Lifting the Veil – An Ethics Professor’s View on the College Admissions Process

Great article from the New York Times called Confessions of an Application Reader.  The author, Ruth A. Starkman taught writing at the University of California, Berkeley from 1992 to 1996 and currently teaches writing and ethics at Stanford.

This article highlights just how subjective the college admissions process is, something that cannot be underestimated.  While Ms. Starkman writes specifically about her experience as a reader at UC Berkeley, what she describes is likely universal at the nation’s top schools.

Ms. Starkman suggests that she felt there were murky ethical dilemmas she faced.  Each college admissions team is charged with task of “making a class.”  High school guidance officers must negotiate a balancing act while placing the students in their care.

Parents and students perceive only their individual interests, while admissions teams and guidance counselors must think in terms of groups.  Often this feels at odds.  Each student needs to focus on being the best he or she can be, and yes, then there is an active dialectic between the individual and the group.  Articles like this one are both provocative and helpful.  Students and parents need to understand that admissions decisions are not made in a vacuum.

Finally, perhaps there is a gem of wisdom in this.  Groucho Marx famously said “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”  In the case of college admissions, Groucho got it exactly backwards.  The admissions teams know their schools very well, and they design each class for maximum impact.  An invitation to any of their “clubs” is a honor, because the field is so competitive.  But don’t be fooled.  In designing their classes, they haven’t taken the time to consider the individual, but they have extremely difficult decisions to make.  Students need to focus on their strengths, and when decisions come out, know that the school offering you a seat at the table really wants you because they believe you really belong in that community, so embrace being part of a club that has accepted you as a member.

Forbes doesn’t know the best school FOR YOU.

What is the Best College in America? is a great article from the Huffington Post written by Danny Licht, a 17 year old student in Los Angeles.  On August 1st, Forbes released their annual ranking of US Colleges and Universities.  Danny does a brilliant job deconstructing why indeed these ranking are subjective and should be of limited use to students applying to college.  Please, do not be fooled.  Forbes provides some useful information, but the actual rankings are a marketing tool to sell more magazines.  The editors at Forbes do not know the best school for each individual student, and in the book, The Paradox of Choice, Professor Barry Schwartz cites multiple psychological research studies that have proven repeatedly that social comparison does not improve the quality of our lives.  School selection is a personal discovery and decision for applicants and their families.

Good work Danny for saying something every student & family should keep in mind!

Persisting through March Madness

As luck would have it, this year in my practice I have a number of eighth graders at the same school, which is also my alma mater.  Although more than twenty years have gone by, there are certain things that haven’t changed.  Most notably, the school still only has one set of final exams, which, oddly enough, are given in early March, before Spring Break.  To this day, I have mixed feeling about the month of March, because I still associate it with exams.

A walk in Central Park

A walk in Central Park

Granted, after exams came Spring break, but there was always all the work of synthesizing the material and preparing for the tests, let alone actually taking them.  The best part of exams was that the day ended early, and on the last day or two, I could walk home through Central Park.  It was almost always “unseasonably warm” those days.   And of course, this week is scheduled to be “unseasonably warm” too.



Today my eighth grade girls take their History exam.  The History class is a World History survey class ranging from the discovery of the New World to Napoleon, with lots of interesting stops along the way.  Yesterday was a marathon for me as I spent an hour with each of them in their final preparations for tomorrow.  Right now I am feeling very proud of each one of them.  I know they are prepared and I know they have worked hard.  But, more importantly, they have taught me a lesson in persistence. As it just so happens, I really love tutoring this particular class.  I’ve come to know the material pretty well, and I have

Regina George

my own little anecdotes to help make ideas stick, like comparing Louis XIV to the character Regina George in the movie Mean Girls.  I have also learned that the only way for my students to successfully get though the class is to be diligent and thoughtful along the way.  This is not a class for procrastinators.  Trying to get everything done in the last week won’t cut it when it comes time for exams.

