Saturday, April 15, 2006

The Tail Wagging the Dog

Overheard at a library in a wealthy New Jersey suburb:
Girl A: Did you hear Jake had cancer?
Girl B: Yeah. But I heard that he’s in remission now.
Girl A: He’s so lucky…he’ll have a great college essay to write.

As a college counselor at Montclair High School, I get to see first hand how preparation for college admission is profoundly, and negatively affecting the way many of our children are growing up. At a recent event where I sat on a panel on the college admissions process with the former Dean of Admissions at Princeton, a girl stood up to ask a question. She started by telling the audience that her name was Ivy because her parents wanted her to attend an Ivy League college and that she attended a pre-school named Little Ivy Leaguers.

I have a pretty good idea of what a girl like Ivy’s day is like. She starts her school day at 7 am so she can fit in AP Economics in addition to the five AP’s she has in her regular schedule. She plays violin in her orchestra during the elective period. She goes to crew practice immediately after school. Her evenings are spent doing homework, doing some SAT prep problems and practicing the violin (when she is not attending Latin Club or Key Club events). She send Instant Messages to some friends from midnight to one before collapsing to begin the next day. Weekends and summers are spent at sports camps, SAT prep courses and what is perceived as mandatory volunteer work. She has been thinking about where she wanted to go to college as long as she can remember and it consumes her thoughts every day. Her parents have lived vicariously through Ivy all her life and have been hyper-involved in every aspect of her life. She feels the pressure to please her parents and meet their high expectations. High school for too many students like this, has become a time to strategize rather to experience.

Marilee Jones, Dean of Admissions at MIT, has been touring the country with the President of the American Pediatric Society talking about college admissions as a mental health issue. She speaks of generational causes for this mania, describing baby boomer parents as over-involved and busy parents who don’t trust authority but love experts, and their Millennium children as “the most anxious, stressed out, sleep deprived, judged and tested generation in history - a generation trained to please adults.”

Its not just neurotic, over-achieving baby boomers who are to blame. In the 1980’s, there was a drop in the number of high school graduates. Colleges employed sophisticated enrollment management techniques to bolster popularity. Now that the children of the baby boom generation have swelled the number of high school graduates, techniques appropriate to an era of student scarcity could not be more damaging Commercialization of the college admissions process has resulted in education being viewed as a product rather than a process and students as consumers rather than learners. As it has become more important to look impressive than be impressive, substance has taken a back seat to reputation and status.

The media has perhaps been the most destructive force in this process. The US News and World Report rankings - eagerly awaited by parents each year - have helped colleges to create an aura of even greater elusiveness. Relying on input statistics such as average test scores and acceptance rates as major components in their rankings, they have induced colleges to seek more and more applicants in order to simply have more to deny. With Harvard having acceptance rates in the single digits and Stanford denying over 70% of students with a perfect math or verbal SAT scores or a perfect 4.0 average, these publications encourage practices bad for students and colleges.

Recently, in a story reported by both the Washington Post and the Bergen Record, a private college counselor advised his clients that their daughter would have a better chance of admission into an Ivy League school if they moved to another town and entered her in a local beauty pageant. They followed his advice. The result: their daughter was accepted at Yale. This kind of coverage reinforces the idea that drastic measures are necessary and justified to attain admission to highly selective institutions. This is not exactly encouraging an ideal for finding a match between what a student needs in higher education and what a college offers.

This month, Newsweek Magazine has come up with the brilliant idea of ranking high schools by the number of Advanced Placement (AP) tests taken per student, stating in the publication: “It's one of the best measures available to compare a wide range of students' readiness for higher-level work”. Never mind that numerous studies have come to the opposite conclusion: While student performance on AP examinations is strongly related to college performance, merely taking AP or other honors-level courses in high school is not a valid indicator of the likelihood that students will perform well in college. But to rank high schools by only the AP courses offered is a gross and highly misleading statistic. It is also damaging, an inducement for schools to offer AP courses no matter the quality of the students or the teaching. Like the college rankings have done to the colleges, this is one more attempt by the media to have the tail wag the dog.

The repositioning of higher education in the public mind as the ultimate goal of status gained by association is not merely observed by the press, but is actively promoted by it as more and more unscientific “rating” systems are published and represented as valid means of judging success and failure. The snake oil salesmen for higher education, the media has knowingly engaged in sensationalism at the expense of our children. Pseudoscinetific instant rankings and eye-catching stories are the substitutes for well-reasoned and well-researched writings.

