Sep 29, 2010

'Genius Grants' for High School Students

Tonight the Davidson Institute for Talent Development honors twenty very special high school students at a reception taking place at the National Museum of the American Indian. Each student has completed a significant piece of work or a project demonstrating unusual talent, creativity, or originality, and each will be presented with a scholarship of $10,000, $25,000, or $50,000—with very few strings attached.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Davidson has awarded more than $4 million to 166 brilliant young scientists, mathematicians, musicians, and writers. This year’s program includes a student who identified compounds that can help convert human and mouse cells into stem cells as well as another who created new musical expressions and listening experiences through classical music.

Similar to the MacArthur Foundation “genius grants,” Davidson fellowships are awarded on the basis of “significant work” that experts in the field recognize as having potential to make a positive contribution to society. According to the Davidson website, the work may be:

• an exceptionally creative application of existing knowledge
• a new idea with high impact
• an innovative solution with broad-range implications
• an important advancement that can be replicated and built upon
• an interdisciplinary discovery
• a prodigious performance
• another demonstration of extraordinary accomplishment

Applications may be submitted in any one of seven different categories, including science, mathematics, technology, music, literature, philosophy, and “outside the box.” Group and team projects are not eligible.

The Davidson fellowships are made possible through the generosity of Bob and Jan Davidson—the geniuses behind children’s educational software such as “Math Blaster” and “Reading Blaster.” The scholarships are one component of a multifaceted program intended to support extraordinary talent among young people.

Deadlines for next year’s competition have already been set, and application forms are now available from the Davidson Institute. To learn more about the fellowship program or download the 2011 application, go directly to the Davidson website.

Sep 27, 2010

10 Ways to Connect with a College You Can't Visit

Although colleges expect students living within a reasonable distance of their campuses to make an effort to visit, it may not always be possible to tour all the colleges on your list. If that’s the case, here are a few alternatives to the in-person tour:

1. Get on the mailing list. Colleges maintain mailing lists for the purpose of communicating directly with students. Take advantage of the opportunity to receive information and learn more about the colleges you are considering. But be aware—you will need to differentiate between college “spam” and real mail. And it’s not always easy!

2. Subscribe to college blogs. An increasing number of colleges are opening lines of communication through blogs. Bloggers can be admissions staff or students who have agreed to write regular columns on their experiences. Both can be enormously helpful in understanding the college, its community, and the process you will need to submit a successful application.

3. Attend college fairs. Colleges and universities typically send admissions counselors or alumni representatives to fairs all over the country. There are regional fairs or fairs centered on a theme or an alliance of colleges. Although they can be hectic, college fairs are great opportunities to make an initial connection and pick up some glossy brochures.

4. Sign-up for school-based presentations. In the fall, colleges send admissions representatives to meet with high school students on their turf. These events are generally organized through the guidance or student services office. Be sure to keep up with the schedule of visits and sign-up for presentations that interest you.

5. Try the virtual method. Colleges are increasingly participating in websites designed to support “virtual” visits to their campuses. The most popular of these sites include,, and In fact, you can even attend a virtual college fair at or take a college course via podcast through iTunes U. YouTube offers some professionally produced marketing pieces as well as a huge sample of student videos, which can also be found on And finally, check out on-campus webcams, which some enterprising colleges use to give viewers a sense of “being there.”

6. “Friend” a college. Colleges discovered that high school students spend lots of time on Facebook. Surprise! As a result, many have built their own “fan” pages, which they use as tools to display videos, pictures, and news articles about their schools. By coming to students on Facebook, colleges keep in touch with potential applicants as well as provide them with important information and invitations to events.

7. Tweet. For the most part, colleges don’t expect their Twitter accounts to necessarily result in active exchanges with high school students. They’re content to establish these forums to pass along newsworthy items or basic information. By following a few colleges, you can use Twitter as a tool for gathering data or keeping abreast of deadlines.

8. Check out campus media. There’s hardly a college in the country that doesn’t have a student-run newspaper. Most also have campus radio and/or television stations. What better way to keep up with campus goings on—without editorial oversight from the admissions office or college marketing. You can find most newspapers online, and with a little creative searching you can stream a live radio or TV broadcast.

9. Attend a reception. A local or regional college reception is less of a social event and more of an off-campus information session. Don’t go for the food, but consider it another opportunity to meet admissions staff, ask questions, and pick up more marketing material. You’ll also get a good peek at the competition—students from other high schools in your area who are likely to apply to the college sponsoring the event.

10. Schedule a local interview. Many colleges are expanding their capacity to provide off-campus interviews either conducted by admissions staff or alumni in the area. Although the staff interviews are largely extensions of the service offered on-campus, alumni interviews usually kick in after you’ve submitted an application. Either interview may be “informational” or “evaluative.” Regardless, don’t neglect this very important method of connecting with the college of your choice.

Note: You may want to check out “When Interviewers Come to You” for a list of colleges conducting off-campus interviews in the DC area.

