Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The College Application Process Now

Harvard University
Even if you are a recent graduate, the college application process has changed radically for teens today. For starters, a majority of selective colleges use the Common App. However, most "realistic" young adult novels that I read/review get the process wrong. Hopefully this post will clear up some confusion.

Misconception #1: colleges snail mail admission responses.

These days, most colleges inform students of acceptance decisions online. When applying, a student creates an account with a password on the college's website. On the decision day, the student logs in to get the result. Following online admission, the college will snail mail a big packet to accepted students. Standardized test scores are also released online to the student.

Misconception #2: all applicants take the SATs and high test scores guarantee acceptance. 

Traditionally, students in coastal states took the SATs while those in the Midwest took the ACTs. These days, students from anywhere can take either standardized test and most colleges accept both. Some colleges allow you to skip standardized tests altogether. The most selective colleges may also require SAT IIs (subject tests). In 2005, the SATs switched to a 2400 point system: 800 Reading, 800 Writing, 800 Math plus an essay. In 2016 the SAT will revert to a 1600 point system: 800 Reading +Writing, 800 Math, and an optional essay.

The more selective colleges tend to accept students with higher test scores, but high scores and GPA aren't enough on their own to guarantee admission. Also important are the application essay (and sometimes an interview), teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities/supplements. Large state universities are more likely to place greater emphasis on test scores and GPA. Standardized tests are weighted more heavily for homeschooled kids who usually don't have an academic transcript/GPA.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology releases admissions decisions on Pi Day 3/14.

Misconception #3: kids apply early to multiple schools.

There are three types of early applications: Rolling Admission, Early Action and Early Decision. Many state universities, especially honors programs, have Rolling Admission: qualified students are accepted in the fall through the spring until the class is full. The most selective private colleges often have non-binding Early Action, but applicants may only apply early to one selective college along with state schools. Other colleges have binding Early Decision, which means you can only apply to one school and you must attend if accepted (as long as your financial needs are met.)

Early action and early decision applications are usually due in early November, and the students will hear by early/mid December if they are accepted, rejected or deferred (ie to be considered along with other applicants in the regular pool at a later date.) At that point, ED students must accept the offer, but EA students have the option to apply to other colleges as well. Some schools have a second round of binding Early Decision in January.

Most kids don't apply early. They may not be sure of their first choice and prefer to wait for regular decision, which frequently has a January 1st deadline. Students often apply to ten to twelve schools at regular admission time, a combination of likely, target and reach schools. Regular acceptances are posted in late March to early April. The accepted student's decision is usually due May 1st, and after that, other kids may be accepted off the wait-list. There are financial considerations too, explained below.

Middlebury College, a liberal arts college in rural Vermont.

Misconception #4: the smartest kids always go to Ivy League schools.

The Ivies aren't the best choice for everyone. Small liberal arts colleges focus exclusively on undergraduate education and offer top-notch teaching. State universities can be excellent too (eg UC Berkeley). There are schools that specialize in the arts (often requiring auditions and supplements) or technology. Some kids choose local community college so that they can work part time. Others pick ROTC programs.

Financial aid packages vary and some are need-based while others are merit-based. Many applicants don't apply early decision (binding) because they want to compare financial aid packages from multiple schools. This year a boy from Tennessee turned down all eight Ivies and Stanford for Alabama State University's Honor's Program so that he'd have more money left for graduate school. However, elite private colleges which accept need blind often offer bigger financial aid packages so it can be cheaper to go to a private college than to a state university.

The process is different for foreign students and for American students studying abroad. International students often receive an International Baccalaureate (IB) degree which is recognized in many countries.

A tip on writing realistic YA fiction: beta test your manuscript on teens the same age as your characters. They may flag other things that have changed since you were a teenager.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay Harbor

Spring comes late to Maine, but it makes up for lost time with everything blooming all at once.

On Mother's Day, my daughter and I visited Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay.
It's one of my favorite places, and she wanted to scout it for her senior project.
She's creating a botanical guide to Maine plants with photos and drawings.

How did my little girl become a high school senior?

We still share a love of nature. Tulips!

Korean Azaleas!


My favorite photo was one my daughter took with her DSLR of the rhododendrons. 

The Rhododendron Garden waterfall was the grand finale to a perfect day.

Link to my previous visit to Maine Botanical Gardens

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Disappearance of Emily H. by Barrie Summy

Today I'm reviewing a delightful new children's book by Barrie Summy, the host of our book review club. The Disappearance of Emily H. is a realistic mystery with paranormal clues. This middle grade novel will delight fans of Barrie's I So Don't Do Mysteries series and will make plenty of new fans as well.

Thirteen-year-old Raine moves from town to town, escaping her mom's heartbreaks. Transitions are challenging for Raine, who has an embarrassing paranormal habit of reading "sparkle" memories from inanimate objects. Kids have mocked Raine for how she reaches for things and fondles them, without realizing that she has magical powers. Only her single mom knows of her secret talent. Raine's deceased grandmother shared this paranormal trait.

