Oversharing to get into college

One Yale applicant wrote that she peed her pants rather than break off a conversation with an admired teacher. Another wrote about his small genitalia, recalls Michael Motto, a former Yale admissions offer. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”

Oversharing has gone over the top in college admissions essays, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. that assessment. “There are accounts of eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction.”

“Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character,” said Joie Jager-Hyman, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and the president of College Prep 360, which helps students assemble their applications. “I’ve had successful essays on topics like ‘my father’s alcoholism’ or ‘my parents got divorced because my dad is gay.’ ”

But going too far “can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.”

Affluent parents pay admissions counselors to help students come up with just the right amount of angst.

Michele Hernandez, another prominent admissions counselor, runs one or more sessions of an Application Boot Camp every summer in which roughly 25 to 30 kids will be tucked away for four days in a hotel to work with a team of about eight editors on what she told me were as many as 10 drafts of each of three to five different essays. The camp costs $14,000 per student. That doesn’t include travel to it, the hotel bill, breakfast or dinners, but it does include lunch and a range of guidance, both before and during the four days, on how students should fill out college applications and best showcase themselves.

One of my daughter’s high school friends wrote a touching essay about coming out as gay. It got him into an Ivy League college. He’s not gay, but at least he did his own lying.

“The unlived life is not worth examining,” responds Robert Pondiscio in a comment.

To a significant degree, these kinds of self-involved, narcissistic essays are explicitly taught and encouraged in K-12 schools from elementary school onward. New York City schools in particular have long been dominated by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project approach to writing, made (in)famous by literacy guru Lucy Calkins, which teaches children as young as third grade to plumb the depths of the seven-year-old souls for “seed ideas” for personal narratives for their “writer’s notebooks.” Those ideas are then painstakingly massaged into “small moment” pieces, personal narratives and even, yes, memoirs.

The kids . . . learn to conflate the confessional and self-involved with “great writing.”

“If elite colleges stopped asking for personal essays as an admission requirement and instead asked for two piece of graded academic writing — a research report, an English or history paper — the market for confessional writing would dry up by sundown,” writes Pondiscio. “It would also be a better barometer of college readiness.”

And perhaps it would dry up the market for $14,000 four-day college-app cram camps.

Pondiscio, who’s just signed on as senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at Fordham,  has more in a post on a Fordham blog.

Why did Kyle get rejected?

When his family was homeless, Kyle studied in the school library and earned straight A’s. He competed in cross country, despite his epilepsy. As a National Honor Society member, he volunteered in the community. His “excellent grades” were backed by high test scores. Why did so many colleges reject Kyle?, asks Michele Kerr on Hypersensitive.

All the Ivy League schools said no, except Brown. Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and UC San Diego rejected him. In addition to Brown, he was accepted at UCLA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and UC Santa Barbara.

Kyle will go to Brown on a full scholarship. But Kerr is “shocked and more than a little angry that so many top-ranked schools rejected him.”

You’re thinking I’m overly optimistic, aren’t you? How to put this delicately: a kid can’t just be homeless and poor with high scores and good grades. He needs to be a great athlete in a desired sport, or a fantastic musician. On pure academics, “poor” doesn’t cut it unless the kid is black or Hispanic.

But Kyle is black.

Elite schools say they’re eager to admit disadvantaged minority students who are academically prepared. Kerr wonders if they’re saving their “black” admissions for athletes in major sports, the children of black alumni or students from networked, media-savvy charter schools.

Kyle is “a great kid – funny, quirky, chatty, upbeat,” she writes. “His success is due most of all to his development of great natural abilities and his determination in the face of considerable adversity — and no doubt, his positively chirpy good-spirited view of life.”

College essays reward dishonesty

Abolish the personal essay on college applications, writes Samuel Goldman.

In theory, personal statements allow admissions officers to get to know applicants as individuals rather than the sum of grades and test scores. In practice, these brief texts are the basis of subjective and sometimes highly political judgments about the groups of students that an institution hopes to enroll.

Hard-luck stories — “overcoming adversity” — are favored, reports the New York Times. That gives undisadvantaged a strong incentive to embellish minor hardships or “even invent sob stories,” Goldman writes.

Some parents hired paid tutors. Others help “savvy applicants revise and polish their statements so many times that the final versions are not very accurate reflections of their writing skills–or even their own ideas,” writes Goldman.

Most applicants to elite colleges have similar academic and testing records, a Yale official told the New York Times. So “they might as well make admissions decisions by a lottery among objectively qualified students,” writes Goldman.

