In the writer-director's new film, Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts' characters befriend a younger, free-spirited couple.
With this year’s high school seniors finalizing their college plans, we turn to the juniors, who are gearing up to make big decisions about what colleges to consider and how to get accepted.
Lisa Micele counsels students at the University of Illinois Laboratory High School in Urbana — which just so happens to be Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson alma mater.
She joins him to discuss how juniors begin their search and what schools are looking for beyond GPAs and standardized test scores. She also answers questions that listeners posted on Facebook.
Things to do:
Things not to do:
On dropping acceptance rates
“The reality is that the complex admissions process at elite schools is definitely getting more competitive each year, it’s getting more confusing and probably less transparent to parents and students, which is causing increased anxiety. But the bottom line is there are many more exceptional candidates than can be admitted. So when we talk about that a school like Stanford has admitted 5.3 percent of their freshman class this year, we have to keep in mind, that pool of elite schools is so small compared to all of the schools that are available for students.”
On focusing on more than just the famous schools
“We have to challenge these biases. We have to tell students and parents to keep an open mind. Be a sponge. Learn about schools. When that mail comes — and I know it’s overwhelming — don’t just throw it out because you haven’t heard of that college. If you’re at a college fair, just don’t stand in line at the colleges that are on your radar or in the top of U.S. News rankings. Get out of your comfort zone. Be open minded. Learn about schools. Because sometimes even parents have an idea of college admissions based on when they went through the process. And it is so different today. We often say, ‘parents, you might not get into your alma mater if you applied today.'”
On the Common Application
“The challenge with the common app is the goal is to not just shoot arrows and hope you’ll get in somewhere. You have to use that as a tool that when you’ve done the research and you’ve built your college list based on things that truly fit you, then if those schools are a part of the common application, it’s a wonderful tool to use to start the process.”
On how a student who does it all still doesn’t get accepted
“Truly it is an art, not a science. If I can say anything for your listeners to grasp onto today, we need to bring joy back into this process. We have students and parents who oftentimes are packaging and doing things to help their students, sometimes from sixth or seventh grade. And what we find is students are losing the joy of learning, they’re losing the senior year experience because they’re trying to do too many college applications, and often if you ask them why, they don’t know why they’re applying to that many. So when it comes to those elite schools, you can’t predict anything. Oftentimes it’s very random. And the schools have a challenge. Those elite schools are trying to build a well-rounded class with exceptional candidates.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, here in this country, high school seniors have about two weeks left to decide where they are going to go to college, and many high school juniors are meeting with guidance counselors, mapping out their college visits and making a long list of the schools that they plan to apply to.
We wanted to hear from a college counselor in a high school, someone who talks to students and parents and helps them navigate through the increasingly complex college admissions process. So we called up Lisa Micele, Director the college counselor at my high school, University of Illinois Laboratory High School in Urbana, Illinois. She's with us from the studios of WILL. Lisa, welcome to HERE AND NOW.
LISA MICELE: Thank you so much, Jeremy. I'm excited to be here.
HOBSON: Well, we're hearing about how difficult it is to get into schools, that there are more people applying and that the acceptance rates are dropping. What's the reality on the ground right now?
MICELE: Well, the reality is that the complex admissions process at elite schools is definitely getting more competitive each year. It's getting more confusing and probably less transparent to parents and students, which is causing increased anxiety. But the bottom line is there are many more exceptional candidates than can be admitted.
So when we talk about that a school like Stanford has admitted 5.3 percent of their freshman class this year, we have to keep in mind, that pool of elite schools is so small compared to all of the schools that are available for students.
HOBSON: So you're saying that that's an issue mainly at elite schools, that not every school has such a low acceptance rate right now?
MICELE: Absolutely, and I think the frenzy around admissions and the worries about, quote, will I get into college are focusing on the wrong pool of schools.
HOBSON: What do you mean? What pool of schools should we be focused on?
MICELE: Well, obviously there are students who are going to be dreaming and wanting to go to those elite schools, and that's wonderful. As a high school counselor, we are here to help and advocate and work with students to help bring out their authentic self in the admissions process. But we have to challenge these biases.
We have to tell students and parents to keep an open mind. Be a sponge. Learn about schools. When that mail comes, and I know it's overwhelming, don't just throw it out because you haven't heard of that college. If you're at a college fair, just don't stand in line at the colleges that are on your radar or in the top of U.S. News rankings.
Get out of your comfort zone. Be open minded. Learn about schools because sometimes even parents have an idea of college admissions based on when they went through the process. And it is so different today. We often say parents, you might not get into your alma mater if you re-applied today.
HOBSON: Well, but there are so many schools out there. How do you even know where to begin?
MICELE: Oh, and I think that is one of the things most people - I had a student at my school that by the time his college list was built, it was schools with the names S through Y because he bought a book, started from the back, and by the time he got to the S's, he was overwhelmed because he didn't know where to start.
