“I am thrilled that I have just received my first acceptance to college! I’m extremely grateful for all the things you have done to help me achieve this goal! While I understand that this is not the end of the college admissions process and that I’ll be submitting my other applications…I still feel as though a gigantic weight was taken off my back. “
There is nothing like the first college acceptance that a senior receives. It doesn’t matter who they are, if the college is highly selective or not, it NEVER gets old. I received the email above from a student over the Thanksgiving holiday. Their relief and excitement was palpable.
If you have a high school senior in your life, December is where things heat up. The Early Decision answers are released, January deadlines loom and the pressure kicks in. I LOVE it when a senior gets a “yes” before Thanksgiving, the dynamic shifts and they know they are going to college next August. Good luck to your student as they enter this next stage of the admissions cycle!
“The Road to College is a Journey of Self-Discovery*”
Happy November 1st! If you are the parent of a senior that is submitting early applications with an 11/1 deadline, I am sure you have been busy!
The quote above came to mind as I was working with a last minute senior that reached out to me last week for some help with their writing. They had a prompt that asked them to describe a community that they are a part of and their place within that community.
As they considered this question, they had a meaningful revelation; their family had relocated during high school and they changed schools. Their athletic pursuits had allowed them to form a new community almost immediately. They realized that their athletics, which in this case is really a lifetime sport, will always allow them to connect with others and they took great comfort in this discovery as they considered the prompt.
The other community they considered writing about was their job at a busy Jersey Shore restaurant with “ocean views and overpriced cocktails”. They wanted to talk about their place in the community of dishwashers, chefs, hostesses, managers, waitstaff, bussers and runners. It is a cross-section of backgrounds, ages, education levels and race. But they all work together in a tightly choreographed routine to facilitate smooth restaurant operations.
So what did I advise? They should write about the restaurant community. It will show the college an entirely fresh context; their ability to get along with a diverse group of people and work together. This is a quality that colleges want to bring to their campuses. I have no doubt the athletic piece could have been quite good, but the schools aren’t going to learn as much about the applicant and they can already see the student’s deep involvement with their sport in other parts of the Common App.
I shared the quote about the journey to college as one of self-discovery with the student. The revelation that they had about their sport is their own treasure, a gem that they can take out into the world.
I hope your student has made important self-discoveries in this process and has their own nugget of gold to take with them. And I hope they have great success with their decisions in the coming months!
*I take no credit for this quote, I read it somewhere a long time ago.
Last year, a family reached out to me on the first Saturday in February. The mother and daughter were in deep distress. They had submitted an application with a February 1st deadline late in the evening of January 31st. There had been a glitch with the actual submission and it appeared that the essay had not been included. The admission office was not open on a Saturday and they were so upset that they could not resolve this problem. All I could do was tell them to call the school on Monday to determine if the file was complete or not. They had a stressful 48 hours while they waited to speak with admissions.
As I hung up with them, I reflected on the importance of submitting applications ahead of the deadline. Nothing is stressful when you have ample time. Anxiety and panic creep in when time starts to run out. Mistakes are made, judgement can be flawed and this leads to the exact situation where this family found themselves. Here are some tips to avoid this dilemma:
1. Make your own internal deadline at least 72 hours ahead of the school deadline. If you have a February 1st deadline, plan to submit your application by January 28th. This will allow flexibility if you come down with a stomach bug, a power outage or any other issue that arises.
2. Set a designated hour for the parent and child to complete this work together. Make sure you have eaten, have a quiet, uninterrupted space to work on this and a functioning credit card on hand. This part of the process is tedious and sometimes questions pop-up, that despite your best efforts, might require more writing.
3. When you finish, have a plan to celebrate this milestone. The physical application submission is no small feat. Schedule a trip to your favorite ice cream spot or some other way that you can acknowledge this important step.
4. Double-check that your transcript requests are en route from your high school.
5. If you are submitting ACT or SAT scores, send those after you complete the applications.
6. I suggest that you establish your internal deadline between Sunday and Thursday. This will give you the option to call the admissions office if you experience any sort of issue or have a question. For my students this year that have November 1st deadlines, I am suggesting that they submit their applications no later than Wednesday, October 28th. This will allow for unforeseen issues AND the ability to contact the admission office if necessary.
