…and then something else

Well, now it’s April, and this year’s college admissions cycle is moving into the final phase. Good luck to those students fortunate to have more than one offer of admission, as they try to decide which college to attend!

While the paucity (SAT word!) of my blog posts this year suggests otherwise, I have in fact been busy writing.  I am pleased to announce that the centerpiece volume in my series of books about college admissions is now available as an e-book, (at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo) with a print edition to follow in the coming few weeks.

My book, “College Admissions Without the Crazy” isn’t a traditional how-to/task-oriented guide to the admissions process.  Instead, it is student-oriented, and aims to help students understand why they get stuck as they search for, apply to, and choose a college to attend.  It offers the tools and detailed practical advice students need to get unstuck.  “College Admissions Without the Crazy” also offers advice for parents who want to learn how to best assist their children through this educational, social, and developmental rite of passage — and still be on speaking terms with those children when the process concludes.  I hope you will check it out!

What with one thing and another…

…somehow it got to be November, and I’m just posting my first blog entry of this admissions cycle.  Yikes.

On the bright side, one of the projects that had me otherwise occupied this fall has come to fruition.  I am pleased to announce that my e-book, “College Application Essays Without the Crazy” is now available from Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Kobo, and other e-book retailers.

“College Application Essays Without the Crazy” helps students cut to the chase and focus on exactly what they need to know in order to write a terrific college application essay.  It is one in a planned series of books — the centerpiece of the series, “College Admissions Without the Crazy,” will be available in print and electronically in the spring of 2015.

 

 

It seems we’ve stood and talked like this, before…

One of the interesting and frustrating things about working in college admissions is the way the cycle repeats each year. The broad outlines remain the same (a new group of students enters the process, searches for, applies to, hears from and decides which colleges to attend) but the particulars vary with regard to a range of factors specific to each college, or each high school class. I’ve written about the “Groundhog Day” aspects of the admissions process before, (see post from September 21, 2012) but at that time, I wasn’t thinking about media coverage of the admissions cycle, and how it repeats, as well.

Two articles about college admissions that appeared this spring in the New York Times had me thinking “déjà vu all over again,” as the authors discussed issues that were apparently new to them – but are old hat (ancient hat, really) to anyone who has worked in college admissions for more than a few years.

The first article, by David Leonhardt, focused on the shocking revelations (!!OMG!!) that many colleges are actively recruiting international students, and that “top colleges are admitting fewer American students than they did a generation ago. Colleges have globalized over that time, deliberately increasing the share of their student bodies that come from overseas and leaving fewer slots for applicants from the United States.”

I am sure I was not alone in receiving a flurry of phone calls from parents of rising seniors after that article appeared. Any article talking about the hyper-competitive nature of the admissions process at selective colleges always gets a lot of play ( I note that this one had almost 500 comments from NYT readers) and ramps up the admissions anxiety quotient.

In all fairness, Leonhardt’s article has more to it than the insight that the competition to get into college is quite stiff – he’s a thoughtful writer, and his points about the benefits of diversity are all good. However, those comments come later in the article, and I worry that many readers didn’t and won’t get past the early message that yes, it really IS harder – much harder! – to get into a selective college these days.

In the second article, Frank Bruni, who seems to have adopted college admissions as a topic of special interest, focused on the shocking revelation (!!OMG again!!) that some students choose inappropriate and/or overly revealing topics for their application essays.

Pondering the reasons why students might submit essays that offer TMI, Bruni notes that the application “essay is where our admissions frenzy and our gratuitously confessional ethos meet…” and he regrets that many students feel they have to go to great lengths to get the attention of admissions officers.

Fair points, but not unique to the current admissions scene.

I started out in the admissions field in the early 1980’s, and I can recall many essays over the years about topics that were inappropriate at best, and just plain disgusting, at worst.  I won’t elaborate, but trust me – my years of reading applications have left me with plenty of examples of essays that did not advance the author’s candidacy, to put it mildly.

To Bruni’s point about students doing “stagy, desperate, disturbing things to stand out” in an applicant pool, I have come to think that the standardized format of the online college application also pushes students toward riskier essay topics. If you can’t make your application stand out by writing your essay in crayon, for example, I suppose it makes sense (kind of!) to try to grab a reader’s attention with your topic.

