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Dr. Jane S. Gabin
Dr. Jane S. Gabin After 10 years in university admissions and another decade as a college counselor in the NY metro area, Dr. Gabin works as a researcher, writer, and independent educational consultant. She graduated from Queens College and has a PhD in English from UNC-Chapel Hill. She is a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.
Q: Some of my friends are telling me that if I don't have any community service on my resume, I won't be able to get into a good college. I'm not against doing community service, but I just don't see where I could fit it into my schedule. I have a heavy academic load, plus I'm very involved in performing arts (orchestra, jazz ensemble, drama) and with all the rehearsals, I have hardly any free time! Will not having community service on my record really hurt me?
A: This is a timely question! At a rally for civic service yesterday, Mayor Mike Bloomberg called on all New York City public schools to offer public service opportunities to students although he said he would not make it a requirement for graduation as some high schools do. The theory behind requiring community service is that young people ought to put in some effort to enhance their community, and some students find themselves becoming inspired by the service they do in the process of fulfilling this requirement. Others find it a chore and only do it because it's mandated.
There is no requirement that community service be listed on a college application, just as there is no requirement for work experience or extra-curricular involvement. There is space for both to be listed, but it's optional.
Some colleges have "service to others" as an important part of their own ethic. If you look at a college's website and it points out, for example, that 90% of the student body is involved in community service, from working in a neighborhood soup kitchen to tutoring children in an after-school program to calling the bingo numbers at the senior citizens' center, then it's obvious that evidence of community service will be valued (and the lack of service will be noted).
Let's look at what the term "community service" truly means. It means serving one's community - and there are many ways to do that. As a member of several performing ensembles, you provide entertainment and pleasure to others. You are sharing your time and talent to enhance the community life of your school and neighborhood. That is your contribution, and colleges will be aware of that.
Admissions officers are looking for evidence that students think about people other than themselves, and service is one area where this becomes apparent. It's sad that some students volunteer only because they think it's important for their resumes, not because they feel service has any intrinsic value in itself. Instead, if students would think about the activities they enjoy most, and then see how they can share these with others, they may actually find themselves enjoying the service work and want to continue it. For instance, a pianist might consider giving recitals in nursing homes -- she gets to do what she enjoys and simultaneously brings joy to those who need it. Art students could organize an exhibit and sale to benefit a medical charity.
Exotic expensive summer programs
With summer approaching, high schools and families are receiving information about exciting-sounding community service programs in exotic locations. The sponsoring organizations promise life-changing experiences that can really open up a student's world, but they are often very expensive. Will participating in one of these programs give anyone a better chance of being accepted to any particular college? No. Admissions staff will know that being able to participate is often an indication of family income. Is participation valuable at all? Of course - students can learn a great deal and have fun in the process. (If you are considering one of these programs, check to see who is in charge and how the program is supervised. Be sure to get testimonials from outside the organization before signing up).
It's not necessary to do good far from home in order to gain the same experience. Last year an acquaintance in Boston told me about a wonderful opportunity he had found for his son, volunteering as a soccer coach at a sports camp for underprivileged children in another country. He traveled thousands of miles, only to find that there was no "program" to speak of. Were there no children in Boston with whom he could have worked? Of course there were, and he could have made some positive impact in his own community. Not only that, but volunteering close to home offers the opportunity for real commitment, rather than a one-week deal. This would be something that would truly impress admissions officers, because sustained involvement over time is more genuine than a short-term program.
Fund-raising for community service
In my last column I mentioned the fund-raising guide on the website of the National Youth Leadership Forum. Because the Forum cannot assist many applicants with scholarships, they suggest students do their own fund-raising to come up with the program fees. It might be interesting to apply all the fund-raising ideas suggested by the NYLF (http://nylf.org/shared/fundraising_guide.pdf) to raise money for one's own community. What if students took their own favorite causes -- medical research, a local children's hospital, a senior center, animal shelter, neighborhood arts association -- and mobilized campaigns on their behalf? That would demonstrate planning, persistence, and imagination, and would benefit the local community instead of a company located elsewhere. Just an idea.
