Monthly Archives: February 2014

Dispatches from the CCID Conference 2014 in Las Vegas, NV

February 27th, 2014


This year’s CCID (Community Colleges for International Development) annual conference was at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas, NV. Settled at the outskirts of the city; a half hour away from the hubbub of the Strip, the conference site proved to be a serene environment conducive for meetings and networking. A large percentage of ACEI’s institutional clients are U.S. community colleges which refer their international students as well as newly-arrived immigrants to the U.S. for help with the evaluation of their transcripts, certificates and degrees for U.S. academic equivalence. It is only appropriate that we attended this year’s CCID annual Conference.

CCID is a non-profit international membership organization and “for nearly 40 years, CCID has provided an international network for community colleges to further their internationalization initiatives and to enhance the development of a globally competent workforce for the communities they serve.”

Community Colleges are an American invention intended to make publicly funded higher education available and accessible to everyone. They are seen as a gateway to higher education in the U.S. because of their lower costs, excellent opportunities to transfer to universities, variety of courses offered and many other benefits as noted in one of our previous blogs. There are 1,655 community colleges across the US. The States with the largest number of public community colleges are California, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, and New York. (Source: US Department of Education).

Last year, I attended the CCID Conference in Atlanta, GA and co-presented a workshop on how to “ Optimize your recruitment strategy by elevating the global branding of your colleges through 2+2 university pathways and partnerships.” This year, ACEI, represented by myself and our Assistant Director, Yolinisse Moreno, exhibited at the conference for the first time. ACEI also co-hosted the post-banquet dinner dance party with ITEP (International Test for English Proficiency) which proved to be a great hit amongst the attendees. After a long day of attending workshops, presentations and meetings, the dance party was a great way for everyone to loosen up and have fun.

Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert, ACEI & Terri Burchell, CCID

At our exhibit booth, we had the opportunity to meet several representatives from the community colleges and discovered while some had no international students a few were exploring the opportunities available to them to increase their international student population and looking at the 2+2 or 1+1 models, a topic worth revisiting in one of our previous blogs written by Zepur Solakian, the Executive Director of CGACC (Center for Global Advancement of Community Colleges). In response to our question concerning international credential evaluation, it was interesting to hear many say that they did not have any international students so they didn’t have any need for credential evaluations. Yet, when we reminded them that international credential evaluation also applies to those individuals who are already here in the U.S. as immigrants/residents and have academic documents from their source countries, they were able to realize the significance of our service regardless of the student’s status: international vs. domestic. The simple fact is that credential evaluation applies to anyone who has studied outside the U.S. and needs a statement of U.S. academic equivalence in order to seek admission to a school, college or university, or qualify for a job or a professional license in this country.

Both Yolinisse and I were so busy meeting conference attendees at the ACEI booth that neither one of us had the opportunity to attend any of the several sessions on the program with such topics on how to leverage university transfer in community college recruitment abroad to developing associate degree programs in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, we had a very fruitful two days at the conference and were able to connect with many new and old contacts.

Our thanks to the CCID leadership, Carol Stax Brown, President and Terri Burchell, Director of Advancement for inviting ACEI to the conference. We look forward to attending next year’s conference in Newport Beach, CA.

Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI

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20 Interesting Facts About Ukraine

February 20th, 2014


According to a report by the New York Times on February 19, 2014: “Ukrainian anti-government protesters mount a final desperate and seemingly doomed act of defiance in Kiev, establishing a protective ring of fire around what remains of their all-but-conquered encampment on Independence Square; police report at least 14 people killed in worst day of violence in more than two months of protests against Pres Viktor F Yanukovyc.” With Ukraine in the news, we thought it would be helpful to share some facts about this Eastern European country.

