Campus Overload Live with Jenna Johnson: Plowing through the admissions process

Mar 10, 2011

Campus Overload's Jenna Johnson introduces you to ambitious student leaders, journalists, activists, interns and newsmakers from colleges across the country in her blog daily. In her live chat, she'll be answering your questions about college life, on and off campus.

Jenna will be joined by Andrew Ferguson, the author of "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College." Ferguson's book follows his son's admissions journey, while delving into parts of the admissions process most parents don't get to see: The methodology behind the all-mighty rankings, reasons why the SAT got to be so boring and how some "high net worth individuals" pay upwards of 40K to hire an admissions consultant.

Here's the Post's review of the 'Crazy U,' and here's a Q&A Ferguson did with Jennifer Rubin's Right Turn.

And a quick video from reason.tv of Ferguson with his son:

Happy Thursday! I know we talk a lot about college admissions here, but today there's a slight twist: A dad who recently went through the admissions process and wrote a book about it.

Andrew Ferguson (I think it's okay if we call him Andy) recently released "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College."

I admit, at first I thought this was just another book written by just another Baby Boomer for fellow boomers about what the admissions process means to them. But it's truly an in-depth look at some pretty fascinating parts of getting into college today -- the things most parents don't even think about. (I just wrote a blog post with additional thoughts.)

Andy is here today to answer any and all questions you might have about how rankings are decided, why the SAT is so dull, how to help (or not help) your kid write essays, how "high net worth individuals" approach admissions and everything else he learned along the way.

So, fire away!

Hi. I'm happy to be here and look forward to your questions. I should say at the outset that Crazy U isn't about how to get your kid into college, but how to survive the process of getting your kid into college. But I'll answer any questions the best I can.

On the one hand, Mr. Ferguson got a book out of the process. On the other hand, what about putting even more responsibility on the applicant? The overly-involved parent thwarts a son or daughter's independence and growth. It also sends a message that the son is not capable. How much is too much when it comes to parental involvement in this process?

That's an excellent question that I suppose every parent wrestles with. The problem sometimes is motivation. When it came to applying to college, my son reminded me of those bodies lying face down in the water at the end of "Titanic." The struggle is to let them do it, while making sure that they actually do it.

We've been living in Canada almost 8 years, although are originally from the States. The culture is totally different here - the assumption is that most kids go to their local University and live at home, or at least near by home. In fact, most of our son's friends cannot believe he is interested in going elsewhere. I feel, however, we've 'fallen behind' because of the lack of "College Culture" here. For example, we missed the PSAT deadline, although he plans to take the SATs in May. We are planning a grand tour this summer of Canadian and US schools, but folks here don't seem to *do* college visits. Our son, although he knows he doesn't want to stay here, thinks we are nuts to be talking college "so soon" because no one else he knows is. In fact, application deadlines for most Canadian schools are in the spring (March 1 is common). If he does fall in love with a US school, can he "catch up"? What else should he be doing to gear up for the fall application period?

It sounds like you have matters well in hand. It's interesting that the college mania is unique to the U.S.,, and some Canadians may worry that you're going to import the contagion -- like malaria. But from what you say, everything is on schedule.

I was at a high school Science fair recently, and while all the exhibits were fascinating, it was to most people very obvious that some projects were done by a parent, especially the ones that concerned what the parent does for a living. Isn't it possible that a parent can become too involved that an admissions staff person gets the same feeling I did, i.e. the parent did most of the work, and not the student? Wouldn't that diminish the chance of the student's application being approved?

It's obvious when parents get too involved. Just like you easily spot science fair projects that look more like corporate presentations, admissions officers can pretty quickly tell when a parent has had too much say in an essay... and colleges just want to evaluate the student, not his or her parent.

A few months ago I was at St. Mary's College of Maryland and met with their director of admissions Richard Edgar, who says he can instantly spot an adult voice in the hundreds of essays he reads each year.

"You're not able to trick us," he told me. "We can tell when an essay has been taken out of the 17-year-old's voice, because it sounds like one of us. It doesn't sound like a 16, 17, 18-year-old writer."

