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Admissions Essays Blog
Through our very own editors and guest writers, this blog will discuss the INSIDE scoop on the admissions process of various schools and programs. If you wish to ask a specific question, please write to us, and we will make every attempt to address your questions in our future blog discussions.
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Finding Solace in College Rejection
We're still muddling through March. College admissions and rejection letters are trickling in. With them, comes the heavy referendum on self-worth.

I've written many times about the positives on the college landscape. Most universities do accept students. College isn't everything. The best college isn't necessarily the one that is the hardest to get into.

But New York Times columnist Frank Bruni put things in a more elegant perspective than I could hope. He and I are of the same mind when it comes to college admissions as a threshold event in life. Yet, he reminds his readers of what college should be, a "singular opportunity to rummage through and luxuriate in ideas, to realize how very large the world is and to contemplate your desired place in it".

This, he says, is lost in the chaos of college admissions, which has evolved, in his words, to "a border to be crossed" instead of "a land to be inhabited and tilled for all that it is worth". College is a place, not a finish line. And if students are able to look at it as fertile ground, rather than a trophy, they will see that where they go doesn't matter in the long-haul.

In life, everyone has the potential to till the soil. So why do we treat college admission as an all-or-nothing affair? Potential does not evaporate with a rejection letter. Instead, we learn about disappointment, dusting ourselves off, and getting up again.

Like Bruni, I have put many years between me and my college experience. Which makes it a bit easier to be philosophical about its significance. Sometimes, however, grown-ups have had their knees scarred by experience. And it isn't so bad.

The full blog, and a moving letter from some very wise parents, can be found here:

NY Times

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Monday, March 23, 2015
Admission to the University of Everywhere
As college costs continue to rise and competition for admission accelerates to near impossible levels, more and more educators are discussing alternative paradigms in higher education. In his book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, author Kevin Carey envisions a sort of equal-opportunity utopia where universities no longer hold the best knowledge under lock and key.

His theories (impossible to consolidate into a short blog entry) are based upon the ubiquity of information now available to people via technology. This isn't too say that Google Scholar will offer the same education as Harvard. But the on-line "open university" model is one that is becoming increasingly viable.

Students who can't afford bricks and mortar universities are learning that education can be available at their fingertips. Such a model is also more workable for older students, and students who may already have families or full-time jobs. Carey talks specifically about an on-line course in Introductory Biology that he once took on line. It was essentially taped lectures from an MIT course. He took the same exams and read the same textbooks as the MIT students. What, then, he ponders, is the difference in the quality of the two educational experiences?

Carey's theory is based upon the idea that the entire college system is merely one that perpetuates privilege. We feel we need college in order to get better jobs. But college admission is largely limited to children who are already socio-economically privileged. Carey calls it not a system of opportunity but "a system of replicating privilege that already exists".

Exploring the cost-benefits of on-line education is just one way of unpacking the ways in which education could (and should) be made more accessible. Could the University of Everywhere really become a possibility?

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Monday, March 16, 2015
Name-Blind College Admissions
A few weeks back, I wrote about legacy admissions. In case you missed it, legacies in the college admissions context have to do with giving preference to children of prominent alumni. "Prominent" may mean anything from "famous to "generous donor". It sounds icky when you call it like it is-non merit-based preferences in a system that is supposed to be the ultimate meritocracy.

In reality, legacy admissions make sense, from a business perspective. Big names draw prestige. Prestige draws donations. Money makes institutions better. It may even be subtler than that. Prestige is its own life force. Universities with auspicious alumni are just treated differently. They are catalogued on a higher shelf in the collective consciousness.

So let's put aside my personal beef with legacies. (If they exist, so too should affirmative action. And I'm not sure how this all squares with meritocracy). A recent Washington Post blog reminded me that the eldest of President Obama's two daughters, Malia, is a senior in high school. This means she's currently touring colleges.

As the Post rather cumbersomely asks, "Imagine seeing 'Malia Obama' on a college-admission application". Well yes, let's. The daughter of a sitting U.S. President. For better or worse, people will be paying attention to the college of her choice. I know nothing of Ms. Obama's grades or test scores, but I'll go out on a limb and state the following: it would be a difficult name for an admissions officer not to notice.

