, frankly, what college wouldn’t)? Think about what you are showing off to your prospective candidates. Are you a party venue or a school?

If I were Claire’s mother, I would be proud of her thoughtful opinions. If you have a teenager at home–one who might be tipped himself or herself a bit too far toward looking for the “well-polished amenities”–tell them about Claire. You can probably find her next fall in the library in London. (But, Claire, don’t forget to have tea at the V&A–London’s unparalleled Victoria & Albert Museum–because that is unforgettable and you can bring a book to read.)

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Episode 77: How Many Colleges Are Kids Applying To?

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So, it’€™s the first week of June, and we are assuming that we have been whatever help we could have been to those seniors who are graduating now and moving into their college lives. As Charles Dickens once said, college might well be a combination of the best of times and the worst of times; but, I believe, for most of us, the best of times won out. Marie and I are wishing you the very best. Kids, if you need advice while you are there, give us a call. We have been through it all–decisions about majors and minors, living arrangements, extracurricular activities, sports, study abroad programs, part-time work, internships, etc.–€”and we are here for you.

How Many Colleges Are Kids Applying To? on USACollegeChat podcast

Now, parents, we are turning to the younger kids, who are winding up their junior years and moving into a summer of thinking about college before those college applications rear their ugly heads in about three or four months.

In this episode, we want to talk about the number of applications that students are submitting these days and the number that students should be submitting, a topic we talked about many episodes ago. What we are not talking about is the selectivity of colleges in admitting students. We talked about that recently (in Episodes 70 and 72) and about how the selectivity game among high-ranked colleges has gotten out of control. (By the way, the average acceptance rate at four-year colleges is about 65 percent, regardless of the selectivity race.)

As it turns out, parents, you have no control over college selectivity in admissions, but you have plenty of control over the number of applications that your children submit. So, let’s look at the statistics.

1. The New Statistics on Applications

According to an article by Mike McPhate in The New York Times on April 11, 2016, students are applying to more colleges than they used to:

In 1990, just 9 percent of students applied to seven or more schools, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. By 2013, that group had grown to 32 percent. (quoted from the article)

Researchers talk about a variety of reasons for that growth. First, students are getting increasingly worried about getting into college as the number of students applying grows. Second, students are getting increasingly worried about getting into the college of their choice when so many colleges continue to get record numbers of applications. You might recall some anecdotes from our virtual nationwide tour of colleges. For example, applications at the public flagship University of Massachusetts Amherst have doubled in the past 10 years (that is, there were 37,000 applications for just 4,650 seats in the Class of 2018). Or, in the past 20 years, applications at the public flagship University of Connecticut have tripled–€”at the same time as SAT average scores have gone up a combined total of 200 points on two subtests.

And third, the growing popularity of the Common Application, which started in 1975 and now serves over 600 colleges, makes it relatively easy to apply electronically to additional colleges with just a few clicks–at least when those additional colleges don’€™t have supplementary application questions to complete.

Of course, as more students apply to more colleges for fear they won’€™t get into any, more applications flood the market, and the whole thing becomes a vicious cycle–€”at first glance, great for the colleges, not so great for the applicants. However, because so many students applied to so many colleges and because they can go to only one of them, colleges are putting more students on their waiting lists so that the colleges will have students ready to fill the seats of admitted students who choose to go elsewhere. According to a New York Times article, even Yale University put just over 1,000 students on its waiting list–€”more than half as many students as it accepted.

But let’€™s look at the typical applicant, according to an article by Anemona Hartocollis in The New York Times on April 20, 2016:

The number of students using the Common Application . . . rose to 920,000 through mid-April, compared with 847,000 at the same time last year, said Aba Blankson, a spokeswoman for the Common Application. . . . [T]he overall average is 4.4 applications, though many students apply to many more, Ms. Blankson said. (quoted from the article)

So, just about four or five applications is what the typical student submits through the Common Application. Of course, in addition, these students could have submitted applications to colleges that do not take the Common App. We will talk about the notion of four or five applications in a few minutes.

Is there a difference by region or type of high school? Evidently, yes. Here is what Ms. Blankson said:

Charter school students in New England submitted the most applications, at nearly seven per student, followed closely by private school students in New England and the Middle States (a category including Washington, D.C., Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands), with more than six applications each. . . . Home schoolers and public school students in the South and Southwest submitted the fewest, about three each. (quoted from the article)

These data are not too surprising, given the long-standing tradition of private schools and private colleges for children of wealthy families in the New England and Mid-Atlantic states and the prevalence of super-popular public flagship universities in the South and Southwest, which draw so many students in that part of the U.S. If a student is headed for a public university in his or her home state, fewer applications will be required compared to a student headed to a private college in or outside of his or her home state.

2. What This Means for You

So, what does this mean for you and your child as you begin the college search and start thinking about how many colleges to apply to? For one thing, it means that applying to seven or more colleges is not crazy; lots of students do that now. However, all that depends on the colleges you and your child are interested in.

If your child is headed to a public university in your state–€”and especially if your child is truly thrilled to be doing that–€”you will likely not need to make seven applications. However, if your child is headed to a public or private college in or outside of your state–€”in other words, if your child is interested in pursuing a variety of options–€”you will likely need to make seven applications or more.

Maybe this will be your very first decision. It’€™s always hard to figure out what the first decision is. But my thinking now is that the degree of variety in the colleges your child is considering is what will help you decide how many colleges should be on your child’€™s list.

Of course, if you have listened to many episodes of USACollegeChat, you will know that we love variety, especially when it comes to geographic variety and getting students outside of their geographic comfort zone. We talked about the incredible variety of colleges nationwide when we did our virtual nationwide tour (see Episodes 27 through 53). There are so many appealing colleges to choose from–public and private, large and small, near and far–€”that I would not limit myself too soon if I were in your shoes, parents and kids.

So what is the right number? Every expert and every college counselor has a number. Some seem surprisingly low to me, but maybe that’€™s because I like kids to preserve their options. I believe that it is important to increase the chances that a kid will say on May 1, “€œI am going to (fill in the name of a college), and I am thrilled about it!”€ What could be a better start to a college career than that?

In our book (How To Find the Right College: A Workbook for Parents of High School Students, available through Amazon), Marie and I offer a recommendation of applying to 8 to 12 colleges. If you have the time and money (since applications cost money, unless you need and have gotten application fee waivers), I would err on the side of an even dozen. And remember, we are right here to help you!

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