Sep 25, 2010

Harvard to More Closely Scrutinize Applications for Fraud

The Boston Globe reports that Harvard University will more closely scrutinize applications for fraud in the wake of a recent scandal in which a former student allegedly submitted falsified application documents.

University President Drew Faust told the Globe that Adam W. Wheeler’s case led Harvard to make changes in admissions processes to prevent a repeat of what became a huge loss in financial aid, research grants, and prizes. Using what were later found to be doctored transcripts, SAT scores, and letters of recommendation, Wheeler was admitted to Harvard as a transfer student.

Without going into detail, Faust said, “We are going to be making appropriate adjustments, which we don’t describe because they’d be easier to undermine.”

According to Faust, the case highlighted the challenges faced by all colleges dealing with increased opportunities for dishonesty made all too easy by existing technology. Harvard plans to respond by implementing its own “technological measures,” starting this year to help guard against such fraud.

Harvard isn’t alone in the recognition that students cheat on applications. The University of California system now conducts random spot checks, asking about 10 percent of applicants to “verify activities, grades, or facts from personal essays.” Other colleges have been known to check claims they find suspicious or inconsistent with the rest of the application.

Turnitin, a web service used by high schools in Fairfax County as well as by Georgetown University and the University of Maryland to check papers for plagiarism has another approach. In 2009, Turnitin added admissions essays to the list of documents available for review.

The Turnitin for Admissions (TiiA) website boasts of “patented, award-winning plagiarism software technology” that will “help discover plagiarism, recycled submissions, duplicate responses, purchased dcouments, and other seemingly transparent problems.” Content subject to review includes essays, personal statements, and reference letters.

In a study conducted by Turnitin, 452,964 personal statements collected during the 2006-07 admissions cycle from an application service that remained nameless (its initials are CA) showed 1,033,813 matches in 199,963 personal statements. Further analysis showed that 44 percent of the personal statements contained matching text and 36 percent of those statments contained “significant” matching text. And most of the matches were found from popular application “support” websites including,,,, etc.

While a full list of TiiA clients is not readily available, Penn State became the first college or university to reveal that the admissions office has purchased the service. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that about 25 universities and 20 application services are “testing” the service.
Photo courtesy of TankGirlJones

Sep 24, 2010

NIH Invites High School Students to Learn More about Careers in Health or Medical Science

Since 2006, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Science Education has sponsored SciLife, a program designed to promote careers in health or medical sciences.

One of many NIH projects supporting high school science education, SciLife brings together students, parents, and educators for a day of workshops and speakers with special expertise in health and biomedical fields.

In addition, the program addresses such issues as selecting high school courses, finding a college match, preparing an application, and funding an education—all in the context of promoting greater interest in health and medical science.

This year’s event, scheduled for October 16th, at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel, in downtown DC, has a number of terrific workshops on the agenda including:

• The SAT/ACT Game—How to Win
• Summer Jobs and Internships—The Experts Tell All!
• Self Help Strategies for Science Related Careers
• Demystifying College—From Application to Graduation

Registration is available on the SciLife website. There is no cost for attending, and lunch is provided. But hurry, as class sizes are limited and filled on a first-come, first served basis.

Sep 22, 2010

When Interviewers Come to You

A few interesting statistics and some anecdotal evidence suggest a resurgence in the importance of the interview in the overall college admissions process. In the most recent NACAC State of College Admission Report, 11 percent of colleges attached “considerable importance” to the interview—an increase of 2 percent in five years.

But more telling may be the number of colleges expanding their off-campus capacity to provide interviews, including those conducted by admissions staff as well as by alumni representatives. Stanford University, for example, has been piloting an alumni interview program for the past two years by slowly expanding into new regions of the country, including DC for the first time this year.

And why would this be? In the same NACAC report, 21 percent of responding colleges placed considerable importance on an applicant’s “demonstrated interest,” or actions taken to signal whether he or she is likely to attend if admitted.

Because students are taking advantage of application technology and applying to more colleges, schools are having a hard time determining a candidate’s true level of interest, and this has a measurable impact on “yield” or the percent of students ultimately accepting an offer of admissions.

Not only does accuracy in projected yield ensure seats will be filled, but it also helps avoid overcrowding in dorms. But above all, because yield is a factor in determining “best” colleges for some rankings, college administrators are very sensitive to data suggesting their invitations are not being accepted.

Since the interview can be an excellent method of gauging true interest, colleges are increasingly turning to these more personal interactions with applicants to supplement information provided on an application. But recognizing that on campus interviews are not feasible for everyone, accommodations are being made to bring interviewers to candidates.

Here are some of the colleges currently scheduling interviews in the DC area:

• Lafayette College: Bethesda (September 27-30), DC (October 3-6), and Alexandria (November 1-3). Appointments may be scheduled by emailing Chris La Tempa ( or by phone at 610-330-5534.

• Harvey Mudd College: September 28 from 5 pm to 6:30 pm and all day on October 30, at the Embassy Suites in Chevy Chase. Registration information may be found on the Harvey Mudd website.