What does this mean for college admissions? I see it as another reminder of just how impossible it is to keep the process wholly objective. Even assuming the President's daughter should be admitted based on her performance and not her name, it may not be reasonable to expect universities to separate the two.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015
College Admissions Disadvantage for Asian Students
There are myriad reasons why the discussion of race in college admissions is so ubiquitous-on this blog and elsewhere. Affirmative action cases have been tried in states across the country and appealed all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. No one can agree on the issue. It's an issue precisely because college is competitive, and no one wants to believe that anyone else has an unfair edge.

Most colleges admit to taking a holistic approach to college admissions. Even in states where race cannot officially be a consideration, it is one of many elements which admissions officers are allowed to contemplate when making an admission assessment. Without question, the two largest underrepresented racial groups are African-American and Hispanic students.

This blog, however, focuses on the effects of race in college admissions for Asian students. On campuses across the country, Asian students (both American and foreign born), account for larger numbers in the student population than in the general population. Asian students are stereotyped as being supremely academic, strong in the STEM subjects, and often less well-rounded than their Caucasian peers.

Foreign born Asian students often embody this stereotype precisely because of the high stakes academics that in fact form the pillars of academic systems in countries like China.

A recent LA Times article notes that certain college preparatory services recognize the "Asian stereotype" and base their advice on an acceptance of racial bias in college admissions. The sheer number of Asian students in colleges means that even a holistic approach to admissions means that some Asian students must necessarily be turned away. Asian students also struggle to set themselves apart from the cookie-cutter stereotyping of their races and cultures.

Is it possible for admissions to ever be utterly neutral? Can race be removed from the equation? Should it be? Does it need to be? It probably depends upon who you are asking. For more on the HS2 Academy:

LA Times

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Monday, February 23, 2015
College Admissions: Not as Scary as You Think
As March s l o w l y rolls into April for college hopefuls, I can't help but think two things. First-I'm glad it isn't me. I remember how excruciating the waiting game was. Second-I wonder if, like me, many students will actually be pleasantly surprised with their acceptances. Is college admissions really the nightmare it's made out to be?

It is stressful, for certain. And it is no doubt more competitive than it was when I did it a couple decades ago. However, so many of the "impossible odds" news stories and blogs center around the most elite colleges in the country. Those schools boast admission rates of under 10%, and suddenly, it seems like college is out of reach for everyone.

Actually, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reported in 2013 that the mean acceptance rate for four-year universities was 64%. That same report noted that 80% of colleges nationally accept 50% of applicants. Additional surveys have noted that the majority of those applying to college get into their first choice schools.

For those that don't apply to or get accepted to a four-year university, community colleges are always an option, and they shouldn't be viewed as just a fallback. Many community colleges offer outstanding curriculum and faculty. Some argue that community colleges boast a richer learning environment, since they are also filled with older students, those with families, and those who waited longer to pursue third-level education---in other words, people who have an even greater incentive to succeed.

Finally, most students know their limits. Before you ever send an application off to Harvard, you know whether or not it is a reach school or a total impossibility. Sure, Harvard has to turn away some pretty qualified candidates, but those students are highly unlikely to be turned away at every prominent school to which they apply.

The envelope or email should not be a complete surprise. And while college admission in general is not a slam-dunk, it certainly isn't the nightmare you might think.

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Monday, February 23, 2015
Guidance Counselors and College Admission
When I was in high school, I thought guidance counselors were there to steer students through the normal travails of high school. What classes to take. How to navigate social problems. Where to find a tutor. And though I vaguely recall them having college pamphlets on hand, I'm pretty sure college advising was only a small part of their role.

That has changed. And, as a recent NPR article points out, the socioeconomic divide between affluent and underserved schools is often best symbolized by the workload of the guidance counselor.

According to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), the recommended counselor to student ratio is 1:250. The average public high school guidance counselor oversees 471 students. As NPR notes, this is more than five times the number of students as most private high school guidance counselors.

Why does it matter?

Well, like most aspects of the college application process, the deck is stacked against poor students. They don't have the same financial/geographic access to standardized testing prep, such as SAT workshops and tutoring. They cannot afford private college consultants, or editors for their admissions essays.

Then there are the soft factors often linked with students from underserved populations, such as language barriers and being the first in their families to attend college.

