Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Congressional Award Program for Youth

Have you ever wondered how you can get your teen recognition for doing good things, even if these things don't include finding a cure for cancer, developing a new technology, or writing a NYT best seller before the age of 16 ?

Then you should check out The Congressional Award Program.


Two of my kids did this program and received the Congressional Gold Award.  This included ceremonies in DC, meetings with senators and congressmen, internship opportunities, and membership in a community of youth who are on the road to success.  My 3rd teen is in the middle of earning this award now.  The youngest eagerly awaits his turn.

Students must be 13.5 years old to begin.  Enrollment costs $15.   It takes a minimum of 24 months to complete the program.  The good news is that most of what a student needs to do to earn the Gold Award falls into the category of stuff they are probably already doing.

To achieve the Gold, a student needs to log 200 hours of physical fitness, 200 hours of personal development, 400 hours of community service and a few days and nights away from home immersed in a culture different than his own. (You do not have to go far; you just have to do something that challenges you.)

This program really does teach a teen how to set goals and stick to them.  At a time when so many outstanding teens maneuver to check all of the boxes for extraordinary (and somewhat clich├ęd) activities on their march toward acceptance to the universities for the best and the brightest, this program focuses on the straightforward work of sticking to some goals over a period of a few years.

The other students we met at the award ceremonies were all stand-outs and most of them were actually headed to good schools.  No surprise - it turns out that a kid who hangs in there, working on goals over a long period, also has what it takes to gain entry to his top choice school.  But the Congressional Award Program is not an achievement test.  Top grades are not uncommon among the candidates, but they are by no means required to earn the Gold Award.  What a teen does need to get the Gold Award is sincerity and resolve.

                                 Here's John getting his gold medal in 2011 from the only
                                 Congressman who can make him (John) look short (!)

Below is Nora getting her gold medal in 2013!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ivy League + Top University Acceptance Rates - 2014

Business Insider published the new undergraduate acceptance rates 2 weeks ago and since then many others who chronicle elite university acceptances have weighed in with opinions on the insanity.  Despite the prospect of crushing debt paired with a very uncertain job market, more kids than ever are trying to get into the very best schools.

The 2014 Acceptance Rates at the most competitive universities in USA are:

Stanford University                               5.2
Harvard                                                5.9
Yale                                                      6.72
Columbia                                              6.94
Princeton                                              7.28
MIT                                                       7.7
Caltech                                                  8
Brown                                                   8.6
University of Pennsylvania                    9.9
Duke                                                    10.7
Dartmouth                                            11.5
Vanderbilt                                             12
Amherst                                                13
Cornell                                                  14
Swarthmore                                          17

Some of the non-Ivies are harder to get into than the Ivies - Stanford, MIT, and Caltech, for example. These schools attract students who have remarkable achievements in math and science.

If you ever doubted the desirability of the prestigious "8" Ivies - the statistics below should prove just how many are clawing to get in:

Brown University — 30,291 applicants (2,619 accepted)
Columbia University — 32,967 applicants (2,291 accepted)
Cornell University — 43,041 applicants (6,025 accepted)
Dartmouth College — 19,235 applicants (2,220 accepted)
Harvard University — 34,295 applicants (2,023 accepted)
University of Pennsylvania — 35,788 applicants (3,551 accepted)
Princeton University — 26,607 applicants (1,939 accepted)
Yale University — 30,922 applicants (1,935 accepted)

Holy Cow.  

Why the numbers of applicants keep increasing is outlined nicely in this recent New York Time article:  

Among the reasons cited the top culprit is the applicant pool.  It is not unusual for qualified students to apply to ALL of the schools listed above.  This introduces many inefficiencies to the acceptance process.  It also results in a good student often attending a school that is not a good match.  It would be much better if students took time to fully investigate the schools, find a match, focus on that school exclusively, and then apply under a restrictive early admissions process.  With so much competition for so few spots, it is a fierce contest indeed.  I think the applicant pool is waiting for the universities to blink first.  I suspect that students (and their exhausted parents) are thinking:  "Save us from ourselves, please.  Do something!"

