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February 11, 2016

Math Is a State of Mind

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.

Read the blog post here, and here's the link to the underlying OECD report



February 3, 2016

Taking a Standardized Test? Protect Your Personal Information

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. 

September 18, 2015

Mindy Kaling on Self-Confidence

Mindy Kaling, after being asked, a gazillion times, where she gets her confidence (from Why Not Me?):

"People talk about confidence without ever bringing up hard work. That's a mistake. I know I sound like some dour older spinster chambermaid on Downton Abbey who has never felt a man's touch and whose heart has turned to stone, but I don't understand how you could have self-confidence if you don't do the work. I work a lot. Like, a lot a lot.

....The reason I'm bringing this up is not to defend my status as someone who always works. (I swear I'm not that Tiger Mom lady! I don't think you need to play piano for eleven hours with no meals! Or only watch historical movies, then write reports on them for me to read and grade!) It's just that, the truth is, I have never, ever met a highly confident person who is not what a movie would call a 'workaholic.' We can't have it both ways, and children should know that. Because confidence is like respect; you have to earn it."

June 24, 2015

Pro Tip: Don't Disclose Your Grades, Courses, or GPA When Registering for the ACT

If you're a high school student (or the parent of a high school student), you probably thought that the ACT is just in the business of creating and administering the ACT test, right?

Actually, they do quite a bit more, and one of their "side" businesses can affect your college applications without you even knowing it. Please read the following advice carefully:

In order to increase its profitability and market share, the ACT has been developing other "predictor" tools to sell to colleges. Basically they slice and dice any information they have about you, the student/test taker, and they generate performance predictors beyond your ACT scores themselves. You can read more about that product here.

The key thing for you to understand is that the ACT will use all the information you provide when you either (1) register for the test or (2) request that the free test score reports be sent to your colleges. The ACT will factor all the grades, courses, and GPA information that you give them into this predictive tool, and it will transmit the results to participating schools.

The smart thing to do is not to disclose any of this information to ACT, the College Board (the people who make the SAT), or any other service that sells information to schools (for example, online college search or college matching tools), because doing so won't help you, but it can hurt you. Update: When you get to the page asking about your high school courses and grades, just leave those questions blank and hit the Continue button. 

Here's an example how disclosing that information can undermine you. Imagine that you have solid ACT math scores, but your current math grades aren't so great, and you aspire to enroll at the business school of a college that subscribes to this predictive tool sold by the ACT. Your ACT predictor score will be lower than your ACT math score. That's because the formula that the ACT uses under the hood of that predictive tool will be applied to whatever information you happen to disclose at that particular moment in time. The results will be communicated to the college as a "constant" and will live in your student record forever, even if you subsequently improve your grades.

Bottom line: there is no upside to disclosing that additional information to the testing companies, but there is potential downside. Don't do it.

June 23, 2015

Pro Tip: Register for the October SAT (Reasoning or Subjects) by June 24

As you may already know, there were problems with the June 6, 2015, SAT Reasoning test because of misprints in the instructions on some of the test booklets. It took a little time for the dust to settle and for the College Board to decide how it was going to respond. As of now, the College Board has decided to do the following:

  1. Score the tests without including the scores from the affected sections (the affected sections were the last reading or math section – you might have had reading last or you might have had math last, but neither will be scored).
  2. Waive the fee for the October SAT Reasoning test for any test taker who lets the College Board know that their testing experience was negatively affected by the error.

You can get more information from the College Board’s website post about the matter here.

If you took the SAT Reasoning Test on June 6, 2015 OR you didn't take the June test but are planning to take a Reasoning or Subject Test in October, here's what we are recommending you do:


Here’s why:

  1. Because of the problems with the June test, the October administrations of both the SAT Reasoning and Subject tests are likely to sell out VERY, VERY quickly after the June test scores are released (on Thursday, June 25), and it is very likely they will sell out well before the registration deadline. 
  2. You want to guarantee yourself a seat at your preferred testing center, and the only way to guarantee that is to register yourself. If you intend to retake the SAT Reasoning Test and can obtain a fee waiver without any delay in your registration, then great, get your fee waiver. But if getting the fee waiver will delay your registration, or if you are planning on taking the SAT Subjects, then just pay the fee of $54.50 to register.

You might end up deciding that you don’t want to sit for a test in October and you’ll have spent $54.50 you didn’t need to spend... but consider this an insurance policy that will guarantee that you get to take the October test(s) if you want or need to.

April 21, 2015

Rolling the Dice on Law School

There's an excellent article on the stage of law school education in the Washington Post: "Why Law Schools Are Losing Relevance—and How They're Trying to Win It Back."

Bottom line: "Going to law school used to feel like a no-brainer for college graduates seeking financial security. But that calculus has changed...."

My thoughts, as a I reflect on the article:

Two rules:

(1) Borrow money for a top law school only.

(2) Start law school with some kind of game plan from Day 1.

