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PBS: 'Ten Steps to College'

Howard and Matthew Greene
College Consultants
Wednesday, October 22, 2003; 12:00 PM

"Ten Steps to College with the Greenes" is a PBS series hosted by college consultants and Knight Ridder columnists Howard and Matthew Greene. The father and son team provide expert advice and how-to strategies for preparing for college. Today's discussion focuses on presenting a strong well-written application, fitting in a diverse community, making the admission decision and transitioning to college.

The Greenes were online Wednesday, Oct. 22 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss tips on finding the right college and the admissions process.

The Greenes are authors of the HarperCollins book series "Greenes Guides to Educational Planning." Check your local listings for the PBS series airdates.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Howard and Matthew Greene: Greetings! Welcome to our chat on college admissions, and thanks for joining us. Please feel free to send along personal or general questions, and we'll try to get to as many as we can.
Howard and Matthew Greene


Boston, Mass.: My son is a strong student from a very competetive suburban public high school. He did quite well on his SATs, although not as well on his SATIIs. Although not a recruited athlete, nor even a very good one, he enjoys sports and has played a high school sport every season. Unfortunatley,this has left him with little time to be invovled in other extracurricular activites. As he is filling out his applications, he seems to have relatively little to put down for extracurriculars and even less for leadership or honors. I am concerned that he will be shut out of the highly competetive schools to which he plans to apply. (He also has selected some safety schools that I think he wil be able to get into.) Any suggestions for presenting himself most effectively in his applicaton? Is there any hope?

Howard and Matthew Greene: Quality of curriculum and good grades are far and away the most important factors in admissions decisions. SAT I, and then sometimes SAT IIs (or ACT) supplement these primary factors. An outstanding talent in athletics, leadership, or another area can be a tipping factor, but in most cases at selective schools good students with good and consistent involvement in a couple of areas can do well in admissions. We often talk with highly involved athletes who have little time for other activities outside of their sports. In many cases their grades suffer. Most student-athletes are not "recruited" to colleges, but colleges will respect their commitment and drive. Your son should, in one of his essays, and his activities list, and possibly a supplemental resume, be very clear about the amount of time and effort he has spent contributing to his sports. Has he spent his summers in productive ways that he can discuss as well? The highly competitive schools are highly competitive, and may indeed be reaches, but not playing piano at Carnegie Hall won't likely be the reason he won't be admitted. Do balance that list in any case, but go for it just the same!


Harrisburg, Pa.: What is your impression of online degrees offered by such colleges as the University of Phoneix and Walden University? Are these respected degrees, or do employers look down upon online degrees?

Howard and Matthew Greene: This is a newer vehicle for getting a college degree, but one which is rapidly emerging, and which more people are taking advantage of. On-line degrees are becoming more common, and employers are only now having to consider this more in their hiring decisions. Most students at the programs you mention are adults (i.e. over 25, so-called "non-traditional" learners) and this is the best means for them to continue, or begin, a college degree. In some cases, these are career-changers seeking to develop new skills. We are of the opinion that employers will respect these efforts. It is a good idea to create a portfolio to show employers, which shows some of the accomplishments of an on-line program, to show quality and content of what one has done. What is lost in these programs for "traditional" (i.e. high school graduating) collegebound students is the residential college experience and learning environment.


Potomac, Md.: Thanks for your help in advance! Our son is applying to small public and private colleges as well as large state universities. While we believe he would enjoy the diversity and stimulation of a large university (ie-Penn State), we are worried that he will not receive enough guidance and that he would be too distracted to focus on his schoolwork ( he has a history of ADD). On the other hand, a small school like St. Mary's College of Maryland or Mary Washington in Virginia might be too small after the first two years. What advice can you provide on this front? Thanks!

Howard and Matthew Greene: In our book "The Public Ivies" we cover many of these concerns. Student initiative and assertiveness is key at the big schools like Penn State. Some of the larger public (and private) colleges and universities have extensive learning support and academic resource programs that students may take advantage of (emphasis on MAY, which means it is up to the student). On a visit to these campuses, you can connect with these services to ask how they work with students, and accommodations that may be made. If your son would likely benefit from a smaller college experience, especially to begin with, then two years at a St. Mary's kind of environment could work very well. By then, he will likely be more independent, and have stronger skills to take with him as he applies to transfer to some of the larger, and perhaps more competitive universities.


