Saturday, September 26, 2015

I Went To The College Board Counselor Workshop 2015 And Here's What I Think

On September 17th I attended the CollegeBoard's 2015 Counselor Workshop at the University of Richmond. I was eager to go for several reasons; partly because I'd never been to one before (my last school was located a bit off the beaten path), partly because the University of Richmond has one of the most beautiful college campuses I've ever seen, and mainly because the program promised to go in depth about the changes to the SAT, which is highly relevant to my new job with Method Test Prep. I thought the session was very interesting, and many of the attendees seemed to find it to be quite informative. I don't think I'd go that far, and to me what wasn't said resonated more than what was said.

The workshop took place from 9am until noon in a large flexible space at the University's student center. There were about 140 chairs and all of them were full, with some people standing at the back; based on what I could figure out, the audience was guidance counselors from local schools from the surrounding counties. I tip my hat to the CollegeBoard for making sure that there would be plenty of chances to go to a workshop--there were nine in Virginia, taking place all over the Commonwealth, and a similar number in other states. All of the attendees received a nice totebag filled with College Board posters, notepads, presentations and a flash drive with digital versions of almost all of the files included. Well done, CollegeBoard!

The meeting began with U of R Dean of Admission Gil Villanueva welcoming us to campus (the event was staffed by admissions office people and there was a chance for tours after it was over), telling us that he thought it was time to reconfigure the SAT, and that he thinks the new test will be a good one. He also noted that when he polled members of the Southern Consortium of Colleges, there was no consensus on how schools would use the new writing section of the SAT. Considering that after a decade of the current writing section, there are still a great number of colleges that ignore it, this doesn't bode well for students. They might be tempted to avoid the optional essay (it's 50 minutes long), but then find out that one of their schools requires it. I expect that this will be an area of confusion for students and counselors for years to come.

While the PowerPoint presentation contained information about all of the CollegeBoard's products, services and efforts (including Advanced Placement, Fee Waivers, the "4 or More" movement, and the CSS PROFILE), the focus of the morning was the new SAT and the new PSAT. The current SAT that we know and love (loathe?) will be administered four more times (October, November, December and January), so students in the class of 2016 will not need to worry about the redesigned test. But starting in March, the test will be reconfigured and scores recalculated, which means all other high school students need to be aware of what they will face; and in a cruel twist, the PSAT, which is administered in October to 11th graders to find National Merit Scholarship candidates will be modeled after the NEW test, not the current one. While this makes sense (it would not be useful practice for Juniors to take a PSAT that doesn't look like the SAT they will face), it is tough, because there has not been much time for students to prepare for the new exam--I expect scores will be much lower than on previous years' PSATs.

The speaker started by discussing the "SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark", which is a score 1550 out of 2400 possible points (just slightly above the national average). I've written about this previously, and at that time I concluded that income inequality and lack of access to test prep and Advanced Placement made the CollegeBoard's analysis suspect. Three years later, the numbers are still stark: only 41.9% of SAT takers met the benchmark, but as bad as that sounds, only 16.1% of African-Americans met the goal, and only 22.7% of Hispanic Americans achieved the benchmark. This would be extremely alarming if the test actually measured "college readiness" (whatever that is), but even in the real world, it is worrisome. 

Supposedly, the revised SAT will be even better at predicting readiness by changing the number and types of questions asked on the test. Having seen the examples that the CollegeBoard has released, I am confident in the following two conclusions:
  • the new SAT will be much more like college-prep level academic work
  • the new SAT will be much harder for students, especially for the first few administrations
My colleague, Evan Wessler, has analyzed the scoring scales for the new test and he has observed that the CollegeBoard has made the test harder in the math section (including the new "no calculator math" section, or as we called it back in the 1980's "math") and will adjust the scoring so that students will only need, for example, 41% correct answers to earn a 500, as opposed to the current 57%. The math section will cover "the math that matters most": algebra, ratios, proportions and statistics. Only 10% of the test is geometry and trigonometry. In other words, I was right back in 1985 when I told Mrs. Hoffman that geometry didn't matter!

Having looked closely at the new sections called "Reading" and "Writing and Language", I am deeply concerned for my former students. I taught US History to very smart high schoolers at an elite prep school for the last dozen years, and I feel that many of them will struggle on this new test. The CollegeBoard has committed to adding questions about "Founding Documents and the Great Global Conversation", and when I taught many of these in my class, students had difficulty with the archaic, complex vocabulary. Not sure what I mean? Take a look at this table from the presentation:

The vocabulary question in the lower left is very easy to answer: just ignore everything before the blank, and choose which of 5 words can be defined as "unpredictable and given to constantly shifting moods". The CollegeBoard claims that the words on this list are simply "SAT words", and will not be useful to the average person. I don't want to engage in that argument, but take a look at the words in the new question shown at lower right. Students will see multiple questions based on a passage with 6-8 paragraphs like this one. I can see kids getting lost and confused, and maybe just giving up and guessing, which doesn't help assess readiness of any kind at all. I was disappointed that the presenter never mentioned the relative difficulty of the new test.

It is far too early to tell just what colleges will even do with the new test data. Unfortunately, for reasons that I can only conclude are unwholesome, some colleges have already declared that applicants from the class of 2017 will be obligated to send new SAT scores, discouraging them from getting a head start and trying to get good scores on the outgoing test. The presenter told us that Virginia Tech would be among those schools , and a member of the audience said that she had heard that James Madison University and the University of Virginia would require it as well. My limited experience with UVA makes me doubt that they will be very explicit about this, because I can't imagine that they will want to risk what look like lower scores among their freshman class of 2021. After this post went live I heard from UVA, who confirmed that class of 2017 applicants will NOT be required to take the new test.

The CollegeBoard is fully committed to "transparency" and as a result, they promise that students will receive highly detailed information about which aspects of the test they did best on, and what they specifically need to improve. As of September, however, the boffins in the lab had yet to create a mockup of an actual score report, so it is vaporware at this date. Another way they expect to increase transparency is that the PSAT will be a slightly simplified version of the new test. Instead of a scoring scale up to 240, the new test will be scored on a 1600 point scale just like the new SAT (actually, a 1520 scale because it will omit the hard questions). 

