Gradefund’s Blog

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Rewards for Students Under a Microscope

Posted by gradefund on March 3, 2009

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/health/03rewa.html?_r=1&8dpc

March 3, 2009
Rewards for Students Under a Microscope
By LISA GUERNSEY

For decades, psychologists have warned against giving children prizes or money for their performance in school. “Extrinsic” rewards, they say — a stuffed animal for a 4-year-old who learns her alphabet, cash for a good report card in middle or high school — can undermine the joy of learning for its own sake and can even lead to cheating.

But many economists and businesspeople disagree, and their views often prevail in the educational marketplace. Reward programs that pay students are under way in many cities. In some places, students can bring home hundreds of dollars for, say, taking an Advanced Placement course and scoring well on the exam.

Whether such efforts work or backfire “continues to be a raging debate,” said Barbara A. Marinak, an assistant professor of education at Penn State, who opposes using prizes as incentives. Among parents, the issue often stirs intense discussion. And in public education, a new focus on school reform has led researchers on both sides of the debate to intensify efforts to gather data that may provide insights on when and if rewards work.

“We have to get beyond our biases,” said Roland Fryer, an economist at Harvard University who is designing and testing several reward programs. “Fortunately, the scientific method allows us to get to most of those biases and let the data do the talking.”

What is clear is that reward programs are proliferating, especially in high-poverty areas. In New York City and Dallas, high school students are paid for doing well on Advanced Placement tests. In New York, the payouts come from an education reform group called Rewarding Achievement (Reach for short), financed by the Pershing Square Foundation, a charity founded by the hedge fund manager Bill Ackman. The Dallas program is run by Advanced Placement Strategies, a Texas nonprofit group whose chairman is the philanthropist Peter O’Donnell.

Another experiment was started last fall in 14 public schools in Washington that are distributing checks for good grades, attendance and behavior. That program, Capital Gains, is being financed by a partnership with SunTrust Bank, Borders and Ed Labs at Harvard, which is run by Dr. Fryer. Another program by Ed Labs is getting started in Chicago.

Other systems are about stuff more than money, and most are not evaluated scientifically. At 80 tutoring centers in eight states run by Score! Educational Centers, a national for-profit company run by Kaplan Inc., students are encouraged to rack up points for good work and redeem them for prizes like jump-ropes.

An increasing number of online educational games entice children to keep playing by giving them online currency to buy, say, virtual pets. And around the country, elementary school children get tokens to redeem at gift shops in schools when they behave well.

In the cash programs being studied, economists compare the academic performance of groups of students who are paid and students who are not. Results from the first year of the A.P. program in New York showed that test scores were flat but that more students were taking the tests, said Edward Rodriguez, the program’s executive director.

In Dallas, where teachers are also paid for students’ high A.P. scores, students who are rewarded score higher on the SAT and enroll in college at a higher rate than those who are not, according to Kirabo Jackson, an assistant professor of economics at Cornell who has written about the program for the journal Education Next.

Still, many psychologists warn that early data can be deceiving. Research suggests that rewards may work in the short term but have damaging effects in the long term.

One of the first such studies was published in 1971 by Edward L. Deci, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, who reported that once the incentives stopped coming, students showed less interest in the task at hand than those who received no reward.

This kind of psychological research was popularized by the writer Alfie Kohn, whose 1993 book “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes” is still often cited by educators and parents. Mr. Kohn says he sees “social amnesia” in the renewed interest in incentive programs.

“If we’re using gimmicks like rewards to try to improve achievement without regard to how they affect kids’ desire to learn,” he said, “we kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Dr. Marinak, of Penn State, and Linda B. Gambrell, a professor of education at Clemson University, published a study last year in the journal Literacy Research and Instruction showing that rewarding third graders with so-called tokens, like toys and candy, diminished the time they spent reading.

“A number of the kids who received tokens didn’t even return to reading at all,” Dr. Marinak said.

Why does motivation seem to fall away? Some researchers theorize that even at an early age, children can sense that someone is trying to control their behavior. Their reaction is to resist. “One of the central questions is to consider how children think about this,” said Mark R. Lepper, a psychologist at Stanford whose 1973 study of 50 preschool-age children came to a conclusion similar to Dr. Deci’s. “Are they saying, ‘Oh, I see, they are just bribing me’?”

More than 100 academic studies have explored how and when rewards work on people of all ages, and researchers have offered competing analyses of what the studies, taken together, really mean.

Judith Cameron, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Alberta, found positive traits in some types of reward systems. But in keeping with the work of other psychologists, her studies show that some students, once reward systems are over, will choose not to do the activity if the system provides subpar performers with a smaller prize than the reward for achievers.

Many cash-based programs being tested today, however, are designed to do just that. Dr. Deci asks educators to consider the effect of monetary rewards on students with learning disabilities. When they go home with a smaller payout while seeing other students receive checks for $500, Dr. Deci said, they may feel unfairly punished and even less excited to go to school.

“There are suggestions of students making in the thousands of dollars,” he said. “The stress of that, for kids from homes with no money, I frankly think it’s unconscionable.”

Economists, on the other hand, argue that with students who are failing, everything should be tried, including rewards. While students may be simply attracted by financial incentives at first, couldn’t that evolve into a love of learning?

“They may work a little harder and may find that they aren’t so bad at it,” said Dr. Jackson, of Cornell. “And they may learn study methods that last over time.”

In examining rewards, the trick is untangling the impact of the monetary prizes from the impact of other factors, like the strength of teaching or the growing recognition among educators of the importance of A.P. tests. Dr. Jackson said his latest analyses, not yet published, would seek to answer the questions.

He also pointed out that with children in elementary school, who typically show more motivation to learn than teenagers do, the outcomes may be different.

Questions about how rewards are administered, to whom and at what age are likely to drive future research. Can incentives — praise, grades, pizza parties, cash — be added up to show that the more, the better? Or will some of them detract from the whole?

Dr. Deci says school systems are trying to lump incentives together as if they had a simple additive effect. He emphasizes that there is a difference between being motivated by something tangible and being motivated by something that is felt or sensed. “We’ve taken motivation and put it in categories,” Dr. Deci said of his fellow psychologists. “Economics is 40 years behind with respect to that.”

Some researchers suggest tweaking reward systems to cause less harm. Dr. Lepper says that the more arbitrary the reward — like giving bubble gum for passing a test — the more likely it is to backfire. Dr. Gambrell, of Clemson, posits a “proximity hypothesis,” holding that rewards related to the activity — like getting to read more books if one book is read successfully — are less harmful. And Dr. Deci and Richard M. Ryan report that praise — which some consider a verbal reward — does not have a negative effect.

In fact, praise itself has categories. Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, has found problems with praise that labels a child as having a particular quality (“You’re so smart”), while praise for actions (“You’re working hard”) is more motivating.

Psychologists have also found that it helps to isolate differences in how children perceive tasks. Are they highly interested in what they are doing? Or does it feel like drudgery? “The same reward system might have a different effect on those two types of students,” Dr. Lepper said. The higher the interest, he said, the more harmful the reward.

Meanwhile, Dr. Fryer of Ed Labs urges patience in awaiting the economists’ take on reward systems. He wants to look at what happens over many years by tracking subjects after incentives end and trying to discern whether the incentives have an impact on high school graduation rates.

With the money being used to pay for the incentive programs and research, “every dollar has value,” he said. “We either get social science or social change, and we need both.”