Southern Methodist University (SMU): October 18 (Bethesda Hilton Garden Inn), October 19 (Washington Hilton), October 21 (Owings Mill Hilton Garden Inn), and October 27 (Tysons Corner Hilton Garden Inn). Contact Abbi Pfister-Soria ( for an appointment.

• Lawrence University: September 19 (Embassy Suites on Military Road) and September 22 (Inn at the Colonnade in Baltimore). Contact Teege Mettille ( for more information.

• Allegheny College: October 12 (Baltimore Marriott Hunt Valley Inn), October 16 (Crowne Plaza McLean), and October 19 (Bethesda Marriott Suites). Schedule an appointment by contacting MaryAnn Vrabel at 814-332-4727 or via email at

• Holy Cross:
October 26 (DC) and October 28 (Baltimore). Preregistration required on the Holy Cross website.

• Worcester Polytechnic Institute: October 3 (Baltimore Marriott Hunt Valley Inn). Call the admissions office to schedule an appointment at 508-831-5286.

Gettysburg College: September 24 and October 5 (Bethesda). Contact Tara Bowman ( October 24, 25, and 26 (Fairfax). Contact Jeff Rudberg (

• Juniata College: October 17 (Crown Plaza Rockville), September 27 (Crown Plaza McLean), and September 28 (Hampton Inn Dulles/Cascades). Registration available on the Juniata website.

• Alfred University: October 18 (Starbucks at 4250 East West Highway in Bethesda). Appointments are required and may be made by calling the Office of Admissions at 800-541-9229.

• University of Delaware: September 26 (National Cathedral School). More information is available on the website.

LeMoyne College: November 9 (Pooks Hill Marriott in Bethesda) and November 10 (Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel). Call the Office of Admission at 800-333-4733, for an appointment.

• University of Rochester: October 11 (Fairfax) and October 13 (Bethesda). Register for specific times on the school website.

Note: if you have already had an on campus interview, you do not need to schedule a second off campus interview.

Sep 20, 2010

10 Surefire Ways to Ruin a College Essay

The best college essay tells a story that builds on but doesn’t duplicate what’s already in your application. It’s in your voice, relaxed and clearly written, and it’s totally free of “mechanical” errors.

Keep in mind that the essay is your opportunity to introduce yourself, suggest what kind of student you will be, and provide evidence of “fit” with the community you seek to join. It probably won’t get you into a college your record doesn’t support, but it could push your application from “maybe” to “admit” if your reader is captivated or amused.

To get this important job done right, make sure you avoid the following 10 surefire ways to ruin a college essay:

1. Dashing it off at the last minute. Colleges post topics early enough for you to take time to thoughtfully consider, draft, and finalize your essay. None of this will happen if you’re up against a deadline and working in panic mode.

2. Not answering the question. Questions are crafted to elicit specific information the admissions office thinks is important to their decision. Yes, you can reuse essays. But be careful to edit or make appropriate adjustments along the way. And don’t be too quick or cute with the cut and paste function.

3. Failure to have a point. An essay should have a central idea or a thesis. It doesn’t have to be overly complex or deep. But whether by statement or inference, the point you’re trying to make should be obvious to the reader.

4. Trying to sound impressive. Nothing turns off a reader faster than a pompous kid using flowery language and vocabulary. Toss out extra modifiers. Those that add “color” are good; those that are there to make the essay sound important are not. And be careful with the thesaurus. Stick with words you know and ordinarily use.

5. Resorting to an overused or well-worn topic. If your essay could have been written by any one of your 10 closest friends, then figure that may happen. You can always put a new spin on or take a fresh approach to even the most ordinary story but avoid submitting the essay anyone could have written.

6. Offending your reader. Certain topics are off limits. Politically insensitive or embarrassing material is unlikely to find a sympathetic audience. Leave adolescent humor and potty jokes in the locker room, and resist the urge to use your essay as a cathartic moment in which you relieve your conscience of a potentially explosive secret.

7. Including irrelevant material.
Over-anxious applicants have a hard time leaving out extraneous detail. Your writing should be concise and to the point. Resist the urge to free-associate and go wandering off topic.

8. Not writing in paragraphs. One long, meandering blob not only looks bad but it also diminishes the impact of your writing. On the other hand, formal essays aren’t like some newspaper articles in which each paragraph is just one sentence. Paragraphs are the building blocks of an essay—use them.

9. Making avoidable errors. Admissions readers can’t help but form opinions based on work that suggests carelessness. Use automated spelling and grammar checks. And while you’re at it, proofread the old fashioned way—with your eyes. No spell checker will catch homonym errors or poor word choice.

10. Not writing your own essay. Essay mills and other professional editing services populate the internet. It’s possible—but totally unacceptable—to take someone else’s words and submit them as your own. Be careful about lifting ideas or giving in to heavy-handed editing. When all is said and done, you should “own” your essay.

