Universitas Blog

The IB: What is it?

Friday, July 11, 2014

If you're applying to US colleges from the Philippines, you may have already heard of something called the IB or the International Baccalaureate. In your college research, you will have probably discovered that US colleges love this and something else called AP (that's pretty rare here in the Philippines and we won't talk about it here) Very few high schools in the Philippines offer the IB as part of their curriculum choices (there are only fifteen at last count) but many candidates are curious and want to know what it is (addressed in this post) and how it will affect their applications going forward (addressed in the next post). 

The International Baccalaureate Organization (www.ibo.org) was founded in 1968 in Geneva as a way for students studying outside their home countries to obtain the necessary qualifications to go to college in their home country. Over the years it has expanded to four different programs: the Primary Years Programme, the Middle Years Programme, the Diploma Programme, and the new Career Related Certificate. For the purposes of this post, we will limit our discussion to the Diploma Programme (by the way, this is their spelling, not mine) which covers the high school and is what universities are interested in.

The Diploma Programme (DP) is a two year commitment begun in the junior year of high school (11th grade or High 3), continues onto the senior year (12th grade or High 4) and culminates in final exams after the second year. These exams are administered worldwide by the IBO office in Geneva in May and November. Students here normally take the May administration and yes, if you are doing this you need to return to school in May after you graduate in March to take the exams. You cannot do the DP for only one year...it's two years or nothing and you MUST take the final exams (external assessments they call them) that will cover TWO years of material.

 If your high school offers the IB, it will normally have you leave the regular curriculum stream of your high school and go into the IB stream. The IB curriculum requires that you take six IB classes in each of six distinct areas: language acquisition (a language outside your native language), language and literature (normally English for us), individuals and society (social science, business, psychology), mathematics, science (normally physics, chemistry, and biology for us), and arts (drama, film, dance, music). Students have the option of forgoing arts and picking up a second course in any of the five other areas (usually students pick a second science). Three of the six courses must be taken at "higher level" (HL) and the other three at "standard level" (SL), the choice of which courses to take HL or SL is left up to the student and will normally correspond to the student's interests (or lack thereof) in the various subjects. Each of the courses is marked 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest). In addition to the classwork, a DP candidate is required to take a class called Theory of Knowledge (TOK), submit an extended essay (I call it a term paper), and perform Community, Action, and Service (CAS) hours. To get your diploma, you must get at least 24 points (you get the number of points equal to your grade in each of your 6 IB classes and anywhere from 0 to 3 points for CAS, TOK, and your extended essay). The perfect score is 45 points (get all 7s in your six classes and all three points for your CAS, TOK and extended essay).

For example, I have two students who took the IB and here are their course lists and results

 Student A:

 Math HL: 7  Physics HL: 7 Geography HL: 6 
Chinese SL: 5 English SL: 5 Chemistry SL: 6 
CAS/TOK/Extended Essay: 3/3 

 Total Diploma Points: 39 

Note that this student did not take the Arts class and instead substituted it with a second science

Student B:

 Business Management HL: 6 English HL: 6 Visual Arts HL: 4 
Math SL: 5 Physics SL: 5 Chinese SL: 4 
CAS/TOK/Extended Essay: 2/3 

 Total Diploma Points: 32 

 Note that this student did the Arts class and did it at Higher Level. In both cases, the student was awarded the Diploma. Note that in addition to the minimum 24 points, there are other requirements.

IB spongebob

If after reading all that, you decide that the IB must be very hard, then you've come to a fairly accurate conclusion. I say "fairly accurate" because I would say that the IB is rigorous rather than just plain "very difficult". The IB classes require much much more than rote memorization, taking multiple guess exams, and writing the occasional trite essay. It demands depth of understanding and thinking that most high school students (even the very best ones) are not accustomed to. This is where most of the perceived difficulty of IB lies. That said, the IB was not designed solely for the smart, it really was aimed at average students. Given that, the true challenge of IB is time management. It is really easy to become swamped in the myriad requirements, assessments, and preparation required to succeed in the IB. 

The question you must be asking yourself now is: is it all worth it? How will this affect my chances at the most competitive US colleges if my high school does not offer IB? All this and more in our next episode....

Underestimating the College Application Essay

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

In my last blog post, I wrote about how people tended to overemphasize the importance of the SAT in the US college admission process. In this post, I will write about how people tend to underestimate the essay.

My client who excitedly told me about his good performance in the last SAT also forgot to turn in the latest (third) draft of his application essay which I asked for three weeks ago.  To his credit, he said he will turn in his latest essay draft this week.  It's a real pain, this essay thing.  Having to run after drafts from clients is clearly my least favorite thing to do as an independent college counselor.  But I take encouragement in the fact that this young man is already on the third draft of his essay...and it's only July.  Our aim is to have everything done by October so he can apply Early Action to some universities on his list.  So far so good.


For most prospective US college applicants though, the essay hasn't taken shape yet.  They're too busy....studying for the SATs!  Well, actually, with the new academic year just having kicked off here in Manila, they're probably busy with school.  It's an understandable situation...who has time to write the application essay when it isn't really due until late December (for Regular Decision candidates)?  It's easy to put something like that off...sort of like going to see the dentist.  It's something that must be done but is so incredibly unpleasant.  But it is something that must be done and if it needs to be done, it is best that it be done quickly.

How important is the application essay really?  Well, that really depends.  As a general rule, the larger the university the less emphasis is given to the essay.  In these cases, the large applicant pool makes it difficult to give each and every essay the thorough going over it deserves.  Large state universities tend to emphasize grades, high school academic rigor, and test scores more.  But if you start applying to more selective colleges, the essay becomes more and more important.  Consider Stanford:  they receive almost 40,000 applications and admit only about 2200 students.  For the most part, a large majority of of these 40,000 applications are from students with truly impressive academic credentials and extracurricular involvement.   But that's clearly not enough; Stanford turned away 60% of all applicants who had scored a perfect 2400 on the SATs.  So what's left?  You guessed it....the essay.  The essay becomes the one opportunity most candidates have to stand out among their peers.  A great essay will make a candidate stick out like a hot pink jacket in a roomful of blue, black and gray suits.  You want admissions officers to remember you (in a good way) when they're looking through those 40,000 applications.  Even in less competitive but smaller schools like Santa Clara, the essay helps the admissions committee see what kind of person you are and whether or not you would be a good fit for them.  Although the essay by itself will not determine admission or denial (unless the essay is in incredibly bad taste), the essay carries considerable weight in the final outcome.  Most international students compete for slots in these kinds of universities so writing a solid application essay is very important.

So how does one write an essay that will knock the socks off the admissions committee?  Well, a truly good application essay is personal, well written and is in the student's voice.  A good personal essay requires deep thought and reflection and this comes only with....TIME.  You need time to write a good application essay, a lot of it.  Consider this prompt from the Common Application.

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

A lot of candidates will sit and write about the beach or the mountains or their favorite room in their house.  But look again at the prompt.  It doesn't say talk about the place, it says what do you do or experience there and WHY IS IT MEANINGFUL TO YOU?  For this prompt, you need to determine the place you will talk about then connect it to yourself.  You have to write about this in a way that will grab your reader's attention.  You have to convey yourself in the 650 word limit of the application essay.  Not the sort of thing you can do in the last few days of December with the application deadline looming.  So when should you start?  I don't think that the summer before your senior year is too early to begin the reflection process and start writing a first draft.  If you start the entire application process when you start school in June, it's not too late certainly but you'll be more pressed for time.  In the case of the client I cited above, we started working on his essay in March and through the summer.  Again, he is now writing the third draft of his essay.