Unfortunately, this transparency will extend to the material sent to colleges: every college that gets student score reports will see the detailed subscores showing all of a student's strengths and weaknesses. This is less troubling to me than it sounds on the surface (because I doubt that colleges will actually want to spend time looking that deeply), but it is clear that the score reports for the new test will be quite different from what colleges are used to seeing. Supposedly the College Board will have a concordance between the current test and the new test by June. Then a concordance to the concordance will be created to equate new SAT scores to the ACT.

Oh right! The ACT. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised, but the CollegeBoard presentation did not mention the OTHER standardized test that colleges consider when making their admissions decisions (unless they are on the list of test optional schools, or unless they are my alma mater, Hampshire College, which doesn't allow applicants to submit test scores, and they are doing just fine, thank you). That said, widespread murmurings among the counselors indicated that more than a few will be advising students to prepare for the ACT, and to avoid risking the confusion attendant with a brand new test. One person asked if her students would be "guinea pigs", which elicited an emphatic negative from the presenter. But how else can you characterize the students taking the PSAT and the new SAT in March (and maybe in May)?

At the risk of burying the lede, one very positive change that the CollegeBoard wanted to announce was their partnership with Khan Academy to provide "personalized", "official" test prep for free. In the interest of full disclosure I have to acknowledge that  I am a part of the test prep industry, but I think that the association with Khan is a great step. The Khan Academy SAT resource has been available for a few months, and according to the presenter it will continue to evolve. My colleagues and I have all used it, and it is nice; it's similar in some ways to what companies like Method Test Prep offer, but lacking in other areas.  The presenter told us multiple times that she "can't wait to show" us Khan's features, but bewilderingly, she never did. The one feature she did tout was the "personalization", whereby students can choose to share their scores with Khan Academy and using their past performance, the program will suggest lessons and practice questions for them. It sounds nice, but I wonder how it will work in practice. 

Years of experience has shown that the students who get the most from test prep are the ones who put the most into test prep. No matter how personalized, students will still need to be motivated and committed to put in the time. I think it is laudatory that the College Board, Khan and the Boys and Girls Clubs are all trying to reach lower income and first generation college students, but it is still in the service of administering a test that does not predict college success, and that helps maintain the privilege of wealthier, whiter young people. Needless to say, this was not a viewpoint that was expressed during the workshop.

The workshop concluded with a presentation by Cynthia Deffenbaugh, the University of Richmond's Vice President of Financial Aid. She gave a very useful talk on "myths" about financial aid. The overriding point is that financial aid exists, that students don't have to become victims to college debt, and that financial aid officers want to help families pay for their children's educations. These were excellent points! I will say that as a college student in the late 1980s my friends and I thought that the financial aid office was our adversary. This was patently false (and stupid on my part,) considering that the only reason I could go to what was then the most expensive college in America was very generous aid. In my career as a college counselor I have come away convinced that financial aid officers take seriously the mission to help students, and I encourage families to try to build good relationships with the aid office. 

In conclusion, I am very glad to have attended the College Counselor Workshop. I commend the College Board for making an effort to make sure that important information is disseminated as widely as possible. There were many points in the presentation where it was evident that information that had been published on the web for months came as a total surprise to large groups of the counselors in attendance, so just for that reason, the session was valuable. I also commend them for trying to make their test more relevant. 

I think the thing that troubled me the most was the way that the presentation treated CollegeBoard products and services as indispensable tools for college counselors to employ while helping their students. Leaving aside for a minute the way that the ACT was completely ignored, I think it is wrong for the CollegeBoard to present themselves as partners with college counselors.  I now work for a for-profit company, and I present myself as a former college counselor who is concerned with the college admissions process. I love to have a chance to help my former colleagues help their students have access to high quality test prep resources, but I am not really in the college counseling business anymore. I found the packets that we received explaining the college process (and putting College Board products front and center) to be commercial at best and sneaky at worst. Students can go to the college of their dreams without ever sitting through an SAT, taking an AP class, or sending a dollar (or a fee waiver form) to the CollegeBoard, and that's the way it should be. 

Have you been to a College Board workshop? Are you concerned about the new SAT? Please share your experiences or thoughts in the comments section below.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Private School College Counselor Learns About Independent College Counselors

Since I started working for Method Test Prep this summer, I have had the chance to speak with school guidance counselors and administrators from all over the country, as our company partners with schools to provide access to high quality test preparation materials to students. When I was told that we also make partnerships with independent educational consultants (IECs), I was surprised, because I didn't think that was a large market. Boy, was I wrong! Like many, I was aware of the (thankfully, isolated) stories of parents paying tens of thousands of dollars for what they hoped would help their child gain admission to a most selective college, but in the last two months I've had the chance to meet and get to know quite a few IECs, and it turns out that there are thousands of people providing private college consulting to clients in the United States, and many more working overseas to help students gain admission to American colleges and universities. Independent counselors offer a wide array of services to their clients, at a wide range of prices, and are fully equal members of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), the same group that school based counselors and college admissions officers belong to. The more I've spoken with the IECs the more I realized that they fill a valuable niche in the college admissions process, and their efforts complement the services offered by schools while also offering specialized services to specific audiences. Since other counselors or parents may be like me and have limited experience with independent counselors, I wanted to share the information I've gained from my conversations with these professionals.


Between 1996 and 2015 I was a teacher at small, private, day and boarding schools in New England and Pennsylvania, and for the last eight years I served as a college counselor.  During my career I came to take for granted the excellent college counseling resources my schools provided including, but not limited to:

  • counselors who knew their students very well, often serving as their teachers, advisors and coaches in addition to their formal college guidance relationship.
  • counselors who worked with a manageable number of students. I never had more than 25 seniors and 25 juniors to work with at any given time, for instance (though I also taught 3 classes and coached a varsity sport).
  • a school culture that emphasized college above all else, and provided counselors with ample travel budgets to go visit schools all over the country (and in some cases blog about them).
There is no doubt that the college counseling department is one of the main reasons why parents choose to send their children to private schools, and it is probably the best reason; after all, great teachers can work at any kind of school, small class sizes don't always result in better educational outcomes, and there can be an opportunity cost of spending thousands of dollars on secondary (let alone primary) education. But having experienced college counselors who are able to focus strictly on the college process (as opposed to social and personal counseling) is a distinct advantage. 

