As we head into another school year, there is no better time to take a breath and listen to Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford, make the case that it’s time for adults to stop defining children by their grades and test scores. Ironically, a lot of top colleges these days agree; yet, that’s not a reason alone to listen to her advice, because, as she points out, the goal of one’s life should not be getting into a small handful of colleges that reject nearly every student who applies. If anything, the adults who should most take this TED Talk to heart are those are moderately selective to highly selective state universities, who often make admissions decisions based primarily on students’ high school grades and test scores. Regardless of what college admissions officers do, parents are Lythcott-Haims’ primary audience, as they should be, because stopping the culture of provisional self-esteem in its tracks and instead promoting self-efficacy must start with parents.
Scattergrams, the ubiquitous x/y axis graphs that have caught on like wildfire over the last twenty years because of their inclusion in Naviance Student, the online college counseling tool used by thousands of American high schools, purport to show a student’s chances of admission at different colleges and universities by plotting previous students from a particular high school on an x/y axis graph based on such students’ GPAs on one axis and their test scores (ACT or SAT) on the other.
Below is an example of a scattergram for a particular high school showing current students (and parents) at that high school how alumni from that high school fared when applying to University of Maryland College Park from 2010 through 2014.
Note that the below scattergram plots the SAT on the x-axis using the old 2400 SAT scale; however, the SAT is now scored out of 1600. Similarly, the high school in question clearly plots GPA based on a 4.0 scale, but some schools’ scattergrams will have very different numbers of the y-axis because scattergrams can have any sort of GPA scale on them (100, 20, 6, etc.) depending on a school’s grading scale.
The typical student seeing the above scattergram assumes, if he or she has a 3.6 GPA and an SAT score of 1860 he or she is definitely going to get into University of Maryland College Park. Most of the rest of students with that combination of grades and scores would assume, after seeing the above scattergram, that Maryland is at least a huge safety college for them. After all, all students from this high school in the past few years who land in that GPA/score range got into Maryland, as illustrated by all of those green squares.
STOP RIGHT THERE!
The problem is a student with this GPA/score combination could easily get rejected from University of Maryland College Park for any number of reasons that a scattergram will not be able to display. The most common reasons scattergrams lull students into a false sense of security are as follows:
- Many selective colleges get more selective every passing year, rendering antiquated past years’ admissions statistics.
- Scattergrams don’t show the quality of past applicants’ extracurricular resumes.
- Scattergrams don’t show the quality of past applicants’ essay writing skills.
- Scattergrams don’t show past applicants’ demographics (rich, middle-class, poor, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, International, etc.). College admissions officers for American colleges – especially selective institutions – often care quite a lot about their applicants’ demographics.
- Scattergrams don’t show incredibly important (again, in the eyes of college admissions officers) background information about past applicants’ beyond their demographics. Here we are talking about characteristics like an applicant’s legacy status (Did a past applicant’s mom or dad attend the same college?), athletic prowess (Was a past applicant a highly-sought athletic recruit?), and/or his or her parents’/grandparents’ proclivity for giving money to the college on the scattergram in question.
- Most high schools set their scattergrams to hide from current students/parents whether or not past applicants to the college in question applied Rolling Decision, Early Decision, Early Action, Priority Admission, and/or Regular Decision. That’s important information! This is because colleges that offer different admissions plans/deadlines often have very different standards for each such plan/deadline. You can also forget about a scattergram showing whether a past applicant applied for and/or was accepted to the college for fall, spring, or winter term (if such varied options exist at the college in question).
- Scattergrams don’t show the quality of past applicants’ teacher and counselor recommendation letters/evaluations.
- Scattergrams likely don’t account for whether or not past applicants submitted their ACT scores, SAT scores, both, or neither (in the case of test-optional colleges) to the colleges’ scattergrams on which they are plotted.
- Unless the scattergram’s GPA axis is a weighted GPA, the GPA axis is not capable of communicating to students and parents the past applicants’ curricular rigor.
- Scattergrams don’t show past applicants’ grade trends in high school (colleges care so much about this).
