Sunday, February 7, 2016

The case for Laundry Independence

Recently, I was approached to speak about College Readiness. Parents asked me a number of questions about finances and academic skills. At the end of the discussion, I was asked by the moderator, “ what is the one thing you wish every child knew before they went off to college?”
My answer? “ How to do their laundry. “
Although it is not really about laundry, is it?
 It is about independence, time management and personal responsibility.

 Later that week I was speaking to a former neighbor who was inquiring about her 17 year old son Romo’s* chances of getting into an elite college. He is bright. He is well-mannered. He is well spoken. He runs 3 clubs in his competitive High School and is a sports team captain, with a 32 on his ACT. He plays lacrosse well enough to score a Division 3 starting position if he so chooses.   Romo is also incapable of doing the simplest task for himself. From 0600 to 2200 every day, his mother is at his beck and call. He has never washed a uniform, fixed a snack, made an appointment or ironed a shirt. He excels at the tasks he is given by coaches and teachers. I am sure he could manage to empty the dishwasher. His mother routinely says that it is “her pleasure” to do these things for her son. She states that she does them so Romo can concentrate on the bigger things.

College readiness does not just mean that you are able to perform the work assigned.  Success in the classroom is just part of it. At some point in their college career, a student will be tired, sick, dirty, overwhelmed, confused, frustrated, lonely and hungry. It will probably happen at about 3 am in the morning before an exam or test. They will have no clean underwear and an old toothbrush. Their bedsheets will have needed changing 2 weeks ( or 2 months) ago. They will smell bad. Being able to finish studying, perform well on the test AND do laundry AND take a shower is a sign of adulthood and blossoming independence.
So what are some of the ways you can foster this kind of college readiness?
Have a list of chores for your student to perform which relate to his own well being and comfort, and have them do them regularly:
  1. Have them change their sheets and make their beds regularly. Kids as young as 4th or 5th grade are capable of changing their sheets once a week. Pick a midweek day. ( laundry rooms on campus are busiest on the weekends. Getting them to wash sheets and laundry midweek at home, means establishing a regular laundry day at college when it is the most efficient use of time.)
  2. Teach them to sort. teach them about dry clean-ables. Teach them to wash new jeans separately. Students may not be able to get to all their laundry all the time in 9th grade, but by 12th, they should be independent in that respect.
  3. Have your student use their smartphone smartly- set reminders for appointments, for meetings, for due dates. Have them set reminders weeks out…. “ term paper due 4 weeks from today.” “college application to University of New Hampshire due in 6 weeks.”
  4. Give them a small budget and let them manage it. Every student should be able to budget a week’s worth of lunch money by 7th grade, and a month’s by 10th.  Give them a system to work within...envelopes, check register, whatever.
  5. Let them approach people for help. Asking a coach or teacher for help is a skill set. Knowing when you need more help than 15 minutes after school is important. Knowing where to get it is just as important. Encourage your student to seek help, but enable them to ask for it themselves.
  6. Let them fail. Students need to know how to fail and how to recover from failure. The world does not end. The sun will rise and students figure out how to correct the mistakes of the past so they don’t make them again.
  7. Give them a schedule and reasons to stick to it. As they get older, students can set their own schedules within their family’s framework.
  8. Teach and model punctuality. If class starts at 9:30, teach them to be in their seats at 9:25, ready to learn. ( Dinner time is a great way to press this lesson home.)
  9. Teach them to look around themselves for what is working for others. What habits do successful people around them have?
  10. Get them to understand the schedules and the value of time of others. Library closes at midnight. Post Office closes at 5 pm. Lunch at the Cafeteria is from 11-2. Professor’s office hours are from 9-1. How can we get to the things we need to get to, as well as to class and homework.
  11. Teach them to prioritize and make hard decisions. Having your 7th grader decide between 2 birthday parties on a Sunday so she can study for a math test on Tuesday might be a struggle- but it also teaches them to understand their role as a student is the most important one they have.
 So let’s get back to Romo. Romo will probably get into his elite college. He will struggle his first semester with time management. He will probably sit in the laundry room with a textbook at 2 am one night studying and cleaning his sheets. He will miss a class or two and have to explain to the professor why. Hopefully he will begin to understand that his full time job is College- and his success in it. I have no doubt he will succeed after stumbling. But his parents could have prevented quite a bit of his stumbling with some skills learned throughout high school. College readiness isn’t just about knowing how to write a research paper or scoring a great internship…. it is about the daily minutia of living independently without the safety net of mom’s laundry service.

