Monday, November 24, 2014

All the News That Fits--Another View

On Friday I received a thoughtful e-mail from Jon Reider shortly after the publication of my post about media coverage of college admissions.  Jon is a regular reader of the blog and correspondent as well as someone whose opinion I value, and I asked him if he would consider adapting his e-mail as a guest post.  Here it is:


I have mused a lot over the years about the best way to speak to the media.  (I do get called from time to time, so my ego is OK.)   The best reporters like Eric Hoover and Janet Lorin can often quote at more length, perhaps because their space constraints are less severe than the daily press.  I too have winced at seeing a half hour chat turn into a half-sentence bite.  I sometimes try to say something like, "This is the key point."   But that wouldn't always work, and I doubt reporters want to be instructed in their trade, any more than you and I do.  So, yes, we have to live with it and hope that the important stuff gets through, as it does in the second half of the article.

 We can remember the adage that "Dog bites man" is not news, but the reverse is.   Occasionally, reporters call trolling for a story: what is new this year?  What trends are you seeing?  That sort of thing.   They are looking for the "Man bites dog" story.   The problem, as we know, is that the daily grind of advising, editing, writing, waiting, and then either celebrating or consoling is much the same year after year.   The real news is slow and cumulative: more early applications, more test optional schools, more demonstrated interest schools, more selectivity.    Fine for Jim Fallows and the Atlantic Monthly, or Andrew Delbanco writing a book, but not of much value for a daily newspaper.

 What amuses me is the phenomenon itself, that Ms. Kaminer's hyper-sophisticated editors consider this front-page Sunday stuff (below the fold, to be sure).   The early emphasis on the ridiculous excesses plays into that, of course, just as the tale of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen made good fodder for Ronald Reagan way back when.  The extremes drive the noise machine.  One of these days, I hope to address the broader question of why elite college admissions has become a fetishized commodity (in Marx's sense), which is presumed to have magical value, akin to a Mercedes or Rolex.  In addition to spawning all the parasitic industries like test prep, organized community service ventures, independent counselors, and maybe even our own livelihoods, it has infiltrated late bourgeois culture with an array of popular books, movies, TV shows, in addition to the regular coverage in the Times, WSJ, and elsewhere.  College admissions has become a "myth" in the anthropological sense of a motivating and framing narrative through which a culture makes sense of itself.   How and why this has happened is worth exploring.

Jon Reider

Director of College Counseling

San Francisco University High School

I am thankful to Jon for his willingness to contribute, and as we approach a much-needed Thanksgiving break, I am thankful to all of you who read the blog and share your thoughts.  It is good to know that there are many colleagues who share core values about college counseling and admissions.

Friday, November 21, 2014

News That's Fit to Print

On Sunday The New York Times ran a front page story about the increasing number of applications students around the country seem to be submitting.  I was one of a handful of counselors interviewed and quoted, something good for my school and not so good for my ego and humility.

Since the article appeared I talked with a friend who was also quoted in the article.  He was bemused (I think) because a good thirty-minute conversation with reporter Ariel Kaminer showed up in the article as a five-word quote.  That’s the reality when dealing with the press, I suppose.  No matter how eloquent you might be and how much depth you might provide, a reporter has an angle and a limited number of words, and chances are you’ll end up on the cutting floor.

I actually originally learned that lesson as a writer myself.  This past weekend was the annual football game between Randolph-Macon and Hampden-Sydney colleges in Virginia, the oldest small-college football rivalry in the South.  It’s a great example of Division 3 athletics at its best, unlike the headlines and scandals produced at athletic powerhouses like UNC-Chapel Hill (which I’ll deal with in my next post), and I have been told (but haven’t confirmed) that Southern Living recently declared the rivalry the South’s greatest, beating out Alabama-Auburn, among others.

