Every year, we’re fascinated to read people’s answers to the Really Short Answer questions on college applications.
For 2016-17, for example, we’re seeing those questions pop up on the applications for Yale, Stanford, USC, Princeton, UNC Chapel Hill, and Columbia, among others.
What’s a Really Short Answer question? That’s what we’re calling the application questions that ask you to respond to a question in 25 words or less. Kids agonize over these.
Here's the secret: Usually, your quick, gut-level response is your best response, so you really don’t need to agonize.
Let's try an example. What’s your favorite food? Answer in 25 words or less.
What’s your gut-level answer? Let’s say it’s lasagna. OK, write down lasagna. But don’t stop there. Here’s our pro tip: The more specific, the better.
So don’t just say lasagna.
"Lasagna on Christmas Eve, because it’s our family tradition.”
Try a couple. They're not so hard! Here are some other examples:
"Macaroni & Cheese: it’s a comfort food, doesn’t have to be from Kraft, but from a box. Half the butter, twice the milk, extra cheese.”
“Zwetschgenkuchen, German plum cake. It’s delicious, and it’s the one word my American mother, who speaks perfect German, can’t pronounce, so we joke about it.”
In fact, you could write a whole essay about your favorite food and why it matters to you, and that would be a wonderful essay. Really, we’ve seen plenty of them! If you can be a little more specific than just a one or two word answer, the Really Short Answer questions let you reveal something beyond just personal taste. (Family traditions? Humor? Quirkiness? International background? There's no shortage.)
The Really Short Answer questions look silly on first glance, but they turn out to be pretty useful. And fun.
For law school success, don’t do what you’re told -- do what works
Here's a guest post from a new friend, Larry Law Law (no, not his real name, but I wish it were!):
Hey there. Do you want a first-class ticket on the express train to bad law school grades and disappointment?
Well, watch out! You will be on that train if you believe this statement:
"I will do well in law school if I do exactly what my law professor tells me to do."
At first glance, this statement seems harmless. It may even seem like good sense.
But make no mistake. This statement is evil.
Evil. Like Touch-of-Evil, Gargamel-waterboarding-Smurfs, line-cutting-at-Trader-Joe's, murdering-puppies evil.
Too many smart, diligent 1Ls worked themselves to death just to get average grades.
And you already know what average grades (much less bad grades) mean these days:
● Mid-tier, not top-tier, interviews (if you get any at all);
● Chasing crappy jobs instead of being chased by top-tier law firms;
● Working crap jobs (doc review for chump change) instead of having a fulfilling career (it is not all about money);
● Swimming in student debt that will never go away.
Dire, no? This may be bad news if your plan for law school was “do what my prof says.”
Now, if you've been with Anna awhile, you know that she tells it like it is (like here).
Me, too. I’ve seen the carnage first hand as a tutor to law students. So let me repeat:
If you do exactly what you are told in law school, your grades will suck and so will your post-law school life.
This may sound crazy. You got good grades in college doing what your professor said to do.
And it may seem risky to change plans and not follow your law professor’s advice.
But your risk lies precisely in trying to take the safe path.
The risky thing in law school is to follow the same strategy as every other smart, hard-working person in your class.
For law school to be worth it these days, you must excel.
And to excel in law school, you need to step out of your comfort zone – maybe for the first time – and be a rebel.
To be clear: I am not telling you to play Opposites Day with all your law professor's advice.
I am not telling you to go to class blaring Killing In the Name Of wearing a chain-mail shirt and no pants. (Rather: keep your pants and skip underwear! Feel the rebellion inside your pants! But avoid wool.)
No. You are going to be a limited tactical rebel in law school. Ignore a little and listen a little.
Most importantly, you will be relentlessly focused on those things that will get you results (i.e., good grades).
Which may or may not be what your professor tells you to do.
In short, the boringest. nerdiest rebel ever!
So here, rebel rebel, is what you need to know.
1. College = cramming knowledge into your knowledge-hole
Your college experience shapes what you think law school will be like.
Most get to law school thinking it’s college, just with lockers and meaner professors.
This unexamined belief makes you susceptible to following bad advice from law profs.