This is where the guidance counselor should be able to step in and help level the playing field. Unfortunately, public schools simply can't afford to hire the number of counselors necessary to give students the kind of attention they need. And then there is the reality of salary to skill ratio. Private schools can afford to pay more, so they attract counselors with a greater skill-set.

Many organizations are trying to step up to support guidance counselors, in the hopes of giving students the preparation advice they need. But money talks, and even well-intended initiatives like the "Reach Higher" program backed by the White House won't level the playing field in a single admissions cycle.

Sadly, the disparity simply magnifies a problem with college admissions. Getting in is hard enough. As it currently stands, poor students are doing it with a hand tied behind their backs.

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Monday, February 23, 2015
Revelations at UT Law School Underscore Legacy Admission Concerns
In a damning 104-page investigative report released last week, it was revealed that University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers, routinely circumnavigated the admissions system, giving favorable advantage to select students.

The report notes that approximately 73 students with test scores and grades that fell below UT's traditional standards were admitted based upon the "bump" they received from Powers. A handful more of arguably unqualified candidates were admitted at the law school level with his assistance.

More disturbing is the fact that Powers put his thumb on the proverbial scale for several hundred candidates to the undergraduate and law school campuses. That these students ultimately may have been admitted based upon their qualifications alone offers some comfort. But let's be honest. It still isn't fair.

The beneficiaries of Powers' special treatment were not named in the report, but it was suggested that they included children of power players within the state of Texas, including legislators and members of the Texas Board of Regents. The report also illuminated the high volume of requests for preferential treatment made by families within the Texas elite. Such requests are often forwarded directly to the President, giving the impression that he-and not a neutral admission body-holds the final say on admission.

While legacy admissions are well-recognized, they are rarely well-reported. Preference given to elite alumni are deemed to be healthy for a school's bottom line and reputation, but can hardly be regarded as objective or fair to the average qualified candidate.

Whether the report has any long-term effect on Powers' job or UT's admissions policies remains to be seen. But it is an unsavory referendum on the state of admissions, one which may be just the tip of a very large iceberg.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Colleges Trolling for Applicants
Perhaps my headline is a little unfair. We all know that the college admissions game is very much a seller's market. Even the top 5% of applicants aren't guaranteed admission at their dream schools. There are #justtoomanyapplicants. If this hashtag isn't trending yet, it should be.

So why, oh why, are some top colleges extending their application deadlines? Why are they spamming potential applicants with reminder emails, full of saccharine cheerleading and tons of exclamation marks?

A recent Bloomberg Business article took the opportunity to ask. The University of Chicago (acceptance rate: 8%) claimed it extended its application deadline in order to make potential candidates aware of new financial aid initiatives. Ok. The University of Pennsylvania (acceptance rate: 12%) claimed their extension was simply designed to make life a bit easier for applicants. Really?

I'm skeptical. These universities receive tens of thousands of applicants. Each application costs between $35-$75. Lower acceptance rates drive rankings. The truth is, these universities just don't need more students. And frankly, students who have already missed an admission deadline aren't likely to be the caliber of students they were seeking in the first place.

Truthfully, it seems to me like they're peddling false hope for a buck. Sure, in theory, a larger applicant pool increases the overall integrity of the student quality. But when we're talking 30,000 applicants, it's fairly impossible to believe any university would have the time or manpower to adequately vet them. Many admissions officers admit to turning away equally qualified students because they simply don't have the space for them.

To me, this practice underscores the need for students to do their research. Find a university that fits your needs. Assess whether or not your scores and grades make you a likely candidate. Then give the application all the effort you can.

Finally, turn it in on time. Your odds aren't that likely to change in the next five days. So breathe, and move on.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015
The Waiting Game
Everyone knows, the waiting is the hardest part. Naturally, the twelve years of college prep, the arduous junior year of standardized testing, and the marathon of applying to college-well, yeah, that was tough. But waiting for an answer on your acceptance? Excruciating.

For early action or early decision students, the deferral letter may have already come in the mail. Disappointing as that may be, it does have a silver lining in that the deferral letter itself probably comes with instructions. The school should let you know what (if anything) they'd like you to provide by way of updated materials.