We can contrast this to my own experience when I attended high school in the 1980's. My school, in a suburb of Philadelphia, had over 1,800 students for grades 10-12; there were 600 students in my graduating class, of whom about 250 went to college following graduation. The school had 6 guidance counselors who were responsible for academic advising, college counseling, personal counseling and processing forms (such as working papers and absence excuses). My counselor was very friendly and refreshingly honest, but I was disappointed when he told me that since my plan was to go to college out of Pennsylvania, he wouldn't be able to help me much. You can dismiss this as a relic of Reagan era policies, but the overload has only become worse over time. During the Great Recession, states slashed education budgets, cities lost tax revenue, and guidance counselors were among the first positions cut. In Philadelphia, for instance, schools with less than 1,500 students only had one counselor in 2014. It is hard to imagine that such overworked professionals can give meaningful help to their students, despite the best of intentions. 


I've spoken to over a dozen independent consultants from all over the country (and to two who work with students in Europe), and in my conversations I learned that their outlook, approach, and styles are very similar to that of mine and my school-based colleagues. In fact, many of them have spent years working in public and/or private schools prior to striking out on their own. Like me, they want to make sure that families focus on "fit" and work to make sure that students put their best foot forward throughout the admission process. This shouldn't be a surprise; after all, most of their clients are public school students whose parents worry that their children will not get close attention from school guidance counselors. These parents feel that several hundred or a few thousand dollars targeted on college guidance is a more efficient use of their economic resources than tuition to a private school. 

That said, all of the IECs I spoke with told me that they also work with students at private schools. What was interesting to me was that a fairly common refrain was that private school college counselors do not welcome the chance to partner with IECs. More than one independent counselor told me that they feel distinctly unwelcome at gatherings of college counselors, and that private school college counselors have told their students that they think it is redundant for students to seek help outside of the school. As a result, some have left it up to students and their families to decide whether or not to share with school counselors the fact that they are also working with IECs. 

When I first heard this I was disappointed, but I heard it over and over again. My personal perspective is that students should get help from as many sources as they can (such as college counselors, parents, clergy or other advisors) and I know that I never worried about competition. More than one IEC I spoke with told me that they don't want to replace school college counselors, they just want to help students use their school counselors to the best of their ability.  I feel bad for students who think that they have to hide something from their college counselor, because I always strove to have a very open and honest relationship with the kids I worked with. 


In my role as a college counselor it was very convenient for me to find students at school and I could pretty much always meet with them face to face whenever I needed to. Working as I did at a boarding school, I was used to interacting with students day and night, and often responded to emails at all hours. I was very impressed to learn that IECs also tout their willingness to work with students when they need it, and how expertly they use modern technology to make this possible. Many of the IECs use Skype or FaceTime to video chat with students, and nearly all of them use GoogleDocs to collaborate on personal essays. An unexpected (to me) benefit of this is that the independent counselor and her student do not need to be in geographical proximity. Some of the IECs work with students from multiple states (and countries); they find that working on their own allows them to adjust as necessary to time zone differences and give the kids the help they need when they need it. What this means is that families can choose the best IEC they can find, and do not necessarily need to restrict their search to the local area.

In my experience, families usually seemed to trust the school's college guidance department and I did not encounter many "helicopter parents". I asked each of the IECs about their clients, and specifically asked who they thought they worked for. I was very interested to learn that nearly all of them perceive the students as their primary client. That said, none of them will start working with a student without having at least one (preferably face to face) meeting with parents to go over expectations. While the college search is mainly up to the student, the decision of where to matriculate is a full family decision. In many cases I worked with students for years and never interacted with their families, so I think it is excellent that IECs make a point to meet the parents.


In my previous job I would start to work with students in 10th grade, at which point I would introduce college search tools available on Naviance and on the web, describe the general college timeline and come up with a standardized testing plan. In 11th grade I would meet with students in December and based on an in-depth interview, generate a preliminary list of 20+ colleges for them to research. Students were encouraged to reshape the list on their own by August of 12th grade, and meanwhile we spent time honing Common Application essays. Once senior year began kids would have a final list of schools, and we would work closely to make sure that the applications were filled out completely and effectively. By "effectively", I mean that I worked to help make sure that when students described their roles in various activities they did so in the most helpfully descriptive way possible. I also wrote the school statement, and shepherded teacher recommendations. 

Independent counselors do not have the opportunity to write a recommendation for their students, and they often do not know the teachers at their clients' schools, but otherwise the work they do is pretty similar to what I did. That said, for every parent who starts working with an IEC in 10th grade, there are more who don't hire someone until senior year, which naturally makes things much more intense and rushed. Nevertheless, the IECs I spoke to strive to get to know their students well enough to provide meaningful advice. Many described to me the approaches they take with students to help them decide which teachers to ask for recommendation letters. I was surprised to hear that it was essentially the same conversation I had despite my having the advantage of knowing the teachers and their reputations (as well as their letter-writing ability).

Like me, independent counselors visit colleges and universities to build their "college knowledge" and quite a few of them make an effort to meet with traveling representatives of college admission offices. Another interesting thing I learned is that many IECs specialize, choosing to work with, say, athletes, or artists, or international students. This specialization can give them a wealth of detailed information that can help students in that particular niche. In my own experience, I was more of a "generalist"; but I think that if families can find someone who can prove that they have extensive experience working with a particular group of students it may well be worth the cost to form a working relationship.


When I first set out to talk with independent counselors, I was curious how they set their prices and how they felt about charging for their services. Several of the IECs I spoke to had received a professional certificate through UCLA, or other institutions and they told me that pricing was an important subject they learned about during that process. Others surveyed their markets--New York City, for instance, can bear much higher fees for service than my new hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Some told me that they actually struggle with the fee-for-service model and have considered returning to work at a school.

Parents pay for private college counseling either directly (when they hire an IEC) or indirectly (when they send their child to a private school). In my previous job it was easy to think that I was above any commercial interests, but that was just me being delusional. A college education might be the most expensive thing anyone ever buys, and parents are justifiably worried about "getting it right" for their offspring.  If families can afford it, why wouldn't they want to invest a little money upfront to make sure that their children can attend the college that will fit them the best? And just like any good private school will strive to create a financial aid package to allow qualified kids from lower and middle income families to afford the cost of attendance, many of the IECs I spoke with told me that they have sliding cost scales and often do pro bono work.  

