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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.

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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.

Waiting for the Postman

15 Dec

My daughter’s First Choice College has mailed out its acceptance and rejection letters so it all falls on the trusty United States Postal Service to deliver good or bad tidings to our house.  Any day now.  The College has been cagey about when it mailed out its notices, only saying that everyone will hear by the end of this week, which could mean Saturday.  Not for the first time I complain to anyone who will listen, “That’s so 20th century.  Why can’t they do it like everyone else, electronically?”  I suppose they are trying to help the Postal Service stay in business.

Since last Thursday December 8, several colleges have notified their early decision applicants, mostly through their websites.  Thursday was Cornell University and Columbia University; Friday was University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College and Washington University in St. Louis.  This week, more students found out their fates: Brown University, Duke University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Vassar College, Georgetown University, Tufts University.  To those who got in, hearty congratulations, and to those who did not, please believe that you will end up where you are supposed to be.

It’s been fascinating to watch how news of acceptances trickle out, or rather, in this social media age, how with one tap of the “Return” button, information gets blasted out into cyberspace for all to see at once.  No more calling up your friends to tell them – that’s so 20th century.  My daughter keeps her Facebook page on while doing homework and refreshes it periodically.  Ever so often she yells out to me: “So-and-So got into Such-and-Such!”  Friends then post their congratulations on the admitted student’s page.  By contrast, the pages of the ones who did not get in are silent.

Meanwhile, we are keeping an eagle eye out for the postman this week.

Asian: To Check or Not To Check

7 Dec

When I read Jesse Washington’s revealing article “New Asian Strategy: Don’t Check ‘Asian,'” I found myself nodding with a sense of recognition.  He writes that many Asian American college applicants, especially those from mixed heritages, are declining to identify themselves as Asian on their applications for fear of being discriminated against.  In the story he interviews some applicants who chose not to check off the Asian box because of a pervasive belief among Asian Americans that they are not being evaluated individually but against each other.  Studies have shown that Asian Americans need higher test scores than applicants of other ethnicities to gain admission to the top colleges.

For those reasons, I advised my daughter not to check off her race on the Common Application, especially since it was optional.  Her last name is not obviously Asian-sounding either; she wrote about getting in touch with her Chinese heritage in her personal essay so it’s moot.  And when she goes on interviews, her ethnicity becomes immediately obvious.  But my motivation is the same as that of some of the candidates interviewed for the article.

My husband, who is also of Chinese descent, said that he did not check off “Asian” either when he was applying to colleges because he did not want to be evaluated against other Asian Americans.  He declined to check any boxes.

I suspect that when colleges select their class, it is a nuanced exercise.  I once heard a talk given by the dean of college admissions of an elite midwestern university, who spoke to parents at our high school about how top colleges put together a class.  Because there are many more eligible candidates than there are spaces, a college has to do the hard job of paring down the final list of acceptances.  He gave an example: if there were too many football captains in the pool, they would cut a percentage of football captains and put them on the wait list.  The same holds true if there were too many pianists, violinists, tennis players, or those from one region of the country and so on.  He didn’t say it but it’s not hard to imagine a college needing to cut back on the number of qualified Asian applicants to maintain the college’s vision of racial balance and diversity on campus.  As one interviewee in the article puts it: “…a lot of Asians, they have perfect SATs, perfect GPAs, … so it’s hard to let them all in.”

I’m interested in hearing from readers: what would you advise your child to do?

The Talk

2 Dec

In less than two weeks, D-Day looms for seniors who have applied early decision.  On or about December 15, colleges will send out their acceptance letters to these early applicants who have been waiting anxiously to hear about their fate since November.  Will the email or letter read, “Congratulations and welcome to the Class of 2016,” or will it read, “We regret to inform you…” My hands have turned cold with dread and nervousness just thinking about it.

By this time, some seniors have already heard from colleges, especially if they applied to schools with rolling admissions.  A few weeks ago, my daughter told me that on her way to class, she saw a girl jumping up and down and shrieking in the hallway, “I’m going to college!”   Some talented athletes have also closed the deal on their recruitment: a top cross-country runner is going to Duke University, and a gifted tennis player is heading to Williams College.  As word spreads about who has gotten in and to where, my daughter admitted that she couldn’t help but feel pinpricks of envy, all of which only seems to add to the heightened frenzy and stress of the season.

So she waits with impatience and trepidation for December 15 to arrive, wanting it to come quickly and not wanting it to come quickly.  I talked to her about what may happen that day.

“If it doesn’t work out, you know, if you don’t get in…”

I broke off, searching for the right balance of optimism and realism.  Her eyes locked on mine as she waited for me to continue.  I tried again.

“We all think the college that you applied to is a good fit and we’re hopeful that you can get in.  But you never know these days.  You don’t know who else is applying and what they’re like.  If they receive too many applications from Chinese-American girls who have lived in Ireland, play the flute and want to study Chinese…” I paused.  This was not going the way I envisioned.  I didn’t want to make her sound like everyone else.

The word “rejection” sticks in my throat and I have a hard time spitting it out.  “If it doesn’t work out,” I said, my words rushing out, “then it was not the right college for you for reasons that we’re not going to know now.  We have to trust and have faith that in God’s providence, you will end up at the right college.”

She nodded.  “Yeah, I know.  I’ve thought about that too, about what it will feel like if I don’t get in.  I’ll probably be really disappointed and sad.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “we’ll all feel disappointed.  But you’ll have to find a way to push through it and send out your other applications.”

She nodded again and huffed out a breath filled with longing, “I really hope I get in.”

Me too.

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