I’d like to think I had a little, very little, to do with that.  I know both schools well.  I graduated from and coached and taught at Randolph-Macon, and Hampden-Sydney Admissions Dean Anita Garland is my oldest and closest college admissions friend.  Nearly thirty years ago I wrote an article for Southern Living about the Randolph-Macon vs. Hampden-Sydney rivalry as exemplifying “The Game” which is more important than the rest of the season.  It was the first article I ever sold at a time when I thought I might pursue a free-lance writing career, and it was a big deal because Southern Living published one feature article a year in its “All-South Football Section” and that article was usually written by established writers such as Pat Conroy and Willie Morris.

My article nearly never saw the light of day.  The magazine accepted the article, sent a photographer, paid me, and my wife told everyone we knew, but on the day the issue hit the newsstands I rushed out, opened the magazine, and—no article.  I immediately understood how actors feel when their one scene in a movie is edited out.  Are you a published author when you’ve been paid but the article isn’t published?

I contacted my editor at Southern Living and learned that the magazine had lost advertising pages at the last minute, causing the article to be cut.  The good news was that they still planned to publish it twelve months later and wanted me to update it.  In particular they wanted me to get some quotes from the then-President of Hampden-Sydney, a colorful character.  When I called his office to set up a phone interview I was told that he was too busy because he was a finalist for another job and had to keep the phone lines open for the call from the search committee.  I completed the article sans quotes and it was ultimately published, and just after submitting the revised version I saw in the newspaper that the institution he was waiting on had announced its new President—not him.

The Times article illustrates the dilemma faced by those of us who have devoted our lives to counseling young people about a decision that is an important, even essential, developmental step in the transition from adolescence to adulthood.  On the one hand, it affirms the importance of our work when an article about college admissions is on the front page of The New York Times. At the same time, as a professional I find myself troubled by the messages (usually subtle, occasionally overt) sent to the public by media coverage of the college admissions process.

I talked twice with reporter Ariel Kaminer, who wrote the article and covers higher education for the Times, and she is clearly a pro who understands the issues.  She quoted me fairly and accurately, and I thank her for not making me look stupid, my biggest fear any time I talk to a reporter.  She chose not to quote what I thought was my most significant point.  I told her that I was not necessarily seeing the trend in my school, but that I emphasize to students that the increased competition at the top of the college food chain does not mean that they should apply to more colleges, but that they should apply more thoughtfully, knowing why each and every school is on their list.   

The second half of the article makes that point and that most college counselors think filing more than a reasonable number of applications (we can disagree about what that number is, but it is far lower than 30 or 56 or 86, all actual numbers from the article) is stupid and counterproductive.  The problem is the first half, which describes the alarming trend, and particularly the headline (which is written by someone other than the writer of the article).  A quick skim of the headline and article could very easily convince already crazed students and parents that applying to lots and lots of colleges is now the norm.

 It is easy to bemoan the fact that the media contribute to college admissions-related hype and anxiety, but I also don’t know that we should expect the media to promote our agenda.  What makes that harder is that I’m not sure our profession is agreed on what messages we should be sending to students and parents and the public.  Is college about fit or about prestige?  Is the admissions process a journey of self-discovery or a game?  Does the process reward substance or packaging?

There is too much mythology and too little accurate information about how college admission works.  If that bothers us (and it’s not clear that it does), it might be time for those of us on the front lines at colleges and on the other side of the desk to think about what the public needs to know and develop a vision statement for how and why the college search and admissions processes are essential in the growth of the student and in making our country better.  That kind of manifesto might just be what the New York Times considers “news that’s fit to print.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

If You Can't Say Something Nice

It was the first day of Christmas break, and I had stopped by the office for a couple of minutes on my way to do frantic, last-minute shopping.  As I was walking out the door, the phone rang.  Don’t answer, advised an internal voice to which I have since learned to pay heed.  But answer it I did.

On the other end of the line was the Director of Admissions at a large public university located outside Virginia.  He explained that on his desk was the application folder for one of my students.  I cringed when he named the student, whose record was, to put it politely, undistinguished (or perhaps distinguished by his lack of achievement).  On the student’s folder was a one-word note from the Associate Director—“Why?”  But, the Director continued, he had read my recommendation and there was something telling him he should give the student a chance.