7. Establish and carefully monitor your portals. It is incumbent on the student to determine that their file is complete. If an application is still missing pieces after a week or so, an applicant needs to be proactive and take steps to ensure that the college has everything they need.
I felt terrible for the family that called me that morning last February. It all worked out in the end for this student but their weekend was ruined and it could have been avoided with a timely submission.
Happy October 1st! The FAFSA opens today so I thought it would be an appropriate time to talk about college costs. And I received a call over the weekend that provides a perfect introduction to what families need to think about as their children build college lists and where finances intersect with that process.
This past Saturday night I got a call from a mother with twin daughters that are seniors. Most people come to me by word of mouth so I asked her where she got my name and I was surprised to learn that she found me on google. We started to talk and a picture began to emerge that had red flags all over it.
This woman was a single mother in New York City. She worked two jobs and she did not have any support from the girls’ father. She started to talk to me about their list and that is where I got concerned. Her daughters were good students that were looking at schools all over the country, from public colleges in the University of California system, to small private schools, and everything in between, with no consideration to cost.
I asked her some general questions about what her tax return looked like and I started to walk her through some of the specifics of financial aid formulas. When a parent like this is looking at schools, it is critical to seek out colleges that are going to meet 100% of demonstrated need. This is complicated for this woman because those schools typically will require not only the FAFSA but the CSS/Profile. And the Profile schools will require BOTH parents to fill out the paperwork. This becomes a problem when the other parent is unwilling to cooperate or brings assets to the table that will eliminate aid but does not want to contribute to their child’s education. There are a small slice of schools that meet 100% of demonstrated need with just the Profile filled out by the custodial parent. These are colleges that would offer incredible aid to her bright daughters. The challenge is finding those schools and helping the girls (who have California dreams) discover some options within this niche, that could be good fits for them.
I was traveling when I took her call, and about to go out of cell range, so we made a date to speak during the week, between her two jobs, to help her sort this out and get her daughters pointed in the right direction. She asked me what I owed her for the call and I told her nothing and that our call on Tuesday would be of no charge. College funding is complicated and this hardworking mother needs help.
Every family has a unique financial situation that impacts how colleges will evaluate their ability to pay. Whether you are a straight W2 earner, own an LLC, have real estate with significant equity in your home or own a share of your grandmother’s lake house, or any other possible financial scenario, you should use the calculator below to determine your Expected Family Contribution and run net price calculators at any school your child is considering.
I suggest that families introduce college cost to the conversation early and often!
This past Saturday I had a conversation with the parent of one of my students. This rising senior finished not only their Common Application and essay, but all of the supplemental writing that they need to do for the schools where they are applying. The parent told me about a casual conversation they had with the mom of a senior, who could not believe that my student had completed all of their application work. The other parent was stressed and concerned, as their child had not started any of the work. And it got me thinking about how much anxiety there is around this whole complex process of applying to college.
The very next day, I got a complete anxiety antidote. One of my biological children transferred to a public college in the state where I live and the drop off was on Sunday. We packed up the car and drove about ninety minutes. I wore a flowered dress but in a cute nod to the school, my husband sported a collared shirt in the school colors.
From the moment we approached the school gates, every last person, from security at the entrance, to my child’s RA, radiated enthusiasm. The organizational logistics were impeccable. (And since the new president is a female graduate of West Point, I was not surprised!) At each stage of the entry process, we had clear instructions for our next steps and if we had questions, there were people available to answer them.
The anxiety antidote hit me as we waited in line at the student center for the appointed time to check in. I could see that every type of car known to mankind was pulling in. There were luxury SUVs and ancient cars with rust, cracked windshields that were in need of a muffler. I saw an incredible level of racial and ethnic diversity. I heard other languages as well as parents that had learned English as a second language.