If you are a parent or student considering hiring an IEC, you might want to consider asking the following questions:
  • What is your background? Have you worked in college admissions? A high school guidance office? - There is no "right" answer, but more experience helps.
  • What national and/or international organizations do you belong to?- Again, this might not mean very much, but if they at least make an effort to keep up with best practices and current trends it will augur in their favor.
  • How often will we meet (face to face or electronically) and what will those meetings cost?- The optimal numbers here may be up to you, but it will be good to get expectations (and requirements) in writing at the outset. Also, knowing the sum of predicted expenses at the start of the process can avoid any unfortunate surprises and the acrimony that can accompany them.
  • What will you do to make sure that the student completes assignments on time?- Teenagers rarely listen to their parents, but they often listen to other adults. It is likely that an IEC will be able to get your student to meet deadlines, but you might want to inquire what methods the counselor uses, and how successful they have been.

This article only skims the surface of what I learned in my discussions with independent college counselors. I learned a lot about a side of my own business to which I had previously been largely ignorant. I came away from my discussions very inspired by professionals who, like me, are strongly motivated to help young people achieve their dreams. If you are an independent counselor I applaud you and encourage you to keep up the good work. On the flip side, if you are a school-based counselor, I encourage you to see IECs as potential partners, not as competition.  

Sunday, August 9, 2015

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to the University of Virginia

In early August I visited the University of Virginia, the flagship university in the Commonwealth, and a perennial presence on "top public universities" ratings lists.  I attended an information session with about 100 people in attendance, and then took part in a student-led tour. The University is quite old, having been founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 (only a few years after Lycoming College--which I've previously featured--opened its doors) and boasts a sprawling campus (or "Grounds", as they say at UVA) with red-brick buildings and abundant, ancient looking trees. For many people, it is probably the consummate college campus. As I noted previously, I've recently moved to Virginia and since then I have been struck by the respect accorded to UVA; it is the most desirable college destination for the majority of the prep school audience I've met, even more than well-known private universities. Among many anecdotes that have been related to me, I heard a story about a student who was admitted to UVA and Princeton, whose friends and family could not understand why the choice of UVA wasn't automatic!  Despite temperatures near 100ยบ, and a tour and info session that left a lot to be desired, I enjoyed my visit to the University and as I've learned more about it, I agree that it is an extremely impressive place. Any student with excellent grades and test scores interested in a university with great traditions and campus culture (as well as great weather) should give UVA a serious look. 

University of Virginia At A Glance

A little over 15,000 undergraduates (approximately 54% men/ 46% women).
Programs of Study:
84 majors across one College (Arts & Sciences) and six Schools (Architecture, Leadership & Public Policy, Commerce, Education, Engineering & Applied Science, Nursing). Bachelor, Master and Doctorate degrees awarded--approximately 6,400 graduate students attend UVA.
NCAA Division I; 23 varsity teams (11 women's, 12 men's); numerous intramural sports.The baseball team was the NCAA Division I National Champion in 2015.
Campus Life:
Over 900 clubs and organizations on campus. 30 fraternities and 16 sororities; about one-third of the campus participates in Greek life. All first-year students live on campus and housing is guaranteed for all four years. Downtown Charlottesville, a quintessential college town, is a short walk away.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $56,500 for out of state students ($27,000 for Virginians). UVA is, remarkably, need-blind in admission for American citizens. Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the CSS PROFILE. UVA will meet 100% of demonstrated need, and the average aid package for first-year students is just about $25,000.
UVA has Early Action and Regular Decision options. EA has a deadline of November 1, and the RD deadline is January 1. Students use the Common App with supplemental essays.
SAT or ACT. Mid 50% of the old scale SAT are 1870-2180 (CR+M+ W) and 28-33 for the ACT. ACT takers should make sure to choose the ACT with writing option, and scores from TWO SAT Subject Tests are "strongly recommended", including the Math II test for anyone planning a major in the sciences.

Amphitheater near The Lawn at UVA
The University of Virginia is located in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is about 70 miles west of Richmond and 120 miles south of Washington, D.C. Charlottesville is a small city (c. 45,000) in the central part of the commonwealth. Charlottesville has a thriving shopping, dining and arts culture and with a third of the population made up of University students, it is a major college town. Like many college towns, there is a good music scene; unfortunately we also have Charlottesville to blame for the Dave Matthews Band, but no place is perfect.   

UVA is a truly venerable institution; not only was it founded by Thomas Jefferson nearly two hundred years ago, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its cultural and historical importance. The campus definitely feels old, but it is extremely well-maintained. I saw signs of maintenance and renovation all around me. Some of the most desired student rooms, for instance, were part of Jefferson's "Academical Village" design and centuries later, the single rooms with fireplaces and ancient wood floors are still in use. As befits an old, established institution, there are many customs and traditions that must be adhered to, as well as nomenclature unique to the University. This video gives a good overview--learn the lingo and impress the locals if you visit!
The Rotunda-Jefferson's original library-is undergoing a
two-year renovation. It should reopen in 2017.

Despite its size, UVA prides itself on "feeling like a smaller, private college", as we were told during the information session. The admissions dean also noted that the majority of students studied in the College of Arts and Sciences, which is "the quintessential liberal arts experience", with over 2000 different courses to choose from. UVA claims the highest four year graduation rate among state universities. 

One way to help make this a reality is that professors are relatively accessible; some hold office hours in the library cafe spaces and all first-year students take a seminar with 20 or fewer students taught by a tenured faculty member.  While there are definitely many large lecture courses (with smaller discussion sections led by teaching assistants), 84% of undergraduate classes have 50 or fewer students and 55% have fewer than 20. My tour guide just finished her second year at UVA, and she had a class this past semester with six students.

Virginia has 23 varsity sports, all of which compete at the NCAA Division I level (football is a Division I-A program). One very odd feature of my info session and tour was the utter lack of information about sports or recreational athletics. This was the only college I've ever visited that did not show me a gym, or a student work-out facility and the information session didn't mention sports at all, which considering that the baseball team are national champions, seemed like low-hanging fruit.

