Episode 106: The Nightmare of the Supplemental College Application Essays

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We are still in Series 9, The Last Minute. That’s because we told you in our last episode that many colleges, including some top-ranked public and private ones, were still accepting applications–and will be doing so right through January and February, with some into March and April, and a few even beyond that. So, if you have a high school senior at home and he or she intends to take advantage of that fact, this episode is for you. And perhaps equally important, but less urgent: If you have a high school junior at home, this episode is for your family big time.

We have talked on numerous occasions (most recently in Episode 98) about the dreaded college application main essay or personal statement. This is the place in The Common Application where your teenager is asked to write about 650 words on his or her choice of one of five prescribed topics. Everybody talks about this essay (including us), and everybody has lots of advice about how to produce a memorable piece of work (including us).

But we are going to talk today about a slightly different topic, which we also addressed briefly back in Episode 98. This is one that I have been painfully focused on for the past couple of weeks, and it is the college application supplemental essay.

My personal story goes something like this: I had worked with a number of students here in New York City on their Common App main essays over the course of the fall months. I probably read and edited (that is, edited back and forth with the students) more than 50 of them. Suddenly, just before Christmas, some of these students started emailing me their supplemental essays and asking whether I might give them some guidance and some help in editing them. I made the “mistake” of helping the first few students, and I guess word got around. As January 1 deadlines approached, more and more students sent me more and more supplemental essays. Some kids sent as many as a dozen across six or seven different colleges! Having read and edited with students perhaps 100 supplemental essays in the past several weeks, I now feel like something of an expert on the topic. So, let me pass on what I learned in the trenches.

1. Supplemental Essays: The Word Count

As you probably know, supplemental essays are required by lots of colleges, especially by the highly selective ones. Some colleges require one, some require two, and some require even more (at last count, I put one Ivy League institution at seven open-ended questions calling for answers of various lengths, though not all actual essays). Typically, supplemental essays are not as long as the main personal statement, fortunately–although we all know that higher word counts allow us to be a bit sloppy and it is sometimes easier to write more rambling words than to write fewer better-chosen words.

Many of these supplemental essays seem to call for about 350 to 400 words, or about four meaty paragraphs, which is not really too long when you think about it. Many of them seem to run quite a bit shorter, at about 100 to 150 words, which can be downright restricting if you actually have something to say. Some of them–which are not really essays at all, but more like short-answer questions–ask for just 200 characters (or about 35 words), as one Ivy put it.

Here is the point: These word limits are very different, but they are all way lower than the 650-word personal statement. These lower word limits imply a different style of writing. While an applicant might relax into a narrative personal story in the main 650-word essay, using lots of descriptive detail and many examples to elaborate the main idea, the shorter essays do not really permit that. They need a much more focused, straightforward, get-to-the-point style if the question is to be answered effectively in far fewer words. Now, I am sure that there are some creative writers among our current crop of college applicants who could write a brilliant poetic response to one of these shorter essay prompts. But, I am going to state, for the record, that I have not found too many of them. Most high school kids are going to have enough trouble writing a coherent, logical response, which gets in some important facts and pertinent background information and perhaps an insightful opinion or two.

So, if you are a parent who is reading supplemental essays in the next few weeks, look for essays that make sense and that are clearly written. They need to make a point (or two or maybe three) both effectively and efficiently. Help your teenager edit out the extra sentences and superfluous words–including all of those that don’t contribute to the point(s). Because we all know that getting down to 100 words can be brutal.

One final note on word limits: As you might already know or could have guessed, one college’s 400-word essay topic is another college’s 150-word essay topic. Obviously, as we will talk about in a minute, there are some topics that come up over and over again across many, many colleges. You will quickly learn that it is truly helpful for your teenager to have a drafted long response to these topics and–just as important–a drafted short response for the same topics. That takes some thoughtful and careful editing. Believe me, having a long version and a short version of popular essay topics can help you speed through the supplemental answer nightmare.

2. Supplemental Essays: The Tone

So, let’s talk about tone. I am going to use “tone” here to mean both the attitude the writer has toward the subject (or content) of the essay and the attitude the writer has toward the audience (and by “audience,” we mean, of course, the college admissions staff). I have already said that I think that most supplemental essays call for a straightforward, academic, somewhat formal tone. Yes, the applicant will be writing about his or her personal background, ideas, and even opinions, but not in the words he or she would use if writing to a friend or a relative or perhaps even to his or her own teacher.

This doesn’t mean the essays have to be stuffy or dry or boring. An applicant’s personality can shine through even though the writing is not chatty. Maybe that’s the style applicants should strive for: personality, with decorum and appropriateness.

Let me say that one of the worst problems I found with tone was my high school seniors’ gushing over how wonderful the college is or what great students go there or what fantastic and potentially helpful alumni it has. To take one example, the kids often wrote about a college’s “Nobel Prize-winning professors” or “world-famous professors who are doing brilliant research” or “dedicated professors.” Parents, explain to your teenagers that colleges know how great their professors are and they don’t need a high school senior to tell them. It is fine to be admiring and polite, of course; but, gushing just sounds naïve and unsophisticated. I would settle for “well-known” or “highly respected professors” instead, if you really want to talk about them. So, let’s shoot for admiring and polite, but not over-the-top.

3. Supplemental Essays: The Likely Topics

Some of the topics for the supplemental essays, especially the shorter ones, are a bit odd, chosen perhaps to allow an applicant to show his or her creative side. If given a choice among essay topics, I rarely recommend that a kid choose one of the odder ones–unless that kid is particularly creative or perhaps naturally funny or witty.

