College Admissions

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

SAT Changes Policy, Opening Rift With Colleges

December 30, 2008

This March, high school juniors taking the SAT will have the option of choosing which scores to send to colleges while hiding those they do not want admissions officials to see.

Students in White Plains take an SAT prep course. A new policy will let students choose which scores to release to colleges.

The new policy is called Score Choice, and the College Board hopes it will reduce student stress around the SAT and college admissions.

But when it comes to college admissions, few things are ever simple. Some highly selective colleges have already said that they will not go along with Score Choice, and the policy is stirring heated debate among high school counselors and college admissions officials.

Some argue that it is really a marketing tool, intended to encourage students to take the test more often. Others say that, contrary to the College Board’s goal, the policy will aggravate the testing frenzy and add yet another layer of stress and complexity to applying to college.

“In practice, it will add more anxiety, more confusion, more testing for those who can afford it and more coaching,” said Brad MacGowan, a college counselor at Newton North High School in suburban Boston and a longtime critic of the College Board and standardized testing.

Many students take the SAT more than once, and the College Board automatically sends colleges the scores of every SAT test a student takes.

Under Score Choice, students can choose their best overall SAT sitting to send to colleges, but they will not be able to mix and match scores from different sittings. (Each sitting includes tests in critical reading, mathematics and writing, with a top score of 800 in each area.)

There is no additional charge if a student selects Score Choice, which also applies to SAT subject tests, formerly called SAT II and given in areas like history, sciences and languages.

Score Choice is not a new concept. From 1993 to 2002, students were allowed to take as many SAT subject tests as they wanted and to report only their best scores to the colleges they applied to.

In ending that policy in 2002, the College Board said that some students who had stored their scores had forgotten to release them and missed admissions deadlines. It also said that ending Score Choice would be fairer to low-income and minority students, who did not have the resources to keep retaking the tests.

Now, the College Board sees things differently.

“It simply allows students to put their best foot forward,” said Laurence Bunin, a senior vice president with the College Board.

With Score Choice, Mr. Bunin said, students can “feel very comfortable going into the test center because, goodness forbid, if for whatever reason they don’t feel comfortable, it won’t be on their permanent record forever.”

William R. Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions at Harvard, shares that view.

“In some respect,” Mr. Fitzsimmons said, “Score Choice will help defuse some of the pressure and give students a sense that not everything is riding on the tests, which really is the case.”

But Jerome A. Lucido, the vice provost for enrollment policy and management at the University of Southern California, said, “Students will like it because they’ll have a sense of control, but my sense is that it’s not worth the trade-off in terms of complexity and more gamesmanship.”

A major concern has to do with how colleges will handle Score Choice.

Admissions officials at some highly selective colleges — the University of Southern California, Stanford, Claremont McKenna and the University of Pennsylvania, among others — have said that, Score Choice or not, they want all the scores — from the SAT and the ACT.

It is in the students’ best interest to send all scores, these officials say, because their practice is to combine the highest subscores from all of the score reports.

“Our plan is to first tell students to relax,” said Bruce Poch, vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona College. “The habit here is like many colleges, which is to see it all, but consider for admission purposes the highest individual score.”

Gary Meunier, a counselor at Weston High School, in Weston, Conn., said one reason he favored Score Choice was that while he believed that most schools did look at the highest subscores, he had also seen schools rule out students with any scores below 500.

“Some kids, their performance in the classroom far exceeds the way they perform on standardized tests,” Mr. Meunier said. With Score Choice, “they get a couple more shots at it,” he said. “For those kids, they take it with a little less anxiety. At one test, if they blow it, no one’s going to see it.”

Some critics of the new policy note that the SAT’s main rival, the ACT, which has been drawing increasing numbers of test takers, has long had a de facto Score Choice policy.

“Was this a student-centered decision?” said Richard H. Shaw, dean of admissions at Stanford, referring to the College Board’s reason for introducing Score Choice. “Or was it business-centered because they’re worried about losing market share?”

Mr. Shaw added that he was equally opposed to the ACT’s de facto Score Choice. “I don’t want to give them any credit whatsoever,” he said. “I think they started this.”

Score Choice was developed in response to student demand, Mr. Bunin said. “The students were clear,” he said. “They thought that having some control over their scores would reduce their stress.”

The College Board surveyed more than 3,000 high school students from a range of income groups and ethnicities, Mr. Bunin said. It also surveyed 700 counselors from a diverse group of high schools across the country, and 70 percent favored Score Choice, he said.

But other counselors, as well as admissions officials, have expressed concern that the policy will give affluent students who can afford to take the SAT many times an even greater advantage.