And for anyone considering a non-top law school:

Investigate recent employment stats (at Law School Transparency, because many law schools themselves fudge their numbers), and look up the bar passage rates, too. There's no shortage of grim data. And go into the process assuming you *won't* be a special snowflake in law school and defy all the odds. How does the average student fare at School X, Y, or Z?

And a note to parents, who often have totally outdated assumptions about the security of a law degree, any law degree: Those days are long gone for all but a tiny number of law schools, and even there, students are pounding the pavement more than they used to.

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of Ivey Consulting. She and her team help college and graduate school applicants make smart decisions about their higher education and submit their best applications possible. Read more law school tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions. 

April 13, 2015

Super Secret Application Instructions

Law schools can be terrible about including their application instructions in the application form itself. Always — always! — check their websites, where they often bury important instructions on random sub-pages. You'll find them after lots of clicking around.

Here's an example. University of Louisville gives these instructions for the personal statement in the application itself:

A personal statement is required. Please upload your personal statement.

Here's what it says on its website, on a page called Application Checklist:

A personal statement must be submitted with the application for admission. The personal statement is an open-ended essay written on any topic the applicant chooses. The statement should be two to three pages in length and well written. It is recommended that you have several individuals proofread and edit your statement prior to submission. Ideally, the personal statement will provide insight to the admission's committee about the applicant's personality and what they will bring to the University of Louisville. The personal statement is uploaded to your credential assembly service account. 

And that's if you happen to spot the "Application Checklist" link on this page, which you get to from a tab called "Future Students":











That's just one example; there are lots more out there that could serve as illustrations. Hats off to schools that do a good job incorporating their instructions into their application forms. They are few and far between! In the meantime, as an applicant, the burden is on you to go hunting for instructions. Go figure.

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of Ivey Consulting. She and her team help college and graduate school applicants make smart decisions about their higher education and submit their best applications possible. Read more law school tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions.
April 7, 2015

52 Weeks to College: Week 41 -- How to Evaluate Your Financial Aid Awards

You've been admitted to the college of your dreams and now you're wondering whether you can really afford to go to school there. You want to compare your financial aid packages before you choose between where you are going to college. You really need (or would really like) an increase in your financial aid award, but you are not sure if you should. Any of these circumstances apply to you? If so, this week's tips and tricks are just what you need.

Week 41 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary. 
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.

This Week

  • Continue evaluating your choices for college. 
  • Evaluate your financial aid offers and decide if you are going to ask for a revision to any.
  • Schedule/plan your post-acceptance visits.

Tips & Tricks

1. When evaluating whether a college is affordable for you, be realistic about your actual cost of attendance.

The college will set a "cost of attendance" based on its own policies and standards and your financial aid award will only provide funds to cover the specified "cost of attendance." But the college's policies and standards may or may align to your particular circumstance. For example, Boston College allows a total of $2200 for books and miscellaneous expenses, including your travel expenses to and from your home. But what if your home is in Honolulu instead of nearby New York City? Your travel costs will obviously be more. Will their allowance be enough or do you need to find additional funds to cover the extra costs you will incur? The time to consider whether you will REALLY have enough money to pay for your first year of college is now. 

2. When comparing financial aid offers from different colleges, compare the components of the aid as well as the total amount of aid awarded.

College X and College Y have the same cost of attendance and both have offered you $25,000 in financial aid. So the awards are equal, right? Maybe,but maybe not. You need to read the details to determine what makes up the $25,000 in aid. As it turns out, College X has offered $15,000 in scholarship and grants that do not have to be repaid and $10,000 in loans and work-study. College Y has offered only $5,000 in scholarship and grants that do not have to be repaid and the $20,000 balance in loans and work-study. From a financial perspective, College X's financial aid package is much better for you. 

3. Courteously asking for an increase in your financial aid award is wise if your circumstances support such a request.

There are two circumstances when you should ask for an increase in your financial aid award. The first circumstance is when your family's financial situation has changed substantially since you filed your financial aid applications. For example, if one of your parents has lost his or her job, it would be appropriate to request a review of your financial aid award. The second circumstance is when you have received a higher award from another comparably selective college. In this circumstance, you should investigate whether the college you want to increase your aid has a policy of "matching" awards. Some colleges do. For example, Cornell will match awards made by other Ivy League colleges, Stanford, Duke, and/or MIT. If you cannot determine what a college's policy is regarding "matching," then politely inquire. 

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.

April 2, 2015

Will Law Schools See My Non-US Transcripts?

I had about two semesters worth of credit from US undergrad schools, then another two from St. Andrews in Scotland, before leaving school for awhile. I’m finishing up through the University of London International Programme this May. The LSAC put my US GPAs on the report and then just put “foreign” for the st. andrews and uol grades. How might law schools consider this? Do they look at the individual transcripts or just the lsac report? My US GPA was really great, but the uol classes have been so-so given that I also am working beyond-full-time while finishing.