So let’s start with college: What was it like for you?
You went to class. You took careful notes. You read. (Yes, nerd, extra reading, too.) You went to review sessions. You went to office hours. You asked good questions.
All to one end: to cram knowledge into your knowledge-hole.
So you can regurgitate it on an exam that calls for you to elicit the specific knowledge you crammed.
(If “cramming” a “knowledge-hole” is too vivid for you, try gentler imagery: “screw the knowledge-bulb in your knowledge-socket,” etc. Happy to make it less disturbing for you!)
It is that simple in concept: Cram knowledge, then regurgitate it.
It is not easy to do well -- it takes planning, discipline and hard work -- but you did it well enough to get into law school.
This concept is rooted in an unspoken agreement, which I’ll call The Compact. It’s like this:
● The student does what the professor asks.
● The professor gives you an exam only about what the professor asks.
● The professor rewards the student with good grades.
2. At first and for a while, law school seems like college . . .
So you arrive at law school and it mostly looks like college: There are professors, lecture halls, books, and exams.
Since law school looks like college, The Compact must be in effect, right?
So your job is clear: you do what the professor asks. And your professor asks you -- tells you, rather -- to do a bunch of things:
● Your professor tells you to read all the cases in your casebooks, so you read all the cases.
● Your professor tells you to “brief cases” you read (in short, summaries identifying different pieces of cases), so you brief cases.
● Your professor tells you to go to class and take notes, so you go to class and take notes.
● Your professor tells you to be prepared to be called on to talk about cases in class, so you prepare to discuss cases in class. (The endless joy that is the Socratic method: “Mr. Hart, recite the facts of Hawkings vs. McGeeeeeee.")
You work harder than you ever have. You cram a metric shit-ton of knowledge.
Still, you feel lost about what is important -- what are you supposed to be studying? There are ton of details. Are all of them important?
You hear from other students that outside materials (commercial outlines or hornbooks) can help you understand the law.
But your professor says outside materials are streng verboten. Your prof tells you not to consult outside materials, so you do not consult outside materials.
So your only option is, like Boxer in Animal Farm, to work harder. You work harder reading cases, briefing cases, taking notes, and trying to look prepared for class.
(For all his troubles -- spoiler alert! -- Boxer gets sent to the glue factory.)
Also, two other factors: you would hate to look stupid in front of your brilliant classmates. Public speaking is, for most, hard enough without hecklers (your prof).
And your professor makes vague but ominous threats about docking your grade if you’re not prepared when he calls on you in class.
As the semester winds down, your professor finally suggests breaking up the reading cases/briefing cases/panicking about being called on monotony.
Your prof kind of suggests that you should think about making outlines and taking some practice exams to prepare for finals, so you maybe think about making outlines and taking practice exams. Whatever that means.
You give it the college try. But since your professor did not make it mandatory and wasn’t that clear about what you should do, your effort is muddled.
Still, you approach finals with some faith. You did all your professor asked you to do.
Under The Compact, that’s enough, right? Your reward should be good grades.
3. . . . until final exams.
Here, the merry-go-round breaks down.
You take a real final exam, under pressure, and it is nothing like your college exams.
College exams ask full questions -- with nouns and verbs -- that invite you regurgitate crammed knowledge (e.g., "What were the causes of the Peloponnesian War?" “Was Napoleon’s rise caused by the French Revolution, or was he just an asshole?”)
You sit, open your law school exam, and begin to sweat bullets as you stare:
The exam appears to be a 2-3 page long shaggy dog story, followed by the professor’s insanely terse question:
Or, if the professor feels very generous: “Assess the claims and defenses of the parties.”
As Kimmy Schmidt might say: What. The. Fudge.
What happened to The Compact? You, the student, did all your professor asked.
In exchange, your professor was supposed to give you an exam that tested what you learned. And then you were supposed to get good grades (and laurels and groupies and your own servant to whisper in your ear: “Remember thou art mortal”).
But this exam question (“Analyze” or “Discuss”) does not seem inviting at all. There seems to be no place for regurgitate case details you memorized.
It turns out that the exam is really asking you to demonstrate your skills in “issue spotting,” that is, your ability to identify, analyze, and resolving legal claims and defenses.
