Universitas Blog

Books to Read, Kudos to Extend, and a Brief Farewell

Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Today's post will be a three headed one.  I wanted to take this opportunity and this forum to recognize the incredible work some young people are doing.  I also wanted to post some book recommendations.  Finally, I want to say a brief farewell. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="286"]Image I want to acknowledge the great work done by the young people behind CAMP, College Admissions Mentors for Peers in the Philippines. They organized their first ever convention at UP last August 10. It was a resounding success.[/caption] Last Saturday, August 10, I attended the first ever convention of an organization called College Admission Mentors for Peers in the Philippines (CAMP Philippines).  CAMP is an organization of young Filipino students currently attending universities abroad (mostly in the US) who want to extend free guidance and mentorship to Filipino students who want to attend college abroad.  Obviously, CAMP and I share the same mission (as does this blog) and I attended the all-day workshop to meet the executive leadership of this organization.  I was astounded at the turnout...there were hundreds of students, parents, teachers and counselors at the event.  It was standing room only.  To be able to attract that kind of crowd, give them good information and have the event be as organized as it was is a tribute to these dedicated young people.  I tip my proverbial hat to them.  For more information on this group, I refer you to their website, www.campphilippines.org.  They also have a Facebook page. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="650"]Image Here I am holding court in front of some "enthralled" parents at the CAMP conference last Saturday.[/caption] I also want to direct your attention to three excellent books which I urge you to get and read.  These books approach the college admissions game from three different angles. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="275"]Image "Colleges That Change Lives" by Loren Pope, Penguin Books, New York. 1996, 2000, 2006. Revised by Hilary Masell Oswald 2012[/caption] If nothing else, this book truly delivers on its title.  It really did change the way I thought about colleges.  If you had to read only one of the three books I am recommending today, make it this one.  Loren Pope (he passed away in 2008) spent his professional life studying higher education in America.  The theme of his message:  forget rank, name, and prestige when looking at colleges and focus primarily on the student.  Look at what college fits the student.  If this philosophy sounds oddly familiar, it's because I've stolen it lock, stock, and barrel and made it my own.  This book is what got me going and made me seriously think about going into the college guidance business.  The forty or so schools he profiles in this book are all smallish liberal arts colleges.   To make the list, the school cannot be too selective (open to students with humbler academic backgrounds) but must pack a powerful academic punch that will transform B or C students into A-type scholars at par with their Ivy League classmates.  This is primarily the reason why selective liberal arts colleges like Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, Pomona, or Oberlin are not included and why schools like Grinnell, Franklin & Marshall, and Bard were dropped:  they are...or became...very selective.  I suspect my favorite college, Reed, is headed in this unfortunate direction.  This book is so inspirational that shortly after Pope's death, a group of counselors banded together to form Colleges That Change Lives, Inc. (www.ctcl.org)  to perpetuate Pope's message and philosophy.  They tour the United States and Asia (including, I am happy to say, the Philippines) spreading the gospel according to Pope (sorry, couldn't resist!) One limitation with the book though is that it focuses on students who are looking for an intellectual and life changing college experience.  If your ideal college is the huge university where you can disappear into anonymity and can graduate without exerting too much effort then this book isn't for you.  But otherwise, invest time and money into this book.  If you limited your college search to these forty or so schools alone, you would come out with some excellent choices.  Some advice on how to read the book:  don't read the book cover to cover.  Read the first few chapters before the college write ups begin, you'll understand what the Pope philosophy is all about and that's enough. Read the college reviews ala carte as needed.  If you can get a copy of the 2006 edition, you can still read Loren Pope "in the raw" and get his no holds barred opinion on the Ivy League (he calls it "...gyp joints for the undergraduate")  The 2013-2014 edition has more updated college profiles and the Loren Pope bite is gone but it's still worth the read.  I have BOTH 2006 and 2013 editions, the only book I own twice! [caption id="attachment_1163" align="aligncenter" width="225"]gatekeepers "The Gatekeepers" by Jacques Steinberg. Penguin Group, New York. 2002.[/caption] The Gatekeepers by (former?) NY Times education editor Jacques Steinberg is a little dated for a college admissions book but it doesn't matter.  It's a breezy, fun book that looks inside the admissions process of elite Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT as seen through the eyes of former Wesleyan admission counselor Ralph Figueroa (now Head of College Counseling at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico).  To research the book, Steinberg shadowed Figueroa through a single year and was a fly in the wall at college recruiting trips, reading periods, and admission committee deliberations.  You'll meet his friend Sharon who works as a college counselor at Harvard Westlake, an elite private school in Los Angeles.  You'll follow several students try to get into Wesleyan and other elite institutions like the Ivies.  Their stories have not been changed...and neither have their names.  Everything is true to life and is written like a summer novel.  I liked this book so much I want to get the author's next book which is about the iron men (and women) who participate in triathlons...and I have no interest in the subject whatsoever.  I just expect to be enlightened...and entertained...by Mr. Steinberg. [caption id="attachment_1162" align="aligncenter" width="225"]admission matters "Admission Matters" by Sally Springer, Jon Reider, and Marion Franck. Latest edition drops Franck and add Joyce Vining Morgan.[/caption] This one was actually a textbook for one of my classes but I enjoyed reading it so much that I had to put it on this list.  This is a more factual, "this is what you have to do and why" kind of book compared to the other two.  But it doesn't read like a textbook at all.  It reads easily and has a lot of good facts and has a nice epilogue for parents and students. The great thing about all three books is that they are all available on Amazon.com and Kindle.  Simply download onto your Kindle device or your Kindle reading app on your iPad or Android device and away you go!  I've never seen a paper copy of these books here in Manila except for the 2013 edition of the Pope book.   If you insist on having a print book, you'll have to order it from Amazon or (again!) more conveniently, via download onto your Kindle. Okay, the third thing.  I'm going to Canada tomorrow to bring my son to college.  I guess it's the last step on my own college application journey.  I'll be gone until the 12th of September or so and I may (or may not) be able to update this blog and if I do, it will certainly not be nearly as often.  Maybe little snippets, little updates.    The good news is that I plan to visit some colleges on my own so I hope to write about those experiences and bring back lots of pictures.  So thanks for reading my blog and we'll be back to full speed in mid-September.