The take home message in all this is that you must start early.  You must put in the time and reflection needed to write a really good application essay.  You need the time to write and revise, write and revise, write and revise.  This is probably the most important essay that you will have written thus far in your life so you need to make it a good one.  Find a good college counselor to help you through the writing process.

Maybe you should put the SAT review book down and spend that time thinking, reflecting, and writing.

Your SAT Results and You

Sunday, June 29, 2014



With the recent release of the results of last June 7th's SAT administration, I got this text from a client.

"Sir," he excitedly began, "I got a 2040 in my SAT!"

Wonderful, I thought to myself.  He had been hoping to break 2000 on his SATs and he did.  He had worked hard and deserved to get the reward of a good score.  His total score rose almost 150 points from the last time he took the test.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that his achievement, as happy as he and I were about it, is probably not going to change his college prospects all that significantly.  Don't get me wrong, a better score is better than a good one any day of the week but I sincerely doubt that his admission prospects to his favorite colleges changed all that much.  

What most students (and parents) don't understand is that an SAT score--by itself--will not get a student into a college or university.  A higher SAT score--by itself--will not get a student into a more competitive college than he or she would have otherwise been admitted to.  I think this misconception is rooted in the admission practices of colleges here in the Philippines.  At Philippine colleges, college entrance test results (UPCAT, ACET, etc.) weigh heavily in the admission decision.  Therefore, it's sometimes difficult for people here to understand how the SAT can be viewed as anything but absolutely crucial.

The SAT is important but it only acts to support your academic achievement over your years in high school (i.e. you grades).  US colleges weight your grades much more heavily than your test scores.  If you think about it, it makes sense.  Your grades are a (in my opinion, incomplete) reflection of the work you did in four years of high school.  The SAT is a reflection of the work you did in four hours on a Saturday morning.  Which do you think is a better reflection of what you can really do academically?

Put another way, if you have a B average in high school but did fantastically well on your SAT--let's say you scored a perfect 2400--don't start packing your bags for Harvard or Stanford quite yet.  Impressive as your SAT scores are, you will still be judged primarily on your B average.   Admission officers may even raise a red flag over this rather large disparity between your grades and your score.  If you are so brilliant as to get a perfect score on the SAT, why don't your grades reflect that?  Were you lazy or disinterested in class?  Or was the school incredibly grade stingy?  One or the other, the answer will usually come out in the profile your school will provide or in the recommendations your teachers will write.  Closer to home, I know someone who did very well in his SATs (2250) but was still turned down by a couple of top flight US universities.  I think it was primarily because of a less than absolutely stellar GPA (3.61).  


Students sometimes take the SAT over and over in an attempt to get maybe another hundred points or so and maybe they can get into the next tier of competitive universities.  For the reasons I just gave, I think these folks are just wasting their time and money.  However, if you took and the test and feel you've underperformed relative to your abilities then by all means, take the test again.  What I mean is let's say you have a very high GPA but you had a bad hair day on SAT Saturday and you did not do well at all.  In this case, I'd say go ahead and take the test again.  But be aware there's a point where the gains you might make in taking yet another time will begin to diminish and sometimes even regress.  I would normally not recommend you take the SAT more than twice maybe three times.  More than three times and it's a waste of time and money.

I think people get fixated on the SAT because it's in a way very sexy.  It's a number. You can get yourself to believe that a high enough number will unlock doors for you.   People also think it's the only thing they can do to compensate for any holes they perceive in their grades.  High scores will deodorize less than great grades.  Not so!

Don't overprepare for the SAT.  By all means, know what the test is about and be familiar with the questions.  Have a feel for how you will pace yourself over the course of this long exam (almost four hours).  Hire a tutor, take a class, or simply buy a review book.  I know of students who prepare hours and hours every Saturday of the summer before their senior year.  Wow, what an absolute waste of time.  I wish the student had spent his time more productively like watching movies with his friends, going outside and playing basketball, or reading a good book.  

Or maybe even start writing the first drafts of their college application essay.  Now there's something....

Why Go to Harvard When You Can Opt for an Asian Ivy League

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


I saw this article posted on Facebook page and I had to say something.  I think the title misses the point of why we should think about going to college abroad.

The article looks at some prestigious Asian universities:  National University of Singapore, University of Hong Kong, Peking University, University of Tokyo, Seoul National University and Tsinghua University and asks why go far away when we have these guys here?  Not sure you can call these guys the Ivy League of Asia because they don't play sports against one another (remember that the Ivy League is an athletic, not an academic league).  I do agree with the premise of the article:  we have some top notch universities in this part of the world and we certainly don't have to fly across the planet to get (and pay for) a great education.  


The title though seems to imply that the Ivy League is the raison d'etre for going to college in America.  If you've read articles in my blog, you already know what I think of the Ivy League...and it doesn't bear repeating here.  The purpose of going to college (not just abroad but locally as well) is to have a potentially life-changing and transformative personal, academic and yes, spiritual, experience.  It's important when searching for a university to attend that we go beyond the name and reputation and ask "what can this college or university do FOR ME?"  How will this college help me grow as a person, as a student, and prepare me for life (not just a job) after graduation?  I've said over and over that you need to find a FIT.  Find the university that is right for you and your style of learning, name and reputation be damned.

 It's not a matter of simply saying "Oh we have top rank universities in Asia, you don't need to go to the States."  The academic and social experience of going to a college in Asia is totally different from the experience in the US and Canada and certainly different from what you would get here in the Philippines.  

One experience is not inherently better than the other, they're just different.

 If in the course of searching for your fit, you find that your place is in these Asian university heavyweights then by all means, you should go.  If your fit is here in the Philippines, then that's wonderful.  And if your fit is in the Ivy League, you should go there as well.

If the Forbes article above opens your eyes to possibilities in Asia that you may not have considered, that's great.  Just keep your eyes open and look for that fit.

Why Does College in the US Cost So Much?

Saturday, May 31, 2014




When the discussion turns to doing college work in the US, the issue of cost always comes up.  For many of my clients, cost is not an issue.  They are willing to pony up the funds necessary to pay full cost.  Be that as it may, the cost of a US college education is staggeringly high.  The cost to attend a Philippine college or university is quite low by comparison.  The cost of attending La Salle, for instance, is about Php210,000 or about $4,900 a year (based on an exchange rate of Php43 to $1).  UP is a measly Php45,000 or just over $1000 annually.   Harvard's total cost is $56,449 annually, NYU (the most expensive school in America) at $62,540, and state university heavweight UC Berkeley is going to make you over $52,000 poorer every year.  If you do the math, you will realize that you can send more than ten kids to La Salle for every year you are at Berkeley (more if you go to NYU).  You'll also see that the cost of a US college education is about Php 2.5 million a year or Php 10 million for the whole four year ride!  Certainly enough to make one's head spin.  Something that should be noted is that I compared cost of attendance figures, i.e. I only quoted tuition fees for Philippine schools since our students don't normally live on campus.  The case is not the same for US schools where our students typically live and eat in the residence halls so I've added the significant cost of room and board.