This is fair in that it is what actual lawyers do, and what law school should train you to do.
This is not fair in that your professor spent no time directly teaching you issue spotting.
Apparently, when your professor mumbled something about practice exams, you were supposed to teach yourself issue spotting.
Your professor may think that the public shamings that are the Socratic method constituted some kind of “training.”
But did it teach you to spot legal issues in brand new situations? Nope.
At best, your training was indirect. Like your professor spent the whole semester training you on a stationary bike at Soul Cycle, then took you to the Tour de France for your final exam, hands you a real bicycle and says “Pedal and balance, or you’re dead.”
* * *
Will your professor take responsibility for this bait-and-switch? Will anyone?
Nope. More likely, if you visit your professor with questions and a transcript littered with Scarlett Letter Bs, you will get:
● condescension (“Some students just get it and some don’t.”);
● victim-blaming (“Anyone who does the work will do well. Did you do the work?”);
● gaslighting (“Of course I prepared you for the exam!”);
● pity (“It must be really hard to struggle like this.”); and
● weird rationalizations (“So much of life is luck, you know. Well, off to lunch!”).
You will not get an apology, even of the Animal House variety, i.e., “You fucked up; you trusted us.”
You will not get, from your professor, compassion or empathy because nearly all of them succeeded in law school. They don’t understand students who don’t succeed. (Compassion is not pity. Compassionis to understand another’s pain and suffer with them. Pity is a sad-face emoji text, a condescending arm’s length hug without understanding).
You will not get an acknowledgement that the prevailing method of legal teaching (thanks a ton, Christopher Langdell) for the last 100 years -- make students read cases and figure out the law and let them figure out issue spotting for themselves -- is the problem.
You will not get an admission that this so-called pedagogy is, in essence, an abdication of responsibility for actually teaching law students. Making someone pay $250,000 to let them sink or swim is not teaching. Doing more than that is not coddling, either.
It is patently insane to make students focus an entire semester on one set of activities (case analysis), and then test them on something else entirely (i.e., issue spotting).
This is so insane that many of you will disbelieve or ignore what I am telling you.
Ignore me at your own academic and professional peril.
So what does this mean for you? Law schools and profs won’t change any time soon. I can’t change them, much as I would like to.
The only thing you can change is you.
In short: you are on your own to learn the law and to develop the skills that really matter on your law school exams.
But not totally alone. You’ve got me.
Now, I said a lot about what not to do. What, more positively, should you do to succeed?
More on that next time.
Larry Law Law is a tutor and coach to top students at T14 law schools. Hundreds of students used his methods. He wasn’t a shabby student himself: magna cum laude, Order of the Coif and on the Law Review Exec Board at NYU Law. Larry Law Law’s been around: he clerked (2x) and worked in BigLaw, BoutiqueLaw, GovLaw, and NoPayHumanRightsLaw.
There's been a lot of press about the poor prospects of many law students and recent law school graduates. As you're deciding where to put down your law school deposit, I thought this might be a good time to merge two older blog posts that still hold true today.
In particular, I was inspired by an email I received from a former client and one-time law school applicant, updating me about the interesting things he was up to. He concluded the message by saying:
Anyways, thanks for being the law school advisor that told me that law school didn't sound like it was for me :) . After killing myself for another 7 months and finally getting up to a 174 on the LSAT, I said screw law school and haven't looked back... I still recommend your services and have gifted at least 15 of your books.
I had had a preliminary diagnostic conversation with this applicant, as I always did before starting any counseling on the applications themselves, because I wanted to make sure we'd had a conversation about whether it made sense to apply at all. His update helped me distill the central message:
It's OK to walk away from law school, even after you've gotten a great LSAT score, and even after you've gotten in. Before you sign on any dotted lines and send in your deposit to go to law school, remind yourself that you DO NOT HAVE TO GO. You're looking at the offers in front of you, and you're feeling really good. As you should. And now is the time to reassess those options and decide whether they still make sense for you. Keep your head screwed on straight.