- Scattergrams show past applicants’ final GPAs in high school, not their GPAs when they applied to college (usually in the beginning of a student’s senior year). Senior slumps in the final months of past applicants’ senior years often slightly (and sometimes greatly) deflate their final GPAs relative to what their GPAs were in October of their senior years.
- Directors of college counseling (the leaders of college counseling offices) can be applicants’ best advocates or worst enemies depending on whether or not these directors have written a strong and compelling high school profile and done everything else they can do to encourage particular colleges to accept their students. Scattergrams don’t note when certain directors’ regimes began and ended; therefore, in a field where many directors of college counseling only stay in their roles for a few years before moving on, a five- or ten-year scattergram could be capturing admissions statistics for students applying from a particular high school under very different college counseling regimes. Some directors write bang-up high school profiles (which are sent to all colleges to which students apply in a particular admissions cycle) and some don’t. Sadly, at some schools, the high school profile is written and designed by the communications team and/or individuals in the admissions, advancement, development, head of school, principal, and or central office! The further removed from college counseling the writers of the high school profile are the more likely the profile will not provide college admissions officers the information they are looking for in a high school profile. Meanwhile, some directors of college counseling make calls for their students or their colleagues’ students, others simply don’t. Some are on a first-name basis with Ivy League admissions officers, some don’t know any. Some act as PR agents for their students, others are real in their recommendation letters, which leads to such letters carrying more weight with admissions officers than those that only share glowing reviews. Scattergrams lull students and parents into thinking (just like point #1 above) that each student plotted on the scattergram had the same college counseling team behind him or her and faced the same college admissions rates from year to year. The fact is, high schools change and colleges change, and as a result, scattergrams fail at capturing subtle or quite large subjective changes to students’ chances from year to year based on how high schools and colleges change.
In summary, so much of what colleges will ultimately base their admissions decisions on is NOT captured in scattergrams; therefore, don’t use them as the end all be all when it comes to determining whether a particular college on your list is a Safety, Possible, or Reach. Any college counselor, student, or parent who tells you otherwise has no idea what he or she is talking about.
I frequently get irate parents telling me that I am too pessimistic about their student’s chances at a particular college or university based on what the family sees on a particular college’s scattergram on Naviance Student. I remind them that I often know the back story on each applicant on the scattergram and/or that there are at lease twelve reasons why the scattergram is only part of the story – especially at the country’s most selective colleges and universities. Sadly, this does not often calm the parents down, and as a result, a few parents hold months-long bouts of resentment towards me – usually until all admissions decisions are released in April, at which point reality sets in – for good or ill. With that said, I am happy when I have a student get into a college that I classified as a Reach that the parents and student thought I should have classified as a Possible or a Safety. It’s my job to help turn all colleges on a student’s list into offers of admission; yet, I need the student’s cooperation and effort if I can make this happen. Sometimes that happens, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Scattergrams are trustworthier for colleges that primarily base their admissions decisions on applicants’ grades and scores only. Theses types of colleges are usually those that accept over 50 of applicants and/or large state universities that ask for the perfunctory essay and extracurricular list but which don’t have the actual manpower to review these subjective aspects of students’ applications. Such colleges usually simply default to determining whether or not to accept a student based on his or her scores and grades. Yet, even in such cases, a student who is quite deficient or exceptionally strong in one or more of the twelve areas listed above could easily become an exception to the rule that the scattergram seems to convey.
Bottom line: strong college counselors always explain this important, complex, and as you can now see, somewhat time-consuming information to students and parents. Such college counselors tend to lean towards being more conservative with their Safety, Possible, and Reach classifications for colleges on their students’ lists than those college counselors who take a relatively two-dimensional approach (x,y axis, anyone?) to college acceptance/rejection prognostication. If you are a student or parent going through the college application process now or in the future, please remember to be skeptical of scattergrams. Though they have valuable data on them, scattergrams only capture some objective data, and they certainly don’t capture the subjective strengths or weaknesses of past college applicants or their college applications.
