Drive-by service: Going to Harvard via Haiti

“Mission trips” are all the rage for affluent high school students with Ivy aspirations, reports Frank Bruni in the New York Times.

High school volunteer abroad trips for teensFeeding the homeless at home lacks cachet. Ambitious teens travel to Africa, Central America or Haiti for a week or two of “service” — it’s always transformative — they can hype in their college essays.

Dylan Hernandez, 17, who attends a Catholic high school in Flint, Michigan, tells Bruni he’s sick of seeing well-to-do classmates posing with little African children. He doesn’t see them volunteering at the Flint YMCA, where Hernandez is a long-time tutor.

Child psychologist Richard Weissbourd told Bruni he’d talked to one set of wealthy parents who’d “bought an orphanage in Botswana so their children could have a project to write and talk about” and other parents who’d done the same with an AIDS clinic in an equally poor country.

However, drive-by charity work can backfire, writes Bruni. Admissions officers are on to it.

“The running joke in admissions is the mission trip to Costa Rica to save the rain forest,” Ángel Pérez, who is in charge of admissions at Trinity College in Hartford, told me.

Jennifer Delahunty, a longtime admissions official at Kenyon College, said that mission-trip application essays are their own bloated genre.“Often they come to the same conclusion: People in other parts of the world who have no money are happier than we are!” she told me.

As the college admissions race escalates, some teens are starting their own charities — even though existing nonprofits may be “more practiced and efficient at what they do,” writes Bruni.

 Meanwhile, working-class and low-income teens can’t afford to travel in search of transformative experiences. Many are working to help their parents pay the bills or to put away money for college.
 Pérez told me that his favorite among recent essays by Trinity applicants came from someone “who spent the summer working at a coffee shop. He wrote about not realizing until he did this how invisible people in the service industry are.”

For some young people, that would not be a revelation.

2/3 oppose use of race in admissions

“When the U.S. Supreme Court last month affirmed the right of colleges to consider race and ethnicity in admissions, college leaders rushed to praise the decision and expressed confidence in the future of affirmative action,” writes Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed.

Yet the public opposes considering race and ethnicity in college admissions, according to a new Gallup poll with questions drafted by Inside Higher Ed. By a two-to-one margin, those surveyed said they disagreed with the decision.

Most in U.S. Oppose Colleges Considering Race in Admissions

Blacks (44 percent) and Hispanics (29 percent) were more likely than whites (22 percent) to favor taking race and ethnicity into account. But a majority of blacks and Hispanics opposed the policy.

Most respondents said high school grades (73 percent) and standardized test scores (55 percent) should be a major factor in college admissions; 50 percent listed courses taken in high school. Thirty-one percent said family economic circumstances and first-generation status should be a major factor. Only 9 percent wanted race and ethnicity to be a major factor in admissions.

Forget ‘passion’ and find your purpose

Colleges want applicants to declare their “passion,” but what they really need is persistence and purpose, writes B.K. Marcus, editor of The Freeman, for the Foundation for Economic Education.

“The good news for stressed-out college-bound teens is that passion is easier to fake,” writes Marcus. However, the rush to find an easily marketable passion by the age of 17 can be damaging.

Thomas Edison said genius is "1% inspiration and 99% perspiration."

Thomas Edison said genius is “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

Well-rounded students are out of luck, writes Steve Cohen, co-author of The Zinch Guide to College Admissions, in Top 10 Myths of College Admissions“Colleges want a kid who is devoted to — and excels at — something. The word they most often use is passion.”

Harvard’s Turning the Tide proposal calls for admitting students based on passion — “passionate involvement in social causes” is stressed — rather than test scores and grades, Marcus writes.

Passion “burns hot, and it can burn out,” writes Marcus. For long-term success, young people need purpose and persistence.

In “Our Push for ‘Passion,’ and Why It Harms Kids,” parenting author Lisa Heffernan writes, “By the time a child rounds the corner into high school … the conventional wisdom is that he needs to have a passion that is deep, easy to articulate, well documented and makes him stand out from the crowd.”