DO go to law school if you want to be a lawyer (based on what knowledge?), and you are going to a school — and at a price point — that sets you up to reach your goals. Do you know what your goals are? Do you know why you're going? Are you going to hit the ground running from Day 1? If not, don't go.
DON'T go just because you can.
DON'T go because your parents want you to.
DON'T go because you think a law school diploma will somehow validate you as a smart person.
DON'T go because you think law school — even a top law school — is a safe bet. It's not.
DON'T go because some law school out there is happy to part you from your student loan dollars.
You may still have good reasons to go to law school, but it's on you to figure out what those good and rational reasons are. Law school is a fine choice for some people, and a terrible one for others, depending on the circumstances and various options on the table.
I still believe that most ABA-approved law schools do not add enough value to justify the tuition they are charging, or the debt that many people incur in order to attend. There's no shame in applying but then deciding, "Wait, this might not be the best option for me." Sometimes you have to start down a particular road before you have a moment of clarity, or before you are open to hearing something you didn't think you needed or wanted to hear. Imagine how hard it is to walk away from a 174 LSAT, after all that blood, sweat, and tears, when you know that others would give their right arms for that score. Still, this once-aspiring-applicant thinks he made the right call.
And it's also a good reminder that despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth on behalf of applicants in the NYT, WSJ, WaPo, Bloomberg, etc. (and here on my blog), ultimately nobody is holding a gun to your head and making you go. It's your choice, and if there's value to all that press coverage, it's in serving as a caution to exercise that choice with great care.
We live in a time when you have to be the CEO of your career. As Thomas Friedman once wrote in an op-ed called "The Start-Up of You," in which he interviewed entrepreneur and LinkedIn founder Reid Garrett Hoffman, you'll need to be
Substitute "law school" for "college" in the quotation above, and the message still holds true. Educate yourself about the legal profession as it is today, warts and all. Educate yourself about what graduates from School X typically earn and what their typical career paths are. Go sit in on law school classes to see if they are your idea of heaven or hell. Educate yourself about borrowing costs. Go find lawyers who do the kinds of things professionally that you think you want to do, and look under the hood. Go get the LSAT score you need to get into the school that will open the doors you want opened, and the score that will enable you to go there without a real risk of financial ruin. And if you're not in the running for the kind of school you need to get from Point A to B to C, have a back-up plan and go do something else. Don't have a back-up plan? That might be the worst reason to go to whatever law school will take you.
Once you've done that homework and gotten advice and formulated a plan — do not outsource or skip this part, because ultimately it's you who bears the consequences — you'll have a much better sense of whether law school in general is the right move for you, and whether particular law schools are good investments for you. If so, that's great news. And if not, that's great information to have too.
Why do I keep banging this drum? Because so many of the forces and voices you come into contact with will push you toward law school — supposedly easy money, prestige, your proud parents, magical thinking, glossy law school brochures and dodgy statistics, sexy TV shows, historical levels of affluence among lawyers, you name it. The list is long.
Those are the wrong influences to be listening to, for a bunch of reasons: the present is not like the past, some of those schools are lying to you, you have to pay the money back (and it's a lot), the practice of law is rarely sexy, and your mom will still love you even if you don't go.
What do you think? Did you walk away? Do you wish you had? How about those of you who are glad you stayed the course? What sources did you find helpful when making your decision?
From the archives:
Wise words from the dean of admissions at Smith College:
Students have many options. Focusing on the narrow list of so-called top colleges ignores the rich diversity of the nation’s higher education choices — including community colleges, online courses, residential colleges and large research universities.
Students often combine study at different types of colleges and accrue credit for all of these varied experiences. Remember, “highly selective” doesn’t necessarily mean better for a student — it just means more selective.
When I talk to prospective students and parents, I often quote Frank Sachs, former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling: “College is a match to be made, not a prize to be won.” The ideal pairs a student with the school that best fulfills that student’s academic, social and aspirational needs.
Read her full remarks in the New York Times here.
So many tests, so little time. When it comes to standardized testing for future college applicants, there are some decisions you have to make before fall of Senior year in high school to help you maximize your options when the time comes to apply. But there are ways to "work smarter, not harder."
