College Counseling Update 2020

I send warm greetings from Los Angeles and hope you are all healthy and safe wherever you may be. I am in the annual lull following the college application season. My students had a fantastic year, which I’ll describe below, but of course much of that excitement has been tempered.

As many of you know, I often travel overseas this time of year, both for work and for vacation—last year was India (in part to lead a college application workshop at a boarding school), and the year before that was China. Just by coincidence, I decided to stay close to home this year. Needless to say, I’m glad I did. I look forward to getting back out there when the coast is clear, as I’m sure you are. And I hope the quarantine makes students all the more eager to explore the world and contribute to it

I would like to congratulate my high school seniors on a fantastic application year. I also want to assure my juniors that the work that lies ahead is going to be rigorous but satisfying and well worthwhile. I still have spots open for current juniors and, as always, greatly appreciate your referrals and good word.

For all of you immersed in, or simply interested in, the college admissions process, this newsletter includes some thoughts on a few topics: my students’ results this year, ways the virus situation is affecting college and high school students, quarantine and family life, a bit of STEM-related trend-spotting from the past application season, and thoughts on the application season to come.

Please enjoy, and I welcome your updates from school and life, wherever you may be! 

Best Wishes,

Josh Stephens
2020 Application Results 
Starting off with good news….

I was once again fortunate to work with a fantastic group of students this year. I tried to push them, and I appreciated when they pushed me. I am pleased to report that many of them received well-deserved acceptances in the early round, including: Brown, Cal Tech, Columbia, Univ. of Chicago, Davidson, Fordham, Harvard, Univ. of Michigan, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Rice, Wellesley, and Yale, among others. I honestly don’t remember if this has happened before, but I had different students gain admission to all eight colleges of the Ivy League. 

I am still receiving word about the regular round, but so far some further schools include (for different students) Amherst, Johns Hopkins, New York Univ., Princeton, Stanford, USC, and all of the University of California campuses. I am beyond excited for my students and, as always, a little envious of them!

After plunging for a few years, admission rates have held steady for a while. I don’t think it was any tougher—though certainly not any easier—this year. For highly selective schools, stellar academics, solid extracurriculars, and a genuine commitment are all essentially required. Beyond that, it gets very subjective. 

In my experience, students’ prospective studies matter more than ever. In part due to the popularity of the tech industry today, STEM-related studies have become much more popular and STEM-oriented applicants are therefore facing more, and stronger, competition. Many high school students today have accomplishments in STEM—including advanced programming skills, scientific research, and robotics projects—that would have been unheard-of even ten years ago. Choosing among them is a monumental task for the colleges. Meanwhile, fewer students profess interests and accomplishments in humanities and social sciences. These students still need to be impressive and their interests genuine, of course, but they have less direct competition and their application results are a bit more predictable. 

Spring Semester 2020
As excited as my seniors are about their intended schools, their excitement comes amid the most unusual semester in recent memory, if not ever.

To the current college and high school students whose school years have been cut short: I sympathize and hope that you make the most of this break and, especially, of the online classes you’ll be taking. Please go easy on your professors, and go easy on yourselves. Though we all live on screens these days, the experience of teaching and learning online may be new to you and your professors alike. It may challenge even the most experienced educators — or especially the most experienced educators.

At the same time, if you find yourself with more time on your hands than usual, I hope you’ll take this opportunity to read some great books on your own (my students all know how I feel about recreational reading). And I wish everyone happy home lives, whether you’re back with your parents, living with roommates, or bunking with friends’ families. 

I hope, of course, that these precautions are short-lived and that you all will be able to return to school sooner rather than later. When you do, I hope and expect that the wonders of college—the classes, the people, the campuses themselves—will delight and enrich. Yes, technology is prominent in our lives and can do amazing things. But I believe in the primacy of human connection, and I believe that our approach to education is proof of its value. Some students have told me how much they already miss school. Yes, school can be demanding an sometimes boring, but school is also full of good lessons, great friends, and fulfilling opportunities. May we all appreciate our connections all the more when this is over. 

Quarantine and The Gift of Time
Earnest high school students who work hard to complete their homework and study for tests sometimes don’t get many chances to stop and think. They don’t often get to stare off into space and see what thoughts come. They don’t often get to have aimless conversations with parents and siblings. They don’t get to enjoy the books they’ve read and papers they’ve written and dwell in satisfaction for what they’ve accomplished. That’s because their schools constantly compel them to think about the next book and the next assignment. High school is demanding, and moments for contemplation are scarce.

My hope is that this slowdown will break this cycle for this year’s high school students. I hope it will give them some time to be aimless. Some time to cook meals. Time to read great books. Time to plant vegetables. Time to play backgammon with little sisters, build boats in the backyard with dads, compose rock operas with friends, choreograph clogging routines with friends on videochat, and write poetry with no one. Time to consider this historical moment. Time to talk. Time to be quiet. Time to enjoy the hush and din of family life. Time for many of the things in life that are most fulfilling but hardest to prioritize.