And the cost of education has spiraled too.  Back in 1983, when I started college, I remembered Santa Clara charged me an annual tuition fee of $5,607.  Room and board put my costs at just under $10,000.  Fast forward thirty years later to 2013, had my son attended Santa Clara, it would have cost our family over $43,000 annually to have Tyler roam the hallowed halls of the Mission Campus WITHOUT the cost of room and board.  Eeesh!  So why does it cost so much?

Before I even attempt to answer that question, let me just say that this is a question that more knowledgeable people than I have struggled with.  Countless articles have been written and books published (Why Does College Cost So Much by Archibald and Feldman) on this very topic.  People have speculated on the impact on American society when something as basic as a college education is prohibitively expensive and how spiraling student debt is going to affect the US in the coming years.   I won't even try to address those issues.  But let me try to give some thoughts.

1.  Building and maintaining physical assets.  Anyone who has ever visited an American university campus always marvels at the quality of the physical facilities.  Residence halls come complete with high speed Internet access, workout facilities, suites with kitchenettes, and large screen high definition television sets in the common areas.  They can sometimes rival high end hotels.  Roam around campus and you'll see vast expanses of beautifully manicured lawns meticulously (and expensively) maintained.  If you  Image


visit some large state universities, you'll see football stadiums and basketball arenas worthy of hosting professional teams.  All these cost money...a lot of it!  And much of the space is unused for significant portions of the year.  These palatial dorms are idle in the summer months and the football stadium is at full capacity only for some weekends in the fall.  And the food!  Cafeteria food has come a long way since I was in college and while yes, it is still cafeteria food, we didn't have sushi, vegetarian,  and vegan options as well as grilled selections made to order.  All this is done to attract students to come and enroll.  Students bring in much needed tuition money and fill the beds in the residence halls.

2.  Costs of Competing for Students.  Costs have spiraled because university administrators have allowed it to spiral.  They take the extra revenue and set it aside to attract superior students with grants and merit scholarships.  These grants and merit scholarships are just dressed up tuition discounts so a student the college is wooing may end up paying only $10,000 when the sticker price is $60,000.  The student is made to think that he/she is getting a prestigious $50,000 scholarship when in actuality, the college is just giving him/her a discount from the price they had jacked up to begin with!  What happens though to the poor schmoe who isn't quite attractive enough to get as large a discount?  Well, he or she is just given some kind of financial aid package which is packed with loans and such.  These loans are what causes a student to be, on the average, about $30,000 is debt by the time he/she graduates The good news for us international students is that we don't qualify for these loans so we are never in the hole for $30,000 at graduation.  We just don't get to go to college in the US period.

3.  Colleges have no incentive to compete on costs.  A college education is considered so basic now that people in the US will obtain it for their children regardless of the cost.  More and more, a simple college degree is not enough.  The thinking now is that the degree has to come from a name brand, ranked institution.  The colleges don't compete on cost, they compete on prestige.  When it comes to US higher education, prestige is becoming more and more the coin of the realm (and real education less and less).  I remember a case where a student wanted to attend the more prestigious and more expensive New York University (NYU) instead of the cheaper (and supposedly less prestigious) state university of New Jersey, Rutgers.  NYU would have put the poor child in serious debt at graduation while Rutgers would have allowed him to carry a more modest burden.  This race to be seen as more prestigious and to climb the rankings is what causes colleges to spend money on reason numbers 1 and 2 above which escalates this upward spiral.

Make no mistake.  College in the US is expensive.  Even back in 1983 when costs may be seen as more modest, it was still expensive.  Ultimately, the choice comes to one of value....do you value the difference of an American education so much as to pay a substantial premium?

Or you could send your kid to Canada where the cost of education is about 50% lower than in the United States.


Related article:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/05/the-high-price-of-a-free-college-education-in-sweden/276428/.  A college education is free in Sweden but not as free as some would think.



June 5, 2014 Update: Trailer for upcoming documentary called Ivory Tower https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLdU7uts4ws

August 30, 2014 Update: Last year, only nine colleges in the US cost more than $60,000 annually.  This year, that number rose to FIFTY.  From just nine to FIFTY.  Wow!


US College Admissions in the News

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A couple of articles about US college admissions made the headlines recently.  I thought I'd bring them up and comment on them.

Best, Brightest and Rejected: Elite Colleges Turn Away Up to 95%

New York Times, April 8. 2014



This article made quite a few waves among the parents of college admission hopefuls here in the Philippines.  One commented on Facebook that he knows some parents who are already prepping their three year old kids' resume.  I can't say that I blame these parents...if they really want to get their kid into one of the ultra selective universities, that may seem to be the right thing to do.  I replied that this was "crazy and ultimately counterproductive".  Admission to these universities don't depend on what the kids do, whether they are three years old or sixteen years old...it is who these kids are.  If they turn out to be resume padding, grade grubbing robots, I can assure you that the admission office will know and they will likely be rejected.  All that money, effort, and time wasted.  My advice for applicants to competitive universities is ... and always will be ... be yourselves.  Find a passion and pursue it.  Love learning for its own sake and let your grades fall from that instead of pushing to get that A no matter what.  I sometimes ask, what happens if you died tomorrow?  What will be said about your life?   Will it be said that you lived your life fully, enjoyed your time in school and pursued your happiness?  Or will your epitaph just say, here lies a young person whose life was aimed at admission to Harvard and died his dream unfulfilled.  I'm not saying, it's bad to want to go to Harvard but it is sort of sad if everything you've done in your short life has been pointed in that direction.

What I hope is that this article will make people think that with these kinds of crazy numbers, it's time to consider alternatives.  For many, it's hard to think that there are alternatives to the big name colleges and universities.  But if you've followed my blog for a while, my message has been that there ARE alternatives.  And not just alternatives but BETTER alternatives to the Ivies and the other names.  How can these no names be better?  Because they may easily fit your personality, learning style, and aspirations better than the big names.  If even one student comes away from this article determined to make a better balanced college list or to make prestige a non (or lesser) factor in his/her decision process then the article would have served its purpose.  Right now, it seems like all it is doing is fanning the "elite" college admission hysteria.  Don't be a part of that.  Don't play that game.

He's all-Ivy — accepted to all 8 Ivy League colleges

USA Today, April 2, 2014.


If the date of the article had been April 1, 2014, it would have been dismissed as an April Fools prank.  But it's no joke.  This kid pulled off the college applicant's dream.  The best I've personally seen is a kid applying from the Philippines who applied to six of the eight Ivies and got into five (plus the other universities he applied to).  My first reaction to the article was Wow!  That's incredible!  But a bit later, while still feeling happy for this kid, I couldn't help but sniff out the odor of something we in the business call "trophy hunting".

Trophy hunting is the practice of some students of applying to some universities simply to see if they can get in.  They collect acceptance letters as trophies.  I have to wonder how carefully Kwasi did his research.  All eight Ivies were a good fit for him?  Somehow, I doubt it.  I think he just sprayed his applications to all the Ivies to see what would happen.  I'm not really sure he thought about it.  Look, I don't know Kwasi, so I'm not in a position to question his motives but I think there's a real lesson for us here.

