To get into college, fake it

Applying to College Shouldn’t Require Answering Life’s Great Questions, writes Julia Ryan in The Atlantic. Elite colleges’ admissions essay prompts pretty much demand that students “pretend to be something you are not,” she charges.

Brown University is asking applicants for the Class of 2017: French novelist Anatole France wrote: “An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.” What don’t you know?

The University of Chicago would like high-school seniors to tell them: How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.

Tufts would simply like to know: What makes you happy?

“Applying to college shouldn’t be the intellectual equivalent of dressing up in your mother’s clothes,” writes Ryan.

Many of her commenters liked the prompts. (They made me very glad that all this is behind me.)

Universities have automated admissions, writes a commenter who designs admissions software. An outside service will use “advanced OCR and ICR recognition software plus semantic analysis” to turn the transcript and extracurriculars into a single number. Essays are turn through plagiarism software. “If a university is particularly prestigious they *might* read the essay, but the counselor is reading about 15 to 20 an hour.” The essay reader is probably an untrained graduate student or unemployed graduate making $11 to $13 an hour, he writes.

Hacking the Common App has good advice on writing admissions essays. Here’s part 1 and part 2.

Bard’s new admissions option — submit four research papers instead of grades and scores — is begging to be gamed by the wealthy, writes Jordan Weissmann.

Rather than submit a full battery of grades, teacher recs, SAT scores, and personal essays, Bard applicants will be able to choose to hand in four 2,500 word research papers, which will be graded by faculty. Applicants who earn a B+ or better on their writing will be accepted . . .

“It’s kind of declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions and the failure to foreground the curriculum and learning,” Leon Botstein, Bard’s president of 38 years, said in an interview.

Who’d choose this option? Someone who’s gone to a very good college-prep high school and learned to write a college-quality research paper, but hasn’t earned Bard-worthy grades or test scores. That’s a small group. Or, as Weissmann suggests, someone who can afford to pay a “college consultant” to write the papers.

The Ivy rat race

New York City’s “most ambitious, wealthiest parents” start the college-admissions process by hiring a consultant to get their toddler into an elite nursery school, writes Lacy Crawford.

Then come tutors, learning specialists, resume-polishing internships or exotic community service and a recommendation letter from a trustee of the first-choice school.

Finally, after 15 or so years of parents managing every variable, there comes the time when a student is expected to do something all by herself: fill out the actual application. Write an essay in her own voice.

Not really. Parents hired Crawford, an independent college admissions counselor, to help their kids craft Ivy-worthy essays and applications. Her new book, Early Decision, features an “application whisperer” who helps helicopter-parented kids get into Harvard.

In Personal Statement, Jason Odell Williams satirizes the Ivy rat race. As a hurricane heads for Connecticut,  students converge on the coast to win humanitarian laurels that will look good on college applications.

New SAT aims to help low-income students

By focusing on what’s taught in school, the new SAT will help students who can’t afford test prep, writes Ilana Garon, a Bronx high school teacher.

The ACT has passed the SAT in popularity, notes Garon.

While both the current SAT and the ACT have Reading and Writing sections, the SAT currently focuses on vocabulary and more verbally complex reading passages, while the ACT does away with vocabulary definition questions in favor of questions about punctuation and a longer, more involved focus on writing mechanics. In the Reading section, the ACT features articles in four known categories (as opposed to the random selection offered on the SAT), as well as a Science section, which makes students analyze graphs. The Math section of the ACT more closely aligns with a high school math curriculum, while the SAT features some logic games, which are more similar to LSAT questions, and does not include trigonometry.

Students who are strong in math or visually oriented will do better on the ACT, while “verbal” students “may find the SAT plays to their strengths,” writes Garon.

One of the on-going problems with the current SAT is not that it is “harder” than the ACT (as some would argue) but the fact that, more than its rival, it focuses on material outside of the scope of a high school curriculum. For wealthier students, an SAT tutor becomes a mandatory accessory; for many poor students, this type of service is out of reach, leaving them to take a test that is disconnected from what they’re learning in their regular classes with only sparse opportunities for preparation

College Board plans to inform low-income achievers about scholarships and aid to pay their way to selective colleges. But raising college awareness may be less important than redesigning the test, concludes Garon.