The media has abrogated their responsibility to give clarity to this process. “Fear, anxiety, myth, secrecy, false precision, hype and educational irrationality characterize the admissions landscape,” notes Lloyd Thacker in Colleges Unranked. “The way the media is shaping our perspective about this critical life transition is simply wrong and misinformed and very few voices have emerged to put the brakes on this runaway train.” Students and their parents will continue to game the system for, in the view they get from the media, that is the only choice they believe they have. As Thacker concludes: “The stewardship of student needs has been forsaken.”

Friday, April 14, 2006

Are the Best Minds of our Generation Being Destroyed by Madness?[1]

What’s going on here? I have more students than ever suffering from anxiety, depression, anorexia and panic attacks, particularly among the highest achieving students. A student once told me that she loved to read, but with the five AP courses, sports practices, SAT prep and community service, she had little time to do it.

An article by James Fallows in the Atlantic Monthly quoted one student saying: “Very few students get enough sleep. They get either too much or not enough exercise. We don’t go for moderation- you can’t because the hype is too high.” Are we damaging the best and the brightest of our nation’s youth, perhaps permanently and unnecessarily?

The common thread among these students having difficulty at my school, and I suspect at many high schools across the nation, is the obsessive desire to obtain admissions to the most elite colleges. Denise Clark Pope has aptly noted that for students, “Future success is more important than present happiness.” These students, our future leaders and thinkers of the United States, are not happy and are not healthy. And things are only getting worse. Psychologist David Elkind agrees. “The truth is,” he says, “advantaged children are less well off today than they were a couple of decades ago.”

What drives these students is the perceived need to do whatever it takes to get into a ‘good’ or ‘great’ college. Students and parents walk into my office wanting to know what secret [that] will make the difference between acceptance and denial. If it’s a game, they want to know the rules. Bruce Poch, Dean of Admissions at Pomona College, claims “things have gotten worse and more game-like, although the strategic approach seems particularly acute in upper and middle class families and schools.”

Students perceive that there is a flow chart; an instruction sheet on what they need to do and all will be okay. It is difficult to let them know, usually in some indirect way, that it is more of function of who they are, rather than what they do that matters most in this process. By the time they meet with me late in their junior year, most of what matters in college admissions has already occurred. Colleges want students who have shown long term, in-depth interest and true talent in extracurricular activities. Spending next summer on an Indian reservation will not do that for you. They want students who have shined academically throughout high school. Those few B’s and, God forbid, C’s, do matter.

The sad truth is that the best most students can do is not foul up. They take that killer schedule and get impressive grades in their senior year, but their application file will be read and rated before those senior grades ever get in. Certainly, it is great if a student can write a “knock your socks off” essay. When I asked a University of Chicago admissions counselor to read an essay from a student who was applying to (and later admitted into) Harvard, he stated that it was “serviceable.” A strong argument can be made that things such as the personal essay and the interview are largely in place to give students some illusion that they have some control in the process.

“The way I stressed the importance of the essay while recruiting was frankly disingenuous,” notes Rachel Toor in Admissions Confidential. “By the time they were hearing me talk, there was little they could do to bolster their candidacies; and, in reality, the only part of the process in which they had complete control was their essays. So I made them think it was an important thing for them to work on if only to help them feel that they weren’t helpless.”

Surely, students are acting as if they feel they have no control. Much of the behavior I am seeing in students is quite similar to that described by Martin Seligman in his book Helplessness: On Depression, Development and Death during the early 1990’s. He describes studies he and others have done to determine if a lack of perceived control results in hopelessness and helplessness. The kind of behavior I am seeing in my ‘best’ students leads me to believe that the term, ‘learned helplessness’ coined by Seligman, accurately describes the wrenching experience students, and in many cases, parents, are going through. “It seems like a judgment of not just your child,” comments one parent, “but of your parenting and all your hopes.”

The Admissions Process

Why did this happen? Who is responsible for it? What impact will it have on the future well being of these students?

Certainly there has been a dramatic change in the last 25 years in the perception of college admissions in our society. Where there were one or two books out on the how-tos of college admissions, now there are whole sections of bookstores on the process. Rarely would you see articles in major publications on the college admissions process- now they regularly make the front page of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Clearly there has been a societal momentum in this direction for a number of years and it has clearly taken on a life of its own.