Sep 18, 2010

The Coca-Cola Scholars Program Rewards Community Service and Outstanding Achievement

Created in 1986 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Coca-Cola, the Coca-Cola Scholars program is marking its 23rd year of awarding huge scholarships to deserving high school students across the nation. Including the Class of 2010, there are now 4,529 Coca-Cola Scholars who have benefited from nearly $42 million in scholarship awards.

Each year, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation awards $3 million in achievement-based four-year college scholarships to 250 outstanding high school seniors. The scholarships are broken into 200 regional awards of $10,000 and 50 national awards of $20,000 each.

Applicants are evaluated on the basis of “demonstrated leadership in academics, school, community and civic activities, as well as personal character and the motivation to serve and succeed.” Students are invited to submit applications by no later than October 31, 2010 and must be

• Current high school (or home-schooled) seniors attending school in the US or select DoD schools
• US citizens or holding other approved citizenship status
• Anticipating completion of high school diploma at the time of application
• Planning to pursue a degree at an accredited US postsecondary institution
• Carrying a minimum 3.00 GPA at the end of junior year of high school

To begin the application process, students are asked to register by establishing a user name and password. The application form, though long, asks many of the same general academic and extracurricular questions asked by most colleges on their applications. It’s easy. There are no essays at this stage.

From the total group of applicants, approximately 2,200 students will be selected as semifinalists in mid-November. Semifinalists must then complete a secondary application which includes essays, official transcripts, and two letters of recommendations.

In mid-February, 250 finalists will be selected and invited to Atlanta for personal interviews. It is from this group that regional and national awardees are chosen.

The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation works to not only support scholarship programs, but also alumni enrichment opportunities. It is through this work, Coca-Cola hopes to develop a network of community leaders “ whose vision will help shape the world, leaving a lasting legacy for generations to come.”

If you are a high school senior with the potential to become one of these leaders, take the time to apply. Former winners come from all walks of life and represent all kinds of academic interests. The one common element, however, is a desire to be of service to their schools and in the community.

For more information, visit the Coca-Cola Scholars website.

Sep 17, 2010

Fairfax and Montgomery Counties Outscore All Other Area School Systems on SAT’s

Although SAT scores remained flat nationally, perennial SAT powerhouses, Fairfax and Montgomery Counties continued their friendly rivalry for SAT bragging rights during the 2009-2010 school year.

An astonishing 38-point increase gave Montgomery County a record 1,653 out of a possible 2,400 composite (Math, Critical Reading, Writing) score. Scores were up among all demographic groups, with Hispanic and Black students showing the biggest improvements of 54 and 49 points respectively.

Unchanged from last year, Fairfax County’s score of 1,664 was still 11 points higher than that reported by the school district across the Potomac. It’s also 155 points above the national average.

“While the school system’s overall scores were unchanged, students at several of our high schools made significant improvements this past year,” said Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Superintendent Jack Dale. “I am extremely proud of our staff members and our students.”

Of the 25 high schools in FCPS, 10 saw an increase in Critical Reading scores, 10 saw an increase in Math, and 11 saw an increase in Writing. County Hispanic students outperformed Hispanic students nationwide by 44 point in Critical Reading and Math and by 40 points in Writing. And Black students in Fairfax outperformed the national average by 47 points in Critical Reading, 46 points in Math, and by 50 points in Writing.

Average scores rose by 26 points in the District, to 1,404. But despite this dramatic increase, DC students still lagged behind the national average by 105 points.

Not everyone was impressed by the score increase posted by Montgomery County students. Skeptics were quick to point out that the percent of county students taking the SAT dropped from 78 percent in 2009 to 71.4 percent this year. It’s no secret that lower participation rates tend to drive up average scores.

In an interview with the Washington Examiner, Robert Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, questioned the Montgomery County results. He suggested that a 38-point increase in one year is “mind-boggling” and possibly “merits an investigation.”

Montgomery county administrators countered accusations that certain students were discouraged from taking the SAT by suggesting that the lower numbers were because more students chose to take the ACT instead.

Whatever the explanation, you can bet local real estate agents are paying attention.

Sep 15, 2010

College Navigator Offers a Wealth of Information

A hidden gem among search engines, the NCES College Navigator has none of the bells and whistles of more commercial websites. Nothing flashes, no songs play. The graphics aren’t colorful or particularly appealing. In short, College Navigator looks like exactly what it is—a site maintained by the federal government.

But don’t be deceived. College Navigator contains incredible tools tapping into the college database maintained by the U.S Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. No other college search engine produces better or more up-to-date information relevant to admissions statistics, retention, or academics.

To understand how College Navigator can support college search, let’s go on a test drive using American University, located in northwest DC. The first trick is to find the website, which has an impossible-to-remember web address: Enter American University and District of Columbia, and voilĂ , a link appears.

Click on the link and the software instantly produces 12 categories of information as well as a handy Google map. Selecting Retention and Graduation Rates, I find that 90 percent of the full time students who began their studies at American in the fall of 2008, returned in the fall of 2009. I also learned that American’s most recent 4-year graduation rate is 71 percent and the 6-year rate for the same group of students is 77 percent—far above the national average of 56 percent. It also appears that males have a slightly better rate of graduation than females.