I was never a fan of “stunt applications,” in which students submitted stuff ranging from balloons to baked goods to hand-tied fishing flies, among other things, to try to appeal to admissions officers.   However, I have to admit, I do remember with a smile a few essays that were “creatively” formatted, back in the days when paper applications were the norm.   I received one essay that was written backwards – but the author (thoughtfully) enclosed a mirror, so that I didn’t have to run and find one before reading it.  I also remember one essay that was written on paper cut into the shape of a foot. (To further illustrate the point that a journey of a hundred miles begins with a single step, of course!)

I don’t bemoan the demise of paper applications – there were a zillion problems connected with processing and reading those, too! – but we said goodbye to a particular and quirky dimension of the application process when things moved online.

But I digress!

My point is that whether we like it or not, in the admissions world, everything old is new each year. It will remain so as subsequent generations of journalists (or content-providers, if we want to be all-inclusive) encounter admissions topics for the first time. While the best of these journalists do acknowledge that the current admissions “frenzy” isn’t sane or healthy, their articles unfortunately add to the frenzy they try to explain.

And therein lies the rub.  Alas.

But…right now, it’s summer! Time to relax and recoup strength for the next admissions cycle.

And for me, time to finish work on two book projects. I will have a short e-book about writing college application essays out this fall, as well as a longer book for students and parents looking for a saner and less stressful way to approach the college search and application process. Please stay tuned to this site for further details! (Regular posts will resume in the fall.)

Meantime, thanks for reading this cycle’s posts at admissions cafe. I appreciate your email, comments, and recommendations.

Have a great summer!

 

Sunrise June

 

 

 

Making the most of college

April in Portland is always such an interesting month. The weather is so changeable from moment to moment that you never know what to expect. In April, spring doesn’t seem quite ready to commit to us yet. There are signs that spring wants to be fully sprung, as it were – trees are in leaf again, flowers are blooming, and when the sun is shining, people are out and about in shorts and flip-flops, and the optimistic among us begin to think about what tomatoes to plant in the garden this year.

But then we’ll get a bout of rain or hail and a shot of cold air, and everything will be gray for awhile longer.

It occurs to me that Portland’s ultra-variable weather in April aptly mirrors the emotional state of high school seniors trying to make up their minds about college before that May 1 deadline.

Many students alternate between feeling sunny and optimistic about the future, and nervous and unsettled about their next steps. They are happy that the college admissions process is behind them, but also a little sad and nostalgic about the fact that their time in high school is coming to an end. They are excited about the opportunities that college will bring, but they also look at the academic and social transition from high school to college with some trepidation. Most are enthusiastic about being in a new environment and meeting new people, but they also wonder if and how they will maintain their high school friendships. And some have lingering doubts about whether or not they made the right decision.

But as April edges toward May and things settle down on the meteorological and emotional fronts (we hope!) most seniors start to focus their thoughts on college. As this year’s seniors prepare to head off into the wide world, I want to share an article about how to launch a successful college career.

Over a decade ago, Dr. Richard Light, a professor at Harvard, studied the factors that influenced student learning and overall success and happiness in college. His research yielded a number of simple yet effective strategies. These include suggestions like: “Meet the faculty,” “study in groups,” and “write, write, write.”  These suggestions are easy to implement and have a pronounced impact on student success, yet are often overlooked by students.

A summary of Dr. Light’s advice appears in this article from the New York Times.  (The article dates from April 2001, but the advice remains sound all these years later.)

Although most seniors still have their eyes fixed firmly on the immediate future (how many days till graduation?) and may not be interested in this advice right now, this is a good article to have them bookmark on their computers or tuck in their backpacks for later reading.

 

Recommended viewing/listening

Over the past few weeks, while the weather here was not as conducive to being outside as one might wish, I had a chance to catch up on three programs focusing on aspects of education and college admissions. Two are podcasts, one is a documentary film – they look at different topics from very different vantage points – and each one is entertaining and informative. I think many college counselors and admissions officers will find them as interesting as I have.