However, there are several often-used and often not-optional topics that your teenager should have a longer (about 350 words) answer and shorter (about 100 words) answer for:

  • “Why our college” or “Why is our college a good fit for you” or “How will our college contribute to your goals and interests” or some version of that–As we said in Episode 98, this topic virtually requires your teenager to read up about the college and refer, in the essay, to what he or she has learned from that research. For example, an applicant could reference the college’s diversity or academic strengths or curriculum or research opportunities for students or community outreach efforts or faith-based mission or something else. If this is one of the longer-length essays, then the applicant will need to reference several things about the college.

Remember: This is an essay that is not easily used from college to college because of the specifics about the college, so tell your teenager to be careful about trying to get double duty out of it. This is precisely the kind of essay that can cause some teenagers to become a bit gushy and overly complimentary, so watch out for that, too. By the way, if this is the only supplementary essay required by a college, then your teenager can write about his or her interest in a field of study that the college offers; but, if there are more supplementary essays for the college, your teenager probably is going to need to save that content for a different essay.

  • “How can you contribute to our college” or “What can you bring to our college” or “Our students live in suites, so what would you bring to your suitemates” or some version of that–This is the reverse of the previous topic, like “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This essay has to be about what traits and skills and talents your teenager has–like commitment to community service or love of research or musical talent or athletic prowess–and how those will be a plus for the college if your teenager is admitted. Again, if this is one of the longer-length essays, then your teenager will likely need to write about several of his or her traits or skills or talents in order to make his or her best case.

It’s hard to write this essay without sounding boastful, so watch the tone. Again, if this is the only supplementary essay, then your teenager can write about his or her interest in a field of study that the college offers and how he or she might contribute to classes or projects in that field; but, if there are more supplementary essays for the college, your teenager is probably going to need to save that for a different essay.

  • “Why are you interested in the field of study you are proposing to major in” or some version of that–We frequently see applicants write a version of this essay for the main Common App essay or personal statement. That is a serious mistake. Tell your teenager to save any talk about his or her field of academic interest for this supplemental essay if this is one that a college requires. For example, whatever led to his or her interest in art or French or electrical engineering or something else–all of that goes into this essay.

This is also the place to look carefully on the college’s website at the academic degrees and majors listed (and concentrations, if available, within those majors) and to cite the exact name of the degree, major, and concentration, if available, that the college uses. For example, there are many variations of “biology” within some colleges and indeed from college to college; it is important to write each college’s essay on this topic as specifically as possible, using the words that each college uses to describe its own majors, concentrations, and so on. Know, for example, that some colleges offer both a B.A. and a B.S. in Biology. So, what is the difference and which one is your teenager headed for?

It is likely that your teenager already had to declare a major in another question on the Common App, so this should not come as a surprise. If your teenager has no idea what he or she wants to major in, we totally understand that, but it will probably make for a less appealing essay. Tell your teenager to keep in mind that the major and/or concentration written about here is not cast in stone, so it is likely better to write about something specific with as much passion as possible.

As we said in Episode 98, this is the supplemental essay where pre-med majors write about why they are drawn to the field of medicine; if you are going to do that, the story should be a good one. Everyone wants to be a pre-med major, but if an applicant has a compelling reason (and that doesn’t mean “to help people”), then the pre-med choice is more believable. I recently read an interesting essay by a high school senior of Asian background, who wrote that her immigrant parents had always had difficulty when it came time to file income taxes?both because they did not speak English very well and because they did not understand the array of documents they needed to provide in order to complete the forms. The student said that she hoped to become an accountant to help families like hers. I thought that was actually interesting, and definitely not the same thing as every other kid who wants to be a business major will write.

  • “Describe an activity that is important to you” or “Write about something that is important to you” or, more specifically,”Talk about the role of sports in your life” or some version of that–We often see applicants write a version of this topic for the main Common App essay or personal statement. Again, that is a serious mistake. Tell your teenager to save any talk about an activity or sport that is especially meaningful or significant to him or her for this supplemental essay topic. This is the place for the story about conquering a fear of water and then competing on the swimming team or serving as the treasurer of your school’s cancer fundraising organization or writing for the school newspaper or playing in the orchestra that toured in China or working at a summer camp for kids or picking up a younger brother or sister or niece or nephew after school every day and watching that child until a parent comes home. Remember: “Activity” can mean something a teenager does for the family.
  • “Describe a community that you are part of” or some version of that–This essay allows for a bit of creativity in defining the “community” that the applicant chooses to discuss. It also, happily, allows for the applicant to take one of the basic essays he or she has written and to bend it cleverly to fit this topic. For example, it could be a school community or church community or community of athletes or community of volunteers or theatrical community or musical community or you name it.
  • “Write about a time when you had to work with someone whose background (e.g., race, ethnicity, religion, politics, income, gender identity, or sexual orientation) was different from yours” or some version of that–Many colleges are committed to promoting student diversity on their campuses and are, understandably, interested in how new students will react to that diversity. Specific examples drawn from an applicant’s school or community would probably work best to show whether and how that applicant values diversity. For students who go to school or live in a community that is not racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, or otherwise diverse, this topic might be harder to write about, but could turn out to be very insightful?if, in fact, diversity is one of the main reasons the applicant chose to apply to that college.

Clearly, you and your teenager must look at the totality of the supplementary essays each college asks for and mix and match the ones you have with the ones that are needed. What is one college’s “activity that is significant to you” is another college’s “community that you are part of.” You see how that works?

