kitchen table math, the sequel: seeking Tiger Mom

Saturday, March 30, 2013

seeking Tiger Mom

At the WSJ (not sure whether it's behind a pay wall): "To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me" by Suzy Lee Weiss.
Like me, millions of high-school seniors with sour grapes are asking themselves this week how they failed to get into the colleges of their dreams. It's simple: For years, they—we—were lied to.

Colleges tell you, "Just be yourself." That is great advice, as long as yourself has nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms. Then by all means, be yourself! If you work at a local pizza shop and are the slowest person on the cross-country team, consider taking your business elsewhere.

What could I have done differently over the past years?


Having a tiger mom helps, too. As the youngest of four daughters, I noticed long ago that my parents gave up on parenting me. It has been great in certain ways: Instead of "Be home by 11," it's "Don't wake us up when you come through the door, we're trying to sleep." But my parents also left me with a dearth of hobbies that make admissions committees salivate. I've never sat down at a piano, never plucked a violin. Karate lasted about a week and the swim team didn't last past the first lap. Why couldn't Amy Chua have adopted me as one of her cubs?
This girl is a fabulous writer!


SteveH said...

I can't get to it without subscribing.

One argument could be that the elite schools don't matter. Having a more natural, stress-free childhood is more important. It's not good, however, if parents then decide that getting into a really good school is important. How about when the child thinks it's important, but not the parent? Should they not have those "dreams"? Is that the problem? Are top schools ALL just not worth that? What is "that", exactly?

I think a big issue is the mixed messages eveyone sends. That, and the incredibly high demand to get into many colleges, not just the elite ones. I think that students at all levels feel inadequate.

Let's forget the college admissions angle and focus on the idea of natural versus pushing. This has been a huge issue for me since my son was small. Someone once told me that parents should be slowly moving walls, pushing their kids to try new things and setting high (?) expectations. The question is what is high?

Often, parents make a difference between required things, like academics, and optional things, like sports or music. They look for natural ability and/or interest and go with that. However, some parents push a lot more in each category. It's easy to see the problems in no expectations and in too high expectations. It also matters a lot on how you do it, rather than what you do.

I've talked with Catherine about the funny things I've run into concerning the idea of passion; about how people wait for some sign from a child to drive the whole process. This is often done without any sort of explicit discussion with the child. It's a chicken and egg issue. Do you wait for this ideal passion before you push? Do you expect all pushing is going to come from the child?

The problem is that it's one thing for a child to have passion about something, but quite another to know how to maximize opportunities in a very competitve world. In sports, coaches and competitions show you the reality of the situation. They set the bar very high and see if you can get there. They don't wait for your passion to push them.

I've seen this in music. My son's chamber music partner and his sister go to Juilliard pre-college, and they have to put on full recitals each year to be able to remain in the program. The students are not setting this level based on their passion and love of music. This level is set by teachers who know what the real world is like. However, some teachers and parents wait for the passion of the child to get them to some sort of natural level.

The real world is competitive and not natural. You need parents and teachers to set high expectations and not necessarily wait for some passion to drive the entire process. Opportunites, and not all of them can be rationalized away, go to those willing to play the game. One might argue over how much to play the game (I do), but the decisions should include input from the child.

Glen said...

There's a good companion article here:
The Ivy League Was Another Planet

C T said...

Do a Google search on the article title. Usually if you're coming from a Google search, newspapers will let you view just that article.

Crimson Wife said...

Did she not go to a high school that offered a variety of extracurricular activities? Why is the onus on the parents to have to shell out big bucks for private music lessons or sports teams?

My parents signed me up for piano lessons, CCD (Catholic Religious Ed.) and Girl Scouts when I was young and that was it. When I got to high school, I took it upon myself to join the various extracurricular activities offered at my high school and build up my application.

This girl was lazy and now she's looking for someone else to blame for her poor college application results. It's not her parents fault- it her own.

Katharine Beals said...

What I want to know is how someone who portrays herself as so unaccomplished got herself an op-Ed gig with the Wall Street Journal.

Katharine Beals said...

What I want to know is how someone who portrays herself as so unaccomplished got herself an op-Ed gig with the Wall Street Journal.

lgm said...