When I described trophy hunting earlier, did I hit a nerve?  Did I just describe you or perhaps someone you know who is doing the college application process?  Trophy hunting is particularly prevalent in the Philippines.  We like to be sikat.  We apply just so we can brag to our friends we got in, whether it's with US or Philippine universities.  Trophy hunting is something I highly discourage among my clients.  One reason is that it warps the college search process so that instead of looking for best fit, they look for best bragging rights...what's the hardest college to get into so that I can feel really good if I do get in.  Another is that it's a waste of money and time. You apply to Harvard or Cornell just because....just to give it a try to see if you can get in.  You probably don't have a snowball's chance in hell but what will you lose?  Maybe about fifty or seventy dollars, your recommenders' time in writing your letters of recommendation as well as the time of the admission committee.  I am NOT saying that you shouldn't apply if you are genuinely interested in those universities.  But if you have no or little intention of attending that school, then do everyone a favor and do something else with your time.

Comments are welcome below.



I do have to hand it to Kwasi Enin though....he does have a sense of humor about his incredible accomplishment.

Update: May 1, 2014: Kwasi Enin has announced he will attend Yale University http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/wunderkind-kwasi-enin-yale-article-1.1774361

What's So Special About Liberal Arts Schools?

Friday, April 11, 2014

This morning, I got an email from a very bright young woman who is a prospective applicant to US colleges.  She wrote, quite simply, "So what's so special about a liberal arts school?"  I was tempted to write her a long reply but then decided...why not write a blog post about it?

If you've been reading my blog, you know that asking this question is like waving a red cape in front of a raging bull.  I am passionate about liberal arts schools.  I think they're wonderful and if I had my way, EVERYONE would attend liberal arts colleges for their undergraduate work.  Of course, if I REALLY had my way, I'd weigh 50 pounds less and look like Tom Cruise but that's for another blog altogether! :)

First of all, what is a liberal arts college?  Wikipedia defines it as "...college with an emphasis on undergraduate study in the liberal arts and sciences,"  Notice the first part:  emphasis on undergraduate study.  The liberal arts and sciences include topics like literature, history, economics, religion, chemistry, physics, and mathematics.  In other words, the stuff you studied in high school...the stuff that may have bored you stiff.    Okay, now that we know what a liberal arts college is, why is it so special?

They are generally small colleges.  Typically, liberal arts colleges enroll anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand students. It is primarily residential (students live on campus for the most part).  Because it is small and the students live on campus, the student community is more intimate than it would be at a large research university like University of California, Berkeley or Ohio State University.  The faculty - student ratio is quite low and the average class size is about 20 students (compare that to a large research university which have classes that enroll 500 students or more).  Depending on the institution, the faculty can be quite friendly, will know their students personally (try doing that in a class of 500), and can be on a first name basis with their students (he's not Dr. Jones or Professor Smith...he's Bob my math prof and Jane my academic advisor).

They emphasize undergraduate education.  Unlike research universities, liberal arts colleges exist for one reason: to teach undergraduates.  Research universities emphasize creating new knowledge and instructing graduate students.  Undergraduates are there "for tax purposes".  On the other hand, undergraduates are the lifeblood of liberal arts colleges.  Excellence in teaching is recognized...and rewarded...at liberal arts colleges. Liberal arts colleges have few (if any) graduate students and profs turn to undergraduates to collaborate with in their research.  I once met a couple of students from Philippine Science High School who were interested in studying science in the US.  They said that they were keen on doing research and therefore they should go to research oriented universities.  I said they were wrong.  If they wanted maximum research opportunities, they should go to a liberal arts college.

Someone once said that you would be an idiot if you went to Harvard for the teaching.  That's not difficult to believe.  Harvard, Stanford and other universities of their ilk made their reputation on their graduate and professional schools ...law school, business school, medical school, etc.  But their undergraduate colleges are prestigious only from the reflected light of these graduate and professional programs.  I'm not saying that the undergraduate education at the Ivies is bad, they're fine and very solid.  But when it comes to undergraduate education, liberal arts schools run rings around them.

They teach the liberal arts!  Earlier, I mentioned that the liberal arts were those subjects that may have bored you in high school.  But the college experience of the liberal arts is very different from what you may be exposed to in high school.  High school may have bored you because you were required to memorize facts and to do well, you had to regurgitate stuff you remembered into the test...then you quickly forgot them.  In college, they will require a deep understanding of the material...not the whats and the wheres but the why and the so what?  For example, they won't be as interested in hearing about the dates of the various battles of World War II, they're more interested in whether you understand how World War II subsequently shaped the Cold War world and whether you understand how its origins has its roots in societal upheaval that followed the close of the First World War.  Expect to do lots of independent thinking and to write lots and lots of papers.

Another thing that makes liberal arts colleges so special is the way they teach.  Because of their small enrollments, these colleges can do away or minimize the mind numbing lectures in huge amphitheaters.  They teach a lot of their classes seminar style which means you gather around a table and the ideas are discussed around the table.  Everyone contributes, nobody just sits there quietly in one corner scribbling notes (or Facebooking!)  You learn to think on your feet and defend your ideas in front of your classmates.  And you can't cut class!  They'll know you aren't there.  I tried this my senior year in a free elective music class I was taking.  Boy, did I get it when I returned to class the next day!


They teach the skills necessary for any career.  One big concern that students (and parents!) have about majoring in the liberal arts is that they are not "practical" and they don't train for a specific job.  I would agree.  They don't train for any particular job, they prepare you for all jobs.  They prepare you for your career and they prepare you for life.  Liberal arts colleges are especially notorious for requiring students to read critically, to write clearly and to think deeply.  The end result is that you have graduates who have the skills to succeed in any given job.  To train for a particular kind of job while in college is a big mistake.  By the time you graduate...and years down the line, who knows if that job will even be relevant anymore?  In this age of rapid technological change, there will be jobs in the near future that don't even exist today! To succeed in these jobs that don't even exist yet, you'll need to be able to adapt, to be able to think, analyze, read and write.

And they also teach engineering, business, education, nursing, etc.  Well, some of them do.  A few liberal arts colleges will have an undergraduate business or engineering school as well.  But in a liberal arts college, students who study engineering or business will still need to take courses in liberal arts.  Some schools call this a Core Curriculum which means that all students must take a prescribed set of liberal arts courses in certain areas of knowledge regardless of major.  For example, when I was in college at Santa Clara, I was required to take a course in the social sciences (among other courses).  But I could choose to fulfill this class by choosing among offerings in political science, psychology, economics, and sociology/anthropology.  I wound up taking a class on American politics, a class I still think about to this day.

To be fair, not everyone will find a liberal arts college to their liking.  Some will find the small size claustrophobic or they find that they don't fare well in seminar type classes because they are naturally shy or quiet.  But it does work for a lot of people and for those who think they might rather fade into the background at the large classes of a mega university, I would say give yourself a chance and consider giving yourself the gift of REAL LEARNING for four years.

So to that young lady who wrote me the email, this is the (very) long answer to your short but very good question.  Good luck!

Mistakes We Make When Applying to US Colleges (Part Two)

Wednesday, April 09, 2014
Last post, I wrote about mistakes that US college applicants make. I realized that while that post was directed at Philippine applicants, these mistakes are often repeated by students regardless of where they are. Anyway, I plow on.... 

