Tag: high school

Harder is Better


There is so much that goes into a high school student’s application to college: the transcript, the SAT/ACT scores, the essays, the extra-curriculars.  It’s hard to know what really counts – what the kids should focus on to improve their own chances.  Different schools are looking for different things, and those things can even change from year to year at any given college or university.  But one element seems to remain as the gold standard: grades.

“Research has shown high school GPA to be the number one predictor of success in college. But, let me be clear that all 4.0s are not created equal. It is all about academic rigor in high school course selection. And realistically, not all high schools are created equal either. There are great students at not so good schools and there are marginal students at superb schools. The students whom we seek are those who have “bloomed where they are planted,” demonstrating academic excellence, character and motivation wherever they are.” Martha Allman, dean of admissions at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Ms. Allman seems to be saying that the transcript is king, and the number is not a fixed asset – the good grade needs to be in the hardest course available to the student.  So, as your juniors are plotting out their fall semesters for senior year (as mine is now), you may want to encourage them to stretch – take the AP instead of the regular level, take the harder course over the elective that sounds fun.  It all seems so geared to the end game, which is a shame if you ask me, but if the end game is your child’s goal, make sure he or she understand the rules of engagement, and pushes for the big finish.  Coasting in senior year?  I don’t think so.

Prepping for the SAT


Taking the SAT is not the hardest part about the SAT.  Deciding how many times to take the SAT, well that is a challenge.  Deciding when to take the SAT also requires strategy, and thoughtful consideration.  Figuring out when to send scores to colleges and which colleges to send to, well it’s not obvious.  Here are a few pieces of information that might help you along the way.

The SAT is a standardized test designed to “assess your academic readiness for college.”  There are three main test areas:  Critical Reading, Math, and Writing, each with a possible 800 points.  Most of the test is presented with multiple choice answers, bubbles you fill in with a No. 2 pencil.  An example question:

“Choose the word or set of words that, when inserted in the sentence, best fits the meaning of the sentence as a whole. 

Those scholars who believe that the true author of the poem died in 1812 consider the authenticity of this particular manuscript ——- because it includes references to events that occurred in 1818.

  1. ageless
  2. tenable
  3. suspect
  4. unique
  5. legitimate”

The test is made up of ten sections:  a 25 minute essay, six 25-minute sections (mathematics, critical reading and writing), two 20-minute sections (mathematics, critical reading and writing), and a 10-minute multiple-choice writing section, for a total test time of 3 hours and 45 minutes.

For the price of registration ($47), you will have the ability to send your scores to 4 colleges.  For each additional “score send”, you pay $10.  However, many people decide to take the SAT more than once, in the hopes of improving performance.  According to Patti Whalen, Director of College Counseling at Bryn Mawr, “The general rule of thumb, well supported by anecdotal and statistical data, is that students should plan to take the SAT I Reasoning test at least twice and not more than three times.”

For those students who take the test multiple times, there is “Score Choice™”, the program through which one can choose which scores to send to colleges, and when.  This option can allow a student to send only his or her best scores — not section by section, but by test date.  So, if your total score from May testing is better than your total score from January testing, you may choose to send only your May score.  However, Ms. Whalen cautions that “Some colleges will allow students to use [the Score Choice] option; many others, including some of the more competitive schools, will still require that a student’s complete testing record be submitted and they will then use the highest scores from each area (Verbal Reasoning, Math, & Writing) in their deliberations.”

Ms. Whalen reminds students that they should also consider the ACT, which is becoming increasingly popular as an addition or alternative to the SAT. “The ACT is a more content/curricular oriented test and includes sections in English (usage and rhetorical skills), Mathematics, Reading Comprehension, and Scientific Reasoning — many students say it feels like a cross between the SAT I Reasoning &  SAT II Subject tests and prefer the more straightforward, concrete testing style.” All colleges will accept ACT in lieu of SAT, although most colleges tend not to “mix-and-match” ACT scores, and only the test scores you request are sent.

