Monday, April 29, 2013

College Essays: Finding Your Voice

For me, the biggest thrill of being a college counselor is guiding students to find their voice as a writer. One reason it is more fun for me (and beneficial for the student) to start earlier is that there is more time for the process to unfold.

One of my students, Jacob, said, "Heck yes!" when I asked if I could share this scholarship essay as an example of writing that allows your personality to shine through. The prompt was "Which elementary school teacher was most memorable or influential in your time and why?"

Ms. Ross was a cool teacher. First grade, much like every grade to follow, felt like the biggest educational leap yet. I remember using various Lego-like manipulatives to learn about fractions and singing the “Days of the Week” song (sometimes, I still have to sing it!). I recall one of my classmates, Madison, breaking Ms. Ross’s favorite “123 ABC” mug. Madison apologized quickly, and though obviously frustrated, Ms. Ross completely forgave her. I was not directly involved, but seeing this interaction gave me a poignant picture to recall when someone wrongs me, and I am given the opportunity to quickly forgive them. As any normal first grader would do in the library, probably encouraged by my facetious colleagues, I wrote a letter addressed to the principal from Ms. Ross. In the letter, written in red marker, of course, I (Ms. Ross) informed the principal that I was divorcing my husband in order to marry him (the principal). After I, personally, delivered it to the front office and went dutifully back to class, the principal’s voice came over the loud speaker. “Ms. Ross? Do you have any information about a note that was just delivered to my office?” I could hardly contain my laughter seeing Ms. Ross’s confusion. Without prompt, I stood up and left the room, marching straight to the principal’s office. I cannot quite describe the feeling I had at the time. I was joyously embarrassed, pleasantly ashamed, or even shamefully delighted. The principal made note of the humor, and requested I not do that again. Ms. Ross laughed about it and moved on, as only a first grade teacher can. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Seize the Moment: Part 2

I don't know when Emily and I will get back to Pennsylvania again, so our intention was to make every moment of our trip terrific. Why stay in a normal hotel when we can experience lodging unique to the area?

The night before we visited Gettysburg College and Dickinson College we stayed at The Lady Linden B & B in York, PA.

Prior to Bucknell University and Susquehanna University we enjoyed the topiary giraffe and cow at Phillips Motel in Shamoken Dam, PA.

Before our touristy day in New Hope and our spur-of-the-moment visit to Princeton University we had a fabulous dinner and overnight at The Inn at Phillips Mill.

After our busy day at Lafayette College, Lehigh University and Muhlenberg College we restored out energy at the Fulton Steamboat Inn in Lancaster, PA. We awoke after a night of ersatz rocking on the river well-rested for our tours of Franklin and Marshall College and Ursinus College.

Emily is the queen of quirky trip planning!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Seize the Moment: Part 1

My business partner, Emily, and I are on a Pennsylvania college tour. At each school we visited we met enthusiastic students taking advantage of the opportunities at their schools. Here are some examples: this week at Lafayette you could have seen former president Jimmy Carter, at Franklin & Marshall you could have heard satirist Joe Queenan and you could have been serenaded by the amazing a capella Ursinus College Bearitones.

It's not so much where you go to college that matters as what you do once you get there.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Still Undecided on Your College? Try Guided Visualization

As May 1 decision date looms closer, many students are still undecided about which school is the best fit. See my earlier post about why this is no longer an intellectual decision.

One technique that has been very effective helping my students decide is guided visualization. Before the visualization do the following:

1. Narrow the list to three schools you are choosing between (more is too many for your psyche to handle)
2. If at all possible visit all three (whether it is the first time or a repeat visit)

The visits may be enough to help you decide. If not, ask a parent or friend to talk you through this scenario for each of the three schools.