I'd be interested in knowing what high school she went to and what her options were.

In this area, most extra-curriculars have been eliminated. One does swim team privately in order to make the varsity when one reaches middle school and get the state recognition for the resume. One continues with one's club simultaneously in order to have more meets to swim in and advance up the Olympic ladder. One does private music lessons in order to get the teaching necessary for making the cut for All-County and up. It just does not happen in group lesson -- I engaged a private instructor for my son the second year of school music simply because the instructor decided to repeat the first year's material for the benefit of those who didn't learn it. To progress in anything, one needs to get outside of the full inclusion setting. Read novels on your own, find a mth club, find a science club, whatever...

lgm said...

Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh is her high school. She has quite a bit of opportunity. I too am curious...she's deriding people who obtained their internship thru the qualification of family connections, yet how did she get her article in. And the wiki entry on the high school claims this article was the most read article in the WSJ that day...

SteveH said...

Now that I've read the full thing, I think it's pretty good. It describes what many people feel. But how about those kids who have incredible resumes but don't get accepted into any of their first four choices? They could have watched a lot of "The Real Housewives". For the author, it's a small psychological bump in her road, but for these others, it can be a huge cliff. Forget the fact that in either case, their futures are still as bright as they make them.

Most elite colleges go out of their way to find students who are not on the fast prep school track. (That can hurt your chances.) However, they don't go that far out of their way, and you do need top grades and SAT/ACT scores.

At MIT, the admissions person said that they got rid of the standard essay and just ask you to list the five things you like to do outside of school. It could be something like dressing up as a Ninja Warrior and roaming about at night, as long as it wasn't in her neighborhood - ha, ha.

This is an ongoing battle between admissions people and those who wish to game them. I think admissions people are very good at seeing though the fluff, but they are not going to go looking for those who have not sent in applications. It seems to me that for the elite colleges, grades are a given, so the admissions people must have much greater power to choose based on intangibles. To some extent, those are unknowable and un-gameable. Nobody is telling them to increase their 25/75 percent SAT scores on their web sites. They are probably told to increase demand to lower their percent acceptance rate.

At one Harvard admissions meeting I went to a couple of years ago, the admissions person was trying very hard to convince all people to apply. Too bad they didn't have that meeting at a place other than one of the fast-track academies. I thought it was funny to watch their video showing just "regular" people who couldn't believe that they were Harvard material. (e.g. the son of a lobsterman) The three live students who talked at the meeting all exclaimed how they expected to be the dumbest kid in the school.

The video also had an interview with Yo Yo Ma who talked about being averge or something like that, and about the epiphany he had at Harvard. I was thinking that Harvard really wants people who already had their epiphany. They want to see the passion and self-drive already developed. They would probably reject Yo Yo Ma if he applied today - just another asian student who is smart and plays a stringed instrument really well. Do you pick a sure winner or a work in progress? It may not be exactly like a "Slug Club", but it may be helpful if you can produce a really good Bat Bogey Hex.

So the battle continues over the real and imaginary benefits of elite schools. I don't fully believe the admissions people, and I believe that school and parental support are very important to development, whether or not you get into an elite school. What might look like natural passion might really be due to parental support.

Anonymous said...

From the first paragraph of the article: "Like me, millions of high-school seniors with sour grapes are asking themselves this week how they failed to get into the colleges of their dreams. It's simple: For years, they—we—were lied to."

One other possibility is that we have millions of kids aiming for a few hundred thousand slots.

Harvard has fewer than 2,000 freshman, Princeton has fewer than 2,000, ... if the other Ivys are similar we have fewer than 20K Ivy League freshman slots, some of which will be filled by athletes/musicians/poets, some of which will be filled by legacies, and some of which will be filled by international students. There are probably no more than 10K "academic only" Ivy League freshman slots available.

Stanford is similar. MIT and CalTech won't be easier to get into.

Berkeley claims fewer than 5K admitted freshmen. Again, assuming that Michigan, UCLA, etc are similar, the top 20 "state schools" have slots for maybe 100K freshmen. But, as with the Ivys, some kids get admitted because they are good athletes/musicians/poets, some get admitted because of AA and some are international. The effective "available" slots at these top-20 state schools for US students who only bring academics is probably less than 70K.