The documentary is part of the PBS “POV” series – it’s called American Promise. The film follows two African-American boys in New York City over the course of thirteen years, from elementary school through high school graduation. It’s a fascinating film throughout, though the family interactions are uncomfortable to view at times — especially when one of the boys receives his college admission results.   It looks as though PBS isn’t offering the film for streaming online now, but a trailer and clips are available on the website. Many PBS documentaries also become available through Netflix, and this one should, too. It’s definitely worth putting on the “save” list.
Details at the PBS website: http://www.pbs.org/pov/americanpromise/

The two podcasts are episodes from programs I listen to regularly: This American Life, and Planet Money.

The podcast “How I Got into College” has two parts – the first is a discussion about mistakes applicants (and their parents) make in the admissions process, with Rick Clark from the admissions office at Georgia Tech. The second part is contributed by Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and several other (wonderful) books. Lewis is a great storyteller, and in this podcast, he introduces listeners to Emir Kamenica, now a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. I don’t know how in the world these two ever crossed paths, but Lewis was intrigued by Kamenica’s narrative about (as the blurb on the episode web page puts it) “how a stolen library book got one man into his dream school.” It’s a terrific story about the way we construct our life histories, the way others view those histories, and about the things we believe cause or create the opportunities life presents to us. Lewis is a smart, funny, and very engaging interviewer and narrator.
http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/504/how-i-got-into-college

The second podcast, “Duke’s $30,000 Tuition Discount,” investigates the claim often made by private colleges and universities that the education students receive costs more than the sticker price. Hats off to Duke for opening their accounts to the Planet Money team – I’m not sure every university would be willing to do the same. This podcast takes a thorough look at the cost of private higher education – listeners decide for themselves whether spending $60K per year for college is a bargain or not.
http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/02/26/283018555/episode-520-dukes-30-000-tuition-discount

Perhaps spring break will provide you with a little time in which to watch or listen to these programs – if not, do bookmark them for summer.

Meanwhile, best wishes to friends and colleagues who are sending out and receiving admissions decisions now. May the force be with you!

(And may appropriately spring-like weather come to all areas of the country…soon!)

Spring 2014...at last!

 

A few more thoughts on winning, losing, and how we talk about the game

Although I don’t really follow football, it was impossible to escape the pre-game media coverage of the February 2 “Superb Owl,” as Stephen Colbert called it.  Still in the mode of thinking about competition narratives, I tuned into the chatter as various commentators previewed the big game.

By all accounts, this match-up was to be an epic struggle. Praise was heaped on both teams for their performance in the regular season. The big game was billed as a contest between the team with the best offense in the nation (Denver) vs. the team with the best defense in the nation (Seattle). With opponents so well matched, many commentators were at a loss when called upon to predict who would win…let alone what the point spread would be. Even the master statistician and prognosticator Nate Silver (author of The Signal and the Noise, and creator of the FiveThirtyEight blog) wouldn’t venture a prediction.

As game day approached, it seemed to me that when pushed, commentators leaned a little bit toward Denver, citing quarterback Peyton Manning’s greater experience as a tip factor for the win. Frank Bruni’s column “Maturity’s Victories” nicely sums up that line of thought. Moreover, Manning has a compelling comeback story, and I think this made some commentators feel that Denver deserved to win.

Be that as it may, the message from the majority of commentators was this: both teams were extremely strong, and this would be A VERY CLOSE GAME.

Which, of course, it wasn’t. Final score: Seattle 43, Denver 8.

This upset led to really entertaining post-game commentary, in which pretty much every sportscaster was forced to account for the unthinkable, the completely unforeseen, the utter “who’d a thunk it” nature of the outcome.

When listening to the post-game rationales, it occurred to me that those covering the event were in a position similar to one that college counselors sometimes find themselves in when admissions decisions are delivered. Sportscasters were talking about the very talented Peyton Manning in the way that college counselors talk about that outstanding kid in the senior class who looked likely to be admitted to several highly selective colleges…but somehow came up short. The kid had everything going for him – every possible qualification that a college could ask for – and yet, inexplicably, was turned down by the schools you’d think would open their doors for such an accomplished fellow.