I recently worked with one high school senior on 11 college applications. We managed to do almost all of her supplementary essays with longer or shorter versions of three basic essays that we established at the beginning: one about her interest in medicine and medical research (and it was a compelling story, which included the biology research she did in high school competitions); one about her brother, who has a life-threatening disease, and the work she does with a community of volunteers to raise awareness and money to fight that disease (and, incidentally, how she plans to continue that work in college); and one about playing and traveling for several years on championship softball teams at school and in the community. You can already see how these work with the topics we just discussed and how they can be shaped to fit various purposes.

By the way, parents of juniors, just to give you the heads up, here are some of the super-short questions your teen might see in the future (you can start getting ready now):

  • Who or what is an inspiration to you?
  • If you could live for a day/have lunch with/ spend some time with someone past or present, fictional or real, who would that be and why?
  • If you had to invent a course to teach at our college, what would it be?
  • What books have you read recently outside of school?
  • What museums, concerts, exhibitions, films, and theatrical performances have you attended recently?

Those should get you thinking. As always, call us, if you could use some free advice!

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Episode 105: Colleges Still Accepting Applications!

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Well, we thought we would be starting a new series for the new year, but it turns out there are one or two things we would like to say to the seniors who are looking at their college prospects now–albeit a bit late–with newly serious eyes.  I was talking to one of my best friends recently.  He has twin girls, who were just finishing up their applications when we chatted on December 27.  He said that one of the girls was feeling a bit blue as she looked over the list of colleges she had applied to and worried that none of them seemed to be the perfect choice.

I found myself giving him two messages for his daughter.

1.  There’s Not One Perfect College Choice.

The first is the message that any concerned parent would send, and it went something like this:  Don’t worry.  There are many colleges out there that would be a fine choice for you.  There isn’t just one perfect college.  You could be happy at any number of colleges, including the ones on your list, and you likely will be.

Her father added that he thought there was really no way to know how good a fit a college might be until you were actually enrolled and living on the campus and taking classes and making friends and involving yourself in activities, etc.  Her dad is a smart guy and, in this case, exactly right.

However much you think you know about a college from reading the website and visiting the campus and attending a few sample classes and talking to kids who go there will be nothing compared to that first month as a student there.  And really that first semester as a student there, because that first month can be atypically difficult, especially if the college is far from home.  So, yes, applicants should do their homework about a college before applying (our new book is designed to help high school students do exactly that), but applicants also have to accept that fact that they can’t know everything in advance.

Parents, if you attended college and had a choice of colleges yourself, after the acceptances came in, do you ever think about how your life might have been different if you had chosen a different college?  I really don’t, but did so on the occasion of preparing this episode.

This will surprise you, Marie (well-known Barnard alumna), but I very nearly chose to go to Smith College or Pembroke College (now fully merged into Brown University).  Yes, two women’s colleges!  I liked the idea of women’s colleges as a high school senior more than I do now.  So, was I right then?  Perhaps I was.

I also thought hard about going to two great Southern universities–Vanderbilt and Southern Methodist (my mother’s alma mater).  Although I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I spent all my summers in Texas at my grandmother’s.  I loved the idea of going to college in the South and believe, to this day, that I would have thoroughly enjoyed either of those universities.

But, as our listeners know, I chose Cornell.  In fairness, my father, an Ivy Leaguer himself, chose Cornell for me.  I could tell that he wanted me to go to Cornell, though he never said it, so I did.  I don’t regret my choice for a minute.  Was it a perfect choice?  Well, a near-perfect choice, except for the weather.  But I have to believe that any other choice would have made me quite happy, too.  They might have been just as perfect.

Maybe the key here is to get great colleges onto your list of college options so that you apply only to places that you would really like to attend.  It is comforting to go into the waiting period of the next few months knowing that you could be happy at any of the colleges on your list.  That’s one reason we spend a lot of time talking to you about options, taking you on our virtual nationwide college tour (Episodes 27 through 53), going through the deal breakers in your decision making (see our first book), and doing the research you need on each college option (see our upcoming book).

2.  Lots of Colleges Are Still Accepting Applications.

So, that brings me to my second message to my friend’s daughter:  If you are really concerned (and not just fretting over nothing, as kids sometimes do), there are still a lot of great colleges accepting applications.  I have to admit that when I Googled “colleges still accepting applications,” I couldn’t believe the number that came up.  Sure, some have deadlines of January 10 or 15 or 31, but some have deadlines in February, March, April, May, and beyond.  Yes, for the fall of 2017.  And you still have some time to submit applications even to those with January deadlines.  One note of caution:  I double checked the deadlines of all the colleges that were supplied by my Google search and found many of them to be wrong.  So please check out the actual website of any college that you might be interested in!

There is no way to generalize about the colleges with later deadlines, but I have noticed that quite a few of them are the branch campuses of large public universities, though some great flagships also have relatively late application deadlines.  Other than that, you can find small liberal arts colleges, larger liberal arts universities, faith-based colleges, HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), single-sex colleges–really, just about anything.  They are large and small.  They are urban, suburban, small town, and rural.  They include some highly selective colleges, some selective colleges, and some not-so-selective colleges.  They include colleges in the North, South, East, and West (including as west as it gets).