Under Financial Aid, I see that 80 percent of American’s 6,648 undergraduates received financial aid. Seventy percent received grants—money that doesn’t have to be repaid—and the average grant is $18,155. I also see that 47% of American’s students borrow money for college and the average yearly amount is $10,248.

Also on the site, you can find the academic profile of admitted students, the numbers of students in each of the school’s academic majors, campus crime statistics, and the latest addition to the College Navigator site—a net price calculation.

Another nifty feature of College Navigator is that you can enter your own variables when searching for schools. For example, I directed the software to find four-year public and private schools within 100 miles of my home. The search engine promptly produced a list of 127 schools in order of distance from the zip code I entered.

You can even look for schools within a specific standardized test range or those with particular varsity athletics. For example, a search of four-year colleges and universities with varsity bowling teams produced five pages of institutions including Bowie State and Howard Universities.

Before spending money on expensive college manuals or exchanging personal information for access to web-based services, check with College Navigator. You may be surprised at how much the federal government knows and is willing to provide for free!

Sep 13, 2010

Your High School Profile: The Most Important College Admissions Document You May Never See

It’s surprising how few students and parents ask to see their high school “profile.” This is the document that should be attached to every single transcript mailed as part of a complete “secondary school report” submitted to colleges on behalf of applicants.

In a nutshell, the high school profile officially translates your transcript into terms college admissions offices can use to compare your record to those submitted by other college hopefuls across the country. It also helps application readers evaluate your performance relative to other students in your school.

The variation among profiles, even in a single school district, can be startling. Some are glossy and detailed; others are simple xeroxed sheets. Some are up-to-date and specific; others are more generic.

Even knowing how important these documents are in the college admissions process, it sometimes appears that school administrators put minimal effort into the preparation and presentation of statistical information that could be critical in deciding the admissibility of any given student. Input from those most affected—college-bound students and their families—is seldom sought.

On their websites, the University of Michigan and Northwestern University post a series of helpful hints for information admission offices would like to see covered in high school profiles. This includes specifics on high school demographics, curriculum, grade point averages, class ranking methodologies, and testing results.

The College Board agrees with these suggestions and also advises that high schools should limit their documents to be one page—front and back—on regular (not glossy) 8.5” x 11” paper, using ink dark enough for colleges to scan the information into computer systems.

And most important, high schools must update their profiles annually. They need to highlight changes in ranking and/or grading policies. And schools should document any alterations to the curriculum.

For example, Fairfax County adopted a new grading scale two years ago. Every high school profile in the county should be making note of the change and explaining how this year’s seniors have GPA’s reflecting a hybrid of two different systems. Similarly, a number of local high schools have made significant adjustments to the roster of classes available to students. These also should appear on a school’s profile.

In addition to requesting a copy of the high school profile that will be accompanying your transcript, you may also want to see profiles from neighboring or competing schools to judge how yours compares. Note that some profiles are posted on the web, but some are only available directly through school counseling offices.

If you think your school is not fairly or accurately represented by the profile, ask questions and get involved. How you and your school stack up against the competition will definitely affect your admissions prospects.

Sep 11, 2010

The Universal College Application Adds New Members

Business is booming at the Universal College Application (UCA), as students are using the UCA online application in record numbers and new colleges continue to join the Baltimore-based consortium.

“We do have fans out there,” said Josh Reiter, founder and president of ApplicationsOnline, corporate home of the UCA. “Hopefully, we can capitalize on this in the future.”

In its fourth year, the UCA quietly competes with the Common Application for recognition and membership. The applications are entirely interchangeable at colleges accepting both, and neither offers a particular “edge” in the admissions process.

Since July, nine new colleges and universities have signed on with the UCA, including St. Mary’s College of Maryland and the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. Other members include Harvard University, Johns Hopkins, Washington University in St. Louis, Duke, and Tulane.

Although many UCA members also use the Common Application, an increasing number are choosing ApplicationsOnline as a sole provider for these services. From an institutional perspective, the UCA has none of the “extra” membership requirements of the Common App and can easily accommodate a variety of colleges or universities including those not requiring recommendations or essays.

And in the highly competitive online application market, the UCA listens to consumers and makes product adjustments as necessary.

For example, responding to admissions staff complaints about computer disks or videos mailed separately from applications, the makers of the UCA added an enormously popular feature allowing students to provide links to online content. With one click, colleges have immediate access to audition videos, websites, online picture albums as well as recruiting or personal video supplements. And the process potentially provides a level of privacy that YouTube cannot.

To accommodate projected growth, the UCA added several new staff members and continues to place a high premium on customer service. “The site is monitored 24/7,” Reiter assured. “We can’t give feedback on essay topics or driving directions to colleges, but we will walk a student through the steps necessary to complete required information and send ‘customized’ applications to each college on his or her list.”

To learn more about the Universal College Application or register for a free, no-strings-attached account, visit the UCA website.