Among the questions being asked about how Score Choice will work is this one: What if a student opts for Score Choice and tries to apply it to a college that requires all the scores?

Mr. Poch of Pomona said: “My own view is that tests are a transcript. I don’t get to choose which grades appear on a transcript any more than I get to suppress a driving record from an insurance company.”

NY Times

Thursday, December 25, 2008

How Not to Get Into College: Submit a Robotic Application

Wall Street Journal
December 23, 2008
Swamped by a rise in early applications from the biggest class of high-school seniors ever, college admissions officials have some advice for the class of 2009: Be yourself.
Although this year's applicant pool is by many measures the most highly qualified yet, admissions deans at a dozen top-tier colleges and universities said in interviews last week that they're also seeing a disappointing trend: Too many students are submitting "professionalized" applications rendered all too slick by misguided attempts at perfection, parental meddling and what one admissions dean describes as the robotlike approach teens are taking in presenting themselves.
Among the symptoms: Too many formulaic, passionless personal essays. Too many voluminous résumés devoid of true commitment. And too many pointless emails and calls from overanxious students and parents -- a trend one dean labels "admissions stalking."
"We keep looking for authenticity and genuineness, for kids who are their true selves," says Jennifer Delahunty, dean of admissions at Ohio's Kenyon College. Instead, anxious students, and the adults who help them overpolish their applications, "leach all the personality out" of them, she says.
One factor, of course, is competition. Officials at more than half the highly competitive schools I contacted report sizable increases in early-decision applicants. In vying for admission to high-status schools, many students are forgetting what should be the main point of the process: finding a good fit.
Also, officials say, a growing emphasis in high school on test scores and grades has made learning seem like a race, and merit like something that can be quantified in data and lists -- thus the multipage résumés some students send to buttress their applications.
Instead, admissions officials offer applicants this advice.
Don't hide behind a polished veneer. Some applications are so "corporatized" by parents and other coaches, says Seth Allen, dean of admission at Iowa's Grinnell College, that the real applicant becomes almost invisible. This is the exact opposite of what most colleges want to see, Mr. Allen says. A telltale sign of parental meddling, says Kenyon's Ms. Delahunty, is the word "heretofore" or too many semicolons in an essay. Then, "you know the lawyer-parent factor may have been at work." Some parents even slip up and sign the applications themselves.
Pick essay topics that inspire you. While as many as one in five applicants this year are describing overseas service trips, which are certainly a worthy pursuit, too many of the resulting essays are merely shallow recitations of facts: "I went here, I did this, I made great friends, it was uncomfortable and oh, wow, I really know how less-fortunate people live now," says Grinnell's Mr. Allen. He wants deeper revelations, he says: "How did this really impact you? Give us insight into what you were feeling."
Kenyon's Ms. Delahunty says she'd rather read an essay about such everyday topics as the challenges of changing a tire in a Minnesota winter, or growing up as the only boy among eight children, if they revealed more about the writers.
Don't stalk the dean. Some applicants barrage admissions offices with numerous recommendation letters or emails with little value other than re-affirming interest. At Barnard College, one applicant sent eight thank-you notes to every person she'd met during a campus visit, from the receptionist on up, a practice Jennifer Fondiller, dean of admissions, calls "overkill." Such efforts have no bearing on applicants' fates.
Don't be afraid to take risks. Amid an overabundance of qualified candidates, colleges want applicants with traits that set them apart and promise to enrich the campus community. In a presentation recently to high-school students, says Jean Jordan, Emory University's dean of admission, this application question came up: "If you were a song, what would you sing?" The students, Ms. Jordan says, seemed baffled; one asked in bewilderment, "What should I sing?"
Ms. Jordan's firm reply: "Whoa. Be yourself."

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Private Colleges Worry About a Dip in Enrollment