I don’t have kids, but I do a lot of vicarious parenting. A friend of mine with a sophomore told me that the time she has spent with her son has reminded her that “parents are kids’ first teachers.” She hasn’t been teaching him lessons about physics or European history. She’s teaching him about the world. She’s marveling at how he’s growing up. Rather than hire a driving school, she is giving her son driving lessons in their Volvo. Her son and his dad are building a table, sanding down slabs of walnut and shaping them with a jigsaw. They’re talking and connecting and evolving as a family. Her son is keeping a journal. Of what? Who knows. It doesn’t matter. This time can turn into a gift for kids and adults alike. 

Of course, not all families have the luxury of riding out the lockdown like they are. Many people are alone. Many people can hardly afford food, much less a new table. Many parents are working, and many high schoolers are taking care of little siblings and elderly grandparents. People all along the socioeconomic spectrum may be recognizing this inequity for the first time. We can only hope that a combination of compassion, sound public policy, and a quick end to the pandemic will help them. I hope this is a chance for all of us—young and old—to consider what this world is like and think about how we’ll make it better when the gates of society reopen. In the meantime, I hope everyone treats their friends, family, and themselves gently and kindly. 

Admissions Trends: Our Technological Moment 
Every year I try to identify an interesting substantive trend or two. This year, it’s a debate over technology: academic vs. professional. 

Continuing with the STEM theme, I advised more computer-oriented students this year than ever before. Collectively, they were more accomplished in computer-related fields—including programming, data analysis, and robotics—than ever before. 

Many of them will go on to distinguished college careers in computer science, data science, and related fields. And many of my other students will go on to equally distinguished college careers in literature, history, biology, and sociology. The good news is, in a workforce as dynamic as ours, they are all going to face fantastic career options. And if they study what they love, they’ll all be personally fulfilled. 

With that said, I’ve started to encourage students to think more critically about majoring in computer science. At many colleges, majoring in computer science entails learning deep theoretical knowledge designed to help students conceive of new technologies. That’s not necessarily the same thing as programming, which is more of a tool or skill.

The question prospective CS majors should ask themselves is what sort of knowledge they want. Students who need to know programming only as a tool might not want to dedicate their entire college careers to computer science. There are tons of great online classes and in-person coding academies that teach programming skills. For instance, a friend of mine runs Codesmith, a coding academy in Venice, Calif. He tells me that learning to be a competent coder doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with studying computer science. 

Ultimately, there are things you can learn in only college and things you can learn in college or elsewhere. I’m arguing that many coding/programming skills fall in the latter category and that students may want to free themselves up to study subjects that are unique to college — including humanities subjects, hard sciences, etc.—and learn programming skills elsewhere. 

This raises what I consider to be an increasingly salient question: Should students go to college at all? I am obviously a huge fan of college. But we have entered an age when, in many fields, career training has been turned on its head. It’s entirely possible now for high school students to gain skills (especially technical skills) that qualify them for good entry-level jobs. For certain students who are ready and eager, the leap to the professional world may become more common.

(I didn’t blog as much this year as I usually do, in part because I have an entire book coming out on my other field of expertise, urban planning, but I did write this one on the tension between the humanities and STEM.)

Finally: This Year’s Applicants
Needless to say, it’s going to be an unusual year, for the world and colleges alike. With any luck, the world will regain its stride before long, and maybe even come out of this wiser, kinder, and more resilient. Students’ experiences will be different and their applications may look different from those of years past.

It’s still too soon to anticipate all of the ramifications of the shutdown, but we already know that many students will not be able to take the SAT or ACT, or they’ll submit just one score rather than two or three. Advanced Placement exams will be abbreviated. Spring athletic seasons have been cut short, and extracurricular activities—be they national debate tournaments, weekly club meetings, or the spring musical—might not happen. Summer academic programs may get canceled or moved online. And, of course, most students are now going to school online. Some schools aren’t giving spring semester grades.

What I can assure students and parents is that colleges will be sympathetic. They, of all institutions, appreciate the gravity of this situation. They will not disparage students for submitting lower test scores or blank spring transcripts. They’ll know that baseball playoffs got canceled, and they’ll know that students had to abandon the lab before the science experiment was complete. 

It’s going to make for an unpredictable application year, but I still think it will be a fair one. I will not recommend that students write about their experience during quarantine (unless something really interesting happens), and I expect many colleges add short application essays inviting students to explain how they coped and what they did or didn’t accomplish while school was closed.

This year’s applicants can and should get excited about their college prospects and embrace the self-discovery and self-expression that leads to great applications. Whatever challenges these students face, I am excited to support them, learn from them, celebrate their accomplishments, and help send them off to college in 2021.