When we talk about which tests to take, we realize that these are moving targets because of changes on the test side of the world, particularly on the SAT side. The fact that the SAT has been in flux recently informs the advice we give. Here's our advice for anyone who plans on applying to selective four-year colleges in the U.S. We assume you're still in the planning stages, so that would be 11th grade in the U.S. 12-year system.
1. Plan on taking the SAT or the ACT
It's true that more and more colleges are going "test-optional," meaning that they are no longer requiring the SAT or the ACT from applicants, although you can still submit scores if you choose to. You might end up applying only to test-optional schools, or you might end up with a mix. Or you might turn out to be really good at the tests, in which case a good SAT or ACT score would still work in your favor even if they're not required.
Most students don’t apply to a list of schools that is 100% test optional, so as you're planning ahead, you need to have one of those tests under your belt. Then the question becomes which one to take.
2. Take a diagnostic SAT and diagnostic ACT
Do take diagnostic SAT and ACT tests because there’s no way to predict whether you are going to do better on the SAT or ACT or equally well until you’ve taken a practice test of each in timed conditions. Every test prep company in the world will do this for free as part of the sales process, or it will be the first thing you do once you sign up for test prep.
For the ACT, take a look at the free diagnostics offered by ArborBridge and RevolutionPrep (or any test prep company you like). Princeton Review used to have book that allowed people to do a condensed diagnostic, but the book doesn’t align with new SAT, so until a new version comes out, we no longer recommend it. (Fingers crossed that they update it.)
For the SAT, take a practice diagnostic test through Khan Academy. Because the SAT has changed recently, test prep companies have to simulate practice questions for the new SAT — they can't rely on real questions from the older tests. From our perspective, that's less than ideal. At this time, Khan Academy is only test prep organization that has access through College Board to real practice questions written by the College Board (the makers of the SAT), and it’s all free.
3. After the diagnostic tests, pick the ACT or the SAT and stick with it
If the SAT is demonstrably your better test, run with it. Otherwise, stick with ACT.
Sometimes parents push back because they don’t want to spend the time on all that diagnostic testing. We'd like to persuade you that this tip translates into “work smarter, not harder."
We don’t suggest you prep for both tests longer term. Spending some time up-front on both diagnostics allows you to pick the test you're better at and then focus your test prep around it. Parents usually have a bias in favor of one test or another (often based on their own experiences many years ago), so this tip is also designed to help parents get out of the bias.
If you do equally well on both diagnostics, then commit to the ACT because it gives you the option of avoiding subject tests. Parents and kids love to hear that, because it means fewer tests longer term (many colleges don't require SAT subject tests if you take the ACT). If you can take the ACT and call it a day, that's great news.
There are still a few schools that require the subject tests even if you take the ACT, but it still gives you lots of options if your subject tests don’t come back particularly strong. Do plan on taking at least two SAT subject tests to keep your options open.
4. Even though the Writing portion is now optional for both the ACT and SAT, do take Writing so that you preserve your options.
We'll continue keeping an eye on developments in SAT- and ACT-land, and also on the best test prep options as students and test prep organizations adapt to the new SAT.
Fascinating. I get more anxiety-stricken messages this time of year than when you are working on your applications or even taking the LSAT.
Are you stressed out now that deposit deadlines are looming? You are not alone. And of course it's stressful, because you're being forced to do something that is painful for a lot people: You have to COMMIT TO AN OPTION and LET OTHER ONES GO.
Here's the truth. You can't attend more than one law school at the same time. Well, I suppose you could if you wanted to fake an identity and drive yourself insane, because attending one law school is hard enough, trust me. One is plenty.
So come August, you'd have to pick a horse anyway. The schools are asking you reserve a spot four months in advance of orientation (or even less). It's not so unreasonable when you think about it.
But ANNA!!! What about my waitlists? Or schools I haven't heard from at all? I'll never find out if I might have gotten into Yale, and that KILLS ME!!!
Read your deposit language carefully. In the typical scenario, you can accept only one offer by the deadline. But a waitlist is not an offer. (I'm sure you wish it were!) You can stay on as many waitlists as you like — unless you were accepted via a binding admissions program, in which case you have to have withdrawn everywhere else, full stop.