If they really need to supplement high school credentials with a writing component, colleges might consider prompts that encourage classic features of the essay such as humor and ingenuity, rather than tear-jerking reminiscences. The University of Chicago is famous for offbeat prompts that encourage applicants to think rather than to recollect or emote.

Another option is to ask applicants to submit a research paper on a substantial topic, suggests Goldman.

One of my daughter’s high school classmates wrote a touching essay about coming out as gay. He’s now an Ivy League graduate. He’s not gay. But, at least, he wrote it himself.

Exam stress is higher overseas

U.S. students take lots of tests, but exam stakes are higher overseas, reports NPR.

In England, 16-year-olds take “15 or 20 substantial examinations” as part of a test deciding whether they’ll finish high school, says Dylan Wiliam, a professor emeritus of educational assessment at the University of London.

For those who do well and go on, they get two more years of high school. And each of those years ends with another big round of tests, saving the worst for last.

“And your grades on those examinations will determine which universities you’re offered places at,” Wiliam says.

Grades don’t matter. It’s all about the tests.

Finland has no standardized exams — until the end of high school, when students spend 40 hours taking a half-dozen daylong exams. Students know their futures depend on doing well on the exam, says Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Japanese students have to take entrance exams to get into an academic high school.

 “It’s a lot of pressure,” says Akihiko Takahashi, an associate professor of math education at DePaul University who knows the Japanese testing system well. “If you do not pass exam, you cannot go anywhere, even high school.”

Japanese (and Finnish) universities also give their own entrance exams.

Around the world, except for the U.S., high school grades, teachers’ recommendations, extracurriculars and essays don’t determine college admissions, says Wiliam. “Basically, it’s how well you do on those exams.”

Elite rejection

Don’t despair if you didn’t get into an elite college, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni advises 12th-graders. It doesn’t mean you’re less capable or worthy.

It may mean only that you lacked the patronage that some of them had, or that you played the game less single-mindedly, taking fewer SAT courses and failing to massage your biography with the same zeal.

A friend of mine in Africa told me recently about a center for orphans there that a rich American couple financed in part to give their own teenage children an exotic charity to visit occasionally and mine for college-application essays: admissions bait. That’s the degree of cunning that comes into this frenzy.

Dumb luck plays an important role too. Top colleges get many, many applicants who are very well qualified. They could decide by dart board and get a great bunch of students.

I was rejected by Radcliffe (girls didn’t apply to Harvard then) and wait-listed by Yale. It was the first time I’d ever tried and failed. It hurt, even though I got into Stanford. Being rejected turned out to be great practice for job hunting and life.

How college admissions really works

A Princeton video shows how high school students imagine the college admissions process, while The Onion explains how college admissions really works.

At step 1, “admissions officers immediately reject all applicants who have the same first name as anyone they don’t like.”

Step 7: The final decision is made as to who is admitted and who needed just one more extracurricular.

Step 8: Once an applicant is rejected, admissions officers call all other universities and warn them against accepting him or her.

The Onion also looks at what happens four years later in College senior plans 14-month job search.

. . . Ohio University senior Kyle Huber confirmed to reporters Monday that he already has an excruciating 14-month employment search lined up and waiting for him when he graduates this spring.

The marketing major plans to “move to a city where he’ll live with five roommates in a small apartment while hopelessly chasing down leads on unappealing dead-end positions he isn’t qualified for anyway.”

He has “arranged to meet with disinterested alumni from his school working in barely relevant fields, friends’ parents who hardly know him, and career counselors who will probably just direct him toward unpaid internships that, after having applied, he will frustratingly learn are only open to those still attending college.”

April madness

Forget about March madness, writes Pia de Jong. April is the craziest month for high school students and their parents. College admissions is an insanely stressful game, she writes in the Washington Post.

De Jong and her husband moved to the U.S. from the Netherlands in 2012. Their 15-year-old son is being courted by colleges already. Friends urged them to visit a private college counselor, who asked the sophomore about  his goal in life. He doesn’t have one.

His interests range from learning more about the stars to studying card tricks, from a fascination with the idea of infinity to playing Xbox.

Afterward, the consultant said: “Your son has to learn to focus more. He is just drifting through life.”

De Jong wants her son to have a chance to drift, “mess around, make mistakes” and enjoy himself. “The American education system in general, and the college admissions process in particular, seem intent on creating cautious, careerist adults-in-training,” she writes.

The Dutch do it differently.