Our Darling Child (DC) applied to over 10 colleges. Some where colleges that offered free application, we parents picked a few, in-state colleges were financial safeties, dream colleges on the other coast, one Ivy, many privates, a few out of state (OOS) colleges. We visited more than enough colleges. Now it is down to who offers acceptances and scholarships. Figuring out ED, EA was a treat and filling out applications was a family affair. Basically don't forget and did you get copies? Thank goodness, the guidance counselor team (private school) is on the job, 24/7. DC has receive scholarships that demand acceptances within a few days (prior to the May 1 date) . I ask what gives with this practice sign or you lose the scholarship? Yep. Some colleges have not sent out their decisions, yet. FAFSA and CSS Profile forms on line, please don't get me started. Regarding College Board, I wish I owned their stock. They got plenty of our money. Now, it coming to the end of this March Madness. No hard decision has been made and now it comes to the dollars, theirs and ours. The SAT scores, the "fit", the distance, etc. What a game!! : (

Congratulations on finishing the marathon! I'm surprised that schools are demanding answers about financial aid right away. There used to be a gentlemen's agreement (if you'll forgive the expression) that colleges would all abideby the May 1 deadline to demand acceptances. It's another example of the arms race among schools -- though they don't like to admit it, the admissions departmeents are every bit as competitive among themselves as the most fevered parents are with each other.

Something else Andy mentions in his book: Major newspapers that seem obsessed with writing about the admissions process. Here's a great quote:

 "Admissions stories are a staple of the news business, of course. They have been so since the first baby boomer editor realized he couldn't afford the tuition of the school his kid desperately wanted to go to, and he dispatched his reporters to find out why the hell not."

What do you guys think? Should we write stories about admissions? What topics are we missing?

When your son was writing college essays, you write that he struggled with the crazy, abstract questions most schools ask. But he loved answering a prompt from Georgetown University that asked students to write about a world crisis and propose a course of action. What questions should colleges ask?

Well, there's a whole chapter about the application essays in the book. It was one of the weirdest parts of the process. The questions were so touch-feely! My son was at a loss to "tell your most embarassing moment" or "tell what kind of cat you'd like to be" (I'm making these up, but they're not far-fetched in their intrusiveness and lameness.) They're the perfect flower of the self-esteem culture that has suffused education at all levels. It seems to me much more rational (and helpful) to have the kid submit a simple piece of expository writing, making an argument or setting a scene or describing an event. No need to put them on the psychiatrists' couch when the fill out their app.

In your book, you described the college experience as "in part an apprenticeship, in part an immersion in the finer things; part summer camp, part group therapy, part booze cruise." Now that your son is in college (shoot, just gave away the ending), have you changed your assessment? Anything you would add?

Yes, the book has a happy ending! No harm in giving it away. As I say in the book, my son's demands for college weren't terribly complex: division one sports, no punishingly cold winters, a lively Greek system, and lots of people. Like most applicants, he found what he was looking for and he's thriving. I hope.

I get a lot of questions from parents (especially parents who make their living writing and editing) about how much or how little help to give on the college essay. What do you tell these red-pen-wielding parents?

To calm down! Easier said than done, though, especially nowadays when the writing ability of high schoolers is in steep decline nationwide (as any college professor will tell you). It's a fine line to walk, like so much else in the process. In my own case -- and I'm not suggesting myself as a paragone! -- my wife and I pushed our son a little harder at the beginning than at the end, when he'd written enough that the essays started to come more easily and naturally.

My daughter (currently a sophmore) would like to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy, with Air Force ROTC at a regular college as her backup plan. She'd like to major in either computer science or computer engineering, and to get an AFROTC scholarship, she has to only apply to schools with AFROTC programs (of course!). How many colleges with AFROTC programs should she apply to, and should they all be schools within her home state? (This last question becomes especially relevant if she decides to major in computer engineering, which has far fewer AFROTC-approved colleges in our state.)

I am not the expert on this, but I just sent out a couple messages in hopes of finding someone who can help... Anyone out there have some advice?

