5 Dec

In two weeks, our daughter will arrive home for Christmas with one college semester under her belt. What started with great anticipation and trepidation in late August has settled into a routine of classes, schoolwork, and social activities. She is making new friends, learning how to live on her own, and adjusting to her new environment.

As a parent I watch all this from afar, which has required adjustments on my part too. That’s why I chuckled with a sense of recognition when I read Susan Engel’s personal essay in the New York Times recently. Ms. Engel writes about how she assumed that when her three boys went away to college, her work would be done. Instead she found herself feeling helpless and frustrated when they encountered problems that are beyond her ability to fix, like finding love, choosing careers, financial difficulties, illnesses.

In a small way I experienced what Ms. Engel described when my daughter attempted to come home for fall break last month after super storm Sandy. Our area was without power and regular train service was suspended due to storm damage. Even though her college is only 30 miles away, we could not pick her up because New York City Mayor Bloomberg was only allowing high-occupancy vehicles to enter the city. So she had to take a bus, something she had never done before. The Port Authority bus terminal is a confusing and chaotic place where an unending stream of travelers and buses converge upon each other and then depart for different destinations. I worried about how she was going to find her way around and because I was not familiar with Port Authority, I couldn’t even advise her where to go. As a child of the sheltered suburbs, she rarely encountered anything more frenzied than the controlled chaos of school lunch periods, recess, and end-of-the-day dismissal.

After enduring long lines at the ticket counter and gate, she texted that she had waited on the wrong bus line. I felt momentary panic squeezing my insides as I envisioned her going to a wrong town. Impotently, I waited for an update.

In the end she arrived safely, having found and boarded the right bus, all without my assistance. It occurs to me that as her college career continues, this is how it will unfold – she will have to figure out her destination and how to reach it. As her parents, our instinct is to help her as much as we did when she was younger. But sometimes we won’t be able to do anything and as Ms. Engel observes, our children’s adult years require different parenting skills.

Something to get used to.


Familiarity Breeds Comfort by Jennifer Karan

1 Dec

Today many high school students around the country and more overseas, took their SATs. Last month, super storm Sandy forced many testing centers to close and those affected had to postpone taking the exam. The storm created additional stress on top of what was already a stressful experience.

Ms. Jennifer Karan, executive director of the SAT Program at the College Board, is the guest blogger for this post in which she offers some advice on how to prepare for the SAT.

Every so often I find myself speaking to some high school students who, upon finding out that my work involves the SAT, look at me in awe. (At least, I like to think it’s awe). 

And then they take a big step backwards.

Unfortunately, to them the SAT represents some huge and inscrutable test that they fear, some Goliath that they are going to have to conquer in high school for which nothing can ready them.

Relax, I tell them, the SAT is nothing to be feared; and when the time comes, you will successfully conquer it. In fact, there are things you are probably doing right now that are preparing you that you don’t even realize. 

The best preparation for the SAT, I counsel, is to do well in school. First, make sure you are on the path to completing a core curriculum; then, make sure those courses are truly challenging – don’t take the easy way out. Study hard and read as much as possible.

There are little things that students can do early on. Create an account on the College Board website which has a bunch of free planning and preparation resources. One of my favorite tools is the SAT Question of the Day, or QOTD for those in the know. It’s an actual question from a past SAT and it’s a great way to become familiar with the exam content as well as get your brain up and running in the morning. 

I receive the SAT QOTD each morning in my inbox. If you don’t want to register for the email, you can visit the site each day and “play”. 

Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer, once wrote, “Practice is the best of all instructors.” The Question of the Day is a great way for underclassmen to engage with the SAT in a fun and less intimidating manner, and for those who are practicing more seriously. With practice and familiarity the SAT won’t seem intimidating at all. 