The Nitty Gritty: The College Application Essay Part Two

Saturday, August 10, 2013
[caption id="attachment_1122" align="alignleft" width="300"]college_essay_clip_image001 How about that?? You fill in the blanks and boom! Instant college application essay. Unfortunately, it isn't that easy.[/caption] Today is my 48th birthday and to celebrate, I'm going to continue my previous post on writing the college application essay.  While the last post was about the "big picture" of writing the college application essay, I'm going to post more "nitty-gritty", close to the earth stuff.  In other words:  the do's and the don'ts of the application essay. 1.  Watch your grammar and spelling.  This is really obvious stuff but people usually forget this because they're rushing to get the essay out after having delayed and procrastinated forever.  Have your English teacher or guidance counselor or an adult with good grammar and spelling look through your paper.  Good grammar and spelling won't, by itself, save  your ship but bad grammar and spelling will surely sink it.  A professor of mine once said "A great paper written with poor mechanics (grammar and spelling) is like serving a gourmet meal on dirty china."  I could not have said it better!  So take the time to have your masterpiece edited and re-edited...even if you're already a grammar guru.  An extra pair of eyes is always helpful in catching little misteaks (haha!) 2.  Make your essay something only you can write about.  What I mean here is that your essay should be personal.  Do not write about stuff that's already on your application like your grades, accomplishments, and activities.  You may, of course,  reference your school or school activities as background but the meat of the essay should be something about you.  Remember that one of the purposes of the essay is for the commitee to get to know you.  Don't write a generic essay about helping out with Ondoy victims...more interesting would be what you learned from corresponding with a Muntinlupa inmate sentenced to life in prison.  Make the essay personal!!   [caption id="attachment_1123" align="aligncenter" width="300"]lamb_sml Watch your spelling and grammar. A good essay written with poor mechanics is like serving a gourmet meal on dirty china. But if the gourmet meal includes lamb, I'd be willing to overlook the stained silverware. :)[/caption]    

3.  Avoid discussing your romantic or sexual experiences.  Remember the goal here is to impress the admissions counselor, not to make him/her uncomfortable.  Yes, I did say make the essay personal but not to the extent that the person reading it gets squeamish.  Similar topics to avoid:  discussing a volatile religious or political issue like same sex marriage especially if you feel particularly strongly about one side or the other.  The reader may not agree with you and subconsciously take it against you.  Same with talking about topics that imply an elevated social standing:  like taking that trip to Europe or volunteering in Thailand.  Admissions counselors take a dim view of what they might see as an application from a rich, spoiled, snooty little brat.  Oh and drop that idea about writing how you become a level 80 warrior on a video game.