On a side note, I am excited to hear that your daughter is interested in computer science -- a field that could really use more women. Just this week I wrote about how there are not enough computer science majors to keep up with industry demand and possible reasons why.

Three years ago, I was one of those parents swept aswirl by SAT scores, over-editing of essays and the fool's gold of the "perfect" college. I spent way too much time looking at leverage or competitive advantage and it embarasses me now. Boy is doing just fine in (not my choice of) college. He's all academic A's and B's (because any grade lower than a "B" means there will "be" no parent paying for college) and shows up on breaks happy and smarter and more world aware than when he left. Pretty impressive even though he's not at Yale, Duke or Hamilton or anywhere close. I should have had this confidence in him years ago. The college admissions process brought out the worst in me. How do parents step back, though?

Nice to speak to a comrade -- another recovering crazy parent! One of the reasons that college admissions is a fascinating subject, and not just to parents, is that it entangles all these huge things and trends -- like ambition, status envy, notions of fairness, and all the rest -- with the most intimate feeling of all, which is the love we all have for our kids, and our desire to see them do well in the world, for their own happiness. There's no reining in that impulse! I suppose the best thing is just to realize what you and I have both seen: It all works out in the end!

I have heard good things about this book and plan to read it. As both a professor and the parent of a soon-to-be college applicant, I am struggling with the desire to put my "insider capital" (what there is of it!) to work for my somewhat-above-average-but-with-average-motivation student and to really give the reins and responsibility to him, even if it's hard and even if he risks some disappointments there. The former impulse is born of my parental desire to see him be wildly successful and the latter is born of my professional experience working with (some) students who clearly have had their hands held way too much and have much trouble taking responsibility for their work, their schedules, college and major requirements, and the like, once they get to college. No less importantly, some of these kids do not know how to deal with bad grades or disappointments because their parents have sheilded them from these problems through high school. What do you think, Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Johnson?

I have to say, the schools send mixed signals in this regard. I describe "parent orientation" at my son's school, just before his first day, during which the speakers told all the assembled parents that it was time to let their little darlings go because they were free and independent beings now -- and then tell us we have to open chcking accounts for them, monitor their finances, give them lectures on drinking and sexual assault, formulate emergency preparedness plans for them ... on and on. In one sense, they seemed intent on coddling the kids as much as the parents.

Colleges are starting to put Net Price Calculators on their websites - basically giving you an estimate of how much you can expect to pay to go to a school based on your financial situation (after all, who pays the sticker price?) ... Did you use any of these? What do you think the effects of these are/will be?

The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2009 requires that colleges and universities post net price calculators on their Web sites by this fall. Like you said, the goal is to educate families who might be scared away from that sticker price listed in a college guide.

But calculating the price of college is tricky, and all of these calculators come with disclaimers saying this is just an estimate. Many colleges are still trying to figure out their own algorithm.

Hopefully, the calculators will help some low-income families realize they can afford private, top-notch universities. But we will see if that's what actually happens.

For a student who does not qualify for financial aid, under what circumstances would you recommend paying $50K+ per year for a private college or university?

They don't call it college craziness for nothin'. On its face, it just strikes me as insane to pay fifty grand a year for an education that, with a little searching and diligence, can be got at one third the price or less. On the other hand, if my son had got into Georgetown, which he loved and where the annual bill is approaching sixty grand, I probably would have moved heaven and earth to find a way to pay for it. As I say: Crazy.

Your son's admissions process followed the traditional timeline: Get pounds of mailers, buy college guides, take the SAT, fill out apps, write essays, wait for an answer, figure out financial aid and then leave home. Should parents stick with that? Do recommend shuffling things around at all (like moving financial aid up in the process)?

I've been asked a lot about how I would change the "system," and I'm always at a loss. I don't have a reformist bone in my body. One thing did really strike me as irrational, though: demanding that the FAFSA be in by March 1. You need to have all your tax information to fill out the FAFSA, and a large number of people can't get their taxes done before March 1. Last I heard, taxes are due on April 15. But the FAFSA is so infuriating in so many ways I suppose I wouldn't know where to begin complaining about it ...