Saying Hello

21 Aug

In a few days, my husband and I will remove the third row seating from our aging 1998 Toyota Sienna minivan – the one with a dented back bumper that never got fixed – and fill it with our daughter’s worldly possessions. All summer long, my daughter and I have been consulting shopping lists for college, and buying online and in the stores. I feel that I have been doing my patriotic duty by patronizing retailers and propping up the anemic US economy. No wonder back-to-school season is second to Christmas season in sales; sometimes it does feel like Christmas around here as packages arrive almost daily from UPS and the postal service.

After packing up the minivan and hoping that everything will fit, we will then drive her to her new life as a freshman at Barnard College in New York City. It will be an arduous trip, fighting through 30 miles of congested highways and crumbling city streets, to arrive at the hallowed halls of higher learning in upper Manhattan, a journey of an hour that was four years in the making. Upon arriving, we will help her move in, get settled, meet her roommates and their parents, and attend some college-sponsored events. When the clock strikes 4, it will be time for us to say goodbye.

It will also be time to say hello – hello to letting go as a parent, hello to trusting that 18 years of parenting, of instilling values and shaping her character will now stand her in good stead. Hello to believing that she will find her way around her new environment just fine, that when problems and issues arise (which they inevitably will), she will figure out how to resolve them, to know where and when to reach out for assistance, and to learn to manage her expectations. It will be saying hello to letting her make decisions so that she gains confidence from good ones and learns from not-so-good ones.

I don’t know how I will react then. I want to be dignified and clear-eyed and not dissolve into a wet mush of salty tears and snot. When my parents dropped me off 33 years ago, my mother sobbed all the way home from Philadelphia to New York, so distressing my father that he made many wrong turns and got hopelessly lost.

I am excited for her, for the new experiences and opportunities that lie ahead. I am hoping that if I concentrate and focus hard enough on what is good for her, then any sadness at her leaving will not threaten to overwhelm me.

That’s my plan for now.


Leaving Cert Begins

6 Jun

Today is the first day of the Leaving Cert, the Irish college entrance exams by which high school students gain admission to universities. The testing period goes on for two and a half weeks and tests all the basic subjects. Students find out their scores and where they will be attending college in mid-August. My daughter’s Irish friends are all sitting for the exams and so there was a lot of well-wishing going on Facebook last night.

Many countries use examinations to determine admission: China, India, Japan, Taiwan, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Turkey, the list goes on. I don’t know which is more stressful, the American way of applying to colleges or these national entrance exams. I know when I lived in Taiwan, the pressure and awareness of the importance of college entrance exams began at a young age, during middle school. I heard tragic stories of students committing suicides because they could not get into college. When such a story surfaces, there would be the inevitable hand wringing over the immense pressures borne by students. Around the time Leaving Cert results are released, the Irish newspapers run articles about handling disappointing scores, along with articles cautioning against excessive celebrating and drinking (legal drinking age in Ireland is 18).

Having just gone through the college application process, I have come to appreciate that there is a college for every level of student performance, here in America. Anyone who desires to attend college should be able to find a school and, based on my experience, there is a dizzying array of choices. Where we lack and other countries excel, is making college affordable without saddling graduates with enormous debt. We just received an estimate of tuition for one year at Barnard College and the figure approaches $42,000. In contrast, tuition at Trinity College Dublin is approximately $2,600.

Best of luck to everyone taking the Leaving Cert.

Please Choose Us

24 Apr

April is the time of year in the admissions calendar when colleges woo admitted students in the hopes of persuading them to accept the college. All month long, colleges around the country are holding open houses, inviting admitted students and their families to visit, to meet with current students, to stay overnight, and to sit in on classes. Some colleges arrange alumni regional receptions for students who cannot make it to the campus. All of these efforts are designed to give undecided students a chance to compare, contrast, and ask all the questions that are on their minds. It is now the colleges who are competing for a student’s affection.

Colleges and universities care about their enrollment yield but it is hardly an exact science and some years they get it wrong. One year the University of Pennsylvania had higher enrollment acceptances than expected and because it guarantees housing for all freshmen, the University scrambled to find housing and ended up renting rooms in a nearby hotel to accommodate everyone.