[caption id="attachment_1126" align="aligncenter" width="284"]twilight Don't talk about your love life in your college essay. But even if you do, it's still a better love story than Twilight[/caption]  

4.  Avoid cliche topics like "What I Learned When  I Won (or Lost) the Basketball Championship".  What's wrong with that bittersweet story of your youth when you sank/missed the winning free throws to win the league championship?  Nothing.  Except it's everyone's bittersweet story of their youth.  You want to stand out in some way and not blend in the background noise of thousands of applicants clamoring to be heard.

5.  Keep your audience in mind.  You are not writing to the Queen of England so avoid stilted or overly formal language.  Think of your guidance counselor or English teacher as your audience, i.e. people who are friendly and willing to listen to your story but they're not your kid brother or sister that you can just write any old thing in any old way you want to.   [caption id="attachment_1121" align="aligncenter" width="265"]NARROW_YOUR_FOCUS_01 Sound advice.[/caption]   6.  Answer the question!  Read the prompts carefully and address them directly.  An old essay prompt went something like, "Talk about how a certain person or historical figure influenced your life".  A lot of essays went on to talk about the applicant's mother or father, a teacher,  or Jesus Christ.  That's all very nice but if you read carefully, it says to talk about the influence the person had in your life...not the person itself.  The colleges are not looking to admit Mom, Dad, your 3rd grade English teacher, or Jesus Christ, they're looking to admit YOU. 7.  Finally, don't procrastinate.   I know that I discussed this in the previous post but it bears repeating.  A good essay is never written...it is re-written.  Rewriting and editing takes time and the more of this you do the better the chances your essay will be quite good. Good luck with your essay.  Comments (and prospective college essays) welcome.

The College Application Essay

Sunday, August 04, 2013
[caption id="attachment_1101" align="aligncenter" width="300"]College _Application_Essays It's difficult to believe that writing college application essays can be as enjoyable as the girl above makes it out to be. While I would not exactly describe the process as enjoyable, it can be made less arduous and perhaps even eye opening.[/caption] One of the most dreaded aspects of applying to college (here or abroad) is writing the college application essay.  For US colleges, the format and topic of the application essay is stipulated in the new Common Application (CA4) which comes online August 1st.  The topics have changed a bit from years past and the length is now strictly between 250-650 words (and yes, they count the words).  Following are the CA4 essay prompts: 1.  Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it.  If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 2.  Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you and what lesson did you learn? 3.  Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there and why is it important to you? 4.  Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked  your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. 5.  Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act?  Would you make the same decision again? https://www.commonapp.org/CommonApp/Docs/DownloadForms/2013/EssayAnnouncementFinal.pdf One key to remember in writing these essays is why these essays are being written to begin with.  For many admissions committees, it's a way to flesh out your application.  Consider that all the committee knows about you is in flat sheets of paper: your grades, your SAT scores, your list of activities.  Along with your letters of recommendation, your essay puts a human being behind your application.  They want to know what kind of person the applicant is.  The recommendations from your teachers and counselors will tell them about you in the classroom or in school but your essay should tell them who you are outside the classroom.  From the essay, they hope to glean hints about whether or not you'll be a fun person in the dorms, what kind of student you are and most importantly, if you are a good fit for their community.  Students aren't the only ones looking for fit!    It's important to write a good essay and an especially strong one should be able to get your application noticed above all the thousands of others.  Some admissions officers have been known to set aside essays which are especially funny, touching, sad or insightful and show them to their spouses.  If you are remembered for a particularly strong essay, it will leave a good impression and if your application goes to the committee, you will have an advocate pulling for your admission. Another important thing to remember is to give yourself lots of time to write the essay.  Write a little bit each day, a few thoughts, a few ideas.  The temptation to put off the essay until the very end is great indeed, what with the other  things like school, sports, social life and the all-important Facebook and Internet competing for your time.   But if you wait until the very last minute to write your essay, it will read exactly like that...that you put it together in the last minute.  Not a good way to impress the people at the admissions office.   Here's a way they brainstorm college application essays at International School (where you MUST attend essay writing workshops if you intend to apply to US colleges).   Take the first essay prompt above and just write ideas or things that come to your head:  names, dates, events, whatever!   Do that for about a minute or two.  Then go to the second prompt and do the same.  Rinse and repeat for all six prompts.  Then look at your results.  Which prompt got the most responses?  This could be the topic for you.    Then start writing a very rough draft.  Show it to someone like an English teacher, or your college counselor for their thoughts and ideas. [caption id="attachment_1099" align="aligncenter" width="300"]homer rewrites  his college essay Homer rewrites his college application essay after showing it to Lisa.[/caption] The application essay doesn't have to be deep and profound or highlight some great achievement --or great suffering--of yours.  The admissions officers know that the vast majority of their teenage applicants have lived quietly uneventful lives in loving, well adjusted families.  Nor have they gone out and discovered the cure for AIDS in their basement laboratory.   But what the essay MUST be is personal.  It must be written in your voice, using your words, based on your experiences.   My son Tyler's application essay wasn't especially deep or profound but I thought it was quirky and written exactly in his voice. It even had drawings and graphs (something you can't include anymore in application essays starting this year.)  After reading it, the committee would have a pretty good idea who they were dealing with.  And that's the purpose of a good application essay.  The best part is...that his essay was something he wrote a while back for his English class!  Yes, he turned in a recycled essay.  Perfectly legal, as long as the student wrote the essay.  So don't be afraid to dust off an old essay if you feel that it addresses a prompt above and that you wrote it yourself.  It can save you a lot of work! [caption id="attachment_1100" align="aligncenter" width="160"]how to write a winning college essay While I'm not endorsing this book in particular, reading books like these could get you going in the right direction.[/caption] In Part 2 of this post, we will discuss some nitty gritty essay do's and don'ts.     Here are some useful links about writing a college application essay. The College of William and Mary in Virginia came up with an excellent, award winning video about the college application essay https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwxQ6J9_fLY Some college presidents eat their own dog food.  They take up the challenge of writing application essays themselves...with mixed results.  Personally, I think the Wesleyan essay was best, and Penn the worst. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124155688466088871.html And finally, my son Tyler's application essay Tyler's college application essay