Background: Ukraine was the center of the first eastern Slavic state, Kyivan Rus, which during the 10th and 11th centuries was the largest and most powerful state in Europe. During the latter part of the 18th century, most Ukrainian ethnographic territory was absorbed by the Russian Empire. Following the collapse of czarist Russia in 1917, Ukraine was able to achieve a short-lived period of independence (1917-20), but was reconquered and forced to endure a brutal Soviet rule that engineered two forced famines (1921-22 and 1932-33) in which over 8 million died. In World War II, German and Soviet armies were responsible for some 7 to 8 million more deaths. Although final independence for Ukraine was achieved in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR, democracy and prosperity has remained elusive as the legacy of state control and endemic corruption stalled efforts at economic reform, privatization, and civil liberties. A peaceful mass protest “Orange Revolution” in the closing months of 2004 forced the authorities to overturn a rigged presidential election and to allow a new internationally monitored vote that swept into power a reformist slate under Viktor YUSHCHENKO. Subsequent internal squabbles in the YUSHCHENKO camp allowed his rival Viktor YANUKOVYCH to stage a comeback in parliamentary elections and become prime minister in August of 2006. An early legislative election, brought on by a political crisis in the spring of 2007, saw Yuliya TYMOSHENKO, as head of an “Orange” coalition, installed as a new prime minister in December 2007. Viktor YANUKOVUYCH was elected president in a February 2010 run-off election that observers assessed as meeting most international standards. The following month, Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, approved a vote of no-confidence prompting Yuliya TYMOSHENKO to resign from her post as prime minister. In October 2012, Ukraine held Rada elections, widely criticized by Western observers as flawed due to use of government resources to favor ruling party candidates, interference with media access, and harassment of opposition candidates.



1. Ukraine is the largest state in Europe (slightly smaller than Texas). It has an area of 603,628 sq km and borders the Black Sea.

2. The government of Ukraine is a Republic.

3. Ukrainian is the official language of Ukraine. Russian is spoken in eastern and southern parts of the country

4. Kiev is the capital city of Ukraine with a population of 2,797,553 and covering an area of 323.9 square miles, it is the largest city of Ukraine. Kiev is the industrial, scientific, educational and cultural center of Eastern Europe. There are many high-tech industries, colleges and universities, and world-famous historical landmarks in Kiev. 

5. Ukraine was the land for Trypillian Civilization, one of the world’s most ancient civilizations. Neolithic archeological culture which existed between 5500 BC and 2750 BC on the territory of modern Ukraine.

6. More than half the population of Ukraine is constituted by ethnic Ukrainians. The other ethnic groups in the country include Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Romanians, Jews, Armenians, Poles, Greeks and Tatars. 


7. Arsenalnaya Metro Station located in Kiev is the deepest in the world (105 meters/344.488 feet). The station was built in1960 and is close to the House of Parliament. It is said that the tunnels near Arsenalnaya have secret shelters built for the political elite.


8.The National University of Ostroh Academy, founded in 1576 by the Prince Vasyl-Kostiantyn of Ostroh, is the first university in Eastern Europe. It is the successor of Ostroh Slavic, Greek and Latin Academy, the first higher educational establishment of the Eastern Slavs.


9. Ukraine is the 4th educated nation in the world. 99.4% literacy in Ukrainians aged 15 and over. 70% of adult Ukrainians have secondary or higher education. The country has about 150 colleges and universities and 80 research institutes.

10. Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion in Ukraine. The other Christian denominations include Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Small communities of Calvinists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Methodists and Seventh-day Adventists, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are also found. Judaism and Islam are also practiced.


11. In 1710, Ukrainian Hetman Pylyp Orlyk introduced “Pacts and Constitutions of Rights and Freedoms of the Zaporishiah Host,” considered by some researchers as one of the world’s first constitutions. This was, at the time, a progressive document which asked for separation of powers of government into three branches and regulation of the rights and responsibilities of the government and citizens


12. The An-255 “Mriya” was invented by Ukrainians and is considered to be the largest freight-carrying plane in the world. It was originally designed for spacecraft transportation, but now is used in freight haulage.

13. “Summertime,” one of the world’s most famous songs written by George Gershwin was inspired by an old Ukrainian lullaby “Oi Khodyt Son Kolo Vikon” (The Dream Passes by the Windows). Gershwin’s parents were from Odessa, Ukraine.


14. When Ukraine declared its independence from the USSR, it had over a thousand nuclear warheads and the third largest nuclear potential after Russia and America. On its own initiative, Ukraine refused to hold onto the third largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world and handed the warheads and missiles over to Russia and destroyed the silos. In return, Ukraine was compensated financially for disarmament and guaranteed security from other the nuclear powers.