Top heavy college lists. By top heavy, I mean that the college application list is populated mostly by the "top" or "elite" schools. These schools (Harvard, Stanford, the Ivies, Duke, etc.) are extremely selective and students are attracted to them in droves. I know that most of these students apply to these schools thinking they are the best schools (whatever that really means) or that they feel pressure from either family or friends to get into these schools. I've written many times in previous posts why I think the selectivity of these universities doesn't necessarily equate to quality so I won't belabor that point here. Because these schools are so very selective, getting into them is a crapshoot even for the best and brightest. It's a lot of stress and expense only to be rejected (usually) in the end. Not too long ago, I talked to a bright high school senior who was applying to colleges both locally and in the States. I asked him where he was applying to. He said Duke and Penn. That's it. Now *that* ladies and gentlemen is a top heavy college list. I didn't say anything but I suspect I'll be seeing him at UP or Ateneo come June (or August, if UP) All applicants should have a balanced college list populated mostly by colleges that one can confidently project being admitted to. The problem with putting together a list like this is that it requires research. It's so much easier (and so much sexier) to just go by the US News and World Report rankings of US colleges or to go by schools we've heard of when putting together a college list. But not only is this strategy dangerous, it also does a disservice to the applicant. By not doing his research, the applicant isn't exposed to schools that may be an excellent fit for him or her. This segues neatly into my next reason.... 

  Dazzled by the big names. I once met a Filipino Chinese student who had just graduated from Penn. We were both giving a talk at Xavier School about attending college in the States. He was asked what his college search strategy was and how he came to apply to Penn. He replied, "We had one rule in the house. We couldn't apply to any school that my lolo (grandfather) had never heard about." I just about slapped my forehead. So suddenly, lolo is the expert on US colleges, now? I can sort of understand this way of thinking. The Filipino Chinese (especially the Chinese) are very brand conscious. The cars must be Mercedes and the watches have to be Rolex (even if a Toyota gets you to work just as easily and a Seiko tells time too). Therefore, the colleges must be Harvard or Stanford or Wharton (not Penn... Wharton!) It's also understandable when you realize that lolo has probably never heard of colleges like Grinnell, Oberlin, and Occidental and can be forgiven for thinking that these schools are no good. So what's your excuse, applicant? It's your job to go out there and look for your college fit and to look beyond the "usual suspects". Use the resources of the Internet (a surprisingly good source is YouTube. A lot of colleges post videos about themselves) to help you find those ten or so colleges that are a fit for you. Don't ask your lolo or your tita unless they happen to be college counselors themselves. And if they're good counselors, they'll tell you what I'm telling you now: do your research.

Underestimating the importance of the application essay. I hear this so often: I'll write the essay over Christmas break, have my older brother/sister look at it and I'll send it with my application. Clearly, these students grossly underestimate the personal essay. For many, they think they just bang out any old essay that they would write for school and that's it. But an essay written like this will almost always be tearfully boring. The personal essay is an important part of the application. It allows the admission officers to learn about who the applicant is as a person. What makes him tick? What are her passions, her interests? Is he going to be an interesting person in the classroom, the cafeteria, the dorm room? Too often, Filipino applicants think it's all about grades and academics to get in. They think the essay is just a "writing test" to see if you can write decently. It is partly that, but it isn't mostly. When you don't give the personal essay the attention and time it deserves then you don't give the admissions officers a chance to see the interesting person that you are...and when you do that, you put yourself in grave peril of receiving that dreaded "thin envelope" in March.

Overestimating the importance of the SAT. On the other side of the coin, applicants tend to overstress the SAT. I think this comes from two things: one, the idea that college admission is only about grades and test scores and two, it's the only thing that applicants can still change in their application. Their grades are already there so the only thing they can do to ensure an admission to Stanford is high SATs. Reality check: about 70% of all applicants who had PERFECT SAT scores were rejected at Stanford University (https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=66225). The message for us here is clear: a perfect score on the SAT doesn't pave the way to selective universities. Remember that the SAT is only part of your application credentials. Nobody has ever gotten in to any university on strength of SAT scores alone. It is always seen in context with your other academic credentials. The SAT is important, yes, but don't spend all summer studying for it. My advice as far as preparing for the SAT is this: yes, by all means, prepare but do so "moderately". No amount of preparation will help you if your foundation is poor, i.e. if you've been neglecting your math all these years, no amount of preparation will make up for your weak foundation. At best, preparation will make you familiar with the kind of questions these kinds of tests ask. Another thing you should prepare for is the length of the exam. The SAT is almost four hours long. You should take practice tests published by the College Board (the people who write the SAT) under real test conditions, i.e. time yourself and make sure you are not disturbed, take breaks only when the test allows you to, etc. It's much like preparing to run a marathon. You have to run it about five or ten times in training before you run the actual race. These are only some of the mistakes we make when applying to US colleges. I could go on but this post is running long. Comment below if you have any questions.

Mistakes We Make When Applying to US Colleges (Part One)

Sunday, March 30, 2014


As the 2013-2014 US college application season comes to a close, hopeful high school seniors will be getting admission decisions. As they get their yeses and noes, it's important to begin looking ahead to the upcoming season and for the rising seniors and juniors to see what they can do differently to make better applications than their older brothers and sisters.

Through the years, I've seen many Filipino students go through the US college admission process. Invariably, they make the same mistakes year after year and without proper and qualified guidance, they will continue to make these mistakes year after year. These mistakes lead to unnecessary stress during the application process and ultimately more admission denials than necessary. If you are applying to US colleges, it is important that you recognize some of these mistakes and eliminate them from your own application.

Starting late. This is easily the biggest mistake most students make. Here in the Philippines, we are used to waiting until well into senior year to begin thinking about and applying to US colleges. It is not TOO late to begin senior year but make no mistake, you are late and there is a price to be paid for your lack of punctuality. So if senior year is already too late, when should students start thinking and applying to US colleges? Ideally, thinking about whether or not to go to the US for college can begin as early as sophomore year (10th grade or second year high school).

This will come as a shock for most students. Why so early? College is still more than two years away! One very simple reason: in some schools (Xavier comes to mind), there is an option for some third year students to do the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. While the decision whether or not to do IB should not solely rest on whether or not you want to study abroad, it can be a factor. Completion of the IB program is NOT a requirement for admission to US colleges but it is for admission to Canadian, UK, or Australian schools. If you are thinking of Canadian, UK or Australian schools, the IB Diploma is a must or you will need to take an additional foundation year in Canada, Australia, or the UK before you can proceed to a four year university in that country.. For US colleges, the IB Diploma is highly desirable for admission in the most competitive universities. If the IB Diploma is not an option at your high school, you can probably get away with starting as late as mid-junior year bu avoid delaying much longer.

But more importantly, students who start late don't have the discernment and reflection time needed to make good decisions about the college application process. Should you even go to begin with? If so, what kind of schools should I be looking at? What kind of student or learner am I and what can particular universities offer and what can I offer to particular universities?

Starting early also conveys many advantages: it allows you to put together a testing plan so you can take the required standardized tests at a leisurely pace allowing time for re-takes if necessary. It also allows you to plan your summer vacations so you can visit prospective colleges, a very important part of creating a good college list.

Ignoring fit. What is fit? It is simply whether or not the university you are interested in fits you as a learner, as a student and as a person. Is this college going to help you in not just getting a job but in becoming the person you want to become? A lot of students don't consider this because for Filipinos, the concept of university fit is foreign to us. We go to colleges here based on the reputation of the schools. We go to Ateneo because it's supposed to be really good in business and it's really astig to be thought of as “Ateneo material”. We go to UP because it has engineering or medicine. We go to La Salle because it's near our house and it's not as mayabang as Ateneo and UP is so....what's the word? Radicalized? I hear that word a lot but I'm not sure what it means but there it is.

