Watch What You Post!

This blog does not usually cover breaking news, but Harvard’s recent move to rescind admissions for ten students makes this a timely topic.

The Washington Post is just one of many news outlets carrying the story:

Like many schools, Harvard sponsors a Facebook page for admitted students.  The page allows students – and admitted students who have yet to matriculate – to exchange information.  The topics are typically mundane, including information about student groups, orientation, students seeking others with similar interests (e.g., incoming international students), and the like.

In this case, the Post reports that about 100 members of the freshman class created a messaging group which would “share memes about popular culture – a growing trend on the Internet among students at elite colleges.”  For anyone older than 30, this may require translation.  A complete explanation can be found here:; my summary follows, quoting liberally from the link.

A meme in this context refers to a “humorous piece of online content, usually in the form of an image with text or video, that is copied and rapidly disseminated by internet users across all platforms.”  Many college Facebook pages have sub-groups that are devoted to communicating, and commenting on, memes related to college life.  These range from tweaking the administration to edgier topics.

At this point, a small alarm bell should start ringing in your head.  It is one thing to exchange information, but views about potentially sensitive topics?  This may be dangerous.

And so it became on the Harvard Facebook page, as a group of students formed a separate group to exchange messages.  Then an even smaller number of that group formed an “offshoot” page to exchange “off-color” or “R-rated” communications, including graphics.  This “offshoot” page is where the trouble began.  The Harvard Crimson reports:

A handful of admitted students formed the [offshoot] messaging group—titled, at one point, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens”—on Facebook in late December, according to two incoming freshmen. 

In the group, students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, according to screenshots of the chat obtained by The Crimson. Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups. One called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time.”

Yes, this is very ugly.  However, what happened next made news.  Harvard admissions administrators learned about the offshoot group, and began monitoring it.  Eventually, the administrators reached out to individuals and demanded explanations for particularly offensive posts.  Harvard ultimately rescinded ten students’ admissions, well after the deadline for those students to enroll at other schools where they had been admitted.

Per the Washington Post and other news outlets, the university invoked a sort of “moral code” from its admissions policy that was included on the Harvard Facebook page:

As a reminder, Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character. 

To recap, students congregated on a public web page created by Harvard, then created a “private” chat group, where they made off-color, and hateful, jokes among themselves.  Harvard monitored this private page on the Harvard sponsored Facebook page, reviewed the communications, and rescinded admissions.

Aside from whether Harvard’s response was appropriate, the episode points to an emerging reality of the 21st century.  Whatever you write or post on the Internet is available to all to see, forever.  It may, or may not, result in consequences.

On the Internet, typing something in “all caps” is the equivalent of (rude) shouting.  This point needs to be shouted:


As college students would say:  rant off.

A surprising number of college administrators are looking for such material.  According to Kaplan Test Prep, 35 percent of admissions officers said they check social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to learn more about applicants. About 42 percent of those officials said what they found had a negative impact on prospective students.  See

Even if Kaplan only surveyed “elite” colleges (my guess), those numbers are still eye-opening.

Students need to understand that their social media activity is “fair game” in the college admissions process, and act accordingly.

University of Washington Switches Gears on Admitting Students to its Engineering Programs

Faithful readers who have stuck with me since the beginning (okay, you can put your hand down), will remember one of my first posts (“The Data Is Out There, But You Need to Look For It”, April 15, 2015) about the need for counselors to find current and detailed information to help their students make informed choices.

One of my examples concerned the University of Washington, and the data I found was surprising.

Consider the University of Washington, a top-ranked engineering school.  The Engineering Department only admits 10-20% of applicants directly.  The rest are required to apply later, as juniors.  

What happens to [them]?  It isn’t pretty [link omitted]:

. . . .

To summarize, the majority of these very bright and talented students fail to get into their engineering sub-specialty.  (Thus, the would-be aeronautical engineer may have to settle for industrial engineering – much like a would-be brain surgeon ending up as a general practitioner.)  Some students get into none of the available sub-specialties, and either switch majors or transfer to schools to finish their engineering degree.

Well, not that my blog had anything to do with it, but the University of Washington is changing its policy, effective next year.  It will now admit about half its class, 650 students, directly.  Accounting for shrinkage after admission (about 40% of engineering students nationwide switch out of the major), the total will account for about half of the engineering degrees awarded.  The rest will come from students who transfer into the major, from other programs at the university, or from other schools.

