Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Forecasting Classes for Next Year

This article first appeared in on February 25, 2015.

If you are in 8th – 11th grades this is probably the season during which you are asked to pick (forecast) your classes for next year. It’s important to understand that the choices you make now will impact the choices you get later when it comes to applying to college. When a college evaluates your application the admissions officers read your school profile first. This document (which is provided by your school counselor) gives them context so they understand the educational philosophy of your school and what options are available to you. Admissions officers want to know the rigor of your coursework—did you pick a challenging schedule, or one that was easier and allowed you more free time for non-academic pursuits? Here are some tips as you think through your choices for next year.

Know the Requirements for High School Graduation and State Colleges Entry

In many states the high school graduation requirements match up with the state college entrance requirements, but that is not true everywhere. Check the high school diploma requirements against the college websites to be sure. For example, in Oregon you can pass a class and gradate with a “D” in a required class, however the colleges expect a C- or better to meet the entrance requirement.

Know the Requirements for More Selective Schools

If you are a high-achieving student and considering a more selective school, it is important to know that the entrance requirements might be more rigorous than your graduation requirements. For example, you might be able to get your diploma with two years of foreign language, but some of the colleges you are considering might require three years of the same foreign language. A requirement that often trips up Oregon students considering University of California schools is at-least-one-year-of-the-same-type-of-art. Some Oregon students don’t take any visual or performing arts classes in high school because they want to double up on science or two languages, but that can cause a scramble senior year if the student decides to apply to a UC campus. Many students like to use freshman year to try out assorted electives, so they might choose drama for a semester and paint/draw for a semester. While both are arts classes, that student would need either drama 1 and 2 or paint/draw 1 and 2 (or an alternate visual or performing art) to meet the “one-year-of-the-same-art” requirement.

Academic Rigor is Valued

Take the hardest classes you can handle without undue stress. No college expects you to do AP Everything, but selective schools do want to see you stretch your thinking capabilities and push yourself with tough coursework. In most cases, it is better to get a “B” in an advanced class than an “A” in less challenging class on the same subject; however it is not so great to get a “C”, so push yourself without overextending. Sleep is also critical to your health and attitude, so make sure your class choices/homework load allow you sufficient hours of sleep each night.

Go Deep in your Areas of Interest

If you are a math and science whiz you should max out those options at your school. The same advice holds true whether you are passionate about history or literature or languages—take the hardest classes offered in your specific areas of interest and inherent ability. Then pursue academic opportunities beyond what is offered by taking a class at a local college, trying a MOOC like EdX or Coursera, or doing mentored, independent research. I know scheduling constraints can be hard. Maybe you love physics and French and the advanced course for each is only offered once per day during the same period. These are tough choices to make, so get guidance from your parents and school or independent counselor.

Make Choices that Excite You

I do not believe that it is smart to make choices about how you spend your time and energy simply to impress a college. Pick classes that are exciting to you, and balance your academics with a few activities you really love. Genuine interest in a subject will lead to better performance, plus you will be a lot happier.

Turn in Your Forecasting Paperwork on Time

School counselors and administrators work really hard. Be respectful and appreciative of all they do for you. Fill out your forecasting sheet accurately, legibly, and be sure to get any needed parental signatures. If you want or need guidance, ask! A counselor would rather spend time with you now than spend time in the fall trying to rework your schedule.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

National Youth Science Camp

This article first appeared in on February 18, 2015.

I heard about National Youth Science Camp (NYSC) through a friend of a friend of a friend in 2009 and applied without much of an idea what it was. I figured it was an outrageously long shot anyway: while I was good at science, I hadn’t done publishable research or won any major competitions. So I was surprised and excited when I got the news that I had been accepted. As it turned out, NYSC was three fabulous all-expense-paid weeks at camp with other brilliant teenagers from around the world.
We “woke up in the morning where the rhododendrons grow” (that’s the wake-up song) and threw around Frisbees before the flag ceremony and breakfast. A morning lecture by a visiting guest---anyone from an NYSC alumnus to a MacArthur grant winner---was followed by a seminar session, during which small groups explored a topic of choice for several days. My favourite seminars investigated the mathematics of origami and behavioral economics. The afternoon included elective time, when campers and Staph (so spelled because of their “infectious enthusiasm”) led non-science-related lessons on everything from folk dance to bossa nova singing. During dinner, campers entertained each other with musical performances. (My rendition of “To keep my love alive” was a definite hit.) 
Every weekend, we went on excursions. Backpacking, white-water kayaking, outdoor rock-climbing, mountain biking, and Civil War re-enactment were all options in 2009. The backpacking trips varied in length and difficulty, and campers were entirely responsible for navigation. My group one weekend nearly missed our pick-up and ended up walking several extra miles because our map was outdated! (It showed the trail back on the wrong side of the river.) Near the end of camp, we also took a less rugged trip to Washington D.C., where we saw the sights and lunched with Senators and the U.S. CTO.
There's one feature of camp that I liked but that may be a turn-off for some teens: it's in the National Radio Quiet Zone. That means no cell service. There’s also no internet around, except on a few computers accessible during free-time. You have to spend your days interacting with your fellow campers. It’s not really as hard as it sounds---other than for sending a weekly assurance of my health and happiness to my parents, I didn’t even use the computers. There were so many interesting talks and activities and trips during camp that I never caught myself pining for Facebook.
Of course, the best part of NYSC was the people. My fellow campers and Staph (mostly NYSC alums) were all friendly and passionate, undaunted by steep hikes, fast-flying Frisbees, or close brushes with dry ice. One camper and I sang through all of Les Miserables together over the course of camp. A Staph member gave me singing lessons during free time. I brought an entire suitcase full of books to camp (don’t do this!) and loaned them to other delegates, then discussed them. One of the Mexican delegates and I still visit each other and exchange hand-written letters and souvenirs from our travels. (She was actually so inspired by NYSC that she has secured grant money and started a smaller version of the same thing in Mexico.)
If you are a high school senior and all of this sounds like your idea of fun, you should definitely apply to NYSC by the March 1st deadline. Two delegates are chosen from each state (in addition to the international delegates). You need to have passion for science, but as my example proves, you don’t need to have won any major awards. Accomplishments in mathematics, science education, and engineering can also count towards your application. It is both free to apply and free to attend the camp---the foundation even covers your travel to and from West Virginia.
Only high school seniors are eligible, so you can’t use camp to burnish your college résumé. And that’s a good thing---it means camp is full of people who really want to be there and are excited by science lectures as well as kayaking trips. If you plan to pursue a science career, are available to attend June 17 through July 11, 2015 and want to meet like-minded science enthusiasts, apply now!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Tips for Fantastic College Visits