This morning I was listening to the radio and heard a segment about a new museum that just opened in Sweden. The Museum of Failure. Brilliant! There are all kinds of cool failed ideas like Google Glass and the Apple (fig) Newton. I could add a few others…olestra (that oil alternative that has the unpleasant side effect of violent diarrhea) or maybe these hoverboards that explode into flames (I have two in my garage). The point is, in order to succeed one has to fail first. The problem is, everyone likes to say that, but find me the parent who is happy to have their child get an F in Algebra. Not happening.
So how can we allow our kids to fail (and learn) without screwing up their chances for college admission? You don’t want to fail an AP class, or any class for that matter; yet, there are plenty of other opportunities for failure, and you should make them available to your kids ASAP. Here’s how.
1. Start early. Let your child NOT make the team. Let them lose the race, the game, the contest. Let them flub up the recital (especially if they didn’t practice). Give them lots and lots of opportunities to try, fail, and then try again. Penelope Trunk writes about the importance of practice in an article in Business Insider, and we all know that “practice makes perfect,” but how many of us really force that issue?
2. In school, encourage plenty of “low stakes testing.” These aren’t those God awful state assessments. Low stakes testing (the best way to prepare for the SAT by the way) consists of frequent, short, low stress quizzes that help to decrease test anxiety due to their frequency and the fact that they DO NOT COUNT for much. They are LOW STAKES. Sure, your kids may fail a bunch of them, and then they start to figure out that the world isn’t ending, and they figure out how to best learn the material (not by cramming the night before) and after a bunch of failures they start to PASS the tests. Imagine that.
3. As a child gets older, he or she is willing to take intellectual risks because he or she knows that A) the world won’t end with failure and B) that failure leads to new ideas and eventual success. Once a young adult, he or she will learn to collaborate and look at – and deal with – problems in different ways.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Failure is good. Just ask Thomas Edison, or just about any theoretical physicist, or any of those folk who discovered a cure for one disease because the one they were working on didn’t cure the original disease.
And read one of Wendy Mogel’s books. Start with The Blessing of the Skinned Knee. It will go over great at cocktail parties when you are trying to explain to people why it is okay that your little Charlie was just cut from the travel soccer team (that’s fine, soccer is overrated).
Is it difficult for college admission officers to tell when a student has not written his own application essay?
No, it often isn’t difficult at all. Admission officers read thousands of college essays, year after year. It’s easy for them to tell the difference between a seventeen-year old voice and a forty-something one; a middle-aged dad with writing finesse sounds like a middle-aged dad with writing finesse. Natural phrasing and word choice are generation-specific and difficult to disguise. Even subtle differences will stand out to seasoned readers. And these differences are apparent even when they are only a few insertions here and there throughout an otherwise student-written piece. Suspicious readers, whether they are sure about subterfuge or not, will certainly be disposed to scrutinize the rest of the application more diligently or to add a comment to the student’s file.
In addition, remember that an application reader has a student’s grades from English classes in hand, as well as SAT or ACT scores; and/or writing samples from supplemental essays. There may also be a letter of recommendation from the student’s eleventh grade English teacher — a letter that will specifically address the student’s aptitudes and abilities. (Some teachers even provide a short sample of the student’s work.)
Furthermore, parents sometimes forget to conceal what they are doing, or simply don’t realize how obvious they are. For example, during their turn at impersonating Junior, we slips in for I, and me becomes us, as in: “We were so worried when I was in the emergency room; the doctor told us I was lucky we came in immediately.” There also tend to be notable references to what Mom or Dad did, thought or said — “Dad breathed a sigh of relief” or “My Mom was very anxious.” Spell check won’t catch those types of errors for you.
Besides being perceptible to others, when you take over you may as well be saying he can’t do it without your help. What’s more, a parent’s product stands a higher chance of being superficial, pedantic and boring. It may be grammatically correct, but a boring essay adds nothing to the application. It is, therefore, a wasted opportunity to enhance the student’s admission possibilities.
It’s also a wasted opportunity when students do not set aside some time before college digging deep in self-reflection. Taking this time to reflect helps students find structure in their life stories and meaning in the person they have become. The writing process can also help students articulate their interests and aspirations in this context of self-understanding — wonderful preparation for all those future internship and job interviews they’ll face. (Mom, Dad, you won’t be there for those!)