Kids feel compelled to “grab onto an interest, label it a passion and buy the requisite instrument or equipment.” The problem, she warns, is that “Fake passions crowd out real ones.”

Also being a big phony is debilitating.


. During the lunch period, Skylar Relova, 15, left, and Bailey Smith, 14, both San Ramon Valley High students from Danville, visit with Max, a Shih Tzu mix therapy dog, in the school quad in Danville, Calif., on Monday, March 14, 2015. San Ramon Valley High\'s PTSA is hosting a \"Low Stress Week\" March 14-18 with therapy dogs and a hot breakfast served to students. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)
Skylar Relova, 15, left, and Bailey Smith, 14, meet Max, a therapy dog, in the San Ramon Valley High quad during the lunch period. Photo: Susan Tripp Pollard, Bay Area News Group

Student stress is worrying educators at top-performing Silicon Valley schools, reports Sharon Noguchi in the San Jose Mercury News. “They’re pushing back school start times, re-examining homework loads, coordinating tests and warning parents about buying into college myths.”

Two suicide clusters in Palo Alto have raised fears. Around the Bay Area, there are more reports of panic attacks and eating disorders, students cutting themselves, suicide attempts and other mental-health issues.

In a recent two-week period at Irvington High in Fremont, mental health authorities or parents were summoned because nine students were suffering so much distress they needed to be involuntarily confined for protection, assistant principal Jay Jackson said.

A (St. Louis University) survey last spring found 54 percent of Irvington students suffering from depression and 80 percent showing moderate to severe anxiety levels.

Students think their life is over if they don’t get into a “great college,” say counselors.

“The better you are, the better the college you get into, and the better your life will be,” said Ella Milliken, a sophomore at Los Altos High.

Palo Alto schools have “added counselors and trained staff to spot troubled students,” reports Noguchi.

Dr. Grace Liu, a psychiatry resident, plays the part of an embarrassed teen with Dr. Rona Hu, psychiatry, playing the role of Liu's mother, during a skit at Jane Lathrop Middle School in Palo Alto. Photo: Jim Gensheimer, Bay Area News Group

Psychiatrists Grace Liu and Rona Hu play a teen and her mother in a skit at a parenting forum at a Palo Alto middle school. Photo: Jim Gensheimer, Bay Area News Group

San Ramon Valley High “staged a low-stress week” with hot breakfasts of quiche and oatmeal, supplied by parent volunteers, and therapy dogs at lunchtime. “Relaxing music wafted over the quad, where students did yoga” and “email was banned for a day.”

Four of the last nine Palo Alto teens to kill themselves were Asian and Asian youths have killed themselves in San Jose, Fremont and Contra Costa County in recent years. Palo Alto school and community leaders have started conversations on “parenting, expectations and a traditionally taboo topic — mental illness,” with Asian parents, Noguchi writes.

However, plans to ease pressure are controversial. Saratoga High considered limiting AP classes, but students and parents rejected the idea.

. . . a proposal to push back Saratoga High’s start time by nearly an hour, to 8:40 a.m., ran into furious opposition, especially from Asian parents. The idea was to coordinate times with the district’s other school, Los Gatos High, and to give students a chance to get more sleep — a benefit that some researchers tout as the single most effective tool to improve student health.

The plan, the product of monthslong research by a 28-member committee, was enthusiastically backed by many teachers and counselors, alarmed at rising stress disorders they see among students.

But the proposals were never publicly debated. And the committee itself, while intended to be broad-based, lacked Asian-American parents — even though Saratoga High is about three-fifths Asian. Criticism spread by social media saw the plan as an attack on academic rigor, in part by shaving five minutes from each class period.

Test scores are higher at Saratoga than Los Gatos, said parent Becky Wu. “Why ask Saratoga to match Los Gatos’ and not the other way around?”

Saratoga will compromise on a 8:15 a.m. start time.