Wheaton, Md.: I went to a small college and despite receiving what I think is a good education, I always struggle to find work or new opportunities because I've found that since I didn't go to a well-known "big school" with an extensive alumni network, it's harder to get contacts for jobs, opportunities, etc.

I've also found when it's time to interview people, there's an automatic bias to pick out the resume's of those who attended well-known schools when better-looking candidates' resumes are screened out because they lack that brand name.

Finally, having been in the workforce for some time, I've worked with brilliant people who went to small schools and total nitwits who went to well-known universities, and vice versa.

My wife and I were debating this and the opinion I'll suggest to my kids is to go to the school with the best name since it's all about the alumni network, something big schools have and small schools don't. Obviously I'll let them follow their own dreams but if one of them decides to go to "Podunk U." I'll probably advise against it, but let them make the final decision.

Your thoughts?

Howard and Matthew Greene: a) the results of the admissions decisions will help determine what choices your children will have.
b) there is some truth to the "name" theory, but going to the most prestigious college available does not guarantee success.
c) today, a graduate degree is becoming ever more important for long term career development and success, and entrance to a good grad school means going to a decent college, not necessarily "the best" or what people think is the best, and doing well (meaning a 3.5 GPA or so).
d)so, finding the right college match where a student will be successful and actually graduate is the most important concern.


Denver, Colo.: Can you give potential transfer students any hints? How is the transfer admissions process different from the freshmen admissions process?

Howard and Matthew Greene: Significant numbers of students are successfully transferring these days. This is a real opportunity for students who have excelled in their first one or two years of college. Grades in an appropriate curriculum are essential, so students should be sure to be in a broader liberal arts curriculum, focusing on courses that will likely be common to many colleges and accepted for transfer consideration and credit. Also, if you have particular universities in mind as targets, start contacting them early to know their time schedule and particular requirements in the first two years of their program so that you can try to match up your curriculum. Be certain of specific requirements for any special school programs (business, communications, fine arts, engineering, etc.). The transfer process is typically more mature and directed, and students should have a better sense of their interests, majors, and what they're looking for. colleges expect direct contacts from students as mature learners. Most universities have an admissions officer particularly responsible for transfer admissions.


Detroit, Mich.: How important is the interview in the admissions process?

Howard and Matthew Greene: Unfortunately, it's not very important these days. A majority of colleges do not offer evaluative on-campus interviews. Some offer informational interviews. Others alumni or regional interviews, but very few require them. Be sure to find out about interviewing opportunities (alumni, on-campus, or otherwise) at schools you're serious about, and use them as a chance to learn more about the colleges and express some interest. These days the written application has replaced personal interviews as being of primary importance in the presentation process, thus giving candidates a real opportunity to carefully showcase their talents and interests and background more extensively. We think this is a fairer process, since it is more objective, since an admissions committee, or at least two readers usually, can evaluate your credentials rather than your being judged by one brief meeting.


Washington, D.C.: Mr and Mr Greene:

With the tuitions across the country soaring...how does this affect the poor?

Or even the middle income parents that want to send their kids to college?

Will this create a more Haves and Haves Not society?


Howard and Matthew Greene: There's no question that tuitions are rising disproportionately, and that public university costs are rising even faster than those at private institutions. This is a fact of life, and paying for college will likely require a higher percentage of family income than in the past. At the same time, we want to emphasize that there is over 100 billion of financial aid avialable to families today, most of it from the federal government. Universities are very sensitive to the potential for pricing out needy students, and many are working to do something about this. University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for example recently decided to join a select few private colleges (Harvard, Princeton...) in doing away with loans for needy students. There is much aid available for needy students, and for those in the middle, many merit-based awards for talented students (academically or otherwise). Therefore, you should not let costs limit your options, and the better a student's grades, the better his or her opportunities. Most (some three quarters) students do not pay full price for college. Start saving early if you can, and the more you save, the more help you'll likely get.


Laurel, Md.: Hi. My son is a high school sophomore who is taking honors chemistry, honors algebra II and A.P. Mod. European History and carries a "B" average. He loves these classes and intends to continue taking several A.P. classes. He is also in various bands in school and is section leader for low brass. Though sports is not his forte, he is quite a good bowler! I've heard that bowling is an NCAA sport in some colleges. Can he qualify for multiple scholarships?