15. The Chernobyl disaster was a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on April 26, 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine (then officially the Ukrainian SSR), which was under the direct jurisdictions of the central authorities of the Soviet Union. An explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, which spread over much of the west USSR and Europe.


16. According to a Research and Branding Group Survey, a large percentage of Ukrainians, nearly 80%, have never travelled abroad.


17. Ukrainians wear their wedding ring on the ring finger of their right hand instead of the left hand.


18. As of 201, Ukraine is the third largest exporter of grain in the world.

19. The third most visited McDonald’s in the world is located in Kiev, near the train station, and considered to be in the top five most crowded McDonald’s in the world.

20. Every year, on August 24, Ukrainians celebrate their Independence day also known as national day. The day marks the declaration of Ukraine from the Soviet Union on the 24th of August, 1991.


Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute, Inc.

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Love and Romance: Our 3 Favorites in Music, Literature, Art and Film

February 13th, 2014

Last year for Valentine’s Day we posted a blog on how different cultures and countries celebrate the day. This year, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I’ve invited three of my friends and contributors to ACEI’s AcademicExchange blog to chime in and share their most favorite romantic songs/musical compositions, literary creations, film and art. Here are some of their personal favorites.

Contributor: Tom Schnabel

My three picks in the music category are:

“I Only Have Eyes for You” by The Flamingos

Tom: “This is a late 50’s doo wop classic and always makes me swoon with wonder and fills my heart.”

“Romeo and Juliet” by Tchaikovsky.

Tom: This is the story of passion against a backdrop of doomed love. It also reflects some of the great composer’s conflicts of being a famous closeted gay man in Tsarist Russia. The melody theme comes about 10′ after the opening and is one of the most ravishing melodies in all of music.

“In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel.

Tom: This mid-80s song is a longtime favorite, and still resonates with listeners today.

Tom Schnabel, M.A.
Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
Check out Tom’s show Rhythm Planet and his blog

Contributor: Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert

This was a tough assignment as there are so many brilliant works of literature by authors who have tackled love and romance. I see a theme in the three I’ve picked for this post and that is their timelessness and relevance to today’s times.

Here are 3 of my favorites from a very long list:

“Jane Eyre” (pub. 1847) by Charlotte Bronte.

Jasmin: Jane Eyre, has been one of favorites since I was a teen and the book was required reading in school. Set in Victorian England, the novel’s gothic, melancholic tone and the hauntingly imposing “Thornfield” manor, home of its moody and mysterious master, Mr. Rochester, shows Jane’s evolution from a young woman into adulthood. Though her love for Rochester is palpable, she’s not willing to settle for anything less than she feels she deserves. Jane Eyre is considered by many to have been ahead of its time given its exploration of such taboo subjects like sexism, religion, and class structure. Jane’s single-minded character, her strong desire to be Rochester’s equal but remain independent (she has no reservation in advertising for a new post as governess when she thinks her current post is ending) is also a bold feminist statement at a time when such sentiments were neither welcomed nor discussed openly.

“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice

Jasmin: All my friends and family will vouch for me when I say that I’m a certified loyal fan of Jane Austen’s novels. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a classic tale of love and misunderstanding set in early 19th-century class-conscious England. It depicts a time when the choices young English women had was either marry, become a governess, join a convent or enter the oldest profession to survive. Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist in Austen’s novel, is an intelligent, educated and like Jane Eyre, another single-minded independent young woman who refuses to abide by the traditions of the time. The novel shows us the world through Elizabeth’s eyes and the love that evolved between her and Mr. Darcy, member of the landed gentry, as she lets go of her prejudice and he overcomes his pride.