Sep 10, 2010

Standardized Tests for Fun and Profit

Saturday marks the official start of the 2010-11 standardized test season, which traditionally begins with the first administration of the ACT. And in response to the growing popularity of the test originally marketed as the “un-SAT,” this is the first September the ACT is being offered in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.

For most of us, it’s been at least 25 to 30 years since we took a college entrance exam. And some of us are looking at more than 40 years since we sharpened up the old #2 pencils and headed over to the high school at the crack of dawn to bubble-in answers on a grid.

We didn’t prep. In fact, I have a dim memory of taking both the SAT I (now Reasoning) and the SAT II (now Subject) on the same day—one in the morning and the others in the afternoon. Could this possibly be true?

Happily the mind is a wonderful thing, and most of us are mercifully spared the memory of our standardized test scores. And for the most part, kids don’t think to ask.

To remind parents of what they’ve so conveniently forgotten, I routinely suggest that families (not just high school students) sign-up to receive either the ACT Question of the Day and/or the SAT version of the same. Although sometimes embarrassing for mom and dad, I also recommend comparing results at the end of the day.

But for those seeking a bit more exposure, the Princeton Review has come up with the SAT Parent Challenge—a 12-question quiz created to give the old folks an opportunity to “test their academic acumen” and experience some of the challenges faced by kids when they take the real thing.

Requiring only about 15 minutes, the quiz covers the basics and aims to convert parents and children from “adversaries to allies.” While it’s a far cry from the nearly 4-hour, 190-question exam, the mini-SAT can be scored in exchange for registering with the Princeton Review system. Registering also gets you (or your dog) on their mailing list.

Parents can also try an ACT quick quiz on the Peterson's website or a longer sample version of the test on the ACT website. Although both provide answers, neither offers to “grade” results.

If sampling leaves you craving for more, you can always sign up for the real thing, like Sue Shellenbarger, a mom and reporter for the Wall Street Journal. In a truly inspiring tale of failure and redemption, Ms. Shellengarger’s experience suggests a glimmer of hope for the nagging parents among us.

By the way, before contracting with any particular test prep company or tutor, you might ask how often staff takes the tests—both SAT and ACT. Truly dedicated professionals have been known to routinely sit for exams. If you’re really bold, ask for scores.

Sep 8, 2010

‘Military Friendly’ Colleges and Universities

G.I. Jobs Magazine recently announced a list of approximately 1000 postsecondary institutions it considers the most “Military Friendly” schools in the country. The results, largely based on school investment in veterans, were somewhat surprising considering the number of military personnel and installations located in the DC area.

Only American and George Washington earned the distinction in the District for nonprofit institutions. In Virginia, George Mason University, Hampden-Sydney College, Marymount, Northern Virginia Community College, Old Dominion University, Regent University, and the College of William and Mary Graduate School of Business made the list of nearby schools offering the best education, value, and welcome to veterans. And in Maryland, Hood College, Salisbury University, McDaniel College, Stevenson University, and UMUC were among the 4-year nonprofits considered “military friendly.”

“We look for schools that offer military discounts, scholarship programs, [and] credit for military training,” said Dan Fazio, G.I. Jobs’ managing editor. “[Also] are they a Yellow Ribbon school?”

The Military Friendly Schools list is compiled using survey research as well as input from government agencies and private entities admnistering education benefits. A panel of experts assigned weight to each of the following categories:

• Certifications, programs and policies suggesting a school’s non-financial efforts to recruit and retain military and veteran students. This category includes VA-approval to accept the GI Bill SOC membership, academic credit for CLEP and ACE, and flexible learning programs (45%).
• Financial commitment to efforts to recruit and retain these students. This includes Yellow Ribbon program membership, tuition benefits, and percent of overall recruitment budget allocated to recruiting military students (35 percent).
• The number and percent of military and veteran students currently enrolled (15 percent).
• Other miscellaneous considerations including academic accreditations (5 percent).

In short, the schools making the list are mainly those that have made an investment to reach out to and enroll military and veteran students.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Sep 7, 2010

How to Earn Grades Colleges Will Notice

At the top of every list of what colleges look for in applicants is a strong academic record. This means both grade point average and strength of academic program. Grades always should be trending upward, and although "stuff happens" grade blips should be avoided.

To celebrate the first day of school for DC area students south of the Potomac, here are a few surefire tips for earning grades colleges are bound to notice:

Show up. And not just physically, although that’s a good first step. Attend class with the intent to learn. Avoid distractions such as reading other materials, texting, surreptitiously surfing the net on your handheld device, or talking to the student next to you.

Sit close to the front of the classroom. Studies show that students who sit in one of the first few rows generally earn better grades than those who sit toward the back.

Ask questions. If you don’t “get” something, the chances are excellent that others in the class also don’t understand. Inquisitive students are engaged students.

Join in class discussions. Teachers notice who is paying attention through class participation. This can play to your advantage when it comes time to giving out grades. Besides, discussions are much more likely to be imprinted on your mind if you’ve gotten involved.

