Oct 31, 2011

A Few Local Campus Ghost Stories to Liven Up the Season

Ghost stories seem to come out of the woodwork this time of year, and colleges within driving distance of DC have more than their fair share.

College of William and Mary, Williamsburg VA
As the nation’s second oldest college, the College of William & Mary claims the oldest academic building still in use on any campus in the US—the Sir Christopher Wren Building. Constructed between 1695 and 1700, Wren functioned as a hospital for French and American troops during the Revolutionary War and is said to be the site of at least one local haunting. Footsteps heard on the upper floors are thought to be those of a French soldier who died in the upstairs wards. Others believe the footsteps could only belong to Sir Christopher as he continues to admire the building he designed.

Located northeast of the Wren Building is the President’s House. The oldest official residence for a college president, the building housed many interesting personalities and boasts a colorful history since its original construction began in 1732. During the Civil War, the house served as the Federal Headquarters for the area and was used as a prison for captured southern soldiers. It is believed that the spirits of Confederate Army ghosts are still trying to escape from the house that imprisoned them and play tricks on unwitting visitors.

Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond VA
There are several variations on the legend of Gustavus Millhiser and the house he acquired for his “fiancĂ©,” an Italian opera singer, in the early 1890’s. According to some, Millhiser’s lover had an affair with a man living in the Scott House across the street. There are a few fanciful and unlikely stories of a tunnel built between the Millhiser and Scott homes where the lovers would meet in secret. What became of the relationship is unclear, except that Millhiser lived well into his sixties and died a bachelor. Legend suggests that a restless ghost still roams the halls searching for the unfaithful lover.

Millhiser House served as VCU’s first student center. It’s now the home of VCU’s Office of International Exchange and is featured on VCU's historic building tour.

James Madison University, Harrisonburg VA
JMU’s tunnels, stories of ghosts and violence, a restless Confederate general, and the mysterious lady in red provide ample material for the active imagination. Although most have been thoroughly debunked by humorless historians, the legend of the hanging in the Wilson Hall cupola has been a favorite for generations.

The story centers on an undergraduate who was carrying on an affair with a married professor, who unceremoniously dumped her. The student is said to have hung herself in despair in the cupola of Wilson Hall, which looms over the JMU campus. On some nights, when the light is just right, you can see the silhouette of the young woman hanging in the window of the cupola.

George Mason University, Fairfax VA
Folklorist Margaret Yocom, associate professor of English, is George Mason’s official “ghost keeper.” Over the years, Dr. Yocom has collected stories for the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive, a number of which document ghostly sightings in the area including a bizarre spirit who haunts the women’s crew team on the Occoquan River and a few strange occurrences at a local restaurant popular with Mason students.

One particularly gruesome story suggests that a small gazebo bordering Mason Pond on the Fairfax campus is frequented by the spirit of a young man who drowned under mysterious circumstances one night. The next morning, his body was allegedly found sitting in the gazebo by two women who happened to be visiting the area. Ever since, the man’s figure has been spotted standing at the edge of Mason Pond or sitting in the gazebo. His spirit beckons young women to join him but instantly disappears when approached.

Georgetown University, Washington DC
With twin Victorian spires dominating the local skyline, Georgetown’s Healy Hall sets the scene for a variety of campus pranks involving stolen clock hands as well as wild stories of student exploits within the labyrinthine tunnels that wind beneath the building. Constructed during the presidency of Father Patrick Healy, between 1877 and 1879, the former dormitory cost the University an enormous amount of money. The debt eventually caused Healy’s retirement and could explain the restless nature of spirits haunting the large stone ediface.

Officially, the 5th floor of Healy Hall does not and never did exist. The Gothic design of the building lends itself to much speculation about secret sealed-off floors and ghostly inhabitants. One story suggests that a young Jesuit student accidently opened the Gates of the Underworld while reading forbidden chants in a book about exorcism within a secret room that is now among those sealed-off to students. Another story documents the gruesome death of a priest who was crushed while working on the clock in the building’s spire and whose groans may be heard by students walking the campus at night.

Since the filming of “The Exorcist” on campus, Georgetown students celebrate Halloween with a screening of the movie either on Copely lawn or in Gaston Hall. At midnight, students gather in the shadow of Healy Hall—at the gates of the Jesuit cemetery—and literally howl at the moon.

Oct 29, 2011

20 Very Scary Online Application Mistakes to Avoid

It looks to be another record-breaking year for early action applications. If you’re one of many thousands of high school seniors trying to beat a November 1 early deadline, Halloween might really seem a little scary at this point.

But before you start trying to make up for lost time by dashing out applications, remember that errors due to carelessness or misunderstanding can be costly. Thanks to some insider information from the makers of electronic applications, here is a list of common mistakes made by applicants trying to hurry the process:

1. Not reading instructions. Before starting any application, take the time to read instructions or view instructional videos. Consider printing out directions and having them handy as you work through the application.

2. Waiting until the last minute. Stuff happens. Your computer crashes, the internet goes down, or servers are reduced to a crawl. Why chance it?

