Archive | September, 2010

Interview with Nancy Siegel

30 Sep

Nancy Siegel, head guidance counselor at Millburn High School, the #1 ranked high school in New Jersey, gave an interview on local TV earlier this month about preparing for, and applying to colleges.  You can watch the entire 30-minute interview here (sorry, don’t know how to embed video in blog yet).  If you don’t have 30 minutes to spare, I have summarized the main points below.  Nancy has over 40 years experience of counseling high school students; while some of her advice may be familiar, it’s worth being reminded.

Factors to consider when choosing colleges:


The school should offer the types of academic programs in which your child is interested.  Since this advice seems self-evident, I think there must be parents and students out there that forget this.


Don’t visit on a Saturday morning and wonder where all the students are – most of them will be asleep.  Be aware that the tour guide may unfairly skew a student’s impression of a school (e.g., if the tour guide is a science major and your child hates science).  To get a better feel, visit the student center, the bookstore, look at the bulletin boards, see what’s happening on campus, watch the students coming and going, and if possible, talk to some students.  Nevertheless, she advises, if your child says “they’re not feeling this place, don’t argue.”

Style of Learning

It is important to find a school that will fit your child’s style of learning.  Is he or she an active learner and enjoys interacting with the professors, or does he or she prefer to sit back and absorb a lecture?  The answer will affect the size of the school selected because larger universities are likelier to have lectures with hundreds of students versus a smaller school.


Does the school provide the types of activities in which your child will want to participate?  Does your child want to go to a school with lots of “rah-rah” school spirit?  A child who loves urban life will have a harder time adjusting to a rural environment and vice versa.

Regarding the application process, she has these words of advice:


Don’t spend the interview talking about grades or extracurricular activities or test scores, all of which information can be found in the application.  Instead, the interview should be used to provide “a third dimension,” a reason for the school to select the student over the twenty other applicants with similar academic profiles.  So, “be interesting, be entertaining, be yourself, talk about what’s important to you, what matters to you.  Talk to them about something you can be passionate about…”

Extracurricular Activities

Colleges can fill their classes five to six times over with academically qualified students.  While there’s no need to be involved in 30 activities, “a student needs to be involved in something” to show that he or she is a “vital, caring, involved human being who cares about something.”  She does acknowledge that if a student is a talented top athlete or a musician that fills a particular college’s need for that sport or instrument, then that student will enjoy an advantage.  But one cannot count on those; therefore it is best to “be yourself and find something you’re passionate about.”  Colleges are looking for students that are going to make a positive impact on their student body.

Financial Aid

  • There are merit aid opportunities available although they are likely to be available to students “at a school that is a little below their academic reach school.”
  • Avoid companies asking for money upfront to help you obtain financial aid.
  • Some schools are not need-blind and will look at whether a student is applying for financial aid when making admission decisions.

Her advice to freshmen parents is, “Let your kid be a kid.  Don’t put pressure on them.  Let them grow in their own time…Let them see where they belong.  Too many parents get more anxious than the kids.”  In the end, “there’s absolutely a college opportunity for all students.”


Views of Yale University

23 Sep

Trip report: Yale University

23 Sep

Yale University is one of the most selective universities in America, routinely rejecting 93% of candidates.  Last year over 25,000 high school seniors vied for a chance to attend this prestigious institution, whose name is often invoked in the same breath with its two peers as “HarvardPrincetonYale,” an incantation that represents the ultimate in higher education’s brand name exclusivity.

For those fortunate enough to win admission, Yale offers its 5,275 undergraduates a choice of 2,000 courses each year in either the liberal arts or engineering.  In case students have a hard time deciding what to take, a two-week “shopping period” at the beginning of each semester allows them to test-drive several classes before committing to a schedule.  The purpose of this is to encourage students to take risks and explore new intellectual areas.

Students live in residential colleges, a system modeled after universities Oxford and Cambridge and popularized by Hogwarts.  Freshmen are assigned to one of twelve residential colleges where they will live for the duration of their time at Yale.  Like Hogwarts, students become fiercely loyal to their residential college.  As our tour guides introduced themselves, they yelled out the name of their residential college and each claimed that it was the best.  Not being familiar with the colleges, the information was meaningless but illustrated the concept at work.

The tour led us through Yale’s campus, where its stately collegiate gothic-style buildings, grassy quads and courtyards grace New Haven’s streets.  The interior of one library is cathedral-like, easily inspiring awe and involuntary genuflection.  Normally, college tour groups ask few questions of their guide but the surroundings seemed to loosen everyone’s tongue and our group peppered the guide with questions until the tour ran late.  Our guide, a genial junior studying international relations, patiently answered everyone.  Because of time constraints, we reluctantly broke away from the last part of the tour that covered the old campus.  If our daughter decided to apply here and was lucky enough to get in, we could always come back and ask questions then.

Yale has an early action program where prospective students apply by November 1 and receive a response by mid-December.  Unlike early decision programs where acceptances are binding on the applicant, Yale does not require a decision until May 1 so students are free to apply elsewhere under regular decision.

Tuition, room and board costs $49,800 for the 2010-2011 academic year.  Financial aid is need-based and Yale has a generous financial aid budget of $100 million.  Its goal is to graduate students without loans so even though it is an expensive school, depending on family income, a Yale education may represent a better value than some public universities.  But first you have to get in.

Throughout its storied history, Yale has produced many renowned alumni, including Nobel laureates Sinclair Lewis and Paul Krugman, Pulitzer Prize winners Garry Trudeau and Thornton Wilder, former presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush, senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman, actors Jodie Foster, Angela Bassett, Edward Norton and Sam Waterston.  As the admissions numbers attest, even after three hundred years, Yale remains a highly desirable place to attend college.

