Just in Time for the Holidays: The Book of College Admission Spells

I wrote this for a column that appeared in the Post-Crescent, Appleton’s newspaper, in December 2015. Given that the holidays are once again upon us, the spells contained herein might prove handy.

As we approach the height of the holiday season—and all the gatherings and celebrations that accompany this magical time—we also enter the thick of the college admission season, where many high school seniors are in various stages of applying to colleges, or waiting to hear back from colleges to which they have applied.

The overlap of these two seasons often gives rise to a peculiar phenomenon for those high school seniors, especially at the aforementioned gatherings and celebrations.

Just a year ago, they may have been ordinary teenagers, small players in polite conversations with relatives and family friends:  How’s school? How is [insert activity here] going?

But now they are College Applicants, elevated to the leading role in conversations of a different sort from those same relatives and family friends:

You should apply to College A; I loved it.

I’ve never heard of College B.

How did you do on the SAT?

We applied to College X, Y, and Z.

I heard that [some shining star not in the room] just got into [name that evokes approving noises from everyone else in the room].

To the well-meaning folks asking questions or making observations, these may seem like friendly bits of conversation. But to the College Applicants in the room—for whom the college admission process can be an intensely personal choice—the public appraisal of that choice can create some challenging moments.

Luckily for those College Applicants, there is help from an unusual source: The Book of College Admission Spells. (We keep it in the Very Special Books section of the library at Lawrence University.)
magic book

The book is not available for check-out, but I have been authorized by our Very Special Librarian to share a handful of charms and hexes that can help College Applicants and their loved ones make it through the holiday season and beyond with their sanity and self-worth intact.

Perspectum Widensis – When cast by a College Applicant upon a person, this charm helps the spellbound become aware of colleges that don’t routinely appear on ESPN College Gameday. Useful for applicants to liberal arts colleges and other schools that may not be household names, this charm counters the effect of the Neverheardof Hex, a minor curse that causes one to think that not having heard of a college must mean it’s not worth considering.

Morthana Testscorus – A culturally subversive charm, it is best used upon students who have done very well in and out of school, but are suffering from the disappointment or anxiety that accompanies a low ACT or SAT score. When cast upon such students, it reminds them of their worth, and also opens their eyes to the more than 800 four-year colleges that do not require standardized test scores for admission (including the one where this spell book is housed).

MeNotWe – When around parents who use the first-person plural pronoun as the subjects in statements about their child’s college search (e.g., “We got into College A” or “We got a scholarship from B University,”), whisper this simple little spell, and the speaker will only be able to say the child’s name in place of “we”. (This is a diluted version of the more powerful charm, Notaboutyou, which prevents parents from holding up the College Applicant as proof of their own parental achievement.)

Non Overdoitum – When cast upon parents of middle schoolers and younger high schoolers, this charm enables the spellbound to encourage their children to challenge themselves in subjects they enjoy and excel in, but not to pressure them to take academic courses far beyond the child’s capacity. This charm counteracts the Youwontgetinunless Hex, which leads parents to believe that getting into college requires children to fill every slot on the class schedule with AP and honor classes, and to program every hour outside of class with activities carefully selected to impress admission officers.

I understand there may be other copies of The Book of College Admission Spells hidden throughout the world. I hope others with access feel free to share their favorite spells with those who might benefit from them.

Image credit: Magic Book by Nikita Kozin from the Noun Project

A new (and expanded) supporting cast for Lawrentians

It’s September again.

(As if you didn’t know that already.)

To get the year kicked off properly, we could playfully link to a certain Earth, Wind and Fire song like we did last year at this time (you’re welcome) before cutting to the chase of yet another ritual that seems to be the job of admissions folks: trumpeting the virtues of our class of newest students while slyly promoting the virtues of our own institution.

We’ll let our new student profile do that job for us. Suffice it to say, like generations of Lawrentians before them, they’re delightful, talented, driven, and eager to meet the challenges you would expect from one of the Colleges That Change Lives.

(See what we did there?)

Speaking of meeting challenges, our newest Lawrentians will have even more supporters than they usually do with the addition of four new colleagues, three of them in brand-new positions at Lawrence:

Kimberly Barrett, our new Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion and Associate Dean of the Faculty (yes, she has one of the longest titles on campus), will be working “to promote learning, student development, social justice, and diversity” among students, faculty, and staff at Lawrence University as well as in the greater Appleton area.