3. Not entering a valid email address. And you wonder why you haven’t heard from any colleges?

4. Forgetting to disable pop-up blockers. And whose fault is it that you can’t see those parts of the application displaying in pop-up windows?

5. Using the wrong browser. Most online applications require more modern versions of Internet Explorer or other specific browsers which are clearly identified in the instructions. Make sure you’re working with a compatible browser to ensure optimum results. For example, the Common Application may not support Chrome, but the Universal College Application (UCA) does.

6. Not checking EACH individual college’s requirements and deadlines. The information is all there—deadlines, fees, and supplementary information. Application software generally doesn’t allow you to submit after deadlines have passed. It’s really smart that way.

7. Forgetting to save data and log out. You usually have no more than 60 minutes per web page before you’ll be timed out. If you walk off for any length of time to make a phone call or have a snack, be sure to use the save/logout feature to save your application. Otherwise work may be lost.

8. Using the “back” button. This can cause data to be lost or not properly saved to the application. Navigate through the document using the buttons within the application itself.

9. Clicking on the wrong item in a drop down menu. It’s amazing how many students say they’re from Canada or Afghanistan, both of which are frequently listed right after the United States as drop-downs for countries of residence.

10. Entering incorrect data including date of birth or social security number. An incorrect date of birth may have several interesting consequences including failure to open an account (if you appear too young) and may require tech support to straighten out. An incorrect or missing social security number can affect financial aid. Double check the basics before "saving."

11. Failing to upload a document. In the dash to meet deadlines, students sometimes forget to upload that carefully crafted essay. This is a particular problem if an “alternative” version of the Common Application has been created. Check and double check that all answers are complete and all written material has found its way into the correct place.

12. Not thoroughly reviewing the application for spelling or grammar errors and truncated text. Print out your completed application or application summary and proofread before clicking “submit.” Make sure nothing important was cut off. If things don’t make sense, revise and use commonly accepted abbreviations to fit in the space provided. Note that you will need to download Adobe Acrobat to preview your document.

13. Not submitting all signatures for the Early Decision Agreement. Be aware that the Common Application ED Agreement requires 3 separate signatures to be complete for most colleges, and that your counselor cannot submit the form (electronically or by mail) until both the student and parent complete their parts.

14. Neglecting to leave time for payment to clear. Some colleges want you to show them the money first. The Common Application warns that processing of credit cards and echecks can take up to 48 hours and the application will not be processed until payment has cleared. Note that the UCA does not hold applications up for payment.

15. Failing to provide accurate or complete recommendation information. If you are working outside of the Common App/Naviance system and your teachers indicate they want to submit recommendations electronically, you must provide a complete and accurate email addresses for them in the space indicated. Otherwise there will be a failure to communicate.

16. Not following directions for the Arts/Athletic Supplement. If you indicate on the Future Plans section of the Common Application that you intend to electronically submit an Arts/Athletic Supplement, you’ll need to complete it and submit it before you can submit the rest of the application. The UCA provides a form but requires all Arts/Athletic Supplements to be submitted via mail.

17. Forgetting to sign the document. The completed application will not submit until the document is signed electronically.

18. Not verifying that the submission process is COMPLETE before logging out. Yes, you have to click “Submit” when you’ve finished. There may be a series of screens to go through to ensure data is saved. If you close down before going through the process, you risk an incomplete application or no submission at all. Even if you’re relatively certain it’s all been done correctly, check the application “status” function to be doubly sure.

19. Not following up with fees and required supplements. The application, supplement(s), and payment submissions are 3 distinct processes. Just because you’ve submitted your application doesn’t mean your payment and required supplements will “automatically” follow.

20. Refusing to ask for help. If you have technical difficulties, don’t be afraid to ask the “Help Desk,” Technical Support,” or use “Contact” links.

Oct 28, 2011

Colleges with the Nation’s Lowest Admission Rates

In the backwards world of college admissions, prestige is all-too-often equated with exclusivity. A sad kind of perverse competition exists in which colleges proudly point to how few students they were able to accept in any given year as a badge of honor. During admissions season, the New York Times keeps a running tally, and US News and World Report (USNWR) uses these numbers as metrics in determining the “best” colleges.

But the reality is a little more complicated. Some of the most “exclusive” colleges in terms of admissions rates are there because they offer a specific kind of experience or have a corner on the education market. Others have low admission rates because tuition is free or extremely low.

So those who think the nation’s lowest admission rates are only found within the Ivy League will be surprised to find that the Curtis Institute of Music and Alice Lloyd College tie with Harvard and Stanford for the lowest admission rates in the country at 7 percent.

Locally, Liberty University (22%) beats out William & Mary (32%), George Washington (32%), Richmond (33%), and the University of Virginia (33%) in the exclusivity race.