For regular deadline applicants, the waiting can feel just as tough. Some university websites make it easy for you to fill this time. The admission sections of their sites may give you lists of supplemental materials they accept during this period of limbo. Dance programs might invite a video of a choreographed performance. Art schools may invite sample projects.

Then there are the rest. The colleges that don't specify and don't ask you to provide anything further. In the case of large schools, this is likely very deliberate. Some schools are processing 30,000+ applications. They just don't have time to read your last plea.

If you do decide to send a follow up letter or email, my advice is to keep it simple. Start by writing about anything that has changed for the better since your application-grades, awards received, community service projects completed. Then, you might consider giving an update on your grades, bearing in mind that many universities will want your high school to send updated second semester transcripts anyhow.

You may also want to use this time to reach out to current or former students at your desired college. If you have connections to faculty or administrators-tactfully contact them and let them know you are still interested.

Finally, take one last moment to remind X University of why they are atop your list. Check out the activities and events that are happening there RIGHT NOW. Talk about how you might take advantage of those events if you were a student.

Then, unfortunately, you still wait. At least you can do so knowing you've done everything possible to put your best foot forward.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015
Vaccinations to be Mandatory for College Admission?
As I write this blog, the number of reported cases of measles in California has risen to over 100. What began as an isolated outbreak at Disneyland back in December has begun to unfold into a serious public health concern. Measles is airborne and highly contagious, which means that the threat of its spread is a very real possibility.

The outbreak has seen the long-simmering vaccine debate explode to the surface. Parents of young children are most concerned since the measles vaccine is not administered until age one, with a booster again around age four. It makes sense that schools and daycares are petri dishes for the sharing and spread of illness. Apparently, college campuses are not far behind.

Since vaccinations are not mandatory in California and many other states, and since there is no easy way to track vaccination records for foreign students, the University of California is considering making measles vaccinations mandatory. College campuses, dorms and their surrounding environs harbor large numbers of young students living in close proximity to one another. Diseases thrive in these environments.

Scientists and medical professionals agree that vaccines are effective. For students that may not have received the vaccine or its booster (possibly at the election of their parents), this requirement at the college level could be a reasonable way to prevent the spread of the disease.

To get an idea of scope, the University of California, Los Angeles, is the largest of the UC campuses, with a combined undergraduate/graduate population of over 40,000 students. UC Berkeley isn't far behind, with approximately 37,000 students. This means that the vaccine requirement could have fast and far-reaching effectiveness.

The new rule would become effective for the entering class of 2017.

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Monday, February 9, 2015
Law School Standards Slipping? Part Two
The last blog scratched the surface of the changing shape of the law school climate. I poked fun at the snobbery of law school hierarchies. And while I may personally find them distasteful, they are alive and well.

Put simply, it still does make sense to try and get into a T14 school. First of all, they are good schools. Second of all, you're more likely to get a job in an incredibly competitive market. This is a pretty big deal breaker when you're graduating with six-figure debt.

There has been a great deal of discussion about declining applicants and deteriorating LSAT scores. People worry that the quantity and quality of law school applicants is tanking. They then worry about what this means for the profession. There are no actual answers.

There is this. The top schools have been largely unaffected by the downturns. Getting in remains competitive. Graduates get good jobs. Their median LSAT scores aren't going down. The shifts are more apparent at the lower-tiered law schools.

This makes sense. There was always going to be a place for the most competitive students. Big firms still need junior associates and Supreme Courts still need law clerks. They will continue to skim from the top cream.

Whether the changing face of the profession is significant remains to be seen. Students still have to sit state bar exams-the standards of which have not changed. The public will still demand high-quality representation. A more competitive market arguably forces improved quality of practitioners.

The boring truth may be simpler. Fewer people are going to law school, some LSAT scores may have declined, and some law schools may have to re-budget in order to preserve their bottom line. The bigger question for aspiring students is whether or not there is a job waiting for them at the end of the journey.

That's a question mark that punctuates any graduate degree.

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Monday, February 2, 2015
Law School Standards Slipping? Part One
Let me start by saying that my title is a bit misleading. In fact, it's become a familiar hook-line for half the internet blogs about the "state of affairs" in law school admission over the past few years.

A few things are actual facts: 1) the legal job market is tough right now, 2) the number of law school applicants is down, 3) some law schools have been making cutbacks. Cue the speculation about what this means for the future of the profession.