Now comes the bad news: the number of regular applications is way down, about 30 percent fewer than at this time last year.
“To be quite honest, I don’t know how we’ll end up,” said Derek Gueldenzoph, dean of admissions at the college, in Northfield, Minn. “By this time last year, we had three-quarters of all our applications. The deadline’s Jan. 15. If what we’ve got now is three-quarters of what we’re going to get, we’re in big trouble. But if this turns out to be only half, we’ll be fine.”
Not all private colleges are reporting fewer applications this year. Even in the Midwest and Pennsylvania, where most colleges seem to have dwindling numbers, some are getting more applications than ever. Still, in a survey of 371 private institutions released last week by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, two-thirds said they were greatly concerned about preventing a decline in enrollment.
Getting exactly the right enrollment — always a tricky proposition — is especially crucial for small colleges with tuition-driven budgets. One case in point came last month, when Beloit College in Wisconsin announced it would eliminate about 40 positions because 36 fewer students than expected had enrolled. The college has about 1,300 students and gets three-quarters of its $55 million budget from tuition.
Admissions officers nationwide point to several possible reasons for the drop in applications. Some students have pared their college lists this year. Many more are looking at less-expensive state universities. Many institutions accepted more students under binding early-decision programs, and each such acceptance drains off an average of 8 to 10 regular-decision applications. And some experts suspect that students are delaying their college plans.
The deadline at most colleges is still a few weeks off, so a last-minute flood of applications could raise the numbers to last year’s level. But admissions officers say they are not counting on that.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and I don’t remember a year when applications started out behind and didn’t end up behind,” said Steve Thomas, director of admissions at Colby College in Waterville, Me., where early-decision applications were higher than usual but regular applications are running about 14 percent behind.
At Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where early-decision applications were up, regular applications are down about 15 percent, said Gail Sweezey, the director of admissions.
“One thing that’s happened this year is that there’s all this talk, and one-sided media stories, about how private colleges are unaffordable,” Ms. Sweezey said. “It’s become almost viral that there’s no loans, that schools are having problems. The truth is that a lot of private colleges have more financial aid available this year, but there’s lots of misinformation out there. And my guidance counselor friends tell me students may be applying to fewer places and turning to their state university, which will be at capacity.”
If some private colleges are grappling with the specter of too few applications, public universities and community colleges are having the opposite problem — more students at a time when their state financing is being slashed.
In California and Florida, some public institutions have been forced to cap enrollment. And even in states like Pennsylvania, where the number of high school graduates is declining, applications to public universities are growing.
“We have 47,971 applications as of now, compared to 45,760 at this time last year,” said Anne Rohrbach, executive director of undergraduate admissions at Pennsylvania State University. “We’ve been making offers since October, and we’ve already had 1,638 students say yes, compared to 1,096 at this time last year.”
Generally, Ivy League universities with generous aid packages to low- and middle-income families have as many applicants as ever — and even more applying for financial aid.
“We had 27,462 applications last year, and we’ve been running almost exactly on last year’s pace,” said William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions at Harvard College, which has eliminated early decision. “More students are applying for financial aid. It’s a significant increase, four full percentage points ahead of last year.”
Yale received 5,556 applications this year, 14 percent more than last year, for its nonbinding single-choice early action program, said Jeffrey Brenzel, the dean of admissions, who added that regular applications were running higher, too.
Dartmouth has more applications than ever, early and regular, as do Duke University, the University of Denver and the University of Rochester.
Jonathan Burdick, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Rochester, said the school’s reputation for generous merit aid helped draw applicants.
“This is a time when families may be looking at options that are less costly,” Mr. Burdick said. “There are a lot of families who may make $180,000 to $200,000 but can’t afford $50,000 a year and might apply to a Rochester, where merit aid this year can be as much as $14,000.”
Many selective private colleges say fewer applications are no problem.
“We’re down about 16 percent now, and I think we’ll be down 10 to 15 percent at the end, Jan. 1,” said Monica Inzer, the dean of admission and financial aid at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. “If our acceptance rate goes up a little, that’s O.K.”
Mark Hatch, vice president for enrollment management at Colorado College, said he expected to have about 5 percent fewer applicants this year and took a similar view.
“We admitted 26 percent last year, and if it’s 31 percent this year, we’ll make more people happy,” Mr. Hatch said. “I think the economic uncertainty has families, even families of means, telling their children to round out their college lists with state universities. This year, families want two safety nets, one for the first hurdle, admission, and one for affordability. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed a lot of parents this year listing their occupation as unemployed.”
At many colleges, financial aid requests are up significantly. At Connecticut College, for example, 42 percent of the accepted early-decision students applied for financial said, compared with 34 percent last year — and 36 percent qualified for aid, compared with 24 percent last year.
This has been a particularly difficult year for small private colleges that accept a majority of their applicants.
Stephen MacDonald, the president of Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., where applications are down about 15 percent, is taking steps to lure more students, including adding lacrosse for men and women and hiring a prominent coach, which he thinks will attract 20 to 25 students.
“We’ve also increased our scholarship award to children of alums, from $500, which is a nice gesture, to $2,500 a year, which is more than a gesture,” Mr. MacDonald said.
“We could still end up down 3 percent, which could sting,” he said. “This is a time when schools like ours, private liberal arts colleges that don’t have a big name, are in a potentially dangerous realm.”

NY Times
December 21, 2008