Sunday, November 16, 2014

University admissions stuff that you may want to know.

...and they don't tell you because they don't (often) KNOW to tell you.

Anyway, this is stuff I've learned at the last minute, and I hope this helps someone. May it be imputed unto us as a righteousness.

(Non-USA readers: Welcome back and just sit back with a soothing beverage, marveling at this byzantine process. Oh, and ovah heah, we often use "university" and "college" and "school" interchangeably.)

This is primarily deals with getting those whom you've offsprung into very competitive universities. Relatively few schools fall into this category, so don't sweat it in EVERY case.


Start by selecting all the conceivable, possible places your kid would like to attend. Whittle that down by scratching out the ones you dislike. Then divide the list into "Dream," "Likely," and "Safety" schools. At NOS' school, they have a computer "scattergraph" that shows you at a glance the likelihood of your child being admitted to this or that university based on grades and standardized tests. These are the things we'll look at right off the top.

First, grades.

If you're lucky/smart you're reading this when your kid still has 3 or so years to start thinking of this.


I cannot overemphasize how much easier everything gets with a good grade point average. If you have to go all "Simon Legree's tiger mother" do it. Do whatever you have to, short of a felony, to get your kid to study and do well.

I've discovered, in the case of boys, that video games are the Anti-Christ, the sworn blood enemy of optimal academic performance. A little video game activity AFTER schoolwork and on weekends is fine, but if your son has a 75" HD TV with PS4, XBOX and Wii and surround sound, you have a very uphill fight. (NOS has none of these, Deo gratias.)

You'll have to check to see what assignments and tests are coming up, and make sure they are completed. In NOS' case, the magic bullet was making sure he studied for tests "the day before the day before." This puts the subject matter into long term, rather than short term, memory. This is key, because your average teenage boy has the short term memory of a goldfish entering rehab.

Second, the SAT. Don't waste your time on prep courses. The SAT is, at its core, an IQ test and its answers have a "pattern." The easier it is for your kid to "spot the pattern" the more accurate his (or her, I don't discriminate) guesses are, and the higher the score. My suggestion? Find a whole mess of Official SAT Practice Tests. Have your kid take the first one WITHOUT TIMING and OPEN BOOK. You want him to see where he "guesses/answers wrong" and what the testmakers thinking is IN REAL TIME.

I cannot stress this enough.

Once your kid sees how a given test is "wired" when he comes to a question he can't answer correctly in a few seconds, he will know HOW to eliminate the other answers. I guesstimate this is worth +/-250 points.

Oh, and many top-tier schools will also ask your kid to take "SAT subject tests." I very strongly suggest your child takes a given subject test the summer immediately following having completed that course in high school. If your daughter took biology in 10th grade, that's the time to take the corresponding test. Why? Because the material is fresh in her mind and if she takes it mid-12th grade, she'll have to study a LOT for that test and her odds of doing well are nowhere near as good.

Next we come to the dreaded essay. If your child is applying to a top-tier institution, this could be worth as much as the SAT and/or grades. One Very Big Deal University admissions person told me that 95% of applicants "flat-out cannot write, of the remaining 5%, 3% can write, but just in a 'grammatically correct way' and only 2% can write both correctly and well. That 2% gets admitted pretty much regardless of grades or SAT scores."

Some douchebag unscrupulous parents will write their kid's essay for him, or worse, hire a ghostwriter. Don't. The people at the admissions office who read essays -- and most of them do nothing but read essays -- are keen spotters of the "voice" of a 12th grader...or "mutton writing as lamb" as it were. My suggestion? Have your kid write the essay WELL ahead of its due date. A week later, have him rewrite it and then you edit it. Make suggestions, check for solecisms, etc. Don't CHANGE anything, but, rather, send it back with your notes and markups. Let him change it. Repeat 2-3 or times.

The essay (and this is why the few kids who can nail it get in no matter what) has certain things it must accomplish:

1- It must address the question. ("What do you consider the most important quality in a 21st Century global citizen?" or whatever.)
2- It must be grammatically correct. (Skip the artistic license for now.)
3- It must be a very engaging read. If the reader forgets he's reading "an application essay" that's a win.
4- It must, very subliminally, underscore all of the points which the admissions office considers favorable. (More on this anon.)
5- OPTIONAL - If you wish to lay claim to one of the various demographic groups that are treated with a measure of advantage, look for an essay question (usually they have three) that has wording such as "your culture" or "heritage" or similar. The essay should subliminally touch upon one's favorable demography without beating people over the head with it. Similarly, if seriously difficulties have beset your family that can be plausibly assumed to have affected your child and his/her performance it should also be brought up subtly at this point.