Advertisements

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

SoCal law school tempts students with free tuition

Posted by gradefund on December 26, 2008

SoCal law school tempts students with free tuition

By Linda Deutsch, Associated Press

http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-12-26-law-school_N.htm

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the new law school at the University of California-Irvine, poses in his temporary office on the campus in Irvine, Calif., Dec. 16. The nationally renowned constitutional legal scholar, who survived a very public political drama involving his hiring, firing and rehiring, heads the first new law school in California in 40 years.
By Reed Saxon, AP
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the new law school at the University of California-Irvine, poses in his temporary office on the campus in Irvine, Calif., Dec. 16. The nationally renowned constitutional legal scholar, who survived a very public political drama involving his hiring, firing and rehiring, heads the first new law school in California in 40 years.

IRVINE, Calif. — A new law school opening next fall in Southern California is offering a big incentive to top students who might be thinking twice about the cost of a legal education during the recession: free tuition for three years.

The financial carrot is part of an ambitious strategy by Erwin Chemerinsky, a renowned constitutional law scholar and dean of the new school at the University of California, Irvine, to attract Ivy League-caliber students to the first public university law school in the state in 40 years.

Scholarship winners will be chosen for their potential to emerge three years later as legal stars on the ascendance. Only the best and brightest need apply, but the school hopes to offer full scholarships to all 60 members of its inaugural class in 2009. Subsequent classes will be on a normal tuition basis.

Chemerinsky is convinced the prospect of free education, combined with a public-interest curriculum and the University of California moniker, will quickly fill his first class and eventually land Irvine among the nation’s best law schools.

“Our goal is to be a top 20 law school from the first time we are ranked,” he said.

Such a rapid rise to prominence would be unprecedented, but not impossible, said Richard Morgan, the founding dean of Boyd Law School at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in 1998, when that state had no law school.

“It’s like trying to fly the plane while you’re still building it,” he said.

Morgan warned that starting a new law school is daunting, and that the competition for top-notch students is fierce.

There are 200 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association, including two new schools in North Carolina. Several others are in the planning stages in New York state, and dozens of unaccredited schools operate across the country.

At last count, 141,719 students were enrolled in ABA-accredited schools.

“During an economic downturn there is historically an increase in law school applications,” Chemerinsky said, explaining it’s an attractive option for undergrads with poor job prospects.

Luring top students hasn’t been the only challenge for Chemerinsky, an unapologetic liberal.

A year ago, he was a professor at Duke University when he was tapped to be dean of the new school in the heart of conservative Orange County. He was soon fired amid concerns about his liberal politics, as evidenced on numerous occasions during his 21 years as a professor at the University of Southern California.

He was rehired in the span of a weekend after campus protests and editorials cited his treatment while making the case for academic freedom.

Chemerinsky insists the law school will have no ideological orientation.

In a signal that political hatchets have been buried, Chemerinsky and UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake, who hired, fired and rehired him, will jointly teach a course in civil rights law when the school opens.

With the dustup settled, Chemerinsky has plunged ahead, hiring 19 law professors and administrators, including some who are abandoning jobs at prestigious universities. The school hopes to eventually enroll 600 students and employ 40 to 50 professors.

Rachel Moran, president-elect of the Association of American Law Schools, is leaving her longtime post at the University of California, Berkeley’s revered Boalt Hall to teach at Irvine. She likens it to a “Star Trek” adventure.

“You’re going where nobody’s gone before,” she said. “I feel that it’s going to be a remarkable ride.”

A law school has been part of the UC Irvine’s long-term plan since the university opened in 1965, according to the school’s website. Its cost was incorporated into the campus growth plan, and Chemerinsky says no additional state funds will be needed to cover its estimated first year costs of $25 million.

Some money has been saved by housing the school in existing campus buildings.

It’s also the beneficiary of a $20 million start-up grant from Donald Bren, chairman of the giant Irvine Co. development firm, and a $1 million grant from the Joan Irvine Smith and Athalie R. Clarke Foundation that will pay for the core collection at the law library.

Other Orange County businesses and law firms are pledging sizable donations to bolster an ambitious $100 million fundraising effort during the next 10 years.

Chemerinsky said he has made substantial progress toward raising the $6 million needed to fund full scholarships for his inaugural class. He’s promising students a unique educational program with hands-on experience in legal clinics and eventual job interviews with more than 70 law firms, public interest law organizations and government offices.

Still, in a society seemingly overloaded with lawyers, the question arises: Do we need another law school to churn out more lawyers?

“There isn’t a need for another law school like all the rest,” Chemerinsky answers. “This is our chance to create the ideal law school for the 21st century.”

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Q. and A.: College Admissions

Posted by gradefund on December 26, 2008

Q. and A.: College Admissions

http://questions.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/17/qa-college-admissions/

Original post: For high school seniors scrambling to complete essays, collect recommendation letters and construct well-rounded packages, college application deadlines are looming, in a seemingly inscrutable admissions process.

To get an inside perspective, we solicited advice from some gatekeepers. This week, a panel of admissions deans from Yale University, Pomona College, Lawrence University and the University of Texas at Austin will answer selected reader questions.

But first they answered a set of questions from Times editors, discussing common misperceptions, standardized tests, financial aid, essay writing, fairness and what not to do when trying to make a good impression.

 

The Panelists:

Jeff Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., which in 2007 had 5,275 undergraduates and 6,083 graduate and professional students.

Bruce Poch, Vice President and Dean of Admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., which has an enrollment of 1,520 students.

Steven Syverson, Vice President for Enrollment and the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., which has 1,429 full-time undergraduates.

Bruce Walker, Vice Provost and Director of Admissions at the University of Texas at Austin, a public university with 11,000 graduate and 39,000 undergraduate students.

Questions from readers (updated on Dec. 19 at 6:17 p.m.):

Question

Would you be willing to comment on homeschooled students and the college admissions process? We have four children we are homeschooling and we hope to continue that up until they go off to college.
—Elizabeth

Question

Do you have a bias against homeschooled students? They don’t always have the classes available to them, such as AP, honors, labs, etc. If you don’t have a bias, what do you look for in a homeschooled student? The transcript may include nonstandard courses. How do we let a school know, other than with standardized test scores, how they might be a good fit for that school?
— Leslie Howard

Answer

Mr. Walker of Texas: Homeschooling is a more recognizable educational enterprise than it once was. This has made directors of admission more comfortable with their ability to properly evaluate a student’s readiness for the rigors of a challenging college curriculum and a student’s social adaptation skills. We recognize that there are many ways to get a rigorous education, and AP and honors classes are just two of the most popular examples.

We probably provide better service and a more complete and personal evaluation of our homeschooled children than we do to our more traditional applicants.

While homeschooled children present slightly different application materials, the differences are shrinking. We are seeing parents become more entrepreneurial in finding good educational experiences for their children, and more parents are pooling resources to provide the more specialized subjects in the sciences. The Web has allowed for a much broader and more organized enterprise than was ever possible. Even the term “homeschooled” has become a less accurate description of where learning takes place. The term is more descriptive of where the administrative staff resides and where the student’s “home room” might be.

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: We welcome homeschooled students. Just as with high schools, there is great variation in the strength of the preparation we see among homeschoolers. And in many instances, because they are not presenting a traditional set of credentials, it is important for homeschoolers to be particularly thoughtful about what they will include in their application. Some will submit a number of SAT subject tests taken over the course of several years as a way to document their mastery of these areas. Others will prepare for AP exams as another way to document, with a traditional metric, the rigor of their work. Many will submit one or more substantial works they have done as part of their courses.