Much of what feeds this frenzy, though, is a lack of coherence in the college admissions process. Few colleges accurately and effectively communicate how they choose their students and, more importantly, why they have the policies and procedures that are in place.

“Colleges do not want any rules,” notes independent counselor Tedd Kelly, “except for those that protect the elite institutions and work to keep it that way, since they keep control away from the students and families.” Most colleges have rating systems for applicants, but few make them public. Perhaps this is out of fear that there will be even a greater perception that there is a game to be beat. But just as likely, they may not be proud of what these rating systems might show.

For one, the system is inherently unfair and not student centered.

“I am continually frustrated by the vague and misleading statistics that colleges report,” states Bridget McHugh, counselor at Fairfield High School in Connecticut, “as if it were a mystery to them as to which students might get in.”

There is a lot of talk about college admissions offices working to find the best match between each student and each college and university. To be fair, to a great extent this is true. I do believe that the brightest and most talented students do end up at the most selective universities and that most students do go to colleges where they are challenged appropriately. It is little secret, though, that the final outcome as to whether a student is admitted or denied has as much to do with institutional priorities as it has to do with the academic strengths of the students admitted.

We are provided with information on average SAT I and II scores and class rank of admitted and enrolled students and we often believe that they have some meaning, i.e. that about half of students who are admitted fall above and about half fall below that number (median figures would actually show this, but are rarely provided). Yet we know that there are a significant number of students who skew these statistics. Most highly selective colleges give preference to students who are recruited athletes, under-represented minority students (usually African American and Hispanic) and ‘legacies,’ students whose parents went to the college. Michelle Hernandez in A is for Admissions notes that at Dartmouth, 17 per cent of the freshman class is made up of recruited athletes and 12 per cent are underrepresented minority students and, at Yale, legacies make up 15 per cent of the student body. At most selective colleges, according to Hernandez, only 60 per cent of the space in the freshman class is left for students with no admissions “hook.”

Some colleges treat students whose parents went to graduate school as legacies. Others give preference to students whose grandparents or siblings attended the institution. Most colleges seek to enroll the children of their professors. Almost every college seeks famous students or the children of famous people. One highly selective university went so far as to use the term “non-special interest” applicant in their admissions literature. Another has a huge number of “Dean’s admits”; who are prospective applicants recommended by the development office as having a connection to a potential or actual donor.

The truth is that these special cases are not mere exceptions but may make up about half of enrolled students. It is also the true that there is a benefit to having these students on campus. Having a diverse student body makes the campus experience richer. Certainly one need only to look at Boston College’s selectivity after Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary pass or Georgetown’s admissions statistics following the Patrick Ewing era to see the connection between athletics and prestige of an institution. Furthermore, taking steps to keep alumni and donors happy contributes to the financial health of an institution, allowing it to keep down costs to students, offer better financial aid, improve facilities and hire the best faculty.

It is equally true that many students who are in these groups have standardized test scores and class ranks that are well below the mean of other accepted students. It is necessary for colleges to give accurate statistical analyses of the admitted and enrolled students who are not part of what they designate as special cases.

What’s Best for Students?

One of the most intractable problems in college admissions is that there is not a clear congruence between what is best for students and what is most desirable in terms of college admissions. Here there has to be some sharing of the blame between parents and students who obsessively do what they perceive is necessary to gain admission to the most selective colleges as well as admissions professionals who give in to this by raising the bar higher and higher.

Take the example of the rigor of the student’s senior year schedule. I was admitted (25 years ago) to all the colleges to which I applied three of which are generally considered among the most selective, with a schedule consisting of AP Physics, AP BC Calculus, electives in English and history and no foreign language. If a student comes to me suggesting a schedule like this, I inform them that they will likely be out of the running for the most selective colleges. So students are driving themselves into the ground to stay in the running. I’ll go out on a limb here, but I believe it is unhealthy for students to be taking AP courses in five or six subjects in their senior year

“One thing has become clear,” notes Poch, “at many colleges there is a growing concern about students with significant problems that spill out into all kinds of destructive forms, from alcohol and drug-related problems to eating disorders to clinical depression How much of this is a result of crushing pressure and painfully high expectations, I don’t know.”

