College Admissions

Reliable and Current College Admissions News, Advice and Tips from a Professional College Counselor

My Photo
Location: Los Angeles, CA, United States

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

College Seek Authenticity In Hopefuls

AP Education Writer
August 22, 2007

If there's a sign of the times in college admissions, it may be this: Steven Roy Goodman, an independent college counselor, tells clients to make a small mistake somewhere in their application - on purpose.
"Sometimes it's a typo," he says. "I don't want my students to sound like robots. It's pretty easy to fall into that trap of trying to do everything perfectly and there's no spark left."
What Goodman is going for is "authenticity" - an increasingly hot selling point in college admissions as a new year rolls around.
In an age when applicants all seem to have volunteered, played sports and traveled abroad, colleges are wary of slick packaging. They're drawn to high grades and test scores, of course, but also to humility and to students who really got something out of their experiences, not just those trying to impress colleges with their resume.
The trend seemingly should make life easier for students - by reducing the pressure to puff up their credentials. But that's not always the case.
For some students, the challenge of presenting themselves as full, flawed people cuts against everything else they've been told about applying to college - to show off as much as possible.
At the other extreme, when a college signals what it's looking for, students inevitably try to provide it. So you get some students trying to fake authenticity, to package themselves as unpackaged.
"There's a little bit of an arms race going on," says Goodman, who is based in Washington. "If I'm being more authentic than you are, you have to be more authentic next month to keep up with the Joneses."
Colleges say what they want is honest, reflective students. As Jess Lord, dean of admission and financial aid at Haverford College in Pennsylvania puts it, "everybody's imperfect."
"Since that's true for all (students), those that portray that aspect of themselves are that much more authentic."
How do colleges find authenticity? They look for evidence of interests and passions across the application - in essays, interviews, recommendations and extracurricular activities.
"What we see are the connections," said Christopher Gruber, dean of admission and financial aid at Davidson College in North Carolina. If a student claims working in student government has been a meaningful experience, it's a more credible claim if recommenders have picked on that as well.
"That, in my mind, gives authenticity to an application, when you're reading things more than once," Gruber said.
But in the age of the hyper-achieving student, authenticity doesn't always come easy. Some schools, such as MIT, now specifically ask students to write about disappointment or failure. Many can only come up with a predictable and transparent answer: perfectionism.
Will Dix, a counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory High School, who also spent eight years in the Amherst College admissions office, struggles to persuade students that essays about doubt and uncertainty can be at least as interesting to admissions officers as those with a conclusion that's sweeping but implausibly confident for a 17-year-old.
"No one expects you to solve the mystery of life," Dix says. "I sometimes get in trouble with parents for advising that. They'll say, '(colleges) will think he doesn't know anything.'"
Dix counters by paraphrasing Socrates via Donald Rumsfeld: "The first thing is to know what you don't know."
Susan Weingartner, another former admissions officer and now college counseling director at Chicago's Francis W. Parker School, surveys her juniors about shortcomings and weaknesses. The next year, those now-seniors often are unsure what to write about. She digs up their junior-year responses, where they often find their topic - like one student last year who ultimately wrote a moving essay about his experience being overweight.
Weingartner has noticed more students writing about being gay. Some pull it off, coming across as honest, humble and reflective about the challenges they've faced. But others raise alarm bells by appearing to be traumatized or just looking for sympathy.
The challenge for students is a tough one to get your mind around: If you're authentic, you feel pressure to rise above the fakers. But try too hard to do that, then you just appear to be, well, inauthentic.
Dix summarizes the logical muddle the student is in: "As soon as you ask someone to be authentic it's impossible to be authentic."
Goodman, the independent counselor who advises making a small mistake to look authentic, unapologetically tries to hit the right note of authenticity: be true enough to make the full application consistent and credible, but also give colleges what they want to hear. He compares it to a politician who has learned to give a stump speech that makes every audience feel like it's new.
And he defends the tactic with a point that several admissions deans frankly acknowledge: Colleges are guilty of playing games with authenticity, too.
"They soften their image with pictures of kids under trees, smiling in front of the library, engaging with a professor in a small group discussion," Goodman says. What's the difference between a college trying to look good to students and the reverse?
David Lesesne, dean of admission at Sewanee, a small Tennessee liberal arts college, admits Goodman has a point.
"Students perhaps have become less authentic to themselves, trying to be what colleges want," Lesesne said. But colleges have done the same. Schools "are looking to draw more applicants and students are looking to gain acceptance," he said. "As those numbers grow I think that has caused both sides of the equation to lose a little focus on what should be most important: the match."