I had great sympathy for those sportscasters who struggled to explain why Manning and the Broncos were unable to make headway against Seattle. True, Seattle played a great game, but nothing in the Broncos recent performance predicted that they would be so overwhelmed by the Seahawks that day. But with airtime to fill and audiences wanting to know what the heck happened, the pundits scrambled to make sense of the outcome.

On the other hand, I did not have sympathy for the sportscasters who quickly jumped on the “this ruins everything” bandwagon. Those who floated the idea that this particular loss tarnished the Broncos entire season and ruined Manning’s legacy as a player seemed laughably short-sighted to me. Yes, this was one major (and unfortunately really high profile) loss, but this blow-out didn’t diminish the previous achievements of Manning or the Broncos.

For me, the pre-game and post-game coverage drove home three thorny truths of college counseling, sportscasting, and other professions in which the forecasting of future events plays a part:

1. Unexpected outcomes make us uncomfortable. 

2. We hate being uncomfortable, and we want quick explanations of unexpected events – regardless of the fact that the reliability of the explanation frequently varies inversely with the speed with which it is offered. 

3. When the unexpected outcome occurs, it can trigger what I call a “cognitive eclipse.” This is a situation in which the light of common sense is temporarily obscured by the shock of the outcome. Depending on the event and the magnitude of the shock, it will take a greater or lesser amount of time for participants, commentators and the audience to see the light again and recover a sense of perspective. 

For Peyton Manning, who has had lots of experience winning and losing in the public eye, perspective should be restored pretty quickly.  For that outstanding high school senior, less accustomed to dealing with disappointment in a public forum, it will take longer to regain equilibrium.

Since we’re just about to head into decision season for this year’s admissions cycle, it’s worth noting that the single Super Bowl result doesn’t tarnish Manning’s legacy as a quarterback or mean he’s washed up as an athlete. Similarly, being turned down by a college (or colleges) doesn’t eradicate the previous achievements of that outstanding senior or render him a failure.  Sooner or later, the cognitive eclipse and frantic post-outcome commentary that accompany an unexpected outcome will pass.   Inevitably, today’s headline becomes tomorrow’s footnote.

So although it’s understandable to feel like this when the unexpected (and disappointing) outcome occurs:

Picture from "Motivation" in Allie Brosh's great book: Hyperbole and a Half

Picture from “Motivation” in Allie Brosh’s  book:
Hyperbole and a Half

The best plan is to:

Keep-calm-and-carry-on

And the winner is…

Have you noticed how much competition is going on around us right now? From the Rose Bowl to the pro football playoffs in January we segue to the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics in early February. Meanwhile, a new season of “American Idol” is getting underway, and a cavalcade of entertainment award shows — Golden Globes, SAG Awards, People’s Choice Awards, and Grammys, are here to prime our anticipation (or not) for the Oscars in March.

I’m less interested in the outcomes of these various competitions than I am in the way we discuss the competitions themselves. With athletic and artistic contests so prominent these days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between those two types of competition narratives.

Here’s what occurs to me: in a traditional narrative of (non-pharmaceutically enhanced) athletic competition, the individual is acknowledged to have primary control over his or her performance. The disciplined athlete who prepares thoroughly (physically and psychologically) for the event is regarded as the agent of his or her success. In addition, narratives of athletic competition are rife with episodes of the triumph of the human spirit – episodes in which an athlete falling behind is able to “dig deep,” make a supreme effort, and emerge a winner. The essence of the athletic competition narrative is that the individual’s combination of ability (sometimes labeled as talent honed by practice) and effort (sometimes labeled as character or, most commonly right now, “grit”) wins the day. In a contest of equals, the athletic narrative also often refers to the winner as the one who “wants it more,” who has the “eye of the tiger,” and is able to put aside all other commitments in order to attain the prize. The film “Rocky” is a great example of a classic athletic competition narrative.