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: I do have skepticism about some versions of home schooling. We will seek concrete evidence of preparation which may, for better or worse, fall both to a wider range of standardized testing but also to evidence of collaborative work with other students both academically and socially. The home schooled student does carry an additional burden of proof. How to address it?

Good and deep articulation of the courses of study followed. Representation of knowledge acquired and intellectual skills developed. Interview if possible. Admissions officers may rely more heavily upon standardized testing than we would like because the transcript of a home schooled student will carry the imprint of a parent and the references if written by a tutor or parent cannot address questions we would have regarding the engagement of a student with a teacher and peers in a classroom or collaborative learning environments.

Anticipate what we would like to see. Develop a full curriculum and make sure math and laboratory sciences are part of the experience. Even where general admission requirements may ask only for optional presentation of tests or where no SAT subject tests are required, I suggest that the student present those familiar representations of their work and achievement. If the standard expectation of the college is for two SAT subject tests, send more. Send four or five in different academic areas to fully represent a range of academic exposures.

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We see only a few homeschooled applicants, and we do occasionally admit a homeschooled student. Evaluation is usually difficult, however. It helps if the applicant has taken some college level courses, and we can get evaluations from those teachers. We are not keen on homeschooled students where the only evaluations come from parents and the only other information available consists of test scores.

Question

How well do the criteria used in the admissions process predict future college success? Do colleges track their students’ four-year GPAs and such and look for correlations with admissions data? If so, what kinds of trends do you see?
—Jen

Question

What procedures do you have in place to measure the fairness of your process? What kind of follow-up do you do on your decisions? In what circumstances would you consider one of your decisions to be a failure?
—Margaret Heisel

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: Most colleges periodically conduct research to correlate the data they collect during the admissions process with the outcomes experienced by their students. The two “outcomes” typically assessed are GPAs at the college and graduation rates. Not surprisingly, in the majority of studies, high school grades have the strongest correlation with college grades. The SAT and ACT have the next strongest correlation, but this too is not surprising because they have a strong correlation with high school grades.

I believe that defining “success in college” as the college GPA is too limited a definition, as there are many students who have marginal college GPAs but have had very successful college experiences in terms of their personal growth and the things they go on to accomplish after college. Assessing those other types of success are much more difficult than just tracking GPAs and graduation rates, so studies traditionally focus on grades as the measure of success. Most of us can agree, though, that a student who flunks out of college did not have a successful experience, so we conduct studies to try to identify the characteristics of students who have been unsuccessful.

Our application review process is designed to ensure that we give every applicant a thoughtful review and the opportunity to “rise to the surface” of the applicant pool. Some candidates clearly demonstrate are insufficiently prepared academically to be successful in our program, so the rest of their application may receive a less thorough review. If a student fails here academically, due to lack of preparation or ability, we would question whether or not we made the best decision.

Answer

Mr. Walker of Texas: We attempt to validate the objective factors of our admission process on a regular basis. We test for how accurate they are in predicting freshman year GPA. When attempting to predict longer range outcomes such as graduation or life success there are simply too many variables over which we have no control. There is a great deal that can happen in a student’s life over four years that has an effect on their GPA and graduation patterns but nothing to do with their intelligence. Even predicting one-year performance has the problem of variations in grading practices, disciplines pursued, class schedule, teaching styles, etc., making it difficult to get high correlations between test scores and freshman year GPA.

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We draw our students from the very most competitive fraction of high school graduates. From a statistician’s point of view, there’s not much variance in that group – virtually all the students we enroll are extremely talented and accomplished with respect to what can actually be measured in the admissions process. Not surprisingly, they tend as a group to be very successful in school and career pursuits, both in the short and long runs. After they come to Yale, what differentiate them are their individual choices and decisions, not the small differences in their admissions credentials.

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: At Pomona, training includes norming exercises where the entire staff will review the same set of applications to share multiple perspectives with our colleagues. The intended benefit is to expose our individual analyses to our colleagues and to consider and represent institutional interests, not personal biases.

There are other checks and balances, too. If someone on the admission staff has an external relationship with a candidate or the candidate’s family, they are required to remove themselves from any discussion about the applicant and to keep out of the admission decision. That same restriction applies to faculty members who sit on the admissions committee.

In the end, we face the judgment of faculty and deans who will share their impressions of their students with our staff. Students will also let us know what they think about their peers. We are ultimately responsible to the community as a whole for choosing well and if we get it wrong, we will hear about it!

Question

How do the colleges weigh the writing portion of the SAT versus the reading and math sections? In other words, are students evaluated on a “2400” scale or the more traditional “1600” measure?
— Barry Schkolnick

Question

Why don’t all schools take the writing portion of the SATs into consideration? I understand that it is important to get an idea of an applicant’s passion through their application essay but there is always a good chance that the essay is not a true indication of an applicant’s writing abilities since it could have been coached or polished by a parent, tutor, etc.
— Susan

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: Every college has its own system of review and weights different portions of the application differently. Despite the fact that an application essay may not be the candidate’s own work, many colleges also feel that the writing portions of the SAT and ACT are not necessarily indicative of the type of writing that is expected in college.

The admission process is imprecise and subjective. Applicants and their families often seek specific, concrete answers about the process in an effort to assess their chances for admission, and many are suspicious that somehow the process will not treat them “fairly” (which translates to: they won’t gain admission to the college they most want to attend, despite being a wonderful person who has done well in high school and will probably be very successful after college). College admissions officials are, for the most part, thoughtful, caring individuals. They take their jobs seriously. They read applications carefully. Informed by their institutional priorities at that particular moment in time, they weigh all of the information available to them about students in an effort to make the best possible matches between students and institution. At the most selective institutions, there are far more wonderful applicants than can be admitted. The fact that lots of good students are not admitted does not mean there is anything unfair about the process, even though there is not some magic, objective recipe that will guarantee admission.

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: My impression is that the SAT writing test is more and more frequently working into the overall evaluations but that institutional differences certainly come into play.

I confess I am still adapting to the new vocabulary of a 2400 point scale. When I first had students saying, “I got 2230,” I had to quickly run calculations in my head. I knew what 2400 meant. But the reality is that admissions officers do NOT yet seem to talk the 2400s.

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We have been getting more comfortable incorporating the SAT writing section into our evaluations, although again, it’s good to remember that at most selective colleges, high test scores characterize most of the applicants and most admissions decisions are therefore based on other criteria.

Question

Are you willing to publish some aggregate statistics on your admits? For example, would you publish average and standard deviation of high school class rank and SAT scores, broken down by public school versus private school, and whether the student was a legacy or a recruited athlete?
—cah

Question

Thank you for your explanations of how SATs and ACTs are used in the admissions process. When I researched colleges, I also wanted to use standardized tests as one factor in my evaluation. I’ve searched in vain for average scores on the MCAT, GMAT, GRE and LSAT exams taken by a school’s graduates. Why aren’t these scores available?
— John Martens

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: More statistics are publicly available than you might think, but myths persist despite whatever statistics get published. For instance, a number of readers seem to be under the illusion that Yale, and some its peer institutions such as Harvard and Princeton, cater exclusively to a powerful elite, where less qualified legacy applicants (children of alumni) dominate the admissions process. The truth is that in this year’s entering class at Yale, only 13% of the students were legacies, consistent with classes admitted over the last two decades. Moreover, enrolled legacies on average have test scores and grades higher, not lower, than the average for the class as a whole, and they also outperform their predicted college grades.

