This week the National Association of State Student Grant and Aid Programs released their annual report that examines the amount of aid that states are handing out to college students. The report is a dense and lengthy read, but InsideHigherEd.com does a decent job of summing it up:
The annual report [...] shows that need-based grants made up about the same proportion of total grants awarded in 2006-7 as they did in 2005-6. Need-based grants constituted about 72 percent of the total grants awarded last year, which was actually down slightly from 73 percent in 2005-6.
The association's report comes as a growing chorus of critics call on states (as well as private institutions, for that matter) to place their grant dollars in programs that might help needy students enroll in college who might not otherwise, instead of merely changing the enrollment patterns of those who could still otherwise afford a college education. Grant aid, which is measured in isolation within the report, is particularly coveted for needy students because it does not have to be paid back.
But even that is a tad confusing. Let's see if I can make it even simpler:
1. Some people want schools to put more money into need-based aid instead of merit-based aid. Need-based means that the money goes to students whose parents can't afford to send them to school. Merit-based means that the money goes to students who have high ACT/SAT scores and a good GPA, even if their parents can pay for them to attend school.
2. The critics that are pushing for more need-based claim that merit-based aid simply rearranges where students go to school instead of allowing more students to go to school. For example, if you got into Yale and Arizona State, you might pick ASU because they would give you money. The aid from ASU wouldn't make it more possible for you to go to college. It just changes where you go college.
3. The report notes that while the amount of money given out went up across the country, merit aid still accounts for more than 25% of all grants given out. That means the previously mentioned critics didn't make a difference in the 2006-2007 admissions cycle.
This makes me doubtful such a push exists.
Of course, the article quotes the lovely, brainwashed employees of the College Board. They lovingly issue more statements that fly directly in the face of scientific data:
Sandy Baum, senior policy analyst for the College Board, said she's seeing more institutions stress need-based aid - even if seismic shifts aren't reflected (at least so far) in the national figures compiled by NASSGAP.
"I do think that there is increasing consciousness of the importance of need-based aid," said Baum, a professor of economics at Skidmore College. "I think there is some movement in that direction."
That movement is yet to be seen. For the moment, colleges will still throw tons of money at students who will make their institution look better on paper by raising their ACT/SAT and GPA averages. While the College Board might like to think that changes are coming soon, the data doesn't support that a bit.
That's because the financial aid that isn't grants still gets plenty of students the help they need to attend school. Loans may not be pretty, but they get the job done. Until someone can prove that schools are locking students out of the system by giving money through merit-based aid, the merit-based aid is still going to be a priority.
Sigh. I hate writing about the College Board. I promise the next post will be about kittens or something.
Summer has a strange effect on the folks over at the College Board. Although they spend most of the year administering one of the most hated tests of all time, they literally have nothing to do between the June SAT and the October SAT. So they make announcements about policy changes, statistical research, and other things that kids don't care about at all. It helps them stay in the news so that everyone remembers how awesome and important the SAT is supposed to be when the fall rolls around.
This week College Board announced that they are going to let students pick which scores they send to colleges instead of forcing students to send a record of all their scores. The program won't go into effect until the Class of 2010 begins taking the SAT next year, but it will allow students from that point forward to reveal the scores they like and hide the scores they don't like.
This isn't a radical idea.
The ACT has been doing it for years and up until 2002, College Board allowed students to use "Score Choice" in order to review their scores before they were sent to colleges. Even though Score Choice is dead and gone, Todd Johnson points out on his blog that most schools only consider the highest scores students send to them, making this change not only a direct retreat from a previous stance for College Board, but also sort of a pointless endeavor anyway.
In fact, the whole point of this change is to compete with the ever more popular ACT, not to make test taking easier on kids. In 2007, 1.3 millon test takers took the ACT, rivaling the 1.5 million SAT test takers and making College Board sweat the fact that more and more teachers, admins, and independent college consultants are strongly recommending the ACT. This change, like most changes on the SAT, is about marketing, market share, and the ever growing fear at College Board that someone will figure out how bad their test really is.
Yet, in typical College Board fashion, the interview they gave to the LA times noted how much they were helping students with their latest change and acted as if the previous program had never been axed by them back in 2002:
"Students were telling us the ability to have more control over their scores would make the test experience more comfortable and less stressful," said Laurence Bunin, senior vice president of the SAT. ". . . We can do that without in any way diminishing the value and integrity of the SAT."