Working hard on and completing a thoughtful college essay can boost a student’s self-confidence and spark his excitement about starting college the next year. What more could parents want than for their college-bound teen to realize that he is his own best resource, ready to take on college and life as he transitions into adulthood? Do your seventeen-year old a favor and step aside… you may be surprised at what a genuine and heartfelt self-narrative junior will write.
In my nearly 25 years in the college admissions field, I have worked with many students and parents who were in a mild state of panic about the college process. They come to my office with lists of questions about standardized tests, college visits, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, the Common Application, high school classes to take, and more. Students feel like they need to start a new club or small business so they can convince colleges that they’re leaders. Parents worry that their children won’t get jobs after graduation if they don’t go to name-brand schools.
Unfortunately, this overwhelming anxiety can spoil a process that can be informative and fun. It can also create a hostile home among children and their parents. One of my roles as a college counselor is to provide students and their families with practical strategies for navigating the college admissions process. Equally important is my role in reducing the stress in the household surrounding the topic of college.
Here are some of my favorite tips for keeping the stress level down:
- I remind the student and parents that there are about 4,000 colleges in the country. A student who wants to go to college and is willing to put in the necessary work can absolutely find schools that would love to have him or her. My daughter Amanda, co-author of Love the Journey to College: Guidance from an Admissions Consultant and Her Daughter, who recently went through the college application process herself, wrote “getting into college does not have to worry you because if you apply to several schools—including schools below your academic range—you will get into college.”
- Designating one hour per week that the family can devote to college admissions talk can help. Sunday afternoons from 3:00PM to 4:00PM tend to work well. The rest of the week should be kept off-limits, meaning that parents are not to mention “college” at any other time, unless the conversation is initiated by the child. That way, the child doesn’t need to worry about being bombarded with questions, especially in moments when she or he is trying not to think about college.
- For rising high school seniors, I highlight the need for them to set aside time to get some rest over the summer. Junior year can be extremely challenging, with standardized tests, AP classes/ exams, and college visits, and students need time to recharge.
- While taking a break is important, too much rest and relaxation over the summer could set students up for an unnecessarily heavy workload during the school year, with regular school work, finalizing college lists, and completing college applications and essays. On the other hand, rising high school seniors who make a significant dent in his or her college applications and essays over the summer definitely lightens the load for senior year. There needs to be a balance between taking time to have fun and relax, and getting some college admissions work done to make senior year a bit easier.
- With respect to extracurricular activities, I always encourage students to remain authentic and not get caught up in what “looks good” for college. Some students think that particular activities are regarded more favorably by colleges than others, so they participate just to make their resumes look good. Or, they avoid participating if they think they won’t be a leader in the group. It is certainly nice if you can land a titled leadership position such as president or secretary when you are more senior in high school, but it is far more important to make a significant contribution to the club. Titles do not actually mean that much; it’s more than fine if you are a “quiet leader.” My suggestion is that you find a niche in a few clubs that you enjoy and make a real, visible difference.
- Students should be open to looking beyond rankings and the list of 30 colleges to which everyone they know applies. You can have an amazing college experience at a school you’ve never heard of, or at a school that doesn’t usually receive applications from your high school. Colleges try to create diversity by accepting students from all over the country and the world, so you only help yourself when you distinguish and differentiate yourself from students within your own high school.
I strongly encourage students to embrace the journey to college as a period of maturation and self-exploration, with an honest assessment of skills and interests, and to remain authentic throughout the process. Rather than being stressful, the journey to college can be manageable and even exciting.
Seniors are often so busy completing college applications, taking standardized tests, leading clubs, playing sports, and completing high school coursework that they forget to thank the people who have helped them get where they’re going.
A black ops mom (or dad) takes helicopter parenting to a whole new level, and this behavior will most certainly hurt the child over both the short term and long run. When a child of an overly-strategic helicopter parent who tends to favor clandestine actions to benefit his or her child gets to college he or she is going to have major adjustment issues.