But here is the thing-the joy and pride was palpable. It felt like a college graduation. There was hardly a person that did not have on a shirt from the college. Parents, students, siblings, grandparents etc., all wore swag from the bookstore. My husband looked like a genius in his golf shirt and I felt like a fool in my flowered dress that had not one element of the school colors.
I stood in line, taking this all in and I was humbled. In the world where I live, the question is not, “Are you going to college?”, but “Where are you going to college?” And on this campus, there is a demographic where just arriving at college is a huge accomplishment. Indeed, when we arrived at my son’s suite, one of the other mothers congratulated me on my son enrolling at a four year institution. I spent several hours on campus and the words of Ted Fiske, the author of the famed Fiske Guide to Colleges echoed in my head: “The American system of higher education is a real treasure”.
So if you have a rising senior and you are feeling anxiety around this process, I realize my blog post will not get the actual application work done, but perhaps it can lend some context and perspective as you coax your child to work on their applications. If you would like to read more of the calm, soothing words of Mr. Fiske, my post, “Thoughts From Mr. Fiske (Or Calm in the Heart of the Application Season)” is here. Good luck!
Happy August 1st! This is the day the Common Application opens for the 2022 admissions cycle. It’s an exciting month in the college world. Rising seniors can log in and see the supplemental essay prompts for the schools where they are applying. Recent high school graduates are preparing to head to their campuses later this month, signing up for classes, making lists, and shopping for dorm room supples. I thought I would use this special date to announce some changes at August Consulting.
Moving forward, I am separating all of my personal and professional social media on Facebook and Instagram. If you would like to follow along, you can join me on FB at August Consulting or on IG at august.consulting. I plan to use these sites to share timely information and resources as the admissions cycle progresses as well as news on prescient issues in college planning. If you have an adolescent in your house, come join me! I am working on several exciting projects right now that I hope to announce shortly. Right now, I am digging in to writing with my seniors. I hope your August is off to a great start!
I have been knee deep in college essays for the past two weeks. My cohort of rising seniors is coming down the home stretch and putting the final touches on their writing. As we embarked on this journey, I was struck by the adjectives that I heard them use to present their ideas after a brainstorming session. The truth of the matter is that most teenagers have excellent instincts about what they should use as their topic. I tell them that their first idea is often the best one. This application round, when I asked students what they wanted to share about themselves with colleges, I heard statements like these:
“Well, I might have an idea…”
“I have a small idea…”
“I was thinking about this, but I am not sure…”
“I have one thought but I don’t know…”
And after these timid statements they would share an idea that was so personal and meaningful that there is no way it would not be a great essay. When I told them that, they were surprised and relieved.
The truth of the matter, is that they are not confident. My take is that they are intimidated to write THE COLLEGE ESSAY and I say nonsense. If you are a senior or have one in your life, here are a few tips to break this down to size and go tell your story with heart and confidence:
This is not really an essay. It is a personal statement.
The personal statement is 650 words. This equates to one page, single spaced.
Use this exercised to think about what you want to tell them: Imagine you step on to an elevator and there is one other person in it. They are wearing a name tag that identifies them as a director of admissions at a school you would like to attend. You have a ninety second elevator ride to tell them something about yourself. What would you share?
An authentic statement told from the heart usually resonates.
Make sure the writing focuses on you.
I tell my kids that you can pay now or pay later but you are going to have to do this so you might as well do it now. There are thousands of test-optional colleges but hardly any are essay-optional, so get write here, write now! I hope you enjoyed your July 4th weekend.
“Our goal is to provide information in a broad scope that will serve
participants regardless of where they apply. “
~Davidson College Admissions Office
Happy June! We are knee deep in graduation season and I am running a tad behind with my June blog post because I am busy getting graduation gifts out to my seniors and starting my juniors with their Common Application and essay writing. If you are the parent of a graduate at any point of the education continuum, congratulations!
One of the objectives of my blog is to share timely and useful information for families on the road to college. I found an amazing resource that I am excited to share. Davidson College, in Davidson, North Carolina is a small, highly selective liberal arts college with a superb reputation. Their office of admissions has put together a series of online workshops for rising seniors to learn more about college admissions. These presentations cover everything from financial aid to interviews. Some of the sessions are geared to students, some are just for parents and others are for both. And the best part is that they are open to anyone that wants to learn, whether you anticipate applying to Davidson College or not. The workshops start on June 29th and go through June 9th. Check out the link here to learn more about this amazing resource!