Q: My daughter was honored by being nominated to be a National Youth Leader. Participating in the program is very expensive. I would hate not to let her attend because I believe it can open doors that would really benefit her. I want the best for her, but I really can’t afford it. Am I expecting too much from the program, such as future scholarship opportunities if this program is listed on her resume? Or should I wait and invest that money in college?
A: You are a kind and wise parent! Both of your instincts are right on target! You want the best for your daughter, including helping her to enhance her experience and her college-admission profile. At the same time you are correctly wondering if a high-priced program is really going to provide a high-level benefit.
This is not to minimize the fact that someone obviously thought highly enough of your daughter to submit her name to the program’s organizers, who write to high school principals and guidance offices asking for nominations of top students. So someone at your daughter’s school -- an administrator, counselor, or teacher -- felt that she would be an excellent candidate. The qualities that inspired someone to nominate her may be those qualities that will also make her a great college applicant. But the success of her college applications will not depend upon her possible participation in this particular program.
Programs such as the National Youth Leadership Forum and the Congressional Youth Leadership Council can also procure lists of names from the College Board; if a student checks, for instance, interests in law or medicine on the SAT registration form, programs dealing with law and medicine can ask for targeted lists. Also, students who have participated in the programs are asked to suggest the names of others they think would enjoy the experience.
Every spring students have come to me with ‘nomination’ letters they have received, along with glossy folders and colorful brochures. The programs often have the words ‘National’ or ‘Leadership’ in them (and have logos using symbols such as the Capitol dome or am American eagle), and they feel flattered. The opportunities outlined in the mailings -- traveling to the nation’s capital, networking with officials from government agencies, meeting students from all over the country -- are exciting. But what’s the difference between an “honor” and an “opportunity”? An honor should not have a price tag attached to it. An opportunity might or might not have a price tag. Unfortunately, the college-admissions frenzy that has developed over the last 20 years has also spawned a huge ‘opportunities’ industry. While there are many worthy, stimulating programs out there, for the most part they are money-making enterprises.
And colleges know that. They are well aware that most students who list on their resumes “leadership conferences” or “community service” programs in exotic locales are affluent. They have these lines on their resumes because they can afford them.
Your are right -- these programs are indeed expensive. The National Youth Leadership Forum ranges from $1440 (5 days) to $2465 (9 days), with variations depending upon program type and length. Another organization offers 12-day programs ranging from $2840 to $5650. Some programs team up with local colleges and offer (at an additional cost) participation in credit-bearing courses. And then there are the community-service or volunteer programs that also charge hefty fees for participation. Are all of these organizations offering worthy experiences? Sure! There’s no doubt these programs are fun and interesting, because the companies running them could not stay in business if they didn’t have satisfied customers. Yes, these are businesses; they provide educational experiences, but they are not schools, not government agencies, not non-profit cultural agencies. They are businesses. And they want to make you and your daughter feel that you just can’t pass up the once-in-a-lifetime “amazing experience” they offer.
While the National Youth Leadership Forum offers some scholarships, they also stress that they can’t assist everyone, so instead they suggest that students do their own fund-raising to come up with the program fees. Their website even offers a fund-raising guide to help (it’s a pdf on their website). With enough advance planning, persistence, and imagination, students are told, they can manage to come up with the funds they’ll need to participate in the program.
Would participating in this program be exciting for your daughter? Undoubtedly! It would be fun, and she’d meet students from all over the country. Will participating add a line to her resume that will make a real impact in her college admissions? The company organizing the program would like you to think so, but the real answer is: no. What would make a real impact would be something, for instance, that your daughter initiates herself: starting a charity effort, organizing a conference at her school, getting students and teacher to unite on a project with a common goal. Save your money to use for visiting colleges!