Unfortunately, cultural and media obsession with myths about a tiny handful of colleges obscures the real problems in higher education more generally. Among the poor, there is widespread lack of access to adequate K-12 preparation for college and to effective means for financing a college education. Among the affluent, artificial college ranking systems published by profit-driven commercial publications produce a status mentality that disguises the basic good news about our country’s higher education system. Relative to the rest of the world, we are absolutely loaded with high-quality colleges and universities looking for good students, and virtually everything important about student success depends on how a student uses the resources at a strong college, not which one in particular he or she happens to attend.

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: Aggregate statistics are quite widely available though the Common Data set which is used for many college guides. Our aggregate representations of recent classes are on our Web site and I think you will find most colleges make that information freely available.

We haven’t cut all these figures up into all the subsets you have asked in large part because it reflects no statistically significant differences. At some point the numbers in those subsets can become small since our entering class is fewer than 400. (For example, male students from private schools in Montana versus women from Illinois or California or New York City public schools…). But I do take your point that this could be reassuring and provide further transparency.

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: While we would be willing to research and provide such statistics, at colleges as small at Lawrence, some of the numbers you seek would not provide meaningful information. You also need to understand that many schools do not provide class rank, and the differences between high schools are as great among publics and privates as between the two groups. Groups like recruited athletes and children of alumni run the gamut from the top to the bottom of the class statistically, so there too, such statistics might not yield much helpful information.

I’m not sure how many colleges even systematically track those graduate and professional school test results for their graduates. And, again, at small schools like Lawrence, the small numbers in each of the categories might limit the value of the compilations.

Question

I’m curious as to how admissions criteria are altered or shifted in importance for a transfer applicant compared with a freshman applicant.
—Colin J.

Question

How are transfer applicants from community colleges viewed in the admissions process? What advice would you offer these applicants?
— Maureen

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: There are huge variations in transfer student possibilities from institution to institution. Some have lots of room and some little or none. USC enrolls more than 1000 transfer students each year. Pomona has room for 10 to 15. Obviously different factors affect both of these patterns and common answers will be hard to find.

Transferring to Pomona is tough. There are proportionally many fewer spaces than there are for first year students in huge part because of the high graduation rate of our incoming first years. Space doesn’t open up. We look at the high school record, especially for those seeking to transfer as sophomores. We look closely at the college record and the extent to which the student has pursued a general education program which would leave them time to dedicate the time they and we would wish to their electives and their major when they enroll at Pomona. We will explore the reasons for transfer and to understand as best we may about why Pomona and how the student sees life changing in our educational environment. Are they transferring FROM something or TO something?

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Our unusual system of residential colleges makes the freshman year and sophomore years critical to our undergraduate program. So we maintain only a very small transfer program, limited to 24 places each year.

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: In the case of transfers, the bulk of the academic evaluation focuses on the college record.

We welcome transfer applicants from community colleges and treat them essentially the same as transfer applicants from four-year colleges.

Question

An increasing number of schools are offering their students the choice of studying for and taking the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma. What are your views on this qualification regarding the importance you assign to it in the admissions process and its relevance in preparing students for college? Finally, thanks for taking the time and trouble to participate in this discussion.
—Simon R

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We treat IB programs very much like AP programs in our evaluation. We believe the IB program to be a strong, challenging program for college preparation.

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: The IB program is a rigorous academic program that is gaining in popularity here in the United States. Some students take individual IB courses while others strive to complete the entire IB diploma. We view IB coursework as comparable to AP coursework, and will award Lawrence credit for strong scores on either the AP exams or the IB exams (though only those who complete the IB diploma can receive credit for their results on the subsidiary-level exams).

Question

What recommendations do you make to applicants with learning disabilities. On the one hand, our son has achieved a remarkable academic record which is all the more remarkable given the additional hurdles he has had to overcome. I would think that such determination warrants special recognition. On the other, I suspect that some schools would see only a potential problem they would rather avoid. So should the application refer to these issues or should that wait until post-acceptance discussions about accommodations, etc.?
—NDM

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: It helps us to have specific information about disabilities, whether learning-related or other, because as the questioner notes, it can help us see accomplishments in context and also determine better if we will be a good fit for a particular student. But let me say this: How does it help a student proceed in education and life to be taught that he or she needs to be manipulated or packaged or even disguised in order to gain some imaginary advantage with a college admissions committee? Good students in this country have many, many choices among excellent colleges and universities, where their success is going to depend almost entirely on their own actions and decisions. My general advice to parents is simply to worry less about achieving an admissions edge and to focus more helping your student to be happy, enthusiastic, curious and well-prepared to seize opportunities.

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: A student who has worked against longer odds because of a learning disability and who performed well is able to provide evidence that they developed compensation mechanisms. That can work to their favor.

On the other hand, we do sometimes receive calls insisting the C or D grade on the high school transcript was because of a learning disability and that we can’t hold that against the student. It will be the performance (and underdeveloped compensation mechanism) not the disability that would work against the student.

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: We favor honesty in the admission process and therefore encourage students with learning disabilities (or other potential special needs) to identify that to us in the admission process so that we can put them in touch with the appropriate individuals on our staff to discuss the accommodations available to them. It has no impact on our admission decision, but if the student is skeptical, they can delay bringing it to our attention until after they are admitted. I encourage them to engage the college in dialog prior to enrolling, so that they can ascertain whether or not it will be a viable environment for them.

Questions from readers (updated on Dec. 18 at 4:50 p.m.):

Question

As a teacher who writes 20 or so recommendations a year and tries to make each letter unique, can you offer any more information about how such letters are read? I try to present as honest an appraisal as possible but sometimes wonder if that’s in the best interest of my students. Do you look for what is stated in recommendations? What’s not said? After having written literally hundreds in my career, I find myself wondering if the at least 2 hours per recommendation I spend is worth it. Are there cases where recommendations will tip the balance for or against admission?
-Mary

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Recommendations play a critical role for us, and we deeply appreciate the time teachers put into writing good ones. If you teach at a school from which we receive multiple applications, the same officer will read and evaluate any recommendations you write for those applicants. If each recommendation reads about the same, with numerous positive adjectives but little in the way of concrete detail, the recommendations tend not to be helpful. We look for professional judgment from teachers, not simply warm feelings. And we look to see whether teachers incline toward calling each bright student “one of the best I have ever taught,” or instead try to distinguish the really extraordinary individual from those who are strong in the usual ways.

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: I am grateful for fulsome teacher references and even more appreciative of those which are candid, sharing the good with the bad. Over time we sometimes get to know a teacher who has written for a number of students. A balanced reference will establish credibility for a teacher and is very helpful for our efforts.

On the other end of the spectrum is the dismay we feel when we see literally identical references written for multiple students from the same classroom. Sometimes that has even meant a telling of the same tale or moment about students who clearly are not connected. That situation reflects more poorly on the teacher than the student, and while we recognize the enormous burden reference writing does require of the author, we value and depend upon that input from someone who has worked closely with a student.

References can command even greater importance in a residential college environment where our students will live and work together. Gaining a sense of competitive or collaborative instincts and an impression of a student’s interest in engagement with peers and instructors provides important insights which can have an impact on the learning communities we are trying to build.