A frequent question I hear from parents and students at highly selective college admissions presentations is “Should my child) take tougher courses and get B’s or get A’s in a weaker schedule.” The answer is almost universally the same: “To be admitted here, you should get A’s in the toughest schedule.”

According to Caitlin Flanagan in her article “Confessions of a Prep School Counselor,” college admissions books “explain that if kids are to have any chance at a top college, they must pursue the most rigorous curriculum available to them. Flanagan argues that it is true that students should take the most difficult courses in preparation for applying to elite institutions but : “It is also true that such a curriculum is going to crush a lot of kids. A regimen of brutal academic hazing may be appropriate in some disciplines for medical student or Ph.D. candidates, but it is not appropriate for fifteen-year-olds.”

There is also a conflict between what parents want (well-rounded students) and the goal of those making college admissions decisions: well-rounded admitted classes. What many good parents want for our children is that they be emotionally healthy, have a variety of interests and friends and that they are happy. Sure, we’d like our children to be really good at something, especially when we are talking with other parents at cocktail parties, but this isn’t our highest priority.

In the admissions world, it is truly valued that students have one talent and interest that truly stands out. A few maxims in college admissions: “we want well-rounded classes, not well-rounded students” and “the students who get admitted here are not just talented, but distinguished.” Both, I believe, are true at the most selective colleges. Fred Hargadon, Dean of Admissions at Princeton, recently noted that plenty of students at Princeton displayed an unusual degree of excellence in even more than one area. The bar was notched up for all students that day.

Author and former admissions officer at Duke University, Rachel Toor also acknowledges that many students applying to college excel in many areas: “what’s hard is that there are so many applicants and they all look so much alike.” Anne Roiphe, a reporter for the New York Observer, has commented similarly on the uniformity of much college applicants: “children are too young to be distinguishable.” As early as 1981, David Elkind critiques the trend to overwhelm children with responsibility in his book The Hurried Child, Growing Up Too Fast, Too Soon. He wrote:

“Hurrying children into adulthood violates the sanctity of life by giving one period priority over another. But if we really value human life, we well value each period equally and give unto each stage of life what is appropriate to that stage.”

College admissions personnel need to acknowledge consider and act upon the awesome degree of control they have over the nation’s youth seeking to be admitted into college. A huge number of students will do anything they think will help them to achieve that goal. If suddenly the main criterion for admission was perceived to be large biceps, these students would spend every waking hour doing arm curls. There are few students who are acting spontaneously and naturally. At an earlier and earlier age, there is calculated behavior to beat the college admissions game. This is not all bad. There is a perception out there that it is necessary to do community service to get into college, so hospitals are flush with candy stripers and food banks are full of volunteers seeking to pad their resumes. But is that what community service is about? Isn’t the goal of having students give of themselves throughout their lifetimes reduced when it is done with such a self-conscious aim? And doesn’t this minimize the impact of the service students have always done which is truly genuine?

A Few Modest Suggestions

Maybe we have gone too far and cannot go back. We cannot erase the national obsession with college admissions. It is often impossible to regain the innocence of the past. Yet there are things that the college admissions community can do to ameliorate the negative effects of the process on our nation’s youth.

College lists, like those published by the US News and World Report, flourish because of the lack of clear alternatives for accurate and reliable information. Many colleges seek to be all things to all students and to encourage as many students, even clearly unrealistic candidates, to apply. It is a laudable goal to find that ‘diamond in the rough,’ but not at the expense of the scores of students whose hopes are dashed unnecessarily. Colleges need to provide a breakdown of admitted and enrolled students by the measures they themselves use. Statistics for admission of students who do not fit into a special category such as legacy or athlete, should be provided.

There are a few college policies, which if enacted more widely, would improve the lot of the nation’s students. For students, early decision, rather than helping improve the match between students and colleges, has become a way of alleviating suffering and angst. Northwestern University makes only two decisions on early decision: accept or deny. The most common practice of deferring early decision applicants prevents students from realistically going about the business of applying to appropriate colleges.