However, that does not mean that each of my girls has handled the material in the same way.  Some answered the homework questions every night.  Others made full study guides for each test.  Others wrote very complete outlines for their papers.  In each case, the girls put in effort.  But sometimes the material was a struggle.  Even with a tutor, they did not get A’s all the time.

TextbooksWhat struck me yesterday afternoon, however, was how much each girl had persisted in learning the material.  As I looked at their thick notebooks, their study guides and the notes they had written in the margins, I was humbled.  This is not an easy course— sometimes it has been really hard.  Yet through it all, they have persevered.  They have learned the material and I knew as each girl left last night, she would prove to her teacher and, more importantly, to herself, a good understanding of the material.


Versailles Hall of Mirrors

If I were their teachers, I would be giving them all A’s for effort.  Whether they will remember what legitimized the Tokugawa Shogunate in 20 years I do not know. But I have a feeling they may still recall Louis XIV as the most popular King in class with an amazing palace called Versailles, which they visited on YouTube.

How did they come to persevere?

I am 100% sure that studying this History is not their favorite thing to do.  (I can think of about 10 things

Frozen Yogurt!

eighth grade girls would rather do, including visits to frozen yogurt stores and cake baking.)  However, a couple of things are noteworthy.  First, I have taken great pleasure in watching and helping each girl find her own best strategy to learn the material, if it was writing out answers to homework questions, or writing practice identifications.  But I am only one small piece.  Having the tools is essential, but also wanting to succeed is also important.

Sometimes I worry that the kids are too competitive.  They are out for the grade and just the grade.  Luckily, these girls and their parents are all very realistic, and understand that a grade is not the be-all and end-all.  We watch for improvement and for comprehension.  I try to promote the “growth” mindset of Dr. Carol Dweck’s model.  while I cheer good grades, more often I salute hard work, because I know, and I want my students to know, that effort really is more important than a letter or number grade, and that the joy should come from “understanding” rather than “performing.”  As I watched the girls last night, I felt that they have really started to grasp this message.  Although I now they still want the grade, I hope the work we have done together has taught them that they have to work to earn it, and that the work comes from persistence.  Also, every time they got an answer right or remembered something, I could see a glimmer of excitement in their eyes.  Discovering that their persistence had paid off and they actually knew who the Enlightenment philosophers were made them happy and relieved.  When I started this website, I thought persistence was going to be one of the hardest strengths to write about in adolescents.  But today, in the middle of March exam madness, I was pleased to see it was out in full strength, and was serving my students so well.  BRAVA!

How are you going to be BRAVE this year?

Brave Firemen

School starts this week, so I thought it would be a good time to write about courage.  For many years, when I thought of bravery, I thought of one thing:  firemen.  There is no question that firemen are brave.  Every day, in the line of duty, firemen go out and risk their lives to save others.  Firemen do not run away from challenges.  Actually, they do quite the opposite.  They run toward them.  As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, thank goodness for the bravery of firefighters.

But despite my automatic default to firemen, they are not the only people who are brave.  We witness acts of courage all around us every day.  People who face their fears, or who are willing to take a stand even when it is not popular, act bravely.

Standing in Shallow Water

For some people this is harder than others.  My mother tells me that when I was a child I would walk around a swimming pool three or four times before considering getting in.  Once I convinced myself that the pool was probably okay, I would put my feet on the shallowest step and stand there for a few minutes getting comfortable.  I wasn’t a big fan of risk.  My actions might have prevented me from doing something foolhardy, but they were also proof that I was not particularly courageous.

The Jaws of a Crocodile

At the beginning of every school year, we ask students to be brave in many ways.  Most obviously, students who are going to new schools will face new environments, new teachers and new peers.  Yet, contemplating all of this beforehand has the potential to make a person nervous.  Sometimes a new place feels as scary as the jaws of a crocodile.  But, when you declare yourself brave you realize you can take on the crocodile, no problem!  Harness your anxiety and turn it into excitement.  Once you are courageous, the thing that seemed daunting becomes an adventure.