*as always, students are allowed to pick their “nom de guerre”  to maintain their anonymity.  In this case, it is safe to assume, Romo is a Cowboys fan.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Case for Struggling


I was on the phone today with a client whose smart and capable 11th grade daughter struggled a little last year in one of her classes. Her mother was happy she struggled, the student? Not so much.  I spoke with another student client who said to me, “I don’t want to take math my senior year because I struggle in it.” This young woman has a unweighted GPA of 3.94.  I remember sitting in my 10th grade British History class* with a teacher who was beloved by all but me.  In his class, I struggled daily.  I hear about students struggling in subjects, whose parents are concerned about the effect of the struggle on their psyche, their self-confidence, their GPA.  My opinion? Struggle is good.

 College is not High School. At no point in college is any professor going to make it easy for you. They challenge students- challenge their fortitude, their beliefs, their abilities, their patience, their planning skills, their lifestyle. They expect much, and grade accordingly. They expect that you will struggle. They plan for it. I believe that some even delight in it.

Admissions offices see many transcripts each year. They know if you are keeping your GPA high by not taking the toughest courses you can. If you can get a B- in AP Calculus, you should be taking it. If you can get a C- in AP Biology, you should be attempting it. Don’t stop taking Spanish because you are concerned that Spanish IV will be harder than Spanish III. No doubt it will be. Take it anyway. Your work in High school should get harder each year, just as it will in college.  There is no chance of you graduating from college with all 100 level courses. You will be challenged to work hard. Prepare yourself to struggle through out college by taking high school classes in which your success is tempered with struggle.  Gird your loins.
 
Struggle in High school teaches students valuable skills and lessons. Time management, communication, planning, team work, responsibility, reward, independence, stress management and a whole host of others. AP and IB course work does just that also… they are designed to make a student struggle. Don’t worry about if you will struggle, plan ahead to learn from it. Here is what you can learn from struggling with tough courses:

 Learn to use your planner:  Time management and planning can make the difference between a sleepless night of study and a well put together study plan over a week.

Learn to effectively communicate with a teacher:  Asking a teacher to explain something until you understand it may make you swallow your pride, but in the long run, you’ve mastered  more than just the immediate task, you’ve mastered a communications skill.

Learn to use pockets of time throughout the day: 15 minutes here and there add up to hours. In college learning to study throughout the day is imperative. Don’t save it all for the kitchen table after dinner. Learn the skill of working between classes, for 10 minutes at lunch, before practice, get up 20 minutes earlier and go over your notes. This will set you up for success in college when you have 2-3 hours of time between classes, while you do your laundry, in the morning before class.

Learn to ask for help:  Teachers and Professors are there to inspire and to instruct. They work for you. Learn to ask for help. There are systems in place to do just that. There are tutors and centers and study groups. You are not the first one to struggle.

Learn to fail: At some point, you will receive a bad grade. Solve the problem of why you failed, and it will not happen again.

Learn to work in groups: Many brains make light work. Study groups help inspire and help students retain. Learn to learn from peers.

Learn to work alone:  Self-motivation is a key ingredient to success in college

Learn to work harder: Didn’t do as well as you like? Put more effort into it. Very rarely are we giving 100%. Learn what that looks and feels like. Work. Learn. Repeat.

 Parents: at some point during your student’s freshman year at college, your student will call you in tears, struggling, overwhelmed and overtired. They will be working on a project, a paper, a midterm, and a presentation all due the same day. Your response should be, “get off the phone and get back to work. I love you and I am proud of you but you are not using your time wisely if you are on the phone with me.”

 My student clients will do just fine. They may not do as well as they would had, had they taken the easier classes, but they are going to revel in the struggle of learning hard things. As for me, the struggle I had in 10th grade made me realize that the hard things are the things most worth learning.






NB: Teachers should never let a student flounder... struggle is different.  Good teachers support and encourage. Great teachers make you think you can do anything with work and diligence.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Case for Letting Go


I was totally unprepared to take my younger daughter back to college this year.  She was asked, last minute, to return to school 2 weeks earlier than planned to assume a leadership role on campus vacated by another student.  I am now scrambling around, trying to find all the sheets and towels, books and posters which we squirreled away in our basement with the expiration date of 28 August.  Although we had no specific plans for the next two weeks, we did have those two weeks, and now, quite literally, they have disappeared. I am flummoxed.  I am disorganized. I am sad.  But most of all, I am rushed.

