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Colleges make it easier for students to show , not tell, in their applications

TOWSON, Md. — Madeline McDonough had a wistful “what if?” moment, pondering the offer that her school, Goucher College, has made to applicants: Instead of showing us your grades, send us a video.

“I really wish there had been options like that when I was applying to college,” said Ms. McDonough, 19, a junior studying sociology. “I didn’t have the best numbers, and I was stressed, worrying about how to show that I deserved the same opportunities as anyone else.”

Under the policy announced this month by Goucher, a 1,400-student liberal arts college near Baltimore, a prospective student may apply by submitting two pieces of work (at least one of them a graded high school writing assignment) and a two-minute video, rather than a high school transcript. José A. Bowen, Goucher’s new president, readily admits that he has no idea how many applicants will go that route, how many will be accepted or whether they will work out.

“This is an experiment, and there are plenty of reasonable objections,” he said. “We’re going to track these students, and we’ll really know in a year. If the kids who did video apps do worse than others, we’ll stop. If they do just as well or better, colleges around the country will be doing it.”

Students, parents and academics have long complained that competition for admission to highly selective colleges has become an overwhelming ordeal that favors bright but conventional, privileged worker bees over peers whose trials or quirks have gotten in the way of school. That is one of the criticisms in a much-discussed new book, “Excellent Sheep,” by William Deresiewicz, and a growing number of colleges have tried to address it.

As recently as the 1990s, there were only a handful of selective colleges that did not demand to see applicants’ ACT or SAT scores, but now there are dozens, including Bowdoin, Smith, Holy Cross, Brandeis, Wake Forest and the University of Texas, and more join the list every year. In the last few years, some top colleges have invited students to supplement their applications with a video.

Last year, Bard College went a step further, making transcripts optional, offering the alternative of an entrance exam consisting of four 2,500-word essays on a choice of scholarly topics, graded by professors. Now, Goucher, which was already test-optional, has raised — or lowered — the stakes, with a far less rigorous option.

On Wednesday, Bennington College announced that an applicant may submit a collection of work rather than a standard application. While the college would prefer that the submission include a transcript, it is not absolutely required.

The change at Goucher is characteristic of Dr. Bowen, a charismatic jazz musician and composer who took over the college in July. He bubbles with ideas about how to make higher education better and more inclusive, and talks about doing away with grades, having students declare a mission rather than a major, and coming up with new ways to assess how students grow. The video application drew scattered charges that Goucher’s move was a lowering of standards, a gimmick to draw attention and more applications, or both.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Brian C. Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, wrote, “This move sends an awful message to high school students and to a broader public that is already fed a steady diet of nonsense about the nature and value of education.”

Robert J. Sternberg, a professor of human development at Cornell and an author of books on teaching and intelligence, said, “A video can measure creativity, initiative and practical skills in a way a typical standardized assessment does not,” but it is not “a substitute for a high school transcript.”

“The video is also susceptible to bias in scoring,” he added, “for example, with regard to the attractiveness, ethnicity, weight or other perceived physical features of the video maker.”

But in general, reactions in higher education have been muted, with people voicing skepticism rather than condemnation — perhaps because Goucher, which accepts more than 70 percent of its applicants, is not risking the same kind of reputation as the most competitive colleges. Those elite schools still have far more demand than supply, but for other small colleges, this is a nervous time.

The number of college-age Americans is stagnant, consumers object more to rising costs and student debt, and cheaper, online alternatives are growing. Even with private colleges offering discounts, some have had trouble drawing enough students, and many others wonder if that will soon be their lot, too.

Dr. Bowen says Goucher’s new policy does not reflect a concern about enrollment, though the number of applications has slipped in recent years.

It may turn out that few people take Goucher up on the video offer; at Bard, just 41 of almost 7,000 applicants took the no-transcript route last year, though that was partly because it demanded a lot of work. On the Goucher campus, the reaction is largely positive, though here, too, curiosity about the results mingles with skepticism. Students said they would be interested, next year, to meet people who had enrolled at Goucher after submitting video applications, and equally interested to see how they managed academically.

“It accepts that different people have different styles, and that’s part of what Goucher’s about, so it’s an interesting option,” particularly for people interested in visual arts, said Colton Cincotta, a 20-year-old junior. “But is it going to be an easy cop-out for someone who hasn’t really done the work?”

Maria Venturelli, a first-year student, said students mostly liked the video idea, though many of them wondered if two minutes was long enough for an applicant to make an impression, or for the college to make a judgment.