Views of Trinity College

16 Sep

Trip Report: Trinity College

16 Sep

Trinity College is a small liberal arts college located in Hartford, the state capitol of Connecticut.  With 2,300 undergraduates, the average class size is small with a student to faculty ratio of 9:1 and it is one of the few liberal arts colleges that also offer an accredited engineering program.  By all accounts the students here get a lot of personal attention from professors.

The neighborhood surrounding the college is decidedly lower rent.  But instead of shielding itself from Hartford’s urban ills, Trinity has used its location to teach and engage its students with community-learning courses and volunteer opportunities.  For example, we heard about Trinity students tutoring local students and running the on-campus Boys and Girls Club.  And because Hartford is a medium-sized city with a mix of businesses and organizations, there are over 200 academic internships where students can earn course credit while exploring career interests.

The leafy 100-acre campus with its predominantly gothic-style stone buildings conveys a history that reaches back to 1823.  Some of the older buildings are now getting a facelift as part of a campus-wide revitalization project.  We visited the library, which recently underwent a $35-million renovation and expansion.  According to our student tour guide, the interior of the library now has more natural lighting and places to study, which improvements apparently resulted from student input.

Studying abroad is popular and over 50% of the students take advantage of it, many opting for the Trinity-in-Rome program where the college maintains its own campus.  Other Trinity-directed global sites include Barcelona, Vienna, Paris, Buenos Aires, Cape Town and Port of Spain.

Like its peer liberal arts colleges, this education is not cheap.  Tuition, room and board will cost $51,320 for the current academic year.  Financial aid is need-based and the college promises to meet 100% of a student’s calculated need.  International students can also obtain need-based financial aid.  The only merit-based aid is the Presidential scholarship that is given to ten to fifteen top students each year and provides free tuition for four years, a savings of over $160,000.  Sweet if you can get it.

During the last admission cycle, the college received over 4,600 applications and admitted 43%.  Some of its more famous alumni include Edward Albee the playwright and political commentators Tucker Carlson and George Will.  Because of its close connection with the city, Trinity will likely attract students who are drawn to learning and community service.

Pressure, a follow-up

9 Sep

Last week’s post generated a fair amount of reaction from readers who either commented publicly on the blog or privately by email.  Thank you all for your responses and know that I appreciate them and please keep them coming.  Many encouraged me to have a follow-up conversation with my daughter when the chance came up again; some reminded me that silence can be golden.  An experienced parent noted that this will be an on-going dialogue.

A friend, M, who recently shepherded her son through his college admissions and is about to do it again with her daughter, wrote the following observation:

“Going through this process again, I can tell you that the pressure they feel this year will not only come from their peers, but most of all from parents.  Parents seem to measure how successful they’ve been by what schools their child gets into and eventually goes to.”

The uncomfortable truth of her statement pierces me.

It’s too easy to believe that my child’s success reflects well on me.  I remember my mother telling me as a youngster to behave lest it made my parents look bad.  This method of using shame to control behavior (popular in the Chinese culture) worked; the idea of bringing embarrassment to my parents held my childish shenanigans in check.  And the converse also worked – years later my aspirations to attend an Ivy League school was fueled in part by a desire to bring pride and honor to my parents, to give them bragging rights.

M continues:

“I think it’s how you respond and treat this process, how you come to accept your child’s grades, . . . their SAT scores and how you help them through it will determine how difficult this year is for them.  They are taking cues from us and as parents we have to help our children see that . . . if they’re less than perfect, it really is ok.  Our success in raising our children is not in the college sticker people post on their car window, but how we raise our kids to be happy, independent, kind and decent people.”

I’m grateful to friends who can keep me honest through this process.


2 Sep

“Next year there is going to be lots of pressure.”

My daughter sits on my bed as she says this, her long hair damp from the evening shower she just took.  She’s talking about the upcoming academic year.  Her profile is blurry because I don’t have my glasses on.  I put down the book I’m reading – Lit by Mary Karr, an engrossing memoir about overcoming alcoholism and finding God – and squint at her.  I’m too tired to get my glasses on my bedside table so I continue to look at her features made fuzzy by extreme myopia.

There is silence as my mind ineptly casts about what to say.  If this were a sit-com, the mother would say something witty and wise, the daughter would look up and smile, they will both laugh, maybe share a hug, and the camera will fade to a cheery back-to-school commercial.  But here a long silence hangs between us because I don’t know what to say.  I don’t know how to handle that kind of pressure.  Things were different in my day.

She’s right about junior year.  From all accounts it’s going to be hard.  AP classes, PSAT testing, SAT I testing, SAT II subject testing, the pressure to bring up or maintain grades, excel in extracurriculars, these components collectively gather force to bear down on any 16-year-old with dreams of attending a competitive college.

Then there is peer pressure.  Because few adolescents know how to handle stress, they salve their own insecurities by gossiping and making derogatory remarks about each other’s academic abilities.  Or they play mental games to puff up their own talents to “psych out” rivals (some are surprisingly sophisticated players at this).  In an ideal world my daughter can ignore all this but even that takes tough mental fortifications.  No one wants to be a target.

Maybe because I am tired and I’m mourning the passage of summer, but wise and comforting words elude me.  I just stare at her as the silence rolls on between us.  It’s not an uncomfortable silence but as a mother, I feel compelled to help her or “fix it” for her.  Tonight I’m all out.

Finally I open my mouth and say lamely, “It’s late.  Maybe you should go to bed.”  She shuffles off to bed and I lean over to turn off the light.  A sneaky suspicion that I’ve bypassed some opportunity sits uneasily with me.

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