Linda Morgan-Clement, our new Julie Esch Hurvis Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life, officially joins the Lawrence community this week to provide spiritual leadership, foster religious sensitivity, and connect the Lawrence community through campus ceremonies, religious traditions, interfaith services and celebrations.

Monita Mohammadian Gray, our new Dean for Academic Success, rejoins Lawrence to lead our brand-new Center for Academic Success, dedicated to helping Lawrentians thrive in their academic lives and reach their full potential in their lives at and after Lawrence. If her name looks familiar to you, it’s because she was an admission officer for Lawrence from 1996 through 2005. (We’re thrilled to have her back!)

Christyn Abaray, our Director of Athletics, has been at Lawrence since the spring term last year, so this is the start of her first full academic year in the role. A former D-III All-American student athlete herself, Christyn is working to ensure that our student athletes experience success in academics and competition.





Purple bedding, college roommates, and the big good-bye

Authored by Carin Smith, Lawrence University admissions Supermom. (Editor’s note: Carin would never call herself “Supermom.” But her colleague–and aforementioned editor–does.)

As I write this, new college students are learning who their roommates will be and where they will be living this fall.

Before that reality sinks in, let’s press “pause” and savor this moment. Do you remember where you were last year at this time in the college search process with your child? Think about where you are now. If you’re like most parents of college-bound students, you’ve come a long way in 12 months, and, for that, I encourage you wholeheartedly to celebrate, celebrate, celebrate!

I also encourage you wholeheartedly to savor these last few weeks of having your child at home with you before officially crossing that threshold to being a full-fledged College Student. (It’s such a big deal it needs capital letters.)

Back to reality.

Last summer I received an unusual number of phone calls from parents around this time. They were calling about their child’s roommate, or room assignment, or something else all together:

  • “My son has never shared a room before and his assigned roommate isn’t responding to his email messages so they can start to get to know each other. I think he needs to be re-assigned – before school even starts.”
  • “My son is an athlete, and as best we can figure out none of his teammates are living on his floor. I’m quite certain he’s going to feel very isolated.”
  • “My daughter’s roommate is arriving at school by herself, from the west coast, which means my spouse and I will not be able to meet her parents and make sure we feel comfortable with them.”
  • And my all-time favorite: “My daughter has already purchased purple bedding (purple has been her favorite color since she was 2-years old) and her roommate seems to think gray is an acceptable color for dorm décor. I’m concerned this could be problematic for my child.”

Reflecting on these concerns, I think these parents may have been less concerned about email messages and purple bedding than they were about the reality that was rapidly bearing down on them: their kids were going off to school. They were no longer going to be under the same roof anymore.

As someone who has now gone through this exercise twice, and is currently going through it again, I like to think that maybe I have some wisdom to share to provide a little comfort. Like I did for those parents, I’ll share this with you:

As a Division I athlete, my oldest daughter not only had no say in who her roommate was nor where she would live, she was required to report to school (and stay there!) 5 weeks after she graduated from high school! Her roommate was one of her teammates, someone who came from a very different family, cultural and socioeconomic background. The first couple weeks were an adjustment, but pretty quickly they bonded over surviving the demands of D1 athletics and their irrational fear of spiders.

My son went through the more typical process of filing housing forms and waiting to see who he would be living with only to discover that his “randomly-assigned” roommate was a boy who attended our church and the other high school in our town. I’ll admit to being fairly disappointed by this since his school of choice was 4 hours away, in a different state, with a fairly diverse student body and this is what happens?! They survived just fine and I quickly realized that I should have been far more concerned by the fact that every freshman boy (400+) was housed in one massive residence hall. Drop off day was the last time I was ever able to bring myself to walk beyond the front lobby, where even there the odor was “eau de locker room.”

Number 3 is headed off to school this fall and informed me in April that she was pretty sure she had identified a roommate. (I was shocked!) Her school of choice is 5 hours away, geographically diverse and she does not know any other new students attending this fall. “How did this happen?” You guessed it: social media. Not only had they found each other, asked and answered some questions that they felt gave them enough information about each other to believe they can successfully co-exist their first year, but had already made plans to meet for coffee, both by taking the train to a destination in the middle and about an hour away from each house.