Thanks to the numbers crunchers at USNWR, here is the list of the top 20 colleges with the nation’s lowest admission rates (the rest of the list may be found on the USNWR website):

  1. Curtis Institute of Music, PA (7%)

  2. Alice Lloyd College, KY (7%)

  3. Harvard University, MA (7%)

  4. Stanford University, CA (7%)

  5. Cooper Union, NY (8%)

  6. US Naval Academy, MD (8%)

  7. Yale University, CT (8%)

  8. Brown University, RI (9%)

  9. Princeton University, NJ (9%)

  10. College of the Ozarks, MO (10%)

  11. Columbia University, NY (10%)

  12. Florida Memorial University, FL (10%)

  13. MIT, MA (10%)

  14. Dartmouth College, NH (12%)

  15. CalTech, CA (13%)

  16. US Air Force Academy, CO (13%)

  17. US Military Academy, NY (13%)

  18. University of Pennsylvania, PA (14%)

  19. Amherst College, MA (15%)

  20. Pomona College, CA (15%)

Oct 26, 2011

15 College Admissions Trends Worth Watching

Every year, the Arlington-based National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) surveys its members to get a picture of what’s happening in the world of college admissions. This year, NACAC sent its survey to 1,263 four-year postsecondary institutions and received about a 26 percent response.

In addition to the surveys, the 2011 State of College Admission factors in information from an earlier NACAC survey on counseling trends, the College Board Annual Survey of Colleges, and publicly available data collected by the federal government.

While the report goes into considerable detail, the following are 15 trends that stand out as worth watching:

  1. The total number of high school graduates is down. The number of high school graduates in the U.S. peaked in 2008-09 at 3.3 million and will continue to decline through 2014-15.

  2. College enrollment is up. As of 2009, approximately 20.4 million students enrolled in college. This represents about 70% of all students who completed high school that year.

  3. Applications are up. About 73% of the colleges responding to the survey reported an increase in the number of applications received.

  4. Acceptance rates are down. As a result of the increase in number of applications received, acceptance rates are trending downward from 71% in 2001 to 65.5% in 2010.

  5. Applications per student are up. More than 77% of freshmen submitted 3 or more applications; 25% submitted 7 or more applications.

  6. Yield is down. Colleges are enrolling increasingly smaller proportions of their accepted student pool. The average yield for fall 2010 went down to 41% from 49% ten years earlier.

  7. Wait lists are up. Forty-eight percent of colleges used a wait list compared to 39% in 2009.

  8. Admission from wait lists is down. Colleges accepted an average of 28% of all students who chose to remain on wait lists, down from 34% in fall of 2009.

  9. Early decision is down. In 2010, only 38% of colleges reported increases in early decision applicants after several years in which nearly half reported increases. Similarly, only 36% reported increases in early decision admissions, down from 65% in 2009. And the acceptance rate gap reported between those who apply early decision vs. regular decision has shrunk considerably from 15 percentage points in 2009 to 7 percentage points (57% vs. 50% for regular decision applicants).

  10. Early action is up. Seventy-two percent of colleges reported increases in early action applications, and 68% reported increases in early action admissions.

  11. Online applications are up. On average, colleges received 85% of their applications online, up from 58% in 2006.

  12. Selectivity is up. The national share of colleges accepting fewer than 50% of applicants rose to nearly 20% in 2010, and they now enroll about 20% of all full time first-year undergraduates.

  13. Social networking is up. The proportion of colleges linking admission websites to social networking sites increased from 73% to 91%. About 30% have blogs by admissions officers, online chat rooms, and online message boards available for prospective student use.

  14. Emphasis on ‘demonstrated interest’ is up. The percentage of colleges attaching considerable or moderate importance to demonstrated interest increased from 48% in 2009 to 54% in 2010. It is now ranked higher than counselor or teacher recommendations.

  15. The ratio of applicants to admissions officers is up. On average, the ratio of applications to admissions officers at colleges went up from 514:1 in 2009 to 527:1 in 2010. The average ratio at public institutions was 981:1, compared to 402:1 at private colleges.

Visit the NACAC website to download a copy of the complete report (there may be a charge).

Oct 24, 2011

'Score Choice' Continues to Cause Headaches

Two years after the College Board introduced the term Score Choice into the college admissions vocabulary, the program is still causing enormous confusion among applicants attempting to understand policies and at the same time devise ways to place their standardized test scores in the best possible light.

Within hours of posting, the October SAT’s produced no less than 300 phone calls to the University of Virginia admissions office from anxious parents and students focused on which scores to send and how quickly they would be received for early action consideration.

“Based on the number and tone of the calls we got yesterday (and so far this morning), some of you are freaking out about sending test scores,” complained Dean J, on her Notes from Peabody admissions blog. “I fear Score Choice has really complicated the process of sending scores….You don’t have to over think sending the scores. Send them and the system will pick out the best ones.”

But most students and their advisors aren’t so sure this is the case. Scores submitted are fair game, and if a college doesn’t require all scores, why send the bad ones? As a result, lots of handwringing goes into decisions involving which scores to send to what colleges and whether “alternative” application forms must be devised to accommodate all the various score requirements, which by the way are quietly changing.

The recently revised Score-Use Practices handbook produced by the College Board lists all the institutional policies they have on record and use for flagging score report requests. Locally, George Washington University, Georgetown, Howard, and the University of Maryland are listed by the College Board as requiring “all scores.” The GW website, however, suggests that students are free to use Score Choice. When asked, the University of Maryland admissions office states that they do not participate in Score Choice, but admits there is no guidance to that effect provided on their website or application materials. And so the headaches continue.