Want more information? Go to:   http://sat.collegeboard.com/home, or www.ACT.org

(correct answer:  c)

The first SAT testing of the fall is scheduled next Saturday, October 1.  Registration is closed but stand-by testing is still available.  See the College Board for more information.



Senior Year: A Mom Readies Herself to Let Go


I am struck by the speed-of-light passage of time these days.  In the last few, Emily has headed off for the first day of her senior year, and she is full of energy, excitement, plans. Meeting other seniors in the “senior parking lot” to put window paints on their cars. Things like “SEN YAS!” and “Class of 2012 Rules!” I know kids have been doing this for generations, but not mine. This is a first, and there is something solid stuck in my throat. There is a direct and inverse correlation between her happiness and my bittersweet resignation. She is emerging, and I am becoming irrelevant. Her start is my finish. At least, in terms of this precious chapter of our lives together. I hear from other parents that life is good, sometimes better, after they go off to college. But the desperation I feel to make each of the next 350 days special, better, how I want her to picture her childhood, clouds any chance of seeing that image. 

Time seemed to stretch out forever when she was little – there was the FUTURE. We were focused on things like reading, dance class, playdates. Now, I find, there is no time. The bell is ringing, and I’m not sure we got it all done! Hands up! Pencils down! Have we said everything we meant to? Done everything we intended? 

When you make your life about someone else’s life, I think it is impossible not to worry what will remain when that person leaves. Our first is not our only, so we really won’t know right away. But I fear my invisibility differently today. Our younger children will grow and leave, too. We’ve always known this. But now, with Emily literally counting down the days, I can feel it – heavy, slick, loaded.

We have taken pictures every 1st day of school for Emily’s entire life, standing in the same spot, school uniform clean and pressed. This morning, she stood in front of the rocking horse, Senior Class t-shirt hitched at her hip, hair neatly twisted, cupcakes in hand. It is a picture I will never forget – my baby’s last 1st day at home. I wish for her every joy, every happiness, that this world has to offer, even if she will go experience them on her own.

Where Will Baltimore’s Recent Grads Be In Ten Years?


In the next few weeks, thousands of Baltimore area seniors will head off to college and begin the journey to adulthood. Where will they go? What will they do?  We asked area seniors where they think their lives will lead them and where they think they will be in ten years.



 “In ten years, I will be living just outside of Portland Maine, working at a small scale investment firm. I will spend my weeks working hard, but on the weekends, it will be all play. I will go hiking, swimming, and skiing as much I humanly can. As soon as I I have enough money, I will buy a boat, and a small cabin on a lake.” – Matt Collins ’11, Friends School, Class of 2011; Bowdoin College, Class of 2015



“I consider myself a news junkie.   During high school I checked on the news constantly.  CNN and Baltimore Sun are web sites I checked multiple times throughout the day.  In the spring semester of my senior year at Bryn Mawr, I did an internship at ABC2 news and got a taste of what working in a newsroom is like. I love the world of news because the action never stops.  There will always be something significant in the world to report on and that’s why I want to be a reporter.  This Fall I’ll be attending Elon University, studying Communications with a focus on radio and television broadcasting.  In ten years my goal is to be a leading reporter at a local news station.  So remember the name Julia Denick, because in a few years I might be reporting your news.” -Julia Denick, Bryn Mawr School, Class of 2011; Elon University, Class of 2015



 “Ten years from now, I hope to have completed college and received a master’s degree in astrophysics.  I also hope to be living in Geneva, Switzerland working in a physics lab discovering new things everyday and loving it!  I also hope to be able to travel to different labs all over the world to either learn from others, or assist others.”  – Catherine Stanley, Hereford High School, Class of 2011; Washington College, Class of 2015




In ten years I plan to be a clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. working in a hospital setting, hopefully with veterans.” – Sam Kimmel , Friends School, Class of 2011; Carleton College, Class of 2015



“In ten years I want to be working for a company that incorporates international business with marketing, which would allow me to travel to many different parts of the world.” -Caroline Seats, Roland Park Country School, Class of 2011; Georgetown University, Class of 2015