Even students who are not going to new schools need to be brave.  The safety and security of a familiar place and familiar faces does not preclude new challenges.  Taking on harder work and learning to stand by your convictions takes courage and develops it.  This is particularly true for students who haven’t had an “easy ride.”  A+ students may need some courage to face the next math class, but students who have been fighting to keep up the whole way are the ones who really earn my respect.  It’s not so hard to go back to school when you suspect it is going to be fun, or at least ok.  But when “school is not your thing,” and you know you will be staring down a new and seemingly more daunting English teacher, crossing the threshold that first day requires even more courage than it does for most.   Each time we succeed, it becomes easier to muster more courage for the next challenge.  For students who have struggled, the fact that they continue to brave the classroom is, in itself, an important victory for them and their development.

Nowadays when I go swimming, I don’t walk around the pool three times.  Usually, I jump right in.  But with every step I made circling the pool and standing in the shallow water, I became more intrepid.  Courageousness is a requirement in adult life.  We may not all be firefighters, but we can’t shrink from challenges and we must learn to stand by our convictions.   As students head back to school this week, remember it is not just what you learn about Abraham Lincoln or electricity that will serve you in life.

Raise Your Hand!!

In fact, every time you take a risk, whether asking or answering a question, doing a homework assignment or taking a test, you become a little bit more courageous.  Students—don’t walk around the swimming pool this first week of school.  Jump in.  Raise your hand.  Be brave!

Ultimately knowing all the facts is not what will make you into a more plucky or thoughtful adult.  However, learning to face challenges, seize opportunities and act bravely in the face of these situations is one of the best ways school will help prepare you for a responsible adult life.


Brave Firemen  courtesy of Marion Doss

Standing in Shallow Water courtesy of elvissa

The Jaws of a Crocodile courtesy of Hiking Artist

Raise Your Hand!! courtesy of woodleywonderworks

Summertime – The Livin’ Should be Easy with Strengths

Letters - to the Editor or from your vacation?

A recent New York Times article called, “For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers,” author Jenny Anderson reported on many glamorous opportunities privileged students felt obligated to do in order to augment their college applications, and more specifically, their college essays.  The comments on the article, as well as the Letters to the Editor that followed shared a number of opinions that seemed to feel that these high-powered summers might not always be in the best interests of students.

As we near the end of the summer, I start to eagerly anticipate seeing my students again.  I always start our first lesson catching up learning about the student’s summer.  This always delights me, because I love to hear about the new adventures and “aha” moments each child had over the summer.  I also listen carefully to see if they have had some time to relax and recover from the previous school year.  Children need rest too, and while I do encourage them to keep reading or practicing certain skills over the summer, I also want to know that they spent time with their friends and family and had some time just “to be.”

To be honest, most of the students returning to my office this September will not be college seniors.  But for those who are, I really hope that they have not seen their summers in a mercenary or transactional light, but I fear that this is exactly what the New York Times article suggests may be happening.  Indeed, a trip to China or the Amazon has the possibility of being a transformational experience.  But we should not overlook that there are plenty of “transformational experiences,” right here at home.

Reflect Deeply - over the summer and in your essays!

Although one of the essay topics on the Common Application asks student to describe “a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you,” a fancy trip or internship will not necessarily make for the best essay.  The temptation to write about the experience with the expectation that that alone is enough to make a student a good candidate is false.  A good college essay requires deeper reflection—the expectation on the side of the reader is not to learn what you did, it is to learn WHO YOU ARE.

All of this leads me back to the importance of teaching students to understand their strengths.  Strengths, rather than boarding passes or internship IDs, allow students to explain the “impact” something had on them.  Using or developing a strength you know you have, or finding a new one, is a makes an essay a much more compelling story than a description of your itinerary or the highlights of all the events you attended during your internship.  Even better, strengths manifest themselves all the time in all kinds of ways.  A relationship with a family member, a scary test, a funny and or/embarrassing story with a friend has as much potential for a great essay as a trip to Nepal.

So with that off my chest, I promise to get to what I said I was going to do… talk about the strengths.  Next up:  COURAGE!