Take good class notes. You’ll be taking notes for the rest of your academic career, so learn and practice these skills now. Find a system that works best for you and use it.

Listen. Listen “between the lines” for subtle messages. Many teachers provide strong clues about the most important elements in a lesson—even going so far as to say something about a topic’s relevance to the next quiz or test. The best students pick up on these clues.

Ask for help. The key is not to wait until you’ve fallen hopelessly behind. Your front line source of help is your teacher, who should be very invested in your success. Stay after class or make an appointment for after-school help. If this doesn’t work, seek outside support. Try classmates or find a tutor if necessary.

Keep up. Finish assignments before they are due. Actually turning in the work helps too.

Read actively. Active reading involves more than scanning words on a page. For some students, it means underlining, highlighting, or annotating materials. Others develop lists of key words and summarize materials as they read.

Study daily. Successful students commit some time every day to active studying—reading, writing, and reviewing. This may also mean outlining, making flash cards, participating in study groups, or rewriting notes. Students who work steadily on coursework do better than those who study in large chunks, and they definitely outperform students who cram.

Upgrade writing skills. Learn to proofread, revise, and correct written work. At the same time, take steps to increase vocabulary and develop facility with basic grammar. Improved writing skill strengthens critical thinking as well as listening, reading, and speaking abilities. It also pays off outside the classroom with higher standardized test scores.

Limit internet distractions. There is no reason to have Facebook or any social networking distraction going while doing homework. In fact, it’s likely you can complete most assignments without even turning the computer on. Consider studying somewhere away from the single biggest “attractive nuisance” in the house—your computer.

Avoid overscheduling. Keeping in mind the relative importance of GPA in the college admissions process, be smart about the number of outside time commitments that potentially interfere with your ability to study and complete assignments on time. Time management will become increasingly important as you go further in your education.

Develop test taking know-how. Successful test taking avoids carelessness and rests on a few simple strategies like following directions, becoming familiar with different kinds of questions, and understanding how the test will be graded.

Get enough sleep. Go to bed at a reasonable time and turn off your cellphone. No text message is ever that important.

Sep 6, 2010

Post-Labor Day Start Dates Thanks to the ‘Kings Dominion Law’

Today is Labor Day. For a large group of area students, Labor Day represents the last full day of freedom before the traditional start of school takes over their lives.

The Fairfax County Public School system (FCPS) expects more than 175,000 for the start of the 2010-11 school year—enough to make FCPS the largest district by far in Virginia and the 12th-largest in the U.S. Loudoun County’s 79 public schools expect an estimated 63,353 students, and the Arlington Public Schools will welcome 21,082 students.

And once again, the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association (VHTA) triumphs over local school districts by keeping the lid on legislation to move up opening day to match the earlier start dates of competing districts. DC, area private schools, and Montgomery, Frederick, and Prince George’s counties all opened weeks ago, effectively jumpstarting the race for college-bound students to prepare for Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams later in the school year.

Only Virginia and Michigan have laws against starting school before Labor Day. Wisconsin, Iowa, and North Carolina require school to begin after September 1st, but in years in which Labor Day falls late on the calendar, they are free to open as early as September 2nd.

In Virginia, the law mandating post-Labor Day school openings is nicknamed the “Kings Dominion” law because of its strong backing by the Commonwealth’s tourism industry. The theory is that keeping schools closed until Labor Day helps local businesses by giving families one more week to visit amusement parks.

It also gives country clubs and tourist attractions one more week before they are forced to give up student workers. Unless participating in fall sports or band, high school students may presumably work until the last day of summer or until the pool closes for the season.

Northern Virginia school systems definitely do not love the law, which may only be circumvented by state waivers that are very seldom granted. In fact, FCPS routinely adds a request to allow the county to set its own start date in the school system’s legislative package for the General Assembly.

This year, VHTA foiled 10 proposals to rid Virginia of its current post-Labor Day school start date and give districts the authority to set their calendar to start when they want. State Delegate Bob Tata, a Virginia Beach Republican and retired school guidance counselor, introduced a compromise bill this past spring that would have allowed schools to start a few days before Labor Day when the holiday falls on or after September 5th, as it does this year. He withdrew the bill after learning of Governor McDonnell’s strong opposition.

Schools evidently don’t hold a candle to the power of the state’s tourism industry.

Sep 4, 2010

Colleges Looking for Students with Artistic Talent

Students in performing and visual arts have fantastic opportunities to meet representatives from colleges, universities, conservatories, and other educational institutions with specialized programs designed to further talent through postsecondary education.

If you play an instrument, sing, dance, or have particular artistic ability, you should consider attending one of 18 Performing and Visual Arts (PVA) College Fairs sponsored by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Or if you are more specifically interested in visual arts, the National Portfolio Day Association (NPDA) sponsors a series of Portfolio Days in 38 US and Canadian cities.