This isn't surprising, given the vice-grip within which law students hold the importance of ranking. More than most professions, this is one where pedigree matters a lot. There are well-known tiers of law schools. The bottom doesn't mingle with the top. Federal clerkships don't go to students at mid or low-tier schools. LSAT scores matter more than intelligence.

Am I speaking broadly? A bit, perhaps. But score a 170 or higher on your LSAT and you can pretty much count on an acceptance from a top-20 school. This is law school, of course, so we actually have the Top 14 (which also have their own moniker- "T14"), so named because their graduates are the crop from whom most of the "big" firms harvest their wet-eared associates.

Somewhere in all of this hierarchy, there is possibly space for intellect, innovative thought, perseverance, and good will. You won't find it on internet comment threads. Now more than ever, the law crowd seeks to protect the veneer of its prestige. Blogs hand-wring about the decline in quality of candidates why the profession is in trouble.

The truth-as it usually is-probably lies somewhere in the middle. Is the "profession" struggling? In some ways, yes. Are the top schools suffering? Probably not. Is the legal system likely to come crumbling down? No. But speculation makes for meaty-blogging.

More next week.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Choosing Metrics for a National College Rankings System
It has been about a year since the Obama administration announced its intent to implement an official college ratings system. The system is just one component of the administration's mission to overhaul education on a national scale. President Obama has stated that, in addition to being accessible and affordable, higher education should also have a predictable value.

This does not sit well with many universities.

The administration aims to answer a very simple question-are graduates getting jobs? If so, do those salaries justify the price tag of a college education?

Arguably, the existing ratings systems serve universities better. US News and World Report is one of the most well-known. It bases its rankings on metrics such as mean SAT scores, graduation rates, and, notably-acceptance rates. Such metrics can be problematic for a variety of reasons, the most obvious of which is this: they measure a university's exclusivity, which isn't necessarily the same as its overall value to the average consumer.

The government is hoping to value things such as employment rate following graduation. Colleges may not like this. Public universities balk that many of their graduates may ultimately work in the public or non-profit sector, earning relatively low salaries. They argue that salary shouldn't be the measure of the quality of a degree.

That may be true, but students deserve to be able to make a cost-benefit analysis before dropping huge amounts of tuition on an education they may not be able to afford.

This week, the Obama administration reached out to colleges, asking them to offer suggestions regarding acceptable metrics to use in the ratings system. This places colleges in an awkward position-they must at least appear to embrace the transparency of this new process despite the fact that it makes college sound like a commodity, rather than a pedigree.

Prestige alone, however, won't pay the mortgage. Watch this space to see how the government system eventually shakes out.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Tracing the Roots of College Rejection
I remember when I first discovered the concept of the pass/fail class. I thought it was pretty genius. It meant I could either skate by or excel, and no transcript reader would be any wiser. Over time, I realized this was a double edged sword. I'd never know whether I aced a class or just barely passed. Did I want to know? Would it do me any good?

Anyone who's ever been rejected in the college admissions has asked themselves that question a hundred times. What did I do wrong? Why didn't they want me? Why did I get in there but not there?

It turns out, students may now be able to get answers.

Under the terms of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), students' academic records belong to them. This means that any evaluative notes taken during the admissions process should not technically be shrouded in secrecy. Fountain Hopper, an anonymous website created by students at Stanford University, recently offered a five-step guide for students seeking such records. Apparently it's both legal and successful.

Such information could be ground-breaking for the college admissions game. Someone will find a way to tally and measure the metrics in order to offer prospective students a "better gauge" of what universities are really looking for. Cue also, the lawsuits from unsuccessful candidates. It could be a mess.

But for now, my question is this: Do you really want to know?

Nobody's developed a five-step process to answer that one just yet.

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Monday, January 12, 2015
Legacy Admissions: Affirmative Action in a Different Form
When it comes to the injustices in life, we rarely care as much as when we perceive one has committed against us. We just don't like other people getting the stuff "for free" that we had to work hard for. It isn't fair, which is what life should be, no matter how many times our parents told us otherwise.