“The Red and the Black” by Stendhal

Jasmin: I first read the English translation of Le Rouge et le Noir by Marie-Henri Beyle–the French author who is best known by his pen name Stendhal–in my early 20’s, fresh out of college and wondering what I wanted to do with my life. It’s not a “romantic” novel, per se, but love does play a part in the protagonist’s life that ultimately betrays him. The novel is a sociological satire of 19th century France and chronicles the life of Julien Sorel, a young man of modest means from the French provinces who rises up the social ladder amidst hypocrisy, deception, emotional and romantic entanglements fueled by jealousy. He’s imprisoned after attempting to kill the married woman he had once loved when he finds out that she had a written a negative character reference calling him a social-climbing scoundrel who preyed upon emotionally vulnerable wealthy women. His love for her is resurrected when she visits him in prison which she continues to do so until his execution by the guillotine.

Jasmin S. Kuehnert
President & CEO ACEI

Art: Paintings
Contributor: Clayton Winston Johans

Well Ladies and Gents I was hoping to get to some more somber and less fantastical representations of Love’s joys and outcomes however, I could not pass up these three classical representations of love incarnate, despite either infamy or popularity!

“The Kiss” (1907) by Gustav Klimt


Clayton: Gustav Klimt appearing in the world, July 14 1862 and leaving it, February 6 1918 is considered one of the most prolific Austrian painters of the 20th Century.

Utilizing inspiration from Bizantine mosaics and use of actual gold leafing techniques, Gus cranked out the The Kiss and other paintings of variable similarity in a series of paintings  later deemed a part of his ” Gold Phase”.

Here is how I feel the situation went down from the Man’s point of view:

(Read slow for best results)

I cloak myself in gold and meet her in the fire. 

Hips swivel and one knee rises as she turns to me,
revealing a river of hair that splays across the
sheen like a splash of molten copper.
Palming my hand across her cheek, she embraces my breath.
I greet her. 
A kiss for life, a kiss for now.

Two ivory figures liquescent, amongst a spread of velveteen amber.

“Romance” (1932) by Thomas Hart Benton


Clayton: Thomas Hart Benton April 15, 1889-January 19, 1975 was a Missouri Native and American surrealist. It can be said for the sake of description that Benton’s work was centered around working class American life and its simplicities and colors as seen through a warped looking glass (perhaps the bottom of a wine bottle). To put it simply, Romance 1932 was inspired by two young lovers sharing the joyous contemplation of life’s beauty and plainness while walking together.

Be aware that my interpretation of how the Woman’s feelings are depicted in this image are based solely on my view that this painting is of a couple’s nightly stroll, regardless of the hues and values that obviously suggest otherwise:

That air was so sweet with life and I breathed it in as we walked past the house.
That mother pearl shone above us,
lighting our way through our walk in that night.
Just the two of us. Yes just us, walked past that oak tree.
Looking at him and him back with delight.
He said I was all smiles, brighter than the moon herself.
Like flower of the night.

“Amor and Psyche” (1638) by Anthony Van Dyck


Clayton: Van Dyck, Flemmish Baroque painter, known for his time spent painting for the English Royal court, illustrated a scene from one of Rome’s most romantic stories ever told, Cupid and Psyche.

I can’t make up a better description than this:

Jealous of her magical love affair with Cupid (Amor), Psyche’s sisters convince her that her mysterious lover is a demon.  Deceived and curious to know the truth, Psyche seeks out her lover’s identity, where they meet in the dark with a lamp and a dagger. At the site of her true lover’s beautiful demi-god form, she cries in surprise, spilling hot oil on his body. Cupid flees to his house in the heavens and his mother Venus casts Psyche on an odyssey to appease the gods for her treachery. When Psyche completes the final task of retrieving a box full of Proserpina’s* tears said to cause everlasting beauty, she is struck with curiosity to look inside the box.  Upon opening the box, she is struck unconscious and enters a deep state of sleep. Cupid, all wounds healed, sets out for his love and awakens and brings her before Jupiter. In trade for his servitude, Jupiter happily weds Cupid with Psyche. At the wedding feast, Jupiter feeds Psyche ambrosia, sealing their lives and love eternally.

* (Queen of the Underworld)

Clayton Winston-Johans
Director of Communications, ACEI


The Frustrated Evaluator’s picks:

I decided to jump in here and throw in 3 of my favorite films on love and romance. They may not be your traditional favorites, e.g. Casablanca, Gone With The Wind, Doctor Zhivago, and even contemporaries like When Harry Met Sally, etc… (which happen to be favorites of mine), but ones I think address love and romance in not so traditional ways.