“There is something very genuine about a video,” said Ms. Venturelli, 18. It fits the nature of the admissions process, she said, in which “you have to be a little narcissistic and sell yourself to the college.”

Dr. Bowen said he and the faculty, which endorsed the video applications, were moved by studies showing that many high-achieving students, especially those from low-income families, do not apply to selective schools.

“You have to find a way to encourage people to apply; they need a different kind of invitation, and students by and large have a phone and they understand video,” he said.

“People have learning differences, they mature at different speeds; a lot of great people might have blemishes on the transcript, and think they can’t get in,” he said. “We get mail from teachers thanking us for this, because they have students who want to hang themselves because they got a C in algebra.”

Goucher gives loose guidelines for the videos, and says production values do not matter. It tells applicants to say what they have to offer and why the college appeals to them, and says they will be judged on how clearly and convincingly they express themselves. (If they are admitted, the college will get their transcripts then, if only to know what classes they have already taken.)

The video, Dr. Bowen said, resembles what happens in the real world, in a job interview.

“All things being equal, I’d rather have a transcript,” he conceded. “Let’s say you’re a doctor. All things being equal, you’d rather have all of the tests done on every patient, but you can’t. Each of those tests comes at a cost.”


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Critiquing the college sales tour

Even though the Common App has made it immeasurably easier to apply to colleges than in the pre-internet dark ages of my youth, at roughly $50 a pop, it still makes sense for kids to pare their list of schools to those they’d really like to attend.

Which is where the college visit comes in. But after completing 12 of these campus cruises with my son or daughter over the past two years, I’m not convinced they accomplish what they should or could.

To begin with, the format is the same at every school: a 45-minute propaganda slide show by someone in the admissions department — complete with obligatory stats on the four-year graduation rate, campus diversity, and all possible positives from their U.S. New & World Report rankings — followed by an hour-long walk around campus guided by a student.

The first part of the program is so generic and predictable that the facts, figures, and slides quickly blend into boredom, no matter how peppy the presenter. (You know it’s bad when you glance across the room, as I did at one of these sessions, and find your son attempting to pick up a pencil between his nose and upper lip.) You find yourself hungry to hear something unique or unusual about the college.

It sometimes gets better when the student tour guides take over. But the emphasis is on the sometimes. After each guide gives a 20-second introduction of him or herself, the moms, dads, and kids scramble to line up next to the tour conductor who seems most engaging — and cross their fingers that they guessed right.

You know almost as soon as the tour begins. The hour can either be an interesting, even exhilarating, introduction to life on a vibrant campus or a painful glimpse into the life of a somewhat (dare I say it?) nerdy student. In those cases, the shy or awkward guide suddenly seems representative of the entire student body, leaving little chance the average kid will consider applying there, no matter how attractive the school seemed pre-tour.

My daughter and I saw six schools this summer; sadly, our feelings about them are very closely linked to our opinions of the tour guides. It’s embarrassing to admit that, but let’s be honest: Assessment by association is hard to avoid.

“My daughter and I saw six schools this summer, and sadly, our feelings about them are very closely linked to our opinions of the tour guides.”

For example, it is a near-certainty that a 17-year-old male jock will not be impressed with a tour guide who introduces herself as president of the knitting club (true story). Similarly, a male guide who delayed his tour by an awkward five minutes because an annoying insect was buzzing around him — refusing on ethical grounds to swat it, despite my daughter’s urging — was dull and uninspiring, which quickly became our view of his school. But the perky young woman who relayed delightful stories about her university’s campy traditions and her amazing study abroad, in Italy, had us ready to get our applications in that very day. (Yes, both of us.)

Then there was the earnest guide who walked backwards for the entire tour so that he could maintain eye contact the whole time — he made a very favorable impression, but what does that really tell us about his school?

The other nutty thing about these tours is that they tend to highlight fairly superficial aspects of the college experience. Food takes on super-sized importance, with the number of Starbucks, Dunks, and other fast-food outlets scattered around the place suddenly becoming very meaningful. Quality of the dorms counts more than it should. My daughter and I definitely had more favorable impressions of schools where the dorm rooms on display were done by Bed Bath & Beyond than the ones with linoleum floors and banged-up heavy wooden bunk beds adorned with plastic-covered mattresses.
Eeew, right?

But though I’ve just ripped the venerated college tour to shreds, I still wouldn’t recommend skipping it. Holding a teenager captive in a rental car for 20 hours, as I did my daughter this summer, has its benefits. Sure, there was the usual amount of fighting over which radio station to play and rolling of eyes when one person sang too loudly, but in between we managed to sneak in some laughs and real conversation.