I’m not optimistic that the new SAT will be an equalizer:  Students who go to academically strong schools will have a huge advantage.

Prepare for new SAT, digital ACT

College admissions tests are changing, reports the New York Times.

Say farewell to vocabulary flashcards with arcane words like “compendious,” “membranous,” “mendacious,” “pugnacious,” “depreciatory,” “redolent,” “treacly” and “jettison.” In the new SAT, to be unveiled in 2015, David Coleman, president of the College Board, wants to get rid of obscure words that are . . . just SAT words, and replace them with more common words like “synthesis,” “distill” and “transform,” used in context as they will be in college and in life.

And the math? “There are a few things that matter disproportionately, like proportional reasoning, linear equations and linear functions,” Mr. Coleman said. “Those are the kinds of things we’re going to concentrate on.”

“And it shouldn’t just be about picking the right answer,” he said. “It should be about being able to explain, and see, the applications of this math.”

Coleman, a principal architect of Common Core standards, wants the SAT to align with what students learn in high school instead of trying to measure “aptitude.”

The ACT, which already is more curriculum-based, will be given on computers and will include “more creative, hands-on questions,” the Times reports. In addition, ACT will offer yearly testing as early as third grade to “help guide students to college readiness.”

Coleman plans to change grading for the SAT essay, which lets students “get top marks for declaring that the Declaration of Independence was written by Justin Bieber and sparked the French Revolution, as long as the essay is well organized and develops a point of view.”

 “We should not be encouraging students to make up the facts,” Mr. Coleman said. “We should be asking them to construct an argument supported by their best evidence.”

Over and over, Mr. Coleman returns to the need to prod students into marshaling their evidence. “The heart of the revised SAT will be analyzing evidence,” he said. “The College Board is reaching out to teachers and college faculty to help us design questions that, for example, could ask students to use math to analyze the data in an economics study or the results of a scientific experiment, or analyze the evidence provided within texts in literature, history, geography or natural science.”

In 2005, the SAT dropped analogies and added more advanced math. However, the test is losing market share to the ACT, which last year was taken by more students.

Find the top college — for you

Stanford is America’s top college, followed by Pomona, Princeton, Yale and Columbia, according to Forbes‘ new rankings.

The magazine also lets college aspirants input a grade point average, SAT/ACT score and annual cost to find a “college you can get into and afford.”  Using the total cost — not the average net cost after financial aid — is liable to scare away all but the wealthy — and those planning to attend a military academy.  (West Point ranks #7.)

‘Holistic’ admissions at Berkeley

When California voters barred the use of racial or ethnic preferences in college admissions, the University of California vowed to use a “holistic” process that considers socioeconomic disadvantages, leadership and motivation, as well as grades and test scores. As a reader of applications for Berkeley’s engineering department, Ruth Starkman saw the holistic process at work, she writes in the New York Times.

A highly qualified student, with a 3.95 unweighted grade point average and 2300 on the SAT, was not among the top-ranked engineering applicants to the University of California, Berkeley. He had perfect 800s on his subject tests in math and chemistry, a score of 5 on five Advanced Placement exams, musical talent and, in one of two personal statements, had written a loving tribute to his parents, who had emigrated from India.

The applicant was a 2 on a 1-to-5 scale (1 being highest) because he didn’t have enough extracurricular activities and engineering awards, she learned in training.

Now consider a second engineering applicant, a Mexican-American student with a moving, well-written essay but a 3.4 G.P.A. and SATs below 1800. His school offered no A.P. He competed in track when not at his after-school job, working the fields with his parents. His score? 2.5.

Readers were told to told to ignore minority background, but could consider whether a student came from a non-English-speaking household if it was a “stressor” that justified a special read looking for socioeconomic disadvantages.

To better understand stressors, I was trained to look for the “helpful” personal statement that elevates a candidate. Here I encountered through-the-looking-glass moments: an inspiring account of achievements may be less “helpful” than a report of the hardships that prevented the student from achieving better grades, test scores and honors.