The all-powerful U.S. News rankings reward colleges for selectivity, writes Alia Wong in The Atlantic. Mid-level colleges recruit students — including those they have no intention of admitting — to push up their rejection stats.

New SAT requires more reading

My 16-year-old niece won’t take the new SAT, which debuts in March. Uncertainty about the redesigned SAT — and fears that it will be harder — persuaded her to take the ACT instead. Apparently, she’s not the only one.

Serena Walker took a sample test in preparation for the SAT at Match charter school in Boston in January. Photo: Shiho Fukada, New York Times

Serena Walker took a sample test in preparation for the SAT at Match charter school in Boston in January. Photo: Shiho Fukada, New York Times

The new SAT will demand more sophisticated reading skills — even in math — experts tell the New York Times.

It will be harder for students from non-English-speaking families to excel in math, Lee Weiss, the vice president of precollege programs at Kaplan Test Prep.

SAT dropped the vocabulary section of the test, saying it forced students to learn arcane words. But the new exam features longer reading passages that “contain sophisticated words and thoughts in sometimes ornate diction,” reports the Times.

The math problems include “a lot of unnecessary words,” said Serena Walker, a college-bound junior at Boston’s Match charter school, who was working on a practice quiz.

“An anthropologist studies a woman’s femur that was uncovered in Madagascar,” one question began. She knew a femur was a leg bone, but was not sure about “anthropologist.” She was contemplating “Madagascar” just as she remembered her teacher’s advice to concentrate on the essential, which, she decided, was the algebraic equation that came next, h = 60 + 2.5f, where h stood for height and f stood for the length of the femur.

“Students will need to learn how to wade through all the language to isolate the math,” wrote Jed Applerouth, who runs a national tutoring service, in a blog post. The new math test is 50 percent reading comprehension, he estimated.

The Times asks: How Would You Do on the New SAT? Check it out. I thought the math questions were ridiculously easy. Are they making the reading harder and the math easier?

Harvard touts public good — for teens

Elite colleges should encourage applicants to care more about the common good than their personal achievement, advises Turning the Tide, report from Harvard’s Making Caring Common project.

Many praised the report, but Robert Pondiscio, writing in U.S. News, is dubious. He wonders why prioritizing the public good is only for teenagers, not for the elite colleges they aspire to attend.

By my calculation, the schools that employ the top administrators who have endorsed “Turning the Tide” have amassed combined endowments of approximately $225 billion. I need to be convinced that these institutions are maximizing the public benefit of those funds, which grow tax-free, before I’m asked to accept that careerist kids and ambitious parents pose a significant challenge to society.

Harvard’s endowment is $35 billion. Spending less than 5 percent would provide a full scholarship for every undergraduate, estimates Pondiscio.

very small subset of U.S. high school students are competing for slots at elite colleges, writes Pondiscio. Some are “overloading on Advanced Placement courses they’re not interested in and larding up on extracurriculars they don’t care about, merely to impress the admissions office at Brown.”

Stanford will build more housing so it can expand the number of undergraduate seats.

Stanford will build more housing so it can admit more undergraduates.


Rather than the report’s recommendations — discouraging applicants from taking SATs more than twice or submitting “overcoached” applications — he suggests an admissions lottery to choose among qualified applicants.

The elite colleges already provide generous scholarships to their students, few of whom come from low-income or working-class families. I think the only thing that will ease competition — a little — is to create more seats for undergrads as Stanford and Yale are doing.

Schools won’t tell colleges about suspensions

Syracuse schools will not share student discipline records with colleges, under a new policy proposed by Superintendent Sharon Contreras.

Remember the threat? It will go on your permanent record.

Syracuse Superintendent Sharon Contreras visited Hughes Elementary School on the first day of class. Credit: John Berry

Syracuse Superintendent Sharon Contreras visited Hughes Elementary School on the first day of class. Credit: John Berry

Seventy-three percent of colleges and universities ask if applicants have been suspended or expelled, according to the Center for Community Alternatives in Syracuse. Half of high school disclose the information. In the rest, it’s up to guidance counselors to decide what to reveal.