This article first appeared in on Feburary 11, 2015.

If you took my prior advice and visited some colleges close to home to understand your preferences, you may be ready for a college road trip. Spring is a great time to visit colleges. When you go, you want to get the most possible benefit out of your experience. Seeing a college yourself is the best way to get a feel for the campus and determine whether it is a perfect fit for you. When possible, visit while school is in session so you can sit in on classes, meet students and professors, attend a sporting event or performance, eat the dorm food, and perhaps arrange an overnight stay in the dorms with a student host. 
 The logistics of college visits can be a shared responsibility. Parents, feel free to make the travel plans including transit, lodging, and calculating the driving distance between schools. Students, your job is to interface with the colleges and admissions officers. Use the school’s admissions website to book a tour and information session. If you want to sit in on a class, look up the admissions rep who covers your geographic area and email him or her saying what day you will be there, the type of class you want to observe, and whether you are available to do so in the morning or afternoon. Sometimes the rep will arrange it for you, and sometimes you will be given contact info for the professor to make the arrangements directly.
One of the best ways to figure out whether you consider a school a good fit for your personality is to eat lunch in the cafeteria with current students. No, you do not need to know someone there—just grab a lunch tray, walk up to a crowded table and say, “Hi. I’m a prospective student and wondered if I could join you.” (This does not work if your parents insist on eating with you.) Then ask the students what they do and don’t like about their school and why they picked it. You will get great unscripted information that may differ from what you hear on the tour.
Here’s a plea—take good notes! If you see a lot of schools, they may start to run together and what seems memorable as it happens may in fact become jumbled in your mind. Be sure to write down the date of your visit, the name of your tour guide, the name of any admissions rep you met, and the name of the professor if you sat in on a class. All of that information will be essential in the future when you need to write your “Why I want to go to this college” essay. It’s also a great idea to bring a box of thank-you notes and some stamps, and to send your thanks each night to the folks you met during your visit.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

College Visits in Your Own Backyard

This article first appeared in on February 4, 2015.

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 all sophomores and juniors who work with me is to visit a small college, a medium-sized college, and a large college. I want them to experience the difference, rather than making a judgment based on hearsay. 
When I talk about size, I mean the number of undergraduate students at the school. I had a surprise insight last month when a student visited two colleges that I consider equal in size, but she said one was too small and the other was “just right”. (Yes, it did sound like a line from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”) She was comparing the actual physical sizes of the campuses—buildings; green space and quads; and distance from the academic building to the dorms, athletic fields, and gym. By that measure, the schools did differ greatly in size. While I think that the number of students has a greater impact on the quality of the academic experience, it was good for me to realize that the physical size and layout could be what a student takes away about “size” after visiting.
Fortunately, we have small, medium and large college options (based on undergraduate enrollment stats) within easy driving distance of Portland. As an example of a small college, I recommend students check out Lewis & Clark, ReedWillamette, or Linfield. For a medium-sized school experience, I suggest University of Portland,Western OregonGonzaga, or Western Washington. A large school example could be University of Oregon,Oregon StatePortland State or University of Washington.
When it comes to college, size matters, and it is important for a student to learn about his or 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 alternative locations. The Fiske Guide to Colleges (available at your local library) shows common “cross-over” or “overlap” colleges—meaning that students who applied to X college also often applied to Y college. Many of the more subjective sites like College Confidential have long threads about overlap schools. Some of the crossovers are based on geography, but many are based on the campus culture, type of programs, and selectivity.
Many juniors who can afford to do so use spring break to take a trip to a distant geography to look at schools. By doing some college visits close to home first, it is easier to narrow the list of far-away schools to visit.
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 aid packages in hand. That's a smart time to visit.
Please note that schools of similar size may be completely dissimilar in terms of other factors and the overall college experience. For example, I do not think that Lewis & Clark and Reed are alike. They attract different sorts of students. Size is only one of many factors to consider when looking for good match schools, and for many students it’s a good place to start the exploration process.