Harold and Maude (1971)


Frustrated Evaluator: Simply put this is a love story between a young man Harold and a much older (79-year old) woman, Maude played by Ruth Gordon. Through Maude, Harold who’s intrigued with death learns to live life to its fullest and begins to see and appreciate life as the most precious gift of all.

The Graduate (1967)


Frustrated Evaluator: Directed by Mike Nichols, this film is the story of a young college graduate Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) who is seduced by an older married woman, Mrs. Robinson (played by Anne Bancroft) and ends up falling in love with her daughter Elaine (played by Katharine Ross). Let’s also not forget the terrific soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkle. The film is classic boy meets girl (Benjamin is set up on a date with Elaine), boy loses girl (after he breaks the news to her that he was having an affair with her mother), boy wins girl (crashed Elaine’s wedding to Carl and takes her away). But it is the final scene, the last shot, that sticks with you where a disheveled Benjamin and Elaine still in her wedding dress sitting in the back seat of a bus. At first they seem ecstatic and exhilarated by what they had just pulled off but gradually their expression changes as they both realize what they had done. You can hear them both thinking: “Now What?

WALL-E (2008)


Frustrated Evaluator: Not just another one of Pixar’s usual genius with animation but a love story. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland that was once our planet but abandoned for eons. WALL-E is the robot that remains on this wasteland and reminds us of what we all need and seek: companionship, protection and trust. I never expected to get wrapped up in the romance between a pair of robots. But I did and so will you.

I know this is cheating and we were all asked to give 3 of our favorites, but I’m going to sneak in a few more of my odd and not so odd romantic favorites: Star Man, The Lady and the Tramp (animation), The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Crying Game, Jules and Jim, Gilda, Brief Encounter, In the Mood for Love, Lost in Translation, and one my favorites from the ‘80’s “Say Anything,” which compliments Tom’s favorite music selection.

Hope you like our list. Now, it’s your turn: Tell us what are your favorite romantic films, novels, music and paintings?

And, Happy Valentine’s Day!

The Frustrated Evaluator

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Filed under Arts, Books, Creativity, Education, Film, Gratitude, Human Interest, Music

There’s No Gaming the System: A Parent’s Journey Into The World of College Admissions

February 6th, 2014

College Fund

This summer I took my high school junior son on a New England college mini-tour, and had such an interesting experience that I decided to share it with other parents and students who might be in the same interest group. Disclaimer: I won’t name the colleges we visited, because in the end this article will look at some of the common and more general takeaways from our visit, rather than specific information to each school.

Before we talk about admission criteria and financial aid, I’d like to propose an exercise that has given me a helpful perspective: List the first five adults that come to mind. Do this now. They may be family members, celebrities, coworkers, etc. It doesn’t matter. For each of them, look back at the information you have on where they went to high school, college, graduate school, etc., and where they work now.

Whenever I do this exercise with other parents, invariably there will be someone on that list who went to the greatest schools and is now seriously under-employed, a very successful entrepreneur who barely finished high school, and all sorts of in-betweens. It’s useful to keep this in mind when you let yourself be dragged into the mania of college admissions and as you try to “game the system” so that you or your child can get into the most prestigious school/s. In the end, I strongly believe that it’s what one does with the education and opportunities they receive that makes a difference, not so much the opportunities themselves. I know that Malcolm Gladwell will disagree with me, and here’s what I have to say to him: yes, Bill Gates and Paul Allen got their start with computers because they had great access in high school. But whatever happened to all the other kids in that school who also had access?

Choosing a School

First of all, both my son and I are very glad we did this a bit early. You might think I’m writing this article encouraging you to relax about the process, while I myself am getting an early start. To my defense: we live on the West Coast, and my son was finishing up summer camp in Vermont. I figured, since he would already be on the East Coast, it would be cheaper for me to fly and meet him there than for both of us to have to fly back next spring or summer to visit schools. So we did it the summer of his junior year. And, like I said, I’m glad we did, and here’s why.

