Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Still Can’t Decide? Try This

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

As you make your way to making a college decision, consider these ideas:
  • Think college qualities, not college names. There are reasons you loved the colleges you applied to—the small class sizes, the classes they offered, the feel on campus. Write those qualities down, and see how each college measures up to them.
  • Review your research on each college—one way or another. In a perfect world, spring of the senior year is the perfect time to visit each campus again. If that’s just not an option, take another online tour (you’d be amazed what you see the second time).
  • Debrief at the end. Once you’re done with your list and your fact finding, talk with your parents about what you saw. What’s there that you like? What new questions do you have, and who can help answer those? Can you see yourself at this college?
  • Seek parental input. It’s great to show some independence, but your parents/guardians know you well. Invite their input. “Do you see me as being happy there?”
  • Compare the colleges you have, not the ones you wanted. Once you’ve reviewed the colleges, compare their strengths and weaknesses—but make sure you’re not thinking about the dream school that denied you. You may not find a perfect campus, but you’ll most likely find a best one. Focus on that as your goal, and you’ll be fine.
  • Don’t forget your heart. You might not be able to describe what makes a college right for you, but that’s OK. You’ve done a lot of research and thinking—at this point, you can trust your heart to lead you. Your head will remember why you felt this college was the right one once you get to campus in the fall.
  • Think about what makes sense now. When you applied to all of these places last fall, you likely said “If College X takes me, that’s where I ‘m going to go.” There’s no doubt you felt that way then—but was seven months ago, and your interests and way of looking at the world may have changed since then. How you felt then is a factor for sure, but how you feel now is more important—keep that in mind.
  • Check finances one last time. If you have a college and it’s a little out of reach, call the admission office and the financial aid office—that’s two separate calls—and tell them so. A sincere call shows them you’re interested; not calling gives them no impression at all—and may leave you short in the wallet for no reason at all.
  • Start the hunt again. If your choices really don’t thrill you, wait until May 5th or so. That’s when many colleges find they still have openings, and of course, they want to fill them. Getting financial aid might be a challenge, but you never know until you ask. The National Association for College Admission Counseling keeps an online list of college that are looking, but don’t hesitate to call any college and ask about space.
  • Wait. Many colleges you’ve applied to or expressed interest in may continue to send you emails and calls, even after you make your choice. In some cases, they will offer you some kind of incentive- financial aid, better housing—to get you to change your mind. These contacts can last for a long time—in some cases, even once you start college.
If any of these offers seem tempting, proceed with caution. Your first choice college may not be perfect, but you likely know that college better than the colleges calling after May 1st to get you to go there. If you think a change makes sense, do your homework make sure you know what you’re getting into, then notify your first college you aren’t coming after all. You likely won’t get your deposit back if there was one, but you can ask.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Advice to Juniors on Sending Test Scores