Howard and Matthew Greene: Well you hear something new every day. Your son sounds like he has a strong record and diverse interests, which should qualify him for many colleges. Check with the ncaa.org web site for information on recruiting, and look to the appropriate bowling association to see about college programs. There might actually be scholarships available from them, as well as colleges. We would encourage you not to let this particularly narrow area, however, limit where your son applies to college. See our previous note about financial opportunities. The short answer to your question is that he can qualify for multiple awards.


Chevy Chase, Md.: When a college coach (Div. III) says to a high school senior, "You have my full support with the admissions committee," and uses exactly that same phrase over and over again, what does that mean? Is it code for "you're in," or does it mean "I can't promise anything, but I'll let the admissions office know that I want you?"

Howard and Matthew Greene: Bravo for you. Be cautious through this process. Coaches, particularly at Div. III colleges, do not make admissions decisions. They can only advocate. They may have a sense of past admissions decisions and qualifications of recruited athletes (and it sounds like this senior is being "recruited"), but you can ask about previous admissions decisions for athletes in that sport, as well as specifically how the admission process works at the coach's college. Unless a coach is offering a designated athletic scholarship (Div. I schools) which he or she can control for particular recruits, he or she is unlikely to have as much impact on the admission decision. We know that qualified applicants to Div. III schools who are being recruited do stand the chance of improving their admission odds signficantly. Be cautious about coaches who aggressively push an Early Decision (binding) admission program as the only way they will endorse or recruit your child. It must be a college overall that he or she wants to attend.


Arlington, Va.: What is your view of "gap year" where a student takes a year off between high school and college? Does it depend on whether the student engages in service vs. "goof-off" activities for that year?

Howard and Matthew Greene: A gap or interim year between high school and college can be a great opportunity for many students, whether they are already admitted to a college and then ask to defer entrance for a year, or decide to apply after having completed high school. It's very important to have a game plan for the year. It should not be a "year off", but rather a year of enrichment and development. Because of the maturity and broader exposure that a productive year can bring, colleges tend to look favorably on a student taking the interim year to pursue interests.


Washington, D.C.: I can't get over the pressure people in this
area put on kids when it comes to
colleges! So many expect their children to
even consider only a handful of the Ivies,
even though every other kid in their
massive high school class is applying to
the same college. It's gotten to the point
that, when my brother and his family were
dropping me off to visit a friend in
Princeton, they started pumping my
just-turned-nine-year-old niece, trying to
get her interested in attending. To here
credit, she called out from the back seat,
"Mom! I'm only nine! I want to play with my
Barbie!" It wasn't like this when I went to a
good, well-known, but small liberal arts
college twenty years ago. What's

Howard and Matthew Greene: Your perception is correct. We worry about the same thing. Unfortunately, the larger public has come to believe that the only good educational opportunities are at elite schools. We know that's not the case. In today's world, there are significant numbers of outstanding educational institutions. what has changed in the context here is that 1.4 million students take the SAT I, and almost the same number the ACT. 3 million high school students will graduate college this year (the largest number ever in America), and two-thirds will go directly to college (also the highest percentage ever). More students are better qualified from more schools taking harder courses, and are made more aware at an earlier age of the value of education. A college degree is becoming a standard calling card in our information technology-based society, and, because of this in part, families focus on which college a student attends as a key differentiating factor (rightly or wrongly). How can you help keep the pressure off your children? Help them to set appropriate expectations as you observe their learning through the years, and encourage them to find their areas of talent and passions. Tell them that your love for them is not conditional on where they go to college, and give them a hug every day!! College planning should start earlier than it did in the past (not at age nine!), but pressure and narrow-minded demands should not be the driving force.


Washington, D.C.: What should be one of your first actions into trying to fit in with your college community?

Howard and Matthew Greene: It is important for every student to find his or her niche, to get to know an advisor, and to talk with professors and dormmates. Sometimes continuing a high school activity, at the club or intramural level even, is an important first step. Find appropriate services and affinity clubs (international students, multicultural students, religious associations, etc.). Connecting to appropriate resource people (from Deans of Residential Life, to dorm resident advisors, is an important part of the process as well. We also like pre-college orientation programs as a way to meet some students right away. Don't be afraid to reach out and experiment with new interests and activities either!