As a junior in high school, he’s not yet sure what he’d like to do in life. He knows he likes math and sciences, and he feels at ease in those classes. But he’s also interested in music, theater and sports, though he doesn’t particularly excel in any of those disciplines. He’s a good student who hasn’t yet found a passion that occupies his every spare minute. So for him the world is wide open – which can be a good feeling, but also a bit daunting when faced with thousands of options. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2010 there were 2,774 four-year colleges in the US, a number that is likely to be higher today. How do you even begin to make a wish list?

Visiting seven of these college campuses started to give him a better sense of the kind of environment he’d like to be in after high school as well as the types of people he’d like to be with. It was surprisingly easy to see, from the very first moment we stepped onto a campus, if that particular school would be a good fit or not. And whatever you think about academic focus and opportunities, the truth is, the impetus to join a particular school will end up being as temperamental as choosing a car: you do all the research, compare prices, decide how you’re going to haggle with the car dealer, and the minute you step on the lot you see that red car and it’s all over. One story that we heard from a friend we visited during the tour was of their son, who only applied to Yale because his dad made him, though he refused to go anywhere near New Haven on his college tour. Once he got in, he went to check it out and fell in love with the school immediately. He is now a fresh graduate, working for a successful start-up in NYC.

There are many factors that will influence a student’s decision to join a college. While the final choice has to do with the feel of the school, some preferences may be predictable, such as distance from home (mommies, get used to the idea!), year-round weather in the area, location, reputation, access to sports, music or other special interests, whether it’s in an urban or more remote area, etc. As such, it was useful for us to see different settings and figure out what my son gravitates toward.

Let’s talk about admissions. All universities we visited had an admissions information session that lasted a little over an hour. Led by an admissions officer, they covered topics related to courses and teachers, admission criteria, financial aid and living on campus. A campus tour led by students usually followed these sessions.

Here are some things we took from listening to the admissions officers:

Undecided Major

Some schools recognize that students may not know what they want to study when they first apply. Some even assume that 75% of their students will change area of interest in the first two years. So they base their basic bachelor’s requirements on this and encourage students to take a variety of courses in all areas of study. In some schools this is harder to do, as choosing a specific track, such as engineering, will prescribe a set of courses that will make it hard to switch majors halfway through. I think that, left to their own devices, some kids (my son included) might try to avoid taking any classes that challenge their weak spots, depriving themselves of the opportunity to learn some skills that might come in handy later in life. Not to mention, they’ll miss out on getting a well-rounded education. So I was partial to schools that encourage or even require their students to participate in all departments.

AP Classes

As far as what they look for (keep in mind we went to mostly private schools, so this may be different for state universities), the one thing they all had in common was the “holistic” approach to admissions. First, they look at the student’s grades in high school. And the holistic aspect has to do with their keeping the information in context: what classes did the student take from the menu offered at their particular school? How many Honors, AP or equivalent courses did they take of what was offered? If the school offered ten AP classes, and the student only took two, they wonder why the student didn’t challenge herself more and, ultimately, will this student take advantage of the multitude of courses offered by this university, or will she coast for four years? So they maintain that they look at each student individually and only measure them against their own abilities and opportunities.

A mother sitting next to us asked at one school: “Would it be better for my child to take an AP class and get a B, or for him to get an A in a regular class?” The answer was pretty much: “It would be best if they took the AP class and got at least a B+.” I appreciated the honesty of the answer. And again, this was at one of the top schools in the country, the answer may be different from school to school. Some went into detail about weighted/non-weighted GPA, class ranking, etc., but I did not pay too much attention to that because I felt I’d already gotten the idea: do well in school, take challenging classes, do well in school, be involved in the community, do well in school. The universities we visited admit five to eight percent of their applicants, so you can imagine that, at that rate, they can have their pick of the high-achieving kids.