Let me read you a sample of colleges with late application deadlines to prove our point.  Here are just some of the colleges–including truly great colleges–you can apply to by January 15 (and really 10 days should be plenty of time to pull some of these off):

  • Bryn Mawr College
  • Bucknell University
  • Carleton College
  • Case Western Reserve University
  • Centre College
  • Colgate University
  • College of the Holy Cross
  • Colorado College
  • Denison University
  • Drexel University
  • Florida State University (January 18)
  • Franklin and Marshall College
  • George Mason University
  • Grinnell College
  • Haverford College
  • Kenyon College
  • Lafayette College
  • Loyola Marymount University
  • Macalester College
  • Mills College
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • Oberlin College
  • Occidental College
  • Providence College
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Skidmore College
  • Smith College
  • Soka University of America
  • Southern Methodist University
  • Stony Brook University
  • Tulane University
  • University of Colorado Boulder
  • University of Connecticut
  • University of Delaware
  • University of Denver
  • University of Georgia
  • University of Massachusetts Amherst
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of Oregon
  • University of Puget Sound
  • University of Southern California
  • University of Vermont
  • Villanova University
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
  • Washington University in St Louis
  • Wellesley College

Need more time?  Well, here are colleges with February deadlines (albeit many are on February 1, but some are on February 15):

  • Baylor University
  • Clemson University
  • Colorado State University Fort Collins
  • DePauw University
  • Dickinson College
  • Fisk University
  • Hunter College (CUNY)
  • Ithaca College
  • Juniata College
  • Miami University (Oxford, Ohio)
  • Ohio State University (main campus)
  • Quinnipiac University
  • Rhode Island School of Design
  • Saint Michael’s College
  • Simmons College
  • Spelman College
  • St. Lawrence University
  • Stevens Institute of Technology
  • Transylvania University
  • University of Maryland (Baltimore County)
  • University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)
  • University of New Hampshire (main campus)
  • University of North Carolina Wilmington
  • University of Rhode Island
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Earlham College
  • Morehouse College
  • Rollins College
  • Texas Christian University
  • The College of Wooster
  • University of Kentucky
  • Yeshiva University

I was going to stop there, but there are some that I would like to mention with deadlines in March (yes, March!).  You really have no excuse not to apply to one of these if you are interested:

  • Georgia State University
  • Hampden?Sydney College
  • Hampton University
  • Randolph?Macon College
  • SUNY at Albany
  • University of Dallas
  • University of Hawai’i at M?noa
  • East Carolina University

Okay, you get the point.  But, believe us that we could name colleges with deadlines in April, May, and even June, including some that we have recommended in our virtual nationwide college tour–colleges like SUNY New Paltz, Old Dominion University, the University of Iowa, Louisiana State University, and the University of Central Florida.

So, parents of high school seniors, don’t despair.  If your teenager is truly questioning his or her choices now, it’s not too late.  Again, the options that we have just read are a sample of colleges still accepting applications (and there are many options that we have not read).  Lots of these options would be great for any student.  So, if you and your teenager are so inclined, take an hour or two now and have a last look.  It might not change any final decision your teenager will eventually make about where to go to college, but it might let you all sleep better for the next few months.

As always, call us, if you could use some free advice!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

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Episode 104: Public Universities–One More Time

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

This is our final episode before the holiday break and before those of you with seniors are facing what is likely D-Day–Deadline-for-college-applications Day–at least, for many, many colleges anyway. We struggled to think of something hopeful to say, and we settled on one last look at a group of colleges your teenager and you might not have considered sufficiently, and that is public universities. They have long been a favorite topic of ours, as evidenced by our detailed coverage of them during our virtual nationwide college tour (Episodes 27 through 53) and our oft-repeated description of public flagship universities as the hidden jewels of our higher education system in the U.S.

But recently, I read some new information that might make them even more attractive to you, and that information is about money. Our regular listeners know that I care relatively little about the cost of a college compared to the education and college life it provides and the quality of its match to a particular student. But even I was pleased to find out this information. Perhaps it is just in time for adding one or two more colleges to your teenager’s list (especially if the applications are relatively easy or the deadlines are a bit later than January 1, both of which can be true for large public universities).

1. Out-of-State Tuition Prices Dropping

A few weeks ago, I read an Associated Press article, by Jeff Amy, which had a catchy headline: “Seeking students, public colleges reduce out-of-state prices.” It starts with an interesting story from the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) in Hattiesburg, but doesn’t stop there. Here is the USM story:

The 14,500-student school has cut annual out-of-state tuition and fees from $16,529 this year to $9,964 next fall, even as it increases the cost for Mississippi residents by 4 percent, to $7,963.

The idea is to reverse a 2,000-student enrollment dip by pricing a USM education below some public universities in nearby states, and attract enough high-schoolers from Houston, Dallas and San Antonio to raise overall revenue. (quoted from the article)

Of course, as our regular listeners might say, those high school seniors could also come from New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Why? Because kids need to get outside their geographic comfort zone! And now, USM and other public universities are making it even more attractive and cheaper to do just that.

According to Mr. Amy’s article, “The Associated Press counted at least 50 public colleges and universities nationwide that have lowered nonresident tuition by more than 10 percent in recent years without making similar reductions for in-state students.” Is there any particular reason for that trend? Mr. Amy’s article offers this statistic:

Many [colleges] are squeezed by falling numbers of traditional college-age students. High school graduates have fallen nationwide since 2011 and won’t peak again until 2023, according to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education. (quoted from the article)

Well, that was something I didn’t know. So now, let’s head way north from Hattiesburg and take a look at the University of Maine‘s flagship campus. Mr. Amy tells this story:

One widely noticed move was made by the University of Maine in Orono, which charges high-achievers from nine other states the same tuition they’d pay at their home state’s flagship. This saves them $12,000 to $17,000 from Maine’s out-of-state tuition of $29,498; applicants with lower grades and test scores get $9,000 off.

“The state of Maine needs young people, and we’re not producing enough of them,” said University of Maine Provost Jeffrey Hecker?.

