Archive for the ‘College Applications’ Category

What If College Tuition Were Free? You have to be rich to afford it.

May 15, 2012 1 comment

If college tuition were made free, ironically, only the rich will be able to attend.  Here is why.

What If College Tuition Were Free?
You have to be rich to afford it.

By James H. Choi
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What if college tuition were free?  In Brazil, this daydream was the reality.   Universidade de São Paulo (USP) — the best university in Brazil, and the best in Latin America according to US News Ranking — is practically free.  Students pay no tuition, a few fees, and cheap, subsidized lunches (which where 10 cents while I was in high school).  The logic is simple: Brazil offers the finest education to anyone capable of taking it, as proven through dint of their hard work, regardless of their financial background.

Of course, this free university tuition has unintended consequences.  USP is, despite being free, filled with students of rich families.  The school chooses its students based on scores from Vestibular, USP’s admissions testing system.  Vestibular is the most intense entrance exam in the nation that is conducted in phases.  A student’s university admission depends solely on these tests’ scores alone.  No GPA, no extra-curricular activities are considered.  In a way, it is a very logical and transparent process.

To score high on these tests is to be admitted, but it is also to have prepared well.  Those institutions that prepare students well for the Vestibular charge a lot.  Therefore, USP admits students in droves from mostly just a few expensive high schools.
I know this well because I attended one of those high schools myself: the venerable Colégio Bandeirantes.  At my school, students were so well prepared, some of us would take Vestibular at the end of the second year (as opposed to normal third year) to show off their precocious intelligence.  (This was a pure showmanship.  They could not enter the university because they did not have a high-school degree.)  In the end, USP and other nearly free-tuition universities become packed with students from rich families who have paid extensively for preparation up to high-school years.  This is the irony: To enjoy free tuition, you must be rich.  “Matthew Effect” strikes again.

To make free university tuition democratically accessible, high-quality high schools would have to be open to students of all economic backgrounds.  Once again, only some students would get admitted to these, and so this would spur competitive and expensive middle schools to shape students for the free high schools.  Elementary schools and preschools would follow suit.  And by the time students’ are competing to enter preschools, you have a new problem on your hands: The students’ fates begin to depend on their lives before they even enter elementary schools.

Friends of mine who are now professors at USP tell me the system is pretty much the same as it was when we attended; in fact, they say the favor toward the rich has worsened.  Those who are in power and thus benefiting from this system have no motivation to change it.  Thus, the working class people are paying for the tuition of higher class families.  Who would have thought a free college education could become a model for social injustice?

Nor is this phenomenon unique to Brazil.  According to The Economist: “The biggest single supplier of undergraduates to the University of Edinburgh was Eton.”  Eton College is the British equivalent to the Philips Academy in the U.S.  A prestigious high school famous for being attended by the children of the rich and influential, and producing influential figures.

Nowadays, the college tuition is an extremely controversial topic in many countries.  At the time of this writing, a “Half-Price Tuition Movement” is afoot in Korea complete with candle-lit protests, and the Chilean students are demonstrating for “free high-quality universities for all.”  North American universities are always mired on this controversy, and once-free British universities are now going through pains after they recently decided to charge university tuition.

It seems to me that every system has its own flaws and the best we can hope for is to select the system that is least bad.  Beyond these vague words, I have no wisdom to offer.  I would like to hear your actual experiences in the comment box below.

Categories: College Tuition

Did You Read Your School’s Mission Statement?

February 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Did You Read Your School’s Mission Statement?

By James H. Choi
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Dear Sabio Parents,

Often parents complain a school didn’t prepare their children for college-entrance exams.  The complaints are legitimate: the lack of preparation is the main cause students perform poorly on the ACT and SAT, even though they received — unjustifiably — high report-card scores on high school subjects.

Ironically, some of these parents left countries like Korea to escape the competitive nature of the mother land’s school system, only to find themselves complaining about the uncompetitive U.S. education system.  We should be careful what we wish for, indeed.