Inside the Admissions Office

Thursday, August 01, 2013
[caption id="attachment_1107" align="aligncenter" width="300"]admissions_office What goes on behind the closed doors of the Admissions Office? How exactly do they treat your application and how can I maximize my chances of a yes?[/caption]

You've finally completed your Common Application, written your killer application essay (more about this in a future post), gotten your school to forward your transcripts, your teachers have all sent in their recommendations and the College Board has sent your test scores electronically to the colleges you're applying to.  Now what?  Well, now you wait.  If you applied Early Decision (more about this later), you should get a decision before Christmas, if you applied Regular Decision (as most students do) you have to wait till the end of March.  But what happens to your application?  Who reads it and what do they consider?  Finally, is there a way I can get an edge?

When your application is received, a file is opened under your name and your electronic application is printed out (what??  Environmentally unfriendly!  Dislike!) and put in a folder along with your transcripts, recommendations, scores, and other assorted paperwork.  Depending on whether the university you applied to has a rolling admission policy (rolling what?), your file is either looked at immediately or it will be made to sit gathering dust until the application deadline has passed.  Colleges that have a rolling admission policy -- a lot of  big state universities like the University of Michigan do this (notable exceptions:  California and Washington) and a few less competitive colleges will review your application as soon as it's complete and give you an admission decision after about a month or two.  Application strategy hint no. 1:  if the university you're interested in has a rolling admission policy, it is a good idea to get your application in as early as possible.  Why?  Well. think about it.  If your application is one of the first through the door, the committee will be considering a decision when they still have thousands of seats in the freshman class to give out.  If you come in late in the cycle, there will be much fewer seats left to give out and they become much choosier on who gets those few remaining seats.   (interesting tidbit:  my son's chosen university, University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, will not say they roll their admissions but they effectively do.  Maybe the Canadians call it something else.  But he turned in his application early and found out he was admitted just before Christmas.  Some of his friends did not get an admissions decision until March or April since they got their papers in late)  If your university doesn't roll their admissions, then they will look at your application--along with everyone else's--during the reading period.  What is a reading period?  It's when the admissions committee members sit down to read all the (thousands) of applications.  If you applied Early Decision, then it will be around October and November.  If you applied Regular Decision, then it won't be until January.

[caption id="attachment_1106" align="aligncenter" width="280"]early decision Applying early decision may increase your chances of being admitted. But remember, early decision comes with strings.[/caption]

Early Decision?  What's that? And how's that different from Regular Decision?  Really briefly, applying under Early Decision means you want the university to consider your application early and decide before Christmas.   Applying Early Decision is easy to do...just check the appropriate box in the Common Application.   Sounds great, why doesn't everyone do it that way then?  There's a catch (of course).  If you apply Early Decision and you are admitted, you MUST attend that school.  You can't back out.  The only reason acceptable for backing out is insufficient financial aid and as international students, that's not a real issue for us.  So for all intents and purposes, as far as international students are concerned, Early Decision is a binding commitment.  Because Early Decision is binding, an applicant is allowed to apply Early Decision to only one college and this college is understood to be the student's clear favorite, their choice above all others.  Because applying Early Decision is essentially a declaration of love by the student for the college, the admissions people see that as a positive in considering your application, hence the enhanced chance of admission.  We'll discuss all this in more detail in a future post.