  • sit comfortably in a relaxing spot
  • take 18 deep breaths
  • picture the school you are considering
  • imagine yourself at orientation
  • introduce yourself to three freshman and listen carefully as they introduce themselves to you
  • go with your three new friends to a spot on campus you like
  • share something you hope to get out of your college experience and tell them why you chose X college. Listen as they do the same
  • go early to a class to meet with a professor. tell her/him about a research project idea you have and get her/his reaction
  • participate fully n a class. Pay special attention to the professor interactions with students and the student engagement in the classroom
  • go to the dining hall, grab some food, and sit with people you don't know. Join the conversation and pay attention to what is being discussed
  • go back to your dorm and connect with your roommate
  • go with your roommate into the dorm lounge and hang with other students. Notice the interactions and activities
  • fast forward to your college graduation. You are the valedictorian. In your speech, share your three favorite memories from your four years in college

Use the same guided imagery for each school you are considering. Do not talk about the experience until you have completed the visualization for all of the schools. How did you feel after each? Where could you most easily picture yourself for the next four years. My experience with students is that if you are willing to be honest with yourself (set aside outside pressures and thoughts about the prestige of each choice) you will instinctively know where you belong.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Old-Fashioned Advice: Send a Thank You Note

My mom told my children that if they didn't send her a handwritten thank you note after each present she shipped them, no more presents would be forthcoming. My kids grumbled and complained that they should be able to email or call, but the desire for presents prevailed and they developed a positive habit.

Seniors, now is the time to send handwritten thank-you cards. Who should get them? Everyone who helped you throughout your college application process:
1. Your school counselor (and independent counselor if you used one)
2. Anyone who wrote you a recommendation letter
3. Tutors and test prep providers
4. The volunteers/staff at your high school college and career center
5. Any mentors who gave their time to you
6. The admissions officer assigned to your region at every school that accepted you (including all those you chose not to attend)
7. Any relatives or friends who will be helping fund your college education
8. Any organizations that have awarded you a scholarship
9. Your parents

Here's a sample:

Dear X,

Thanks so much for your support during my college application process. I am thrilled to report that I will be attending X college in the fall.

Your willingness to X (write me a recommendation letter, help me find great fit colleges, help me improve my SAT score, read my application, offer me a spot in your freshman class, help fund my college education, etc.) is truly appreciated!

Your Name

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Rude Financial Awakenings

This is my plea to parents of 7th-10th graders: get a financial reality check for college now! Yes, I know it might be scary and your expected family contribution (EFC) may be more than you feel you can afford. It's easy to put off unpleasant tasks and pulling out your tax returns and filling out financial estimators is not anyone's idea of fun. But hey, those taxes for 2012 should be just about filed by now, and this is the perfect time to use that paperwork for another purpose.

Your student deserves to know before he or she creates a college list what the financial parameters are. If you get tough news now, at least you will still have a few years left to deal with it.

Use the Expected Family Contribution calculator on a site like Calculate the numbers twice--once using federal methodology and once using institutional methodology (save the info!) You'll have a ballpark idea of what is expected of you, and you and your student can make rational decisions about next steps.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Inside the College Admissions Process

If you are a college junkie like me, you may have seen the recent movie Admission with Tina Fey or read the book The Gatekeepers by Jacques Steinberg. Both paint vivid pictures of the admissions process at a highly selective university.

For an abbreviated version of that point of view, read this article from the A & T Register (Making the Grade: Inside the College Admissions Process) which provides a peek into admissions at Lehigh University (which I am visiting next week). My takeaways: most admissions officers care deeply about students, character matters and demonstrated interest continues to be an important factor during the decision-making process. No big surprises, but good confirmation.

Monday, April 8, 2013

College Visits in Your Own Backyard

I live next door to Lewis & Clark College. I sometimes think of their beautiful grounds as an extension of my backyard.

One of the tasks I assign to all sophomores and juniors who work with me is to visit a small, medium and large college. I want them to experience the differences, rather than making a judgment based on hearsay. Fortunately, we have small, medium and large college options within easy driving distance of Portland.

For small, I recommend students check out Lewis & Clark, Reed, Willamette, Linfield or University of Portland. For a medium, I suggest Western Oregon, Gonzaga, or Western Washington. For large, the student could try out University of Oregon, Oregon State, Portland State or University of Washington.