“I cannot for the life of me see why admission people don’t simply deny kids they don’t take early decision,” notes counselor Dodge Johnson. He continues:

“No testicular fortitude, maybe. Hedge bets, avoid dealing with folks who don’t like the decision. But I have a terrible time convincing kids to let go of an impossible dream and focus on something more realistic. And frankly, I wish they would do what Syracuse does- no wait list. Administering a college is not like administering a church or a family is like administering a corporation. Sales and marketing techniques applied to colleges have mostly served to homogenize how colleges describe the students themselves and colleges increasingly describe the students they want rather than those they work best with.

Though I appreciate the goals of things like on-line applications and the Common Application, which reduce the difficulty of applying to college, I believe University of Chicago’s difficult and erudite application questions discourage unrealistic and inappropriate students from applying. There should be some standards for the rigors of a senior year schedule. Taking four courses in the major subjects at the school’s highest level should be communicated as sufficient for admissions and boosting a schedule to 5 AP or IB courses should not be given extra weight in the admissions process.

William Fitzsimmons offers this possible solution: “Colleges can help themselves as well as their prospective students by declaring (and demonstrating) that they are not judged simply by the number of AP and other advanced credits amassed at the end of the senior year.” Students should be discouraged from taking too many standardized tests by providing alternative measures of aptitude as Hamilton College has done.

There also has to be a dramatic change in the way advantaged parents are raising their children. They must let children be children.

“Sports, music, dance and other recreational activities used to provide a welcome break,” notes Fitzsimmons. “NO more…In high school, SAT prep has become a way of life. The problem can often be well meaning, but misguided parents who try to mold their children into an image of success they value; and their children, being moldable as they are, often get on board and go along with the programs before they have the capacity to make such a choice for themselves.”

Flanagan describes a kind of “fetishistic sense of power being able to associate your child with one of these (elite) schools’ parents”. She continues to say that these parents “who had always been lovely and appreciative would become irritable and demanding once I was helping them all select a college.”

In his article, “The Early Decision Racket,” James Fallows, national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, points out: “The wonder is that getting through the admissions gate at a name brand college should have come to seem the fundamental point of middle-class child rearing.

It is difficult to avoid the frenzy, particularly considering the media attention on the subject. Flanagan describes what she calls “admissions porn” in the form of how-to college guides that “add to the impression that kids are not merely applying to college but are in fact involved in a drama of almost life-and-death consequences. The teenagers described in such books have transferred the most profound and elemental of adolescent emotions- romantic attraction- into the most unromantic of pursuits- college selection.”

College counselors want what is best for the individual student. Unfortunately, there is no quick remedy for the intense anxiety facing students in the college admissions process. Marc James of Charles Wright Academy suggests a first step in solving the problem: “My short answer,” he says, “is to stand in favor of urging students and parents to do what is healthy and what is true to the core values and inspirations of the individual.” Nancy Scarci of the Roosevelt School proposes another apt recommendation: “We need to educate families that no college is a silver bullet that will ensure fame, fortune or happiness.”

Clearly, something needs to be done to abate the highly competitive nature of college admissions, or at least make students and parents aware that which college a student attends does not guarantee a happy or prosperous future. High schools need to stop measuring their success only by the number of admissions into the most selective colleges. Parents need to stop living vicariously through their children by pushing them too early and too hard to focus on the college process. College admissions officers, as they expect of their applicants, need to define and distinguish themselves and their admissions processes. And students need to look for colleges that are the best match for them rather than merely the most selective college to which they can gain admissions
[1] White, Scott Journal of College Admissions, Winter 2002
Parents and the College Admission Process

