Category Archives: College Admissions

The Story Only You Can Tell

I was a little bit surprised that my last post on what I affectionately and long-windedly call the “How a PWD made me count my blessings by being like the very incarnation of Baby Jesus” genre of admissions essays turned out to be one of the more popular posts on this blog.  I was immensely gratified by the thoughtful and honest comments, where we semi-debated the risks vs. benefits of writing about various topics.  My hypothesis there was that this particular type of essay is ubiquitous because high school students and those who advise them, writing about that one week where you volunteered to work with children with disabilities or built an orphanage in Mexico and had a totally transformative experience seems like a good way to pander to the bleeding hearts who tend to read admissions essays.  They stress the more impressive parts of the student’s record and come instantly packed with a certain kind of drama.

This prompted a comment from Anna about her doubts that she as a person from a non-privileged group would be able to successfully write about her experiences without also taking on the stigma of belonging to that non-privileged group. At the time, I agreed with her, but now I sort of want to back off from that.  For one thing, over the course of the intervening month, in which I read over 200 admissions essays, I became more aware of my gut responses to particular types of essays.  Let me just say here that my gut response isn’t the sole factor determining how I score an essay.  As I stated in the previous post, I do not come to these applications looking to have my political convictions reflected back to me.  The score is a measure of the quality of both the writing and the thought behind it.  I recently gave a very high score, for example, to an applicant who wrote about the experience of belonging to a political family, the political family in question being one that I pretty much despise.

That said, essays that adopt cliche approaches tend to receive middling scores because they lack individuality and depth, while essays that talk about intense personal experiences in an emotionally honest and nuanced way tend to be better simply because they reveal more about the student as a person and, because they are intense experiences, feature a more sophisticated emotional vocabulary.  In the past few weeks, I have seen excellent essays about dealing with the aftermath of parental abuse or abandonment, identifying as queer in a conservative community, coping with a chronic illness, and assimilating to U.S. culture as an immigrant.  All of these could have invited a certain type of stigma, but I responded to these students well both as writers and as people, and I do not think that this is because I am simply an exceptionally sensitive, social justice-oriented person.  I actually think that most admissions readers would respond well to these essays.

The fact of the matter is that in admissions training both at my own institution and on a national scale, readers are taught to look for evidence of pursuing challenges and overcoming adversity in addition to more traditional markers of achievement.  Because of the backlash against affirmative actions, these injunctions are a way of taking all parts of a student’s background into account without resorting to identity politics.  And while it’s probably true that most admissions readers–who tend to be ensconced within the Ivory Tower–are bleeding heart liberals, evidence of pursuing challenges and overcoming adversity appeals to bootstrapping conservatives just as much.  When asked to score applications for a pre-med scholarship program, my Reaganite father admitted that he tended to be more sympathetic with kids from less privileged backgrounds at least in part because they reminded them of himself (not that applications should be scored on the basis of personal identification either.)

The essential point I’m trying to make here is that anyone who drives a student away from talking about the more harrowing parts of their background is probably doing that student a disservice.  No one should be pressured into leveraging their trauma in such mercenary ways, but if a student feels moved to write honestly about an experience, I think that student should just go right ahead. Furthermore, no student should feel pressured to embellish their narrative in order to make their personal history more melodramatic than it is.  I have also awarded high scores to students who wrote about the ups and downs of their entirely healthy relationship with their parents or their first experience in a debate competition in original and nuanced ways.  Just because an experience seems mundane doesn’t mean it can’t be the source of an inspired piece of writing.  It just means that the story you tell should be a story that only you can tell in that particular way, because writing from a place of true honesty and sincerity is one of the most effective ways to connect with your audience.

Many people commented with their stories about why they chose the essay topics they did and what role they think that played in the fact that they did not get into their first choice institution.  I have one of those stories too.  It goes like this:

I had a pretty privileged upbringing, attending a private evangelical high school in a very affluent area.  That said, I did struggle with depression for most of my teenage (and subsequently adult) years.  One of the sources of that depression was a slow-burning crisis of faith.  Quite devout as a child, my skepticism about Christianity–particularly the conservative version of it that permeated my community–intensified throughout high school.  Though that crisis hardly made me an extra special snowflake, it was the most vivid part of my personal experience at the time, and I had an essay about it written before I threw it away at the last minute.  See, the problem with writing about that experience is that I didn’t feel I could show it to anyone as to do so would be to disclose the very thing that made me feel so alienated from everyone around me and that I feared would invite ostracism.  When I did venture to describe the essay to someone, I was discouraged from sending it in by someone who thought it sounded “whiny.”  So I wrote a generic essay about how I love books instead.