Seriously, Laurence? Did you talk to a lot of kids who said that more control over their scores would be helpful? Did you talk to any kids at all? Or did you simply decide that the ACT had some good marketing buzz that College Board wants in on?
Sometimes I wonder if working for College Board makes your brain hurt. It must be frustrating to work for a company who feels a compulsive need to spin everything they do, all the time. And it's certainly obnoxious to have to blather on about an announcement that everyone agrees will have no effect on the tests or admissions.
In the spring of 2005, the SAT underwent a major overhaul. This week College Board released a validity study analyzing the effectiveness of those changes. (If you've already forgotten the old SAT, here's a summary of the changes). In response, the New York Times published an article titled "Study Finds Little Benefit in New SAT." It begins with the three best sentences I have ever read in a major newspaper:
The revamped SAT, expanded three years ago to include a writing test, predicts college success no better than the old test, and not quite as well as a student's high school grades, according to studies released Tuesday by the College Board, which owns the test.
"The changes made to the SAT did not substantially change how predictive the test is of first-year college performance," the studies said.
College Board officials presented their findings as "important and positive" confirmation of the test's success.
Before you read any further, stop. Go back. Read those three sentences again.
Done? Great. Let's break those three sentences down to examine their supreme silliness.
#1: The new test that College Board spent millions of dollars developing isn't any better at predicting college success than the old SAT they threw out in 2005. Sure, you sit for an additional hour of testing, write an essay on an esoteric topic, and pay more money now, but it's not telling colleges anything they didn't already get from pre-2005 scores. Oh, did we mention that high school grades are still a better indicator than the SAT?
#2: College Board's own study says that the changes didn't have any real effect! Their own study! It's like a tobacco company saying "Yep, these things DO cause cancer! No point in hiding it..."
#3: College Board assures us that all of this information means the new test is successful and that we should definitely trust it.
At least the NY Times isn't fooled. The article does a very solid job of explaining the background of the New SAT and how College Board came to its insane conclusions. Newsweek also provides a great summary of the correlation math and reminds us that "even the University of California system, which had inspired the change, was not yet downloading the SAT essays or using the writing scores in its admission deliberations."
So don't be fooled yourself. College Board will always, despite whatever evidence is produced, insist that the SAT is a great tool for college admissions offices. They will swear that the version of the test they are currently using is a perfect version of the exam, even as they begin work on designing a new test. They will ignore data they don't like, and spin the data they find useful.
And at this point, colleges are loathe to trust them because of this constant spinning. When College Board made changes to the test in 2005, most schools held off on using the writing scores because they had no faith that the new test would improve as an indicator of student success. While College Board insists that their new study should compel colleges to start using the Writing section, at this point only a handful make it a priority. I can't imagine this study will cause many changes.
Writing a college essay is tough work. Although it's only one piece of the overall application, many of my students find that writing it takes up nearly as much time as filling out all the other paperwork put together.
Yet, nothing is as scary as a blank computer monitor. You know you need to write your essay, but getting started is probably the hardest part. Here's a few tips that might just get your creative juices flowing and your essay streaming from your fingertips!
1. Start Writing Early
It never hurts to start work on your college essay long before you need to submit your applications. Even if you discover that the schools to which you are applying require radically different essays than the one you wrote, your initial writing can always form the basis for your final work. If your first attempt gets tossed in the trash, don't stress. It will help you figure out what you want to write about in the end.
I strongly suggest that you start writing in the summer before your senior year. While most kids hate the idea of writing an essay during the break, it's the perfect time to get the ball rolling without the pressures of normal school. If you can wrap up your first draft by the beginning of your senior year, you should have roughly three months to revise it to fit the schools you eventually choose.
2. Stop Trying to Find the Perfect Topic
Contrary to popular belief, there is no perfect college essay topic. While the death of a parent or an unexpected teen pregnancy might sell tickets at the movies, colleges are looking for students who write interesting essays, not sob stories that demand sympathy. If you have an event in your life that is weighty and serious, by all means write about it. But don't feel like you have to invent a tragedy just to get into the school of your dreams.
In fact, one of the biggest myths I hear students repeat is that colleges "like" or "dislike" certain topics. This is patently untrue. Colleges like essays that convey the personality of the writer. They don't care if you write about your burning passion for milk, your best friend at summer camp, or your goldfish named Fluffy. As long as you display your personality through your writing, consider your essay a success!