The Essay

Which brings us to the second-most important admissions criteria: the essay. I was surprised to see that, for many schools, this ranked above the SAT/ACT scores. They all talked at length about wanting the essay to give them a deep sense of who the student is, as a human being. One admissions officer explained: “In an ideal world, someone from our office would spend a week with each applicant, following them around every minute of the day, going to school with them, doing homework with them (“not for them, hahaha!”), shadowing them at their sports practice and extra-curricular activities and at parties, just to really understand who this person is. But we don’t have that luxury, so we have to base our understanding on the essay.” From what I gathered, the topic of the essay is not as important as the tone and truthfulness that comes through. They all couldn’t stress enough that something like “from my [fill-in-the-blank-activity] I learned about hardship, perseverance and success” would not cut it. “It’s really easy to write a bland essay about climbing Mount Everest,” one of the speakers quipped. “Please write about what matters to you in your own voice, don’t try to guess what we’re looking for.” Another added: “If you should lose your essay, unsigned, people who know you should immediately recognize it as yours.” They also warned about too many people helping with editing: “It’s immediately visible when an essay has been worked over too much.”


As you can imagine, the standardized test scores matter a great deal, and all of them were looking for either the SAT or the ACT with writing and two subject SAT tests. Some super-score, some don’t. According to, “Most students take the SAT for the first time during the spring of their junior year and a second time during the fall of their senior year.” As for the subject tests, they advise: “In determining if Subject Tests are right for you, you should consider that SAT Subject Tests are the only national admission tests where you choose the tests that best showcase your achievements and interests. By taking one or more SAT Subject Tests, you have an opportunity to highlight your unique strengths or areas of interest (mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, history, literature and foreign languages).”

Extracurricular Activities

As for other special interests and abilities, the speakers we heard mentioned that they do look at the student’s extracurricular activities, but it was not a topic that got wide coverage, for whatever reason. My son remembers them saying it was important, “something that helps define you.” I remember they again stressed that they hoped students did something that excited them, rather than something that would look good on the application.

Financial Aid

I discovered through my three nieces that most students are unaware of the opportunities available to good students who don’t come from high-income families. One girl feels she doesn’t want to cause financial hardship for her parents and didn’t even think of applying to any top schools in the country, or even outside her homestate of Florida, because she didn’t think that – even with only A’s, and countless AP courses under her belt – she would qualify for any substantial financial aid. I think this is a tragic flaw in the college-counseling departments of some high schools.

The universities we visited boast that their admission criteria is need-blind and that they try to meet all of their admitted students’ financial limitations. “Need-blind” means that the admissions office does not get to look at the applicants’ financial records, and simply accepts students based on merit. They then send the list of admitted students to the Financial Aid office, which has to find a way to bring all those students to the school in the fall. So it would seem there’s lots of room for getting help, much of it free, especially from schools with large endowments. The message is: Do not be deterred by your financial limitations.

I don’t know how this works with state schools. But I do know that many states have great incentives for keeping good students in the state education system. California has the Middle Class Scholarship that’s just getting going this year and will increase each year until 2017/18 when it will cover up to 40% of qualified students’ tuitions if they attend a UC or CSU school. I believe Florida has a similar program, and you can probably easily search for what your state has to offer in this area.

College Tours

Many counselors suggest that the spring of junior year is a good time to visit colleges so that you begin to get an idea of what attracts your student most. When you visit the schools you’ll also begin to delve into the finer merits of “early decision” vs. “early action,” which we’re not yet schooled in, but might follow up with later in the year. As the time of testing drew near, my son grew more and more antsy and either scolded us for not making him study harder for the SAT or ignored our demands that he work. He’s sixteen! He’s actually a very good student, and I can see how the pressure is mounting around him – at home as well as at school. There was great buzz when some of his older peers received their “early decision/action” notes, and I could see that it made the whole application process even more real for the juniors.

We all admit that “things were easier in our time” and that this college admission process “has really gotten out of hand”. We are all willing participants, in one way or another, and I hope that my notes helped more than hindered. I look forward to your comments, and would like to hear what your experience has been or is still, and if you’ve found ways to get through the process stress-free.

Good luck to us all!

Thea Mercouffer


Thea Mercouffer is a documentary filmmaker. Her latest project, Rock the Boat – Saving America’s Wildest River, is an award-winning film about Los Angeles, the little river that could and one man who changed their relationship forever. Thea lives in Venice Beach, CA, with her husband, two children (16 and 9) and their dog, Moxy. She may be reached at

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