The length of a reference isn’t our measure of its worth.

We are also very mindful of the context of high schools. A teacher engaging 200 students per year will not likely have the time to write many pages for each of her students. When they do, we will take notice that a top student has received such a strong endorsement. A teacher in a classroom of 10 to 15 students will often write more.

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: Typically, all the documents in an application tend to affirm each other, but occasionally a recommendation, essay, or interview reveals something significant about the applicant that we would not otherwise have known. In most cases, no single document “tips the balance,” but in a few cases it does. I encourage writers of recommendations not to spend time summarizing information that will be available elsewhere, but instead to focus on aspects of the student that may be known only to you because of your interactions with them. Specific anecdotes or examples that support your comments are likely to be powerful. A short recommendation that effectively highlights one specific trait, activity, or characteristic can often be the most helpful.

Question

Be honest: Do you really read all the essays submitted? Or, do you read only for the borderline cases?
– Vinod

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: We do at Pomona. But some colleges use the essays as a tie breaker. And some work in a holistic review which more carefully considers the essay whether for content or writing style. In cases of a generally solid application, an essay becomes increasingly important.

In the case of an otherwise weak application, it may not take much more than a skimming of the essay to seal an impression. A brilliant essay presented in an application with substantial weakness in academic performance will not likely compensate for other concerns and could possibly lead to questions about authorship or editing influences. Essays that reflect or amplify the impression of the person created by the application as a whole are read fully and appreciated.

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: At Lawrence University and other small selective liberal arts colleges, all essays and recommendations are read carefully (as is every other document the student submits). When reading an application, we strive to gain a reasonably complete picture of the student — strengths, achievements, and aspirations, as well any particular challenges they may have overcome. Through this process, we seek to identify students who will not only be successful, academically, but who will also contribute to the vibrancy of our residential campus community through their personalities, perspectives and outside-of-class activities. Academics is foremost, but we want this to be a stimulating, engaging environment in lots of other ways, as well.

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We look at every essay from every applicant, and for students who reach the level of serious consideration, essays may end up being read multiple times.

Question

How do you encourage students to spend their summers? Are professional work experience or programs abroad viewed positively or can some become too gimmicky?
– Evan

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: This was addressed well by one of my colleagues yesterday. Students should follow their passions and develop the aspects of their personalities and proficiencies that are most exciting to them, not the ones they think will best “package” them. Far too many students are spending far too much of their young lives attempting to do “what the colleges want to see in an applicant” in order to someday gain admission to some highly idealized (often hyper-selective) college. Loren Pope, one-time editor of the New York Times Education Section, who passed away earlier this year, spent much of his latter years promoting the concept that the quality of a student’s college education has more to do with the student’s engagement than with the specific college. Through books like “Beyond the Ivy League” and “Colleges That Change Lives” he argued that there are many wonderful colleges in the U.S. that offer an educational experience as good as (or better than) those at the highest profile colleges (albeit without the pedigree). The college search should focus on finding a college that is a good match for the student – not just the most selective place to which they might gain admission.

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We encourage students to make use of their summers in the way they find most interesting. If they undertake a specific program, it should be because it appeals strongly to them, not because they imagine it will look best on a resume. Why? First, it is frankly impossible to know what will look best to a particular admissions committee at a particular college. Trying to outthink or outguess the admissions committee strikes me as a useless exercise, though many book authors and private consultants purvey the illusion that they can do this for you. Second, for both education and life, the best program is the one that you find most valuable for yourself at this point in your life. We also honor and value summer jobs; for many students they are necessary and for others they can be just as important a learning experience as anything else. What’s important to us in not what you chose to do for the summer, but what you got out of it.

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: While unusual activities may add a great deal to a student’s experience and have a profound effect on their world view, for some it just comes across as decorative, not substantive. Is a special experience or summer expected or a minimum requirement? No.

Many of those “special” experiences reflect the educational and economic background of the family more than the curiosity or talent of the student. For example, I believe most admissions officers would assume it’s not fair to expect a student who works and contributes to family expenses to take an overseas internship. I confess I often wonder why some students who live in areas that have many social service needs unaddressed will ignore the local situation but move to another country to perform a similar social service. Is it really a service trip or is it a summer vacation built for college admission purposes? It may be both and that’s not a penalty point, but it isn’t a bonus consideration either. Is the student whose family connections provided an internship at a high-profile organization more worthy than a student who delivered pizza or tended to family farm commitments? The rest of the application will give us the answer.

Question

It has long been understood that there are five main facets of an application: transcript, recommendations, standardized test scores, extracurriculars and essays. If a student’s transcript is in the weaker half of the applicant pool, but the remaining four facets are quite exemplary, will an elite college be willing to take a chance?
-Jonah

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: The more selective the institution, the more likely the decision for admission may turn on things not so easily quantified. If the application suggests strong basic competence academically, the other qualities of a candidate become interesting and often determine the outcome. I am interested in both where a student is at the current moment as well as making a guess about where they may be in a year or two or three. Perfect records in high school don’t always suggest perfect students in college. A student who had a bump along the way may know more about how and why they learn than one who has been grinding along without a second thought. Glowing references, strong tested ability, leadership strength and a terrific interview can sometimes outweigh a transcript with a glitch or two but in highly selective environments are not likely to override a real mess of a record.

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Weaker transcripts face tough sledding in a highly selective college environment. They don’t automatically disqualify a candidate for us, but you have to remember that we have many thousands of applicants with extremely strong transcripts who are also just as exemplary in the other ways that count.

Question

I’m a junior in New Jersey, and I feel I’m a pretty good student. Recently, a college guidance counselor emphasized that doing community service is essential, not just for the common good, but also for college admissions. How valid is this claim? Also for competitive colleges, or just colleges in general, how highly do admission officers value honors classes or AP courses (regardless of the colleges credit policy for APs)?
-Akiva L.

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: If there are honors and AP courses available, many of us would look to see them represented in the record. We are looking for course loads that suggest a level of rigor more comparable to college work. Sometimes the more interesting class or teacher may not be teaching in the honors or AP program. Tell us why you made the course choices you did and you may convince us, too.

Anticipate the questions we are likely to ask. Lay out all the pieces you know will be part of the application that you can control (essays, activities and their presentation); make some guesses about what your recommenders will say; and emphasize and then address (before we ask) those things that may not show you in the best light and tell us what you learned that may not be reflected in the record.

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We neither privilege nor ignore community service. The thing we are looking for outside the classroom is not a series of check boxes on a resume; we’re looking instead for a high level of engagement or leadership in whatever it is that the student cares about most. For some students, community service is at the forefront of their extracurriculars, in which case we pay a lot of attention to what they have accomplished in that area. For other students, some other passion or interest holds primary sway, and we evaluate the engagement in that area. We know that very few students can fully engage more than one or two primary activities at a high level. Though it is fine for a student to have varied interests, a significant number of students make the common mistake of spreading themselves too thinly in a resume-building exercise.

With respect to programs of study, we are less concerned with particular course designations and more concerned simply to see that candidates have embraced and performed well in whatever their schools offer as a most challenging program. At the same time, we are not particularly drawn to one-dimensional students who have made their sole or primary objective in life amassing the largest number of honors or AP courses conceivable, accompanied by multiple efforts to achieve the world’s highest test scores.