It sounds as if you have a lot going on, my friend! Life is like that sometimes. Not everyone experiences one smooth, contiguous journey through college. In fact, the majority of college students don't. 

Let's unpack the two questions that are bundled together in this scenario.

Will law schools see your international transcripts?

For readers who aren't familiar with how LSAC handles international transcripts, you can find their rules here. Since you'll be receiving your college degree from a non-US/non-Canadian institution, there are also separate rules around that here. You might have the option, or even be required, to submit your University of London transcript to LSAC's "authentication and evaluation feature" for international transcripts (which is separate from, and sometimes additional to, the Academic Summary Report that regular US-based applicants have). Will law schools see the underlying transcripts in the application stage? Here's where it gets tricky, and I'm bolding the relevant bits:

The Credential Assembly Service's (CAS) authentication and evaluation feature is a convenient and efficient processing service for international documents used in the law school application process. All non-US/Canadian transcripts with combined work totaling more than one academic year should be listed during registration for CAS and sent to LSAC. They are forwarded to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), where they will be authenticated and evaluated. There is no charge for this evaluation other than the standard CAS registration fee. The data is assembled into a credential evaluation document that contains AACRAO's summary, copies of the transcripts (and translations, as necessary), and a TOEFL or IELTS score, if applicable. All of these documents will be incorporated into the law school report. Upon submission of a matriculation decision, the original non-US/Canadian transcript(s) received by LSAC will be forwarded to the law school. Law schools can choose their level of participation in this service. The following links list law schools that require use of LSAC's authentication and evaluation service for JD applicants or law schools for which LSAC authentication and evaluation is optional. [Source here. Note that both links above will land you on the same LSAC page, where they have combined the required/optional schools into one master list.]

So whether the individual law schools will see the international transcripts or not is up to them, and you'll have to dig through that LSAC list linked to above to get a definitive answer. If you're still not sure, or if the law school doesn't show up on that list, call or email LSAC directly for clarification.

How will schools evaluate your so-so grades at University of London?

Admissions officers are pretty powerful people, but — for better or worse — they can't read minds. So if all they have in front of them is a transcript, with no further explanation of what's behind certain grade trends, you leave that backstory to their imaginations. Not all backstories are worth sharing. Hypothetically, if your grades had been so-so because you were spending too much time drinking at the pub, you'd be better off not trying to justify or spin your grades. As I like to say about a lot of addendum ideas that applicants have, it's best to let that sleeping dog lie.

But if you were working beyond full-time, as you say, that's important backstory for them to have. There are sections in the application form that ask you to list your work history along with dates and time commitments. However, you'd also be relying on weary-eyed admissions officers to be able to connect the dots and piece all that together in a quick read-through, and that might be expecting too much. So in addition to listing that required information in the application form, you could write a short addendum explaining the commitments you had outside of school during that time period. Or, even better, you can add a bullet in your resume, in the University of London section, where you say that you were working full-time while taking classes. The latter is my preference, but either of those solutions would get the point across.

Good luck!

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of Ivey Consulting. She and her team help college and graduate school applicants make smart decisions about their higher education and submit their best applications possible. Read more law school tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions.

March 31, 2015

Juniors: Common Application Essay Topics are Out, But Don't Start Writing Until July!

Juniors, have you been on pins and needles wondering what the essay topics will be for next year? If so, your agony is over. The Common Application released the 5 essay topics that will appear on next year's Common Application today. They are:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

In case you are wondering, only topic #4 is new; the others have been options for the last two years. (Although the wording of topics #1 and #2 got streamlined and modified slightly, they really didn't change.) 

Now that you know the topics, should you get to work on writing your essays? We don't think so. Essays written now tend to go stale by the time it is time to submit them. And for more than half of the colleges that accept the Common Application, this essay isn't going to be the only essay on the application. To produce your best application, you need to approach it as a whole, so you need to know what the other essay questions on the application are before you tackle this Common Application essay. Experience has taught us that the optimal time to begin working on your essays in late July-early August.

So what should you be doing now to get a jump on the college application process? First things first -- focus on building your credentials. That means:

  • Finishing your junior year with your best grades ever.
  • Preparing for and taking the standardized tests.
  • Making plans for doing something during the summer to take your academics or activities to the next level.

Once you've got your credentials in order, then you can move on to the essential "pre-work" you have to do before you are ready to dig into the applications themselves. As we explain in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Applicationyou've got to do three things to before you are really ready to begin completing your applications (or drafting your essays). 

  • Make the big decisions regarding your college list -- Where are you going to apply? And where, if anywhere, are you going to apply early?
  • Write "your story" -- a summary statement of who you are that will be your guide for choosing the right essay topics.
  • Put together your resume. 

You can read more about how to do the pre-work by consulting the blog postings for week 2 and week 3 in our 52 Weeks to College series based on our book.

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