And here we are, another spin around the sun and what a year it has been. May 1st is the day that seniors deposit at the college that they will attend in August and it is also the two year anniversary of me opening my sweet little office. It has been a haven in the pandemic and I “sublet” the space during the day to a guy from Wells Fargo. He is easy on the eyes, so it is all working out. The piece below is from two years ago but it rings true and the offer still stands…call me!
“Communities are built like Legos, one brick at a time. There is no hack.”
~Jenny Anderson, Beyond Mindfulness
A friend posted the most beautiful piece on community in March. It was written by Jenny Anderson and it resonated with me. I have been the recipient of support from my community in ways that are too numerous to mention. I have benefited from the small things, like a class mom organizing a holiday event at school and I have literally been picked up and carried by my community when the unthinkable has happened. When I reflect on community, my first thought goes to the town where I live, but really, I have had the fortune to be a member of many communities. I have my SLU community from college, a professional community that I work with every day, a community of moms that I raised my kids alongside, that love my kids like their own, as I do theirs and I have my ADK/ski community, a group like no other. The essence of the article that touched me spoke about how we have to give to really be part of a community. And it made me question if I have given enough. I know I have received, in ways large and small, but have I really given?
I worked hard this past month to open my new office on May 1st, which is a significant date in the college planning world. May 1st is National Decision Day when seniors must decide where they are going to college. I thought it would be a meaningful day to open my doors. And the beautiful article about community gave me an idea for how I can give to my own community.
The whole month of May, I am available to meet with anyone who would like to talk about the college admissions process, free of charge. I am dead serious. Come talk to me for an hour and bring your questions, no strings attached. My real hope is that after an hour, you have enough information that you don’t need any more help. If this sounds unlikely, keep reading.
Several years ago, when I was in the middle of my certificate program at the University of California, Irvine, I heard a local mom lamenting about college admissions. I offered to come over and speak with her children. I met them on a Sunday morning and spent an hour walking them through the steps of finding a good fit for college. Last month, when I posted the news about my office, this parent reached out to me to thank me and update me on where all of their children ended up. Each one of these kids chose a great school, all quite different from each other, but the right fit for the individual student. So, take it from experience, an hour can go a long way.
So if you are stressed or confused, or overwhelmed, or maybe you know someone who is, come talk to me. You can send your child, you can come with your child, or maybe you would like to come alone. Or just come see my office and have a Perrier. My seniors are all settled on their schools and my juniors aren’t in application mode yet, so I have time. Consider it a thank you for all of the times that my community has taken care of and supported me and my family. The article about community is here. I look forward to hearing from you!
I wanted to share an article that was published this spring by NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling). It was written by one of the leaders in college admissions, Jon Boeckenstedt. Jon is the Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University. (Go Beavers!) He also two fantastic blogs, Admitting Things and Higher Ed Data Stories. In this article, “8 Things I Wish You Knew About College Admissions”, he provides a concise state of college admissions. He always calls it like he sees it and I hope you find him to be a great resource.
P.S. This is my one hundredth post since I started writing my humble little blog in August of 2016!
THE 8 THINGS I WISH EVERYONE KNEW ABOUT COLLEGE ADMISSION
By Jon Boeckenstedt
Congratulations to the 2020 Muir Award winner, Jon Boeckenstedt, who won for his Admitting Things blog, which is widely respected and seen as a clear, compassionate voice backed up by data. With his finger on the pulse of college admission and enrollment management, his fearless writing insightfully supports our profession and the students we serve. We appreciate him contributing this column.
Perhaps it’s our own fault: We selected this very esoteric profession and we have to put up with the confusion. At least most of us did.
