Archive for November, 2009

Recapping the College Apps: Part I

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

One of the things I’m thankful for this weekend is that Valerie, our high school senior, has completed her college applications. When she clicked on the “Submit” button on the online app for the last school, there was a huge sense of relief that this time-consuming and often tedious task was behind us. She has done the work and now whether or not she gets accepted is in the hands of the admissions committees. She’ll keep saying her prayers and wait to see what the mail brings in January.

So thinking back on the process, what did we learn? While it’s still fresh in my mind, I thought that for my blog this week and next, I would record some of our thoughts. Although none of these bits of advice are groundbreaking, they may be helpful to parents who have yet to go through the process”¦and reminders for me when we go through this again in four years with Valerie’s younger sister.

Start early. That sounds obvious. But a friend told me the story of her daughter frantically trying to finish her application on an uncle’s computer after Thanksgiving dinner. No one wants to spend the last weekend in November cramming to complete the applications by the end-of-the-month deadline. And given the quantity of information required by most schools, such as essays, lists of classes and grades, letters of recommendations and transcripts, it would probably be impossible to do it anyway. However, I’ll bet there’s a high school counselor or two with stories about getting panicked calls at home from seniors begging them to give them a printout of their high school record.

Valerie was fortunate to have a teacher who knew how overwhelming college applications could be so she got the process started last year. In her honors junior English class, her teacher assigned the two UC essays as the final writing exercise for the year. So even though Valerie had at least six essays she needed to do for the various schools and departments, she already had two of them done when she started the process. This gave her more time to refine the syntax and correct any elusive typos.

Starting early also allows time for the technological glitches. There were a couple of times when Valerie was ready to complete her application for a particular school but she wasn’t able to log on. We figured that every other student was also trying to check this school off their list and the websites were jammed to the point of not being functional. We were glad that she had a cushion of another 10 days before the deadline.

And I’m sure teachers who are writing letters of recommendation appreciate it when the student doesn’t ask for a letter and then say, “Oh, by the way, I need it tomorrow.” Of course, the student hopes the teacher will enumerate all their wonderful qualities. I think a teacher would be much more predisposed to do that if the student shows some common courtesy and gives them plenty of advance notice.

That’s my thoughts on the applications themselves. Next week I’ll share what we learned about how to get organized to manage the application process.

A Dog’s Life

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

Last week, I wrote about preparing to say goodbye to our 11-year-old German shepherd, Xena. It turned out that our goodbyes were short and sweet.

While we were at the park on Saturday, she turned sharply and it was as if the thread that was holding her deteriorating hip joints together snapped. She couldn’t get control of her right back leg and her condition worsened on Sunday. By Monday morning, other systems in her body were shutting down and we knew that we were sharing the last few hours of her life.

As with anyone you have loved, when they are gone it’s natural to think back on your life together”¦

Our life with Xena started when our son was 10. Like many parents, I thought having a dog would be a great lesson in responsibility so we starting thinking about what kind of dog we wanted. We had friends who owned German shepherds and we thought that they were exceptionally handsome and intelligent, so we decided on that breed.

The breeders who we bought her from did Schutzhund training ““ that’s were they train dogs in obedience, tracking, and chomping down on bad guys in quilted suits until they are told to release. They showed us some videos and it looked really cool and we wanted to train our dog to do that stuff too. So we chose the most aggressive puppy from the litter.

And in keeping with our noble and brave image of shepherds, we named her Xena; “Xena Warrior Princess” was an extremely popular TV show at the time.

The only problem was that Xena was my first dog and I didn’t have a clue about how to get her to obey me. Schutzhund training? That was a total fantasy. I was much more concerned with how to get my shoe back after she stole it and bolted into the backyard. I knew she was faster than me and I was beginning to think she was also smarter than me.

And speaking of chewing shoes, I was beginning to think that we had bitten off more than we could chew by choosing a German shepherd. I began to understand why sweet but not very bright golden retrievers were such popular family dogs.