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: We seek students who have taken good advantage of their opportunities by following their passions as well as exploring new opportunities. Because of our academic rigor, though, it is important to us that students have challenged themselves academically, which probably means taking advantage of some AP classes if they are available, but does not mean taking every AP class just because it is available.

Question

Do you evaluate students from public and private schools differently? Does a student from a well-known private school automatically have a leg up?
-Elizabeth

Question

Is the quality of an applicant’s high school taken into consideration?
-Matthew

Question

We live in rural Wyoming where class offerings are limited because schools cannot afford to pay teachers to teach AP classes for five kids. What advice do you have for students in rural communities who are extremely bright and motivated but do not have access to the same course selections as students in urban and suburban areas? Is there any possibility for them to apply to elite schools?
-Sherrill Hudson

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: A well-known private school student does not automatically have a leg up everywhere. Sometimes private schools have more grade inflation than the nearby public schools. Sometimes the students at the public or parochial school had to work harder to gain resources or opportunities that were more typically available at the independent school.

Context matters in the consideration of an applicant. Even within New York City or Los Angeles, there are vastly different opportunities available to students depending on the school they attend or the resources their family may have. 4-H commitments in a rural community may be as stunning a leadership signal as volunteer work in a New York City museum.

I think many applicants and their parents would be surprised to learn about the high school origins of most admissions deans and officers, even at the most selective colleges and universities. Those alma maters are overwhelmingly public schools and often are not public schools that appear on “top 10” lists.

I would urge The New York Times to poll admissions deans about where they attended high school and whether it was public, private, parochial, rural, urban, suburban, well-supported or under-funded.

Answer

Mr. Walker of Texas: To ask if the quality of an applicant’s high school is taken into consideration in the admission process is a little like asking if attractiveness is taken into consideration in a beauty contest. Though we try not to rely so heavily on the school that a student attended, the benefits of good schooling shows up in so many ways that it would be less than honest to say that the school one attended doesn’t matter. The goal is to not let the name of the school blind you the individual qualities of the student.

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: We recognize that there are differences in high schools, although it isn’t necessarily just a public-private distinction. There are both strong and weak public and private schools. In terms of academic rigor and opportunity, there are some public schools that can match even the best private school. We recognize that an ‘A’ at one school may indicate a different level of achievement and experience than an ‘A’ at another school, or even in another class. High schools send us profiles that help us to understand their particular environment. Grades are not just taken at face value; they too are context-based.

We have high regard for students who are clearly motivated and have seized available opportunities to challenge themselves within their school, even if the school’s offerings are more limited. If there were a test for motivation, time-management skills, and study-skills, I would take it over any standardized test we have available. To some extent, that’s what a transcript provides.

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We are always looking for students who excel in context, and we are acutely aware that context and access to resources vary widely (and wildly) across schools. Every year we get the other side of this question from those at private schools; if I had only gone to a public school in a less populated state, would I have stood out more and been treated more favorably? It is important to keep your eye on the bigger picture. If you are a high-achieving student in whatever context your circumstances have placed you, a number of strong colleges are going to be vying for you as a student. And again, ultimately it matters far less which strong college admits you than it matters what you do with your opportunities once you arrive there.

Question

Do they anticipate discounting more heavily as the economy worsens? Or do they hope to buck the trend among other luxury products?
-JG

Question

Will the financial crisis affect your university’s financial aid policy? Will you put more weight on an applicant’s financial condition when considering his or her application for admission?
-Jason Bourne

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: Pomona remains completely committed to financial aid support for our students and will remain need-blind in our consideration of applicants. We will continue to meet fully the demonstrated need of our admitted students who enroll, and we will continue to do so for the duration of their enrollment. We will do so without expecting students to assume any loan burden as part of our financial aid packages. There are a handful of colleges with similar plans and aspirations though there are many others that have financial resource challenges and may not yet know what they can afford to do next year. I have heard no outright reports of colleges cutting aid, but we do know that loan challenges will surface for some families.

I would reemphasize the importance of students and their families respecting deadlines for aid applications because the clearest way many colleges may have to control growing pressure on financial aid budgets may be to stick to those deadlines. Increasing numbers of students in recent years have delayed filing financial aid applications, sometimes because of costs and sometimes because of the paperwork. They have waited until after an offer of admission was extended. This delays getting an aid package and this year, could result in outright denial of support even for students who have need. Don’t dawdle in filing!

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: The downturn has forced us to look even more seriously at our expenditures and to identify areas in which we can significantly reduce them, but at Lawrence, there is a commitment to protecting the academic and artistic integrity of the institution. So, we have not eliminated plans to fill our current faculty vacancies nor are there any plans to cut our financial aid budget.

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: A family’s ability to pay for a Yale education has no effect on our admission decision, and this has been true for over 40 years. Further, our president and trustees have made their first priority sustaining Yale’s quite extraordinary financial aid programs. We actively recruit lower-income students to come to Yale, and this is not changing with the economic situation.

Question

There is a lot of controversy about using tests like the SAT and ACT in the admissions process, and some top schools don’t even use the scores. Other schools intend to deemphasize these tests in the admissions process in the future. Some studies have shown these tests not only to be biased against students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds but also to be a poor prediction of college success. How much do these tests really figure in the admissions process and how can you give talented poor kids a chance when so much emphasis is placed on the tests?
-Scott

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: Lawrence University made the decision to go test-optional. Students who believe their ACT or SAT scores are consistent with the rest of their academic record and will represent them well in the admission process are welcome to submit their scores, whereas those who believe their test scores do not appropriately represent their academic capabilities may choose not to submit them.

In 2004, Bates College reported on 20 years as a test-optional college. They had collected SAT scores from non-submitters who ultimately enrolled and determined that, in spite of having SATs that were 160 points lower, the “non-submitters” graduated from Bates and achieved GPAs that were virtually identical to those of the “submitters.” You can read their fascinating study here.

The NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) Commission on the Use of Standardized Testing in Undergraduate Admissions recently released a report that is critical of the sometimes outright misuse and the overemphasis currently placed on these tests by our society. The entire report is available here. Additional good information is available at fairtest.org.

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: Colleges have a variety of testing requirements because they have found different parts of the application correlate best with success at that individual institution. Even the most selective colleges and universities use standardized tests thoughtfully and understand that they should be used in context, not as a stand-alone indicator. Grades matter. References matter. For some, test scores correlate perfectly with the rest of the application. For some, they may make little sense.

The weight assigned to test scores may vary within a college, too. A student from a comfortable background who had test prep courses and attended very strong schools may be expected to present stronger tests than a student who had fewer resources and no test prep. The dials are adjusted for all sorts of things in an application, including testing.

I urge students to look at graduation rates as one signal. Not just crude overall rates, but at graduation rates for students like themselves. Do financial aid students graduate at comparable rates to non-aided students? Do Latino students graduate at a rate comparable to the overall student body? Do students of African descent? Do student graduation rates vary by geographic origin? Do graduation rates vary much by the SAT or ACT score of enrolled students? All of this will signal that the colleges are fulfilling their commitments and are admitting students appropriately for that institution.

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: We know that test scores correlate highly with socioeconomic circumstances and school resources, so we do not penalize students with fewer advantages who also have somewhat lower test scores.