 Last year I wrote a piece for this blog called A Case of September Sadness.  It spoke to all the moms, first year college and returning, about the void their college student leaves in their lives when they move back into their dorms, apartments, fraternity or sorority houses, learning communities etc.  I spoke about the neatly made beds and carefully organized closets left behind on move in day by Moms and Dads who see the college student through first grade glasses… all rosy cheeked and pigtailed, headed to the bus stop with her hello kitty backpack.  It spoke about the unavoidable void in the hearts of college moms everywhere.

This year, I have no time for the void. I have two weeks’ worth of prepping to do in 18 hours.  There are things to find, cars to load, insurance cards to copy.  I have no time for melancholy if I want her dorm room to look like the lovely, yet unreasonable, Pinterest pins and Facebook posts I have seen this year.  It could be dorm decorating challenge or tragedy, depending on the outcome.  (And I am a seasoned dorm decorating mom : 8 years of prep school move ins, plus 7 years of college move ins, gives me mad move-in cred.)   18 hours to accomplish what it took me 18 years to imagine: color coordinated shower caddy and bedding. Meaningful posters and cheery pictures of homes we have lived in all over the world. An inspiring study area (we used to call the desks) and a tranquil resting area (bed.) I am now no longer worried about everything being the same shade of pink and yellow; I am more worried about everything just being clean. I can’t even begin to think about her being away, I am just trying to check a few things off my checklist.

One of my oldest friends just left her first child at a school about 1000 miles away from their home.  As she drove back to the hotel, the local radio station played “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin.  Four boxes of Kleenex later, she was fine.  In her mind, she knows that her community-oriented, gregarious, fun-loving, kind son will do beautifully in his new environment.  She has had all summer to prepare for his departure and new life on campus, but these final days have been tough for her- she, like so many others, is a bit heartbroken. I have no time for heartbreak. I am too busy flipping the laundry that was in the “I have two weeks to get to it” pile.  
 
But as I race around getting things done, it dawns on me, that I only have one more of these left. One more rush to dry clean sweaters than mysteriously lived under a bed for the summer, one more night of hoping that the car fits everything. One more August full of infinite possibilities for one of the two young women whom I love most in this world. One more lonely drive home from campus, while although, in my case is close by, seems like it is an insurmountable distance from our home.

These drop offs are teaching me to let go. To let go of the things of which I have no control-of things which they should know by now- of things which I can no longer influence except through our history.   I am learning to trust their instincts, their kind and generous hearts, their passions, their sense of right and wrong. I am learning to think of them as independent. With every early fall dorm move in day, they are becoming decision makers, evaluators of people and thoughts, adults.

 Dr. Ken Ginsburg writes in his book Letting Go with Love and Confidence that “one of the hardest parts of letting go is slowly leaving behind the fantasy that you can protect your child from the world…. Our challenge is to prepare our teens to navigate the world- with all of its joys and knocks- on their own. “ This drop off is a litmus test for which we have been preparing our kids for the last 18 years. Each year, the drop offs get faster and the good bye get quicker, and they walk away more and more confident. 

 College is the time for dreams to become concrete plans, for pathways to goals to ferment and foment into achievements.  College is the final exam after 18 years of parenting. Will they make bad decisions? Yes. Will they figure out how to fix them? Yes. Will it take every ounce of your being not to ‘help?’ yes.  Are they capable of letting go? Of course.  This path is theirs to walk.

 I didn’t have time to get melancholy this year. I didn’t have time to be sad. I had just enough time to get her moved in and give her a hug, and she was off. But most importantly, I didn’t have the NEED to be sad. I let go of what I am missing in favor of grabbing onto the joy of who she is becoming.

 Sadness: Let it go.  They have gotten to this place due to the building blocks you gave them: responsibility, vision, morals, values, kindness, open-mindedness, trust, imagination, heart. Grab onto the joy that is coming as they become successful, happy, responsible, caring adults.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Case for Moving On: WAITLISTED.


Recently, I ran into a parent of a senior. (As in all small communities, there are no secrets- and what I do for a living is well known.)This parent Doris* and her student, Natasha* are not my clients, but she asked me for some advice about her daughter. You see, Natasha had applied to 9 schools, and had been waitlisted at 6 (a denial at 1 left her with 2 acceptances.) The student and her parents had no idea what to do… the May 1st deadline to commit to one of the two schools was quickly approaching and all of her waitlisted schools wanted to know if she would like to remain on the list.