I can say with conviction that this was terrible advice, but I cannot say that sending the first essay would have guaranteed me admission to my first choice, where I was ultimately wait-listed.  The truth is that top programs and top schools turn down amazing people all the time, and usually there is no “one thing” that you can point to that makes one individual just a little bit less amazing than a person who was admitted.  So, basing one’s admissions advice on one’s personal rejection experiences is a bad idea.  As someone who has read thousands of apps and attended numerous admissions seminars, however, I am saying is that college admissions, for all its problems, probably is one of the few places where a student should take a few risks and be honest about who they are.    I know I would rather read an essay that chances a bit of exposure than yet another essay about how some person with vaguely defined characteristics inspired the student with generic positive feelings.

How Not to Write About Disability in Your College Application

Things that make me feel slightly better about the world:  in my current stack of 75 applications for a prestigious honors program at my university, four of the 150 essays have been about the use of slurs like “the R word” to describe people with disabilities.  That strikes me a somewhat encouraging ratio given the sheer breadth of topics available for these kids to write about.

Things that make my forehead scrunch:  more than a quarter of these essays have been about how a person with a disability taught the student A Very Important Lesson about perseverance, overcoming adversity, or being grateful for what one has.

I understand why essays about disability come up a lot, particularly among this cohort.  Just about every single one of us knows a person with some form of disability, and these kids spend many of their volunteer hours providing care at summer camps and group homes.  I think it’s tremendously commendable that they commit their time in this manner, but I want to caution students away from writing this particular kind of essay or, at the very least, only writing this sort of essay with some of the following problems in mind.  Teachers:  if you’re in a position to give advice about this sort of thing, feel free to pass it along.

1)  Almost all of these essays sound exactly alike.  The formula goes something like this:

First paragraph:  “I’ll never forget the first time I saw [name], who suffered from [disability].  Initially, I   thought [stereotypical and somewhat offensive preconceptions] about that disability, but [name] changed my perspective through her [remarkable qualities like innocence, perseverance, or courage].”

Second and Third paragraphs:  a chronicle of what you did for this person while working at [summer camp or group home for persons with disabilities].  This section is ultimately about how wonderful and generous you are for providing this sort of care.  There is often mention of having to help this person in the bathroom or shower and how that uncomfortable intimacy helped you grow as a person.

Fourth paragraph:  summary of how your life changed because of this experience (usually a single week or a semester of bi-weekly volunteering).  Usually contains truisms about counting your blessings and emulating that person’s cheerful attitude.

Essays that don’t clearly differentiate you from the pack won’t get you far with a selective college or honors program, so you want to avoid the formula essay as much as humanly possible.  I have seen spectacular riffs on the sort of essay outlined above, such as an essay on how a sibling’s disability made the student aware of the myriad accessibility issues in his school and church, but unless you can provide unique insights that stem from long-term experiences with disability, I would steer away from this topic.

2)  The essay is ultimately about how wonderful the applicant is.  Yeah, that’s sort of what you’re supposed to do in a college essay, but it’s icky to appropriate another person’s life in this way, and some application readers are going to be sensitive to that fact (your reader may, in fact, have or be closely related to a person who has a the same diagnosis).  Furthermore, you typically have to flatten that person’s personality traits in order to fit the narrative of what a kind, generous person you are and how you learned this important lesson, and that ultimately makes for writing that sounds (and is) disingenuous and uninteresting.

3)  Your essays are an opportunity to talk about something that either can’t fit into a resume line.  Your time volunteering at that camp one summer–most of your short-term volunteer activities, in fact–will come through on a resume just fine.  In fact, it’s sort of expected from the types of students who apply to selective colleges and programs.  In other words, write about something that is a bit closer to your own personal experience.

Nothing points to the need for a better public discourse on disability than the ubiquity of this particular sort of college essay.  A person with a disability is always presented as an opportunity for an able-bodied person to learn a lesson about how great they have it, about how to accept adverse circumstances cheerfully and courageously.  Furthermore, it strikes me as a problem that such individuals are subjected to inexpert care from a person they will never see again in order for privileged college juniors to have something to write about.  Ditto for impoverished children in the developing world, people who frequent soup kitchens, people with terminal illnesses, the impoverished child you tutored for a semester, etc.