“In 10 years, I’ll hopefully be completing my residency.” – Chinezi Ihenatu, Friends School, Class of 2011; Brown University, Class of 2015






In 10 years, if everything goes well with my current career plan, I’ll probably be out of medical school and doing my residency. I hope to complete my residency in Baltimore or Boston, but obviously I have no idea where I’ll end up, if I even do become a doctor. Preferably, I’d be living in Boston (and thus working in Boston) and enjoying what I do!  – Genie Han, Hereford High School, Class of 2011; Boston College, Class of 2015




“In ten years, I hope to be working as an Assistant United States Attorney.” – Justin Schuster, Gilman, Class of 2011; Yale, Class of 2015 




“In ten years, I will be living in the outskirts in Nashville working for a record label company. My southern gentlemen husband and I will have just been newly wed and we will be active in the music community. Hopefully, when we make enough money, we will travel to foreign countries and experience once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.” – Sara Gillet, McDonogh, Class of 2011; University of Colorado at Boulder, Class of 2015

The Gap Year


I do not remember the option of the gap year being offered in the ’80s when I graduated from high school, although I have learned that the practice began in the ’60s in the United Kingdom.  Gap year, also called deferred year, interim year, or bridge year, is popular in the UK, as well as in a handful of other countries – New Zealand, Australia, Canada.  It is growing in popularity in the United States, but remains the exception, not the rule.  During a gap year, a high school graduate chooses an alternative to mainstream education, such as travel, volunteering, or actual employment.  It is used largely as a time to recharge, rethink, and mature.  A year-long deep breath, if you will.  

I recently spoke with a young man, Jack, who has decided to take a gap year.  He got in to Princeton, and a handful of other equally impressive colleges and universities, but has decided to defer.  (If you think your child might be interested in this option, double-check the cut-off date for deferral requests.  The date is not widely advertised.)  After requesting and receiving the green light from Princeton on deferral, Jack, who just graduated from Severna Park High, is now creating his own gap year program, a fantastic collection of opportunities he is sincerely interested in pursuing, and will likely never have another chance to do.  Jack plans to work for two wildlife rescue operations in Greece and hopes to intern in Athens at the offices of a large philanthropic non-government organization based there.

Jack says he has been interested in a gap year since ninth grade, largely because he was always young for his grade. No teachers ever suggested it, and his college consultant (privately engaged) was actively opposed to the idea.  His parents are split on the experience–one in favor, and one coming around.  The one in favor has always viewed the gap year as a great chance to gain some maturity and perspective.

This is what Jack had to say about his decision-making process:  “Well, I finished high school and found myself sick of book work, exams, and the usual grind of education. I wanted a break, to do something else for a while, and saw in a gap year the perfect opportunity to do service, another activity I enjoy. Finally, since I’m a year younger than most of my classmates, a gap year suits me because it gives me time to grow up before beginning my undergraduate studies.”

There are more gap year options than you can shake a stick at, but here are some of the big ones:  AmeriCorps, City Year, National Outdoor Leadership School, Semester at Sea, and Leap Now.  Many high schools now offer guidance through their college counseling offices on the gap year options, as well.  One general piece of wisdom I have gleaned from the various websites, though:  Make sure your child applies to, and gets in to, a college during high school, and then defers.  I am told it is much harder to get in at the end of a gap year. 

Pricey Summer Programs for Students: Advantage or Indulgence?


Gone are the days of lazy teenage summers, when kids could sleep in till noon and work a couple hours scooping ice cream for spending money, ride their bikes to no particular destination, and stop only when they felt like it, or go to a friend’s door, unannounced, just to see if she wanted to hang out.  Our teenagers are busy, focused, and accomplished.  They are maximizing their summer opportunities, building their resumes, maybe improving their chances at college admissions.  Our teenagers are getting internships, externships, substantive jobs that will pave their way professionally.  They are participating in language immersion programs to sharpen skills. They are traveling to international destinations to participate in nonprofit, humanitarian aid programs.  They are relocating to college campuses for summer classes, years before they are in college.  And many of their parents are spending a lot of money on these summer programs, some in the hope that the programs will help them get into the college of their choice.