This was also the only tour I've ever been on that didn't go to either a dining facility or a dorm. Many colleges omit the dorms for security reasons, but I've never not been to a dining area. Despite the recent trend against it, I find it surpassingly strange that admissions offices won't try to take people through a freshman dorm, and security concerns are a bad excuse. It can't be hard to give tour guides a swipe card to get them into a building, and I can't imagine that it is very disruptive to campus life to provide these tours. To a certain degree all dormitories look alike (and having worked at three boarding schools, and visited about 50 colleges and universities, I know what I'm talking about) but for students and parents who are considering a life-changing decision, every bit of information is important. That said, UVA does have photographic tours of all of their dorms on their website.

According to my tour guide, there are three dormitory areas for first years: "Old", "New" and "Gooch-Dillard". The first two are traditional hall-style dorms, and the latter is a suite-style arrangement. "Old" was build in the 1950's and lacks air-conditioning. This sounds like a nightmare to me (having visited on an incredibly hot day), but my tour guide insisted that her third floor room was perfectly comfortable with just a box fan in the window.  Students who are sensitive to heat may want to investigate this further. As far as dining options go, we were told that the food "isn't bad, but enjoy your mother's cooking while you can".

Montage of images from demonstrations
following Rolling Stone story. Marshall Bronfin
In 2015, another thing that must come to mind when people think of UVA is the story about "rape culture" at the University published in Rolling Stone in 2014. The story made specific allegations of gang rape, but was eventually retracted by the magazine after numerous journalistic failings (most notably, relying on a single source without fact-checking) were made public. When the article came out, however, there was uproar on campus, with a mass gathering in the Amphitheater drawing over 1,000 people, acts of vandalism against frat houses, and the temporary suspension of all Greek life at UVA.

I was disappointed that this was not mentioned in the info session. I have visited other universities that have been more outgoing about scandals and controversies. My tour guide broached the topic of fraternities and sororities in a way that made it sound like it was not very central to life at UVA. She told us that "30 percent of students are involved in Greek life, so if you like that, you will have 30 percent of students with you. But 70 percent of students are not in Greek life, and if you don't want to be, 70 percent of students will have your back." I asked her what it was like to be there during the controversy, and she indicated that it was hardly noticeable, because it happened so close to final exams, though she did acknowledge that Greek life (including her sorority) was temporarily suspended. She did go on to say that "even thought the story was falsified" it was productive because it led to the University adopting the "Green Dot" program of bystander training; she said that all faculty have been trained, and that all students will be trained over the next two years. She also noted that UVA was a safe campus, with escorts and blue light phones widely available and that the campus just got a grant to increase lighting by 50%. I was also impressed by a service that would provide vans "driven by off-duty policemen" within 2 miles of the center of the campus from midnight to seven in the morning, as well as one where students walking late at night could call a switchboard and talk to someone while walking home for an extra measure of security.

Circulation Desk in the Brown Science & Engineering Library
The University has numerous libraries on campus, all of which are open nearly around the clock. Typically they feature social areas (including cafe spaces) on the main floors and get progressively quieter as you descend to lower floors. Besides being places to research, sometimes libraries are sites for exams. UVA has one of the oldest student-run honor codes in the country. Students pledge not to lie, cheat or steal in Charlottesville, Albemarle County, or anyplace where they represent themselves as UVA students. Violators are expelled. Our tour guide described picking up a final exam at her professor's office and taking it to the library cafe to finish.

Outside Peabody Hall, home of the Admission Office
Students interested in applying to the University of Virginia should use the Common Application. Despite receiving over 30,000 applicants each year, we were assured in the info session that admission to UVA "is not numbers based" and that it is "holistic within reason".  According to the admissions dean who gave the presentation (and confirmed by multiple publications) the most important part of a student's portfolio is the high school transcript. Further, we were told that "grades and rigor" trump test scores. As an example, a B in a hard course would look better than an A+ in a lesser course. We were also told that "a B- on your transcript is nothing to worry about", though nothing was said about a C.

With my new job at Method Test Prep, I am particularly interested in the role of standardized tests in college admissions. All we were told about standardized tests was that "the stronger your score is, the better", which reminded me of the John Madden quote about football ("usually, the team that scores the most points wins the game"). Students need to submit either the SAT or the ACT with Writing, and are "strongly encouraged" to submit two SAT Subject Tests (with one being Math II if they are interested in majoring in science). The published test scores of admitted students are remarkably high: the SAT ranged from 1870-2180 and the ACT from 28-33. These eclipse the national averages by a considerable margin; the national average SAT score was 1497 in 2014, and the average composite ACT score was 21.

I believed the dean when she said that student applications are read closely, and I even believed her when she said that essays might be read "by up to 45 people". But I have trouble believing that numbers play no role in UVA admissions. According to their own numbers, UVA admitted 8,990 out of 31,028 of applicants for the class that entered in 2014. That is just about 29%, which puts UVA on the list of top 100 most selective institutions in America. They also say that 92% of their students were in the top 10% of their high school classes. It looks to me like students who are merely average would be better suited applying to other schools.

That said, UVA can claim some very impressive statistics, including a 97% retention rate, which indicates that the students who are admitted to the University really like it, and doubtless helps account for a 94% six-year graduation rate (tops among public universities) and the highest African-American graduation rate among public universities (for 20 straight years).

Like most state universities, there are two tiers of pricing for tuition, with non-Virginians paying more. All students (in-state or out of state) interested in applying to UVA must submit the FAFSA and the CSS PROFILE. It is unusual for a state school to require the CSS PROFILE (which costs money to complete), but UVA's financial aid policies are also unusual: they are "need-blind" in admissions and pledge to meet 100% of demonstrated need for all admitted students. This is truly amazing; the number of "need-blind" institutions has shrunk dramatically over the last decade, and state universities (which often depend on state revenue for part of their funding) are often quite parsimonious with financial aid. Outstanding students from families with middle income or lower should definitely consider the University of Virginia when compiling their college lists.

The University of Virginia has a great reputation in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and based on what I was able to see, it seems to be well-deserved. I think it is definitely worth a visit. That said, I would encourage prospective students and their families to visit during the school year, preferably over a day or so to be able to see the Grounds filled with students, to be able to check out the surrounding area, and to be able to ask to see dormitories, dining facilities, and maybe to sit in on a class. The late-summer tour was a little too much "tell" and not enough "show" for my tastes. Please let me know your thoughts about the University of Virginia in the comments below, and check out the other articles in this series.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Tips For Making A College Visit

As I noted in my last post, I was a college counselor for many years prior to working with Method Test Prep, and one of the most important pieces of advice I would give to my students was to encourage them to do whatever they could to visit the colleges to which they applied. 