In a recent post on a yahoo group I follow closely, one parent suggested that the top universities develop a software program as an intelligent buffer between them (the schools) and the applicants. Applicants who are determined to apply to all of the best schools would have to rank their top three picks.  Let the software do the rest.  Theoretically, this would produce more precise placements for those who are attractive to ALL of the schools, leaving more openings and reducing some of the scrambling that occurs in April.

My Big Idea:   I think the top universities should include a question designed specifically to find the most committed kids.  This essay question would be:  "How many times have you visited this university (include dates) and what were the highlights of your visit(s)?  If you have not explored the campus of this university, why not?"  Most universities claim that they do not track official visits.  That is, they say that they don't go through their records to see if you attended an official tour.  Many do not even have a formal sign-up for their tours.   I think this is a mistake. Why ignore data that can help discern the "sincerity factor"?

Bottom line:  If applicants do more homework, become more focused in their search, and select more sincerely, and if universities used the important information that this sincerity reveals, everyone would be happier and the bottle-neck would be loosened.  Of course, not all kids would be truthful, and, true,  internationals would have a special challenge, but surely this question would help eliminate the birdshot approach?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Homeschooler's Guide to the Middle School Galaxy

This post is for the many, many homeschool families who ask me about the middle school years and how best to prepare for high school when a competitive college admission is the ultimate goal.

I've met many parents of middle school students who feel stranded.  They want to be prepared for the high school years that are skulking around the corner.  They want to get this right, but they're unsure.   School administrators, grandparents, and well-meaning friends offer  "do this, do that" sound bites.  But, inertia and uncertainty prevail.

There are two distinct phases of home education, after the elementary years wind down: The Interrogatory Phase (middle school) and the Execution Phase (high school).

It is in the Interrogatory Phase that you learn what you will be doing in the Execution Phase.  The Execution Phase is a terribly busy time and as the name implies, you are putting into action all of the plans you made in the late middle school years.  If you wait until high school to ask the important questions, you will find yourself bogged down, confused, and feeling rather ineffective.

What happens in the Interrogatory Phase other than school?

                                                         Figure out your kid

What does my student love best and where does he/she excel?   For example:  Does she like to build things?  Is he quick with his math?  Does she read above grade level?  Can he write better than most boys his age?  Do topics in science, music, art, or history hold her attention more?

It might seem like a lot to know about your student but if you pay close attention to your days, the answers are there.  Your goal is to get an academic lock on your student and know his strengths, weaknesses, and special interests.  Pay attention to your student's skill set and talents.  These are the headwaters from which good things can flow.


For an objective "stock-taking", you'll need to test. I am not a big advocate of testing, especially in elementary school, but by middle school you really need to get a fix on how your student measures up against the general population.  We are not very good scorekeepers for our own kids.

(There are many online resources for testing your student in the privacy of your home, if you prefer.  A google search will reap a harvest of them.) 

1.  You can have your older middle school student take the PSAT or the SAT.  Scores prior to 9th grade are purged - no one but you will ever see them.  You don't have to get upset with low scores here because you will adjust down for his/her age.  For example, if your 7th grade student has an SAT math score of 500 - you should be very encouraged; that is quite good for that grade level.

2.  There is also a test called the SSAT (not administered by the College Board).  The SSAT is similar in shape to the SAT, is geared toward the middle school student, and it will give you a projected SAT score, depending on the age of your student when he takes this test.  The SSAT is a personal favorite of mine.

What does this testing accomplish?
1. You will have a reality check.
2. You will know where you need to concentrate your efforts.
3. If your student has real strength in one area, it will be revealed and you may have a ticket to gifted learning programs.
4. Since all of these achievement exams are (at minimum) 3 hours long, your student will know ahead of time what it feels like to sit through this endurance test.  Better your kid do this before it counts than do it for the first time when it really does count.


Is my student ready for high school?  Is he ready to work hard?  Does she know how to manage her time?  Does he know why he needs to do all of this work?  Are we on the same page?    

Most students do not know what they want to do with their lives.  But, they should still have goals. Without goals, how will you get them to study into the late hours of the night and on weekends when that time/need arrives.  It is very hard to push a kid who does not have a shared vision of excellence and achievement.  To instill this desire in your student, he must see the goal(s).  You should do college tours.  It might sound foolish to traipse across the campus of Columbia University with a middle school student - it is not.  Pick a beautiful day, travel without time constraint on a day when classes are in session, jump in to an organized tour or just walk the campus and hang in the nearby eateries to get a sense of the intellectual energy and excitement that you will find everywhere.   If you can get your student excited about attending ONE college, ANY college, then you are on the "go" square of the game board.  You can build goals from there.  Without this, you will find yourself parroting admonitions which will fall on deaf ears.  A student needs a tangible goal, especially if no particular career goal is present.  Invest in your student's enthusiasm.

