Saturday, January 05, 2008

How to get into college despite the disadvantage of privilege

Given that, with the arrival of the new year, college applications are now flooding into admissions offices all over the country, it might be a good time to reflect on the absurdity of the whole college-admissions process. Take this passage from Michele Hernandez's "Acing the College Application," where she assesses the chances of a high-school student getting into a college of his choice. "Best case: Neither of your parents attended college at all, your father is a factory worker, and your mom is on disability. . . . Worst case: Your father went to Yale as an undergraduate and then Harvard Business School and is now an investment banker and your mom went to Brown, holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and works as a research chemist."

We all understand that being a rich white kid puts one at a disadvantage in the college-admissions process. But it is worth pausing to savor the irony of an institution that charges as much as $45,000 a year asking its applicants to demonstrate their proletarian credentials.

What's a privileged kid to do? Ms. Hernandez, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth, offers a couple of options. "Be vague" about your parents' occupations: "If your mom is the chief neurosurgeon for a New York hospital, try 'medical.' " Or you could get yourself a job, "the less exalted the better," Ms. Hernandez advises, citing one boarding-school student who improved his admissions chances by baling hay every summer (on his family's farm).

But making your collar seem blue may not be enough. What colleges are looking for these days, according to Ms. Hern ndez, is passion. "Since the late 1990s," she writes, "the focus has shifted away from well-rounded students to the idea of a well-rounded freshman class." A high-school student who gets good grades, serves as student body president and plays varsity football may be a remarkable person, but to an admissions officer his excellence may look rather conventional and diffuse. Better to cultivate a particular skill or enthusiasm. The ideal admissions-candidate is thus a prize-winning gymnast, a fluent reader of both Greek and Latin, a math champion, a successful entrepreneur or a violin virtuoso (all, ideally, with working-class parents, of course). And remember, Ms. Hernandez warns, "passion cannot be faked."

But so much else can. Elizabeth Wissner-Gross's "What High Schools Don't Tell You" provides, as its subtitle has it, "300+ Secrets to Make Your Kid Irresistible to Colleges by Senior Year." Ms. Wissner-Gross is an "educational strategist" and proud of it. "When people ask me what I do exactly," she explains, "I'm sometimes tempted to tell them that I make kids' dreams come true."

So what happens when you rub her magic lamp? She'll offer a five-year plan for the future college student--aimed at piling up credentials, polishing the youthful resume and shaping a suitable self-image so that, when it comes time to fill out college applications, nothing has been left to chance. Starting no later than middle school, a kid should have "dazzling" and "very ambitious" long-term goals. Ms. Wissner-Gross offers a list of possibilities: "I would like to conduct research for NASA"; "I would like to speak at an important political rally"; "I would like to become known as the nation's top math student"; "I would like to host a fund-raiser ball for cancer research." Students should then structure their time accordingly--with the emphasis on "structure."

Ms. Wissner-Gross wants students to adopt a four-summer plan "crammed with multiple enrichment activities" but all focused on that key long-term goal. Each summer--working in a local research lab, attending a math camp or trying to write the great American novel--should take a would-be college applicant one step closer to his dream. But aren't summers supposed to be, well, fun? Ms. Wissner-Gross has two bits of advice: "Contrary to pop psychology, down time need not be unstructured to be relaxing and to help a student decompress." And "children who insist on hanging out with already known friends during the summer often miss out on wonderful opportunities." Yes, buddies can be an obstacle if you care about getting into college.

During the academic year, Ms. Wissner-Gross says, young actors and musicians should take private lessons and be sure to perform both inside and outside of school. Her secret #205 reads: "When it comes to college applications, starring in school shows is better than being a good soldier and playing small parts." (Is that really a secret?) To the aspiring journalist, she recommends starting a blog (ugh) and submitting articles to local weeklies, although nothing too contentious. Such articles "should not be investigative journalism." When writing about school activities, students should "focus only on the positive." Young documentary filmmakers might want to make a "thirty-second informational spot announcement about some aspect of school procedures." Future public servants should "avoid heavily political or religious causes that tend to be controversial."