High school students are inundated with direct emails from colleges, they have access to official websites and they get viewbooks and catalogs in the mail all the time. They might even happen upon this site: if you've followed the blog for awhile, you know that I’ve written about my own visits to many colleges for the past few years, and I will continue to do so in the future.  While all of these sources contain useful information, the best way to make a truly informed decision about a college is to spend some time on the campus. After all, students are choosing a home for the next four (or more) years of their lives! 

The following are some thoughts that might help you plan your visit and make it a successful one. 

It’s Almost Always A Good Time To Visit: College admission offices are open pretty much year round. They will typically have reduced hours during vacation periods in the school year (such as the week between Christmas and New Year’s), but they are generally willing and able to give campus tours all the time (though many are closed on Sundays). Visiting during the school year is preferred, so that you can see the campus in use, but any time you can be physically present at the college is good. 

While every college website is different, generally there is a link somewhere in the Admission (or, for a university, Undergraduate Admission) section called “Visit”, or “Visiting Campus” or something similar. Typically this will explain the hours that the Admission office is open, and might even have an online calendar that will let you sign up in advance for your visit. Which leads me to my next point…

Sign Up In Advance For Your Visit: While it can be fun to just take a detour on a long trip to drive through a college campus, or to figure that you learned everything you needed to learn during that soccer camp in seventh grade, you really only get the full experience if you attend the official information session and take a formal tour. And though I’ve never heard of a drop-in being turned away from these, it is only polite to let them know you are coming. 

There are also some benefits to registering for a visit, most significantly, it lets the college start a file on you. While this sounds a little Orwellian, it is really quite benign. The benefit to you is that colleges track “demonstrated interest”, and visiting their campus is a very tangible form of demonstrating your interest in their school. In the end, students who demonstrate more interest are more likely to be admitted than otherwise identical students who demonstrated less interest. If you are asked to pick a particular school or area of study for your tour just choose whatever sounds most interesting to you.

Bring A Camera And Take Lots Of Pictures: It is likely that you will visit more than one campus during your college search, and it can get confusing to remember which one had the cool library, and which one had the awesome student center, and which one had the nice dormitories. If you take a lot of pictures during your tour, and then make some notes about each of them, it will help you later on when you are deciding where to apply, or, hopefully, whose offer of admission to accept.

One strategy can be to make a Facebook (or a similar social media site) album  of your pictures and write captions for each image. An added bonus of this is if you share the album with your friends, you might be able to help them on their own college searches!

Ask Questions: During a campus visit you will typically have an information session of about an hour’s duration during which a member of the Admission office will give you a presentation about the college. The presentation is aimed at students and parents and often includes a video, a PowerPoint, and can seem very practiced (they do these every day, after all). If you are ever confused by something, or need something repeated, or simply want to follow up on a point, by all means raise your hand! The Admission officers are used to speaking to passive audiences, and they love to answer questions. Plus, it will help you take ownership of the process.

As an added bonus, introduce yourself when you ask the question so you can demonstrate even more interest. Finally, after the info session there will be a bathroom break before the tour. At that time, go up to the presenter, shake her hand, and thank her while making sure that she knows your name and where you are from. It is a great way to stand out from the crowd!

Dress Nicely, But Wear Your Most Comfortable Shoes: Especially on a vacation or a hot summer day it can be tempting to wear your most comfortable casual clothing, but you should treat a campus visit like a business trip. You don’t need to dress up, but a skirt or nice slacks for girls, and khakis and a collared shirt for boys will help show that you are serious about your visit. While it can be frustrating to dress like this only to find students at the school walking around in pajamas, remember that the difference is that they’ve already been admitted.

Footwear wise, sneakers are fine so long as they are comfortable. You will probably be walking for over an hour on your tour and may cover a couple of miles of  footpaths, steps and various buildings. Make sure your feet are happy so you can keep up with the group with a smile on your face. 

Have A Bite To Eat: Generally the info session and tour combo will be either in the late morning or early afternoon. Either way, you should get some lunch on campus! Since you will be probably be eating in the dining hall for the first year, and you will be paying a lot for the privilege, it will be good to sample the cuisine in advance.

Often the Admission office can give you and any traveling companions (parents, siblings) vouchers for the main dining hall; unfortunately this might not be an option during a vacation. You might have to call in advance to ask for cafeteria vouchers, but it is well worth the trouble. Besides getting some free food it will give you a good chance to observe campus denizens in their natural habitat. Watch how the students interact: do they seem happy? Careworn? You might pick up lots of valuable clues about life on campus while enjoying your meal.

I hope that you found these ideas to be useful, and I wish you luck on your college search travels!

UPDATE: Reader Sarah Contomichalos, an independent college counselor wrote me with some great tips of her own:

I write this while touring colleges with my own child and have two additions.... The first is not to rush your visit and spend some time in the surrounding town or neighborhood. This is particularly true for colleges outside of cities.  Second, if the student has an academic focus, suggest the student make an appointment with a member of that department. 
Super points Sarah!  Also, stay tuned for a blog post in early August about independent counselors--I look forward to your feedback on that topic as well. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Tip of the C.A.P. News--I Hope You Like Our New Direction

I hope that everyone is enjoying the beginning of a restful and enjoyable summer. I want to tell you about a big change here at Tip of the C.A.P. and explain how it will not change the overall approach of the blog. 

I have found my job in college counseling to be the most satisfying work I've ever done, as it gives me a feeling every day of having helped make positive contributions to students, their families and their futures. When my wife (who is the most amazing school librarian) was offered a new job at St. Catherine's School in Richmond, Virginia, we knew that we had to move from our home in Pennsylvania after a dozen years in the Keystone State. Such a major upheaval seemed to me to be a great chance to make a change in my own work situation. After nineteen years of working at independent boarding schools (St. Paul's SchoolGroton School and Wyoming Seminary), including the last eight years as a college counselor, I was interested in trying to find a position that would expand my knowledge of the college admissions business; I looked into jobs in college admissions offices as well as ones at high schools, when out of the blue an opportunity to move onto Method Test Prep presented itself. 