Does my middle school student even KNOW what hard work looks like?

This is critically important.  Your daughter might view 20 math problems per week as punitive.  Your son might think that a weekly 250 word essay is pure torture.  Most middle school students need to calibrate what they think is hard work to what hard work actually is. They need good models.  Middle school students who want to land in a competitive college need to meet other students with similar goals..  Your job is to find them. The homeschool community is filled with success stories.  Find the families who have high-achieving kids.  Ask them what they did.   If your 12 year old son or daughter sits down with a 21 year old who has a proven academic track record and they hear it straight from the source, they will never forget it.  It is golden.
To find peers, try to get your middle school student into one high-achieving program, whether online or through your local community.

                                                        From Ideas to Action Plans

During the Interrogatory Phase of the middle school years you should try out different things.  This takes time but it is worth it.   If math seems to come easy, find a math club.  If your student loves science, do science fairs.  If writing is at the top of the list, find contests and competitions to enter.  Your goal is to get some traction.  Once that happens you will see real progress. Advice for mom - get on numerous homeschool discussion loops and scour the digests from these groups nightly.  This is how you learn about cool, local opportunities.  You will  have to make a regular investment of time to do this research.  Here is a terrific website with lists and lists of competitions in science, art, history, math, computers and writing. A good place to start -  http://cty.jhu.edu/imagine/resources/competitions/index.html
This list includes a good number of competitions for middle school students.

If a student is preparing to compete for something  - anything - he will be more focused.  Then you (mom) can reverse-engineer your school year around this event.  Big events like these actually ADD structure to your year.

                                                           Plan, Plan, Plan Some More

Once you have gathered up activities, events and competitions, you are one easy step away from creating a calendar for the year with clear goals mapped out.  Keep going with this.  Do a hypothetical 4-year high school plan.  Involve your middle school student in this.    Of course, this plan is going to morph.  But if you have no plan at all, you are bound to fall short of a high standard.

                                                                Broaden Horizons

A desire to achieve and the determination to do hard things  won't come out of thin air.  You need to nurture it.  There are wonderful educational events run by Learning Unlimited throughout the year.  Middle school students can take exciting classes on the campuses of some of the best universities in the country for as little as $30 for a full weekend of amazing courses.  No grades are given.  University students volunteer to teach. Often a middle school student discovers an entire field of science or language they did not even know existed. Inspiration is everywhere.  Do this!  Do it as often as you can.
http://www.learningu.org/current-programs  Get on the mailing list.  Have it on your calendar.  The MIT and Yale programs are especially good.

                                                                Your Leadership

Many years ago a homeschool family asked to meet with me.  Mom and dad could not get their kids to read books. They wanted advice.  Most home educating families know that in order to be poised for the academic world kids need to read  - a lot.  They need to read hard stuff and they need to read often.  These parents were worried.  Their kids did not have dyslexia or ADHD. They were neurotypical kids.  "Why can't we get them to read?" they lamented.    I asked them what they (mom and dad) were currently reading, looking high and low for a sign of books.  "We don't read, we don't have time for it."  Hmm.

The prescription is simple.  Kids will read more if you have a set reading time and lead by example.  Kids will also read in the absence of other forms of entertainment and if most table top surfaces hold a small stack of interesting books.

If your middle school kids are glued to glowing rectangles, have technology free hours built into the day and have good books ready to fill the gap.  It is harder now than it ever was before to encourage kids to read books.  The glowing screens hold far more appeal.  We cannot extricate ourselves from these devices entirely but we can claim back a few hours a day - this is a reasonable goal.  Lead the way on this.

                                               ~          ~          ~          ~          ~          ~

The middle school years are a period of intense mentorship.  It is during these years that you can establish that you and your student are on the same team.  The road to excellence is arduous, but it is made easier when the prize is clear, the goals are reasonable, and your leadership is obvious. You got this !   Godspeed !