But we don't know much about US schools except for what we hear and from what we read in publications like US News and World Report's rankings on the Best Colleges in the US. If you go simply by rankings and name recognition, it's easy to go wrong. So do your homework. Get proper guidance to help what universities are a good fit for you.

While you may prefer to ignore fit, I can most assuredly tell you that the US colleges won't. When evaluating your application, they will ask a key question: are you a good fit for their school? Unlike most colleges around the world, American universities are not interested in simply populating their classrooms with students with the best grades. While those are important too, equally key is whether or not you will blend well with your classmates: are you going to contribute to class? Are you going to be a leader? Will you be an interesting person to talk to in the cafeteria or in the dorms? Or are you going to spend your four years holed up in the library just studying? Putting together a freshman class is much like putting together a championship basketball team. You can't have all shooters on a basketball team: you need rebounders, shot blockers, tough defenders, good passers. You also need good leaders and those who will be a positive locker room presence. So when you are putting together your college application list, think about that. Are you a good fit for the college you are applying to?

Overestimating your chances at elite universities.   I once talked to a student who was turned down at Penn.  He was really and truly upset.  He said that it wasn't fair that he was turned down and he saidt he had great grades and good recommendations, test scores, and extra curricular activities.  Plus the IB Diploma.  I was sympathetic....until I actually saw his grades.  He was somewhere just above a B average.  In IB language, a lot of 5's and a 6 or two.  While his grades were good, they were not even close to what Penn and the Ivies were asking for.  I could tell his application got a five minute look and landed on the "reject" pile almost immediately.  To be academically competitive at Penn, he needed 7s and maybe a 6 or two, in other words, somewhere closer to a straight A average.  This happens all the time.  Parents think that their kids are such great students that it's a shock that Harvard would turn them down.  The tiniest bit of research should have told this student the cold, hard truth:  that an application to Penn would most likely result in a rejection.  He should have looked at less competitive universities which may have been a better academic fit for him.  Poor kid.  Stupid kid.

I'll finish up with four more reasons in the next post.  Thanks for reading!



When Colleges Say No

Friday, March 21, 2014

At about this time of the year running to the end of the month, US colleges and universities will be releasing (or will have released) their admission decisions for Regular Decision candidates.  Unfortunately, for more than a few students they will be getting some rejection letters in the (paper and electronic) mail.

It's natural to wonder why we were rejected by a college that we want to go to so very badly.  Why are so many excellent candidates  rejected by the most selective universities?  (notice I didn't use the phrase "top universities").

To put it briefly, there are just too many applicants for not nearly enough seats.  In many ways, this is the whole story right here.  At places like Stanford, Harvard and Princeton, there are so many applicants and so few seats that (significantly) less than 10% are admitted.  This, despite the fact that 80% of their applicants are academically qualified to attend.  They can't admit this 80% simply because there is no room.  And, I would also argue that they don't WANT to admit 80% of their applicant pool because that would diminish the perceived prestige of their institution.  So if 80% are qualified, how do these universities decide on which students are in that privileged 10% (actually less than 10%)?  Ah ha!  You have hit the jackpot question.  How indeed?  Well, it isn't easy.  They sift through stellar grades, perfect board scores, swooning recommendations, and Pulitzer prize winning essays to find the MIX of students they want for the freshman class.  They don't always want the highest grades...they want those who will come and make a contribution to the community---whatever that means.  But how do the students know what that entails?  They really can't.  They can only be themselves and present themselves in the best way possible in their applications.  If it ain't good enough, then fine...just move on.

Don't take college rejections personally.  They are NOT a judgment on you or your accomplishments thus far.  You can have the best grades, great leadership, stellar scores and still not get in.  But you will get in SOMEWHERE.  And if you did your homework and planned your college list appropriately, you will end up at a college you love and a college who will love you back.


Harvard's rejection letter ends with a particularly poignant statement::  remember that success in life comes not from the name on your diploma but from your drive and character.  Very true!  Nice way to end a rejection...which is good since Harvard sends so many of them!

For parents, college rejections may be particularly hard.  We tend to see our children as reflections of ourselves:  when they are rejected, it feels like we are being rejected as well.  It's important that we parents must model appropriate behavior:  celebrate your child in both his acceptances...and his rejections!  Remember that the college application process is not a plebiscite on how well we did our jobs as parents....an admission to Stanford does NOT mean we were great parents nor does a rejection mean we were poor ones.

As a parent of a college applicant myself not too long ago, I remember this particularly well.  My son applied to six colleges and he went 4 for 6... 4 acceptances and 2 rejections.  One of the rejections stung a bit although he knew that school was a bit of a "reach" school for him.  I was disappointed too.  I took my disappointment out in an email I sent to the admission office.

Did I complain and berate them for their mistake in not admitting my son?  No.  For this particular college, I knew the name and email address of the person who read the international applications.  She also took the time to interview my son when we visited in the summer.  In the email,  I said that although we were clearly disappointed in the result, I was very grateful to them for the time they took to consider my son's qualifications and that I knew she advocated for my son in committee.  I further said that I knew that their job was an extremely difficult...and thankless....one.  She replied and was very happy...and grateful...to receive my note.  Later, I told her where my son ended up going to college and she was happy that he found a great place to be and thanked me for letting her know where he ended up going.

Is there a way to avoid rejection letters?  No, not really.  If you plan your college list correctly, you will receive acceptances AND rejections.  It's important to notice the phrase "if you plan your college list correctly".  I cannot overemphasize how very very important it is to do your homework and put together a solid college list which should include colleges that are in your academic range.  Don't apply solely to Ivy schools if you only have a 3.5 GPA and sub-2100 SAT scores.  Talk to a qualified college counseling professional (like me!) and avoid the fate of this poor student.


The (False) Appeal of the Ivy League: Part Two

Saturday, March 01, 2014

In my previous post, I wrote about why I thought the appeal of the Ivy League was a sham.  I wrote that the student culture which focused on outcomes and grades was toxic to a true learning and intellectual environment.  In this week's installment, I hope to address a couple of other issues: namely, do the name and prestige of the Ivies help their students get better paying jobs more quickly?  What about the Ivy connections among the power elite of business?  And also what about entree into graduate and professional schools?

Let's start with the first one:  does name and prestige help students?  To some extent it does, especially here in Asia where the name brand is very important.  If you go work in China or Hong Kong, that Wharton (Wharton, not Penn!) degree is going to raise eyebrows.  That said, a friend of mine who is in a position to hire and fire for a major retailer and developer here in Manila says she is leery about hiring Ivy or Stanford, etc. graduates because they will want to command a premium salary given their "premium credentials".  If you plan to work in North America, your Ivy pedigree isn't going to matter so much.  In a recent article on Inside Higher Education, less than 10% of surveyed business leaders ranked alma mater as "very important" in hiring decisions. (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/02/26/provosts-business-leaders-disagree-graduates-career-readiness ) In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Thomas Friedman cited an interview with Laszlo Bock, vice president of people operations at Google.  Bock said that the primary quality they look for in a potential hire besides technical coding ability (for technical jobs) is the ability to learn.  Grades and GPAs are almost "worthless as a hiring criterion".  Second on the list is "emergent leadership" which is knowing when to take charge and when to step back.  Another important criterion is humility, which of course, Ivy graduates have in spades, right?  Friedman concludes:

Your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job. The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it).

