March 21, 2012

Visiting colleges

Recently, I have been busy planning my summer travel - every summer I return to the U.S. to participate in professional development conferences like HECA and OACAC, as well as take the opportunity to visit college campuses. Nothing is better than visiting a college in person to get a sense of what the school is like, and I highly encourage students to do so. Of course, as international students visiting a U.S. or Canadian college during the school year is more difficult, so if your family's summer travel plans include the U.S. or Canada, try to fit in a college visit as well.

Now that I visit on average 15 colleges and universities a year, I definitely know how to make the most out of my visit. Here are my top four tips that I wish I knew when I was in high school!

  1. Having a worksheet to take notes during the visit not only helps you to remember pertinent points about the school, it can also help you to more easily compare schools after you are done with all of your visits. Here is my free downloadable college research worksheet
  2. Take pictures throughout the campus tour (including a photo of the college sign or banner) so that the photos can later remind you about your impressions on campus. I really regret not taking a photo of signs posted by the facilities manager at St. Olaf. The signs, with messages along the lines of "Let's keep this building the coolest place on campus by closing the doors after you enter so that the air conditioning isn't wasted." made me think that if the facilities managers had such a great sense of humor, the school administration must also overall be responsive to students.
  3. Contact the admissions office ahead of time so that you know when campus tours are scheduled and so that you can arrange meetings with actual students and professors. College campuses can have a very different atmosphere during the summer, when most students are away, so you'll want to maximize your opportunities to meet people affiliated with the school.
  4. Allow yourself plenty of time (at least half a day) to visit the school so that you get a good sense of its atmosphere and programs. You want to make sure you don't miss out on formal activities like taking part in a information session given by the admissions office and going on a campus tour, because you have to catch a plane. You'll also want to allow time to take part in informal activities like dining in the cafeteria (do you like the food?), read the bulletin boards to see what kind of notices and flyers interest you, and checking out the adjacent neighborhood. See if you can imagine yourself living and studying at that school.
For more advice on how to make the most of a college visit, check out the National Association of College Admissions Counseling's articles, the College Visit and the College Visit Checklist.

February 29, 2012

Make your summer plans now


"What?!?" you might be thinking. "I haven't even finalized my spring break plans yet!" Well, spots for summer programs fill quickly, and if you want to participate in one (not that you have to) - now is the time to apply. Many colleges and university sponsor summer academic programs. You can get a taste of college life, perhaps earn some college credit, improve your English, and make new friends. There are so many subjects to choose, from fine arts to dance, from behavioral neuroscience to journalism.

If an organized academic program isn't your thing, you could also: 1) volunteer, 2) travel (and perhaps visit a school that you are considering at the same time), 3) read, 4) try something new, 5) teach someone something, 6) find a job, and 7) stay active in one of your interests, whether it be sports or the trombone. Some of your summer activities may even end up becoming the topic of your college essays!

You have 1,680 hours of summer (roughly 10 weeks, and there are a 168 hours a week), so think about how you want to spend your time. Time management isn't just about saving time, but filling your life with activities that are fun, that help you learn more about yourself, and help you to become a better person.

Of course, there are problem some demands of your summer already set in place, such as a family vacation. If you are going to be a senior next year, I'd also recommend working on your college essay and/or art portfolio, researching schools, contacting the schools that you are interested in, and even visiting them if you can.  If you are going to be a junior, you might consider preparing for the ACT or SAT. Just don't spend all your time on these college prep activities, playing video games, watching TV, or chatting on Facebook. Again, colleges and universities want to see that you are making an effort to be fun and interesting, learn more about yourself, and become a better person.

Consider perhaps making a list of things that you'd like to do, a list of your summer dreams, whether it's picnicking or having a sleepover with your friend. Then, you can take your list of dream activities, and then match that up with things that you might have to do over the summer. Take a look at your calendar and see how you can make some of those dreams a reality. That way by the end of the summer, you won't wonder where the time went and you can feel a sense of pride and satisfaction in achieving the summer of your dreams!

February 7, 2012

SATs and College Rankings

This past week, Claremont McKenna has been in the news for sending inflated the SAT scores to various ranking entities. The score inflation was small - an average of 10 to 20 points per year - reported the Claremont Port Side, a local student newsmagazine. Statistically, one's score is likely to change each time one takes the test, which is why the College Board reports a score range along with the test score, which they believe is a better representation of one's true ability. So this inflation of 10 to 20 points would have little meaning in reflecting the student body's ability on a standardized test. So why would a school do such a thing?

As reported in the news, Claremont McKenna was concerned about its place in the popular U.S. News & World Report rankings. This year the school was ranked #9 in the liberal arts college rankings, and this small difference could have placed it out of the top 10 list. This concern isn't unique to Claremont McKenna; school administrators across the U.S. are under incredible pressure to "improve in the rankings" because so many students and parents turn to the rankings to select schools. In the past several years, several schools have been caught gaming the system by selectively reporting data such as not reporting the scores of their recruited athletes, or not admitting lower-scoring students until January, so that their numbers are not calculated into the class admitted for September.

Given that I just mentioned that one's score is likely to change within a range of 30-40 points on a given sitting of an exam, what does this say about college rankings? After all, one might expect that falling from #9 to #10 or #11 in a ranking would mean that a school's educational quality is declining...or is it otherwise?

Let's take a closer look at the U.S. News & World Report methodology:

  • 22.5% - peer institution survey
  • 20% - retention of students (including the 6-year graduation rate, and the freshman retention rate)
  • 20% - faculty resources (including class sizes, faculty compensation, student-faculty ratio, proportion of full-time faculty, and proportion of faculty who have the highest degree in their fields)
  • 15% - student selectivity
  • 10% - per-student spending (excludes sports, dorms, and hospitals, but presumably not fancy student centers)
  • 7.5% - graduation rate performance
  • 5% - alumni giving
Now, let's think about the ways in which one learns. If we were to take Bloom's Taxonomy, where the lowest level of knowledge is memorization, followed by understanding, application, and then analysis, evaluation, and creation, the highest levels of knowledge are likely encouraged through activities such as in-class discussion, writing papers and making presentations, and working on projects. Activities like these are a better measure of educational quality than a peer institution survey, which is essentially a popularity ranking. How likely is an administrator at one school able to really understand what students at another school are doing?

So what are students and parents to do if the U.S. News & World Report isn't an accurate measure of educational quality? Is anyone trying to measure how and how well students are actually learning?

Actually, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) conducts an annual survey of students at institutions across North America on just such matters. While there is no ranking of the survey results, the NSSE has a very helpful FAQ on how students and parents can use the NSSE to aid in their college search. They also have a helpful downloadable pocket guide on the questions one should ask during a college visit.