At her new middle school in upstate New York, Raine is determined to act normal and to fit in, but she can't resist a mystery. Prior to Raine's arrival, unpopular Emily Huvar vanished without a visible trace. Only Raine can read the paranormal clues which point to the school's queen bee and her buzzing clique of bullies. Creepier still? Before Emily disappeared, she lived in Raine's new home....

The Disappearance of Emily H. was written in an easy-to-read style and set at a typical school with an entertaining cast of kids. The mean girl was a bit too generic, but the other characters were well developed and multifaceted. I especially liked the inclusion of a formerly homeschooled girl and children from less advantaged backgrounds. For a paranormal book, it was surprisingly realistic but not too predictable. There were some unexpected plot twists. This well paced mystery was stacked with clues that will keep kids turning the pages to the scary climax.

Witty observations added humor to the dark mystery:
"Shirlee chats about Yielding. She's one of those people who can handle both sides of a conversation. Works for me." 
"Like sunflowers turning toward the sun, everyone at the table suddenly tunes in to our conversation."
Raine is a strong, likable protagonist, who makes a fine role model. The narrative includes a sweet romance, but brave Raine doesn't need help from boys to solve her mystery. Magic reveals clues without resolving the underlying problems. Raine turns instead to social media to teach the bullies an important lesson. The content is still innocent enough for elementary school children. I predict this magical mystery will be a big hit among young readers.

Well done, Barrie!

Reviewer's Disclaimer: upon my request, I received a free galley from Delacorte Press in exchange for an honest review. The author is a blog buddy. The book will be released on May 12, 2015 and is recommended for ages 10 and up. Raine is pronounced rain.

My review of I So Don't Do Spooky by Barrie Summy with an author interview.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Wells Reserve in Maine

To escape the muddy trails of April, we drove an hour south to the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. Laudholm Beach is open to the public along with several acres of trails through the wetlands.

There are loose rocks to cross and tidal pools to hop so hiking boots are prudent. It's well worth it for the calm ocean vista, only a quarter hour drive from busy Kennebunkport.

The muted colors of mud season suit this landscape very well.

Nature is a fine sculptor too. 

When we returned home, I was delighted to find our crocuses in bloom. Spring is here at long last!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio is being marketed as Middlesex meets Mean Girls, but this underplays the educational content of this groundbreaking book. The original premise was designed to hook teens: a homecoming queen discovers that she is intersex when sex with her boyfriend is excruciatingly painful. At her first gynecological exam, Kristin learns that her chromosomes are XY. When her secret is leaked at school, Kristin becomes a target of bullies and fears she might lose her athletic scholarship to college.
"That was when I realized that life was a multiple-choice test with two answers: Male or Female. And I was None of the Above."
The tabloids premise cleverly disguises the educational content in this outstanding book for teens. I.W. Gregorio is a pen name for the urological surgeon Dr. Ilene Wong, who was inspired by a real patient and also by the controversy about World Champion runner Caster Semenya. None of the Above has easy to understand explanations about what being intersex entails. Gender is described as having three components: chromosomes, physiology and sexual identity. The moral lesson is more nuanced.
"If there's one thing I learned from my dad leaving my mom, it's that love isn't a choice. You fall for the person, not their chromosomes."
The writing is strong for a debut, but None of the Above is not a literary novel nor does it try to be one. The plot is well paced and easy to follow, clearly geared for reluctant readers. The main characters are likable and well developed but aren't especially quirky. Kristin herself is quite a typical teen who likes guys, parties and running/hurdling. By making her intersex protagonist so normal, the author reinforces the message that intersex people are not freaks. The Gossip Girl writing style means this book will reach more readers and hopefully make life easier for intersex teens.

I'd strongly recommend None of the Above to Sexual Education teachers and to all teenagers aged fourteen and up. This book isn't a kinky story about exploring deviant sexuality. Kristin feels 100% female and only wants to be normal. Her realistic story delivers a powerful message about identity, tolerance and love, which will resonate with any teen who doesn't quite fit in at school. Adults who are looking for a literary novel with an intersex protagonist should read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, one of my favorite books.

Reviewer's Disclosure: I purchased the ebook on its release date April 7, 2015 and was not compensated for this review. I'm a supporting member of We Need Diverse Books of which I.W. Gregorio is vice president.

Popham Beach, Maine in April

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Hiking Morse Mountain, Maine in Spring Snow

Over "spring" break, three weeks ago, my intrepid son joined me for a hike up Morse Mountain.

In Maine spring doesn't really kick in until May, but at least the snow is melting in mud season.

The trail starts by a saltwater marsh before climbing into the woods. We hiked with 
ice-stabilizers strapped to our boots, but snowshoes would have been better.

The mountain is really a hill, but it offers a spectacular view of the marsh and ocean. You can click on my Morse Mountain label below to see this view in other seasons. Over the last three weeks the snow has melted to patches. We were in the 60's these past few days! I shall spare you the photos of mud.