Or where I would imagine.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/opinion/sunday/friedman-how-to-get-a-job-at-google.html?ref=googleinc&_r=2)

But why so many really successful people who are Ivy graduates?  Good question. A pair of researchers, Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale produced a study in 1999 which dropped a bomb on the notion that success is predicated on an elite education.  While they initially did find that graduates of elite universities made more money than those who didn't, this relation changed when they studied people who could have gone to Ivy universities but chose to attend other "moderately selective" schools, the difference disappeared.  What they found was that as long as the student was bright enough to have attended an Ivy, it didn't really matter if he or she ultimately didn't.  In other words, it was the student and not the school.  I found this true in my own family.  My younger brother is saddled with Ivy education (Wharton undergrad, Columbia MBA) but despite this handicap, is now a successful executive at a large entertainment company here in the Philippines

What about law school admissions, medical school, business school and graduate school admissions?  Do the Ivies top those?  Okay, if you think I'm going to say yes, then you obviously haven't been listening.  NO!  In a study conducted for his book Looking Beyond the Ivy League, Loren Pope, former New York Times education editor, examined eight consecutive years of Medical College Aptitude Test (MCAT) results.  Caltech topped the list (no surprise there!) but Carleton College outdid Harvard, Muhlenberg topped Dartmouth and Ohio Wesleyan beat Cal Berkeley.  Fully 61% of Harvard Law freshmen got their bachelors outside the Ivy League.  For those more academically inclined, it might be worth noting that tiny Earlham College in Indiana (enrollment: 1200) outdid Brown, Duke, Northwestern, Penn and Vassar in percentage of graduates who eventually got a Ph.D.  Closer to my own heart, Reed trails only Caltech and Harvey Mudd College in percentage of graduates who get a doctorate in mathematics.


Okay, so you shouldn't go to the Ivies then.  The Ivy League is nothing but "a wretched hive of scum and villainy".  I certainly made it sound like that over the past two weeks but that's certainly isn't the truth either.  The point I'm belaboring here is that don't fall for blind Ivy worship.  Don't think this is the only place worth going.  As I've said many times in my previous posts on my blog, there are many many places that will offer you an undergraduate education just as good as...if not better...than the Ivies.  You just need to open your eyes...and mind...and look.

The (False) Appeal of the Ivy League: Part One

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I was looking at my blog stats today and I noticed that the topic that gets the most hits is The Ivy League. So being the attention junkie that I am, I thought, heck, why don't I write about the Ivy League again and see if my readership jumps up. It's no secret that most parents (and students) would sell their souls to send their kids (or themselves) to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton (which someone I knew once termed as "the Holy Trinity of American higher education." I hope she was being sarcastic when she said it but I doubt it). I know a kid who graduated with Tyler at ISM whose one and only reason for everything he did in high school was to gain admission to Harvard. He took classes only for the A's. He took four higher level IB courses not because he was particularly intellectual but only because he wanted to impress the Ivy admissions officers. He was a grade grubber supreme and his classmates and teachers knew it. I truly felt sorry for this kid. He sold his intellectual soul to get into Harvard...and for what? (Epilogue to the story: he did get into Harvard)


Most people send their kid to Ivy schools (and other non-Ivy schools of similar prestige like Stanford) because they honestly feel that their kids will get superior, elite educations. Amidst the towering intellectuals, the superstar professors and super bright classmates, my son/daughter will surely graduate and found the next Google or Microsoft or win the Nobel Prize. Perhaps more importantly, whose eyes won't bulge, whose face won't turn green with envy when you tell your peers that yes, my son goes to Wharton (not Penn, Wharton!) or my daughter was admitted to Stanford. But it's a sham, a mirage.

Permit me to go astray for a moment and invite you to consider an organization like the US Marine Corps. The US Marine Corps is not a particularly selective bunch, they'll take just about anyone who is reasonably intelligent and physically fit. But if the recruit graduates from Marine training, this reasonably intelligent, physically fit anybody is now a highly proficient soldier, arguably one of the very finest in the world. The process has turned coal into a diamond. Consider now, a modeling agency. A modeling agency takes beautiful people and gets them assignments as models. The modeling agency doesn't turn them into beautiful people, they were already beautiful to begin with! I would argue that with the stringent admissions policy of the Ivy colleges, they are more like modeling agencies than the US Marine Corps. The Ivies take bright, motivated (by grades?) students and turns them into....bright and motivated graduates. There's no real transformation there.

 (Note: the analogies of the Marine Corps and the modeling agency are not original. I read it somewhere on the Internet and I spent the last few hours trying to find it again so I can attribute it properly. No luck so far. I'll update the article with the proper attribution later)

And there lies the heart of why I think it's all a sham or mirage. There's no real transformation, the kids there are not challenged to do more than they're capable of. Kids there are so used to being No. 1 and so used to being on top that they won't do anything to ruin that pristine GPA and endangering that chance to get that job at Goldman Sachs or the entree to law school, business school or medical school. William Deresiewicz, a former Yale faculty member and himself an Ivy educated man, writes in his essay "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education" that a rather unhealthy message is drilled into the mind of every Ivy student. 

The message is: You have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get. When people say that students at elite schools have a strong sense of entitlement, they mean that those students think they deserve more than other people because their SAT scores are higher. Deresiewicz, http://theamericanscholar.org/the-disadvantages-of-an-elite-education/

 It's primarily because of this that there's rampant grade inflation at elite universities. The students won't allow anyone else to give them anything less than an A-. The student culture is that of outcomes: what do I get out of this? How is this going to help me land that great job? That attitude is highly toxic to true intellectual discourse and inquiry, something that these elite institutions claim they do better than anybody else. 

In the next post, I'll address the other half of the Ivy equation: what about the name and the prestige? Doesn't that count for something in getting a better paying job? Isn't it a fact that Ivy graduates earn more than graduates of non-Ivies?

 May 23, 2014 Update: The analogy of the Marine Corps and the modeling agency I used above is from Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian journalist and speaker. Here is what he said 

Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects. The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment-effect institution. It doesn’t have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It’s confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier. A modelling agency, by contrast, is a selection-effect institution. You don’t become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you’re beautiful. At the heart of the American obsession with the Ivy League is the belief that schools like Harvard provide the social and intellectual equivalent of Marine Corps basic training—that being taught by all those brilliant professors and meeting all those other motivated students and getting a degree with that powerful name on it will confer advantages that no local state university can provide. Fuelling the treatment-effect idea are studies showing that if you take two students with the same S.A.T. scores and grades, one of whom goes to a school like Harvard and one of whom goes to a less selective college, the Ivy Leaguer will make far more money ten or twenty years down the road. The extraordinary emphasis the Ivy League places on admissions policies, though, makes it seem more like a modelling agency than like the Marine Corps, and, sure enough, the studies based on those two apparently equivalent students turn out to be flawed. How do we know that two students who have the same S.A.T. scores and grades really are equivalent? It’s quite possible that the student who goes to Harvard is more ambitious and energetic and personable than the student who wasn’t let in, and that those same intangibles are what account for his better career success. To assess the effect of the Ivies, it makes more sense to compare the student who got into a top school with the student who got into that same school but chose to go to a less selective one. Three years ago, the economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale published just such a study. And they found that when you compare apples and apples the income bonus from selective schools disappears.