I asked my daughter, “What was the key question and answer that sealed the deal on this?”

“She has a dog that she loves, and will miss every bit as much as me. And seriously mom, we don’t have to be best friends, we just have to peacefully co-exist!”

The moral of these stories? They all ended up working out, each in their own way—and they were all beyond my control—something I don’t easily let go.

I am a firm believer that college is about much more than classroom learning; it’s about problem-solving, trying new things (and sometimes failing), pushing outside your comfort zone and helping to build your new community.

(PS: this works for parents as much as it does for students.)

Whether your child has chosen to attend a residential college like Lawrence, where we require students to live on-campus for all 4 years, or a school with a looser residential requirement, that physical space in your home that they now inhabit is going to change—for them and for you.

So if you find yourself confronting housing issues, before calling your college, I would strongly encourage parents to spend time this summer taking care of some very important checklist items:

  1. Enjoy time with your child
  2. Teach them how to do laundry (if they don’t already know how to do this).
  3. Make sure they can successfully set an alarm (probably on their phone).
  4. Make sure they can successfully get out of bed when said alarm goes off.
  5. Remind them to regularly check their email (since that’s how professors will be contacting them) even though it’s not their go-to form of communication.
  6. Help them know how to “rationally” get a spider off the ceiling of their dorm room. (Hint: a hysterical call home isn’t going to do the trick.)
  7. Enjoy time with your child (So important it’s worth a second mention.)

Happy summer!

Hats and Scorecards

In the “other duties assigned” part of my job description is a bullet point that says, “Human Hat Rack.”

I think it refers to the multiple roles that we are all called to play in our roles as college admission professionals.

One hour we’re wearing counselor hats, helping students make good decisions about college fit, the next we’re wearing the IT, trouble-shooting our computers. (“Let’s see… if I smack it right here, will that fix it?”)

Sometimes I’m wearing one of those old-timey hats with a “Press” card in the hatband, called into service as an investigative reporter, like when I’m responding to a well-meaning friend, faculty member, trustee, or parent who has forwarded to me an article with an attention-grabbing (i.e., click-inducing/ad-revenue-generating) headline like “Liberal Arts College Graduates Make Less Money Than Your Neighbor’s Dog” or “Child Inventor of Cold Fusion Denied Admission To Top Choice College.”

You’re familiar with these stories. They’re the ones that build a sensational narrative out of a handful of facts without providing the fuller context that might make the story more informative—while simultaneously making it less newsworthy.

Such was—and continues to be—the case with stories that use the College Scorecard as their reference point. The Scorecard is a treasure trove of data, but without fully considering the context, these data can be misused, leading people to faulty conclusions. And when journalists use the data selectively to tell incomplete stories, the effect multiplies.

I saw the effect when a friend of mine sent me a link to a Scorecard-inspired Wall Street Journal article with the headline Student Debt Payback Lags.

He expressed worry about college grads in general and Lawrence graduates in particular.

I assured him that the good news was that Lawrentians who graduate with debt fare pretty well: 96% are repaying after 7 years, one of the scorecard benchmarks. (Our performance, however, pales in comparison to the assiduous graduates of Moler Barber College of Hair Styling and the International Yacht Restoration School, who are at 100%.)

We’ll often see breathlessly written—and breathtaking—articles focusing on $1.2-trillion in debt held by college attendees, not all of whom are graduates. These stories, too, often fail to contextualize who is carrying the debt, lumping together an entire sector without accounting for the differences in non-profit vs. for-profit, or undergraduate vs. graduate or professional schools.

As admission practitioners, we understand that the world of data associated with higher education is more nuanced—and we also have a responsibility to help those we serve (students, families, institutional stakeholders, etc.) understand those nuances.

Even with the College Scorecard itself, we need to help families avoid falling into the seductively simple conclusions that are so easy to draw from the sleek, attractive, government-developed website. The Fed claims not to have developed a ratings system—despite previous pronouncements that they wanted to try. What they have done instead is drop the resources onto families to allow them to do the rankings themselves.