When I started in admission in 1983, it wasn’t an active choice—it was mostly out of necessity. My student loans were coming due and I had to come up with $52.79 every month for the next seven years to repay the $3,500 I had borrowed to get a bachelor’s degree. The economy was tough and I traded one job talking to strangers (selling cable TV door-to-door) for another with a starting salary of $11,000. But at least in this job, the people were interested in talking to me, which makes all the difference for an introvert.
Back then, few people I met or talked to socially seemed to be interested in what I did or even inquired about the facts or the nuances of my job. It was just a job to me and to people who were my friends. They didn’t care about college admission and I didn’t ask about ledgers or legal briefs or journalism.
When admission work—and admission in general—became something else I can’t quite pinpoint. But when our national fascination with the quest for the best came to the forefront, friends and neighbors started asking me a lot of questions, and it was kind of fun to talk about it. What was once just another job became a subject of interest and while I could never fully explain it, I felt it my duty to give it a shot. Looking back, I’m guessing it would take three years of doing the job—the weeks on the road; the file review; the parent, student, and counselor interactions; the same question a thousand times—to have the experience necessary to explain this profession to others.
So, it was interesting and puzzling to me at about that time, to see people who had never done our work start to write about it, opine about it, and make general pronouncements about it.
This has turned out to be considerably less fun than the job I’ve grown to love, because too often, I’ve found, they’re wrong. They might have their facts straight but lack nuance. They might see a few examples and make general pronouncements that don’t hold up under scrutiny. They often make comparisons that seem disparaging or even mean between what we do and what other professions do. They might be victims of their own privileged upbringing, which makes them think their little slice of reality is the only reality.
I’m under no illusions, of course, that a piece in a professional journal will disabuse people of the notions and prejudices they carry with them, but I have a bad habit of, in the words of the late great newspaper columnist Molly Ivins (quoting a politician from Texas), “beating my head against a dead horse.” As someone who almost didn’t go to college at all, I think making a difference in the lives of students is worth it, even if I’ll never know how many–if any–I’ve influenced. And, of course, I think the work we do is special and worth defending. So, here I sit with my keyboard, trying to distill over 35 years into a few thousand words.
To that end, I’ve pulled together a list of the big things people misunderstand or get wrong about what we do for a living, and I’ve added a few thoughts to steer them in the right—excuse me—in my direction. Here goes:
Admission is not a process of skimming the “best” off the top. In the first place, we can’t define “best.” But even if we could, selecting a class of nothing but “the best” would be pretty boring, the process wouldn’t need people to do it, and the outcome wouldn’t be very interesting. With intellectual life at the center of any university, “interesting” is important, but that’s hard to explain. Parents know they don’t always hire the applicant with the most years of experience, or the best GPA, or the one who graduated from the brand-name university, but it’s still hard for them to grasp how admission works, especially at the most selective institutions. In the words of Femi Ogundele at University of California—Berkeley, admission should be looking for “excellence, not perfection.”
Of course we think about money. A colleague once told me, “Without margin, there is no mission.” You can’t run a university on good deeds and goodwill. The electric company wants cash each month; the faculty expect their paychecks will hit their accounts on the last day of the pay period; and test tubes and superconducting nuclear magnetic spectrometers aren’t free. Too many people think “not-for-profit” means “charity.” It doesn’t and it shouldn’t. What makes us different is where we draw the line: Profit is not our motivator.
Graduation rates are inputs, not outputs. Malcolm Gladwell clarified selection effects and treatment effects in his terrific article on college admission in The New Yorker. You don’t become beautiful by going to modeling school; you’re selected because you’re beautiful to start with. That’s a selection effect. You don’t get chosen to become a marine; what happens in basic training makes you one. That’s a treatment effect.
Similarly, if your selection process admits mostly children of wealthy, college-educated parents, who have known since third grade that they’re expected to graduate from college, or if you can provide extraordinary financial assistance to that small group of students who don’t fall into that category, your graduation rates are going to be high. It’s another example of selection effect. Your graduation rate is inversely related to the amount of risk you take in the admission process. If you take few risks in admission, your graduation rates are going to be a lot higher.