The majority of those going through the college process are just trying to find a good match, a college that best meets their needs and goals. And most parents want what is best for their children. Yet there seems to be this prevailing sentiment that parents need to micromanage this process, from hiring SAT tutors and private counselors to pressuring teachers and coaches to give their children that added advantage. Yet what parents need to do most is support and protect their children while allowing them to grow.
I push my three-year-old around the neighborhood on his tricycle equipped with a handle in the back. In the beginning, I needed to help him steer the tricycle for he had no concept of how to do it. Very quickly, though, I realized that the only way to help him learn how to steer was to allow him to start going off the sidewalk on his own. He soon learned how to correct himself and head on a straight course. I am still behind him, keeping him from hurting himself by hurtling off the curb or into oncoming traffic. I no longer steer or control his bike. He knows I am there and finds safety and comfort in the fact that I will protect him from danger. But he equally knows he is the one steering and controlling the bike. As time goes on, he will begin to ride the bike without me there at all.
This is the same role parents should take in the college admissions process. At a minimum, they should be there to make sure their children do not harm themselves, say, by missing deadlines or not as a result being accepted into any colleges, or just as worse any that you can afford. More than this, they need to be there to support their children in making some of the toughest decisions of their life to this point. There are many more important decisions, from choosing a spouse to choosing a job. But this is the first time in most children’s life when they have had to make a lasting decision about their future. This book is an attempt to describe a sensible approach to college admissions. It is a tool to allow you to understand what is happening in the process and to help you to recognize when you should intervene and, even more importantly, the security to know when you should not.
As one student recently stated, “It’s tough raising parents these days.” Marilee Jones, the Dean of Admissions of MIT, did a recent panel with me at the national conference of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors on the topic “College Admissions as a Mental Health Issue.” She is giving talks around the country with the President of the American Society of Pediatrics to discuss disturbing trends in college admissions and child rearing.
“The increasingly bad ‘parental etiquette’ that college admissions officers are seeing right now comes from a confluence of several characteristics of our boomer generation,” she writes. “Our sense of entitlement, our suspicion of authority and our bad habit of living too vicariously through our children.” Dean William Fitzsimmons of Harvard, also on the panel, similarly notes: “Sports, music and other recreational activities used to provide a welcome break. No more. In high school, SAT prep has become a way of life. The problem can often be well meaning but misguided parents who try to mold their children into an image of success they value; and their children, being moldable as they are, often get on board and go along with the programs before they have the capacity to make such a choice for themselves.”
“The launching of a child stirs up everyone in the family,” notes Michael G. Thompson. “For the parents it is the culmination of their child rearing, the end of the parental curriculum. From now if they act as parents for a college-age or older child, it will be by invitation only.”
What is the main testing ground of fears about incomplete or inadequate child rearing?
The College Admission Process.
If you are afraid you don't discipline your children enough--too much Dr. Spock--the incriminating evidence of parental failure is right there in front of everyone. The child is not filling out her college applications!
If you are afraid you have allowed your children to watch too much television and settle for low grades, the chickens all come home to roost--painfully and publicly--during the meeting with the college counselor at the end of junior year.
The frantic involvement of many parents in the process is, from my perspective, a cover for this profound parental anxiety: Did I do a good job with this child? Did I do everything I needed to do for this child? Is this child prepared? Is this child going to have a good life? I have seen many laissez-faire parents, not much in evidence in the tenth and eleventh grade years, swoop back into their children's lives at college admission time, trying to stuff all of their wisdom and discipline into their children at the last moment.
Parents may need to be reassured as their fledglings leave the nest that they really have taught them how to fly. Since it is impossible to assess the quality of what parents have done for their children at this point, what is the next best thing? What comes closest to getting graded as parents?The status of the college to which the child is admitted.

Some Advice for Parents

1) Be honest with your kids about restrictions and needs. If there is only so much money to go around, if there are geographic restrictions, if there is anything that may restrict college choices, communicate them to your child and the counselor.
2) Listen, listen, and listen! Hear what your kids are saying. What is important to them? Don't tell your kids what you think until you've heard what they think
3) Keep an open mind. Colleges have changed dramatically since we went to school. Don't rely on impressions based on old stereotypes. Realize that there are some great schools you may never have heard of.
4) Move away from a pecking order mentality. The best college for your child may not be the most competitive to get into or the highest on some college list.
5) Sometime in the spring of junior year, sit down with your child and set up a calendar of when each part of the process will be done. Set up a schedule of college visits, a testing schedule, deadlines for when essays drafts will be completed and when final essays are completed, when all applications are to be completed, etc. Have your child recommend the deadlines instead of your imposing them. They will almost always make them more rigorous than you would.
6) Read over your child's essay to see if it communicates who they are, how well they think and how well they write.
7) Make sure your child has a college that is both a financial safety school as well as an admissions safety school.