And yes, MasterCard, that is priceless.

Lenore Scanlon is a working — and college-touring — mother of three teenagers.

By Lenore Scanlon

Original article can be found at :

Naked confessions of the college-bound

THE Yale applicant had terrific test scores. She had fantastic grades. As one of Yale’s admissions officers, Michael Motto, leafed through her application, he found himself more and more impressed.

Then he got to her essay. As he remembers it, she mentioned a French teacher she greatly admired. She described their one-on-one conversation at the end of a school day. And then, this detail: During their talk, when an urge to go to the bathroom could no longer be denied, she decided not to interrupt the teacher or exit the room. She simply urinated on herself.

“Her point was that she was not going to pull herself away from an intellectually stimulating conversation just to meet a physical need,” said Motto, who later left Yale and founded Apply High, a firm that guides students through the admissions process.

And his point in bringing her story up during a recent interview? The same as mine in passing it along:

When it comes to college admissions, our society has tumbled way, way too far down the rabbit hole, as I’ve observed before. And in the warped wonderland where we’ve landed, too many kids attach such a crazy degree of importance to getting into the most selective schools that they do stagy, desperate, disturbing things to stand out. The essay portion of their applications can be an especially jolting illustration of that.


Credit Ben Wiseman

It’s an illustration of something else, too: a tendency toward runaway candor and uncensored revelation, especially about tribulations endured and hardships overcome, among kids who’ve grown up in the era of the overshare. The essay is where our admissions frenzy and our gratuitously confessional ethos meet, producing autobiographical sketches like another that Motto remembers reading at Yale, this one from a male student.

“He wrote about his genitalia, and how he was under-endowed,” Motto told me. “He was going for something about masculinity and manhood, and how he had to get over certain things.”

Motto, who was an assistant director of admissions at Yale from 2001 to 2003 and evaluated applications part time from 2007 to 2008, said that essays as shocking as those two were a small minority. Other people who have screened college applications or coached applicants through the admissions process echoed that assessment.

But they also noted, as he did, an impulse in many essay writers to tug readers into the most intimate corners of their lives and to use unfiltered frankness as a way to grab attention. In some of the essays that students begin to draft and some of the essays that they actually wind up submitting, there are accounts of eating disorders, sexual abuse, self-mutilation, domestic violence, alcoholism, drug addiction. Sally Rubenstone, one of the authors of the “Panicked Parents’ Guide to College Admissions,” has called this “the Jerry Springer-ization of the college admissions essay,” referring to the host of one of the TV talk shows best known for putting private melodrama on a public stage.

Stephen Friedfeld, one of the founders of AcceptU, an admissions consulting firm, told me that in the essay of a student he and his colleagues worked with this year, he encountered a disorder he’d never heard of before: cyclic vomiting syndrome. And Friedfeld and his colleagues huddled over the wisdom of the student’s account of his struggle with it. Would it seem too gross? Too woe-is-me?

Their solution was to encourage the student to emphasize the medical education that he’d undertaken in trying to understand his ailment. They also recommended that he inch up to the topic and inject some disarming humor. Friedfeld said that the final essay began something like this: “In my Mom’s car? Yep, I’ve done it there. As I’m waiting in line to eat my lunch in school? Yep, I’ve done it there.” The “it” was left vague for a few sentences.

Right now, during the summer months between the junior and senior years of high school, many kids who’ll be putting together their college applications in the fall start to sweat the sorts of essays they’ll write. And as they contemplate potential topics, some of them go to highly emotional places.

“Being a little vulnerable can give great insight into your character,” said Joie Jager-Hyman, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth College and the president of College Prep 360, which helps students assemble their applications. “I’ve had successful essays on topics like ‘my father’s alcoholism’ or ‘my parents got divorced because my dad is gay.’ ”

She’ll shepherd students through four or more drafts. Michele Hernandez, another prominent admissions counselor, runs one or more sessions of an Application Boot Camp every summer in which roughly 25 to 30 kids will be tucked away for four days in a hotel to work with a team of about eight editors on what she told me were as many as 10 drafts of each of three to five different essays. The camp costs $14,000 per student. That doesn’t include travel to it, the hotel bill, breakfast or dinners, but it does include lunch and a range of guidance, both before and during the four days, on how students should fill out college applications and best showcase themselves.

Hernandez, Jager-Hyman and others in the booming admissions-counseling business try to steer students away from excessively and awkwardly naked testimonials, which can raise red flags about students’ emotional stability and about their judgment.