Note: The College Counselor thinks it might be interesting to apply all the fund-raising ideas suggested by the NYLF to raising money for one’s own community. What if students took their own favorite causes -- medical research, a local children’s hospital or child-care center, a senior center, animal shelter, neighborhood arts association -- and mobilized campaigns on their behalf? That would demonstrate planning, persistence, and imagination, too, and would benefit the local community instead of a company somewhere else. Just an idea.
Next time: Can I get into college without doing community service? And what about those community service programs you have to pay for?
Q: What’s the deal with ‘Score Choice’? Can I really not submit some of my SAT scores? What about colleges that say they will not “honor” this policy?A: If you are totally confused about this “new” policy, join the club. High school juniors in the middle of test-taking season report that they are puzzled by the seeming contradictions of Score Choice. Is Score Choice good for students or not?The answer is: good, sort of. Read on.College Board -- the company that brings you the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and other standardized national exams -- states: “Designed to reduce student stress and improve the test-day experience, Score Choice is a new score-reporting feature that gives students the option to choose the SAT scores by test date and SAT subject tests by individual test that they send to colleges, in accordance with each individual’s score-use practice.”Score Choice is an “option,” and a student must select this option, otherwise the scores will be listed on their score-reporting form. This is explained in the small print on collegeboard.com and in their printed literature. When students register online to take the tests, they will see this explanation -- but it is easily overlooked. Students who take the SAT multiple times must mark the Score Choice option every time. If a students does not mark the Score Choice option, "the College Board will send all of your scores to the recipient institutions.”
Q: My son is graduating from high school this coming year. He has an IEP. Will this IEP automatically follow him through college and is there such a thing as special education in college? Are there any programs you know of that can assist him, and are there any majors for special education students?
A: The fact that your son has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) indicates that you have been an advocate for him! But this plan will not follow him to college — IEPs, as guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), apply only to elementary and secondary schools. It is possible for students with disabilities, including learning disabilities, to receive special services in publicly-funded colleges; this is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1973. But to obtain these services, you and your son will have to be proactive and ask for them — the colleges will not know he needs services unless he discloses this fact. So save your IEP and any supporting documents in order to request services. Colleges and universities vary in the accommodations they offer and the evidence they require in order to grant these services. And bear in mind that some schools offer more help than others. You will simply have to check with each school's disability services or student services office.
In terms of which colleges your son might consider, that depends largely on his individual interests and abilities. Does he want to stay close to home? Does he want a commuter college or does he want to live in a dorm? Are finances an issue? All of these questions should be taken into consideration.
There are a few schools that offer programs especially aimed at students with disabilities. Landmark College in Vermont was specifically established to help students with dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning disabilities. The SALT program at the University of Arizona offers a similar program. You can obtain further assistance by consulting the National Center for Learning Disabilities (this organization offers a scholarship as well). You can also read and download a government brochure titled "Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education". In addition, there is an excellent website, LD online, which outlines resources about college for students with learning disabilities.
The law protects the rights of students with disabilities to obtain the services they need to help them succeed, but the law does not guarantee admission. To avoid disappointment, plan realistically. Start by discussing with your son his hopes and dreams. Then discuss with his school counselor which schools might offer the best possibilities. Without knowing the nature of his IEP or his interests, it is difficult to recommend specific schools. However, the schedule flexibility of the community college system, along with its moderate cost, might be a good way for your son to start his post-secondary studies.
Q. My daughter is a high school junior. We want to start visiting colleges this year, and we want to know of programs or colleges offering scholarships to minority students (we are Haitian-Americans). We have heard of a program called "Posse" do you know anything about this? Also, my daughter plays the cello. What about academic or music scholarships? Thank you for any leads you can offer.
A. You and your daughter are at exactly the right point to start researching both colleges and scholarship opportunities. First you'll need to research potential schools that can offer your daughter the academic, cultural, and social life that will help her thrive; then over spring break, on occasional weekends, and over the summer, you will need to make some campus visits so you can see things for yourselves.