I don’t necessarily read college essays looking to see my own political commitments reflected back to me.  I don’t expect seventeen year-olds to be able to deconstruct privilege or fault them for using a vocabulary that the vast majority of able-bodied adults think is compassionate but is actually pretty infantilizing and problematic.  I do score these essays based on the quality of the writing, which usually isn’t very good.  It’s the oh-so predictable homogeneity of these essays–the prosaic quality that emerges any time someone is trying to expound on something that they lack the long-term experience or intimate involvement to be able to adequately describe–that earns them only middling scores.  It’s the symptomatic nature of these essays that makes my forehead scrunch.

Outlet Mall Education

Cartoon of two people talking to each other.  First person says, "I got this snuggie here.  It was like 70% off.  I got it for $20!"  The second person says, "Dude, those are normally 10 bucks.  I'm going to the DMV."Every time the rising cost of higher education comes up, I keep thinking back to particular day during my tenure as Student Government President at College for Hirsute Feminists.  I ran unopposed, so holding that position wasn’t all that impressive, but as part of my duties, I was required to attend the annual meetings of the Board of Trustees.  The topic on everyone’s mind back in 2004 was, of course, the dwindling market share for women’s colleges and strategies for making the school more competitive.   Amid the reams of financial reports each attendee was given, one statistic stood out to me:  the college’s discount rate, the difference between the sticker price of tuition and what the average student actually paid after financial aid and merit scholarships were taken into account, was 60%.  In other words, over half of the tuition dollars paid to the school were essentially rebated right back to the students, though obviously in varying proportions.  Even more astounding was the increase in the discount rate over the past couple of decades.  I wish I could remember the exact figure, but I know that the discount rate for students attending my college ten years earlier was well below 50%.  As one might expect, the actual tuition rate had also been jacked up to compensate for the revenue loss associated with the discount rate.  So yes, tuition at the college had increased astronomically, but that didn’t necessarily mean that everyone was paying more.

A Google search taught me that this is a nationwide trend.  According to a recent article on The Chronicle:

The average discount rate jumped rapidly from 1990 to 2002, rising from 27 percent to 39 percent. But rates had been stable since 2002, hovering around 38 percent.Preliminary estimates for the current academic year show discount rates rising again, to 42.4 percent.

The reasons for increases in the discount rate are pretty complex and are naturally influenced by fluctuations in the national economy, but one reason seems pretty compelling and pretty obvious:  deep discounts look really good to parents and students and encourage more (and better) students to apply and enroll.  I went to my private college on a merit scholarship, which covered roughly half of my tuition (excluding room and board, books, fees, etc.), and that scholarship was one of the reasons why I attended and ultimately stayed at that school (I had considered transferring to a higher ranked but much more expensive school after my freshman year).  My Dad, in particular, felt like we were getting a really good deal.

So basically it comes down to a basic principle of marketing:  everyone likes a bargain.  In fact, everyone likes a bargain, even if it really isn’t one.  Colleges have to make up for the revenue loss somewhere, even if that means sacrificing quality or forcing employees to absorb some of the shock:

“These increases in discount rates, however, have come at a high price for many private colleges,” the survey’s authors wrote, noting that institutions “had to implement salary freezes, hiring freezes, staff reductions, and other cost-cutting measures in order to increase their spending on institutional grants.”

So there’s your job market crisis right there, though the discount rate clearly isn’t the only thing driving the adjunctification of academia.  But even with those cuts, somewhere along the line, colleges have to start raising their tuition rates in order to cover the deficit, which means that those who do not qualify for either need-based or merit-based aid are at least partially subsidizing those who do.  In a way, this is a system that looks remarkably like our health insurance model, in which those with access to employer-based or government subsidized insurance are given rates that are negotiated between insurer and provider, while those without any coverage whatsoever come face to face with instant bankruptcy if they ever break their arm, because they do not qualify for the “group rate.”

I’m sure some people would look at this as a kind of redistributive scheme, in which the rich families pay higher tuition rates so that less rich kids can get financial aid.  But when one considers that merit scholarships are also on the rise and the fact that those scholarships are probably more likely to go to kids who have access to the best schools and test prep programs, I’m guessing it sort of evens out.  The families that get crushed are the ones in between, the lowish-middle class families of average students who don’t qualify for aid but still have to take out huge loans or extra jobs to pay for school, but that’s pure speculation on my part.