After about four months of this, I thought I had reached the end of my rope”¦or in this case, leash.  I was about ready to put an ad in the newspaper for “A Complete German shepherd package, including the dog, crate, Dogloo, kennel, food and accessories. A $4,000 value, yours for $150.”

But then things improved; Xena calmed down and we got help. We hired a wonderful trainer who trained me in how to work consistently with Xena so that she would predictably “come” when called and could even walk by my side off leash through a crowd of people.

In our years together, I got into the rhythm of having a dog and I found that I really liked it. Why bother going for a walk if I don’t have a dog to do it with? Cooking is more fun when there’s a dog to toss the scraps to. And my house and family was safer because no one was going to mess with a German shepherd”¦even if she didn’t have Schutzhund training.

So I miss Xena and I miss having a dog. I know we won’t have another Xena, but I’m confident that at some point in the future, we will have another dog. I think that will honor her memory.

Preparing to Say Goodbye to a Good Friend

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

Sometimes when were sitting on the couch and our three cats are happily snoozing on our laps and our dog is contently stretched out across her dog bed, we’ll comment on how amazing it is that people choose to invite animals into their house”¦and how much we love them in spite of the snags and spots in the carpet.

So it’s a sad day for us when it becomes apparent that one of them is coming to the end of its life.

On the way home from our walk on Saturday, our 11-year-old German shepherd, Xena,  tweaked her hips as she turned to greet another dog. Her right back leg gave out from under her and she couldn’t regain any strength in it. Taking a few steps at a time, she was able to wobble slowly back home.

We were lucky to be able to get an appointment with the vet later that morning and as the vet explained it, there is inflammation surround some nerves so basically, she doesn’t have feeling in her legs and that’s why she can’t get them underneath her. Also, as is common in shepherds, she has always had bad joints and there is degeneration because of her age. We left with some anti-inflammatory medication that might or might not improve her condition.

We are thankful that for now, her appetite is good and she doesn’t seem to be a pain. It’s just painful for us to watch her move with such extreme difficulty.

We’ve never been through this process with a pet who has been such an important part of our family. Tears were shed when my daughter’s two pet rats died, but we didn’t feel much of a loss when the numerous fish and fire-belly toad came to the end of their lives; I find it a lot harder to feel a connection with a creature that doesn’t have fur to stroke.

We want to do the right thing for Xena so I’ll be calling the vet tomorrow to get some advice. In the meantime, all we can do is look into her brown eyes and tell her the truth, “You’re a good dog.”

Notes from the Front: Supplementing the Supplemental College App

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

As our daughter began the college application process this fall, I was surprised at the many letters she got in the mail from colleges near and far encouraging her to apply to that particular school. All the letters were crafted to make the schools and their academic and social opportunities sound as attractive as possible.

Some of the letters even started to resemble the credit card offers we used to get by the dozen when credit was cheap and easy. But instead of offering “0% interest for 12 months,” they were offering her “No application fee and we’ll waive the essay requirement!” Unless she gets a letter that screams, “Full-ride for four years!” she just puts the letters into the “Thanks, but no thanks” file.

Just like when we got credit card offers because of our credit score, Valerie is getting these letters because of her score ““ but in her case it’s her SAT and ACT scores, GPA, class rank and AP scores. Apparently for those colleges, as well as some of the UC’s, she would be accepted based solely on her strong numbers.

But for the private schools, high test scores alone aren’t enough to ensure acceptance.  They’re putting together a freshman class that has a mix of strengths and interests ““ and even a little bit of quirkiness. After going to a number of presentations by the schools, I came away with the impression that they review the student’s applications as if they are developing a guest list for a really interesting party. Test scores are important but they also want kids who can do more than use a #2 pencil to fill in the correct bubble.