Some local examples:  “Heather” is spending two months on a yacht in the Caribbean, doing marine biology research. Not cheap. “Connor” is in China, participating in a competitive State Department program for Chinese speakers, to learn about the culture (although the State Department pays his way).  “Jenna” is in Costa Rica, with a nonprofit organization building a school.  Her parents gladly paid the $6,000 plus for the program, hoping she would grow, learn, and yes, develop her young resume.  “Yasmine” is interning at Johns Hopkins Hospital, in a lab, assisting a world class research scientist.  No pay for her work, but at least she’s not paying them.  “Ryan” is in Spain for four weeks, living with a Spanish family and speaking only Spanish, at a cost of about $1,000 per week.  “Ella” is at Washington University in St. Louis, in a summer college program, earning six college credits and (her parents are) paying about $6,500 for the experience.  “Bethany” is going to six different lacrosse camps, at six different colleges, each with a steep registration fee.

There is debate about whether these expensive summer programs help or hurt our high school students in terms of their college applications.  Our intentions to help our kids learn, grow, and yes, distinguish themselves by participating in these programs may backfire.  Some admissions officers say that when kids write about these programs and activities (a yacht? in the Caribbean?) it reeks of privilege, and comes across like they have purchased an unfair advantage, and that is something admissions officers do not care for.  Colleges say they are looking for authentic experiences, things that have changed the student, made him or her grow or mature.  This can happen volunteering in the neighborhood senior center or community organic garden–or working at a parent’s office in the mail room for minimum wage.  

Again, we are forced back to the truth.  Real is real, and people know it when they see it.  For those of us who have paid for the pricey programs, we should not assume we have purchased anything more than an opportunity.  What our kids do with it, and how it changes them, is what colleges are really looking to understand.           

Will the Geeks Really Inherit the Earth?


In Geeks, a new study of the high school misfit, Alexandra Robbins tracks a host of teen nerd archetypes:  “the loner, the gamer, the nerd, the new girl, the band geek and the weird girl.”

According to Robbins’ “Quirk Theory,” the very qualities that might get a kid sidelined as a nerd/geek/”cafeteria fringe” are the same traits that will help her succeed in the long run. Not much new there, at least if you’ve kept up with teen movies, or considered the many famous teen-nerd-makes-it-big celebrity stories (JK Rowling, Bruce Springsteen… Megan Foxx?!)

What’s new (or new-ish), according to Robbins, is that teachers, administrators, and parents are increasingly trying to mold these kids to be more like their popular equivalents. Creativity, individuality, a willingness to go against the grain — all are traits that would serve kids well as adults. That is, if they don’t get disciplined out of them by adults who would prefer that they fit in. It doesn’t help that teachers and administrators tend to promote students who are athletes or cheerleaders to act as de facto representatives of their schools, neglecting the quirky kid in the corner who might be both nicer and more brilliant. Robbins also points out that teenagers’ hypersensitivity extends to the adults around them, and that their awareness of cliques and popularity differences between teachers doesn’t help matters, either.

And so, “young people are trying frantically to force themselves into an unbending mold of expectations, convinced that they live in a two-tiered system in which they are either a resounding success or they have already failed.” The homogenization of the US educational system and the competitive atmosphere of many schools leaves kids feeling that non-conformity is akin to social death — which, to a hyped-up teenage mind, is  pretty much actual death.

It’s a pretty dire picture — does it ring true with you? In a city that celebrates its quirks, are oddball students getting the recognition and support they need?

Seven Baltimore County Schools Among Best in the Nation Says Newsweek.com


Newsweek.com named seven Baltimore County public schools among the top 500 public schools in the nation. In order of ranking, the schools were Eastern Technical High School (no. 131), Hereford High School (no. 219 and alma mater of Baltimore Fishbowl intern Marta Randall), the Carver Center (no. 232), Pikesville High (no. 388), Towson High (no. 413) and Dulaney Valley High (no. 446). The schools rankings were based on graduation rate, average SAT score, average AP exam score, and the percentage of students who go on to college, among other statistics. Results reflect data from the 2009-2010 school year. Newsweek.com reached out to over 10,000 schools to compile the final list.