And again, if discount rates in addition to the host of other factors involved in tuition inflation keep driving prices up, I’m guessing that we all just wind up paying more.  Thus, higher education has become sort of like an outlet mall, those monstrosities set up in suburbs and small towns promising discount merchandise from brand name manufacturers.  I’m convinced that they are a complete rip-off.  Take, for example, this excerpt from Ellen Rupel Shell’s Cheap, in which the author and a friend visit an outlet mall jewelry store and enter some kind of casino netherworld in which the house always wins by convincing you that you actually got one over on them.  It’s a pretty familiar scenario for an avid shopper like me.  I walk into a DSW and see a sign that says, “These shoes are normally $189, but you can have them for $79.95!”  And the shoes are made of polyurethane and fall apart after a few months and would probably actually be sold in a non-outlet store for about $35.  If you think I’m kidding, just do a Google search for “outlet mall scam” and see what you come up with.

So could this be going on in higher education?  Admissions officers sit down with little Jimmy’s parents and say, “The price of an education here at Scrooge McDuck University is $40,000 a year.  But look!  Jimmy qualifies for $15,000 a year in merit scholarships!  You are getting such a great value!”  I honestly have no idea.  Universities already have such a bad rap for tuition inflation, whereas just about everyone I know still thinks that the outlet mall 90 minutes south of town is The Shiz.  But there probably is a subtle psychological alchemy at work here.  After all, as Historiann points out:

But if the only message people hear is how ridiculous the price of college is these days, by people who have been and are eager to write $30,000-$55,000 checks for their children, no matter how painful it is and no matter how much they b!tch about it, it’s not going to hurt or change the cost of doing business for those top 5 to 10 percent of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities.  Instead, otherwise sensible and responsible Americans become convinced that they’re being taxed too much, and in states like mine, they refuse to pay the real cost for what it takes to maintain decent state universities.

In other words, at least at elite private colleges, sticker shock doesn’t stop anyone from enrolling, and those colleges are able to further entice individual families with promises of deep discounts, and rumors of those discounts spread.  That might explain why a father who wanted me to tutor his son kept ranting about how his kid had to get a full ride at Harvard, and no other outcome was acceptable. I didn’t take that job.  Meanwhile the pressure to discount is creating whole new problems at state universities and less prestigious colleges.

But take a look at this 2005 article from Inside HigherEd, about three small colleges that cut both tuition and their discount rate and saw enrollments and revenues rise:

Diane Hutchinson, vice president and treasurer of Wells, said that the discount rate at her college was a major concern of trustees and accreditors. Before Wells cut its tuition by 30 percent in 2000, to $11,850, the discount rate was 59 percent. “We didn’t want to be perceived by guidance counselors and others as buying students,” she said.

Four years later, enrollment is up substantially (and expected to grow more now that the college has become coeducational) and the discount rate is down to 41 percent.

And, indeed, changing the mindset of parents and students played a huge role in the success of these efforts:

One advantage of lowering tuition and the discount rate is restoring confidence of parents in understanding college costs. James Wilson, vice president and chief financial officer of Muskingum, said that some parents like to boast about what a great deal they got by paying a small percentage of total college costs. But many more parents, he said, feel confused by the system, and that discourages some students from even applying.

Muskingum cut its discount rate from 54 percent to 39 percent in the three years after it cut tuition by 29 percent, in 1996, to $9,850. While plenty of students still need (and receive) financial aid, he said, there is less of a sense of bargaining, especially by middle and upper class parents. Wilson said that the enrollment office at Muskingum boasts of having the “no haggling” strategy used by Saturn auto manufacturers, so that families know what they will have to pay.

I am all for need-based financial aid that gets kids to college that otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend.  I am also all for rewarding hard-working, high achieving students, but more and more, these discounts have seemingly become one more piece of a university’s marketing and recruitment package.  And there seems to be a compelling case for the idea that this strategy is making tuition not only far too high, but artificially so.

Image credit:  H. Christine Richards

Why Do They Care About Grades So Much?

At the end of every semester, I hold what I cheekily call my “group therapy session” about grades.  For about 20-30 minutes on one of the last days of class, I go over how I calculate grades, appropriate ways for students to talk to me about grades, and what frame of mind they should bring to their grades as they view and think about them.  In order to combat the inevitable anxiety, I usually say a few words about how employers generally don’t care so much about grades earned in lower division courses, that the difference between a B and an A in a sophomore level lit class doesn’t mean a whole lot in the long run.  Then, one of my innately brightest students (who also struggled that semester for a variety of reasons) called me on what he pretty accurately judged was a bunch of happy horseshit.  “The difference between an A and a B,” he said, “is the difference between Flagship State University Law School and Regional College Law School.”  And you know what, he sort of has a point.