When children are about 12, at the end of their primary education, they sit for a national exam. Based in part on their results, about 20 percent of them go on to a secondary education that prepares them for a research university. The rest follow a curriculum geared toward trade schools.

. . . if you’re on the university track, you can go to almost any university you want. . . . There is little stress, and thanks to government support, it is affordable for just about everyone.

De Jong admits the Dutch system “closes off opportunities early.” Late bloomers can try to switch to the university track, but it’s not easy.

Determining children’s futures based on a test taken at age 12 . . . That’s not a minor glitch.

All U.S. high school graduates can go to college, if they wish. Nearly half go to low-cost, open-admissions community colleges. Another large group go to unselective or not-very-selective colleges and universities. Only the best students — perhaps the top 20 percent — are competing for places in very selective colleges and universities. They may not get into a top-choice school, but they get in somewhere. (Can they afford it? Good students usually can get scholarship aid.)

For those trying to get into elite colleges, the system may favor “cautious careerists” over mistake-making drifters. But at least non-conformists aren’t put on the trade-school track at 12.

Asians fight return of college preferences

“A legislative push to permit California’s public universities to once again consider race and ethnicity in admissions appears to be on life support after an intense backlash from Asian-American parents,” reports the San Jose Mercury News.  Because many Asian-Americans earn high grades and test scores, they’re “over-represented” at University of California campuses.

A planned referendum sailed through the state Senate in January without fanfare on a party-line vote, but three Asian-American Democrats who initially backed the measure are now calling for it to be “tabled” before the state Assembly has a chance to vote on it — a highly unusual move. And it seems unlikely to get the two-thirds majority in the Assembly without the support of the five Asian-Americans in the lower house.

UC reaches out to students from low-income, non-college-educated families. That helps Latinos, blacks — and students from Chinese and Vietnamese immigrant families.

Despicable SAT

Save Us From the SAT, writes Jennifer Finney Boylan, an English professor, in the New York Times.

The SAT is a mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture. The College Board can change the test all it likes, but no single exam, given on a single day, should determine anyone’s fate. The fact that we have been using this test to perform exactly this function for generations now is a national scandal.

The problems with the test are well known. It measures memorization, not intelligence. It favors the rich, who can afford preparatory crash courses. It freaks students out so completely that they cannot even think.

Boylan wants college admissions officers to consider what applicants’ “schools are like; how they’ve done in their courses; what they’ve chosen to study; what progress they’ve made over time; how they’ve reacted to adversity.” That’s very expensive — and very subjective.

Common Core-ification of the SAT

In The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul, College Board president David Coleman tells the New York Times what the exam will look like in a few years.

Coleman gave me what he said was a simplistic example of the kind of question that might be on this part of the exam. Students would read an excerpt from a 1974 speech by Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas, in which she said the impeachment of Nixon would divide people into two parties. Students would then answer a question like: “What does Jordan mean by the word ‘party’?” and would select from several possible choices. This sort of vocabulary question would replace the more esoteric version on the current SAT. . . . The Barbara Jordan vocabulary question would have a follow-up — “How do you know your answer is correct?” — to which students would respond by identifying lines in the passage that supported their answer.

All this sounds a lot like the emphasis in Common Core standards, which Coleman helped write.

The math section will focus on problem solving and data analysis, linear equations and the “passport to advanced math,” which will test “the student’s familiarity with complex equations and their applications in science and social science.”

The SAT revisions are a  big mistake, writes Peter Wood on Minding the Campus.

David Coleman, head of the College Board, is also the chief architect of the Common Core K-12 State Standards, which are now mired in controversy across the country.  Coleman’s initiative in revising the SAT should be seen first of all as a rescue mission.  As the Common Core flounders, he is throwing it an SAT life preserver.

The exam will be “dumbed down” to serve a “social justice” agenda, writes Susan Berry on Breitbart.

Rick Hess is “unwowed.” It’s supposed to be a more rigorous test, but the vocabulary expectations will be “dumbed down,” Hess writes. 

The College Board announced the new test would put an end to the “tricks” that had made test prep so effective, advantaging students whose families could afford it. . . .  I’d bet that within twelve months, the prep folks will have devised strategies to help coach “close reading” and otherwise adjusted to the new test.

Eliminating the mandatory essay is supposed to promote fairness and test validity, writes Hess. Not so long ago,  the essay was introduced to promote fairness and test validity.

Finally, he worries about “the Common Core’ification of the SAT.”  By revising the SAT to match Common Core standards, College Board risks politicizing the exam  and disadvantages students in non-Core states.