What these parents should have done first off was to read the mission statement of their children’s school.  (If you haven’t done this already, I urge you to do so immediately.)  Mission statements of all organizations, including that of of high schools, are full of highly abstract hyperboles.  I’ve written my department’s missions statements (and the vision statements) in my corporate days, and it was an exercise in word arrangement that must include “world-class,” “customer satisfaction,” “high-quality,” and “maximize shareholder value.” Without these words, the mission statement seems empty.  The corporate mission statements are meaningless with them included as well, because it is like “eternal happiness”: an ideal that the organization would strive for, not a specification of the final product.  In other words, if it is in the mission statement, it may happened.  If it is not in it, then it won’t happen. take a look at your student’s school’s mission statement. It may not even mention “high scores,” or “standardized tests.” It may not even mention “college.”  Why? Because it is not their mission.  That’s right.  These schools do not care if your child goes to college or not, much less if they go to MIT/Harvard.  Most high schools mission statements are geared toward “producing upstanding citizens ready to perform all civic duties.”  A well-rounded upstanding-citizen doesn’t need to attend college.  In addition, the production of well-rounded citizens is not a zero-sum-game; why not offer an environment where students can stop and smell the roses?  That’s why the life of some American high school students seem less hurried, enjoying their lives more fully.  Admit it, that’s why you move to the United States.

So now that you realized less competition leads to less competitive results, ask yourself, “Is this enough?”

Yes, becoming a civic minded citizen is indeed a necessary condition for all human beings, but that alone may not cut it for what you expect from your child.  Do you also want to raise a high performer who becomes admitted to MIT/Harvard?  Then don’t expect schools do the work that is not even in their mission or vision statement.  Your child’s education has to be supplemented by teachers who share your goal.

Sabio Academy still doesn’t have a mission or vision statement because I (one of the founders) never overcame the “mission/vision statement writing” trauma of my corporate days.  Sabio Academy would rather be judged by its track record.  Yes, our students are admitted to MIT/Harvard every year.  Of course, track record is no guarantee of future performance, but it sure beats not having one, or having only a cliche-filled “mission/vision statement.”

Categories: College Applications

Internship 1: The Absurdity of High-School Internships

January 5, 2012 1 comment

If you think about it, high school student internship is absurd.  What do these kids know to contribute anything?

Internship 1: The Absurdity of High-School Internships

By James H. Choi
Source Link

To Sabio Parents,

We hear about high-school internships all the time. But once we set out to find such an opportunity for our kids, the elusive “high-school internship” becomes almost mythical: mentioned but never sighted.

If one thinks about it, it is rather absurd a high-school student would even aspire to hold an internship. At least college students have been preparing for internships for years. College students intern in the field they know they will enter as a career. But high-school students? What do they know? Not a lot.

It is important to understand the subtext of this absurdity — that high-school students seek college-level internships but know hardly anything — if you want your child to take fullest advantage of high-school internships.

First of all, let’s define “Internship.” Internships refers to a range of activities from simple, part-time jobs to paper-shuffling volunteer work. In these two cases, the term “internship” is an empty title. The positions are as easy or difficult to obtain as any other part-time job or volunteer work. There is little to be said about these.

Below, I’ll focus on a second type of internship: the research opportunity. Research opportunities give students an ultimate honor: a chance to co-author a research paper. There is no better proof of a student’s worthiness than performing real research for publication in an academic journal (he or she might be the last author listed). This is an honor even college students rarely achieve.

So how can your student get a high-school research opportunity? There are broadly two cases.

Case 1: Sponsored Research

Organizations such as NIH (National Institute of Health) and companies such as Motorola often run summer internship programs. These community-service programs focus on spreading good will and brand recognition of the organization or company. In other words, the interns are doing no real work. Even interns assigned research projects end up performing sand-box projects — inconsequential to the organizer. Of course, the work has to be inconsequential. Would you want your medical treatment to hinge on a high-school student’s summer discovery? But this type of opportunity should be grabbed anyway, with two hands whenever possible, because they are still far more valuable than one of those expensive summer programs, the names of which seem always to begin with “Global Leadership ….” But remember: This is not the type of internship that makes a college admissions officer sit up and read the application twice. 2: Real Laboratory Research

A high-school student who finds him or herself in the middle of actual research is the product of some heavy arm-twisting behind the scenes. Thus, usually only students from academically connected families can find this type of internship. But it’s worth noting that getting a foot in the laboratory’s door does not necessarily open another door. These students often end up accomplishing nothing — in spite of being in the middle of action the whole time. So what’s the problem? This outcome is actually understandable, even logical, if you consider the research director’s two goals for high-school interns:

  1. Don’t let him or her disrupt the experiments and research or damage equipment.
  2. Make sure he or she is kept away from even the slightest dangers so as to return to the parents safely.