Letters – to the Editor or from your vacation? courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt

Reflect Deeply – over the summer and in your essays! courtesty of Lori Greig

Writing A Personal Essay – Plant Your Seed

Application essays can be tough.  The questions for the common application are particularly difficult because they are so broad and far-reaching; it almost seems like anything is fair game.  But a good college essay lets the admission officer know who YOU are.  The best essays allow a student to become a real-life person.

You are not just grades and scores!

Most of the other information in a student’s file is quantitative data, and the essay is the only part of the application where a student gets to speak on his or her own behalf.  ACT, SAT, PSAT or ISSE scores, grades and activity lists do not make a person.  They are just statistics… they make it easier to determine if a student can do the work of a school, but really they don’t offer any real clues about the thoughts, feeling and values of the student.  Teacher recommendations and interview reports also help give a sense of who you are, but they are other people’s impressions.  Answering the essay question allows the admissions officers to get to know YOU.  What do you think and care about?  Once they have a chance to “meet you” through your essay, they begin to see why YOU belong at “Bliss U.”

Don't say what everyone else thinks too!

Why have I started to refer students to the VIA Strengths Inventory?  Well, it is simple really.  When I started working with students writing personal essays, I noticed that they lacked a certain vocabulary.  Joan Bress and Charlotte Klaar explained it best in their talk at this year’s IECA Summer Training Institute.  Often students are tempted to write essays about “Universal Truths.”  A personal essay that has the punch line:  “I learned that winning is not always the most important thing” is a yawn, especially if you have read thirty other essays with the same conclusion that day.  Reading facts of life is very different than reading about the qualities that make you a special, unique and interesting individual.

How do the strengths help?  Well, they are twenty-four concepts that should be part of everyone’s vocabulary, and they give us words to talk about our best traits.  What are the strengths?  As I have mentioned there are 24 of them, and they fall into 6 categories:

Strengths and Virtures

Yes, strengths are big ideas, but don’t be intimidated by them.  The thing about the strengths is that they help give you a context and a language to talk about how you have shown strength in a given circumstance.  An essay that says:  “I am a funny, fair and curious person” is a total yawn for an admissions officer.

Plant your seed

Instead, familiarity with the strengths allows a student identify and describe a situation or event that allowed them to use his or her humor, fairness and curiosity.  Once you have learned about the strengths in general, and perhaps identified your top strengths, then they should go right into the back of your mind.  Stories, not strengths, make for good application essays.  Story-telling allows you to that demonstrate how you used the strength(s) that ways that are unique and personal.  Stories sprout ideas in the readers heads, and hopefully they make the (admissions) reader like you and see a place for you at their school.

bedtime story or newspaper article - keep 'em interested!

Think about the characters in the movies.  Many of the characters exemplified lots of the strengths, including bravery, open-mindedness, love, forgiveness and humor.  But it wasn’t those strengths alone that made you want to see the movie, right?  The plot and situations created a framework for the characters to demonstrate those different traits, and the way they all got woven together into a beautiful story made Avatar a great movie and a huge blockbuster success.  So, this is the reason we use stories for personal essays, as a backdrop for letting a reader understand what strengths we possess and use.  There is a famous saying for writers that says: “Show, don’t tell.”  Again, lists of traits are ultimately boring.  But when you use a story from your life well to explain why you are so strong and interesting, you capture your reader’s attention– you want it to be as captivating as a good bedtime story or newspaper article.

The Goal - "Bliss" University

Why is the story about your piano recital/football game/summer vacation your sophomore year so important to you?  What happened, and what STRENGTHS did you use or discover in that moment?  No one else has your story or those strengths in that combination.  That’s what makes you a unique individual, and that’s exactly what the folks at “Bliss U” want to read all about.


You are not just grades and scores courtesy of

Don’t say what everyone else thinks too! courtesy of

Plant your seed courtesy of

bedtime story or newspaper article courtesy of ralphhogaboom

“Bliss” University courtesy of Steve-h