However, there is an interesting footnote to this change in policy.  The department plans to enroll approximately 75% of its students from in-state, and the remaining 25% from “out of state or out of the country.”  If international students make up half of that 25%, your out-of-state student is going to find that getting into the University of Washington engineering program difficult, indeed.  But at least they will be rejected at the start, as opposed to waiting for two years for the hammer to fall and then not being eligible for the financial aid afforded to four-year students at UW.

And that’s cause for celebration.

The New Common Application Essays and the Path Not Taken

The Common Application is an on-line admission application created and accepted by a consortium of about 700 colleges.  Almost every top-ranked college uses it, with the notable exception of the University of California system.  It is referred to as the “Common App”, after the website students that log into to complete their applications:

Although many colleges customize the “Common App” by adding supplemental essay and short answer questions, almost every applicant must complete the “Common App essay”, a 650-word discussion of one of several specified questions.

Every two years, the Common App consortium revises those questions; this post discusses the revisions for 2017-18.

Why mention this now, when applications will not be due for at least six months?  Because summer (and even Spring Break) is the best time to start outlining, and even writing, the essay; students will be busy enough in the months thereafter with tests, homework, and college selection.

You can review the 2017-18 questions here:

Although Questions #1-5 include only minor revisions to the same questions used in 2016, Question #7 has not been used in several years, and Question #6 is new:

  1. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  2. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. 

Question #7 is for students who are unable to “shoehorn” their essay into one of the other prompts.  Colleges are again realizing that some experiences or ideas are not easily categorized.  However, because most essay topics can be shoehorned into Questions #1-5, not just any essay will do – only an unusual and startlingly good effort will impress college admissions officers.

Question #6 is a welcome attempt to reach students who do not have many traditional extracurricular activities because they spend their time on one activity away from school.  The essay is aimed at students who self-study a field in depth (“lose all track of time”).  The interest is unspecified, so almost any pursuit will do (e.g. archeology, linguistics, philosophy, particle physics, linguistics, ornithology).

The essay asks students to expound on why they immerse themselves in that topic, idea, or concept, what problems or events in that field intrigue them, and how they explore them.  The essay should demonstrate an ability, and passion for, self-guided learning.  The results of that learning are not particularly germane to the essay, but if the student has won a Nobel Prize as a result of his or her endeavors, I would fit that in somewhere.

Do not neglect the second part of that prompt: “What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?”  Colleges want “self-starters”, students who can transcend the “show up at lecture and cram for tests” mode of learning and go out into the world and seek answers to interesting questions.  They are looking for students who can find their own resources, and perhaps even more important, their own mentors.

This prompt is different from the other Common App essays, which are often used as showcases for student writing.  Those essays give free rein to the student to include well-turned phrases, clever metaphors, and even concern about the plight of others.

This prompt is different; it calls for prose.  It is ideal for “geeks”, “nerds”, and other students who travel off the beaten path in pursuit of a “passion.”

I call this prompt the Robert Frost question.  See  It represents a huge opportunity for the right student.  The gains to be made by carefully crafting a case that the student has an exceptional “thirst for learning” – and ability to quench it at the college level – will outweigh flashier essays written in response to the other prompts.

Students who are traveling that “path not taken” should begin planning their Robert Frost essay now.

College in the Big Easy

There are college towns, and then there is the “Big Easy” – New Orleans.  I report back from the Fall Conference of the Independent Educational Consultants Association meeting in New Orleans to briefly profile three local colleges:  Tulane University, Loyola University of New Orleans, and Xavier University of Louisiana (not part of Xavier University in Cincinnati).

First, a word about the terrain.  New Orleans is a fascinating city (more like a town in its feel, really, but with 400,000 people), but is a mixed bag for college students.  Although these schools are located away from urban “hot spots”, crime is a minor, but significant, concern.  Students heading here need some “street smarts”.

Second, New Orleans is essentially located in a swamp; the heat and the humidity can be a bit oppressive.

Third, and making up for the first two, New Orleans is one of the cultural capitals of the United States.  The food is superb – trust me, your correspondent sampled liberally from some of the best restaurants in the area as well as from a humble beignet shack.  (Go ahead, look up “beignet” and see what has been missing from your life.)  From French to Creole and everything in between, the city can lay claim to serving the best day in and day out cuisine in this nation.