Other colleges listed as not permitting Score Choice include Carnegie Mellon University, Colgate, Columbia, Cornell, Harvey Mudd, Macalester, McGill, Penn, Pomona, Rice, the UC’s, University of South Carolina, Stanford, Scripps, Syracuse, Temple, and Yale. Again, it’s best to go directly to the college or university to confirm the policy.

According to the College Board, Score Choice allows students “the option to choose SAT scores by test date and SAT Subject Test scores by individual test" to send to colleges—all in accordance with each institution’s individual “score-use” practice. Score Choice is optional and not thoroughly policed, and if students choose to use it in defiance of a college’s stated practice, it’s hard (but not impossible) to catch.

According to the College Board, Score Choice was introduced to reduce student stress and make test-taking a pleasanter experience. Perhaps there is some truth to knowing that bad scores don’t have to be reported. But it’s not really that simple.

Before jumping to conclusions about the value of the Score Choice program, keep in mind the following:

1. There is no such thing as a trial run. Urban mythology among high school students suggests students can take the SAT (and the ACT) multiple times without penalty. Not so. An increasing number of colleges are demanding all scores, and because these kinds of policies are subject to annual revision, you could be caught with lots of unattractive scores that must be reported. And be aware that some colleges actually take a very dim view of students who take more than two standardized tests. It suggests the unlimited availability of funds for test taking and/or tutoring, and colleges think that’s unfair to low-income students.

2. Score Choice costs money. On its face, taking the exam multiple times costs money, $49 to be exact. But a hidden expense is the cost of reporting scores. When you take the SAT, you have 9 days to select 4 colleges to receive “free” reports as part of your registration package. If you think you’re going to use Score Choice, keep in mind that scores aren’t released until about 2.5 weeks after the exam which means you lose your 4 free reports. Score one for the College Board!

3. Gaming the system can work to your disadvantage. SAT Score Choice allows students to send all the scores from a single exam seating. If your best scores span two or more seatings (better math in one and better critical reading in another), the use of Score Choice could actually weaken your application by not giving admissions the opportunity to select your best scores for consideration.

4. Policies may differ for the ACT. Another wrinkle in the program involves the College Board’s biggest rival—the ACT. ACT had the original score choice option, and questions didn’t arise until the College Board decided this kind of policy might enhance their market position. Now schools may request all scores, meaning all SAT’s and all ACT’s (Georgetown, University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University) or they may request all scores from either the SAT or the ACT (Yale University). There’s no easy way to determine the policy other than carefully reading the information provided on individual college websites.

5. Policies may differ for Subject Tests. A college requiring all SAT’s may not require reporting of all SAT Subject tests taken, especially if they are considered “optional” for admissions consideration (Stanford University). But some do (Georgetown). Again, the only way to be sure is to check with the individual college.

6. Score Choice produces headaches for application completion. The philosophy behind the Common Application is that you should be able to complete a single form for multiple colleges. Score Choice complicates this process enormously. Different schools on your list could easily have different policies: one might allow Score Choice; one might require reporting of all scores; and one might be test-optional. To present the strongest application for each school, you might need to create three or more separate Common Applications (note that some test-optional schools require the Common Application to remove scores from the materials they receive but it’s complicated to know which those are).

7. Transcripts may foil Score Choice. A few high schools continue to post SAT scores on their transcripts. In the old days, this was considered a service for students because it saved the cost of ordering score reports in some cases. Now it’s much more of a liability for students wishing to employ Score Choice. Be sure to check with your guidance office to see if scores are being provided. If so, the decision to use Score Choice is moot.

For more information on Score Choice, check the College Board website. But for the most accurate and up-to-date policies, go directly to the colleges on your list.

Oct 22, 2011

UVa Tops List of Architectural Favorites

Recent visitors to college campuses can’t help but notice all the new construction. Cranes loom over hulking steel skeletons, and tour guides are forced to reroute around construction pits appearing out of nowhere.

And it’s always reassuring to know the new buildings or facelifts of the old will be available for use by students in the not-too-distant future—hopefully in time for prospective students to enjoy them.

Possibly fueled by more sympathetic economies of the past, campus building programs continue to break ground on new and ever more glamorous facilities designed to respond to immediate need for updating and growth. Among the more popular projects are state-of-the-art housing, gyms, and student centers.

The impact of these buildings is for the long term, and designers are sensitive to how new fits in with old. Sometimes it works, and sometimes the new additions leave visitors scratching their heads. But the architectural diversity of today’s college campuses is what makes the college tour so much fun.

Architectural Digest recently singled out ten college campuses with “the most significant architectural traditions,” and the University of Virginia topped the list.

Here is the complete Architectural Digest “college review:”

  1. University of Virginia: Recognizing Jefferson’s role as chief architect, AD lauds decisions made to stick to the school’s “Neoclassical” roots and create an environment that is “vibrant” and innovative.

  2. Harvard University: AD notes that even with buildings going back to the 1720’s, Harvard has embraced modernistic architecture, some of which has not been without controversy.

  3. Yale University: Recognized for its “tradition of nontraditional work,” the Yale campus is the scene of over 300 years of architectural history.