At the same time, you need to research scholarship possibilities. Scholarships and grants, as opposed to college loans, are gifts. They will allow your daughter to pursue her education with reduced financial burdens. There are two kinds of scholarships: institutional and non-institutional. Institutional scholarships are those awarded by a specific college or university. Almost all schools have some form of scholarship, and these can range from full-tuition to a token amount; generally, all applicants to these schools are automatically considered for scholarships when they apply for admission.
The non-institutional scholarships are offered by outside organizations, and these will require research and separate applications. The application process usually begins at the start of the student's senior year. Again, this outside help can range from full tuition to small grants of $100 - $500. The Posse Foundation is one of a number of organizations that seeks out talented public high school students "with extraordinary academic and leadership potential who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes." In partnership with a number of colleges and universities, Posse offers these students 4-year, full-tuition scholarships. Students must be nominated by their high school or by community-based organizations.
Another great resource is BlackExcel.org, which offers a scholarship directory for minority students. You can find many leads here! Try also Studylands which lists 100 scholarships from African American colleges and universities.
And there are even more opportunities! The college office at your daughter's high school probably has the College Board's comprehensive Scholarship Handbook 2009. This is for all students, not just minority students, and lists 2,100 scholarship programs offered by organizations nationwide. They are indexed by state, by organization, and by subject area. So you can look up, for example, science scholarships, math scholarships, scholarships for students who are leaders in community service, and scholarships for military dependents. In some cases, essays are required, while in others there are specific forms to complete. Your daughter can also go to the "Paying for College" section of the College Board's website to perform her own scholarship search. The more information she provides at this site, the more she will find scholarship information attuned to her interests.
Your daughter's musical talent could possibly be another source of scholarship funding if she plans to major in music, colleges may ask her to audition and then make awards based upon her musical talent. Specific talents and interests are another whole area of scholarship potential. The website of Boston's New England Conservatory of Music offers a long list of music scholarships offered by many different organizations.
There are many organizations, large and small, that are committed to assisting all students in financing their educations. Unfortunately, the financial situations of a number of these groups may have changed during the current economic crisis. Still, there will be many viable opportunities. Now, in the middle of your daughter's junior year, is the perfect time to start the research! (updated December 2014)
Q: I need assistance in choosing a good, affordable SUNY college that offers film. Any suggestions?
A: Your question addresses two issues: affordability and film studies. You are in luck. SUNY schools are affordable, certainly more so than private colleges, and that's because, as state educational institutions, their mission is to provide high quality education at an accessible price to residents of New York State. A typical SUNY education tuition, room, meals, books, everything runs about $18,400 a year. That's before financial aid, grants, and scholarships are applied. Private colleges today cost anywhere from $35,000 to $50,000 annually, so a SUNY education is a terrific value. Talk to SUNY financial aid counselors about how to help make college affordable.
Don't forget about CUNY! The City University of New York offers excellent academics at an affordable price.
You didn't say whether you are interested in film studies or in filmmaking. I have suggestions for both and you have several options, both at SUNY and CUNY.
First the CUNYs:
Brooklyn College offers film production, film studies, and screenwriting
City College offers film and video production in its Media and Communication Art Department
The College of Staten Island offers a BA in Cinema Studies
Hunter College has a program in Film and Media Studies
Queens College (the College Counselor's alma mater) offers a BA in Film Studies
Three SUNY campuses offer degree programs in film:
Binghamton: has a Cinema Department where you can study both the history and mechanics of filmmaking
Buffalo: the Department of Media Study offers courses in digital art, world cinema, film history, and robotics
Purchase: You can learn filmmaking techniques, editing, scriptwriting, directing, and production in the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree program
As you can see, you can learn everything about the history of cinema and about how to create your own movies right here in the city, or at several locations throughout the state. I suggest that you visit the CUNY campuses to check out their programs first, then arrange to visit Purchase, which is in Westchester County. Speaking with professors and students in these departments will give you a more complete picture. Have fun!