You pick up these guidebooks, and I always tell students you don't swallow an apple whole. You don't swallow an orange without peeling it and breaking it into piece. So the way you have to do this is break it down, use multiple resources, but the number one thing you do before you start thinking about the name of a college, Jeremy, is thinking about who you are as a person.
The students have to do self-assessment. What is their learning style? Have they - what have they liked and not liked about their high school experience? Building a college list starts organically with the authentic self, and most students, because they're so busy nowadays, want to do the quite let's grab a resource guide and find out which ones are the best in the country based on ranking. And I could argue what defines best.
HOBSON: And they're also doing the common application, which allows them to apply to a number of schools at the same time. Is that a good idea, for people to do that common application?
MICELE: Well, the common application is a tool that is meant to help the students. It's a portal where everything can be uploaded and downloaded and accessed for colleges to get transcripts and letters of recommendation and for students to have it as a virtual portal for their essays, wonderful tool.
But definitely what's happened with the common application is what admissions officers call stealth applicants. They're coming out of nowhere. They don't have a level of interest that was expressed to the college. They might have never talked with an admissions rep or attended a college fair to even talk with someone about why they're interested.
So the challenge with the common app is the goal is to not just shoot arrows and hope you'll get in somewhere. You have to use that as a tool that when you've done the research, and you've built your college list based on things that truly fit you, then if those schools are a part of the common application, it's a wonderful tool to use to start the process.
HOBSON: What about the system Naviance that some schools are using now? I know you don't use it because of the high licensing fees, but this is helping people figure out how many students from their school have been accepted in the past, how many have been rejected, what the GPAs were, what the test scores were, helping them make a little more of an informed decision.
MICELE: Yeah, Naviance is a Web-based college research tool that many high schools do use. Like you said, because of the license fee and the fact that we don't actually have that, we have never felt crippled by not having that tool. But let's talk about the scattergrams. This is a big part of Naviance that a lot of parents especially, and students, want to dissect.
We actually as a high school can maintain our own data. We're a small school. I have scattergrams. I have Excel spreadsheets where I can actually show our historical data also. So that hasn't been a barrier to me using that same tool with our families. But there is a caution about those scattergrams, Jeremy.
It does not predict anything, and it only shows historical references, and it doesn't show a lot that we call the subjective parts of the applicant. For instance when you look on a scattergram on Naviance, you don't know, for instance, if they're first-generation college bound, if they're a recruited athlete, if they have legacy at the school, if they're a female applying into a STEM area, if it's an underrepresented area where they're trying to strategically recruit more certain genders in fields.
So many things go into this process that when you actually look at data, it has to be used as a counseling tool. And my fear is that parents and students will open up those scattergrams from home and make assumptions. They have to be used by talking with someone to help you interpret those in the right context.
HOBSON: We're speaking with Lisa Micele, college counselor at University of Illinois Laboratory High School in Urbana, Illinois, about the college admissions process with just a couple weeks to go until high school seniors across the country have to decide where they are going to go to college. Stay with us. There's more ahead, HERE AND NOW.
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HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and we're talking about college admissions as many high school students and their families are writing up long lists of schools they may want to apply to. Our guest is Lisa Micele, college counselor at University of Illinois Laboratory High School in Urbana, Illinois.
And Lisa, there are a lot of students out there right now who may have great scores, maybe a great GPA, but they don't have that extra thing that no one else has: great at a sport or music or something. Do you need that extra thing at this point?
MICELE: Well, it's interesting. I often talk with my families and give them examples and say how does a student who does it all still not get accepted to some of these elite schools? And the bottom line is if I can channel Tina Fey from the "Admission" movie...
MICELE: Get out your pens, I'll tell all of your listeners how to get into these elite schools. Are you ready?
MICELE: There is no answer.
MICELE: Because truly it is an art, it's not a science. If I can say anything for your listeners to grasp onto today, we need to bring joy back into this process. We have students and parents who oftentimes are packaging and doing things to help their students, sometimes from sixth or seventh grade. And what we find is students are losing the joy of learning, they're losing the senior year experience because they're trying to do too many college applications, and often if you ask them why, they don't know why they're applying to that many.
So when it comes to those elite schools, you can't predict anything. Oftentimes it's very random. And the schools have a challenge. Those elite schools are trying to build a well-rounded class with exceptional candidates. And if I can share one more thing with you, Jeremy?
MICELE: There is an admissions counselor who used to write a blog for his former institution, and he said I would read 100 applications, know I fell in love with 100 of those kids, and I could only pick eight. And the reality is on the admissions side, that's often the way that it is, and they feel bad about it because they fall in love with applicants. Applicants share personal stories.
These admissions officers get connected with them through their files, through their meetings, through their interviews. So this is a humane process when it comes to people are reading about other people, and if you don't get in, you can't connect it to your worth, your self-esteem or your ability to be successful in your future.