  4. Brown University: This campus reached new heights with the addition of the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts.

  5. Florida Southern College: FSC maintains the largest single-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in the world.

  6. Illinois Institute of Technology: IIT is a “pilgrimage stop” for Mies van der Rohe, who is responsible for much of what sets the “steel-and-glass” campus apart.

  7. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT continues to push the envelope with “mixed results,” but certainly deserves a place on any architectural tour of colleges, including Eero Saarinen’s 1955 chapel, Frank Gehry’s bizarre Stata Center, and the surprising Simmons Hall (don’t miss the inside of this building).

  8. Pratt Institute: Contemporary standouts include the new addition to Higgins Hall (home of the architecture school), Pantas Hall, and various structures built between 1885 and WWII that place Pratt on the National Register of Historic Places.

  9. Cornell University: AD notes the construction of a new home for Cornell’s architecture school as well as Sir James Stirling’s 1989 postmodern arts center and an art museum by I.M. Pei.

  10. Bennington College: In addition to innovative designs for student housing, the Bennington campus boasts of a new Center for Advancement of Public Action, constructed of local materials.

Oct 21, 2011

College Search Made Easy with College Navigator

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 your 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, financial aid, or academics. In fact, several commercial sites use data gleaned from College Navigator to inform their search engines. So why not go directly to the source?

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: www.nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator. 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 91 percent of the full time students who began their studies at American in the fall of 2009, returned in the fall of 2010—an improvement over the previous year of one percent. I also learned that American’s most recent 4-year graduation rate is 75 percent and the 6-year rate for the same group of students is 79 percent—far above the national average of 56 percent. It also appears that females have a slightly better rate of graduation than males.

Under Financial Aid, I see that 79 percent of American’s 7,070 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 55 percent of American’s students borrowed money for college and the average amount is $8,128.

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. Note that this is the government's calculator and may produce different results from those found on individual college websites.

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 six pages of institutions including Bowie State, Howard, and Virginia Union 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!

Oct 19, 2011

20 Ways to ‘Make a Difference’ in Your Community

The HandsOn Network, the volunteer arm of the Points of Light Institute, recently published a list of 65 easy ways for kids to “make a difference.” The suggestions represent good jumping-off points for high school students who have never volunteered or who are unsure of how to get started.

It’s no secret that colleges care about what you can bring to their campus communities. And one gauge is what you routinely bring to your immediate communities—school and neighborhood.

But service shouldn’t just be something you do for credit or to impress admissions staff. It should come from your heart and eventually become a cornerstone of your life.

Here are 20 of my favorite ways kids can make a difference from the HandsOn Network:

  1. Seniors love your artwork! Brighten walls—and smiles—at the local senior center.

  2. Gather up outgrown, gently worn shoes and clothes for your local Salvation Army, Goodwill, church or synagogue.

  3. Neglected stuffies in your room? Little kids at shelters are aching to cuddle them.

  4. Like a challenge? Your game board skills are in demand at the senior center.

  5. Dust off your old—but still good—books and give them to a school library

  6. Get a haircut! And give your ponytail to Locks of Love.

  7. Got old sports equipment? Bring it to your local Parks & Rec!

  8. Your town doesn’t recycle? Yikes! Create a program now!

  9. Buzz your town selectmen for more neighborhood trashcans and recycling bins.

  10. Learn how to donate/recycle old computer stuff & post instructions (with permission) at your local electronics store. Better yet, start a program at your school.

  11. Whip up your favorite yummy snack and present it to a soup kitchen!

  12. Love history? Visit folks at the senior center and ask about the amazing things they’ve witnessed.

  13. Seeking positive change? Ask your local government officials for help.

  14. Have an older neighbor? Rake their leaves or shovel their sidewalk!

  15. Make soldiers smile…send letters & goodies!

  16. Get fit and have fun…start a neighborhood exercise group.

  17. Share a home cooked meal—and cheerful chat—with a homebound person.

  18. Got a big idea? Launch it with a community event!

  19. Active voters make our country great. Ensure adults in your life are registered!

  20. Brighten the world…smile often!

For the complete list, visit the HandsOn Network Blog.

Oct 15, 2011

Coca-Cola Scholars Program Nears 2011 Application Deadline

Created in 1986 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Coca-Cola, the Coca-Cola Scholars program is celebrating 25 years of awarding huge scholarships to deserving high school students across the nation.

Including the Class of 2011, there are now 4,750 Coca-Cola Scholars who have benefited from nearly $45 million in scholarship awards.

Each year, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation awards over $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, 2011 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 to provide 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.

Oct 13, 2011

11 Guaranteed 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.

An essay 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.

And if you’re really smart, you’ll make sure you avoid the following 11 guaranteed 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. Ignoring the word limits. Word limits are sometimes suggested and sometimes imposed by the amount space or characters allowed before truncation occurs. Regardless of level of enforcement, respect the limits. Make the best use of the time you have to impress your reader—it’s limited.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. 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.