Test Optional Schools

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

You studied your butt off for the SAT, went and took that 3 hour 45 minute monster and waited, waited, waited for the result.  Finally, you log on to the College Board website, and...hmm...those scores look....

Okay, there's no sugar coating it... you "flunked" the SAT.  

Well, you didn't flunk technically because no one really flunks but those scores aren't anywhere close to the 800s you think you need to get into that top Ivy college you've been lusting after.  Is that the end of the road then?  Are you doomed to a life of mediocrity, writing college admission blogs?  

Okay, so you...um...underperformed.  Big deal!  Unbeknownst to a lot of Filipino applicants, a growing number of American colleges are wising up to the idea that the SATs don't really mean that much.  More and more evidence now point that performance on the SAT is not a good indicator of performance in college.  Because of this, more and more colleges are going "test optional".

What is test optional?  Just exactly that.  Some colleges leave it up to you if you want to submit SAT scores.  If you don't it will absolutely not be taken against you.  Some schools even ignore scores completely and if you send them scores, you are just wasting your money.


Some schools are "test flexible" which means while they do require some kind of scores, it's up to the student to determine which test scores to send.  An example of this is New York University (NYU).  They require scores but they can be SAT scores, SAT Subject scores, or IB results.  

At this point, people will begin to think that test optional schools must not be very good or prestigious since they allow students to "cop out" of the SAT requirement.  You would not be more wrong:  a lot of these schools are ranked by US News and World Report (retch!  spit!) as some of the top in the US (not that these rankings mean much).  Schools like Bowdoin College a top 5 national liberal arts college, Bates College (test flexible), and Middlebury College are all test optional.  Be warned though that just because they are test optional doesn't make them "easy" schools to get into.

So what's the take home message here?  Just this...the SAT (or ACT) is not the be all and end all of the application process.  If you ...underperformed ... there are still many good options out there.

For a list of test optional and test flexible schools, visit www.fairtest.org.






Sunday, February 09, 2014


Most Filipino applicants to US colleges are unaware that there is an alternative to the dreaded SAT.  It's called the ACT.  Like the SAT, it is a college entrance test and is multiple choice with an optional writing component. The ACT is also administered in the Philippines at International School Manila in Taguig as well as test locations in Baguio and Cebu City.    Formerly known (back in my day) as the American College Test, the ACT is accepted by the overwhelming majority of US colleges as an alternative to the SAT.  I honestly cannot think of a school that doesn't accept scores for both SAT and ACT.  Note  that you don't have to take BOTH the SAT and the ACT but you can and submit the better score.



Okay, the first thing I'm sure that comes to mind for most students is:  what's the difference between the two and of course, which is the easier one to take?  To answer the last question first, it depends on how your brain is wired.  The ACT is more of an achievement test, measuring what you have learned in school while the SAT is more an aptitude test, measuring critical verbal and mathematical reasoning.  So if you think you'll do better recalling what you've learned, then the ACT just might be your bag.  The ACT is also different in that it tests five different areas while the SAT only tests three.  The ACT tests English, reading, math (includes trig!), science and (optionally) writing (note that while writing is optional, some competitive colleges require that if you take the ACT, you do so with the writing component).  Unlike the 200-800 scale of the SATs, the ACT uses a score of 1 to 36 for each section along with an overall composite score of between 1 to 36. 

Presently, there is no hard evidence that students score consistently higher on one test or the other.  It really depends on the student.  My best advice is to try taking both.  One way to do is on the cheap is to go to Fully Booked and buy an ACT review book and take the full length test that is in the book.  Compare your score to your SAT score.  You may find you do significantly better...or worse...on the ACT than you do on the SAT.  This link will help you make that comparison. http://www.act.org/aap/concordance/estimate.html

I'm not really sure why the SAT is the overwhelming test of choice here in the Philippines.  The ACT is a valid alternative and it would behoove the wise US college applicant to give the ACT a shot.



Got to Know When to Let Go

Tuesday, January 28, 2014



I was on Skype a few weeks ago with my son Tyler. Between talking about his schoolwork and his roommate, he mentioned to me how one of his former classmates at ISM is complaining about her mother. His friend is a first year student attending a large Canadian university where she lives in an apartment with her brother. Her (Their) father is also with them while the mom is in the Philippines taking care of an elderly parent. The mom calls (or Skypes) every day, constantly checking up on her two children. Now she's taken to telling her daughter that she needs to get home from the university by 5:30 pm every day. The kid is going absolutely bananas. Tyler and I laughed a bit and after we disconnected, I thought about it for a bit. The obvious thing here is that the mother here has not learned to truly let go of her children. This is not surprising given the culture here in the Philippines where children normally don't leave the house until they are married...and sometimes not even then! I guess she hasn't learned the fine art of letting go. 


Whether or not we choose to let go, we must understand that the college experience in the US/Canada is vastly different than the college experience in the Philippines. If you've been following the blog, you probably know how different the admissions process is in the States from here in the Philippines. But the real differences lie in the every day experiences of the typical college student.

In the US/Canada, most colleges are residential. In the Philippines, it's very commuter oriented. In the US/Canada, most students live in residence halls (dorms). In a lot of schools, freshmen are actually REQUIRED to live on campus even if their home is a five minute drive away. Because of this, the social scene on campus centers around the residence hall. On others, it centers around the fraternities and sororities. This brings me to my first point: unless cost is a huge issue, all students (especially international students) should live on campus. It's tempting to have them live with a relative nearby but I think that's a really bad idea. They'll have a more difficult time integrating with the life on campus, they won't make as many friends and I think their college experience will be greatly diminished. Some students opt to leave the dorm after a year or two and live with three or four friends in a shared apartment or they rent a house together. This kind of living fosters independence...there's nothing quite like having to cook and clean up after yourself. Students will appreciate having their maids at home after they've cleaned their own bathrooms once or twice.

It's not easy letting go, I will be the first to admit that.  It's not something that's learned overnight either.  For me, the process took years and years.  In my biased, unlearned opinion, the best thing we can bequeath to our children is good judgment.  I think the best way for children to learn good judgment is to practice it every day.  You let them be responsible for their own actions and let them be punished by the natural consequences of their bad calls.  As parents, we naturally want to shield them from the world but I say, that's the worst thing we can do for them.  Let them fall, let them trip, and let them skin their proverbial (and literal) knees.  In doing so, we learn to distance ourselves from our children's lives.  We love them, yes...but we are not them.  Important distinction there.

After all that, it's still not easy.  I remember when I finally had to leave Tyler behind at his University, the final goodbye as it were. He walked me all the way back to South Campus Hall where I was parked.  When the time came for parting, no hugs, no tears...just a high five (we're both men after all) then just like that, he was gone.  I turned to see if I could see him walk away but the pillars blocked my view.  I finally caught a glimpse of him, hands in his pockets, bouncing every so slightly with each step.  He didn't look back.  Not even a little bit.

I still struggle with it.  When we Skype and he's almost an hour late, it takes a lot not to berate him for his tardiness.  Usually, I'll get a "Sorry, Dad, I was working and lost track of time."  Or if I notice he is on Facebook at 2:30 in the morning.  I once chided him to go to bed when he replied, "Are you seriously remote controlling my bedtime from 10,000 miles away?"  Indeed!


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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