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Juniors, welcome to the college application process. Many of you have been thinking about college, and some of you are just starting. Either way, the nuts and bolts of applying to college will soon be an important part of your life, and each part of the application has its own special needs. (Psst—need help with essays? Try this.)
That’s certainly true about sending test scores. For the longest time, the adults who work in college admissions—counselors and college admissions officers in particular—saw this as an easy idea. Make submission of test scores optional, and that will make for a much less stressful college application experience.
Then again, maybe not—and there are a good couple of reasons why:
  • If they haven’t already, there’s a good chance your counselor will offer this advice on sending test scores to test-optional schools: “If your scores are below the college’s average test score for admitted students, don’t send them. If they are higher, send them.”
As a rule, this isn’t a bad strategy, as long as you’re looking at an average that will help you make a good decision. If you’re applying to a college’s Engineering program, and all you have are averages for all admitted students, you may not be making the right choice. In cases like this, call the admissions office, or the Engineering school, and ask about average scores for admitted Engineering majors. There’s likely to be a big difference.
  •  A number of students believe test optional schools really prefer students who submit test scores. As proof of this, students point to the few colleges who actually break down their admit rates by category; in one case, a college took over 7 times as many students who submitted test scores over those that did not. This would suggest students would be wise to submit test scores, no matter what they are.
This strategy deserves a second look. Some would argue the only students who don’t submit scores are those students whose scores are low. I’m generally willing to go along with this idea, but if there’s a junior out there with a 1500 on the SAT who isn’t submitting them because they don’t think their future should be judged on one four-hour test, that’s the kid I’d take first if I were a college—and they’d get a full ride scholarship.
Building on this, the next assumption is students with low test scores also have low grades, so it doesn’t really matter if they submit test scores or not—either way, they wouldn’t get in.
This is where things fall apart. Many colleges first went test optional because they felt test scores didn’t really tell them anything they didn’t already know. Others—mostly school counselors—insisted some of the brightest students they know who would tear it up in college are just plain bad test takers. I can attest to this; I worked at a school for gifted kids, and out of a senior class of about 45, typically 3 or 4 didn’t test well. Since that represents up to 8 percent of the class, you can see where the “low scores means they can’t do the work” doesn’t hold up.
Juniors shouldn’t overinterpret the admit rates for non-test submitters. Your better bet is to look at the average GPA for admitted students; if your GPA is at or above that, and your scores aren’t great, apply anyway, and keep the scores out of it. The college may not admit many non-test takers, but the ones they do take are likely to fit your description.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

College Admissions and the French Horn

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I started my college education as a music major, but two things dissuaded me from pursuing this career path. First, five minutes at a college music program showed me I wasn’t in Kansas anymore—there were lots of folks better than me, and that gave me pause. Second, a summer camp job led me to consider education as a career, especially since I heard it came with a starting salary of — wait for it — $10,000, money most musicians never saw at that time.

My interest in music came to mind the other day when the latest round of admission data was posted. A record number of applications led to a record low in admit rates at many colleges; we’ll never know if that happened at some colleges, which decided this year not to release their admit rates at all. That’s really not much of a loss, since their admit rates last year were less than 5 percent. Once you get to that level, you already have the data you need to tell students admission to that college isn’t a sure thing.

As always, the low admit rates have led to discussions about just what colleges are looking for in a candidate. One counselor lamented that colleges with single digit admit rates aren’t admitting students; they’re admitting eighteen-year-olds who have demonstrated adult propensities.

That’s where my music background kicked in. In my music major days, symphonies had an interesting way of auditioning for open seats. The applicants would assemble backstage, where they were randomly assigned a number. Then, in order, each would walk to the center of the stage and play—except that the stage curtain was closed. Those in the audience listening to the audition couldn’t possibly know who was playing—so they had no idea if it was a friend, someone they’d played with before, what they looked like, or if they hopped on one foot while playing. All they were judged on was their ability to play.

I say this because many involved in college admissions are looking for a similar method to use when reviewing students. Admissions officers freely admit the current system is far from equitable, with every part of a college application offering an advantage to the wealthy. What’s been lacking from these “tear down the system” discussions are proposals to review applicants that are more equitable. If only it would be possible to put each applicant behind a metaphorical curtain of some kind, and ask them to do something that measured their ability to succeed in college, we’d just be all set.

The problem is that we don’t know what that is. Students with sterling high school records come home from college in less than a year, either lacking the emotional stamina to endure life outside the classroom, or unable to endure not being top banana at a college full of top bananas. Conversely, students whose high school careers were less than stellar end up in leadership positions because college makes sense to them in a way high school didn’t — that, or they simply grew up.

Some argue a new series of requirements are required in the admissions process that would even the admissions field, but as I’ve pointed out before, there is no skill out there that money can’t improve. If a college decides to let students in based on their cake-baking skills, summer culinary programs will pop up, and will only be attended by those who can afford them. It’s interesting to talk about finding the right curtain test for college admissions, but developing it is quite a different song.