Oct 11, 2011

2011 Engineering Expo and College Fair Set for October 22

Prospective engineering majors and area high school students interested in learning more about careers in engineering are cordially invited to the 4th annual Engineering Expo and College Fair, sponsored by Chantilly High School, in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Scheduled for Saturday, October 22, the Expo will feature a number of workshops including

• A Cyber Academy by Northrop Grumman
• Systems Engineering by the SI Organization
• Advanced Manufacturing and Semiconductors by MICRON
• Innovating New Technnologies by Blackboard
• Intelligent Transportation Systems by Noblis, Inc.

In addition, a panel of undergraduate engineering students will be on hand to provide perspective on engineering studies as well as a few insights on successfully applying to a college engineering program.

The Engineering Expo will include faculty members and students from George Mason University, James Madison University, Old Dominion University, VCU, Virginia Tech, and UVa. Also participating will be Auburn University, Franklin Olin College of Engineering, George Washington University, Johns Hopkins, Purdue University, the University of Maryland, among other fantastic engineering programs.

The Engineering Expo and Engineering College Fair are made possible through support from Northrop Grumman, ExxonMobil, Micron Foundation, Noblis, and SRC. A complete agenda for the day is provided on the FCPS website.

Oct 9, 2011

National Merit Scholarship Corporation® Penalizes DC Public School Students

DC can’t get a break. Not only are residents barred from full Congressional representation, but DC students attending public schools are victims of an arbitrary policy that effectively limits them from fairly competing for one of the most prestigious scholarships in the county.

By rolling commuter and boarding students into the pool of DC merit scholarship candidates, the National Merit® Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) holds students attending District high schools to the highest standards in the country to qualify for college scholarships in the National Merit Scholarship competition.

Once again, DC tied with Massachusetts and received a national merit qualifying score of 223—exactly the same last year. Students in North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming only needed to score 204 points on the PSAT/NMSQT® to qualify for the same prize money and prestige, according to an unofficial list published by Barbara Aronson on her College Planning Simplified website.*

Even on either side of the District, the bar wasn’t as high. The qualifying scores for Maryland went up a point from last year to 221, and Virginia increased by two full points to 220.

Students may only qualify as “merit scholars” by taking the College Board’s PSAT/NMSQT in the fall of their junior year. For this year’s group of merit scholarship candidates, this was October of 2010—a long time ago.

In the spring after the test was taken, 50,000 high scorers are contacted for program recognition as commended or semifinalist based on a selectivity index generated by a combination of math, critical reading, and writing scores.

High scorers are notified whether they qualify for the next level of competition in September of senior year—twelve full months after the initial test date. Students who receive a score of 202 or better will be “commended.” Those above the cutoff—about 16,000 students according to the NMSC—are invited to continue in the competition as semifinalists. Approximately 90 percent of this group eventually earns finalist status.

But each state has a different cutoff. As luck would have it, DC’s cutoff is usually the highest in the country. And to add insult to injury, the majority of merit scholarship winners don’t attend public schools or even live in the District. They attend expensive private schools and commute from the suburbs. The mysterious NMSC formula for anointing finalists credits a student by the location of their high school and not by the location of their home. So DC’s allotment of merit scholarship finalists gets consumed by tuition-paying outsiders.

“The very high PSAT/NMSQT National Merit Semifinalist eligibility cut-off score for DC reflects the large number of children from the nation's most privileged elites enrolled in the District's private day schools,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. “It is highly likely that few, if any, Semifinalists, are from DC's open-enrollment public schools, particularly those which serve the greatest percentages of low-income and minority students.”

So far, executives from the NMSC have brushed off calls to rethink the qualifying process. In letters to both the College Board and the NMSC, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) advised that eliminating 99 percent of test-takers from the National Merit Scholarship competition solely on the basis of a single standardized exam was “at odds with best practices in the use of admissions test scores.” NACAC’s Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admissions concluded that “the time has come to end the practice of using ‘cutscores,’ or minimum admission test scores, for merit aid eligibility.”

As a result of these concerns, a number of colleges withdrew their support for the National Merit Scholarship program. Notably, the entire University of California system and the University of Texas no longer offer scholarships specifically for national merit scholars.

And yet, the process remains unchanged as students in area high schools, including those in District of Columbia, start the first step of the competition this week with the administration of the 2011 PSAT/NMSQT®.

Schaeffer sadly concludes, “Because of its misuse of test scores—which correlate very strongly with family wealth and income—as the sole criterion for Semifinalist status, the National Merit selection process guarantees that a lion's share of its awards go to the children who least need financial assistance to attend college.”

There’s definitely something wrong with this picture.

*Note: The National Merit Scholarship Corporation does not officially release a complete list of qualifying scores for reasons known only to them.

Oct 7, 2011

Financial Aid Season Starts with the CSS PROFILE

October 1st marked the official launch date for the 2012-13 College Scholarship Service (CSS) Financial Aid PROFILE. The less familiar financial aid form, the CSS PROFILE is an online application that collects information used by a relatively small number of colleges and scholarships to award institutional aid.

Locally, the CSS PROFILE is used by American University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, Goucher College, Johns Hopkins, Loyola of Maryland, Patrick Henry, the University of Richmond, St. John's College, and the University of Virginia.