It may not surprise anyone that Harvard and Stanford boast the highest enrollment yields (over 70%). Other higher education institutions with similarly impressive enrollment yields include Brigham Young University, Yeshiva University, the three military service academies of West Point, Annapolis, and the Air Force Academy, Savannah State University, Berea College, and the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma.

For seniors who are weighing their choices, they have one week left before they need to decide where they want to go and send in their tuition deposits by May 1. So this can be a stressful time for parents and students alike as discussions are held around the dinner table or in the car about the merits and drawbacks of each school, its cost, and other considerations. For those who would like to share their experiences as a parent or student, please feel free to post below.

The Most Popular Major

16 Apr

For the last three decades, a little over 20% of all American college students have opted to major in business, making it the most popular undergraduate field. Two weeks ago, Melissa Korn of the Wall Street Journal wrote an article that questioned the value of an undergraduate business degree. Last year the New York Times published an article by David Glenn that raised concerns about the rigor of business school curriculums. Both articles describe the problems and changes that are afoot in undergraduate business education. More undergraduate business schools are rethinking their curriculum to require students to take liberal arts courses that sharpen critical thinking, problem solving, and writing skills.

This development seems to be a response to recruiters, who are looking for employees who, because of exposure to various academic disciplines, can think creatively and see the big picture. In fact, many companies look for non-business majors to diversify their workforce. It’s not unusual to see economics majors land jobs on Wall Street alongside finance majors.

When you think about it, a graduate business degree (M.B.A) takes two years to complete so it would make sense that liberal arts study can be incorporated into the curriculum. The Glenn article notes that the lack of rigor in an undergraduate business education is not applicable to institutions like the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania or those at the top of the business school pecking order.

This is not at all to say that an undergraduate business degree has little value. For high school students considering business school for undergraduate study, it’s a good idea to evaluate whether the curriculum is flexible enough to allow them to take other courses that interest them, courses that are not related to business. Not only will taking humanities, social science or science courses be a change from business classes, it will also expand one’s intellectual horizons. In the end, that is what a good education should achieve.

D-Day 1

1 Apr

April 1st is D-Day 1 in college admissions, the date by which all colleges will have notified their applicants as to whether they have been admitted, wait-listed, or rejected (I’ll get to D-Day 2 later). Last Thursday the 29th the Ivy League universities released their regular decision results. That evening, my daughter trolled Facebook to see who got admitted where. To her surprise, there were few postings on her news feed.

The next day she found out why. Someone in her class called it a Bloodless Massacre. Many of the students in the top 5% of the class were shut out of their top choices. The presumed valedictorian was rejected from Harvard (but no need to feel sorry for her because she got into Yale, MIT, and Princeton). According to my daughter, only one person was admitted into Columbia, one was admitted into Harvard, two got into Brown and two into Dartmouth. Between regular and early decisions, Penn and Cornell have each admitted at least half a dozen students. We will know more in June when the guidance office releases a list of where everyone will be attending college.

The initial impression is that it is more difficult than ever to get into the Ivies, even for those who rank in the top 5% of the class. According to Harvard’s website, there were 3,800 applicants who ranked number one in their class and there are only a little over 1,650 freshmen places. This is a reminder that at the most selective institutions, the colleges can fill their incoming classes at least twice over with qualified candidates.

Other than the low numbers of students from our high school getting into the Ivies, there were other shockers too, of students who got in somewhere that their classmates did not expect them to. In this sense, this year is no different than other years. In the end, we do not know the complete picture of what is in a student’s application and what goes on in the admissions committee. That’s why it makes for a confounding experience each year for everyone on this side of the admissions process.

To be sure, the disappointments will be deeply felt, but the reality is that here in America, we have more choices in quality higher education than in a lot of other countries. In my experience of talking to college students at different universities, most seem happy with where they eventually ended up. And that is no small consolation and hope that we can offer as parents.

Next D-Day is May 1st, when the colleges hear back from their accepted students as to whether they will enroll.