This sense of equity is what precipitates the discussion surrounding affirmative action in college admissions. On the one hand, affirmative action, aims to level the playing field. On the other, it assaults the purely merit-based model upon which college admissions is purportedly based. In that sense, letting one person in based on an extrinsic quality (race), isn't fair, no matter what (fair) end purpose could conceivably be met.

Apparently, however, when that extrinsic quality is nepotism, no one really seems to care. Do some people have a problem with legacy admissions? Sure. Have there been a slew of ballot initiatives, legislative bills and high-profile court cases over the past two decades surrounding legacy admissions? Well. No.

NPR recently noted that supporters of legacy admissions claim it isn't unfair, per se, it just gives legacy candidates a "thumb on the scale" when it comes to picking a candidate. I love this term. Because there is nothing fair about putting a thumb on the scale.

Without a doubt, legacy admissions are good for a university's pocketbook. We can dress it up in lots of other ways, as many university administrators do. It supports university tradition, encourages fundraising, and the trickle-down-economics answer: it will ultimately help fund programs for potential 'underserved' students.

But from a purely theoretical viewpoint, it is affirmative action-the beneficiaries just happen to (typically) be white and privileged. Which makes it less likely to ever be challenged.

Is that fair? No, but, as my dad used to say, " 'fare' is what you pay to cross a bridge."

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Monday, January 12, 2015
What Free SAT Testing Means for College Admissions
Last week, the state of Michigan announced that it would be offering the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) for free to all public high school juniors. On its face, this is great news for Michigan students. In the greater context of college admissions, however, it raises some interesting questions.

For decades, the SAT has been widely regarded as the benchmark test used in college admissions. It was designed to add equanimity into the process. Most colleges primarily consider grades, test scores and admissions essays in the vetting of potential applications. Because academic standards vary so widely across the country, the SAT was once seen as a great equalizer-a test that would help illustrate student aptitude with greater clarity.

Over the past decade, the SAT has waned in popularity, overtaken in many areas (including Michigan) by the ACT another college readiness test administered by a different organization. The SAT has also taken a hit for serving more as an indicator of privilege than intelligence. Typically, wealthier students have access to better test preparation services, and scores tend to follow the socioeconomic curve of the test taker.

In that regard, the fact that the test is now offered for free in Michigan is a victory for lower income students-assuming they have the resources to afford test prep materials.

But the ACT is widely regarded as a more balanced test, and one that offers a more nuanced picture of how a student is likely to perform in college. The fact that the College Board-the body which administers the SAT-won a contract-bidding war to secure the contract in Michigan is also telling. It means that low-income students may simply be stuck with the test they can best afford, rather than the one that might best suit their strengths.

Such a shift would continue to stratify the college admissions process. In the short-term, however, this is good news for public school students in Michigan. The SAT has also recently overhauled the test itself to render it more "user-friendly", possibly leaving the glass half-full, for now.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Does Your Admission Essay Really Matter
Newsflash: I can't really give you that answer. But in the media's ongoing mission to make the college-admission industrial complex a bit of salacious spice, Time magazine is here to tell you it doesn't. Well, sort of. Because all good articles promise answers in the title that rarely follow.

The gist of Time's abbreviated musing is this: the best essay in the world won't dig you out of a pit of bad grades and mediocre test scores BUT a terrible essay can easily become the final nail in your coffin.

The problem with this and every line of enquiry about the mysteries of college admissions is that the vetting process is inherently opaque. It isn't a science, no matter how much data is squeezed from it. There are a million variables at play depending on the school and its individual admissions system, the applicants, the admission cycle, and the other unknowns.

Every affirmative action lawsuit is steeped in our inherent belief that it is possible to quantify a person's worth based on a litany of extrinsic qualities. If we had a perfect GPA and played water polo but didn't get in, it must have been because we were X race. Because we have to find a way to explain it.

So deciding that a personal statement is or isn't a deal breaker seems virtually impossible. Even Time's article notes that some people think it matters and others don't. Helpful? Nope. But so long as the college industry continues to plug along, one thing is for sure-if you don't try hard, you probably won't get in. So until then, pick up your laptop, and start putting your heart into that essay. You truly don't know how much it may count.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Rethinking Gender in College Admissions
Though women's colleges have been around in the U.S. for close to a hundred years, it was not until the 1960s that their function began to evolve. The earliest women's' colleges, established in the mid-19th century, were designed to simply give women access to education in a world that still believed a woman's place was in the home. Many universities would not admit women. It was well-accepted that the rigors of education was literally bad for women's health.