Will all this careful calculation get a child into the college of his dreams? Who knows? It will certainly produce some really annoying teenagers, not to mention what it will do to their parents. If your child has to miss class for one of his extra-special resume-building activities, Ms. Wissner-Gross advises, mom should write a mollifying note to each teacher along these lines: "I'm sorry Matt will be missing your English lesson on 'Our Town' today. The play is a family favorite, and I cried my way through our at-home reading last night." For producing real tears, though, even Thornton Wilder can't compete with "What High Schools Don't Tell You."


Britain: Village school provides a lesson for the government

A SPEAKER at a recent Yorkshire Post Literary Luncheon prompted warm applause when he said politicians should get off teachers' backs and let them get on with their jobs. He was Gervaise Phinn, now a well-known writer. He was formerly a teacher in South Yorkshire and then a schools inspector in North Yorkshire for many years.

I thought of his words last week when I visited a village school in North Yorkshire. As soon as you stepped inside, you could taste excellence. The headteacher glowed with pride as she showed the work done by the youngsters. A study of the village in Victorian times was a masterpiece of endeavour.

With fewer than 60 children, this was a model of what education should mean. I don't know where it stood in any league table, and I don't care. You don't need a computer to assess excellence, Gervaise will know exactly what I mean.

Then you read about the grandiose 10-year Children's Plan announced by the Education Secretary, Ed Balls, who is rapidly turning into the Dr Strangelove of the Brown Government. He has produced 170 pages of "initiatives" which effectively take the job of parenting out of parents hands, so as to make Britain "the best place in the world to grow up".

Every international measure show Britain failing in maths, science and literacy. Yet Balls tells us that standards are improving all the time. I only hope he is being cynical because it raises doubts about his sanity.

As comprehensive teachers say, pupils can pass through 11 years of schooling, even pass exams, without an understanding of basic subjects. They are spoon-fed information, assisted with their coursework, and led by the hand to meet targets and boost state figures. Now Balls plans to turn everything upside down yet again.

Meanwhile, let's give thanks for that little Dales village school and others like it - and the dedicated teachers who continue to deliver excellence despite all the burdens politicians place upon them.


Medical education: Want to be a doctor? Try your luck

Australia: The usual Leftist hatred of merit -- and the examinations which detect it -- at work

The University of Sydney's medical school may turn its admissions process into a lucky dip and scrap applicant interviews in the biggest overhaul of its selection policy in 10 years. The proposals are among options being investigated by a working party to ensure admissions to the university's most prestigious course are fair and snare the best students. The dean of the school, Bruce Robinson, commissioned the review because he was concerned the current process failed to predict which applicants would succeed as students and doctors.

Students are selected through a combination of interviews, grade point average and performance in an exam known as the Graduate Australian Medical School Admissions Test, used by 11 universities. But the test had never been properly scrutinised, Professor Robinson said. An internal review had found no difference between students who scraped through and those who scored highly.

The working party is considering a ballot system used in the Netherlands, with each applicant's name put into a lottery. Outstanding HSC students would get more chances. "It may be just as reliable as anything else," Professor Robinson said. "I'm just not sure the way we're doing it at the moment is the best way or the fairest way. There is no perfect way."

The University of Queensland has eliminated interviews from its admissions system after a review cast doubt on their value. Kim Oates, who is reviewing the University of Sydney program with Kerry Goulston, said there was little evidence the interview system was valuable. "What's really interesting is that a few years after graduation most people working in hospitals can't tell what medical school the students have been to," Professor Oates said. "And I think that's because the hospital system moulds you as well."

However, the University of NSW says the attrition rate in its undergraduate program has been halved since interviews were added to the admissions process in 2002. In its own recent review, the body that developed the current exam, the Australian Council of Educational Research, concluded it was a good predictor of success. Marita MacMahon Ball, the general manager of higher education programs, said there was a correlation between students' results and their first-year exam results. [Is that all? And how big is the correlation?]


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