Friday, August 17, 2007

College Ratings Race Roars On Despite Concerns

New York Times, August 17, 2007

Richard J. Cook, the president of Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, will not say precisely how he used to rate his college’s competitors when the annual U.S. News & World Report peer review questionnaire showed up in his mailbox. What he will say is, “I filled it out more honestly this year than I did in the past.”
“I checked ‘don’t know’ for every college except Allegheny,” Dr. Cook said, adding that he gave his own institution an outstanding rating.
U.S. News & World Report releases its annual rankings of America’s top colleges today, under attack as never before by college officials who accuse it of using dubious statistics to stoke the intense, even crazed, competition among colleges and universities for students and prestige.
Still there is little sign that the rankings race is diminishing. While more than 60 presidents of liberal arts colleges signed a letter over the last few months pledging to stop participating in the most heavily weighted component of the magazine’s rankings — the survey of colleges’ reputations — virtually none of the most select and highly ranked colleges signed on.
Indeed, the rankings are so influential, two decades after they were started, that one clause in the contract of Michael Crow, the president of
Arizona State University, promises a $10,000 bonus if he can raise its standing. Frustrated college officials and high school guidance counselors say the magazine is not only reporting on how colleges perform, but is also changing their behavior as they try to devise gambits to scurry into the top ranks.
Take admissions. A college’s acceptance rate, or the proportion of applicants it admits, counts towards its rank, and the more selective the college is, the better.
So some colleges try to increase the number of applicants they receive — and turn down — by waiving fees and dropping requirements. Some send out applications by e-mail, with most of the student’s personal information already filled in. Others send out persistent e-mail appeals to high school sophomores, with breathless subject lines like “Time is running out.”
“It’s pumping up the numbers, it’s making colleges look more selective, and it’s contributing to the frenzy,” said Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment at Dickinson College. “What if we become ridiculous and just go out to a shopping mall and hand out applications?”
Then there is that survey that asks college officials to rate other colleges and universities. The survey, which counts for 25 percent of a college’s overall ranking, is the most heavily weighted factor.
That has spurred colleges to send glossy promotional brochures and updates on new programs to high-ranking officials at other colleges around survey time in hopes of impressing them. Despite such efforts, college officials say they suspect that some in their ranks deliberately downgrade their competitors to try to drive down their showing.
“I see where the temptation comes,” Dr. Cook said. “So rather than be tempted to game the system, I think it’s better to drop out.”
The magazine’s editors say that the rankings provide a valuable service and that rather than blame the magazine when colleges manipulate their numbers, people in higher education ought to look in the mirror.
“We get blamed for a lot of things that are demonstrably not our responsibility,” Brian Kelly, the editor of U.S. News, said in a interview. “I find it a little shocking, given the problems in the higher education world these days, that this is the thing, U.S. News, that these presidents choose to focus on.”
Editors at U.S. News acknowledge anecdotal evidence that some colleges try to affect the rankings, but they insist it is not widespread. The editors say they have added myriad safeguards over the years from specific definitions of what counts as an application to adding questions that can sniff out fudging.
Some colleges used to drop athletes’ SAT scores from their computation of incoming students’ scores in order to increase their averages and make their institutions look more selective, Mr. Kelly said.
In response, U.S. News helped to create common definitions with organizations like the
College Board so that data reporting would be standardized and harder to fudge.
Still, critics say that the magazine, which does not verify information submitted by the colleges, bears some responsibility for the litany of tactics that colleges employ.
James M. Sumner, dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College, said a counterpart from a well-regarded institution told him that when computing average SAT scores he excluded the SAT’s of students accepted as “development cases,” whose grades and test scores are often below average but whose families are likely to make major donations. Mr. Sumner declined to identify the university.
U.S. News reports the proportion of a university’s alumni who contribute money each year, as a way of measuring consumer satisfaction. Michael Beseda, vice president for enrollment at St. Mary’s College of California, said he knew someone whose college sent him a $5 bill, asking him simply to send it back so it would count as a donation. Several colleges have admitted taking a single donation and spreading it over two, three or five years, to raise their annual numbers.
Many of the tactics used by colleges involve admissions because they have more control over it than they do over other factors in the rankings, like endowments or reputation.
One gambit involves the so-called “snap-app” or “fast-app,” an application sent by e-mail to high school seniors in which their personal information is already filled in by the college. The University of Portland in Oregon, Ursinus College in Pennsylvania and the
University of Vermont are among those to use this kind of application.
Washington & Jefferson College, a liberal arts college outside Pittsburgh, began five years ago to seek more applicants by dropping fees and some requirements, and searching for high school students relentlessly through an e-mail effort. The college switched to a two-part application; the first part can take as little as five minutes to fill out, and in some cases is counted as a completed application.
About 1,100 students applied in 2002 to Washington & Jefferson. This year, nearly 7,400 did. The acceptance rate plummeted, almost in half.
College officials acknowledge that they wanted to go up in the rankings but also say that increasing the pool of applicants was part of an overall strategy, along with building new dormitories and a fitness center and adding academic programs, to help Washington & Jefferson enroll better and more diverse students and to grow to 1,550 students from 1,100.
“It’s worked,” said Alton E. Newell, the vice president for enrollment. “My institution is a better place, a healthier place, a more vibrant place.”
But to many college and university officials, Washington & Jefferson and other colleges that have engineered huge increases in applicant pools in recent years, are recruiting vast numbers of students primarily to reject them.
The gambits enable an institution to appear more selective, but it is unclear that they can significantly affect a ranking. The U.S. News editors argue that a college’s acceptance rate counts for only 1.5 percent of the overall evaluation. Washington & Jefferson, for instance, has generally stayed in the same ranking range in the 90s and low 100s among liberal arts colleges. Last year it shared 104th place on the list with several other campuses.
Then again, does all this really measure an education? Mr. Beseda of St. Mary’s said, “I think what the rankings do is to poison the sense of what a genuine education is. False gods get worshiped.”