3. Write About You, Not Your Awards
As I noted a few weeks ago, students don't often spend a lot of time writing about themselves. Instead, they spend time in their English classes learning how to write essays that examine literature from a critical perspective. While most students understand that the college essay is their time to showcase their interests and passions, the average student usually ends up writing a boring, scholarly essay that focuses on achievements rather than emotions and thoughts.
Your proudest moment may have been when you won the State Championship in Mock Trial as a Junior, but you need to focus on how the trophy made you feel instead of how you won it. Colleges want to know about your hopes, fears, and dreams. They care little about how other people view your list of awards or what it took to get those awards. If you can focus your essay so that it gives colleges insight into who you are by explaining your emotions, they will value that far more than your descriptions of your own academic excellence.
4. Don't Overwrite
The temptation to spend vast amounts of time working on your college essay is enormous. While you might initially be afraid of starting work on such an important piece of your college application, you will quickly find yourself obsessing over every last word. This can be a detriment to your essay; it's very easy to poke and prod until you've managed to kill any last bit of spontaneity and excitement you initially captured with your first draft.
So once you've chosen a topic, write your essay over the course of a day or two. Then put it away for at least 24 hours. If you have time, leave it alone for a week! Then take out the essay, read it, and rewrite it. Once you are done with the second draft, show it to a few people you trust (parents, friends, your trusty college consultant) and note their responses and advice. Rewrite it, put it away, and then pull it out again to edit it one more time. If you still don't like it at that point, start from scratch. The fifth draft is rarely an improvement over the fourth!
P.S. Although it's only one piece of the overall application, the college essay is a significant investment of time and energy. You can get around writing an essay by applying to online colleges or community colleges, but it is a necessary step if you want to go to traditional college or university.
This past weekend, Yale University President Richard Levin announced a major expansion to both the physical facilities and student body of one of America's most exclusive universities. Over the next five years, Yale will add two new residential colleges, resulting in an enrollment expansion of about 15%. This decision has already been certified by the Yale Corporation, the highest law in the land of Yalies, and was largely prompted by a natural need for expansion in the face of record low admissions rates.
Many students don't understand that the single biggest obstacle they face when applying to an Ivy League school is the size of the school itself. With only one to two thousand spots open in every freshman class, it is an inevitability that most of the applicants will be rejected. As I noted before, the need to turn away over 90% of applicants is one of the reasons extremely selective schools won't drop their SAT/ACT requirements. Even though standardized test scores have shown to be of little use in determining academic success, universities need all the reasons they can get to filter, categorize, and eliminate groups of prospective students from their applicant pools.
With that in mind, Yale's decision to increase enrollment by such a margin is good news indeed for future Yale applicants. Yale enrollment generally falls just above 5,000 students and hasn't changed much over the last few decades. Enrolling up 600+ new students in 2013 means that the fight for spots will be a little less cutthroat, although such a difference might not be that noticeable to the average Yale applicant. A 15% increase doesn't change the fact that you still need a 99th Percentile ACT/SAT score, great grades, and a killer resume to be taken seriously.
And, honestly, that's the way that Yale likes it. Yale enjoys tremendous acclaim and prestige not only for its excellent faculty and strong programs, but also because the number of Yale alums is so small. I'm happy to see that President Levin's decade-long push for enrollment increases is coming to fruition, but I don't expect to see any further increases anytime soon. Already students, faculty, and administrators are deeply concerned about the changes that are taking place and won't eagerly pursue further changes once these additions are complete. Expansion is always tricky business, but it's even trickier when everyone stands to gain from the exclusivity built into the system.
It's early June, a time when many students are struggling to keep their brains on for the few short weeks between the end of school and the ACT offered in June. On one hand, many students find prepping for the June tests easy; after all, they've got all the time in the world to do so. On the other hand, it means doing homework in June. Nobody likes doing homework in June.
So if you are getting ready to take the ACT this weekend, here's some solace. At least you don't live in China.
As the The Guardian documents, China's primary college admissions test, the gaokao, is probably the most brutal known to man. Testing over 10 million students, the test determines who will take the 6 million spots available in China's college system. As the Guardian puts it:
In today's increasingly market-oriented China, where high school and university are now the norm for urban populations, the results posted online at the end of the month will decide not only who will go on to further education but can also determine the future of the students and their families.
‘The gaokao now sets up your future life and your future social status,' said Professor Lao Kaisheng, a top education specialist. ‘If you are poor, it can make you rich. If you are rich, it can make you poor. The exams are one of the very few ways to change your life in modern China. They are critical to social mobility.'