But ANNA!!! [I do get lots of all-caps and exlamation points and emoji. I am unilaterally adding capitalization, though, because.] What happens if I get into [Dream School] and I've already paid a deposit at [Other School]?!?!?
Then you politely withdraw from the school where you put down your deposit, and you put down a deposit at the school that just made you an offer.
You have to be willing to forfeit your first deposit, because that's the whole point of a deposit — it's basically a penalty if you change your mind after the deadline date. But another way to look at it is as INSURANCE. Paying the deposit guarantees you a spot at that school while you're playing the waitlist game and hoping to "upgrade" during the summer. You don't have to spend your summer that way, of course. You could just put down your deposit and call it a day, but you do have choices. The key here is that you can have only ONE deposit, saving you ONE law school seat, at any given time.
But ANNA!!! If I put down more than one deposit, I have more time to procrastinate/think about it/agonize over it/stress about it, and how will they even know?
Sounds crafty, and you're not the first person to think of that, Craftypants. They WILL know, because LSAC collects deposit information from the schools and then shares information with the schools about multiple deposits.
If you're on that list, you will likely only receive a message with stern language, but worst case scenario, it might be considered misconduct in the application process, and you're at risk of losing all your offers. That's not a likely outcome, but still. All that to buy yourself a few more months of wishiwashiness? You have X offers in front of you by the deadline; it's time to pick one. (Don't miss the deadline, though; that's the more surefire way to lose an offer.)
Since the schools will find out anyway, isn't it easier just to take the high road? Don't hog multiple spots when you can attend only one school anyway, and when they could be making an offer instead to some soul on the waitlist whose dream in life is to go there.
Really, this is a time to celebrate. Get that stress monkey under control and enjoy this part of the cycle you've worked so hard for. If you're going to spend all those mental cycles on something, now's a good time to revisit whether you should be accepting ANY offer. (It's true.)
It's great to have options!!! :D
- How to Manage Multiple Offers from Law School Waitlists
- Is It OK to Put Down Multiple Deposits
- Is It OK to Keep Lobbying a School After I've Put Down a Deposit Elsewhere
- Waitlists and the Hell of Admissions Limbo
- Waiting Is the Hardest Part
- Gut Check Before You Send In Your Law School Deposit
- Rolling the Dice on Law School
HAPPY DANCE HAPPY DANCE HAPPY DANCE
Big congratulations to our amazing students this cycle! The news is still coming in, but here's a sample of colleges they've gotten into:
We've also gotten some great feedback from you, our readers. We're sending you happy vibes, too. If you're feeling stuck thinking through next steps, take a look at some of our previous posts, below. (You'll see some of them were posted by my colleague Alison, who is so smart and so wise that I must simply bow down before her.) And if the news wasn't great, we've included some advice for you among those posts, too. Most importantly:
"Hundreds of thousands of people are leading happy, successful lives even though they didn't get into their first choice college.... It is empirically true. No question."
Are you a non-traditional (read: older) student planning on taking the new SAT (aka rSAT) this weekend? If so, our friends at ArborBridge test prep are reminding us that there are special rules you need to be aware of, and might need to work around asap:
All of us adults who registered to take the March SAT this weekend so we could see the new test received an email from the CB [College Board] today telling us we had been booted to May instead. This month the CB is only allowing in students who are using the exam for college admissions purposes. This is an industry-wide trend and has happened to everyone (counselors, tutors, teachers, and community members). We have at least one report that it has also affected older students who are legitimate test takers applying to college. In this latter case, the CB has advised students to call and let the CB know that the student is a legitimate test taker so the CB can create an exception and let them in. They must do this ASAP for the CB to reinstate them in time (usually takes 24-48 hours).
Please post a comment if you run into this problem and let us know if and how it got resolved. Good luck on test day!
Are you struggling with math? There is hope for you, and "hope" is the key word here.
I came across a great post on the Education Week blog that summarizes the findings of a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a big international organization that tracks things like math performance country by country. Some of the findings go against conventional wisdom, which is why I wanted to share.