Over the next few months, the word will go out that every college-bound senior and his or her family should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to qualify for federal financial aid. The online FAFSA form will become available on January 1st at midnight and should be completed as close to the start of the New Year as possible.

But the CSS PROFILE requires an entirely separate filing and evaluation process. For those needing to submit the additional form, it amounts to another wall to scale in the process of securing sufficient funds for college. And it can be a headache—an expensive one at that.

While the FAFSA is a free service brought to you by your federal government, the CSS PROFILE is a program administered by the College Board and involves a fee. Unlike the FAFSA, which uses the same application for everyone, the PROFILE is specifically tailored to meet the needs of individual colleges. Extra questions may appear on a student’s form depending on the colleges listed when registering for the PROFILE.

It’s not all bad news. There are some tradeoffs in the data collected by the PROFILE. While taking into account all the sources of income and assets used by the FAFSA, the PROFILE asks for some additional information such as home equity, the income/assets of a noncustodial parent, or the cash value of insurance plans. On the other side of the ledger, the PROFILE takes into consideration expenses such as medical, dental, or private school tuition.

And then there’s the fee. The cost for submitting an initial application and sending one college or program report is now $25. Additional reports are $16 each. These charges are subject to change each year, and they don't tend to go down.

For very low-income students, fee waivers for up to six colleges or scholarship programs are available and granted automatically based on information entered on the PROFILE application. International students are not eligible for fee waivers.

The PROFILE may be filed any time after October 1st, and colleges typically want to have the paperwork completed at least two weeks before posted “priority” filing deadlines. Because these can come surprisingly early in the application process, the PROFILE is usually completed with estimated numbers. Applicants definitely need to pay attention to deadlines.

For example, Johns Hopkins wants a completed PROFILE by November 15th for early decision candidates; Georgetown requests that all financial aid applications (including the FAFSA) be completed by February 1st; and American asks that all materials be submitted in advance of March 1st.

The College Board directs all questions to Customer Support, which may be reached at 305-829-9793 or by emailing help@cssprofile.org. You might notice there is no “toll-free” number. Unfortunately, most everything about this program costs.

Oct 5, 2011

2011 Davidson Institute Fellowship Awards

Tonight the Davidson Institute for Talent Development honors 18 very special high school students at a reception taking place at the Smithsonian’s 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.

Since 2001, Davidson has awarded more than $4.5 million to 184 brilliant young scientists, mathematicians, musicians, and writers. This year’s awardees include a student who designed an efficient yet inexpensive method for detecting landmines as well as another who created a yangqin or Chinese hammered dulcimer portfolio that will contribute to the preservation of ancient Chinese 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.

The deadline for next year’s competition is February 1, 2012, and application forms are now available from the Davidson Institute. To learn more about the fellowship or download the 2012 application, go directly to the Davidson website.

Oct 3, 2011

‘Early Action’ Isn’t Always As Simple As It Looks

It’s getting increasingly difficult to keep all the early decision (ED) and early action (EA) rules straight, particularly when a handful of colleges tinker with definitions and come up with narrow interpretations designed to suit particular admissions goals.

In general, binding ED programs require that applicants relinquish all rights to consider offers from other colleges in exchange for the possible privilege of being admitted early—typically before the first of the year. ED is the least flexible of the options because it locks you in.

Then there are the early action policies—restricted and not restricted. This is where things get tricky. Although both kinds of EA are non-binding—allowing applicants to choose from among all colleges to which they are admitted—restricted early action (REA) dictates which other early action programs are off limits to applicants.

For example, at Yale a student applying early must comply with Yale’s single-choice early action terms, which read as follows:

  • You may apply to any college’s non-binding rolling admission program [this is new this year].

  • You may apply to any public institution in your home state at any time provided that admission is non-binding.

  • You may apply to another college’s Early Decision II program, but only if the notification of admission occurs after January 1. If you are admitted through another college’s Early Decision II binding program, you must withdraw your application from Yale.

But Harvard puts it another way:

  • You may not apply simultaneously to Harvard’s Early Action program and another Early Decision Program. However, after you receive notification from Harvard’s Early Action program, you are free to apply to any institution under any plan, including binding programs such as Early Decision II.

  • You may apply to any college or university with a non-binding rolling admissions process.

  • You may apply [Early Action] to any public college/university.

Confused yet? If so, you’re not alone. Professionals in the field were equally surprised and confused by the subtleties in this year’s early action rules.

Harvard’s EA policy allows students to simultaneously apply early to any public institution. But at Yale, you may apply early only to public institutions within your home state. This is particularly nice for Virginia residents, who are free to apply under UVa’s new early action policy as well as Yale’s single-choice early action program.

Stanford and Princeton agree with Harvard. The Georgetown and Boston College restrictive early action policies only prohibit students from applying binding early decision at other schools. Other early application programs are fair game.

Under all policies but Yale’s, students may apply early to UVa or UNC or any other public college or university in the country.

“With our return to Early Action (which we had for many years before the three-year hiatus), we reinstated the policies that we had used before,” explained Harvard Dean William Fitzsimmons. “Given the fact that over 80% of college students attend public institutions, we have always wanted to offer students the flexibility of applying to public institutions throughout the nation, not simply the ones in their home states.”