Users need to keep in mind some of the data and assumptions behind the Scorecard. For example:

  • By focusing so sharply on earnings, the Scorecard seems to have reduced colleges’ primary function to creating salary-earning loan repayers. There is nothing in the Scorecard that addresses the other, more difficult-to-measure values that a college education offers, or the qualities of mind that some colleges have as their educational mission.
  • The student dataset is limited only to those students who receive federal student aid, which means there is, for many colleges, a very large number of students whose results never get included.
  • Notably absent: how many alumni go to graduate or professional school.
  • Also missing is a consideration of the type of work a college’s graduates do. If a school disproportionately sends grads into lower-paying careers, like education or non-profit work, it is going to be more of an under-performer using these metrics.

We could argue that the College Scorecard itself is a great case in point about why a liberal arts education is so important: it teaches you how to ask questions about data, and challenge how they are interpreted and used. (I suppose I just did.)

I will now remove my philosopher’s hat, and put on my chauffeur hat. I have to go pick up some prospective students from the airport.

Financial Aid Season – Just Do It!

You may recall from my previous blog posts that I am a crier.

I am also a world-class worrier.

It should come as no surprise that, almost immediately after my son started getting into colleges, I shifted my worry gears into how we would pay for him to go to college (and here I am doing it again – one final time with my high school senior). Like many families, my husband and I had given this some attention (along with some thought and, yes, worry) since the day our children were born. But now it was (and is again) REAL.

Before I go on, there are some personal factors I should share so that I might adequately set the stage for my level of angst.

Education is highly valued in my family – always has been, always will be. Somehow, my parents (both educated, but living a very middle income life) successfully sent 6 kids off to liberal arts colleges. I don’t remember a single conversation that started with “we can’t afford this school.” (So this was new territory for us.) Both my husband and I work in the field of education (a noble profession, I like to think, but not one that lends itself to large bank accounts). The schools to which my son was admitted cost—on average—more for one year than the nicest car I would have ever dreamed of owning. The cost for 4 years would be… well, let’s not go there. My son was heading off to college at the height of this country’s most recent recession. To make myself feel better, I tried very hard to listen to the advice I had been giving families over my 30 financial aid seasons:

  • You’ll never know the true cost of a college until you submit all appropriate paperwork to your schools.
  • Every school handles scholarship and financial aid dollars differently. The same student may look very different in different colleges’ applicant pools.
  • Scholarship decisions are not equivalent to the worth of a child in their mother’s eyes (if only!!!!)
  • Financial aid officers are human beings. Many are parents themselves. Most tend to have a pretty high level of compassion to go along with their expertise. They know that families are anxious about this process AND they know that each family’s financial situation is unique. They will answer your questions. They are (along with admissions officers) your best source of information.
  • (This means that the well-meaning, “been there, done that” parent in the line at the grocery checkout is probably not your best source of information about this.)

When February rolled around (as it’s just done again!), we arrived at the moment where we had to stop worrying and get to work. It started by NOT waiting until April 15 to file our tax return. We got that thing done earlier than we ever had done it. (I wish I could tell you that the process and paperwork was pleasurable, but it wasn’t so awful that we didn’t get it done – we did. We even got it done on time.)

If you have been avoiding the heavy lifting involved in this part of your child’s college search process, I would encourage you to follow a certain athletic company’s advice and “Just Do It.” Only when you do will you learn the real numbers and real costs at individual schools.

Here are some important resources to help get you through this:

  • The official FAFSA website is: www.fafsa.gov (Not fafsa. com… run away from that one.)
  • The official CSS PROFILE website is: www.collegeboard.org/css-financial-aid-profile
  • StudentAid.gov provides information about federal student aid programs, eligibility, how to fill out the FAFSA, and what to expect after submitting the FAFSA, as well as guidance on repaying student loans.
  • StudentAid.gov/fafsa gets into the real nitty-gritty about the FAFSA: find details about dependency status, who counts as a parent, how to figure out when the IRS Data Retrieval Tool will be available for an individual applicant, or how to report same-sex marriages on the FAFSA.

I’ll say it again (recognizing my own professional bias): admissions and financial aid officers on college campuses everywhere are terrific sources of information, expertise, and worry abatement.

And really… worrying is overrated.

Take it from a world-class worrier.

Carin Smith
Regional Admissions Director
Lawrence University