Syracuse schools are trying to reduce the high rate of suspensions of black students. Revealing discipline records could hurt students of color, Contreras said at a school board meeting. “You make a mistake when you’re a ninth grader and it hurts you when you are applying to college? That’s just not fair.”

Where will Malia go to college?

President Obama has told his 17-year-old daughter, Malia, “not to stress too much about having to get into one particular college,” he said last month. “Just because it’s not some name-brand, famous, fancy school doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get a great education there.”

Malia Obama wore a Stanford T-shirt last summer while biking with her father at Martha's Vineyard. Photo:  Nicholas Kamm, AFP

First Daughter Malia Obama wore a Stanford T-shirt while biking with her father at Martha’s Vineyard last summer. Photo: Nicholas Kamm, AFP

Malia Obama, a senior at the elite Sidwell Friends School, may be “the nation’s most eligible 2016 college applicant,” notes the New York Times.

So far, she’s “toured six of the eight Ivies — Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Yale — as well as Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley. She has also visited New York University, Tufts, Barnard and Wesleyan.”

They’re all “name-brand, famous, fancy” schools. But she doesn’t really need a safety school.

Why I’ve stopped doing interviews for Yale

Ben Orlin at “Math With Bad Drawings” explains — with bad drawings — why he’s stopped doing alumni interviews with Yale applicants.

“In the last 15 to 20 years, Yale’s applicant pool has gone from ‘hypercompetitive’ to ‘a Darwinian dystopia so cutthroat you’d feel guilty even simulating it on a computer, just in case the simulations had emotions’,” writes Orlin.

The Common App’s demands are endless: “Write me a confessional essay. Document your leisure activities in meticulous detail. Muse on a philosophical question. Tell me what you love about my school. Give me testimonials from your teachers.”

Yale is either “peering into your very soul” or “gathering the data to build your robot doppelgänger,” he writes.

After all that, 94 percent of applicants are rejected, writes Orlin. “We’ve got a random process, disguised as a deliberative one.”

Psychologist Barry Schwartz proposes college admissions by lottery. “Every selective school should establish criteria [for admission],” writes Schwartz. “Then, the names of all applicants who meet these criteria would be put into a hat and the winners would be drawn at random.”

Orlin calls it “so crazy it’s gotta be right.”

Wouldn’t it work just as well — with a lot less angst?

Getting into college — in 8th grade

College admissions won’t be a hurdle for eighth-grade achievers at Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, a Milwaukee charter that enrolls many Hispanic and low-income students.

Starting next year, would-be engineers with good grades will be offered a spot in Marquette’s engineering school — if they earn high grades and SAT scores in high school.

Career awareness starts early at Bruce-Guadalupe School: Third graders tour a construction site in downtown Milwaukee.

Career awareness starts early: Third graders from Bruce-Guadalupe tour a construction site in downtown Milwaukee.

“I definitely want to be an engineer,” said Connor Redding, 12. “It’s one of my dreams to help people out and build stuff that benefits other people.”

Marquette will provide “advising, career exploration, financial assistance for qualifying students, the opportunity to shadow engineering students and professionals, and access to academic and career fairs,” the engineering school promises. Financial aid will be critical.

The K-8 school also has partnered with nearby Carroll University’s health sciences program. This year, 10 eighth-grade achievers interested in medical careers received acceptance letters, reports the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Like the future engineers, students must keep up their academic performance in high school.

Students, many of whom would become the first in their family to attend college, gain exposure to fields in high demand including nursing, exercise physiology, athletic training, physician’s assistant and physical therapy. The program, in turn, offers Carroll the opportunity to diversify its student population, which is 85% white.

The private school hopes to get foundations to help fund scholarships for Preparing and Advancing Students for Opportunities in Science (PASOS) students.

In addition, Alverno College, a Catholic women’s school, is offering early admissions to young female students.