It’s working: Applications jumped, freshman enrollment rose 9 percent to 2,260 students this fall?. (quoted from the article)

This arrangement at the University of Maine echoes some arrangements we talked about during our virtual nationwide college tour (Episodes 27 through 53) where groups of neighboring states in various parts of the country offered good financial deals to students to cross state lines and attend public universities. And, parents, don’t forget to check out about any regional exchanges your state belongs to (e.g., Western Undergraduate Exchange, Midwest Student Exchange Program), which offer tuition discounts to residents of member states.

Of course, as we have said before, some public universities take some heat from state taxpayers for recruiting students from outside the state, especially when they believe that out-of-state students who can pay more are admitted instead of in-state students who deserve those places. But, as some states cut back on their funding of their own public universities, it is no surprise that those universities have to seek revenue elsewhere. Thus, at least in some states, out-of-state students are going to get a good deal.

2. Public Universities Recruiting Out-of-State Students

Last month, The New York Times published an article by Laura Pappano entitled “How the University of Alabama Became a National Player.” The whole article is well worth reading and tells about many more universities than we are going to talk about in this episode. But here is the Alabama story in a nutshell:

With state funding now just 12.5 percent of the university’s budget, campus leaders have mapped an offensive strategy to grow in size, prestige and, most important, revenue. The endgame is to become a national player known for more than championship football?.

The university is spending $100.6 million in merit aid, up from $8.3 million a decade ago and more than twice what it allocates to students with financial need. It also has hired an army of recruiters to put Bama on college lists of full-paying students who, a few years ago, might not have looked its way.

The University of Alabama is the fastest-growing flagship in the country. Enrollment hit 37,665 this fall, nearly a 58 percent increase over 2006. As critical as the student body jump: the kind of student the university is attracting. The average G.P.A. of entering freshmen is 3.66, up from 3.4 a decade ago, and the top quarter scored at least a 31 on the ACT, up from 27. (quoted from the article)

While it is clear that there are Alabama taxpayers who are annoyed that its well-known and much-loved flagship university is spending its money on out-of-state recruiters and merit aid to bright kids, it is also clear that these strategies seem to be working for the University. And that is why the University of Alabama now has 45 recruiters, with 36 of them in out-of-state locations.

According to Ms. Pappano’s article, Alabama is just one example of this trend. To take another example, the University of South Carolina (USC) has 20 recruiters, and now USC receives twice as many applications from out-of-state students as from state residents. Ms. Pappano sums it up this way:

It is no accident that states with among the largest drops in state allocations since 2008–Arizona (down 56 percent), South Carolina (down 37 percent) and Alabama (down 36 percent), according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities–have entrepreneurial public campuses trained on growth. Those same states also had the greatest net gain in students: More entered the state to attend their four-year public institutions than left to study elsewhere, according to fall 2014 data, the most recent available. (quoted from the article)

3. What Does It All Mean?

So, what does it all mean? First, giving great tuition breaks to out-of-state students likely means that some in-state kids will lose out on places at those public universities. Second, recruiting out-of-state kids who can afford to pay more likely means that some in-state kids will lose out on places at those public universities.   Third, giving merit scholarships to out-of-state bright kids likely means that some in-state kids will lose out on places at those public universities. All of these scenarios are understandably of concern to state taxpayers. These scenarios are also a concern to those of us who believe that public universities have a mission to make a college education accessible to a wide range of students, not just the best and the brightest and the most able to pay.

On the other hand, if you are the parent of a teenager who is looking for another college to add to the list as we get down to the wire, we can say that this could be the time to look both to public flagship universities and to other public universities that are actively recruiting out-of-state students. Check out the articles we have been discussing for more information. Depending on your teenager’s grades and test scores, there might even be a substantial financial break for you.

4. Good Luck!

We will be taking a short holiday break next week, and we will be back with you on January 5. At that point, those of you who have a senior with applications due in the first few days of January should be breathing a huge sigh of relief. Of course, some of you will still have deadlines to face in February and March and even later. And if you have a junior at home, your life is about to change.

But, parents of seniors, let us say again what we have said before: There is not just one perfect college for each kid. There are many colleges that would make each kid happy and many colleges that would give each kid a great education. Your kid will find one or more than one. Until then, we are keeping our fingers crossed for you. Happy 2017!

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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Episode 103: Can You Find a College Like Georgia State?

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

We are going to Georgia–well, not literally–in today’s episode to talk about a college that we did not include in our virtual nationwide college tour (Episodes 27 through 53), but I now wish we had. I have to admit that I did not know virtually anything about the college we are going to talk about, and that’s why Marie and I say all the time that we learn something every day while navigating the ever-changing world of college. I think this episode will be eye-opening to many of you.

1. What’s in a Headline?

It all started when I read the following headline in a recent issue of The Hechinger Report: “At Georgia State, more black students graduate each year than at any U.S. college.” This excellent article, which was written by Nick Chiles and which also appeared in The Atlanta Journal Constitution, takes a close look at how one college has changed the game for many students (and not just black students) who might have found it difficult–and perhaps unfairly difficult–to get into and succeed at other colleges. You all should really go read the whole article, because I can’t do it justice without reading it aloud to you in its entirety.

Mr. Chiles offers these statistics to make his case:

With its jumble of slate-gray concrete buildings mixed in with the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta, Georgia State now graduates more black students with bachelor’s degrees every year than any other nonprofit school in the United States (1,777 in 2015). That stat includes the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Spelman, Howard and Florida A&M.