HOBSON: Well, we've gotten a number of questions from our listeners. We've been asking them what they want to know from you. And let me ask a few of them. This is Albert Huong(ph), who wrote: a lot of my friends tell me that stats show Asian-American kids normally need higher SAT and/or GPA to get into elite colleges. Is that true?
MICELE: Well, I'm not going to answer that question in a true or false mode. There has been a lot of conversations online. Inside Higher Ed had an article about that, conference sessions for counselors and admissions professionals had panels about that. So I would encourage Albert, if he's listening, to go ahead and Google that, and he can actually read some dialogues that have been about that topic.
I think what I would like to explain is, again, this complex admissions process and the holistic review is so complex that you can't really ever pinpoint it to one reason why a student was denied. And I know it's not easy for students to hear. They often want to hear if there's a plus or minus factor when these decisions are being made, and it's so much more than that.
HOBSON: OK, Jenny Delvecchio(ph), who is a high school student herself, writes: would it look better if a student goes to a more reputable school or to a smaller liberal arts college that he or she has received a sizable scholarship to, maybe even a full tuition or full ride?
MICELE: Oh, I love this question because what exactly is reputable. Again, and it's so much about the opportunities, the relationships that Jenny will have with professors, her peer group, the culture of the campus, how big her class sizes are. Will she have access to labs and professors? She needs to think about the happiness quotient. Let's challenge what defines a more reputable school and think about fit, think about if Jenny decides to apply for graduate school or look for jobs, what are the internships and her relationships, like professors, going to be when she wants letters of recommendation.
So I would say to her, if she visited both schools, and she's got a scholarship at a school, and in her mind, she's thinking ooh, it might not be ranked as high, I would challenge her and say where are you most happy, where will you flourish, and where will you grow.
HOBSON: Laurie Hannigan Cantelon(ph) writes: is there a bias against rural students? This goes back to the question that Albert was asking, about a bias against Asian-American kids. But does - if you look at the data, is there a difference between rural students and people coming from cities or suburbs?
MICELE: You know, that question to me often raises access inequity and how you have an even playing field. Even at the high school where I work, which is two and a half hours from major cities, I don't get the flow of traffic of college admissions officers visiting my high school. They will go up to Chicago and Indianapolis and St. Louis, and I understand that.
Budgets are tight. So it truly isn't about someone being penalized for where they live because the admissions process will read that rural school of the context of where their school is located, what opportunities and resources are offered at that school. No one is ever going to be compared from a rural school to an applicant from the city.
Colleges are building, again, a well-rounded class, and everything that they read is going to be read in context of the school. And if a student in a rural school thinks, but does the college know my high school, when they send transcripts off, ideally the high school counselor who processes those should be sending what's called a school profile to help the admissions officer learn about that high school.
So that's a tool that is read when the file is actually in place with the committee.
HOBSON: But you're saying the college itself may not go out of their way to come and visit that school.
MICELE: Yeah, and I have to say, like I said even with our school, who doesn't have - I mean, I'm amazed. We probably have one-third, one-fifth of the traffic of college admissions compared to what happens in urban cities. No, I don't want anyone to feel like that is necessarily going to put them at a disadvantage.
As a matter of fact, there are so many ways to show level of interest to a college, and if a student in a rural community doesn't have access to many admissions officers coming through their school, find out if the local community college is hosting a college fair. Find out if there's a high school in driving distance that's maybe hosting one that they can attend. Call, email the admissions officer directly.
HOBSON: OK, one more. Carl Twai(ph), writes: counselors don't counsel anymore, they schedule students, they figure out how you can graduate, they administer assessment tests and AP exams. They used to counsel, but these menial administrative tasks were deemed more important. How do you feel about that? Lisa, is that true, and how do you feel about that?
MICELE: Well, OK, Jeremy, don't get me started on counselor caseloads across the country.
MICELE: Because really, this is like - my hair is standing up right now because we do have counselors whose caseloads are so big. We have professional associations who are constantly advocating for these non-counseling duties to be taken out of people's job descriptions so that they can do what they're trained for. They have to be counseling students.
They have to be working on developmental counseling from grades nine through 12, and college counseling is actually a specialty. Oftentimes masters of school counseling programs aren't necessarily training future school counselors in how to help kids navigate this process. This is a changing world. Our students need more than ever different types of counseling that they need to help them be successful after high school.
And yeah, this is a national problem, but there are people working on it right now.
HOBSON: Lisa Micele, college counselor at University of Illinois Laboratory High School in Urbana, Illinois, my high school. And Lisa is going to put her top three things to do and not to do in the college application process at our website, hereandnow.org. Lisa, thanks so much.
MICELE: Thank you so much, Jeremy.
HOBSON: And we welcome your questions, if you've got more of them, about college advice and getting into college and applying to colleges at hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.