It seems to me that many students never actually visit the colleges they apply to. What do students (and parents) look for in a higher ed website? Do you really use a "virtual tour" that's offered on some of those sites? What makes for an appealing web experiences?

Exactly -- with students applying to colleges all over the country, it's impossible to visit everywhere. I know a lot of families will wait to see where a student gets in before they start booking plane tickets.

So, many colleges are trying to bring campus to the students through blogs, video tours, online Q&A's and coverage of campus events.

In doing this, colleges have to be less formal than their glossy brochures. And they should let current students take the lead in deciding what's truly interesting.

I had coffee with Boston University President Robert A. Brown, who talked about how they have really bulked up their Web presence to attract far-away students. BU's admissions Web site lets visitors shift through a real student's calendar to get a feel for campus life, watch videos and get all the basic info.

I like this "virtual tour" of the University of Oregon, because it blends together photos, text information and video clips so students choose "where" they go on campus and what they see.

Anyone else have good examples?

There's no "right" answer for the number of colleges the daughter should apply for--in-state, out-of-state, private, state school--doesn't matter, as long as she attends a school that offers AFROTC. There are three types of scholarships offered to high school students: Type 1 has no cap on tuition and can be used at any school (very few awarded), Type 2 is currently capped at $18k/year but can also be used at any school, Type 7 is capped at $9k/year and must be used at an in-state public university. The type awarded depends on how the daughter ranks among the other applicants. Recommend that the family check out www.afrotc.com and contact the recruiting officer at the near AFROTC detachment who can answer general questions about the program, scholarship types, etc.

Some great advice. Thanks so much!

Oh, and be sure to ask the AFROTC detachment at each school you're considering whether the school offers "kickers" to students with ROTC scholarships. It might be free room-and-board, an additional monetary scholarship, or something else. This could also factor into the decision of which college to attend.

And more!

I sent my sun to Naval Academy for summer program in his junior year, hoping he would apply. He learned at the summer program from the Annapolis professor, that if you want to do research, the military schools are not for you , go to MIT! He actually told my son this, so he never applied, but they kept calling us on the telephone. The summer program has academic program in morning, sports in afternoon to see who is fit. Thaanks Naval Academy!!

And for the parent of the daughter wanting to get an AFROTC, here's another pitch!

Great questions so far! Anyone curious about the SAT? Andy actually took it and has some interesting observations...

What do you think of the book Debt Free U by college student, Zac Bissonnette? He advocates the student paying for his/her own college education, and doing so without loans. In a debt ridden economy, is this not one of the most valuable life lessons we can impart to our children? Do not spend until you have the finances to back the purchase. Work hard for your own education so it is taken seriously and valued.

I've heard about it but haven't read it, so of course I'll be happy to offer an opinion on it.  Or at least on his idea -- which would be a wonderful idea if we could figure out a plausible way to do it. One of the most damaging, or maybe I mean sinister, things about the process is the way in which the entire higher ed establishment -- from commercial publishers to the Dept of Ed to college admissions offices to the College Board -- has combined to pressure people, kids and parents, into taking on debt. I spent quite a bit of time on the College Board website and much of it was a giant propaganda billboard for the glories of taking out loans and saddling yourself with debt for the next forty years. And the bias in favor of debt isn't likely to improve now that the federal government has taken over the student loan biz.

And you can see why the establishment is so eager to have students go into debt -- it relieves the pressure on the establishment to explain why the schools are so expensive.

parent orientation. my parents didn't have to go thru 'orientation' (they would not have, if it even existed, way back when). JEEZ. I know that letting go is hard, but really - colleges offer orientation for the PARENTS, now?

Oh yes indeedy. When I was a kid orientation consisted of dumping my duffle in my new dorm room, rifling my new roommates record collection, and heading down to the common room to hear the new head resident adviser give a nervous lecture on the dangers of alcohol, after which we went out and bought a bunch of beer.