I’ve written before on this blog about grade grubbing, and given where we are in the semester, just a few weeks before midterms (how is it October already?), it’s no surprise that conversations about student laziness, excuses, “snowflakiness,” and sense of entitlement to unearned grades are starting to pop up on academic sites.  Though really, as someone who actually did get mono during exam week as an undergraduate, someone whose grandmother did pass away during the final week of classes just two years ago, and someone who had a student nearly die due to a chronic illness last term, I have this to say to the haters:  Don’t be a douchebag.  Treat claims of illness and family emergency as legitimate unless you know for sure that they aren’t.  Don’t treat these things as an occasion for a free pass, but help students work through the situation in a way that satisfies requirements for successful completion of the course without, you know, sending them into therapy, prompting them to quit school, or compromising their health.

But back to grade-grubbing:   I wonder if we, as instructors, spend so much time complaining about the way they expect awesome grades for merely average work and treat instructors like magical A-dispensers, that we’re missing a bigger point about the pressures that students face in a vastly more competitive and ever-shrinking labor market.  I wonder if we are too quick to explain this behavior away as selfishness, immaturity, and the result of a consumer-based education system that we miss the fact that such behavior may, in fact, be a rational response to the shrinking of opportunities for all but the most exalted (not to mention well-connected) individuals.

My extended family members are frequently astounded by my generation’s approach to education.  On both my mother’s and father’s side, their generation was the first to ascend to the middle class.  My father’s parents had no college education.  My mother’s father went to college–much later than the traditional student–after the Korean War, on the GI bill.  Both of my parents and all of their siblings, by contrast (there are 9 of them, total), have at least some college education.  Many of them have graduate degrees, and most of them own their own businesses or occupy senior management positions in national corporations.  But most of them will confess to having spent their teenage years in a state of total rebellion, not really giving a flying frack about grades.  Most of them scored about 1000 on their SATs (I know that scores are inflated now) and still got into the best two public universities in the state.  A few of them dropped out of college for various reasons and then returned to get their degrees.  I doubt that my grandparents were really thrilled about that, but they accepted it and seemed to manage the expense of those lost years without too much trouble.  My father put himself through medical school, which cost less than $1000 a year in the early 80’s. I say this all just to point out that the costs and outcomes of higher education are, by all measures, changing radically and rapidly.

The grandchildren–my generation–were all raised to care intensely about performance in school.  Part of that increased emphasis on getting good grades was, I think, a result of generational differences in parenting, but it also seems to have been an acknowledgment of the shift in college admissions standards and the fact that a college education is now compulsory for anyone hoping to make a middle class income in adulthood.  My sisters and I all scored 1300 and above and still sweated about getting in to the very same universities our parents sailed into without a worry with much lower grades and test scores.  College admissions have gotten ridiculously competitive, resulting in what is, effectively, the professionalization of the teenage years, when every class and every extracurricular experience is carefully selected based on how it will look on a transcript or a resume, when students are increasingly encouraged to begin thinking about college in middle school, when top high schools routinely engage in the practice of grade inflation in order to give their students an edge.

This is a system in which it becomes very difficult to learn how to deal with struggles and failures, because you can’t afford to have them. In my junior year of high school, my grades began to slip, not because I was lazy or unmotivated but because I was mired in an undiagnosed and untreated depression, a slip that most certainly cost me my top choice college.  The teenage years are fraught with experimentation, crisis, and yes, failure, and those are all experiences that contribute to adult growth, but the consequences of that period is frequently so dire and unacceptable that it’s sort of no wonder that students begin looking for dishonorable but frequently effective ways mitigate those consequences.

Much of this thinking is catastrophizing.  Plenty of people make B’s in various classes and move on to gainful employment.  Plenty of people drop out of college and return.  Plenty of people do not get into their first choice college or law or medical school and have rewarding careers.  But students occupy a space that is part alternate reality and part actual reality, a space in which the stakes for being slightly less than extraordinary increasingly feel bleak.  Middle class wealth is shrinking, not growing.  The only group that continues to get richer is the superstars, the celebrities, the CEO’s, and many students still operate under the assumption that the U.S. economy is a meritocracy, that brilliant grades and admission to a top business or law school signify entitlement to all of the riches the world has to offer and that all they need to do is keep presenting the case that they are meritorious (even if they aren’t) and the rewards will follow.  My grandparents aspired to join the middle class back when it really was something to aspire to.  Now, increasingly, it isn’t.

So why do they care about grades so much?  Because they think they have to.  That’s not a call for instructors to indulge them in their quest for unearned rewards, but it is a call for empathy and a call for those of us who have the opportunity to intercept these kids at a particularly delicate time to help them successfully enter adulthood, to educate them about how to manage setbacks responsibly.