So ... Ivys have room for 10K, top state schools have room for 70K, next tier liberal arts colleges are probably no more than 70K ... so we are looking at less than 200K slots at "desirable" schools. Raise or lower this number depending on how you want to define desirable, but the basic fact remains:


This isn't because someone lied ... its just the math.

Having said this, I can't tell how serious Suzy Weiss it. She seems to have both a bit of bitterness and a wry sense of humor about how challenging it is to get into an Ivy League school.

Anyone have a better idea about how seriously she intends us to take this?

-Mark Roulo

SteveH said...

The big questions are which schools did she apply to and was she really surprised at being rejected. Then again, can a writer ever pass up a good angle to a story?

"For years, they—we—were lied to."

This is a great angle, and not without some truth. Students might know the probabilities, but are they not getting more accurate feedback? A guidance counselor at a recent high school meeting said that she has been surprised lately about how some kids didn't get into Norteastern. She has been doing this for almost 30 years and knew their scores and extras. The problem is not just at the elite schools. Are guidance counselors too encouraging or optimistic?

Everyone knows about reach, match, and safety schools, but are those calibrations changing? It's easy to get annoyed at how you have to prove yourself beyond any ability to handle the coursework. If a college gets to bump up their SAT/ACT averages due to demand, do they send out notices to the professors telling them to crank up the rigor and what they offer the students? Why do you have to prove yourself beyond grades with how much you are going to give back to the college - beyond the tens of thousands of dollars a year you already give them?

However, most all colleges offer GPA versus ACT/SAT scatter plots of those accepted, wait-listed, and denied. The data is all there. There really should be no surprises. For Northeastern, there is fairly clear way to see if you are a match or a reach. As soon as you get to the Boston College or Tufts level, the graph becomes almost meaningless. The red dots are mixed in with the blue dots. Intangibles dominate.

Anonymous said...

I think Steve left "yield management" out of his analysis. If I'm trying to fill a 2000-student freshman class, I want to admit exactly 2000 applicants and have every single one of them say "yes." Each student who turns us down makes us less selective.

And this is how you get rejected from your "safety school."

Crimson Wife said...

Apparently her older sister used to be an editor at WSJ.

SteveH said...

Schools want you to want them. You have to do your homework. You have to be able to explain sincerely and honestly why their school is such a good fit for you. If you send in a stealth application, you are at a disadvantage.

My son went to an info session and tour at one school where they did a really good job of pumping up the students. This school has a 9 percent admittance rate. Then they sent him a selection of blog pieces by current students telling him how wonderful the school is. There was nothing else in the mailing.

Then, at this same (admissions) blog, I found a commentary by an admissions person telling unselected applicants that:

"So if I've embraced the subjectivity, randomness and accepted that perfection is not attainable, I'd like you to as well."

And this:

"This country is full of good colleges, with passionate professors, and staff. You're going to be just fine. Take it easy on yourself. When I was a kid everyone was trying to get me to work harder. Seems like nowadays we adults are just trying to get you to relax for a second. Sheesh."

"Sheesh." This college is never sending a message to high school students to "relax". Never, never, never.

Oh, and of course, they are picking students who have NOT worked so hard and have relaxed? Is that part of their subjective and holistic approach? Don't bet on it one tiny bit. Holistic selection might not require a specific merit function, but I'll bet they could define a pretty accurate one if they had to.

So, at top colleges, good grades and scores are a given, but you have to get those while relaxing. If you don't seem relaxed, then that is not a good sign. Also, it's also not a good sign if you are trying too hard on the resume bullet front. In these cases, admissions people wield enormous power. Subjectivity becomes the main deciding factor. Whatever it is, it's NOT a random walk.

I remember an ad for a beauty salon that said: "When you want your hair to say 'whatever'".

The top colleges want naturals. They want people to think that admissions is a vague holistic approach, but do they really expect us to believe that applicants can relax and have the same probability of selection? You just have to not show it.

Show me that you really love me, but if I don't end up picking you, just enjoy the random walk and "sheesh", keep it in perspective. That's what a pretty girl says to all of the boys when they ask her to the prom.

hush said...