Answer

Mr. Walker of Texas: For some colleges, SAT or ACT results are not useful because nearly everyone is admitted anyway. For others, the test results have become less useful because all students have about the same test score and therefore the tests have lost all power to discriminate. And for others still, the test scores are useful as one piece of information but not the only piece that separates students from one another. If used honestly, the tests should only carry the amount of weight that is appropriate to make important distinctions among applicants that can’t be made more accurately in some other way.

Question

To Mr. Brenzel of Yale: What is the purpose of deferring 2,644 students in this year’s round of applications? You say that the deferred student will be reevaluated in the regular application process, but seeing as your freshmen class this year had 1,892 students, there is no possible way that most of these applicants stand a chance of being accepted in addition to the 742 accepted early and the regular applicant pool yet to come. Why do you prolong the misery?
— Alexander

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: This question makes two false assumptions: that being deferred is a misery and that deferred candidates have relatively poor chances of admission. Though odds of admission to Yale are always long, each year we accept about the same percentage of the students deferred from the early round as we accept of the regular decision applicants. We are often looking to see how applicants perform in the first half of senior year, when many students are taking their most challenging schedules or seeing their primary activities outside the classroom bear fruit. At the same time, we do try very hard to give final decisions to as many students as possible, where we feel certain that we will simply not be able to offer admission in the spring. This year we let over 2,100 students know that we were closing our consideration of their applications, about 38% of our early candidates. Virtually all of these applicants were very strong students, who are going to attend great colleges and have great success. We only chose not to defer them so that they could focus wholeheartedly on their other applications.

Question

For Mr. Walker: How has the controversial Texas “top 10 percent rule” — which guarantees admission to state universities for the top 10 percent of all high school graduates —affected the quality of the students admitted at Texas, and what is the retention rate from the freshman to sophomore year? Thank you.
— A. Alaniz

Answer

Mr. Walker of Texas: The disparities between the have and have-not public high schools that produce the top 10 percent students is cause for concern. Their preparation for study at a large, selective flag-ship is uneven given that they come from all high schools in the state.
Having said that, we have studied top 10 percent students since the law was passed in 1997. We have posted the annual results of our study on our Admission Research Web site for 10 years. What we have learned is: 1) As measured by freshman year GPA, top 10 percent students out-perform not-top 10 percent students. This has been without exception for 10 years. 2) Within the top 10 percent group, GPA goes up with increases in SAT scores. In other words, when we control for rank in class, SAT scores do matter as an indicator of freshman academic performance. 3) The superior performance of top 10 percent students extends across all majors. 4) Retention rates are highest among top 10 percent students. Visit our Web site for more information.

Questions from Times editors:

Question

What part of the admissions process is most misunderstood?

Answer

Jeff Brenzel of Yale University: It is not well understood that we are not aiming to pick out the best candidate in a particular school or from a particular area, as measured by some predetermined criteria. Rather, we are trying to assemble the most varied and most interesting class we can from an extremely diverse group of close to 25,000 outstanding applicants. We do not aim to compare a student primarily with other students from his or her school; we look instead for students who will bring something of particular value to the entering class.

Second, few people seem to grasp the weight given to various aspects of the application, though this can vary considerably by institution. For us at Yale, for instance, standardized test scores generally do little to differentiate applicants, because virtually all our applicants score very well. Most important to us are the transcript and the school and teacher recommendations, which students can do little to influence once it comes time for an application. We also look closely to see where and how a student has developed talents or engaged the school or community outside the classroom. Essays and interviews round out an application, and we look here mostly to see whether they convey information that enlarges or enhances, while remaining consistent with what we hear from counselors and teachers.

Answer

Bruce Poch of Pomona College: Most of it!

As I read admissions-related Web sites and blogs, I am often struck by the mistaken and sometimes troublesome counsel about what matters. Sometimes that advice comes from counselors, sometimes from parents of other students and sometimes from peers rather than from the individual college. Some of that bad counsel relates to questions about what to report or what to conceal.

Grades and scores, the core if not sole basis of decisions at some institutions, may be a much smaller part of an ultimate decision for students applying to a very highly selective institution where most applicants clearly enough “can do the work.” Why students chose a particular course of study may matter a great deal to an admissions officer. How they approach a classroom or learning environment may mean more than just the letter grade received in a class.

Students should objectively look at what they have submitted and ask themselves if questions remain unanswered for a reader of that application. Do the essays reflect ideas and personality or just present a report of involvement? Does it sound like the student wrote the essay? Was a change of schools midyear explained or left to the wild imagination of an admissions officer who may read an unanswered question as a signal of danger? Why was a particular extracurricular activity the most important involvement?

Answer

Bruce Walker of the University of Texas at Austin: The most misunderstood part of the process is that colleges have different missions and goals when selecting a class, and that an acceptance or denial will likely be for different reasons across multiple colleges.

Answer

Steven Syverson of Lawrence University: We all have our own institutionally idiosyncratic ways of making admission decisions. But the common perception tends to be that all colleges are difficult to get into. The reality is that nearly 90 percent of America’s four-year colleges admit more than half their applicants, and with the exception of students who apply only to hyper-selective institutions, most applicants are admitted to one or more of their top choices.

Another misconception is that colleges admit students from the top down, academically, and stop when they have filled their class. The academically outstanding applicants will likely be offered admission, but a substantial portion of the class will be filled with students who are academically qualified, but also have some other characteristic that is attractive to the college (e.g., athletic or musical talent, a parent who attended the college, or a personal or cultural background that is unusual at the college).

And, when a student is denied admission to a college, there is often the presumption that they were not qualified. At highly selective colleges, the reality is that many (perhaps most?) of the denied applicants meet the academic standards for admission, but were not offered admission simply because there was not sufficient capacity to accommodate all academically qualified candidates.

Question

Given that colleges need to admit a certain balance of athletes, legacies, artists, musicians and development-office selections, is it reasonable for people to expect the process to be fair?

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: This really depends upon what is defined as fair. Colleges don’t admit all their students just based upon their academic prowess. Each college strives to enroll a class that meets a number of objectives for the college — provide enough athletes to have competitive teams, provide enough musicians who play the right instruments to round out the needs of the orchestra, maintain good relations with alumni donors by enrolling their children, etc. These needs and objectives vary by college and by year. If this year we really need a bassoonist for the orchestra and a point guard for the basketball team, then bassoonists and point guards have an advantage. If next year we need a baseball pitcher and a violist, but have plenty of point guards and bassoonists, then bassoonists and point guards no longer have an advantage. It can be argued that it would be unfair to other members of the orchestra if the admissions office did not enroll a qualified bassoonist if they had the opportunity to do so.

Answer

Mr. Walker of Texas: We try to keep the process fair but you have identified some situations where the public believes the process is not fair. This is an extension of the question about what part of the admissions process is most misunderstood.

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Every college aims at putting together a diverse and interesting class, and colleges differ greatly in their institutional priorities. Accomplished students with high aspirations will find a welcome at a broad range and a large number of excellent colleges. Further, it matters far less exactly which of those colleges they attend than it matters how prepared they are to engage the world of opportunities available at any strong college. The fairness issue that concerns me most is not whether well-prepared students will be admitted into good colleges. In this country, they will. The real fairness question is whether poor students have anything like an equal chance to obtain good preparation for college, not to mention access to a means for bearing the cost.

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: I reject the conclusion that some of the things on this list are quantifiable or even a “given.” At some institutions, legacy interests are specifically excluded from consideration. At some, “development-office selections” do not exist (at Pomona, for example!). At some, coaches get their picks and let the admissions offices know whom to take, and at others, the coach may simply communicate interest in an athlete but will have no direct control over the choices made by the admissions officers.