“Should we stay on the lists and hope one of those schools pulls through, or should we just send a deposit to one that she is already admitted? We are just not sure.” Doris asked.

 In many cases, a waitlisted student will sit and wait for the call that will never come, and if it does, it can add complications and additional heartbreak.

 
Colleges and Universities use waitlists in many ways:

1.       To soften the blow for students who did not meet the academic standards of admission but have a connection to the school through Alumni, admissions, or development.  These students will not be the ones called if a place opens up. The chances of them being admitted off the waitlist are quite slim.

2.       Schools can use waitlists to judge demonstrated interest in their applicants who may be at the bottom of their admissions percentages. It’s a little like having your best friend ask to take you to prom if no one else asks- a little pathetic on their part and frustrating on yours- no firm plans and not really what you had envisioned.

3.       Waitlists can help a school which does not meet its yield for it freshman class, bolster its enrollment without damaging its reportable score ranges or GPAs of admitted students. (These students were not admitted, so the school can withhold reporting their scores etc.) In other words, if a school thinks that 50% of its admitted students will attend, and only 40% commit, the school can go to the waitlist to meet the class numbers.

4.       Schools look to those on the waitlist who can pay full ride and offer a talent or ability in short supply at that particular school. In other words, if you are a tuba playing son of a hedge fund manager on the waitlist, and suddenly in July, the band is in need of a tuba player…you may get a call.

5.       To replace demographic shortfalls in their yield for their classes, again, if too many young women commit, and the school needs more young men, then they will go to the waitlist if need be. This means that none of the women on the waitlist will get consideration, which brings me to my final point.

6.       Waitlists are not lists. They are a pool of applicants from which the admissions officers can pick and choose. There is no “number 1” on the list- no first, no last. It is just a group of students from which the admissions office can choose for many different, and seemingly random, reasons.
 
 
Although many will see that being placed on the waitlist means they have a chance at admission, for most, it means they do not. Very few students gain admission off waitlists.  At MIT last year, 555 students were placed on the waitlist. 28 were given a place in the freshman class. That’s just about 5%. In 2013, Boston University placed over 5000 applicants on their waitlist; they admitted less than 70- a miniscule 1%.  Given these statistics, the chances of any student, however well qualified, being plucked from the waitlisted pool of applicants is slim; infinitesimal, in fact.

 
To add insult to injury, many schools offer NO FINANCIAL AID to those students coming off the wait list. That’s right, NONE. ZERO.ZILCH. NADA. Although student loans are guaranteed to all students whose parents qualify, many schools offer no institutional aid- grants, tuition discount, or scholarship- to those who are the last to the admitted student party. Some do this for just the freshman year, and some will not guarantee any aid at all for the entire 4 years enrolled. This can mean that even if Natasha beats the odds and gains a place at one of her waitlisted schools, chances are, she will be unable to afford it and will decline.

 

The bright side of this equation is that Natasha has been admitted to two lovely schools. Both offers come with an admirable amount of scholarship and tuition discounts, making both schools not only good fits, but a good value.  These are schools which want Natasha; schools where she will be a valued member of the community; schools which are a sure thing.

 
Doris and Natasha need to MOVE ON. Pick one of the two schools and send in their deposit, order the tee shirt, update her Facebook status, tweet, and instagram “XXXX COLLEGE Class of 2019.”  Natasha needs to stop thinking about the “what-ifs” and “what-could-have-beens” and start planning for 4 years at a college which valued her in the admissions process. Natasia needs to look forward to her future and not dwell in the recent past. Natasia needs to commit.

 

Because really, the worst part about being on a waitlist is not being able to fully commit to a school from the beginning of May. Natasha needs to start thinking of herself as a part of a class, a community, a college. She cannot hold out for another school without lessening the joyous experience being part of an admitted class brings. She cannot think of making friendships at one school, if she is pining for ones at another. She cannot be a Lion, or a Buckeye, or a Patriot, Devil, Husky, or Gopher without thinking about being disloyal to another team and mascot. My bottom line? Waitlists steal your college commitment joy.


 

As always, students and parents’ names are changed to provide them with anonymity. Subjects of this blog are always allowed to choose their own “nom de guerre.”