Q: I read your column about scholarships for minority students. What about websites for Asian Americans? Any scholarships here?
A: You could start by looking at the websites for Asian American Alliance and Asian Pacific Fund, but the best thing is to go to a comprehensive site that has a database of thousands of scholarship opportunities. FastWeb has one of the most complete listings, and you can also search for scholarships on collegeboard.com.
There is a great deal of information out there — you just need to do the research. And remember that ethnicity is just one of many factors on which you can do a search. There are scholarships for veterans, children of veterans, musical students, tall students, left-handed students, students who will be the first in their families to attend college, students who invent things — and many others.
One thing I will warn everybody about: Ignore any offer you read about or receive that offers you scholarships for a fee. Scholarship information is free. Applying for scholarships should be free too. Don't let anyone charge you. Likewise, "honor" societies that may inform you of your "nomination" or "selection" for membership — for which there is a charge — are not truly honor societies. They are businesses, trying to profit from students' college-admission anxiety. Look near the end of any such offers; if there is a price mentioned, just toss the papers.
Good luck in your scholarship search. It involves work, not just to research, but to enter, as essays are sometimes required. A $500 prize may not seem like much, but if you win several small awards, they can certainly add up!
Q: My son is a sophomore in high school. I have a few questions. 1) Should he begin test prep for the SAT this year? 2) How many times can he take the SATs? and, 3) if he takes it more than once, which scores do the colleges see?
A: These are important questions. Before I begin to preach, let me give you the short answers:
- No, it's too early.
- As many times as he wants (but I recommend only twice).
- Colleges will see only those scores that your son will "release" for them to see.
Now for the details: the SAT and the other nationally known test, the ACT, are important hurdles for students to clear on their way to college. But they are hurdles, not education itself. They are important, particularly when applying to the most selective colleges, but they are not the most important factor in college admissions.
The most important factor is the high school transcript, the record of which courses student has chosen to take and how he or she has done in those courses. College admissions officers are more interested in how students do semester to semester, year to year in high school, than they are in how well they do during a three-hour period on a Saturday or Sunday morning.
The SAT, while designed to be a fair test that would assess the ability of all test-takers, is not a fair test. It is culturally biased towards native speakers of American English, so if students are immigrants or live in a home where more than one language is spoken, the critical reading score will be affected. Students who are affluent can afford more coaching and prepping than their less affluent peers. The test is not a perfect instrument. It's necessary, though, so we have to put up with it. But we should not over-emphasize it.
Prepping for the test is a good idea because students need to be familiar with the test format and need practice taking it. And yes, there are certain strategies and tricks that can be taught. But starting to do this too early can cause unnecessary stress. I say, wait until junior year to start any test prep program.
There are other ways to help your son to do well. Encourage him to study hard and take his high school classes seriously. If he does well in his math classes, chances are he'll do fine on the math section of the SAT or ACT. The single best way to do well on the critical reading scores is to read! Encourage your son to read anything. Science fiction, sports magazines, a daily newspaper, mysteries, a biography. The more he reads, the better he'll do in school and on the standardized tests. Simply memorizing random lists of vocabulary words doesn't help. Over and over I have seen that students who practice reading on a consistent, daily basis do better on the critical reading section of the SAT than students who simply do test prep.
And I would limit taking the test to twice. Take it once, see how you do, then spend some months concentrating on improving your skills, and take it again. Three times, if you absolutely must. But more than that no. No one will stop a student from taking the test as many times as it is given. Some test-prep tutors actually recommend that students take the test every time it's given!
That idea is very unhealthy. It over-emphasizes the importance of standardized testing over academic performance, extra-curricular involvement, creativity, and all the personal characteristics that make up the total human being who becomes a college applicant.
The colleges will see only those scores which the student wants to send. This is the policy called "Score Choice," through which the College Board says it gives control over the scores to students. But some colleges say they want all scores, so can "Score Choice" be trusted? More on this in my next column.