When it comes to college, size matters, and it is important for a student to learn about his/her preferences. Although I sometimes encounter resistance from students who claim they don't want to look at anything so close to home, I explain that if they tell me they love X local college I can tell them about some similar colleges in alternate geographies.

A family without discretionary funds probably shouldn't spend money to travel across the country to look at schools. That same $1,000-$2,500 could be saved for college tuition, or reserved until April of senior year when the student has acceptances and financial packages in hand. That's a smart time to visit.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Computer, Not a Person, May Be Grading Your Essay

My favorite part of college counseling is guiding students through the essay process. No doubt my background as a high school English teacher, corporate communications director and magazine editor predispose me to like the writing aspect of the work. I am a huge fan of storytelling and secretly harbor a fantasy of getting my PhD with a dissertation about the effectiveness of sharing personal stories in corporate environments. But I digress. My blog post today is to express mixed emotions related to the controversy surrounding computer graded essays.

EdX (the MOOC partnership between MIT and Harvard) announced an essay grading software system that will instantly grade student papers, provide feedback, and allow the student to immediately rewrite for the chance to improve the grade. Brilliant academics are facing off on both sides of this issue.

There is certainly data that proves most people learn better with instant feedback. And I understand that it is unrealistic to provide personal  feedback if you are the professor of a MOOC that has 300,000 enrolled students. The financial model for keeping the cost of MOOC courses low (or free) means there must be an automated grading system and it's valuable to include writing rather than just multiple choice tests.

Since I read about 500 essays each applications season, I can personally attest to the fact that some high schools students are excellent writers, and others have a ways to go before their writing is college-level. Whichever end of the spectrum a student starts on, it saddens me to think that personal mentoring--heated discussions at the local coffee bar or in the professor's office--might be replaced by an artificially intelligent piece of software. My daughter's on-campus job as a writing tutor would be a relic of a bygone time.

What disturbed me most about the New York Times article was the ending (excerpted below).

"With increasingly large classes, it is impossible for most teachers to give students meaningful feedback on writing assignments...critics of the technology have tended to come... from very prestigious institutions where, in fact, they do a much better job of providing feedback than a machine ever could. There seems to be a lack of appreciation of what is actually going on in the real world.”

I stopped being a high school English teacher when my classes became too large for me to give meaningful feedback on writing assignments. I believed a student should write an essay each week, but I couldn't comment on 225 essays per week. If I couldn't do the job up to my standards, then I needed to find another job. The article writer implies that public college professors are all in the same situation I was in as a public high school English teacher. I hope not. While computerized essay grading may become acceptable for MOOC courses, I hope it will not become the standard used at colleges where students are in actual (rather than virtual) attendance. If it does, more students (and their parents) will question the value of attending college in person rather than via the internet.  

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Broken Lawnmower and Learning Opportunities

Saturday I went into Bridgetowne Hobbies & Games. My mission was to buy my son Vic some sort of kit that he could put together in his experimental science class that would help him figure out if he is interested in a career as an electrician.

The spry store owner, Bill Daemke, graciously spent time describing multiple options, but they weren't the sort of get-your-hands-really-dirty-experience I was hoping to find. Then Bill started describing his experimentation as a teenager repairing broken mechanical objects and I got excited. Bill graciously offered to bring in a broken lawn mower and give it to me at no charge for my son to repair or dismantle.

Since Vic had been anticipating something like a remote-controlled helicopter I wasn't sure how he would react to the news that he was getting a broken lawnmower instead. I was thrilled when he got really excited and started describing ideas for using the lawnmower motor and wheels to make a mini-car. He even sketched some ideas and did internet research over the weekend!

Sometimes students I work with think that learning opportunities are confined to school and more traditional didactic methods. I encourage them to pursue passions outside the class--learn to make pasta from scratch,  try out geocaching, take apart a broken radio and figure out how it works.

Whatever creation Vic makes with those lawnmower parts, I'll deliver a picture of the end result to Bill, so he knows that his infectious attitude about mechanical innovation is spreading!