The music, ranging from New Orleans Jazz to blues, swing, and the rest, is ever present, from street musicians playing in the French Quarter and over on Frenchmen Street to many of those same musicians playing in sophisticated jazz clubs.  New Orleans moves to a lazy, syncopated beat, propelled by some of the finest practitioners of the art of jazz you will find anywhere.  (And, yes, the various masters playing at the Preservation Jazz Hall are very much worth your time.)

Finally, mass transit is excellent, with a street car meandering from the Quarter to uptown, where two of our colleges, Tulane and Loyola, are stops on the line.

Most interesting, New Orleans is a polyglot city reflecting its roots as an outpost for the Spanish and French colonial empires, and a place to which many Caribbean natives fled after disasters in their homelands.  There are several excellent cultural museums in the city, and plenty of work for budding anthropologists, archeologists, public health analysts, urban planners (how do you enlarge a city where every building is a historical treasure?), and tropical medicine specialists (yellow fever was the main killer in past decades; Zika may be the next visitor).

Periodic hurricanes, floods, and fires means that New Orleans is perpetually rebuilding and inventing itself; indeed, it is still very much rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina.  A budding social scientist can find plenty of hands-on experience simply not available elsewhere.


Tulane University

And this brings us to Tulane, a jewel of a liberal arts school in the South.  Tulane is a medium-sized school of about 8,000 students with a campus larger than its population suggests.  This group is committed to social service – Tulane was the first major research university in the country to include a mandatory community service component in its curriculum.  It goes the extra step of making sure that service is relevant, both to the community and to student learning.

Many of the students work on the ongoing rebuilding of New Orleans as a way of learning their subjects.  Architecture students design models, and then go out into the city and build the design which their class has chosen.  Tulane is particularly proud of its undergraduate public health and tropical medicine programs, which have plenty of communities to study (and help) on their doorstep before heading out into the world.

The campus itself is pretty, and the streetcar line down the middle allows Tulane students to reach the French Quarter within about 20 minutes.  This being New Orleans, a major focus of campus life is the cuisine, including some food trucks that our tour group wanted to halt to sample (no such luck).

Tulane is a major research institution, with relatively small class sizes, located in the South’s most remarkable city.  Admission is not impossible, either.  Tulane’s selectivity is 30%, the average high school GPA is 3.5, and the mean SAT and ACT scores are 1328/30.


Loyola University

As its name would suggest, Loyola is a Jesuit university.  It just happens to be located across the street from Tulane.  Some faculty teach at both institutions, and Loyola students can even take courses at their larger neighbor.

However, Loyola serves a different population and has a different mission.  This is a smaller, quieter, alternative to Tulane.  Its main attraction is certain renowned majors, such as Mass Communications (including journalism) and Music and Fine Arts.

The caliber of student here is also different; with mean SAT and ACT scores of 1130/25 and a whopping 95% selectivity, this school is for students who are seeking a more relaxed opportunity to develop their talents while still sampling the delights of New Orleans.  As a Jesuit school, a greater focus on the individual student is also a given.  My sense is that the most interested students will be those who gravitate toward the majors for which the school is best known.


Xavier University

Xavier is the only Catholic Historically Black College or University in the nation, with about 8,000 undergraduates enrolled.  The student body is 72% African-American, 10% Asian, and 4% Caucasian; it has achieved several historic firsts:

  • Xavier continues to rank first nationally in the number of African American students earning undergraduate degrees in both the biological/life sciences and the physical sciences.
  • The College of Pharmacy, one of only two pharmacy schools in Louisiana, is among the nation’s top four producers of African American Doctor of Pharmacy degree recipients
  • In pre-medical education, Xavier ranks first in the nation in the number of African American graduates who go on to complete medical school.

This is even more remarkable because their admissions policy is extremely welcoming.  Their selectivity is 84%, and mean test scores are only 1000/23.  Note that the gender balance is skewed:  27% male, 73% female.

The sciences are the most popular subjects, including psychology, pre-med, and pre-pharmacy.  This school is not a laid-back find yourself kind of place; the students are driven, and the climate is “studious”.  Rather, it is a center of excellence particularly popular with African-Americans, but available to all.