Because of these goals, the high-school student can hardly learn, let alone contribute, to the research during his or her internship.

Amazingly, those lucky students who have the arm-twisting parents seem to completely unaware of this reality. They walk into the laboratory totally unprepared. I’ve come up with only one logical interpretation of how this blase attitude and subsequent squandering of their lucky break happens. It can happen only students and parents think the following scenario will unfold upon the student’s arrival at the lab:

The research director sees the new intern’s potential right away. He cancels all his classes, meeting and trips so he can focus on teaching this new intern the fundamentals of science on which research at this lab is based. The intern understands everything, including the research’s implications and ramifications. The graduate students at the lab also see the potential of this high-potential high-school student, and they postpone their own work to aid the intellectual growth of this new intern. The intern catches up with the science by the end of the first week and starts leading the experiment by the second week. By the third week, the intern raises the level of the research so high that now the experiment has a shot at winning the Nobel Prize. On the day of departure, the intern has to tear himself away from the lab’s members, who are also unable to let him go, for the success of the experiment depends solely on the intern’s brilliance. The intern leaves with a parting word: “I am still a kid,” he says. They had forgotten this. “I need to go back home and finish high school. I will come help you again when I find some spare time.”

Actually, I don’t know what goes on in high-school students’ heads. But this scenario is the only way I can understand students who have the audacity to show up unprepared.

Needless to say, the intern will have much to say about his or her experience at the lab, how he or she “learned very much.” But, in this scenario, there can be no mention of the intern’s contribution and no chance he or she will become one of the authors of the research because the only thing the intern did was looking on the experiment from a safe distance, or cleaned the equipment after the experiment.


It sounds bleak. It seem an unprepared high-school student has no way to score a knock-out internship experience or accomplishment. After all, these are high-school kids. We should be reasonable in what we expect and demand from them.

But I am not writing this to show you just the absurdity and bleakness of high-school internships. On the contrary, I want to show you how to make the most of your student’s opportunities through adequate preparation. Your students have a shot to get the highest academic honors and records by becoming published researchers — and they have this chance in high school only through careful preparation.

My next letters will explain one possible preparation procedure and a success story.


James H. Choi

Categories: Internship

Recommendation letter for leaders and/or followers

January 4, 2012 1 comment

Recommendation Letter for Leaders and/or Followers

By James H. Choi
Source Link

To Sabio Students,

This is part 2 of my advice on how to get an ideal recommendation letter. Part 1 is here.

By definition, all recommendation letters are filled with praise. Otherwise, it would not be a recommendation letter; it would be a non-recommendation letter. But as the saying goes, it is possible to damn someone with faint praise (or wrong praise). It is also possible to inflict damage through silence (i.e., omission).

1. Take this praise-filled paragraph, for instance: “This student never missed a class. She always delivered her homework on time, and exactly the way I specified. She is someone I can always count of when I need to get a job done.” No doubt, this letter has great praise. But let’s hold our judgement until we read the next paragraph.

2. Now consider this paragraph: “This student is not swayed by prevailing opinion easily. He won’t join in a cause until he completely believes in the cause himself. For example, when we finished a report on How to conserve energy in our school, this student wouldn’t simply accept solar panels cannot produce enough energy for our school. So against my wishes (as supervising teacher) and the wishes of 11 other team members, this student insisted we compute the actual annual amount of sunshine, rather than using an average national value for the United States. We found out the “average” national value for the States was much higher than what we would actually get in northern Illinois. We therefore discovered that it wouldn’t make economical sense to install solar panels in our school. If not for this student insisting we compute actual values, we would have delivered a completely wrong report. I notice, incidentally, that his peers listen when he speaks.”
is the difference between the two paragraphs, if they both praise the student? You know colleges want to select future “leaders.” These leaders are not those who want to have a steady job in a large company and two-car garage house in the suburbs. These leaders, by the colleges’ definition, are people who will create new industries, create new political movements, and do something that will appear in history books.

Which of the two recommendations above better fits this image of leader? The second, of course. If you think about it, (and read it again now) the first recommendation sounds like it was written for a secretary position or a delivery person’s job. It’s faint praise, weak praise, fluffy praise. And yes, you can be damaged by a faint praise or, in other words, by a complete omission of the facts that imply “leadership.”

You cannot tell the recommender to write like #2 for you. The recommender will write as he or she saw you. So the only way you can get a letter like the #2 recommendation letter is by acting like the student in #2. That is, you must spend much time with your future recommenders and display your leadership, integrity, decisiveness and analytical mind on proper occasions. You must also make sure they see you doing this.