After this, look over the application materials. If a given university is "on the Common app" AND they waive the application fee, apply to it...what the Hell. But be warned, about half of the top-tier schools are NOT on the Common app for a number of reasons of varying levels of reasonableness and validity. It is what it is.

When you are poring over these materials, especially from the top-tier universities, be on the lookout for the term "holistic admissions." This means "we'll let your kid in based on whether we like him/her and not on any objective criteria." Which is a positive if your child is in a desirable demographic category, not so much if not.

This is where we hit some serious turbulence. I am not here to argue in favor or against these factors in the admissions process...just to tell you what they are, how they may affect you and how you can navigate them to your child's benefit. So don't get your ideological undies in a twist.

In schools that specifically tout their "holistic admissions" sex and ethnicity matter a great deal. They will emphatically deny it, but -- and I can't tell you how I know this to be 100% true, you'll just have to trust me -- that is the case.

Female applicants in the "STEM" areas have a colossal advantage, for instance.

Most Hispanics* have an advantage over their Anglo counterparts, African-Americans have an advantage over most** Asian-Americans. It is what it is.***

In these cases, what "holistic admissions" means to applicants is (and this is a direct quote from an Ivy-league admissions type) "We want to let you in, please give us an excuse."

This doesn't mean that if your child is a WASP from a nice suburban school he has no chance; not at all. But he or she should "compensate" with the other things mentioned herein.

Another crucial factor is "interest quotient" which is not merely "how badly does this applicant want to attend this august institution?" but "How is this applicant's seriousness of interest evidenced?"

Your child should start communicating with the admissions office and any persons affiliated therewith. Some have "student ambassadors" who sit in the admissions meetings and offer whatever insight into a given applicant and, although they have no vote, their input is taken very seriously and can often sway the decision. Your child should be in email conversations with these folks, asking about student activities, internship and practical-experience opportunities, asking questions about campus life, etc., etc.

A campus visit, if at all possible, should be scheduled and followed up with email conversations.

This will be helpful also should the university in question require an interview. (The further up the top-tier you go, the likelier this will be.) In the matter of the interview, you should conduct a few mock-interview rounds with your little darling. No so much that the responses sound "canned" and rehearsed, but so that the answers are fluid and devoid of the "" and "you know" and "like." The metric for success is that the closer this comes to a conversation the better, and the more it becomes an interrogation with monosyllabic answers, the worse.

Like in the essay, this conversation should touch upon "the good stuff" as noted above and as will follow.

The last thing to shore up are the extracurriculars. Ideally (and in the case of top-tier schools, it's practically an unwritten "must") your child will have:

1- An athletic activity (croquet, baseball, whatever)
2- A community service.
3- A leadership component (this, incidentally, is NOT the same as joining the Leadership Club)
4- A personal interest (the Kite club, the Astronomy club)

Regarding items 1, 2, and 4, the more years doing this your child has, the better...especially as it shows commitment. This is key.

There can be some overlap, of course (being elected president of the croquet club, for example) and where there is no ideal activity for your kid, have him/her start one, showing both the interest and the leadership.

Lastly, if you at all have ANY "ins" at a given university, it's okay to deploy these, but NOT HEAVYHANDEDLY.

Hope this helps someone!


* Cubans are, for the purposes of university admissions, the "wrong" kind of Hispanic. In those applications listing these as multiple choice and given that 90% of Cubans have family in Spain or Latin America, I suggest ticking the box that says "Hispanic/Latino Other."
** Filipinos, for the purposes of university admissions, are the "right" kind of Asian
*** Because some surnames are not obviously of a given ethnicity or someone may have one Anglo and one "ethnic" parent, it will be an OPTIONAL question on the application to state one's "ethnic self-identification."

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Some thoughts on matters serious.

It is a poorly kept secret that I seek to live my life in as unserious a manner as circumstances allow.

Yet, sometimes, the circs, well, don't allow. This is, more or less, one such instance.

Via the lovely and gracious Mrs. Dorian Grey Lisa Birnbach I found this piece in The Washington Post.

And it got me thinking.

(Go, read it. I'll still be here. In fact, I'll go put on some tea. Orange Pekoe suggests itself.)

First, there are some nitpicky things I'd bring up, but won't because a) it's ungracious, and b) these nitpicky things are merely tangential to my larger set of points.

One of my fears when a piece like this comes out, detailing a lamentable episode such as this, is that it's publication is like a starting gun to the "Who's had it worse?" steeplechase. (This, incidentally, drives me up the bloody wall.)

