Friday, January 30, 2009

I have had a couple of conversations in the past month with parents about the role of outside "agents" (or parents) helping students with their college essays or recommendations.. Those of us in the profession have been aware of this phenomenon for a good number of years, but its presence has become significantly visible in the media in recent years as "essay writing mills" have appeared on the web and some college "consultants" tout their ability to craft essays for students that will "guarantee" admission to the college of choice, or as parents jockey to gain admission for their children using an outside "agent" to help secure admission.

It is astounding to me in this period of irresponsible and unethical business and political practices, that parents (and "providers") continue to openly encourage the need for and use of services or practices that take the completion of the college application away from a student. To me as an educator, it is the height of misplaced values and effectively demeans individual self-esteem. A student who must have someone else write (or heavily edit) his or her college application and essay is sent the message, either overtly or subtly, that he or she is incapable of successfully performing this function. After 12 or more years of supposedly good education, this student must have an "expert" or use some artificial means to get him or her into college. What an insult to the student.

Secondly, if this student truly is incapable of writing a good college essay or has not demonstrated strong abilities to those at the school or within the community, what business does he or she have in trying to attend and be successful in an institution where he or she is unable to meet the expectations. Imagine an athlete having a surrogate tryout for him in order to get onto a team; then only to get blown away by the other athletes. Where is the value of that, much less the ethics?

Parents MUST prepare students for the responsibilities of the future, but parents cannot live their child's life for them. Rejection and failure are part of life. We as parents will not always be there for these young "people"; they must learn their own abilities and how to improve them and how to use them. Do parents intend to "wipe the noses" of their children for the rest of their lives?

The college application process is a wonderful learning experience. Contrary to public myth, where one attends college is not a life or death option. A good, worthy student will have many good choices. Students should know that life is not where one goes to college, but what one does with the life and opportunity that is presented. A great learning ground for this is the college application -- parents should allow their son or daughter be in charge and should not try to manipulate the application process from behind the scenes. As parents and educators our goal is to empower our students and handling the process for them does the opposite.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Summer Options

Spring is not yet here, but for many students and parents it is time to think about what to do during the summer – Job? Camp? Summer school? Summer Program? Volunteer work? Swim team? Hang out?

Some look at the summer as the time to get a job and make money to use for discretionary spending, or for saving for college. Others see the summer as a chance to do something to impress colleges for admission. And some see the summer as a complete break form the grind that is school.

Because students have essentially been told by the school, teachers, parents, coaches, etc. what to study and what to do during the school year, the summer is the time for the students to be in control and learn and do the things they feel will serve them best, not just temporarily or for the short term, but over a lifetime. The summer is the time to learn or experience whatever a student wants.

This asks that students be mature and recognize the importance of preparing for their lives ahead. That expectation should be part of the discussion around options. Developing a new skill, learning something new of interest, gaining experience and enlightenment will all enhance one’s preparation for and involvement in his or her life in the future. The time to prepare for that future as an adult is adolescence – that is the time between childhood and adulthood. One doesn’t wait to begin in college; the final stpes are being taken there.

It doesn’t have to be a fancy trip or summer language immersion program; a simple job in a related field of interest can help more a student forward. Volunteering and shadowing are excellent ways to gain knowledge and experience as well as insights into one’s abilities and interests. Students who already have an interest and/or talent in an area can teach or assist with programs for children. There are many standard and creative options.

What happens is that when a student pursues something because of a personal interest, that effort will be more rewarding personally and the outcome will be better than if it is something done for extrinsic reasons (i.e. trying to impress a college admission office). In weighing options, students should consider which activity or experience will have the greatest lasting effect. As a simple example, a job whose only purpose is to earn money for casual spending money will leave the student with very little in the future – the money will be spent on food, movies, and other transient experiences, and the job experience will not have added anything to the student’s future abilities or insights. Learning and/or education (and these are not synonymous) is permanent and continues to add value to one’s life.

If one pursues their summer opportunities in this fashion, he or she is making the best choice for enhancing the college application.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Best Values in College not Valuable

There is a new college “ranking” that is getting attention – the Kiplinger’s “Best Values”. As with all the lists and rankings, they are designed to sell magazines and they don’t help give students and parents get the proper focus. On the surface this list appears to be a valuable resource for students and parents in this time of economic downturn. The problem is that the input variables do not reflect the reality of the college selection process or of college quality.

One example of poor research and statistics is the use of SAT/ACT scores in rating colleges. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) just released a year and a half-long study -- The Use of Standardized tests in Undergraduate Admissions – stating that the use of test scores to evaluate institutional quality is an improper and misuse of the tests, and the Commission called upon media and other organizations to cease this practice. Also, the use of “admission rate” is not a reflection of quality; it reflects too many factors for it to be of great value in determining “value”. Finally, the calculations take into account scholarships as a measure of value, and those can be skewed by many factors that make them out of reach for most students – athletics, arts, etc. – and thus are not good measures of college value.

Unfortunately, Kiplinger does not post anywhere the weighting or formula they use, only the criteria. Much of the criteria come from ratings taken by The Princeton Review, which is an excellent test prep company; but their method of gathering “quality” data is not truly scientific.

What does this mean for students and parents? It means that the college selection process is not one that can be made simply by looking at some list. It requires students to know themselves as learners and to have a good sense of why they are going to college – and to know each college well enough to recognize the different opportunities that college offers. A simple “to gain maturity” is much too nebulous a purpose to drive a student forward towards a wise college choice. As an example, all NFL teams begin with the plan “to win the Super Bowl”, but none of them begins without specific objectives each practice and each week. Students need to outline not only their goals but also the steps they must take in order to reach those goals –week by week, year by year.