I know of no place with a specific quota on legacies, artists, musicians or any of the categories listed. In a larger university with a Division I athletic program, typically the size of the institution translates into the athlete entering without displacing the possibility of another student enrolling.

Question

How has the recession affected the admissions process and the availability of financial aid?

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: This remains to be seen and there are crosscurrents and contradictory stories coming from across the country and which vary from public to private and large to small institutions. Many colleges are writing to alumni and friends reporting new assumptions for budget planning. Many apparently will freeze hiring or hold salaries to a current level or expect only very modest salary changes. Most conversations I have been privy to reflect serious concern about maintaining student access to their institutions and universities to students across the economic spectrum, whether those institutions are large or small, private or public, well endowed or more modestly endowed. Some colleges made very significant commitments to loan-free aid programs, which are being maintained this year. Many will work to ensure the continuing availability of aid even if other areas of the budget may have to be constrained.

I hope not to hear about colleges cutting need-based aid while preserving merit aid, but acknowledge that’s a personal bias, and that some may see this as a survival tool.

What does worry me is some early reporting of smaller numbers of middle- and low-income students submitting applications or submitting aid applications. I do think it will be critically important for students to submit their aid applications before deadlines this year and NOT wait until after an admission offer has been extended. In a year many colleges and universities experiencing a budget crunch, there may be nothing left at the end of an admissions cycle to actually meet their need if it has already been fully committed to those who got things in on time.

Answer

Mr. Walker of Texas: We are seeing higher numbers of applicants to public universities than in past years. We will not know the real impact of the recession until families have to pay a deposit and commit to a known cost.

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: The support that colleges receive from their endowments is likely to decrease because the values of their endowments have dropped. This may cause some colleges to reduce the level of funding they can provide for financial aid. Other colleges may maintain their commitment to financial aid, or even increase it to assist those families who are in distress. Although it might be difficult to increase the commitment to financial aid at this time, it might be even more problematic for a college to lose enrollment. I suspect that families who can pay the full cost of education will be even more attractive to colleges now than in the past.

There are a number of plausible—and perhaps competing—impacts of these financial uncertainties. For example, it is probably prudent for private colleges (at least) to anticipate a drop in their yield rates, which will mean they need to offer admission to a larger number of students to fill their class. At the same time, some of the private colleges, particularly less selective ones, may see an increase in applications and enrollments as a result of public institutions reducing their enrollments of new students due to cuts in funding from their states. It is likely that we will see an increase in the number of students enrolling at community colleges, though at least one state is discussing reducing its community college enrollment. Typically when the economy is bad, the number of students enrolling in college actually increases because there aren’t many jobs available. It is very likely that graduate school enrollments will increase for the same reason. And colleges that offer programs to retrain workers who have been displaced from their jobs are likely to see demand for those programs burgeon.

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Thankfully, it has not affected us at Yale, and President Richard Levin has just reaffirmed in an open letter to the Yale community that preserving our extraordinary financial aid initiatives is our first priority for the immediate future.

Question

In an environment where so many applicants have good grades and test scores, what’s the most innovative thing an applicant has done to be appealingly memorable?

Answer

Mr. Walker of Texas: Students are being told (my perception that it is mostly by hired counselors) that they need to do something to stand out in the applicant pool. Clever promotional gimmicks will be talked about around the office but seldom, if ever, will the clever promotional gimmick be why a student gets admitted. The best self-promotion is to be an outstanding student.

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: What works best is what best and most fully and consistently represents the applicant. Tricks that don’t fit the person end up looking like gimmicks, without real substance. The student who years ago sent in a life-size doll who was her “best friend,” equipped with a recorded endorsement of the applicant, left the admissions staff feeling like it was in a Twilight Zone episode. Creepy. Don’t send brownies, T-shirts or love notes. Just write a good application, choose recommenders well, write a thoughtful, personality-infused essay and if an interview is offered, do it.

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: I resist answering this question directly, because many of us are striving to help make the college search and admission process less stressful for students. Every year the media publish some amusing stories about unusual strategies employed by individual applicants, but I fear this prompts more students to believe that doing some bizarre thing is an appropriate strategy to gain admission to their favored college. We should avoid encouraging that behavior.

Answer

Jeff Brenzel of Yale University: We’re much less interested in innovative applications than we are in innovative students, who have shown over time the spark of real intellectual curiosity and a real enthusiasm for engaging with peers, schools and communities.

Question

How have you seen applicants shoot themselves in the foot?

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: Few of our applicants shoot themselves in the foot. What concerns me more are the number of high achieving students whose lives are governed by what they, or perhaps more often their parents, imagine is going to improve in some slight way their chances of admission to this or that particular school. Exploration and growth serve a student best for the long run, both in education and life, not the construction of a perfect resume. We try as best we can to distinguish the one from the other.

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: It is reasonably common for students to try to impress us with how much they love our particular college, by incorporating a mention of our college into their essay. (For example: “For the past four years, every time I was ready to give up on math, the thought of gaining admission to Lawrence University inspired me to redouble my efforts.”) But it is also a not-infrequent experience for them to forget to replace all the mentions of some other college in their essay. Though I doubt that many students are denied admission over such a faux pas, the current ability to “cut and paste” so easily can sometimes come back to haunt students.

It is also particularly imprudent to plagiarize an application essay.

But the most frequent form of self-inflicted damage is careless preparation of the application. In the days of handwritten applications, it might have been poor handwriting. Currently it is simply that they waited until the deadline to finish their essay and complete the remainder of their application, so they are hurried and don’t proofread carefully. A poorly presented application can, in fact, have a negative affect on the admission decision.

Answer

Mr. Walker of Texas: By creating inconsistencies within the application file. When students attempt to make themselves sound better than they are, the admission officer has to wonder where else the student has stretched the truth.

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: See my answer to the previous question!

Question

Do you have any way of getting beyond the persona that a student presents, on paper or in an interview?

Answer

Mr. Walker of Texas: A public flagship university with a large applicant pool, and limited time, rarely has the opportunity to get beyond the surface with an applicant’s persona. But there will be opportunities for getting to know the student better, such as scholarship competitions, on campus interviews, etc., that can help with this problem.

Answer

Mr. Brenzel of Yale: All aspects of the application say something to us. We try to add those things together to see whether we can picture a real, living person, with interesting talents and authentic interests. The information we have is imperfect, our judgments are imperfect, and the time we can spend on evaluation is short. But the process works well enough in general that the great majority of talented, hard-working students find a college where they can thrive.

Answer

Mr. Poch of Pomona: A complete application really does reveal a pretty full picture which does penetrate a manufactured persona. If teachers describe what a student is like in their classroom rather than just reporting the grade the student received, we may well get a glimpse into a student’s learning style or how they have used and contributed to a classroom. If a student provides a multi-page resume of activities and the teachers barely mention any of the leadership claimed in the activity roster, surely that may raise a question about actual involvement. Transcript performance will be reflected in teacher comments, too. Interviews likely will pick up on themes in the application and may amplify “why” a student has chosen some paths rather than just repeating “what” is on the list. It should all come together.

Answer

Mr. Syverson of Lawrence: We do get beyond the persona that a student presents, but we’re not interested in digging into Facebook to do so.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »