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Raising the Bar: Higher Competition Complicates College Admissions Process

12/01/2008 1 comment

Raising the Bar: Higher Competition Complicates College Admissions Process

By Christina Edwards

December 1, 2008

High school graduation: the end of an era. A milestone transition from childhood to legal adulthood. A choice on where to go next.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics out of the US Department of Labor, 67.2 percent of high school graduates made the choice to enroll in a college or university, a choice made in increasingly large numbers; this is a jump even from the class of 2006’s 65.8 percent college enrollment.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that college enrollment has been rising since 2001, where 61.7 percent had enrolled in post-secondary education.

As these numbers rise, high school education has seen a shift towards preparation towards a more competitive college admissions climate.

Schools have seen the implementation of increasing amounts of Advanced Placement (AP) classes, SAT and ACT preparation classes, and students clamoring for leadership positions in various extracurricular activities.

This brings several questions to the forefront: can US high schools support the new climate? Is high level competition a help or a hindrance? And how, in a sea of near-perfect GPAs and test scores, does a student stand out?

High School Students: “It’ll Look Good on My Application.”

Sojung Ko, a junior at Roberson High School in Asheville, NC, is currently enrolled in four college level courses; she’s already completed one. She is heavily involved in her school’s National Honor Society, Odyssey of the Mind, and is the student government vice president.

“[The AP classes] are definitely more challenging than honors class,” says Ko. “You have to study extra hours just to make at least a B in classes. Even though I might not do well in classes, AP classes build up my endurance and dedication.”

Ko says she was advised by her brother, a class of 2008 high school graduate, to take her already required math, English, science, and history classes in AP courses; he told her to take AP statistics and environmental science this year to make room for AP calculus and physics her senior year. Her extracurriculars were also planned strategically.

“I chose National Honor society because it shows that I have been able to sustain my GPA pretty high and work hard at school,” says Ko. “I chose student government because it shows that I have leadership and is able to represent my class. Odyssey of the Mind, to able to be involved in a long-term club that competes with other schools. It shows that even with my crazy schedule, I was able to be involved in this kind of club, something more creative.”

Ko’s classmate, junior Molly Ohmen, is only currently enrolled in one AP class, but says her newspaper class, in which she is part of the editorial board, is equally preparing her for college.

“I think that newspaper will be one of the most beneficial things to put on a college application,” says Ohmen. “It helps you deal with real life obstacles like deadlines and has made me more outgoing. I also think that because I have a leadership position and that I have been so dedicated to the class that it will look good on an application.”

A small survey of honors and advanced placement high school juniors, all planning on attending a four year college or university, found 50 percent of students taking 2 AP classes their junior year; 33.3 percent planned to take six AP classes before they graduated.

All students surveyed participated in at least one extracurricular activity, with 58.3 percent participating in more than four. 41.7 percent hold at least one leadership position in an extracurricular activity. 66 percent participated in a sport.

The Two-Sided Push: School Systems and Competition

The school systems, in turn, are adjusting to the competitive climate, and perhaps facilitating the change in mentality.

In 2006, Roberson added an AP world history class; the next year psychology and English language were added, bringing the school’s total to 13 offered AP classes that teach to 15 AP tests. This is in accordance with a Buncombe county wide push for the AP program: 20 AP classes are offered among the six county high schools, and enrollment in AP classes increased by 248 students from fall 2006 to fall 2008.

Guidance counselors at the high school who speak to incoming freshman as they choose their classes recommend that students planning to attend a top university plan to take six AP classes before they graduate.  In 2003, three AP classes were recommended.

Roberson has traditionally encouraged juniors to begin taking AP classes; with the class of 2010, the school began offering an option for advanced students to take a different track of history classesthat would allow them into AP World History as sophomores.

Though the school system supports AP as effective college preparation, some teachers disagree with the push for more APs at an earlier age.

“Personally, I do not know of many, if any, sophomores in high school who could really survive a true college-level course,” Mark Harrison, an English teacher at Roberson, says.  “I think that over the years,schools have focused their attention on easing the standard levels to keep kids from failing, and thus keep them from dropping out. The schools get lots of APs and fewer drop outs, the kids get higher GPAs for doing the same work as they would have in a regular or honors class.  So it seems to work, but it just masks what is really happening… a lowering of expectations across the board.”

Harrison also teaches the communications class at Roberson, which teachers print and broadcast journalism, along with marketing and business skills. Students in the class work during and after school to produce news publications. Harrison argues that class like his, along with classes like band and chorus, make a student stand out more than an AP class would.

“If a student shows they are taking difficult classes as well as being dedicated to sports and hard, consistent classes like band and Communications, they are actually showing themselves as well-rounded, highly-educated and risk-takers, what colleges want in order to find students who stick out in a mass of thousands of students with basically all the same GPAs,” Harrison says.

How I Got to College: Current Students Speculate

Ultimately, what students, parents, teachers, and high school administration are seeking is the surefire path to the acceptance envelope. Yet differing experiences of current college students suggest the quest for a fail-proof formula may be in vein.

Kelley McClure, a sophomore majoring in graphic design at NC State University, took one AP class in high school, Studio Art. She says the class helped her build a portfolio and prepared her for college level critique, but having her design work published in a school newspaper gave her an edge.

“The people in the graphic design department here love published work,” says McClure. “It shows that I have worked with people and as a team with other staff members to create something for the community.”

McClure says she did not feel the need to take high school courses that did not necessarily interest her.

“I actually didn’t really plan my classes and other activities for college, mostly because I prefer doing things that I know I will enjoy and probably take part in later on in life,” McClure says.

Emily Srisarajivakul, a freshman at Northwestern University, argues that high school schedules dull the advantages to AP classes. She says she structured her high school class schedule and extracurriculars around building up her college application. She credits her acceptances to this, but says it did little in terms of actual preparation.

“Classes here are way more rigorous because we’re on a quarter schedule; I’m used to classes being spread out over a year,” Srisarajivakul said. “We have three months to learn everything. But I placed out of some courses, so I have more freedom to take electives.”

Inside the Admissions Office

For colleges admissions offices, the real test is in weighting the value of all of the competitive achievement.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), part of the NC system of public universities, has seen twenty percent increase in applications in the last five years.

“We don’t use formulas or cutoffs or thresholds; no one is automatically admitted or denied because of a single number. We understand that students travel many different roads to get to Carolina, and we celebrate the variety of interests, backgrounds and aspirations that they bring with them,” says Ashley T. Memory, senior assistant director of undergraduate admissions at UNC.

UNC emphasizes well-rounded academic excellence, and uses extracurriculars, admissions essays, and test scores to further assess students.

“We pay particular attention to the rigor of each candidate’s course of study. We encourage juniors and seniors, when possible, to take the most difficult programs available at their school.  If AP, IB, or Honors classes are available, we encourage students to take these classes,” said Memory.

Elon University, a NC private university, uses test score cutoffs to reduce its applicant pool, in addition to weighing academic performance and difficulty of coursework, according to Greg Zaiser, Dean of Admissions. The school received about 9340 applications for 1290 spots for the class of 2012. Distinguishing between students for admittance can often come down to a single differing factor.

“Because so many student applicants have strong academic profiles, we have had to reevaluate the way we utilize the essay and activities in the admissions process,” said Zaiser.  “While the academic is always paramount, a student with a stronger essay than another, all other things being equal, could be given one of the seats in the class.”

Colleges have seemingly backed themselves into a corner, albeit a positive one to be in. As the desire for post-secondary education grows, a new dilemma appears: what happens to prestige when everyone is good enough?

Maybe prestige does not matter after all, and somewhere there is a place for everyone.

Or maybe there will be a new way to raise the bar.

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Elon Water Ski Club Becomes Official

Water ski club takes off

by Christina Edwards
October 29, 2008

Elon may be hours from the coast but the water sports scene has still found its way to campus.

The 21 members of Elon’s month-old Water Ski Club take advantage of Burlington’s Lake Cammack, located only 11 miles from campus.

The club became official Sept. 22, after two years of effort from president Brice McHale.

“It was a slow process, but I think the school wanted to make sure it was done right,” McHale said.

McHale has been an avid water skier since the age of 6, but hadn’t thought about bringing the sport to Elon until chemistry professor Eugene Grimley approached him.

“The first thing you have to do [to start a campus organization] is get an adviser,” McHale said. “Dr. Grimley actually contacted me a week or two into freshman year and asked if I would be interested.”

Nearly a year had gone by when Anna Powell, a sophomore from Fuquay-Varina, N.C., joined the club and everything began to fall into place.

Powell’s parents allowed the club to use their boat and helped them gain access to Lake Cammack.

Before they could become an officially recognized Elon organization, both McHale and Grimley had to go through extensive safety coordinator training.

“Elon was very meticulous in making sure everything was done right,” McHale said. “I think they just wanted to make sure we did everything safely.”

The club has already participated in competitions, including a South Atlantic Conference Regional competition.

The club is ranked 45th out of the 74 east coast teams.

“We have a wide variety of experience,” McHale said. “We have people who have been doing competitions, and we have people who have just started. We have the full spectrum.”

He has been water skiing since he was 6 years old, and began skiing competitively when he was just seven. However, unlike McHale, some club members are new to competing.

“Before this club, I had [water] skied one time,” freshman Erik Higbee said. “I just heard about it, and wanted to give it a chance. I think after five practices I was doing the slalom mini course.”

Club members practice at Lake Cammack on Thursdays when the lake is closed to the general public.

“We have one of the best collegiate water ski setups,” McHale said. “We have the slalom course, and it’s regularly available to us.”

Categories: Features

Ahmed Fadaam, Iraqi journalist, visits Elon

Information, understanding key in Iraq war according to journalist.

By Christina Edwards

October 22, 2008

Ahmed Fadaam addresses the war in Iraq and the role media plays.

Ahmed Fadaam addresses the war in Iraq and the role media plays.

Dr. Ahmed Fadaam is an accidental journalist.

Until 2003, he was a professor of fine arts at the University of Baghdad. He was a figurative artist, working with clay, marble and stone. He lived in Baghdad with his two children and his wife.

Until the school he was teaching at was destroyed in a 2003 bombing.

“You can’t even feel safe inside your house,” Fadaam said of the turmoil in Iraq.

After the bombings, Fadaam was out of a job. He was then hired as a translator for NPR’s The Connection, going on in May 2003 to work for The Agence France Presse as an interpreter, videographer, reporter, courtroom artist and photographer. Presently, he is working as the Baghdad reporter for The Story with Dick Gordon on WUNC North Carolina Public Radio, and for the Baghdad Bureau of the New York Times.

“Art was my life at that time. I couldn’t imagine myself as a man who would chase stories,” Fadaam said. “I was trying to lock myself up in my own paradise.”

Since falling into journalism, Fadaam’s work has won five awards, including the Edward R. Murrow Award for Continuing Coverage. While at Elon University as a scholar-in-residence, Fadaam spoke to journalism students October 22 about the role of media in the war and future relations between the United States and Iraq.

“It’s curiosity,” Fadaam said. Some people believe what they hear, others have to check it out for themselves. I don’t know if I’m a good [journalist], but I did something.”

Fadaam speaks to Janna Anderson's class at Elon University October 22.

Fadaam speaks to Janna Anderson's class at Elon University October 22.

His work and achievement has come with its consequences. Fadaam has received death threats for his affiliation with western media, causing him to move his wife and children to Syria for safety.

“We’re looked at as spies, as blood traitors,” Fadaam said. “But as long as you know you’re telling the truth. When you want to fight back, it’s not necessary to use weapons. We do it with words, with the truth.”

According to Fadaam, in the early days of the war in Iraq, it was only the Americans and the American media that was looked at with distrust by the Iraqi people.

“It would have been better to introduce yourself as Canadian,” Fadaam said, noting that he was better received by Iraqi citizens when working for the French news organization.

Now, he says, all western media is seen as equal to American. Fadaam also notes that he believes eventually, Iraq will be completely anti-American.

Western media, according to Fadaam, is similarly distrustful of Iraqis. He says Iraqi sources are looked at as exaggerating and trying to spread propaganda.
Fadaam says that in order for Iraqi relations with Americans to become stable, communication needs to be established between the two groups.

“You have children who open their eyes to their country under fire,” Fadaam said. “They need to know that there is a difference between the American people and the American administration.”

Fadaam believes information and understanding of the other culture is key in the conflict.

“You should be informed in what’s going on in details,” Fadaam said. “Know more about Iraqis. If you feel the pain, you can talk about the wound.”

International students blend cultures from different societies

by Christina Edwards

October 14, 2008

Elon University is nationally recognized for the number of students it sends abroad each year. But for some Elon students, an international experience was just part of growing up. Seniors Chika Kusakawa and Jordan Mohr were both born outside of the United States, and have successfully blended both cultures.

Kusakawa was born in Japan and moved to California when she was 5 years old because of her father’s job. As a child, she had to learn to balance both the Japanese and American cultures.

“I attended Japanese language school for about six or seven hours on the weekends, so my weekends were cut short, which I hated,” Kusakawa said. “But I am now very appreciative of that since I have the ability to communicate easily with all of my family, relatives and friends. Growing up in two languages was a norm for me. I wonder what it’s like to know only one language.”

Mohr also speaks more than one language — he knows four. He was born in Germany and lived in Germany, Singapore, Guatemala and Mexico before moving to Greensboro, N.C., when he was 12.

“[We spoke] English usually,” he said of his family. “But for the first two or three years of my life, I learned Bahasa-Indonesian when I lived in Singapore. When I was a kid growing up in Weinheim, I naturally was taught German. As I moved to Guatemala and Mexico, I learned Spanish.”

In addition to being multilingual, both students have taken advantage of the cultures and traditions of more than one society.

“New Year’s is such a large holiday in Japan, we celebrate with a traditional meal every day for three days straight,” Kusakawa said. “But we still do the countdown and the party hats on New Year’s Eve. There are also children’s days in Japan, which we used to celebrate. [We] also celebrated Thanksgiving. It was fun celebrating the traditions of both cultures throughout the year.”

But having a multi-national identity wasn’t always easy for the students.

“There have been times when people hear me speaking Japanese and assume I don’t understand English,” Kusakawa said. “I feel judged. Or they speak slower or down to me. But once I start speaking English, they realize that I understand them perfectly fine. It’s fun to see their reaction.”

For Mohr, the stereotyping surpassed borders.

“My dad once told me as I was being pushed in the stroller I’d randomly sing the Indonesian national anthem,” he said. “Sure enough, the locals would do a double take as they saw this brown-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian kid sing in Bahasa.”

Such experiences shaped his younger years, but Mohr has no regrets.

“I should say that my childhood was vastly different,” said Mohr. “I understand that not many young Americans have the chance to see the world. I highly recommend that seeing the land of your ancestors gives you tremendous appreciation for who you are.”

Kuskawa said she believes her experiences have been somewhat universal.

“I never felt lost or overwhelmed in one culture over the other,” Kusakawa said. “I always knew where I was from and have always been proud of that. I’ve had times when I felt like I stuck out of the crowd, but I think everyone has those moments in life.”

Categories: Features, Uncategorized