Chicago, Ill.: While it is great that there is a good support system for those who would like to go to college, there seems to be a disdain for those who choose not to pursue a degree. When I was in high school, all of 3 years ago, it was assumed that anyone with passing grades planned on going to college. No one even discussed technical schools, the military or just getting a job as valid options. I did go to one year of school, and I hated it. I wished I had known then that there were other options for me. I wouldn't have ended spending $8,000 of my savings pursuing something I had no interest in.

Howard and Matthew Greene: We read your frustration. College is not for everyone, and students should place a lot of options on the table in thinking about post-high school plans. However, as we said previously, a post-high school education (college degree) has become more important for this generation. Technical education, certificates, apprenticeships, and so on, are other ways to build marketable skills to help with a secure career as well. Sometimes a community or junior college program (at far less cost) is a way to explore "college" with less cost or commitment? Sometimes a gap year to pursue an internship or job is another way to see if an alternative to college makes sense. We have encountered numerous individuals for whom the military or a service program, was a wonderful opportunity to develop specific skills that have led to successful independent careers in the work world. It's all about researching, before you make a commitment to any of these options to find what's best for you.


Reading, Pa.: When a university claims that their engineering program is "more selective" for admission than the rest of the university what does that mean in terms of point value of GPA & SAT scores. We've heard this statement at Penn State, Virginia Tech, Delaware & Pittsburgh, but none of them want to assign a quantity to that statement. Is it 100 math SAT points? Do you have any idea? It makes it difficult to choose reach, ballpark & safety schools without this information.

Howard and Matthew Greene: Important question. We have always told students if they are applying to specific colleges with a larger university, the college will look at particular courses of study (in the case of engineering, math and sciences) and particular testing, that showcase skills and preparation for the program in question. for example: calculus, physics, chemistry, SAT IIs (Math IIC) and in at least one of the sciences, for engineering. Because engineering programs are very structured curricularly, and the number of places is more limited than in the rest of the university programs, they do tend to be more selective, so they will look carefully at these criteria. You may be able to find class profiles at a university's web site, or on a visit, or you could ask the question in an information session or by e-mail. Check with your school guidance office to see if other students applied to the particular programs to see how they fared. In general, yes, look for higher math and science grades and test scores in every case (100 points? perhaps!).


Syracuse, N.Y.: How can a strong, but not top student, at a competitive high school stand out in the admissions process. What is the best way to highlight exceptional community service (1,500 + hours), a demanding after school job (lifeguarding) and strong leadership roles when colleges just seem to look at the numbers?

Howard and Matthew Greene: They don't just look at the numbers. This is where students have the opportunity through essays, activities lists, recommendations and even "testimonies" from those they have served or worked with, to highlight their significant personal strengths and interests. An additional resume probably makes sense, narrating some of the particular service activities, and the demands of working so much after school. All the selective schools we talk with emphasize the importance of leadership, service, initiative, and character in considering candidates. This is particularly true of the small and middle-sized private colleges and universities. Most of the flagship state universities honors and special programs that emphasize the same.


Alexandria, Va.: My son is a senior this year. His SATs are good (1340) but his GPA is not (2.7), due to depression and family changes (father lost job, family started own business) the past couple years. He has worked hard to overcome his problems, and first quarter grades are on track for As & Bs. In addition, we will be looking for financial aid, although I don't think he'll qualify for merit based aid. We've been planning to apply to VA state schools on the theory that we can't afford anything else. However, I hear that state schools rarely fund 100% of need. My question: is it worthwhile to look at any private schools, given his grades and our needs, or would we be better off looking at state schools only?

Howard and Matthew Greene: The answer is emphatically YES. Many of the private, mid-competitive colleges will fund students like your son. And, it will be important for him to tell "his story" so they can better understand ups and downs in his record. He doesn't need to overshare, and doesn't have to share anything, but it might help to explain his record, changes in his family life, and his goals and confidence for college.


Howard and Matthew Greene: Thanks, everyone for writing. We love your questions, and are sorry we can't get to them all! We hope to be back again to continue our conversation!
Howard and Matthew


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