Thankfully, the Common Application published a chart designed to get at some of the nuances of the various “restricted” early action policies colleges put in place this year.

The question remains, however, why such a chart should be necessary.

Oct 1, 2011

Can't Miss College Fairs

Now that you understand why you should attend college fairs and have absorbed a few tips for making them successful events, here are some local fairs you should consider visiting. Choose from among the options and mark your calendar accordingly!

Colleges That Change Lives
The 40 Colleges That Change Lives typically kick off their tour in May and make Washington DC one of the first stops. The program begins with a 30-minute panel presentation on completing a college search, which is followed by a college fair lasting about 1.5 hours. Watch the CTCL website for information on next year’s schedule of events.

FCPS College Fair and Night
Students and their families are invited to help celebrate the 36th annual Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) Annual College Fair and College Night Programs. Both events provide opportunities for college-bound students and their families to gather information from several hundred participating colleges and universities. This year’s college fair will be held on Sunday, October 16th, at Fair Oaks Mall. College Night will take place the following evening at Hayfield Secondary School and will also feature a series of very useful workshops. For more information or to download a College Fair Ticket with barcode, visit the FCPS website.

Go-To-High School Go-To-College Fair
Over 65 colleges and universities are expected to attend this free college fair, sponsored by Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. The fair, scheduled for November 12 from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., will feature financial aid seminars, a panel discussion, scholarship raffles, laptop computer giveaways and more. The event will be held at the Stephen Decatur Community Center, 8200 Pinewood Drive in Clinton, Maryland.

Harford County Public Schools ‘Education after High School’ College Fair
Parents and students in all grade levels are invited to attend and meet representatives from more than 100 colleges and universities, on Tuesday, October 11, at Edgewood High School. This year’s event will include a college-bound student athletes eligibility seminar scheduled to run from 6:30 to 7:15, in the high school auditorium.

JET College Nights
Twenty-eight Jesuit colleges and universities located in 19 states work together to schedule "regional" Jesuit Excellence Tour (JET) College Nights. In the coming months, the tour will be in every corner of the country including Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Boston, Chicago, and New York—to name a few host cities. Locally, two events are being scheduled for the beginning of March—one in Baltimore and the other in DC.

Knights of Columbus Catholic College Fair
This year’s event will be held the evening of October 6, in the school gym at the Church of the Holy Spirit, in Annandale. The fair is open to the public and starts at 7:00 p.m. Typically, between 30 and 35 Catholic colleges and universities participate including Santa Clara University, Villanova, University of Dayton, Creighton University, and many other familiar names.

Korea Daily College Fair
Since 2006, the Korea Daily College Fair has brought together Koreans and other Asians interested in learning more about colleges and the admissions process. Each fair features keynote speakers or seminars covering a variety of topics including curriculum, admissions requirements, financial aid, campus life, and more. Fairs are held in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington DC. This year, the DC fair will take place on Saturday, October 1, at the Korean Central Presbyterian Church in Centerville VA.

Montgomery County Regional College Fair
Montgomery County Community College will host the annual Montgomery County Regional College Fair on Wednesday, October 12, from 6:30 to 8:30 in the Physical Education Center at the Central Campus. More than 150 colleges and universities will be available to speak with students and their parents about admissions criteria and procedures. Financial aid officers from local colleges and guidance counselors from MCPS will also be on hand to answer questions. In addition, two special workshops will highlight the evening and provide students with an in-depth look into the admissions process.

NACAC’s National College Fairs
Free and open to the public, NACAC’s National College Fairs are organized to promote interaction with admissions staff representing a wide range of postsecondary institutions. During the day, workshops are scheduled covering a variety of topics including financial aid, essay writing, NCAA eligibility, and students with disabilities. In addition, college counselors are available to answer questions and help with college search. Online registration is available for many National College Fairs, including greater Washington, DC, scheduled for Tuesday, October 18, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, and Baltimore, scheduled for November 7-8, at the Baltimore Convention Center.

NACAC’s Performing and Visual Arts (PVA) College Fairs
PVA College Fairs are specifically targeted to students interested in studying theater, visual arts, graphic design, music, dance or other related disciplines. In addition to providing information on educational opportunities, admission requirements, and financial aid, staff is available to provide advice on portfolio development and auditions. PVA College Fairs require no pre-registration although the opportunity to register is offered online for many fairs including the one scheduled for Sunday, November 6, at the Washington Convention Center.

National Hispanic College Fair
Partnered with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, these fairs are organized to help minority students gain access to a broad range of colleges/universities and vocational training institutions. These events are typically scheduled during the school day and require release from school. This year, the Montgomery County Public Schools are hosting a National Hispanic College Fair on Wednesday, October 19, at the Shady Grove Conference Center.

Portfolio Days
National Portfolio Days are specifically for visual artists and designers. These events are not so much college fairs as opportunities to meet with representatives from colleges accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. Portfolio Days require no registration and operate on a first come, first served basis. Local events are scheduled for Saturday, November 5, at the Hartford Art School in Richmond; Saturday, December 3, at the Corcoran College of Art & Design; or Sunday, December 4, at the Maryland Institute College of Art .