From 2003 to 2015, according to GSU, its graduation rate (finishing a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting) for African-American students rose from 29 to 57 percent. For Hispanic students, it went from 22 to 54 percent. By 2014, for lower-income students (those eligible for a federal Pell grant), it reached 51 percent–nearly the same as for non-Pell students. Its graduation rate for first-generation students went up 32 percent between 2010 and 2014.

And GSU increased those percentages while also increasing its number of black, Hispanic and low-income students by 10 percent. (quoted from the article)

Any way you look at it, those are some impressive statistics. This is not a new topic for USACollegeChat. We have talked in previous episodes about the shockingly low graduation rates in too many colleges, and we have talked about the scandalously low number of students of color in too many public universities. Both issues concern us. So, we are especially pleased to spotlight the work that Georgia State has been doing on both of these fronts.

2. How Georgia State Won

To what does Georgia State credit its success when so many other colleges have failed? Here is what Mr. Chiles said about that:

The centerpiece of GSU’s turnaround is the system it created and calls “GPS Advising.” Using computer algorithms, it closely tracks student performance, and GSU’s army of advisors monitors every student’s academic output on a daily basis. If a student’s performance veers off course just a bit, counselors receive an alert. They reach out to the student to find the source of the problem. According to GSU calculations, in 2014-15 the system generated more than 43,000 individual meetings between advisors and students.

In addition, knowing how frequently students drop out because they find themselves unable to cover tuition, GSU instituted a program that provides modest “retention grants” to students who are short of money. Last year it offered nearly 2,000.

Another program, called “Keep HOPE Alive,” helps students who have lost Georgia’s HOPE scholarship–which covers tuition costs at state institutions–re-qualify for the money by working to lift their GPAs back to the required 3.0. And for incoming [freshmen] it considers “at risk,” GSU offers an intensive seven-week summer prep program. (quoted from the article)

We are sure that these ideas cost Georgia State both administrative time and money. But look at the results. And haven’t we all known kids who had a scholarship and lost it when they underperformed during that important freshman year; Marie and I certainly have. Look at the support that Georgia State provides to its students who might otherwise have dropped out and suboptimized their entire futures: black kids, Hispanic kids, low-income kids, first-generation-to-college kids, and plenty of other kids who needed just a bit of help to win.

But, as Mr. Chiles goes on to say, it’s not just about these supports. It’s about the whole culture of Georgia State. Mr. Chiles continues his explanation:

In interviews at Georgia State, many black students said they feel they have the best of both worlds: the black peers, support staff and cultural environment they might find at an HBCU, but the resources and the diversity of a large state school.

On the weekends, GSU students said the campus feels even more like an HBCU. That’s because the number of black students who live on the downtown Atlanta campus is more than double the number of white students–2,794 black students this fall compared to 1,209 white students. Most of its 25,000 [undergraduate] students commute from nearby homes or apartments. (quoted from the article)

Well, there are lots of things to comment on here. First, we have talked in previous episodes about the nurturing and supportive environment of many HBCUs and how that sometimes makes all the difference to a student, especially to a student far from home. Georgia State seems to have that environment, even though it is not an HBCU. By the way, according to College Navigator (our favorite research tool for finding out important stuff about colleges), the undergraduate student body at Georgia State is 42 percent black/African American, 27 percent white, 12 percent Asian, 9 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 10 percent everything else (Fall, 2015). Incidentally, Mr. Chiles notes that Georgia State has also recruited a large number of black administrators, advisors, and professors. According to a Georgia State administrator, 10 percent of Georgia State instructors are black–compared to only about 4 percent at other colleges that are not HBCUs.

Second, we want to point out the number of black students who live on Georgia State’s campus, which is largely a commuter campus. Being able to house those students gives them all of the advantages of college life that they otherwise would not get by living at home. We should note here that, according to College Navigator, 94 percent of Georgia State students are from Georgia (Fall, 2015). If you are not from Georgia, but you are impressed by what Georgia State has done, you might think about becoming part of the out-of-staters who make the trip to Atlanta (a group that might get bigger as more and more parents around the country look at what Georgia State has accomplished). We should also say that out-of-state tuition and fees will run more than $25,000 per year, so it’s not the cheapest option you are going to find, but we do believe that you might actually get what you pay for. We should also say that the deadline for applications for next fall is not until March 1, so you still have plenty of time to take a longer look.

And third, for those of you who don’t know it, Atlanta is a great city. In addition to the popular culture that is so evident there, it is home to great civic institutions, like the truly memorable National Center for Civil and Human Rights and The Carter Center (“Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. Building Hope.”). By the way, you can go to Georgia State’s website and take the virtual campus tour, which will give you a good idea of what its piece of Atlanta looks like.

Let’s take one last look at Mr. Chiles’s well-researched article (again, please go read the whole piece, really):

Bernard McCrary, director of Georgia State’s Black Student Achievement office, said it helps that many of GSU’s black staff members were the first in their families to attend college, just as he was.

“I think when you have a lot of first-generation folk, these are people who understand what that struggle is like for students because they’ve gone through it or had family members go through it,” McCrary said. “They get it, they understand and will do everything in their power to make sure the students they service are successful.” (quoted from the article)

First, Georgia State has an Office of Black Student Achievement, which provides a wide variety of academic, support, leadership, and outreach activities, programs, and services. So, that says something about its commitment to serving its African and African-American student population. Second, the staffing of the university says something about its commitment to serving first-generation-to-college students. Giving these students role models–just like giving black students role models on its staff and faculty–is obviously intentional and should make parents of first-generation-to-college students rest a bit easier when sending their kids off to this university.