We don’t really live in a meritocracy. I once heard University of Wisconsin–Madison professor Harry Brighouse speak about the differences in the US and British education systems and a point he made has stuck with me. In America, he said, we think merit and achievement are the same thing. But no one, he pointed out, gets to achieve anything unless someone invests in them, so students who are the beneficiaries of that investment might have achieved a great deal—but that’s not the same thing as merit. It does explain, however, why people who can invest in their children might equate the two.
It means that wealth looks good on applications when trying to measure “merit” if what you’re really looking for is achievement. And it means, of course, that “merit aid” flows to students who have had the benefit of parental or societal investment, and those students are not always the ones who need it or deserve it. It’s just a way to justify the practice. Instead of being agents of social change, the admission office may be at the heart of the problem of educational inequity, usually, at the behest of the powers in the university.
Standardized tests aren’t academic qualifications. Some parts of the SAT and ACT clearly measure what a student has learned. If that’s all they measured, they’d maybe (big maybe) be useful tools in the admission process. They also—to a greater or lesser degree—measure emotional control, speed processing, and formal preparation and practice, among other things, which may or may not be valuable in college. Choosing the “right” answer from four given might be a skill you’d rather have than not, but good luck applying it in philosophy class.
We have no standardized American high school curriculum, so we’re giving these tests to many students who have never had the opportunity to learn the content, through no fault of their own. The tests don’t measure “aptitude” or “native ability” and never have, despite the monikers once attached to them. And as barriers to the gated communities of academia, they serve merely as minor obstacles to the wealthy, and impenetrable impediments to those without the social, financial, and cultural capital to overcome them. In that sense, they are great tools to use in perpetuating inequality.
Virtually every lawsuit suggesting that admission processes are illegal is based on the premise that “I was more qualified because my test scores were higher.” Pull that premise out from underneath and watch the argument collapse on itself.
There is no such thing as need-blind admission. While it’s true that at many colleges the admission officer can’t see FAFSA data, that would be FAFSA-blind admission.
The fact is that you can see need in almost every line of most applications and you’d have to be willfully ignorant not to recognize it. Put aside for a minute that most colleges don’t have sufficient application volume to even have the luxury of considering ability to pay. Those that do expect successful applicants to have most of the trappings of wealth: the AP classes available at well-resourced schools, great personal statements honed for weeks or months with professionals; high test scores bolstered by months of test prep; letters of recommendation written by teachers who are trained in workshops by the very people reading them; leadership or stellar accomplishments enabled by private lessons or the freedom from after-school jobs; and often college-educated parents who call the institution their alma mater. Only when colleges consider race and ethnicity do lower-income and first-generation students with high need get a chance at a break in the process. That, of course, is the one thing people with all the other advantages like to complain about the most.
We don’t always set the agenda, but we’re expected to carry it out. People who blame the admission office might be right to a point. But the university mission and the strategy to accomplish it, as well as the objectives the dean or director or vice president gets measured against, are set much higher up the food chain. A good admission or financial aid function can and should serve as the nexus between external markets and the internal workings of the academy, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Boards of Trustees are often filled with businesspeople, some of whom don’t understand—and don’t always like—the way colleges run.
Admission isn’t a crap shoot, but it ain’t rocket science either. Very few colleges admit many, if any, unqualified students into their institutions. And while it’s easy to predict how a class will perform, it’s much harder to predict how an individual student will perform. That’s what makes admission so frustrating and so rewarding at the same time. The average GPA of the freshman class after one year is almost pre-ordained; but some superstars will flunk out and some of those students you took a chance on will become stars themselves. The illusion of precision in admission is a fairy tale we tell ourselves.
I couldn’t have imagined when I set out on my first admission trip that I’d still be connected to the profession almost four decades later, and I suppose I couldn’t have believed we’d have to be explaining and defending what we do and how we do it. It’s important, I think, for us to admit when we don’t live up to the expectations we set for ourselves, but it’s also important to defend and provide context for the people who talk about, write about, and legislate for our profession. We’re the ones who live the reality of the work, both the rewards and risks, and at certain times, it’s an 18-hour a day job we all love.
I hope you agree that what we do is worth defending and worth fighting for.
Jon Boeckenstedt is vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University.