No longer. As I describe in the book, some of these student orientations can last for LONGER THAN A WEEK. It's like Mardi Gras. And so the parents don't feel left out, they get orientation too. It's so common, in fact, that very few people notice how insane it is.

Do Universities have the time to unweight high school grades to spreadsheet each applicant since some high schools weigh classes differently? Example: our school weighs AP and Honors equally, so university will not recognize increased level of difficulty with AP and with higher rank to that applicant. What do you think? Disservice by the high school or not?

Ouch, my head hurts just thinking about crunching all of these numbers... Weighted vs. unweighted (along with what points to assign an A-) are huge points of contention in many school districts, especially those around D.C.

I know many colleges ask students to least indicate how the GPA was determined or to submit their GPA unweighted. I think many colleges who receive applications from the country's top students are able to understand and rank the various types of GPAs without a problem. And usually admissions officers aren't just looking at that big number at the top of a transcript -- they are scanning the whole form to see what classes a student took and which ones he/she excelled in.

Anyone else have thoughts to share?

It's such a struggle not to be overly involved but I totally regret it. My oldest daughter showed hardly any initiative and then couldn't decide until 24 hrs within the deadline. She ended up withdrawing after just 3 weeks of school this past fall - it wasn't necessarily the school - she wasn't ready. She's leaving at home, working and taking a couple of classes locally. She said it wasn't just us who pressured her - it was everyone - she felt it just wasn't acceptable to say I am not ready.

You aren't alone. The social standard is that kids graduate from high school and then go straight to college. But, honestly, some students might really benefit from living at home for another year or two while taking community college classes. Or taking a gap year to volunteer or work. I think everyone involved -- parents, teachers, counselors and the students themselves -- need to learn that it's okay to say, "Wait, the traditional path isn't the right one for me."

Address early admissions, early acceptance and the "early" stuff that is complicating the process. Is "early" just another pressure?

As one college counselor told me, a "successful" school is one that is first in everything: first to hit the high school student with a mailed brochure, first to get them to campus, first to get them to apply, first to put together a package of aid. ED and EA are just part of that arms race. Schools love it because it makes it easier to identify kids who really want to go to their school -- which means an offer is more likely to be accepted, which increases the school's "yield," which makes the president of the school happy! Another vicious cycle.

Is there a vast difference between private colleges in the amount of loans or monies given? And what is the range, more or less?

Huge, huge differences, especially when you compare large prestigious schools with small liberal arts ones. The best thing you can do is look from school to school and ask questions.

I stumbled on this chat some weeks ago and think it's great. Your WP bosses should really get the word out more that you are here as resource and forum. I keep telling friends about you. Whether it's cafeteria trays or test scores or spring break, you offer a fun and informative take on campus overload. Would love your thoughts (and thoughts of neighbors) on "town v. gown" or college students (largely non-residents) who impact the locals.

Aww, looks like my mom finally found the chat. Thanks!

It was noted in the discussion that many colleges have on-line campus tours. This is helpful, but as the key part (hopefully) of the college experience revolves around courses, have either of you seen on-line classroom visits -- that is, opportunities to see a video of classroom lectures and discussions? Ideally, one would want to get a sense of classroom culture rather than just a tour of the student center.

Excellent idea! But I would insist that the camera pan the classroom every once in a while, to see how many students are napping and playing video games!

Phew -- lots of great questions, and Andy had some great (and hilarious) answers. Thank you, thank you for making the time to chat today!

E-mail me if you have an idea for next week's chat (johnsonj@washpost.com). Have a great week.

In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Andrew Ferguson
Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, is the author of "Fools’ Names, Fools’ Faces," a collection of essays, and "Land of Lincoln," named by the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune as a Favorite Book of the Year. Formerly a senior writer for the Washingtonian magazine, he has been a contributing editor to Time magazine, as well as a columnist for Fortune, TV Guide, Forbes FYI, National Review, Bloomberg News, and Commentary. He has also written for the New Yorker, New York magazine, the New Republic, the American Spectator, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many other publications. In 1992, he was a White House speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. He lives in suburban Washington, D.C., with his wife and two children.
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