Although we were not necessarily trying to champion Georgia State in this episode, but rather the kinds of successful programs and services that Georgia State has put in place for students of color and first-generation-to-college students, I guess we have ended up championing Georgia State. So, while we are at it, let’s talk about one interesting thing we noticed on its website, and that is its methods for reviewing applications. Here is what the website says:

At Georgia State, we recognize that everyone is different. We give you options on how we evaluate your application because we know that every student is unique. Selecting how you would like to be reviewed as a freshman applicant is as simple as choosing which information to supply when you complete the application–skip the optional essay and letter of recommendation sections for the merit-based evaluation, or include an essay and letter(s) of recommendation to be evaluated holistically. It’s your choice; either way, we hope you choose Georgia State University.

The Merit Review is based purely on your academic merits as they align with Georgia State’s admissions requirements, including your high school transcript(s) and test scores. Choosing this method of review means that you have elected not to complete the optional essay and letter of recommendation sections of the admissions application, and that you will be assessed solely on your previous academic performance and scores. If you choose this review method, Georgia State will reach out to you if any other information is necessary to make our admissions decision.

The Holistic Review gives the Office of Undergraduate Admissions an enhanced picture of your abilities through the admissions application. For this option, please complete the essay and letter of recommendation sections of the Common Application, in addition to providing your transcript(s) and test scores. We strongly encourage the holistic review option if you would like to be considered for merit scholarships, if you are an international applicant, or if you’d simply like to share more about yourself as we make our admissions decisions.

Our decisions are based primarily on academic merit. The optional essay and letters of recommendation provide additional insight about you as an applicant as Georgia State selects its freshman class. (quoted from the website)

So, it’s your choice, kids. If you have the grades and test scores, you don’t have to bother with everything else. Interesting. By the way, according to College Navigator’s figures from Fall, 2015, about 57 percent of Georgia State applicants were admitted. Those admitted had SAT average scores in the low to mid-500s across all three subtests.

3. What Does This Mean for You?

So, let us say again that we were not necessarily trying to put the spotlight just on Georgia State University in this episode, but rather on the kinds of successful programs and services that Georgia State has put together to meet the needs of many of its own students of color and first-generation-to-college students.

With that in mind, parents, consider whether the colleges on your teenager’s list have similar academic and support services, programs, and even offices, especially if your teenager is a student of color or first-generation-to-college student. You should be able to find that information on a college’s website, but you can always call and ask. Finding a college that can nurture a teenager who needs a bit more support can make all the difference, as Georgia State has indeed proved.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
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Episode 102: Using Technology To Communicate with Colleges

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

Today’s episode takes us into the world of technology, so that means I’m already in trouble, but fortunately not Marie. We want to highlight four ways colleges find out things about applicants, now that we live in a world of super-connectedness–which can be good and can be not so good.

1. Email Address

So, let’s start with the most obvious: an applicant’s email address. Virtually all kids have email addresses these days; indeed, kids are called on to provide them as part of the Common App?under Profile, then under Contact Details. So, tell your teenager that colleges will see his or her email address.

We know that college counselors have certainly talked to kids about this for quite some time, but it never fails that some kid still has an email address that sounds unprofessional, silly, or even offensive. Let me tell you a story about that–one that I have never forgotten, although it happened several years ago when I had the pleasure of hearing a very forthcoming college president speak frankly about this very topic to our juniors at the high school we co-founded.

He recounted a story about how he personally had offered a kid a great scholarship to come to his college and then had to send him a follow-up email. The president of the college saw the young man’s email address–which included language that, though sadly popular among many teens, is considered by many to be a racial slur. The president immediately withdrew the scholarship. He said to the young man that his college was not looking for students who were comfortable using that sort of language to identify themselves or anyone else. Talk about learning a lesson the hard way!

So, parents, look at your teenager’s email address. Double check that it is something straightforward, like his or her name @gmail.com. Make sure it is not too cute, funny, personal, weird, or offensive to anyone of any religion, race, ethnic group, nationality, or gender. No one wants to lose a scholarship because of an email address.

And, by the way, make sure that your teenager actually checks his or her email every day from now through next April. We cannot tell you the number of high school kids we know who have gotten emails from various colleges about important matters and who didn’t see them in a timely manner. This totally irresponsible behavior will be even worse if your teenager makes up a new email address for college applications and really uses another one for all of his or her personal business.

2. Facebook

Let’s turn to Facebook, something else that college counselors have undoubtedly been talking to kids about for some time as well. What we are sure they have said couldn’t be more obvious, at least to an adult. Simply put: Tell your teenager not to put stuff on Facebook that he or she does not want every adult he or she knows to see.

Personally, I have not done the whole Facebook thing for very long, so I had no idea what my own kids posted. But, when my daughter was a teenager, I was comforted by the fact that the associate minister at our church followed Polly on Facebook. I figured that Polly would think twice before posting something that a minister would see.

Today, Marie and I are Facebook friends with a number of the high school students who attended the high school we co-founded. Sometimes, I love what they have posted; other times, I wince. But, to be fair, that is also my reaction to a lot of what my adult friends post.

Just say this to your teenager: Until you receive acceptances or rejections from all of the colleges you are applying to, be especially careful what you post on Facebook. Imagine that every college admissions officer might see what you are posting. For example, don’t post photos of you at parties in various stages of revelry. And, to be safe, use the most restrictive privacy setting so that only your “friends” can see what you post. It just makes sense.

3. ZeeMee

Let’s turn to ZeeMee. If you have been looking at the Common App supplements for various colleges, you might have seen a question like this:

Binghamton University has partnered with ZeeMee, a free service that allows students to showcase themselves using an online profile page. To submit your profile to Binghamton University, paste your ZeeMee link here.