Reading season for the admissions committee for the regular decision pile starts in late January and ends in mid or late March.  The committee must go through thousands of applications, an individual admissions officer is expected to read anywhere from thirty to forty applications per day.   It is not unusual for them to bring  application files home to read on their kitchen table.  So here is application strategy hint #2:  given the volume of reading the commitee members have to do, it's not a good idea to give them more.  If they only ask for one recommendation, please do so and send ONLY ONE.  Don't give in to the temptation that if one is good, three or four must be better.  They don't want to hear from Senator So-and-so or Congressman Such-and-such, they're not impressed that your family hobnobs with Philippine politicos.  And giving them more than what they ask for leaves them with the unfavorable impression that you don't follow directions well.

 In most colleges, at least two, sometimes even three, people will read your application.  The first reader is chosen at random among all the members of the committee.  The second reader is usually the person in charge of international admissions.  This second reader is the person who travels to the Philippines to meet you at a college fair.  So application strategy hint #3:  make a good impression on the person at the college fair.  He/she will be the one reading your application,  Make a good first impression:  smile, firm handshake, show genuine interest in his/her school without sounding sycophantic (pwera sipsip please).  First reader goes through the file and makes coded notes on a workcard summarizing the highlights of the application: not just grade point average, test scores, essay impression, recommendations, etc. but also gender, state (or in our case, country) of origin.  Some schools will have readers assign a number from one to nine, or one to five, on perceived qualities such as academic strength, independent thought, leadership potential, etc. Some will compute an average from these numbers.  Finally, they make a tentative admission decision:  admit, defer (for Early Decision applicants only, it means to defer a final decision to late March), waitlist, or deny.  Some schools give admission officers the ability to give a grade of Admit-minus which means yes, we can admit but we have some reservations or Deny-Plus which means we would normally deny admission to this candidate but there are some circumstances worth considering.  The second reader, after reading through the same file, can agree or disagree with his/her colleague.  If they agree, then the file is passed to the Dean of Admissions who usually just rubber stamps their decision.  If there is disagreement, then the file is passed to the committee to be deliberated at large.   This pile of students is in admissions limbo, treading water until a final decision is reached.    Stanford calls these applicants "swims" because of the treading water metaphor. But at some point at the end of the reading period, the entire admissions committee meet and deliberate each file in the "swim" pile.   These deliberation days are especially long starting early in the morning and ending late at night with each file discussed, its merits and demerits debated. These discussions can be passionate, even heated, as an admissions officer will advocate for a particular candidate he/she might feel should be admitted (or not!)  Finally, a vote is taken to admit, deny or waitlist the candidate.

The final decisions made, the Dean signs each of the acceptances personally.  The rejections usually have a printed signature.  The letters are double checked, ascertaining that acceptances are sent to the right people and ONLY the right people.    Don't laugh, a few years ago, Vassar College sent acceptances to people who should have gotten rejections.   Vassar had to write an embarrassing letter admitting its mistake.  As expected, these people did not take the news well.  Very messy!

The acceptances are normally packed with housing information and applications, enrollment forms, a formal reply sheet accepting (or rejecting) the offer of admission and some assorted swag.  Reed, for instance, sent my son some confetti to throw in celebration; Santa Clara had a poster that declared "SCU Loves Me!"  As you can see, the acceptances usually come in large, fat envelopes.  Conversely, rejections come in an envelope alone, bereft of anything but the sympathetic words of the admissions office.  Along with the mailed acceptances, email is sent out to all candidates to check their applications online or the email itself will have the admission decision on it.  Consider the mailed decision the official decision.

As you go through this 2013-2014 college application cycle, may your future be full of fat envelopes and few (if any) thin ones!

[caption id="attachment_1105" align="aligncenter" width="225"]admitted students packets Picture taken at the Santa Clara University admissions office along with all the acceptance packets for the Class of 2017 prior to mailing. Big, thick, fat envelopes![/caption]

Here's a short video of the admissions process at Brandeis University.  It goes through a lot of what I just wrote.


John Sy, President and Senior Counselor
Universitas College Counseling
203A CM Recto Street
San Juan, Metro Manila, Philippines

+63 (917) 833-3825

John Sy, President and Senior Counselor
Universitas College Counseling
203A CM Recto Street
San Juan, Metro Manila, Philippines


+63 (917) 833-3825

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