NACAC’s PVA College Fairs are targeted to students interested in pursuing undergraduate or graduate study in theater, visual arts, graphic design, music, dance, or other related disciplines. These fairs bring together experts who provide information on educational opportunities, admission requirements, and financial aid. They also advise on portfolio development and auditions.

Free and open to the public, PVA College Fairs do not require pre-registration, although the opportunity to register is offered online for many fairs including the one scheduled for Sunday, October 31, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Running an entirely separate program, NPDA Portfolio Days offer opportunities for students to receive free advice, counseling, and critique from some of the best academics in the art business. Portfolio days begin in late September and end in January at the Ringling College of Art & Design, in Sarasota, Florida.

Portfolio Days are incredible events. Students drive from the furthest reaches of the country and stand in long lines clutching portfolios, paintings, sculpture, pottery, and other work. They bring sketchbooks, works in progress, and finished pieces—some small and others quite large.

At the head of each line, experts from NASAD-accredited colleges take considerable time to offer support and constructive criticism, as well as to give pointers on how to go about building a portfolio. No one is hurried, and every question is answered. Several (not all) participating schools even accept portfolios on the spot as the visual portion of an individual application.

Free and open to the public, Portfolio Days require no registration and operate on a first come, first served basis. Students from the DC area can attend on Saturday, November 6, at Virginia Commonwealth University; Saturday, December 4, at the Corcoran College of Art & Design; or Sunday, December 5, at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Note that the PVA College Fairs and the NPDA Portfolio days are not restricted to high school seniors. Underclassmen are strongly encouraged to get a head start by taking advantage of the opportunity to get free advising early in the game from experts in the arts.

More information on Portfolio Days may be found on the NPDA website. A complete schedule of PVA College Fairs as well as terrific advice on the application process for performing and visual arts students is provided on the NACAC website.

Sep 3, 2010

‘I Want to Go’ to C-O-L-L-E-G-E

Check it out. A recent veteran of the admissions process, Maureen Silva has lots of good advice to offer prospective college applicants—especially those who want to go “to an Ivy League school [or] four-year public university.” And she’s tackling everything from essays to financial aid in I Want To Go.

Before heading to the University of Southern California, Maureen stopped off at the Annual Donor Dinner for the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara to perform an original song based on her recent experiences as a college-bound senior at Lompoc High School, two hours north of Los Angeles.

Her sympathetic audience cheered as Maureen summed up the entire college application process in a few short lyrics and admitted that, “Applying is the hardest part especially when you’ve procrastinated and start late.”

But it’s the “essays after essays after essays” that make the process seem never ending. And anyone who has ever written a personal statement will sympathize with the pressure to “fit myself within 500 words, writing about how I’m going save the world.” It does sometimes feel like you have to be “superhuman” just to get in.

Voicing the anxiety and elation that characterize the college application process, Maureen hopes admissions offices will notice her, and she wonders aloud, “Who will I be? What will I do? Where will I go?”

And by the end of I Want to Go, you can assume that whether she goes to an Ivy League school or a four-year public university, "it’s just the beginning" for a very wise and witty young woman.

Sep 1, 2010

UVa First-years Choose Macs

According to the University of Virginia’s Office of Information Technology and Communication, undergrads are increasingly choosing Macs for their on-campus computing. During the 2008-09 school year, 43 percent of all UVa first-year students were using a Mac, according to data collected by a corps of residence hall Computing Advisors (CA’s).

The figure represents a continuation of a five-year trend and corresponds to national surveys suggesting that college students are more inclined to bring Macs to campus. Prior to 2004, Mac usage among UVa freshmen hovered between three and four percent (with a small blip to 7 percent in 1997). In 2004, Mac jumped by 4 percent, possibly corresponding to the 2003 release of iTunes on Windows and has been steadily increasing since.

According to Student Monitor, which has been tracking higher education computer purchases for 22 years, Apple and Dell switched positions in the college laptop market in the space of five years. In 2005, 47 percent of students buying laptops chose Dells. In 2010, 47 percent went with Macbooks.

Although surveys suggest that Apples may actually account for as much as 70 percent of the incoming university freshman market, Student Monitor found the following in interviews of 1,200 students on 100 campuses:

• 95% owned at least one computer: 83% owned a laptop, 24% a desktop, 15% both
• Among the laptop owners, 27% owned Macs
• Among the desktop owners, 45% owned a PC and 14% owned Macs
• But, among those who planned to purchase a new computer, 87% planned to buy a laptop of whom 47% planned to buy a Mac.

Why the sudden rush to buy Macs? Some local students point to the “coolness” factor. Others have become familiar with Apple products through iPods and iPhones, both of which are becoming increasingly popular among high school students.

One local student supports Macs because, “I’m tired of Windows including packaged software I don’t want that makes the computer slower than it should be.” UVa freshman Grace Hollis said she bought a Macbook because, “It’s compatible with other Apple products.”

Technologically-savvy students point to the fact that you can run both the Windows and Mac operating systems on the same computer. And rumor has it that the Macbook is less susceptible to viruses.