The Big Gap in “Gap Year”

After enjoying years of popularity in Europe, gap years are becoming trendy in America as a way for high school students to gain perspective and maturity before going off to college.  After graduating from high school, students begin their college career 15 months later, entering college in the fall term.

However, one obstacle to such plans is too rarely discussed – many colleges do not accommodate gap years easily, if at all.  Here are some of the college admissions issues that students and parents should consider when planning for a gap year.


When to apply to college

For students, the most convenient time to apply is along with their peers, during their senior year of high school.  However, a significant number of colleges, particularly public institutions, refuse to defer acceptances to the following year.  For example, the University of California and the California State University systems do not defer admission.

In those cases, students will have to apply during their gap years.  This means making sure that they secure new letters of recommendation from teachers and guidance counselors long after the students have left campus.  This is particularly difficult if the students spend that “gap year” overseas.

Although the American Gap Year Association maintains a list of “gap year friendly” schools, many colleges are not included.  See  Based on a recent search for a Midwestern student, I would add the following public institutions to their list as “gap friendly” colleges:

Iowa State

Kansas State (except for certain departments, such as landscape architecture)

University of Minnesota (Twin Cities)

The Ohio State University


Will colleges defer merit and need-based financial aid?

Even if a college will defer admission, it may require the student to re-apply for financial aid, both need and merit based.  This is true for federal financial aid, for example.  Further, many colleges take the position that a family’s financial condition may change during the gap year.  Thus, families should be prepared to file a new FAFSA or CSS Profile during the gap year, and, perhaps, compete again for merit aid and scholarships.

There is a risk that a “gap year applicant” may be considered a captive audience in such situations.  Unless the student has applied (or re-applied) to a number of colleges, they may, or may be perceived by colleges to be, in a weak position to reject financial aid offers.  We do not have enough experience with gap years to determine whether this a significant risk.

Students planning gap years may should consider a two-stage strategy:  1) apply during the senior year to “gap friendly” colleges in the senior year, and pay a nonrefundable enrollment deposit to the school which admits you on the most favorable terms; and 2) apply again during the “gap year”, and pick the winner after evaluating the next round of acceptances and financial aid packages.  This is not particularly fair to the schools that agreed to defer admission in the first round, but students may not feel they have a choice if those schools did not offer affordable financial aid packages.


Ask prospective colleges for their policies on gap years

Many colleges have a web page devoted to their gap year policies.  See e.g., (The Ohio State University).  However, too many colleges do not, and even those that do may change their policies.  Therefore, I recommend sending the following e-mail to each college on your list:


Dear (Admissions rep for the student’s area):


My son/daughter, [NAME], would like to apply to [INSERT COLLEGE AND SPECIFIC SCHOOL/PROGRAM] this Fall, but is planning to take a gap year [include a brief, attractive description of the gap year plan, with a web site reference to any program that the student will be attending – this indicates a seriousness of purpose].  NAME will not enroll in any college institution or earn any college credits during that year.

If your college accepts [NAME], he [substitute “she” where appropriate] will ask to defer enrollment to the Fall of ___.  He will be applying for need-based and merit aid.

We have been unable to find any reference on your web site to your policies concerning this situation.  Would you please tell us:

1.       If accepted, will he be allowed to defer entry until Fall 2018?

2.       If he is allowed to defer entry, will any need-based financial aid award be affected?  Will he need to reapply for that aid?

3.       If he is allowed to defer entry, will any merit-based financial aid award – including scholarships – be affected?  Will he need to reapply for that aid?

Thank you very much,


Read the college’s response very carefully to make sure that it covers all of the issues and that it applies to the particular school or department to which the student is applying (e.g., fine arts).  For example, Kansas State as an institution will accept deferrals, but its landscape architecture department will not.  If your student has a particular school or program in mind, you may need to send a separate e-mail to an admissions officer in that school or program.


Do not take college credit during the gap year

Finally, students should not earn college credit during their gap years.  Students who do so risk being treated by colleges as transfer students, forfeiting many of the financial aid advantages of being a high school applicant.  Colleges that defer admission will frequently require students to agree to this rule as a condition of deferral.

Mission Accomplished?  Maybe Not Anymore

Over the last decade, the media has bombarded parents with the message that students must show leadership to gain admission to college.  One democratic way to show that quality – participating in an activity not demanding athletic or political talent – is to perform community service work.  Any student can work at a community food bank or tutor children.