As Graham himself notes: "Try as I may to see things from the perspective of a white person, I can see them only from the experience that I have as a black man and had as a black boy." Translation: "You can only see things from your perspective." That perspective may be somewhat closer or much further from someone else's, but it'll never be exactly The Other Person's. So, on the one hand, I have no idea what it's like to be a black man in 2014 America...but I know what it's like to be a Hispanic man in 2014 America.

So I have that going for me.

Anyway, my reaction to Graham's piece was "So what are we going to do?"

While it's true that racism isn't nearly what it was when I was a little kid, it's also not completely eradicated, refusing to go extinct like a vile sort of coelacanth. "So what are we going to do?"

It's also true that certain people have very unfair socio-economic advantages due to their ethnicity. "So what are we going to do?"

I can't tell you what to do with your life or the upbringing of your children, I can only tell you what I've done with my life, with my kids, and remind you how much money my perspective cost you to read.

My father (and there's a LOT of my ol' man in this) was a managing partner for [Insert Global Region here.] of a then-Big Eight accounting firm. By every metric, his office was the best for that entire firm, year-after-year. And year after year, he kept getting passed up in favor of other partners who were, let's face it, Anglo-er than he. After the third such instance, we went out to lunch where a man-to-man talk ensued.

He explained that in this world, with a name like mine, even if I had every single achievement and accolade that existed, some people would treat me unfairly and some could even hate* me; and I had better well get used to it. He also said it would likely come from "different places** than you may be led to believe."

With this, he didn't mean so much "resign yourself to your fate" as "figure out how to overcome this situation." Because to him, and to me, quiet resignation in the face of injustice gave him a pain as if he were passing a faming porcupine sideways.

By the time he retired from the then-Big Eight firm, he was acknowledged for his expertise, skill, and wisdom. At his retirement party, many of the people*** who passed him up, quietly contrite, came up to him and tried to half-explain, half-apologize for their actions and decisions of so many years prior. My dad just smiled and said "I hope you learned to not let that happen again, and to make sure your people don't let that happen again."

And that brings up the main thrust of my post. "So what are we going to do?"

The idea, as I see it, is to eradicate racism and hatred and bigotry.

"So what are we going to do?"

Of course, my dad made sure I went to The Right Schools, that I spoke at least three (OK, 2½)languages without a trace of accent, that I behaved with kindness and charity and courtesy to everyone. What I was going to do was make sure that I would only treat people as individuals and not as _______-Americans.

I would tell my sons that while they were expected to do likewise, they were also to expect that not everyone would be so kind. "Some people, as your grandfather would say, will spot your name on a list and just from that, hate you."

As my dad told me -- and this story shall the good man teach his son -- I was not to let that hate dwell and grow within me. My soul was to be "a rocky place where the seed of hatred could find no purchase."  His phrase was always "God doesn't hear accents and God doesn't see skin color."

Next, I caution them, as I was cautioned, that they have to go twice as far and twice as fast just to keep up with their Anglo counterparts. It's not fair, but it has to be done. This is the only way to make sure that their children "only" have to go 50% further and faster than their Anglo contemporaries. It shouldn't be this way, but it is and you might as well argue against gravity.

Is it fair that my sons will have to climb a steeper hill in many aspects of life that would their Anglo counterparts? No. It isn't fair. It's emphatically, outrageously unfair. But that's the current reality with which they must live, but they can derive some measure of comfort from the fact that due to their grandfather's effort and example (and, I'd like to think Graham's kids can draw the same from his and his wife's) it's not as unfair as it used to be.

Lastly, what to do when the inevitable slur is flung at them? Partly, in my case at least, it's been important to brace them for the inevitability. We live in a world which still bears the marks of the darker side of human nature. To steel them against such expressions of hatred, while simultaneously seeking to minimize the opportunities for hatred to happen, has been a crucial aspect of my role as father. "This is going to happen. It happens because there is evil and brokenness in the world, and not because of anything you did. These people who might say these things, or similar things to your Jewish friends, or your black friends are poisoned inside and slowly dying from that poison. And these things are the effects of that poison."

It's not easy, it's not pretty and it's not fair. But all you can do to make things better is press forward**** regardless.
Just my 2¢.


* He used to say "There are people who only need to see your name in the phonebook to hate you."
** This was during the Boston Busing Riots. As he said: "Those weren't Goldwater fans beating up those black kids." True to his words, even though I attended college in the Very Deep South, I've only been called a "spic" three times: In NYC, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

*** It was gratifying that when Dad died in 2012 from Alzheimer's, almost all of these people -- themselves retired and therefore with nothing to either prove or gain -- traveled to attend the funeral.

**** There is a great phrase in Spanish which, natch, translates very poorly, that goes something like: "Never go back, not even to gather momentum."