 

 

 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Case against Empty Promises in Fancy Envelopes


A few years ago, I received an email from an acquaintance’s son. He had been “nominated” for an “Ambassador” program promising a cultural and educational experience traveling through Europe for 3 weeks. This young man was looking for donations from friends and family towards the cost of his trip- which was over $5000.  Again, a few weeks ago, a student client asked me about a Leadership program for which he was “nominated” by a "teacher or  counselor" (according to the letter) at his school. Again, the program promised a leadership experience at the low cost of $3200.
 
 
Both of these young men are outstanding students, athletes, and leaders. Both young men are community oriented; both deserve recognition for their achievements. Neither should go on these trips.

Why? Because they are sales pitches.

 Why are they sales pitches? BECAUSE REAL RECOGNITION AND AWARDS DON’T COME WITH A $3000+ PRICE TAG.

A recent NY TIMES article on one such organization (NYLC) spells it out; although some of these programs afford their participants great travel and sightseeing opportunity, they are, by no means, selective or competitive, nor do admissions offices look at them as anything but vacation opportunities at the least, and a quasi-summer school opportunity at the best. Other programs offer recognition through paid-for membership and publications with no travel but with the appearance of selectivity: google NSHSS and see what pops.
 
So how can parents and students who are inundated with fancy envelopes and congratulatory letters tell the difference between a resume worthy membership or experience, or a scam?

Here are some guidelines:
 
1.       If the organization’s title is similar to a well-respected organization, such as National Honor Society, but does not have the same standards of admission or qualification, you may want to reconsider sending that check.

2.       If your summer enrichment program is taught by Professors other than those who are affiliated to the school at which the program is offered, you may want to reconsider. In other words, if you are paying for an enrichment program at South Succotash University, make sure that the program is taught by South Succotash Professors. ( While you are at it, see if your HS will give you credit for the programming, or if it is taught for college credit.)

3.       Check with the Better Business Bureau or Attorney General’s Office in the state in which the company is located to see if there are complaints or lawsuits against them.

4.       If the program’s benefits seem as vague as their admissions standards, you may want to reconsider.

5.       Is the company affiliated with a reputable charity, organization, or school? If it is an autonomous organization, you may want to check its bona fides before you consider.

6.       Does the organization state that it is a not-for profit? If so, consider looking at its ratings on a charity ranking site, such as Charity navigator ( www.charitynavigator.org) or Independent Charities of America (www.independentcharities.org).

7.       Does the letter mention who nominated you? Many of these companies use the word “nominate” loosely. For the vast majority of them, they buy student lists from other organizations- summer camps, college board, the government.  Don’t be fooled by the word “nominated” or “honor.”  If it looks like a business transaction, and sounds like a business transaction, chances are…
 
8.  Does the organization use a "time share technique" to sell you their services? Come to the meeting at the local conference center and listen to our sale spiel. Act Now! Space is limited! You don't want your child left out, left behind, missing this opportunity! Sign up now and save 10%!

There is nothing wrong with sending your child on a summer trip which explores the world around him. There is also nothing wrong with seeking like-minded students in an enrichment program.  However, these programs do not help your child gain admission to a school nor are they resume or essay worthy.  I am not telling you to not send your child on these trips. I am telling you to know that these should not be used as awards, honors, interview topics or resume bullets. (Truly competitive, well established, selective programs are not the same as these vacations and can be mentioned in applications. I will speak about these in a later blog )

Don’t be fooled by the fancy envelope. Some of these envelopes can cost you upwards of $8000; that's $8000 which could be used towards their college education- and that piece of parchment  is actually worth something.

 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Deferral: A Case of Sitting in Limbo

(I apologize for not posting since November. With College Admissions deadlines, my first priority was to my clients and family. Posts will resume with regularity. mea culpa)


Recently one of my clients, Valentina*, received not one, but two, deferrals in the same day. Pointless to state, it was a rough and emotional few hours. It was not unexpected that she received a deferral from one highly selective school. In fact, we had discussed this scenario as she submitted. The other deferral took her by surprise; it was from her “safety” school. A high achiever, planner, and detail-oriented student, Valentina had her highest dreams and her safety net put on hold in one fell swoop. I told her that these deferrals were good news. I don’t think she believed me, at first.