Many schools have added a community service requirement for graduation.  The “how to get into college” articles go one step further, portraying community service as a prized commodity which must be accrued and then displayed to admissions officers.  The method of display is often the college essay, where the student’s devotion is worked into the narrative.  Sometimes it is the narrative, as when students perform their community service overseas.  An overseas “volunteer experience” can pack enough activity to fuel a 600-word essay.

Private schools have been offering overseas trips designed to tick off this (perceived) box.  The trips typically last a few weeks.  The destination is a developing nation, and the itinerary includes both cultural immersion and some volunteer activity designed to improve the community.  Religious private schools are active in this area (made easier because many religious groups have missions abroad), but secular schools also offer these opportunities.

The idea is that if community service is a worthy goal, what better way to convince colleges that the student shares that goal than by going to “where the poverty is,” a developing country, and combining service with cultural education?  The college prep industry has magnified this trend by offering summer programs expanding on this theme.

However, for every revolution in college admissions, there seemingly comes a reformation; we may have just seen its beginning with an article by Frank Bruni in the New York Times.  Bruni roams the college education beat at the paper, and just published the bestseller Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.  His column this week decries the “mission trip.”  See “To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti?” (

Bruni quotes a student who passed up such a trip in favor of doing his bit at home.

“An awfully large percentage of my friends — skewing towards the affluent — are taking ‘mission trips’ to Central America and Africa.”  He knows this from pictures they post on Snapchat and Instagram, typically showing one of them “with some poor brown child aged 2 to 6 on their knee,” explained.  The captions tend to say something along the lines of, “This cutie made it so hard to leave.”

But leave they do, after as little as a week of helping to repair some village’s crumbling school or library, to return to their comfortable homes and quite possibly write a college-application essay about how transformed they are.

“It rubs me the wrong way,” Hernandez told me, explaining that while many of his friends are well intentioned, some seem not to notice poverty until an exotic trip comes with it. He himself has done extensive, sustained volunteer work at the Flint Y.M.C.A., where, he said, the children he tutors and plays with would love it “if these same peers came around and merely talked to them.”

The article states that some admissions officers have become annoyed by what Bruni labels “drive-by charity work.”  One officer reports:

“Often they come to the same conclusion: People in other parts of the world who have no money are happier than we are!” she told me. “That is eye-opening to some students. But it can be a dangerous thing to write about, because it’s hard to rescue the truth from that cliché.”

Bruni also writes that some students try to demonstrate leadership by starting their own nonprofit groups.  They tick both the charity and “entrepreneur” boxes that way.  This sounds so much like my old stomping ground, Silicon Valley, that if it isn’t happening there I’ll be a bit disappointed.

Community service will probably always be a component of the college application, and there will always be questions about what form of community service, and how much of it, your student should be performing.  We will leave this more complex issue for another time.

But for now, suffice to say that Bruni’s article appears to herald a change in how college admissions officers will regard “mission service trips” abroad.  For those who are parenting or counseling students considering such trips, caution is in order.  Unless, of course, the motivation for a trip is purely service.  The test for that is easy:  will the trip be (modestly) omitted from the student’s college application?

Geographic (or Monetary) Diversity?

When I started this blog, I promised that I would occasionally “re-report” items of interest covered in the media.  Here is the first one.

Mark Twain defined an expert as “an ordinary fellow from another town.”  I rather doubt the University of California had that in mind when it decided to give preference to out-of-state and international applicants in admissions.  Rather, as explained in a recent New York Times article, the tuition differential between in-state and out-of-state residents provides a huge subsidy which helps keep universities solvent.

See Public Colleges Chase Out-of-State Students, and Tuition, New York Times, July 7, 2016:

As noted in the article, this is a nationwide trend.  Even though the UC has backtracked a bit under enormous pressure (and a state auditor’s report criticizing the practice), the financial realities mean that most public universities will continue to give out-of-state and international students an edge in admissions.

If flush with cash, students can use this fact to their advantage by applying to premiere colleges outside their home states.  Note, however, that the old maneuver of moving to a new state, getting a driver’s license, and then seeking to pay only in-state tuition does not work anymore.  Most colleges carefully exclude those persons who moved to their state for “educational reasons”.

Caveat emptor.