Oy. What a painful read. I think a big reason this child was not admitted to the highly-selective colleges of her choice is evident in her offensive 4th and 5th paragraphs. If she came across that tone deaf in her personal statements, coupled with some less than stellar numbers - forget it. No secret sauce there. The truth is, legacies, recruited athletes, and kids who are the first in their families ever to attend college would actually be the more statistically appropriate targets of her ire.

I feel sorry for this child's mother. If my kid published a piece like that basically critiquing my parenting for all the world to read? Ugh.

GoogleMaster said...

Aww, little Suzy Snowflake found out the harsh reality of life: there are seven billion of us on the planet, and very few of us are actually "special".

Crimson Wife said...

At least at Harvard, the average SAT score for admitted legacies is only 2 points lower than the average SAT score for admitted non-legacies. There are really so many highly qualified legacies applying that it's a myth that the ones who win admission are significantly less qualified than the other admits.

I was a legacy admit to Harvard and a non-legacy admit to Stanford. One reason I chose the latter is because I didn't want to deal with the assumption that I had only gotten in because my dad was an alumnus. Did being a legacy help my chances of getting accepted to Harvard? I'm sure it did, but I had strong enough qualifications to get into a second highly selective school all on my own.

hush said...

@Crimson Wife - re: Legacies, from Michelle A. Hernandez's "A is for Admission" - "At all the Ivies, legacies are accepted at twice the rate that everyone else is (not as high as athletes, I might add). At Dartmouth, the legacy acceptance rate is around 40%, as compared to the overall rate of around 15-20% [year 2009 figures]... Remember that Dartmouth and Princeton still reject 60-70% of all legacies, a statistic that does not make the alumni very happy.... Is it fair to give legacies a leg up? In my opinion, a small boost is fair, but the Ivies are going too far with legacy acceptance rates two to three times above the general acceptance rate."

You wrote: "it's a myth that the [legacies] who win admission are significantly less qualified than the other admits."

In the case of the actual Tiger Mother, Prof Amy Chua's child, a Harvard legacy admitted to Harvard, that's undoubtedly true. Furthermore, most kids who do happen to qualify for some preferential admissions category - be it legacies, development/trustee cases, recruited athletes, racial and ethnic minorities (except Asian-Americans, the bias against them in admissions is well documented), geographically diverse students, etc, also have, as you point out, strong enough qualifications to get into various highly-selective schools on their own merit.

The trouble is, opinion pieces such as Ms. Weiss's too often focus only on the vaunted 'unqualified/lying racial minorities and gays who always seem to be getting admitted' instead of considering the *actual groups* who are given the lion's share of Ivy admission preferences despite slightly lower numbers: recruited athletes and legacies.

Katharine Beals said...

"Apparently her older sister used to be an editor at WSJ" Thanks for tracking this down, Crimson Wife!

It would seem that Ms. Weiss is herself a legacy of sorts. And surely this publication will boost her prospects substantially-- especially if she aspires to be a writer--in ways that perhaps will make up for her not getting into the college of her choice.

nicoleandmaggie said...

re: legacies, very small differences lead to very large outcomes at the top schools. I just read an academic article on that recently, but can't remember the citation off the top of my head.

re: getting qualified lower income folks to apply (and be admitted, and attending at lower cost to them than their local state school) to top schools-- AMAZING field experiment that just came out by Carolyn Hoxby and Sarah Turner.

Anonymous said...

It would be relevant to figure out if the small difference in test scores between legacies and other applicants nonetheless results in high percentages of legacies being admitted simply because large numbers of legacies apply to the schools their parents attended, leading to a high percentage of applicants being legacies. Not that we should necessarily be happy about that, but at least it would indicate that legacies don't get a big boost from their legacy status.

SteveH said...

I see it as a tounge-in-cheek article with an edge to it. There are a variety of interesting issues raised.

I was the last of four kids and by the time I got to high school, I was pretty much on my own. That can be good and it can be bad. I wasn't micro-managed, but in hindsight, I would have liked more guidance related to the real world. Opportunities don't find you naturally, and all of those natural-looking students that elite colleges love so much are not so natural. There is a lot of work that goes into "whatever".

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