College Counseling for Kindergarteners?
In building an excellent elementary school, we focus on final results as much as we do on short term goals. We have to teach kids to navigate trips to the bathroom, share toys at recess, AND to become literate, critical thinkers. College is far off, but as I've written previously, if we don't know where we're going with your kids, we will not be able to tell if we head off course. So I read Frank Bruni's essay on deceptive college marketing with some interest. College admissions in America is a hot, stinking mess, with students and parents driven crazy, far too few kids completing college, and tuition rising with no relation to reality.
Kay Rothman, college counseling director at my son's high school, told Bruni, “The marketing is unbelievable, just unbelievable. There are places like Tulane that will send everyone a ‘V.I.P.’ application.” Rothman said she "routinely disabuses impressionable students of the notion that they’d won some prized lottery or been given some inside track."
Good for Bruni that he calls colleges out on this behavior. Parents Beware!
But Bruni repeats two commonly-held beliefs that are false. Below, I point them out, and explain how our approach prepares kids for the challenges of college admissions (and life).
Bruni decries Swarthmore's decision to reduce the number of student essays; "It depersonalizes the process," he thinks. Also, since an essay takes time to write, Bruni believes they discourage students from applying willy-nilly to any school on the Common Application list.
A few years ago, Ron Unz explained that "America’s uniquely complex and subjective system of academic admissions actually arose as a means of covert ethnic tribal warfare." Citing Berkeley sociologist Jerome Karabel (among others), Unz recounted that in the 1920s:
Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell and his peers ... transform[ed] the admissions process from a simple objective test of academic merit into a complex and holistic consideration of all aspects of each individual applicant; the resulting opacity permitted the admission or rejection of any given applicant, allowing the ethnicity of the student body to be shaped as desired.
To improve college access and eliminate discriminatory behaviors, I'd have colleges eliminate all personal essays. Parents know the average teen stares at her belly button often enough. The habit needs no encouragement.
To assess the critical thinking skills of their would-be freshman, colleges should instead ask for an essay about art, literature or history and make students justify their opinion. No more "Unusual circumstances in your life" or "Travel or living experiences in other countries" as Harvard currently asks.
Grounded in a coherent curriculum that ties history, art, literature and music together, ICS students would crush these essays. We'll take the time to teach our kindergarteners to hold a pencil properly, but once they have that, we'll give them plenty to write about besides, "What you would want your future college roommate to know about you?"
Bruni observes that "Smith and several other similarly prominent colleges no longer require the SAT or ACT ... recognition that top scores on those tests correlate with high family income and may say more about an applicant’s economic advantages — including, say, private SAT tutoring — than about academic potential."
In fact, the SAT and ACT are fine. And sorry Princeton Review, but test prep doesn't make much of a difference. Indeed scores correlate with family income, but that's merely an artifact of the piss-poor job most k-12 schools do in grounding children in geography, history, art, literature and science. So kids who come from households where topics like these are discussed gain a vocabulary advantage over classmates who are counting on their school alone to do this.
Don Hirsch, the UVA professor whose life work undergirds much of the ICS approach, called the SATs "the best single measure of the overall quality of our primary and secondary schools ." Previously he has written that "fill-in-the-bubble reading tests are technically among the most reliable and valid tests available."
As with my response to Bruni's misdiagnosis of the problem with personal essays, the ICS approach to curriculum also explicitly builds our children's vocabulary. Regardless of their family history or income. Ensuring that come junior year, they confidently ace their SATs as well.
For many of your children, college is 15 years off. And given the potential cost, you're grateful for that. But we're thinking about it, and ensuring that our teaching practices are aligned with your kid's best interests. Because the journey starts next September.