If you don’t know what we are talking about, you should go read about it on ZeeMee’s website. What you will see first is this language: “Get seen. Get connected. THE app for your college journey. Use images and videos to show your story. Colleges see the real you. Sign up. It’s free.” There is also a short video that is quite informative. And, by the way, the ZeeMee story also allows for text to be included.

According to the website, over 200 colleges already ask applicants for a ZeeMee link. While not required, at least by the colleges I have seen, one has to wonder whether not having a ZeeMee link will eventually be something that hurts an applicant’s chances of getting accepted. Maybe it already does, even if only subconsciously on the part of a college admissions officer, who probably enjoys seeing what an applicant looks like and now has a mental image that must make that applicant more real than just an online or printed application. You can watch a video on the ZeeMee website of college admissions officers saying just this sort of thing.

Wisely, ZeeMee has presentations and lessons for high school counselors to use to help kids get their ZeeMee stories ready for prime time. We imagine that the occasional English teacher might also be able to get some mileage out of these resources.

So, how do we feel about ZeeMee? We aren’t sure, to tell you the truth. It seems clear that a good ZeeMee story could be effective in making an applicant’s case to a college. It seems unclear, at this point, whether a ZeeMee story could be the deciding factor in an admissions decision.

We worry a bit that some kids will be able to get a lot more help than others in putting together a ZeeMee story–just as some kids will be able to get a lot more help than others in writing their application essays or studying for the college admissions tests. That could be because some kids can afford to buy more help or because some kids go to high schools that are better equipped to provide more help. It’s great that ZeeMee itself is free for kids, but that in itself doesn’t necessarily level the playing field for high school students.

So, should your kid have a ZeeMee link to his or her personal story in images and video and text? Probably so. Hopefully, this will be one good use of technology and one that doesn’t discriminate unfairly among its users.

4. LinkedIn

Finally, let’s look at LinkedIn, where many of you parents probably have your own profile. Just as with Facebook, Marie and I are connected to many of our former students on LinkedIn. I am happy to say that they seem quite mature in their LinkedIn posts. But they are college students, not high school students.

Natasha Singer, in an excellent article in The New York Times about a month ago, wrote about a LinkedIn profile as “the new item on the college admission checklist.” Ms. Singer wrote this:

Public schools from San Francisco to New York City are teaching online conduct skills as part of a nationwide digital citizenship push to prepare students for colleges and careers. Teenagers who set up LinkedIn profiles in the hope of enhancing their college prospects represent the vanguard of this trend.

But the phenomenon of ambitious high school students on LinkedIn also demonstrates how social networks are playing a role in the escalation of the college admissions arms race. For students in high-pressure schools who already start packaging themselves for college in ninth grade, LinkedIn could add yet another burden to what might be called the careerization of childhood. (quoted from the article)

We hear you, people who are concerned. “The escalation of the college admissions arms race”–we couldn’t have said it better ourselves. It’s a bit like the way we feel about ZeeMee–maybe worse. Ms. Singer continues on that topic:

Professionalized teenage résumés could also further intensify disparities in college applications.

“Kids from privileged families tend to do more ? both offline and online–joining school clubs, writing for their school newspaper, getting tutoring so their grades go up, doing SAT preparation,” says Vicky Rideout, a researcher who studies how teenagers use technology. Using LinkedIn on college applications, she says, “is yet another way for there to be a disparity between the haves and the have-nots.” (quoted from the article)

Honestly, we did not want one more way to “unlevel” the playing field, and we are hoping that colleges give some thought to that, though we are doubtful that they will.

And here is something else Ms. Singer addresses in the article, and this takes us back to our earlier Facebook comments:

For high school students, LinkedIn is partly a defense mechanism against college admissions officers who snoop on applicants’ public Facebook and Twitter activities–without disclosing how that may affect an applicant’s chance of acceptance.

A recent study from Kaplan Test Prep of about 400 college admissions officers reported that 40 percent said they had visited applicants’ social media pages, a fourfold increase since 2008.

Officials at Vassar College and other institutions that deliberately do not search out applicants’ social media profiles suggested that colleges disclose their admissions practices.

“We prefer to evaluate a candidate based on the items that candidate has prepared and submitted to us,’ said Art D. Rodriguez, Vassar’s dean of admission and financial aid. He added, ‘While we understand that some colleges and universities do look into candidates’ online profiles, we believe those schools should be transparent about the procedure and alert applicants to it.” (quoted from the article)

We would like to say, “Good for you, Mr. Rodriguez and Vassar College.”

And here’s some information about LinkedIn and high school students that I didn’t know:

To attract high school students, LinkedIn in 2013 dropped its minimum age requirement for members in the United States to 14 from 18. Since then, the site has had a significant increase in high school users, said Suzi Owens, a LinkedIn spokeswoman. The company declined to specify how many high school students used the network.

Although LinkedIn has default privacy settings for users under 18–like automatically displaying only their first names and last initials, rather than their full names–students can change the settings. (quoted from the article)

So, I know that technology is great and that it can solve many problems. But I am wondering whether there was a problem here that needed to be solved. Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine what high school students would have to say in a LinkedIn profile–though I guess it is the same stuff they would put on a résumé, if they were looking for an internship or a part-time job. And we have certainly done our fair share of editing résumés for high school kids looking for internships.

For me, the jury is still out on whether a LinkedIn profile needs to be “the new item on the college admission checklist.” But, parents, if your kid has one, you better believe that we think you should check it out.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

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