Some don’ts for parents to consider

1) Don’t micromanage the process. Occasionally make sure that your kids are on track to meet deadlines, but don't nag, nag, nag. If you are concerned that your kid is not on track, call your child's counselor and let him/her help get your kid moving.
2) Don’t talk to other parents about where your kid is applying.
3) Don’t let any deadlines lapse, especially with regard to financial aid.
4) Don’t add your voice to your child's essay. Content and style suggestions should not include re-writing that your child has written.
5) Don’t get caught up in the college frenzy. Just because your child's peers are geting SAT Prep and private counseling, it isn't necessary for you to get this as well.
6) Don’t try to create an 'image' for your child. Don't try to 'package' your child. Don't try to do something special between junior and senior year to try to make your child an attractive college candidate. Colleges want students to have depth and breath of experiences. Foster what your child wants to do and is good at. Don't try to create something that sounds good.
The bottom line is that the goal of college admissions is to find a match between what the student needs and what the college offers.

Yale, Bush and the politics of power

In the imbroglio over the Single Choice Early Action, the tactics and methods followed a very similar methodology to that of the Bush White House.

For those of you who don't know the details, it started with the President of Yale voicing reservations about Yale's early decision, especially in terms of fairness for those applying for financial aid. He wanted to go back to an early action plan but was concerned about dealing with the high volume of applications such action might bring. Thus was born the idea of Single Choice Early Action (SCEA) where students applying to Yale SCEA could only do so if they did not apply anywhere else early. There were a number of problems with this policy, though. One was a clear definition of what early was: early decision, early action, rolling admissions, early notification... The second was that there was a feeling that the plan had an air of arrogance and more than a hint of restraint of trade: who was Yale to say what students could do when applying to other colleges? But the biggest problem to many was that this new policy was not in accordance with NACAC Statement of Principals of Good Practice (SPGP) which stated that students who applied early action could apply to other colleges "without restriction". There was a mixture of reaction as to whether the new plan was a positive one. Some agreed that Yale was taking the right step by moving away from Early Decision, a plan embraced mostly by those who did not need to be able to compare offers of financial aid, i.e. the well-to-do. And some saw that Yale needed to restrict EA applications or they could not logistically make this move. Others saw it as an arrogant usurping of power, with the powerful restricting applications to colleges which were less powerful. Perhaps the loudest voices against the plan were those in NACAC who, despite the merits of the new admissions plan, saw the new plan as an affront to the accepted rules which had governed college admissions for the previous seventy years. They were genuinely concerned that if Yale and others went down this path of changing their policy to one that was in direct opposition to the SPGP, that other more vital parts of the SPGP would begin to be ignored by member organizations.

There was an acknowledgement from many in NACAC that there were problems with the SPGP. There were feelings of some that SCEA was not an issue to "go to the mat" on. There was an acknowledgement that there was a need to look at the SPGP with fresh eyes. The Admissions Standards Steering Committee was born (of which I was a member) to develop guiding principles for the SPGP and to decide whether the tenets of the SPGP were consistent with these principles and of appropriate merit and meaning to be added. The SPGP had become unwieldy and disorganzed and the Steering Commitee was convened to simplify , prioritize and organize the SPGP.

Yet the issue of SCEA still loomed. If Yale, and then Stanford, were to go ahead with SCEA, it would be a direct affront to the principles that they agreed to abide by. Yet while the Steering Committee was still going through its work and there was room to work out a compromise, Yale announced, in 2004, that they would be adopting SCEA for the next year's class. Stanford's representatives stated that they had planned to wait a year to work out a compromise but that Yale had forced their hand. Eight hours later, Stanford also adopted SCEA followed soon after by Harvard. The Assembly of NACAC at the national conference was to decide whether to modify the SPGP to accept SCEA as an admissions plan. If this was defeated, there would likely be a vote to sanction Harvard, Yale and Stanford with Harvard and Yale making it clear that they would withdraw from the organization if that were to happen.

During this same time period, we were observing one of Yale's most famous (imfamous?) graduates, George W. Bush, using various tactics to justify breaking with established rules, laws and traditions. Whether is was justifying pre-emptive war, lying to the American people about weapons of mass destruction, not following the Geneva Convention, justifying torture or approving eavedropping on American citizens without the going through agreed upon channels, there were behaviors and rationales that bore a striking similarity to the actions of his alma mater in the SCEA debate:


1) acted unilaterally.
2) felt no obligation to respond to critics.
3) acted without transparency
4) ignored established and agreed upon laws and rules to achieve their own needs
5) misused their positions of power
6) dismissed the established rules and laws as quaint
7) used disengagemnt as a threat.
8) had a total lack of appreciation of how an atmosphere of breaking a contract affects the behavior of others.