I stayed silent, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Finally he said, “I’m sorry, the best I can do is offer him summer school admission.”  As I was doing a celebratory dance (which you should be thankful you didn’t have to see), I responded that I thought that was fair.  As we said our goodbyes, he asked one final question, “Have you ever thought about becoming a creative writer?”

Describing the recommendation letter as creative writing does not mean that it is fiction, only that it is an art form. I’ve spent most of the past month thinking only about writing recommendations, but now that I seem to have survived November 1, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on the art of the recommendation.

We are about halfway through what my children used to call “recommendation” season, the time of year when I was grumpier than usual.  I am envious of colleagues who are able to get the bulk of their rec letters written during the summer.  I’ve never been able to do that, and might be too old to start now.  As a result, the rhythm of the fall is dictated by the next deadline and the number of letters that need to be written.  I wish I were as organized and disciplined in every part of my life as I am during recommendation season.

In the independent school world the value and impact of “the letter” may be overrated.  When I was first hired as a college counselor thirty years ago, it seemed that the ability to write was the only skill anyone was concerned about.  Today I suspect that rec letters from teachers have higher value, seen as more likely to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The counselor recommendation letter serves several purposes.  It is part legal brief, making the case for the student and laying out evidence.  It is part character study, bringing the application and transcript to life.  It can also serve the function that footnotes serve in big, scholarly non-fiction books.  If the transcript is the primary text, the rec letter provides the footnotes.

In his book, The Call of Stories, the psychiatrist Robert Coles says that each person has a unique story and that the purpose of psychiatry is to discern that story.  In a perfect world, the job of a college counselor in writing a recommendation is to tell the student’s story.  Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world.  Our public school colleagues who are faced with ridiculous counseling loads and myriad other duties that push college counseling onto the back burner would need super powers to tell their students’ stories in any more than a superficial way.

I think there are four types of stories (if I’m missing others, I’d love to know):

            --The story of accomplishment

            --The story of growth

            --The story of adversity overcome

            --The story of potential

Obviously some of these are easier to tell than others.

How long should a recommendation letter be?  The prevailing wisdom is one page, that admissions officers have neither the time nor the interest in reading more.  I get that, but it will be no surprise to regular readers of this blog that brevity is a challenge for me and my letters are usually longer.  My thinking is that I have one opportunity to say what I need to say on the student’s behalf. I have friends at other schools that have moved to a bullet-point format in their letters, but I’m not ready to move in that direction.  The change I made several years ago is to frontload my letters so that the opening paragraph makes the argument in brief for a reader who chooses not to read the entire letter.

I have always believed that recommendation letters are read negatively, that if you don’t say something it is assumed that you can’t.  If you highlight how diligent a student is, it may be read as evidence that the student lacks ability.  A rec letter is an opportunity to put a student’s record in context, to explain a grade or a class or a teacher or life circumstances that are relevant in understanding the student’s journey.

Recommendation writers are like politicians, always looking for the perfect euphemism, the sufficiently vague phrase that is open to interpretation, preferably faulty.  Many years ago, Robert Thornton, an economics professor at Lehigh, developed the Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations, or LIAR.  His examples were oriented toward job recommendations, and were meaningful for what they didn’t say rather than what they did.  The phrase “You will be fortunate to get this person to work for you” could be high praise or might be missing the important information (no one else has been able to get them to work).  In a college recommendation, describing a student as “entrepreneurial” could mean they sell drugs to all their friends, while “he hopes to become an engineer” might be missing the all-important (but he better learn to drive a train).  And should the statement, “I would place him in a class by himself” be interpreted figuratively or literally?

The biggest ethical issue attached to recommendation writing is what information to include and what to leave out.  I see my job as being an advocate for the student, presenting the best case I can for them, without compromising my credibility.  I have therefore never written a recommendation intended to be negative.  I try to follow my grandmother’s advice—“If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.”