So no matter how much you hate the ACT, remember that it has a few advantages Chinese students would kill to have:
- The ACT is mostly multiple choice.
- You can take it as many times as you would like.
- It's only three hours long.
- You don't have to compete with 10 million kids for 6 million spots.
Keep those in mind as you prepare this coming week. The more excited you are to rock the test, the better you will do. And if you ever feel sorry for yourself, remember that there are 10 million Chinese kids who would love to switch places with you on test day! Good luck!
A student at Yale University is dedicating his time to a blog called "The Free College Counselor." As he puts it on his About page:
Hello all, welcome to my blog. My name is Daniel, and I am a member of the Yale University Class of 2012. If you are on this blog, you are undoubtedly seeking to be admitted into a college or university, presumably a competitive one (otherwise, why would you need help?) [...] I may not be a college admissions officer, but I am a guy who has gone through the process and come out reasonably well, and I am here to help you get into your dream school. So sit back, relax, and prepare yourself for the roller coaster ride that is College Admissions.
Daniel has some great information on this blog from a student's perspective and a refreshing excitement about the admissions process. Pay close attention to his post on the College Essay. Not only does he include links to various drafts of his own essay, but he offers a good amount of advice that's really on the money. Well done, Daniel!
I've seen several of these blogs pop up recently and I think they are a great addition to the College Admissions Blogosphere. While I obviously value the contributions college admissions officers, high school counselors, and private college consultants bring to the table, it's easy to forget that many students have quite a bit of knowledge that they gained by actually filling out applications, writing essays, and attending interviews!
The calendar may insist that the start of summer is still a few weeks away, but I can tell that most students have already jumped head first into the vacation season. School is out for most schools and my students' calm faces tell me they are finally getting enough rest between tutoring sessions!
However, now is not the time to forget that college applications are coming. Here are a few ideas that will help you to build a great application in the fall by expanding your resume, skills, and abilities this summer!
1. Get a Job Doing Something You Love
The US Department of Labor estimates that over 50% of teens work at Retail businesses such as restaurants, fast food outlets, grocery stores and other retail stores. It's great to see kids spending their summers building job skills, but very few of those jobs will add much to a college application. If you want to really stand out at application time, put effort into finding a work place that reflects what you love.
Want to get a degree in marketing? Call every advertising firm in your hometown until someone hires you to make coffee and deliver mail. Want to be a doctor? Hospitals love to have high school kids file paperwork and run errands...if you contact them. Great jobs for high school kids are out there if you are willing to keep pushing until someone takes a chance on you. Not only will these kinds of work opportunities add something unique to your college application, but they will also have better pay and working conditions than McDonald's or The Gap.
2. Contact A Teacher You Like
Getting a great recommendation from your favorite teacher is tough. Teachers want to help students get into college, but often don't remember anything about the student that is worth writing about. To combat this, take some time over the summer to contact one of your favorite teachers. Ask them to see your summer theater performance, direct them to an article that reminded you of their interests, or simply say that you are looking forward to a class with them in the fall. As long as you reach out to them with more than "Hey! What's up?" they will remember you as an intriguing individual.
But contrary to popular belief, teachers do not crawl into caves to hibernate every summer. Instead, they go out and pursue their own goals and projects. That means the best way to contact them is via email! If you don't have their email addresses already, visit your school's website and search for their information. They may not get back to you right away, so if you need a response to an invitation or proposal contact them early and often.
3. Start Blogging About Yourself!
Writing is hard. Writing about yourself is even harder. While almost all students fear the personal statement, very few realize that writing in the first person is the really difficult part. Years of English classes have trained kids to write about books, short stories, and poetry, but they haven't taught them to tell stories about their own lives. Many of my students simply don't know where to start and panic when they look at the blank page!
You can ease your own fear of writing about yourself by getting into practice and doing it several times a week. I recommend that you take up blogging so that you not only have a place to write, but also have a way to show your writing to friends, family, and teachers. Your readership can even leave you comments and critique! As you can probably guess, I think http://www.wordpress.com/ is the best place to get started blogging. It only takes a few moments to register, set up your blog, and start writing about the awesomeness that is you.
Your Test Scores and GPA are huge parts of your college application that you should work on whenever you can. But as we discussed earlier, test scores and grades aren't enough. If you want to get into the school of your dreams, you need to stand out from the crowd. Keep yourself occupied this summer with great projects and ideas and your application will shine!