Ability and effort also matter a great deal in artistic competitions like auditions or award contests, but this realm, it is widely acknowledged that the outcome is quite likely to be subject to factors outside the artist’s control. An actor can “kill” at an audition, but not get the part for any number of reasons. Casting agent Amy Berman discusses this in a blog post titled “26 Reasons Why You Didn’t Get the Part.” Here are a few examples:

* You’re too tall

* You’re too short

* You were the first one to read that day

* You were the last one to read that day

* You look too much like the lead

* You remind the producer of his sister, and he hates his sister

When we stop to think about it, we understand that different types of competition exist and that they have different governing narratives.

Sometimes, though, the nature of a particular competition is unclear. Sometimes, participants enter a contest thinking it is of the athletic, “I’m the agent of my success” type, when in fact the contest is of the artistic, “my ability may be a secondary factor in the outcome” variety.

I thought about this “narrative confusion” recently, as I watched the documentary film “20 Feet from Stardom.” The film (which I highly recommend) looks at the lives of backup singers and the challenges of making the journey from singing backup to being the lead.

Merry Clayton, one of the profiled singers, seemed a sure bet for solo success. She had everything going for her – a fabulous voice, a contract with a top record company, and an outstanding producer who had guided many singers to stardom. She also had a keen desire to be a star – as Darlene Love (another profiled singer) put it: “I think you do, number one, have to have the kill spirit, to really want it. Merry Clayton got the kill spirit.”

And yet, Love continued, “I don’t know why she wasn’t a superstar.”

No one interviewed in the film can say why solo success eluded Merry Clayton. Clayton said that her producer and her record company did a great job promoting her solo albums, and her producer (Lou Adler) echoed this, saying “we did everything possible and it just didn’t take.” There is moment of pathos when Clayton says : “I felt like if I just gave my heart to what I was doing, I would automatically be a star.”  

As portrayed in the film, Clayton’s story illustrates a collision between athletic and artistic competition narratives. It seems as though Clayton entered the artistic contest thinking that the athletic narrative applied – she expected that her own talent, effort, and desire would propel her to success. To succeed in an artistic competition, though, you need all that – and more.

As Sting says, a bit later in the film: “It’s not a level playing field, it never is a level playing field…It’s not about fairness, it’s not really about talent. It’s circumstance, it’s luck, it’s destiny – I don’t know what it is.”

Clayton’s lack of success as a solo artist is as inexplicable as a superbly talented student’s “deny” decision from a selective college, and a similar confusion about the nature of the competition applies in each case.

The college admissions process is framed as an arena in which the most critical elements are individual ability and effort, with the result that students enter the process thinking they will have more control over the outcomes than they do. They expect that the path from input (all the elements of the application) to outcome will be as straightforward as an athletic competition.  In fact, the admissions process often resembles more closely an artistic competition, in which the outcome is much less clearly related to the visible input.

That’s a tricky thing to explain, though. Individual ability, effort, and desire surely do have an impact on admissions decisions. But so do many factors beyond the applicant’s control. The admissions process (especially at selective and highly selective colleges) is an odd hybrid of a race and an audition.  This is an especially important point to keep in mind when decisions are received.  Students who, despite their outstanding ability and effort (not to mention an abundance of the “kill spirit”) receive waitlist or deny decisions often feel they have lost the race because of some personal failure.  If they can be encouraged to see the admissions process as more of an audition that didn’t go their way for reasons they couldn’t control, it could save them a measure of heartache.    

As I work with families approaching the college admissions process, I try different ways to help them understand the nature of the competition.  So far, portraying the process partly as a race and partly as an audition has been useful. People seem to relate to those tropes.

With that in mind, the advice Berman offers to actors can be equally relevant for college applicants. Swap the ‘audition and casting’ language for ‘application and assembling a freshman class’ language, and see what you think.  

What you must understand is that your only job in an audition is to do your best work. Everything else is not up to you. The role you are reading for is one piece of an entire jigsaw puzzle. It must fit with the rest of the puzzle or the puzzle won’t work. The casting director, producer, and director are fitting pieces of the puzzle together all day long. Your only job is to be the best “piece” you can be. Whether your edges fit in the slot for that piece is not up to you.

Just go to your audition. Do your best and let it go.”