By the mid-twentieth century, there were over 200 women's colleges in the U.S. The sociopolitical upheaval of the 1960s ushered in by the peace and civil rights movement also moved feminism center stage. Women's colleges thus became hotbeds of political activism as the country pushed for equal rights for women.

Federal law allows universities to discriminate on the base of sex. This is how women's colleges have been able to historically decline admission to men. However, a growing societal awareness of nonconforming gender identities is calling some of these policies into question. The women's colleges (which have dwindled to around 40 in number) are at the forefront of this examination.

Some colleges are considering admission to students who self-identify as female, even if they are biologically male. Others, such as Scripps in Southern California, have begun admitting all candidates who are female on their birth certificates, even if they later transition into transgender males.

The changes are raising a different kind of issue regarding transgender students who already suffer grave discrimination at co-ed colleges. It is forcing a discussion of sex versus gender. Whether or not a person is born female, if she chooses to identify as such, she continues to face discrimination in a modern-day patriarchal society. This is a tough pill to swallow, especially at the same colleges that were designed to create outposts for female empowerment.

One thing is for certain-the fact that the discussion is even occurring is a reflection of society's progress in evaluating gender identity. The road may still be long, but once again, the women's colleges are leading the charge.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Business Schools Continue to Nail the Personal Statement
For over a decade, I have guided students through the stormy waters of their admissions essays. I have read essay prompts from hundreds of schools, for hundreds of different programs. I have gleaned at least one certainty from this process: no one writes better essay prompts than business schools.

I have no idea why. Surely it's important for lawyers and doctors and biologists and English majors to write engaging admissions essays. But time and again, the majority of students are up against yawn-inspiring directives like "Submit your academic statement of purpose", or "tell us about the world you come from".

The best writers can churn a mean lemonade from these lemons. That's tough though, especially for undergraduate applicants with limited life and professional experiences.

A fun essay though? Try the Fuqua School of Business at Duke on for size. They ask for 25 random facts about you. Awesome! I like cinnamon on my hot chocolate. I once had a poodle named Cooter. Next!

There are prompts about who you'd invite to your dream dinner party, what you'd do with a few minutes of "found" time, and what the phrase YOLO means to you. Provocative enough prompts to grease the wheels of even the most stubborn writer's block.

But for some reason, it's business schools who are willing to get cute. With the exception of the University of Chicago's undergraduate essay requirements ("what is so odd about odd numbers?"), the best invitations come from business programs.

Is this reason enough to apply to business school? Probably not. Do creative essays make getting in easier? Doubtful. Could other academic programs take a leaf out of the b-school admission playbook? Absolutely.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Does Law School Offer Everything Promised on the Package
I'm inspired here by a recent Kaplan (yep, the test prep folks) survey which highlights the gap between what law students want and what law schools offer. Kaplan notes that the survey included just under 700 LSAT takers who had also used Kaplan's test prep services. Kaplan also surveyed 126 of over 400 ABA accredited law schools. For purposes of discussion, we'll call it a representative sample.

Despite the lore of hyper-competitive law students secretly tearing pages out of one another's textbooks, apparently the majority of law school students hope to learn in a collaborative environment. Most law schools say they offer that.

In contrast to their commitment to collaboration, the majority of students surveyed claim to want schools to place a greater emphasis on individualistic accomplishment. Only about 30% of the schools surveyed promise this approach.

Why the tension here? Litigation involves advocacy, which means that individualist competition is often the key to success. Students pursuing law degrees often enter the field knowing they have the kind of thick skin needed to work in an often-antagonistic profession.

But this may be at odds with the gentle contours of academia. Learning shouldn't be competitive, necessarily. Students are far more likely to gain a well-rounded education with the support of their peers.

Significantly, students want a law education that helps prepare them for practice and the majority of the schools say they offer that. This isn't consistent with the reality of history. Most law schools are heavy on theory, don't teach to a subspecialty, and leave most of the practical training to the firms that hire their graduates.

It's just a survey, but it is certainly food for thought if you're considering law school, particularly in today's very tough legal job market.

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