“Admissions officers pay as much attention to students’ choice of essay topic as they do to the details in their essays,” Motto told me.

He added that admissions officers can sniff out an essay that a student got too much help on, and he told me a funny story about one student he counseled. He said that the boy’s parents “came up with what they thought was the perfect college essay,” which described the boy as the product of “an exceptionally difficult pregnancy, with many ups and downs, trips to the hospital, various doctor visits.”

“The parents drafted a sketch of the essay and thought it was terrific,” Motto said. Then they showed it to their son, “and he pointed out that everything mentioned happened before he was born.” He ended up choosing a topic that spoke to his post-utero life as a math lover who found a way to use those skills to help patients at a physical rehabilitation center.

THE blind spots and miscalculations that enter into the essay-writing process reflect the ferocious determination of parents and children to impress the gatekeepers at elite schools, which accept an ever smaller percentage of applicants. Students are convinced that they have to package themselves and communicate in entirely distinctive fashions.

“We argue that one of the ways to help your case is to show that you have a voice,” said André Phillips, the senior associate director of recruitment and outreach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But in that effort, sometimes students cross the line. In trying to be provocative, sometimes students miss the point.”

Motto said that one Yale applicant “actually described himself as one of the world’s great Casanovas” and said that his amazing looks inspired envy in other boys and competition among girls vying for his affection.

In response to several essays about emotional trauma, Motto contacted the students’ secondary schools to make sure that the applicants were O.K. He said he called the guidance counselor at the school of the girl who had urinated on herself, expressing concern about the essay and about whether she might be sabotaging her own application. He said that the counselor was aware of the essay and as baffled by it as Motto was.

The girl didn’t get into Yale, Motto said. Neither did the boy who mulled his genitalia. And neither did Casanova. There were apparently limits to the reach of his legendary sexual magnetism, and the Gothic spires and ivy-covered walls of a certain campus in New Haven lay beyond them.

By Frank Bruni

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Comparing Colleges’ Net Prices Is Tricky, in More Ways Than One

Most students choose a college based in large part on what it’s going to cost them. So when the federal government started collecting and publishing average net prices by income group at individual institutions, consumer-information advocates cheered. People would be able to see which colleges were most affordable for families like theirs.

But as my colleague Soo Oh and I report here, the numbers don’t actually allow for good comparisons when it comes to wealthy colleges with generous need-based aid.

Those colleges tend to look at income in two ways that can produce very different numbers for the same family. And in reporting net-price data to the government, institutions are not all categorizing students in the same way. Some put them into income groups using the federal measure of income, while others use the institutional figure. So what looks like an apples-to-apples comparison of colleges’ affordability really isn’t. Read more about that here.

Now that the data exist, however, they cry out for such comparisons. One question that has emerged is how low-income students can possibly pay as much as they appear to be at some elite colleges. But the confusion about who goes in which category isn’t the only problem with the government’s net-price-by-income data. The averages by income group are based only on first-time, full-time freshmen who receive federal financial aid—grants, loans, or Work-Study. For public colleges, only in-state students are counted.

At many colleges, all of that provides a good representation of what students actually pay, at least for those who come in as freshmen and enroll full time.

But for elite colleges, the averages are less reliable. Smaller shares of students there receive federal aid, in part because many of them are from wealthy families. But others who might not get a cent of federal aid the colleges still consider needy. Even if those students get big price breaks from their institutions, they won’t show up in the data.

Now the averages should pull in most of the elite colleges’ low-income students, because they would qualify for federal Pell Grants. The data would not, however, include low-income international students who are getting institutional but not federal aid.

At higher income levels, the data are much less comprehensive. The only federal financial aid higher-income students usually get is student loans. Some wealthy colleges include loans in students’ financial-aid packages, but others don’t. Some students borrow; many do not. That means only a fraction of higher-income students are represented in the published net prices, which may or may not match the actual averages.

So what proportion of elite colleges’ student bodies are the government’s average prices based on? In other words, what share of students receive some form of federal financial aid?

The Chronicle calculated the percentage of first-time, full-time freshmen whose net prices count toward the government averages at each institution in the Top 25 Liberal-Arts Colleges and the Top 25 National Universities, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report (minus the military-service academies). Of the group, Grinnell College had the largest share of its freshman class represented: 62 percent. The share was smallest at Princeton University: 16 percent. When we averaged the percentages of all the colleges, it came to about 40 percent.

So even if all elite colleges categorized students into income groups in the same way, the government’s net-price data still wouldn’t give us a very good sense of what most of their students are paying.