 

So what is a deferral? When applying Early Action or Early Decision, Colleges can admit, deny or defer. A deferral places the student in the regular decision pool of applicants. This means that the students record will be reviewed again, without prejudice, and their fate will be decided in the February March time frame, and notified in April. Where an offer of admission is a cause worth celebrating and a rejection means a good cry and a quart of Ben and Jerry’s, a deferral is no answer at all. In the immortal words of Jimmy Cliff**, deferred students are “sitting in Limbo.”  After meeting early application deadlines, the student is left waiting for an additional 2-3 months for an answer to their application.

 Deferral is used by colleges and universities for a couple of reasons:

1.       The applicant is in the bottom of the percentages in grades and/or scores of traditionally admitted applicants for that particular institution.

2.       The student has not demonstrated enough interest in attending the school. Many small schools look at demonstrated interest as a determining factor in ED and EA decisions.

3.       The school has had a banner year in applicants and can be picky or pickier.

4.       There was an overabundance of applicants with similar demographics.

 

Deferral is no fun, wears on even the most patient student, and brings with it an entire new set of competitors against whom you will compete. So how is it that deferral is good news?


Deferral is good news because it means YOU ARE STILL IN THE GAME. Ask anyone who has been denied from a college if they would have preferred to be deferred and reconsidered with more information. Invariably, the answer to that question would be an emphatic YES.
  So what should you do if you are sitting in deferment limbo? After you put down the bag of double stuff Oreos revisit schools from which you applied but haven’t heard.  Take some time to do some soul searching on whether or not the deferred school is a best fit.  If your heart still says “go for it” proceed with these recommendations. 
 


1.       Send an email to the Admissions counselor for your area reaffirming your desire to attend this particular school. If this is your first choice, restate that it remains so.  Ask the counselor what would they like to see improved or in more detail. In other words, ask specifically what you can do to make their decision to admit you easier.  Realize that this gives you the opportunity to affirm that you are a great pick for this school; reassert that your presence on that particular campus can be positive and beneficial to both you and institution.

2.       Submit your midterm grade report. If you have been following my blog or Facebook page, you will know that keeping your senior year grades up is important. It is important for this very reason. Good grades in increasingly difficult courses throughout your 4 years of college will reinforce that you are capable of performing on college level.

3.       Many schools will allow for additional recommendations and information. Take a moment to ask teachers and counselor to readdress your recommendation. Ask a new teacher for another recommendation.  Ask your coach, boss, or peer for one also. Do you have a friend who is currently successfully attending that particular school? Ask them to write you a peer recommendation and drop it off at the admissions office.

4.       If you did not interview, and the school allows for interviews, ask now for one. Many schools will do remote, skype, or local alumni interviews.

5.       Maintain demonstrated interest. Visit campus again if possible. If it is not possible, choose to interact with the admissions office, asking questions and seeking information on programming and campus life. But beware; there is a fine line between demonstrating interest and being a nuisance.

6.       Unfortunately, for most students, retesting the SAT or ACT at this point in the admission game is not possible. Standardized testing does not begin again until the late spring. If you did take it in January, then waiting for those scores and sending them (if they are higher) is also a great option.

  Valentina should have no problem gaining admission to a number of great schools. Chances are she will be accepted at one or both of the schools to which she was deferred. For Valentina, and students like her, the limbo of deferment is not fun. But remember, sitting waiting an additional few months for the dice to roll can give students some extra time to search their soul- making them a stronger candidate in the long run.

 
*as stated previously, students’ names and details are changed to protect their anonymity. Students are all given the opportunity to pick their own “nom de guerre.”
** Jimmy Cliff: reggae superstar, 2010 inductee of the Roll and roll Hall of Fame. Album, "They Harder They Come" Island Records ©1972

 

 

 

 

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Case Against Cheating: What We Can Learn From China.


Recently, the Educational Testing Board, administers of the SAT, reported that there was enough evidence to consider that there had been widespread,  international, cheating on the SAT taken on October 11th. Enough evidence, in fact, to delay the release of scores to thousands of test takers in China and Korea.  Students in those countries were notified that their scores, which should have been released on the 25th of October, were told that they would be held until possibly mid-November. ETS wanted to clarify the conditions in which the students took the exam, and if any undue help was given- in other words, was there cheating. Meanwhile, as the November 1st early decision deadline approached many Chinese and Korean students were offered a short letter from ETS to send to schools about the delay.  (Although, I cannot imagine that many students sent a letter to any school which inferred a cheating scandal in which they may or may not have been involved.)