As of July 1, 2015 I will be an Account Executive for Method Test Prep with responsibility to increase the company's customer base. I am incredibly excited for this! I had been Wyoming Seminary's point person for Method Test Prep, and have been a supporter of MTP's self-paced web-based tool for several years.  One of the other things that impressed me about the company was their mission statement:
  1. To help students achieve more academically and to impact the families and schools we work with in a positive way.
  2. To be a great place to work.
  3. To run our business in the most intelligent way possible.

All three points sound great, but the first point resonates particularly strongly with me. I look forward to working with college guidance professionals in schools around the world who are interested in providing top notch SAT and ACT preparation for their students. I am also eager to show how Method Test Prep can help independent college counselors. 

If you've read this blog since the beginning (or scrolled through all the old posts) you know that I've written several posts revealing my dislike of standardized tests, such as:
I mentioned this to the founder of Method Test Prep, and he told me that he agreed. However, he feels strongly that as long as so many college and scholarship opportunities depend on success on standardized tests (tests which reward students who have prepared in advance) the best thing to do is to democratize access to test preparation and make it available to everyone at very low cost (the flagship product of Method Test Prep costs schools $2-$3 per student). This appeals to my social justice instincts, and makes me feel very good about working for the company.

While my job will be changing, the blog WILL NOT. If you have been a fan of the "So You Don't Have To" series describing my visits to colleges and universities you can count on more installments coming in the next few months. I also plan to continue to write reviews of books related to the college admissions landscape, and other topical articles. Thank you for your support over the last few years. I hope that you will continue to find the blog helpful, and I also hope that in my new position I will be able to work with you to help your students achieve their goals. 

Thanks for reading the blog!

Ethan Lewis

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"So You Don't Have To": A Visit to Lycoming College

At the end of April I visited Lycoming College, a private liberal arts college located in Williamsport, Pennsylvania (the home of the Little League World Series). Lycoming boasts a small, beautiful campus which puts everything a student needs (dorms, dining hall, gym, academic spaces, a charming quad) in very close proximity. The bulk of the campus can be traversed in about 5-7 minutes of average-paced walking yet it does not feel crowded or congested.  After he read some of the earlier posts on this blog, the Vice President of Enrollment Management at Lycoming invited me to visit his campus. I was already predisposed to like the college because several students from my school have attended over the years; I agreed to come out and take a look around, and I am so glad that I did! I think that Lycoming College is one of the best-kept secrets in higher education as it provides its students the kind of supportive, close-knit community of learners that many colleges strive for, but few achieve. I am glad to "spill the beans" (more about the beans later) and make Lycoming better known.

Lycoming College At A Glance

Just under 1,400 undergraduates (approximately 55% men/ 45% women).
Programs of Study:
28 majors, 58 minors and 23 concentrations in 24 programs. Bachelor degrees and teacher certifications.
NCAA Division III; 17 varsity teams (8 women's, 9 men's); numerous intramural sports.
Campus Life:
Over 80 clubs and organizations on campus. 4 fraternities and 5 sororities; about 30% of the campus participates in Greek life. All students live on campus. Downtown Williamsport is a short walk away, featuring multiple art galleries, restaurants and shops.
Costs & Aid:
Tuition, room & board and fees total just about $48,000 (tuition is around $35,000). Parents need to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). 100% of Lycoming students receive scholarships or grants ($27 million was awarded in 2014-15).
Lycoming has rolling admissions with a priority deadline of December 1. Applications should be received by March 1 at the latest. Students can use the Common App or Lycoming's own, free, application. Beginning in the fall of 2015, applicants can choose an Early Decision option.
SAT or ACT. Mid 50% of the old scale SAT are 1370-1680 (CR+M+ W) and 19-26 for the ACT. A test optional method is available to students who finish in the top half of their graduating classes (students must submit two graded writing samples). Students who opt for this choice are still eligible for all forms of financial aid offered at Lycoming.

View of the Quad from the deck of the Student Center
Lycoming College is located in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, which is about three hours from Philadelphia and from New York City. Williamsport is a small city (c. 30,000) in the central part of the commonwealth. Williamsport has a thriving art community (the city boasts four art galleries) and with the presence of Pennsylvania College of Technology in addition to Lycoming, it is something of a college town.  Lycoming is a truly venerable institution, having opened its gates in 1812 and the campus has a well-established feel to it, though everything I saw on my visit was updated and tidy. Lycoming has made a concerted effort to upgrade and improve their facilities; the building you can see on the right side of the picture above will be completely renovated this Summer, and a new science building addition will come into service in the Fall.

This map demonstrates the compact campus layout
When I arrived on campus I snapped the picture at right of the campus map; it shows just how cozy the campus is (though according to my iPhone I logged about 4,600 steps during my visit). My visit was a great introduction to what the Director of Admission called "Lyco Love", which is his name for the extremely personalized attention that is paid to all visitors to campus. I thought I was being treated specially, but it turns out that in addition to the standard campus tour many prospective students have the chance to meet with at least one professor and then have lunch with professors, students and admissions staff. I also was able to visit with President Kent Trachte, but I was told that even such a high-level meeting was not off-limits to applicants and their families. It is no surprise that a very high percentage of students who visit end up attending Lycoming; the college really knows how to make a visitor feel special.

This shows the library staff's sense of humor
Lycoming is a true liberal arts college and as such it encourages students to gain exposure to a wide range of ideas by requiring them to take at least two sciences, two fine arts, two mathematics, two social sciences, etc. during their tenure there. Multiple people told me that professors in introductory level courses grade students on effort and growth as much as on mastery of their subjects. There is also a strong culture of faculty and staff doing their utmost to help their students. One example was the library staff; they recently hosted an event where the library was open until 2am and professors were present the whole time holding late night study sessions. This was apparently an initiative of the librarians, but very few professors at most colleges would participate in a scheme like this. Way to go, Lyco!