The PTO Years

19 Mar

I stared at the email announcing the next Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) meeting. A slight twinge of – indigestion perhaps – gripped me as I moved my mouse pointer back and forth over the “Delete” button. After a brief pause and thinking, “I really should go to this meeting,” I clicked the mouse and sent the email hurtling into cyber-oblivion.

Once upon a time I attended every PTO meeting I could. I signed up to volunteer whenever possible, whether it was snack duty, reading to the class, or helping out a teacher with an in-class project. The reward was in seeing my daughter’s look of delight when I showed up in her classroom. “That’s my mommy,” I heard her say to her classmates, with a note of excitement, pride and happiness in her voice. A feeling of tender warmth would course through my body.

The elementary school years were rich with opportunities to volunteer. At Back-to-School nights, not wanting to appear overly aggressive, parents nevertheless jostle each other in their rush to sign up to help in the classroom. If you arrive to the evening late, the best slots were taken. Attendance at PTO meetings was robust as we listened with rapt attention to the principal’s reports, raised our hands to ask probing questions about academics and socialization, and prided ourselves on our involvement with our children’s education.

During middle school, parents were discouraged from volunteering in the classrooms in the belief that it was no longer “developmentally appropriate” for us to be there. Instead, parents were asked to help with fundraising events that took place elsewhere on school grounds. At the PTO meetings, there would be about a dozen attendees. I was given a reprieve from PTO meetings when we moved to Ireland where the schools do not have PTO meetings.

Returning from Ireland, I went back to attending PTO meetings for the first three years of high school. Attendance was robust at the beginning of the year, especially when the head guidance counselor was asked to speak at the first meetings. The room would fill up with parents eager to find out about what to expect in the high school years. Already in freshman year I could sense rising parental anxieties about college in the form of questions about class placement, AP courses, and standardized testing.

When senior year began, I found myself feeling lackadaisical about attending the meetings, even the first one where the head guidance counselor spoke, so I decided to skip them. It was as if I had been struck by senioritis, the condition of disengagement and lack of motivation usually experienced by high school seniors during their second semester. I didn’t know it could affect parents too.

So as the email disappeared from my inbox, I realized that the twinge I felt was for the end of an epoch, for 13 years of PTO meetings that passed by in a blink of God’s eye. With that, only one thought emerged: time to move on.

President Obama to Speak at Barnard College

7 Mar

This weekend we were excited to learn that President Obama will be giving the keynote address at Barnard College’s commencement this May. Whether you like the President or not, it’s a coup for the college to land him as speaker. The consensus opinion is that he will be using the occasion to appeal to women and youth voters, two groups that pundits say are necessary to his re-election. Tickets to the graduation have become sizzling hot. For the rest of us, we will have to watch the speech live on Barnard’s website.

The news about President Obama has also publicly exposed simmering tensions between Columbia University and Barnard. I noted in a post from 2010 that some Columbia students believe that Barnard students are inferior to them, either because Barnard ranks lower in national rankings or because Columbia is more difficult to get into (7% acceptance rate for Columbia vs. 25% for Barnard). In reaction to the President choosing to speak at Barnard over Columbia, students have taken to the blogosphere to vent, with many doing so behind the cloak of anonymity.

Some of the comments are downright mean-spirited and have distressed and embarrassed many Columbia and Barnard students and administrators alike. So much so that a Facebook page was formed, calling for all the Columbia schools to come together against the anonymous hurling of insults. The presidents of Barnard and Columbia issued a joint statement saying, “disrespectful comments are not representative of our community.”

It’s heartening to see the Columbia University community speaking out against the nastiness of the exchange and I hope change will occur that addresses the attitudes behind the comments. I always knew that my daughter would receive a fine education at Barnard as she heads there this fall. I just didn’t think that her education would begin right now, as she witnesses this controversy and thinks critically about it for herself.

Views of Tufts University

2 Mar

Last April we visited Tufts University in Somerville, Massachusetts. The school mascot is Jumbo the elephant.

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