 

I tell you about this, fair readers, because as I began to unravel the cheating mentality in China I recognized a culture of grey area “help” that is gaining popularity in our own country’s college admission process. (For a complete and interesting look at the culture and acceptance of cheating in China, I urge you all to read my colleague Parke Muth’s excellent article about it here.)

This grey area comes in the form of help from concerned, hovering parents.  Parents who want to see their child succeed. Parents who feel it is their duty to help their student in the college application process. Parents who have the same motivation as the Chinese parents- admissions success.  But in this case, Parents who unknowingly step over the line that divides honest help and cheating.

 A few months ago, at a gathering where I did not know many of the people, I was on the fringe of a conversation between two mothers. Both were discussing the admissions process as each had a student who had just navigated it.  As I listened I heard one mother tell the other that she had been so frustrated with her son’s inability to produce a “quality” essay as he was “so very busy” that she took it upon herself to “help him along, because I knew what he was trying to say anyway.” (sic)  The other mother was quick to tell her companion that she did the same, and even filled out a few applications for her son without his knowledge.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for a second, third, fourth, or even fifth set of eyes on a student’s college admissions essay. Part of my job is to comment on and correct student clients’ essays. I review at least 50 a year.  Minor mistakes in spelling, grammar, and syntax are addressed. As an editor, I should comment on flow, writer’s voice, and clarity of message. I ask a lot of open ended questions: what are you trying to say here? What is your message in this paragraph? Do you think someone who doesn’t know you will get this, will understand who you are? Did you answer the prompt? I do not ever write essays. I do not rewrite essays. That is cheating.  Don’t think that college admissions offices notice when an essay sounds like the writing of a 50 year old mom or dad, as opposed to a 17 year old student? Think again.

  I sat one day having coffee with a local colleague. We traded some admissions stories. Hers were from the college admissions officer’s point of view, mine from the independent counselor’s. She spoke to me about an important piece of advice she received from a Dean of Admission at a prestigious university in the south. It went like this:

“We get a lot of essays. They are all Hondas. Some are loaded Accords, some are base model Civics, and some are Odysseys- but they are all Hondas. When a BMW comes across our desks, we make sure that the grades, and the scores back up the writing. Not many 17 year olds are capable of producing BMWs, but plenty of parents are. If there is a vast discrepancy, we do question whether or not it was actually written by the student.”

 
So how do we know, as parents when we have crossed the line? When have we become facilitators in cheating rather than helpful parents? I pondered this for a few weeks and I have come with some questions. If you can answer YES to any of these, you may find yourself on that slippery slope.

  1. Have you edited a child’s paper and added words and sentences, or rewritten paragraphs?
  2. Have you ever filled out applications, scholarship forms, or inquiries without your child’s consent?
  3.  Have you ever made a phone call to a school and insisted a grade be changed, without regard to the achievement or performance of your student?
  4. Would you be uncomfortable with a teacher or and admissions officer knowing how much and in what ways you helped your child?

These small discrepancies may not seem like a big deal, but they are. They are because when it comes time to apply to college, students need to do it supported by their parents and counselorscollege admissions is not  a group project.  Parents and Counselors need to fill the roles of Gentle Reminder, Cheerleader, and Organizational Aide de Camp.  When editing essays, ask questions like: what message did you mean to convey? Have you answered the prompt? Have you ended any sentence with a preposition? Have you used all the words correctly? What you don’t want to happen is for you to turn your child’s Honda into your own BMW.

 This current Chinese cheating scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. Recommendations there are forged, Grades are raised and a new “American” transcript is produced for Chinese students applying to college in the US. Essay ghost writers are hired; students are paid to memorize questions on the current SATs and report back to test preparation centers.  They are still applying to and being accepted at some of the best schools in the U.S. And this current scandal will not keep them from cheating or from being admitted.
 
So why do I tell you this?

Because it is imperative that we don’t roll down that slippery slope. Our kids deserve to know that they achieve admission at the college of their choice ON THEIR OWN. That their accomplishments, hard work, and dedication won them a spot at their school independent of their parents’ income, their tutor’s writing ability, or any other person’s contributions. Colleges are looking for students with grit and determination to succeed. They are looking to inspire hard-working, self-sufficient, students who know that they can triumph without a safety net . They are looking for your student: your bright, independent, stress-out-by applications-and-homework student. Know that your son or daughter’s Honda is fine. Know also that there is pride in personal accomplishment- accomplishment without cheating.