Readers are supposed to look for “leadership,” a major criterion in the holistic process. That usually meant extracurricular activities. (Volunteer trips to exotic places were taken as a sign of  ”privilege.”)

In my application pile, many students from immigrant households had excellent grades and test scores but few activities. I commented in my notes: “Good student, but not many interests or activities? Why? Busy working parents? And/or not able to afford, or get to, activities?”

Many essays “lucidly expressed a sense of self and character,” Starkman writes.  Others “betrayed the handiwork of pricey application packagers, whose cloying, pompous style was instantly detectable.”

She read innumerable hard-luck stories, not all of them credible. Kids figure out what sells.

Favoring “stressors” over academic success has costs:  92 percent of whites and Asians at Berkeley graduate within six years, compared with 81 percent of Hispanics and 71 percent of blacks. In the UC system, 17 percent of Hispanic and black students who express interest in the sciences graduate with a science degree within five years, compared with 31 percent of white students.

It’s ironic that colleges claim to be looking for  “leadership” potential, writes Walt K in the comments.

. . . their entire process is designed to select compliant followers: people who have bought into the whole game, and are happy to play along.

People who do well on tests. People who do well in class. People who follow instructions. People who join clubs. People who follow the conventional wisdom People who teachers like. People who do what they are told. People who do all the ‘right’ things.

. . .  leaders are the ones who say, ‘To heck with this, I’m picking myself.’ Which may often mean bailing out on college to actually DO something instead of sucking up.

I think Walt K has a point.

Many elite colleges enroll few low- and moderate-income students, reports the New York Times. Berkeley is much higher than the average, due affirmative action for disadvantaged students.

76% oppose use of race in college admissions

Seventy-six percent of adults oppose “allowing universities to consider applicants’ race as a factor in deciding which students to admit,” according to a Washington Post/ABC poll.

That includes 79 percent of whites, 78 percent of blacks and 68 percent of Hispanics. Sixty-four percent of liberal Democrats oppose race-based affirmative action in college admissions.

Why learn a foreign language?

What Is The Purpose Of Foreign Language Education? asks Ta-Nehisi Coates, who’s studying French, in The Atlantic.

Are we using foreign language as kind of weed-out for college? What is the ultimate goal?

I had to demonstrate knowledge of a foreign language to earn a degree in English back in the ’70s. They said understanding a foreign language would help me understand the structure of English. Je n’en suis pas persuadé.

Spelling counts

Spelling counts in Jessica Lahey’s English classes because it ‘s going to count when her students apply to college or apply for jobs, she writes in The Atlantic.

She also insists middle-school girls wear skirts long enough to cover their underwear.

I absolutely agree that we should not be judging girls on the length of their skirts any more than we judge them on their ability to discern “affect” from “effect,” but we do. In order to get through the door at an interview or past the threshold of an application process, my students are going to have to meet a standard, and it’s part of my job to teach them about that standard.

. . . This is true even for students who struggle with spelling and grammar because of some glitch in their processing, a learning disability, or a simple lack of exposure to written language. Many of these weak spellers are lovely, intelligent people, and I would love to promise them that society will see past their flawed spelling, grammar, and diction to the ideas beneath. But I can’t.

“If I taught my students that they could go to a job interview wearing a bikini and wielding a wadded resume riddled with errors and still be respected for their brains and skills, I would not be doing them any favors,” Lahey concludes.

In my first job at a chain of suburban newspapers, I helped sort through a stack of applications to hire a new reporter.  In my second job, I helped find an assistant magazine editor. In both cases, we rejected every application that contained a spelling, punctuation or grammatical error. Only a few resumes and cover letters were error free. Those we read carefully.

Grit is good, but academics come first

Stressing character traits such as “perseverance, self-monitoring, and flexibility”  over cognition is a mistake, writes Mike Rose, a UCLA professor. Many so-called “non-cognitive” traits require thinking skills.

Some colleges and universities are trying to measure non-cognitive traits to find “diamonds in the rough,” but so far high school grades, backed by test scores, are the most accurate predictors of college success.

Dan Willingham writes on the challenge of measuring non-cognitive skills.