So, if that’s the case, how do you showcase your student beyond just what can be recorded on an application form? In a sense, how do you market a student? And placing an ad in the school’s newspaper probably isn’t the best way.

Since Steve is in the marketing business, it wasn’t a big leap for him to come up with the idea of making a video of Valerie. We interviewed her on camera talking about what she is passionate about and what she hopes to get from her college experience. In editing it, Steve cut in some samples of her art portfolio as she talked about specific pieces.

Are we being stage parents who think their daughter is so special that an admissions director has to see a film of her in order to fully appreciate who she is as a person? Not entirely. I think it’s more akin to the father of the talented place-kicker who sent videos to 200 schools so they could see his son in action, and as a result, got a full scholarship. Our attitude is that if the schools are willing to take the time to look at the video, it won’t hurt her chances of being accepted and could certainly help.

At this point, we’ve sent a link to the video to admissions directors at two schools. One of these people was out-of-town so we don’t know what his reaction, if any, will be to receiving it. However, the dialogue that followed when the gal at the other school watched it was very interesting.

Steve first got an email back from her basically saying that it was too long and didn’t focus enough on what admissions departments would really be interested in. Steve listened to her comments, edited it down, and exchanged many emails with her. At her request, Steve sent her a revised version. Thinking he was done, he was surprised when a couple of days later, he got an email from her that starts, “I’ve been thinking about Valerie’s video”¦” and goes onto suggest that he put back in some of the footage he had edited out.

Did the video get the attention of an admissions officer and make Valerie not just a name on an application but a real person to them? Most definitely. Does this mean she’ll be accepted and get lots of financial aid? That’s our hope.

Applying to College isn’t for Amateurs

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

It was about a year ago at this time, that our son began the application process to transfer from the junior college to a four-year school. I remember standing behind him watching him fill out the Common App online. He flew through it as if filling in the answers demanded the same fast-twitch reflexes as a first-person shooter. He hit the “Submit” button while I was still stuttering to say, “Are you sure you don’t want to check your essay for typos one more time?”

It’s hard for me to argue that he should have taken a more considered approach; he got accepted at his first two choices.

Then I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about parents who quit their jobs so they could devote themselves completely to helping their child through the college application process. Based on my experience with our son, this seemed like the higher education version of parents doing their kid’s fourth grade science fair project. Shouldn’t the students be filling out their own applications?

Fast forward a year to our driven, type A(+)daughter’s college application process. After selecting nine potential schools, she created an Excel grid of their due dates, essay requirements, contact info, etc and posted it on her wall. Then the process seemed to come to a halt.

When we would ask her, she said that she wanted to do some more “art” for her college app portfolio. After a couple of weeks of this we realized that she was probably over-whelmed and was using adding to her portfolio as an excuse to put off tackling the immense amount of work to apply. No two schools have exactly the same requirements and navigating her way through complex websites to figure the details was certainly daunting.

Then there are applications themselves”¦supplemental applications and departmental supplements to the supplemental apps”¦and all of them require specific essays. And don’t try and take any shortcuts because as the University of Southern California website warns, “We can tell when a recycled essay has been changed only slightly to fit one of the topics.”

With the early action deadline for some of the candidate schools fast approaching, we sat her down and after two hours of “whatevers” and moping, we extracted an admission that she needed our help.

Since that conversation, any time that Valerie isn’t doing homework, has been spent sitting in front of the computer with her as she slogs her way through this tedious process. She’s still the one doing all the work; I just proofread her essays and encourage her as she clicks “Submit” that her hard work will be rewarded.

And here’s good news, she doesn’t even have to wait to find out where she’s been accepted to reap her reward because another two weeks and she’ll mostly be done ““ after which I’ve promised Valerie and myself a shopping trip to Nordstrom Rack.

Wherever Valerie eventually enrolls, I have now an appreciation for that mom who quit her job to get her daughter into a good school. Applying to college may not be a full-time job, but it certainly feels like it.