Even when you volunteer, think of benefits for not only the recipients of your service, but also for yourself. That is, think about what work type will develop your character in your eyes, as well in the eyes of other people.

I wish you wise and successful choices.


Categories: College Applications

An Ideal Recommendation Letter for College Applications

January 4, 2012 3 comments

An Ideal Recommendation Letter for College Applications

By James H. Choi
Source Link

To Sabio Students,

The word “ideal” is often associated with “impossible” or “too difficult to obtain” in our conversations. But I am happy to inform you that an ideal recommendation letter is possible to obtain. In fact, almost all students who got into top universities had one. But you must be warned a good recommendation is indeed impossible to obtain without having substance. And even if you have substance, the best letter is absolutely impossible to obtain overnight.

But if you follow my advice as soon as you enter high school, you will get that golden recommendation letter, presenting you in the best light. I will remind you once more, though: You must shine first in order to have someone shine a light on you.

What I am about to explain is not my idea. This is a summary of what I learned from a very prestigious college and university head admissions officer when he was giving a talk to a private meeting of America’s top math-teams coaches. His talk was on “How to write a recommendation letters that we notice.”

An ideal recommendation letter for college applications has the following characteristics.

1. The letter must be for that one college only.

In other words, the letter must be so specific to one college that it would be impossible to send the same one to any other college. The recommendation letter must recommend the student for that particular college for reasons specific to only that college. (This has to be based on the recommender’s deep knowledge of what the school wants.) Here is an example of a very specific recommendation: “This student is a great fit for your artificial organ oriented Bioengineering Program because she is interested in developing artificial skin.”

If the recommender has any long-term perspective on other students’ performance after entering that particular college, this perspective should be mentioned even if the comparison is not entirely positive for the recomendee. For example, here is a letter that shows a weakness of the student but spins the weakness into a positive trait: “This student is not as intuitively smart in physics as is John Doe who is a Junior in your college now. Believe me: I have taught both students, and I know their differences. But this student is more driven than John Doe. He will be at least as successful as John Doe, if not more, based on the fact he always performed well, due to his sheer drive and tenacity, which are not found to the same degree in other students I have taught.”

As you can see, this requires your recommender to have an intimate knowledge about the college you pick. But you should not rely on your recommender having existing knowledge. In fact, you should prepare a short explanation on why you are a great fit for that college. (Do not write “Why this college is great for me.” This doesn’t make the university want you. Explain instead why you are great for the college, i.e., why you will bring glory to the college.)

Of course, you must have a fact-based and convincing argument as to why the college should choose you. If you cannot find a reason to recommend yourself, you should not ask others to recommend you. The letter must describe only you.

In other words, the recommendation letter should be so specifically tailored to you that it would be useless for anyone else. Talk is cheap, and adjectives are even cheaper. Any recommender can recklessly toss around sentences like “This student is a smart student and has a great sense of responsibility.” But such a statement will take on meaning only if it is followed by a specific example such as “When we had a flood, she made more sandbags than anyone other volunteer who showed up at school on that (ironically) sunny Saturday afternoon. (The rain had stopped the day before.) In fact, she went home that evening only once it became clear the water level was going down.”

Here’s one more example of a letter describing a student well: Instead of just saying, “This student showed great leadership in academic areas,” the letter should read, “He is the one student who brought the AMC test to our school when he was only a ninth grader. To do this, he went around speaking to every math teacher. Then he organized study groups to win peer support, too. This student just wouldn’t give up. We had to say yes then, and now we are glad we did. Today, the AMC test is an established annual academic event at our school thanks only to this student’s leadership.” Which student would you take? The one who “showed great leadership” or the one who established the AMC test at his high school when he was just a freshman? Most colleges would pick the latter.

Before your recommenders can cite these incidents and anecdotes — these great things that you do — you need to create them in the first place. That means you should be doing these great things now. There is no way around that.

3. The letter must be from someone with a trusted track record.

The best recommender not someone who writes for the best students, and he is not someone who writes for the worst students. That doesn’t matter. The best recommender is actually the one who has a track record for saying things how they really are: The best recommender is an accurate predictor of the recommendee’s performance in college.

College admissions offers keep a record of the recommenders’ track record. Those recommenders who over-praise all students will be ignored.