The really exciting part:
It turns out that your confidence in your math skills correlates with your performance, so yes, your state of mind really does matter. And that also means that self-doubt can in turn hurt your math performance. These findings might tie in nicely with the fascinating work being done on resilience, persistence, and what Stanford's Carol Dweck calls a "growth mindset."
And for the "Brain Works in Mysterious Ways" files: It also turns out that participating in non-math activities, like the arts, also correlates with better math performance, even when the wealth of the student and of the school are factored out. So don't discount the importance of drama club, art class, or band practice for developing your math talent.
Some news you might not welcome (sorry!): More math homework does improve your math skills -- up to an hour a night. After an hour, the additional time doesn't yield the same benefits, so you do get a reprieve.
Were you under the impression that the College Board and the ACT are primarily in the business of making and administering those standardized tests that drive you batty?
Actually, their real bread and butter is mining students' personal information and selling it for a lot of money. They're even being accused taking advantage of loopholes in the very privacy laws that were designed to protect minors.
If you are registering for or taking standardized tests (SAT, ACT, PSAT, AP, etc.), be careful about which information you disclose. They don't always make it blindingly obvious which bits are optional. And don't check any boxes before you read them carefully (including the innocently titled "Student Search Services," which is how much of your data gets collected and sold).
You might assume you can just skip the whole shebang, as more and more selective colleges become test-optional (meaning, you don't have to report an SAT or ACT score in order to apply). But if you are a strong standardized test taker, or you need those tests to compensate for less-than-awesome high school grades, we'd advise you to keep taking the tests and jumping through those hoops. Getting good scores can still benefit you, even in an increasingly test-optional universe. (See chapter 17 in our book for more advice on that.)
But do pay attention to any opportunities, however hidden they may be, to opt out of sharing information that you don't want shared and sold. For example, in a previous blog post we've advised against disclosing your grades, courses, or GPA when registering for the ACT. And as this article in the Washington Post explains, you do not have to answer the (optional) pre-test questions that are put in front of you on the day of the test. (Because you don't have anything else to worry about that day, right??)
So who the heck is buying all that data? Colleges. They buy that data in order to send you lots and lots of marketing materials. They can thin-slice the data in very sophisticated ways to target all kinds of subdemographics and maximize the response rate. I have plenty of reservations around that practice in this context, because in my experience, it can raise applicants' expectations and lead them to believe (incorrectly) that the school is actually recruiting them in some meaningful way, or that all that mail (electronic or otherwise) indicates something about the likelihood of getting in. Some of those marketing letters look very personalized, and might even be (robo)signed by the dean of admissions and have a pretty school crest and look terribly official.
And they are official... official spam. Colleges are all chasing after a finite pool of candidates every year, and it's a marketing arms race.
On the less sinister side, there are legitimate reasons to scout and recruit highly qualified students who might not be the easiest to find. As an admissions officer at a top school, you have to be an amazing talent spotter, a true Simon Cowell of the college world, to find that 15-year-old genius in Mongolia and get him into your classroom, as MIT did. Sometimes those diamonds are even in the backyard, like this college janitor who graduated with honors from Columbia.
But that's not the kind of "recruiting" I'm talking about here. What's troublesome from an ethics perspective is the fact that schools have every incentive to generate as many applications as possible, and then to deny as many as possible. All of that goes unsaid when they're sending out those lovey-dovey letters and emails and glossy brochures. That practice increases their application volume and lowers their acceptance rate, and the college rankings reward them for that. (Popular perception does, too. Acceptance rates are actually not a great measure of quality, because they are so easily manipulated.) Schools that are trying to climb their way up in the rankings are often the ones to engage in spammy practices.
The good news is that many applicants already do treat the college marketing deluge as the spam that it is, to the point where we have to nag remind them to check their email (so last century), because schools send legitimate communications via email as well, and you don't want to ignore or overlook those. Unfortunately it all converges in the same inbox, thanks to those lists that the testing companies sell.
Bottom line: It's your data, and you can and should decide what you want to do with it. I know you're bombarded with a gazillion forms and questions you have to fill out — one of the joys of (1) being in high school and (2) applying to college — and this is just one more annoying thing to pay attention to. It's worth it.