The entry to the Science Building

Similarly, I was impressed to learn from President Trachte that the faculty handbook makes clear that teaching is the most important criteria considered when deciding to promote a professor or to award tenure.  I had several conversations with four professors and three students and they all confirmed that a highlight of their experiences at Lycoming was the close relationships that are formed between students and their teachers. My tour guide called her advisor "one of [her] best friends" and a former student of mine who is in her first year at Lycoming told me that she had visited with a favorite professor in his office until 10pm the previous evening; when he left she stayed and worked on her own until 3am. One of the professors I spoke with said that he feels like he lets his students down if he misses a football game and another told me that he treats his students like colleagues and friends. All of these anecdotes are heartwarming qualitative information, but President Trachte told me that Lycoming did a study using data from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) that compared Lycoming students feelings of "faculty-student engagement" against all colleges, all arts and sciences colleges, and the most selective colleges. He said that the results showed that Lycoming students experienced more interaction with their professors and a more favorable feeling toward the faculty than any of the comparison groups by a statistically significant amount. This is quite impressive, and I would definitely encourage a student seeking a small college, or the chance to find a faculty member mentor to seriously consider Lycoming. 

The multi-sport center with indoor track
Lycoming has seventeen varsity teams which compete at the NCAA Division III level. They also have multiple intramural sports and a very well-equipped gymnasium with a hardwood court, an Olympic sized pool, several weight rooms and a multi-sport center with room for three basketball courts (which hosts events like Relay for Life and doubles as indoor tennis courts!) and an elevated running track. Turf fields for football, soccer and lacrosse and a very nice softball stadium are about a ten-minute walk away from the campus near a municipal park.

Students interested in applying to Lycoming can use the Common App or Lycoming's own free application. Lycoming carefully evaluates applicants to make sure that they will be given the chance to succeed. The college is willing to work with students whose standardized test scores are average; SAT scores for accepted students range from 1440-1880, which are good, but not spectacular. Lycoming seems to place more emphasis on student grades (most accepted students were in the top half of their graduating classes) and other individual traits. Lycoming has rolling admissions, so applying by December 1st is wise, but they will continue to receive applications through March. To be considered for financial aid, parents need only complete the FAFSA. 

The dining hall
No campus review is truly complete without a discussion of the dining hall, and I can say that the food in the cafeteria was quite good. I had lunch and the options were wide and varied, from a very well-stocked salad bar and fresh fruit selection, to pizza and burgers (beef and veggie) with hand-cut french fries to "homestyle entrees" to made to order sandwiches to very nice looking baked goods (I'm told that the kitchen makes 2000 cookies each week). I was also impressed with the "allergy-free zone" that had a separate seating area and food prep areas. It also appeared that the vegetarian and vegan options were produced on separate equipment to make sure that students would be able to honor their dietary commitments. 

The administration building
Financial aid-wise, Lycoming has made a concerted effort in recent years to increase the amount of merit-based aid they award. President Trachte told me that they have increased the financial aid budget by 40% over the past five years. At this point, 100% of students receive grants or scholarships from Lycoming (which doesn't include need-based federal aid).  Lycoming also strives to build a diverse student body, and this year 23% of students identify as people of color. Lycoming has forged strong partnerships with inner-city charter school programs such as "YES Prep" from Houston, "Say Yes to Education" from Buffalo and KIPP from 24 cities across the country to try to recruit first-generation college students. This is a wonderful initiative and I applaud Lycoming for working to expand that demographic; I think it is important for the nation's future that underserved populations are given the chance to live and learn at our elite institutions.

Proof that Lycoming is in it for the long-term
And make no mistake: Lycoming wants to be considered an elite institution. President Trachte considers it a goal to become recognized as "one of the very best of the liberal arts colleges" and he believes that they have the resources to make it happen. Lycoming's endowment is over $200 million and is in the top 75 in the category of endowment per student. He praised his predecessor for ensuring the college's financial stability during the Great Recession and now he wants to use those resources to attract the best students and professors; build the best programs and facilities and raise the college's profile. The science building addition that will open in the fall will contain "highest-end planetarium available" and will provide the physics, astronomy and geology classes "a place to do modern science". A physics professor who toured me through the addition (we had to wear hard hats because of the frenzied construction work taking place) was practically giddy that "this building will open up so many possibilities for us--we don't even KNOW what we will do with it."

The physics professor's palpable excitement was due to Lycoming's campus culture of innovation. Anyone (student, faculty or staff) can come to the President's office to propose improvements and they are listened to carefully.

Some examples of innovative ideas that originated with members of the community and came to fruition were the relocation of Lycoming's art gallery to downtown; an outdoor dining area near the library; an expanded dining facility in the main academic building; and a really fascinating international project. I met two political science professors who told me the story behind "Warrior One Coffee". This project helps fund student travel to a remote village in the Dominican Republic where students from every discipline can have immersion experiences in a different culture while also pursuing social justice issues by helping the residents gain economic independence through the sale of their local coffee beans.

Lycoming encourages its students to participate in the life of the mind and to grow as academic practitioners. In addition to the off-campus art gallery there is a space on-campus that hosts rotating displays of student research and artwork. The walls of the academic buildings are covered with posters describing student research and the college is generous about funding student travel to academic conferences and research opportunities. One interesting way that they do this is through "May Term". This four-week session takes place after final exams and often involves individual and group study opportunities all over the world. There are several locations that affiliate with Lycoming, but the new coordinator of study abroad is quite willing to help students go anywhere they need to go. My tour guide will be spending time in Greece this summer to pursue her art studies. In keeping with the theme of encouraging student travel, tuition for travel abroad has been cut in half.

The Quad. Graduates depart campus from the steps in the distance.
I hope that after reading this post you can tell how much I enjoyed my visit to Lycoming, and how impressed I was by the campus, the people and the future of the institution. Having taught for 19 years at small independent schools, it is not uncommon to work with students who want to find a college that will give them the supportive environment they have experienced in high school and Lycoming is just that kind of college. The close personal relationships between teachers and students is inspiring, and the College's commitment to finding students who will be the best fit for the community is unwavering. Lycoming wants the best students they can get, but it is the kind of place that can bring out the best in solid students who were NOT the best in high school. They will fly prospective students into Williamsport to visit, and the personalized approach to the admissions process may very well turn their heads. Lycoming has excellent programs in art, archaeology (one of few programs that give undergraduates a chance to work in the "Old World" and the "New World") and business to name a few. They have recently won a grant from the Mellon Foundation to facilitate humanities and social science professor/student collaborative research; over the next two years, ten (of eighty total) professors will be supported in building new collaborative projects with their students.

The energy and excitement I saw on campus were contagious.  Lycoming may be have just begun their third century but their outlook is that of the upstarts who are in a hurry to make their mark. I strongly encourage any student considering a small liberal arts college to give Lycoming a long look.