Avoid getting a recommenation letter from a teacher who sees equally great potential in all students. Chances are, this teacher wrote the same thing in every recommendation letter he or she has ever written, and the colleges know exactly what those “potentials” amount to by now. This is no indication of how you will perform, and it is not tailored to you.

Likewise, recommendation letters coming from countries or cultures that praise everyone highly will not have much credibility after a few “best student I have ever seen” turned out ordinary. Thus it is better to have the recommendation letters from the countries or cultures that talk straight, if you can get one. For example, if you are a Korean and studied as an exchange student for a year in the United States, get your letter from your exchange-studies teacher. Of course, this assumes you made the most of your exchange program by impressing your teacher positively during your stay. (This is not my idea, but a paraphrased quote of what I heard from the admissions officer.)

4. Get a letter from people in academics if you can.

Get a recommendation letter from the professor of the college you are applying to. Of course, an opportunity like this does not come naturally to high school students. You need to work on building this relationship for years to create an opportunity. But if you can get one, a recommendation letter from practicing academics, who really know you, worked with you (and can use full of anecdotes while writing a letter about you) and also know the college you are applying to, can be very powerful. A letter like this makes you stand much taller than other applicants, who will get recommendation letters only from their high school teachers and counselors.

Take my student student, BH, for example. She participated in MIT’s WTP program at the end of her Junior year in high school. While in the program, BH displayed an apparently natural aptitude in learning Matlab, and the supervising professor noticed. (The truth is, although BH never learned Matlab, she did know another, similar software called Mathematica.) This apparent aptitude for software, in addition to other impressive aspects of BH, impressed the supervising professor sufficiently to give BH a recommendation letter. Let me rephrase: BH got a recommendation letter from an MIT professor. Do you think she got in?

If you can’t tell yet, here’s another story about BH. She also worked as a research intern at Dr. Konopka’s clinic, and received a recommendation letter from him as well.

BH got accepted to — among other colleges — MIT. Only her college admissions officers know how big a role these letters played. But the fact that her peer, a high school math wizard who made it to prestigious USAMO, was rejected by MIT. The acceptance of BH, who never showed any promise in any math competitions, over this other student makes me suspect those recommendation letters played some role in this surprise outcome.


What to do?

To get ideal recommendation letters, you need to know the recommender well, and more importantly, the recommender has to know you well. If you are the type who sits in the last row of class every day, quietly minding your own business, or if you are the type who never visits any teacher’s office for questions, then you are working hard to make sure your teachers will have nothing to say about you in their recommendation letters.

Think of what type of recommendation letter you want to have. Then think about what type of life you have to live and what deeds you must do to get that letter. Then live out those deeds. Yes, it is you who is writing your recommendation letter — by living it. Your teachers are merely transcribing what you have done. They are authenticating your deeds in writing, on your behalf. All you have to do, and all you can do, is to make sure that everything noteworthy is transcribed accurately.

It is your life — not your teachers’ — on the line. You have to make it easier for the recommender. For example, you need to provide anecdotes and facts for your recommender to cite, refer to, and allude to in the recommendation letter. But in order to have these anecdotes, you need to spend time with the recommender. You need to put in the effort.

Even then, having anecdotes is not enough. Doing deeds is not necessarily going to get them remembered. You have to carry yourself in such a way that your recommender can remember the anecdotes easily. For example, if you were the last one making sandbags during the flood, go through the trouble of walking to the other end of the building to say goodbye to your teacher. Not only is saying goodbye the proper and polite thing to do anyway, it is also the only way to make sure your teacher knows how late you stayed.

And do not rely on other peoples’ memories, especially four-year-old memories. Provide a one page document of your activities (such as volunteering at the sandbag event), accomplishments (awards you won), and other notable deeds when you ask for the recommendation letter. With this document, the recommender can easily remember and cite facts accurately. In fact, don’t rely on your memory either. You should keep a binder of your activities so that you can remember them. Start one now if you haven’t.

By the way, there is no point in getting a recommendation letter from someone who doesn’t know you. For instance, your powerful parents might pull some strings to have a Nobel Prize winner write a recommendation letter for you. But this person, no matter how smart he or she is, won’t have any anecdotes to tell, nor any first-hand testimony of your strengths to match what the college you are applying to want. The vagueness of adjectives will sorely stand out among the genuine recommendation letters of other applicants.

Start doing something, and I wish you the results that match your deeds



Categories: College Applications
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