Individual data lines up the schools differently. Take average SAT scores, for example. As reported on newsweek.com, they were Towson, first, with 1742 (out of a perfect 2400); Hereford: 1686; Dulaney: 1672; Carver: 1654; Eastern: 1623; Loch Raven: 1573 and Pikesville: 1539.

In Maryland, the highest ranking school was in Poolesville High School in Montgomery County which ranked 64th in the nation (SAT average: 1828). The next highest was Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, which came in at number 91 (average SAT of 1824). The two Montgomery County high schools were the only two Maryland schools in the top 100 and featured in Newsweek magazine–the others were featured online at newsweek.com only.

Farewell to the Valedictorians


When Justin Schuster sat down to pen his valedictory address to Gilman School’s class of 2011, the administration gave him very loose guidelines:  address the occasion and keep it under ten minutes. Even so, Schuster says with a laugh, “I still didn’t really listen to them.” Instead of speaking in airy generalities, Schuster spent his ten minutes “talking about what made my class unique. I wanted to make it personal, rather than just reflect on the occasion.”  (Read Justin’s speech in Students Speak on the Baltimore Fishbowl Schools page.) 

Justin had the right idea. In the competitive rush of senior year, it can be easy to forget that valedictorians are people too, with their own quirks, aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses. And increasingly, the traditional valedictorian is being phased out, or revamped to honor many students, instead of just one. So what does it take make it to the top of the class in today’s uber-competitive high school environment?  To that end, we caught up with Justin and a few other local graduates who rank first in their class and got them to talk about their high school experiences, their plans for next year, and what they do in their free time (if they have any). 

Justin Schuster has attended Gilman School since sixth grade (before that, he attended Ft. Garrison Elementary, a public school in the Owings Mills/Pikesville area), and deems it “a phenomenal place — and I promise Gilman isn’t pressuring me to say that!” He’ll attend Yale in the fall, where he hopes to double-major in political science and Near Eastern Studies. If all goes according to plan, he’ll continue his coursework in Arabic and end up doing something related to politics or law. “I used to want to run for office,” he says, “But lately I’m thinking State Department, CIA, something in intelligence, Assistant U.S. Attorney…” This interest in politics is no recent whim; Schuster spends summers working with a political consulting firm in Bel Air, interacting with politicians on a day-to-day basis; he also had an internship with Baltimore City’s state’s attorney, and worked on a Congressional campaign.

Dana Katzenelson, a graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute who will be attending Harvard in the fall, has the whole valedictorian thing in perspective. When asked how her life might’ve been different had she not ended up at the top of her class, she pauses then says, “Well, then I wouldn’t have to write a speech right now.” Not that the speech should be much of a problem for her; Katzenelson has run for student office a few times, and has been otherwise active in the school’s decision-making processes. “There’s a lot of opportunity at Poly for people who are looking for it,” she notes — two examples being the school’s new strategic plan and its search for a new principal, both endeavors that Katzenelson participated in.

David Goodman has been at Boys’ Latin since kindergarten, and credits the school’s close-knit, supportive community for his scholastic success: “I had a serious accident in lower school and it was because of the help and support of the students and the faculty that I was able to make a full recovery and become the student I am today,” he writes in an email. “The class of 2011 was an especially close group of 71 students and [we] have always had each other’s backs.” Goodman kept busy in school taking college-level math courses like linear algebra and multivariate calculus; editing the school newspaper; and playing on the varsity soccer and baseball teams.  He’ll be another Baltimore-area valedictorian at Yale in the fall, where he plans to study math and economics.

While these students may be thriving, the valedictorian is something of an endangered species at highly competitive schools in some parts of the country — and Baltimore is no exception. Bryn Mawr, McDonough, Roland Park Country School, Friends and the Park School don’t recognize valedictorians in the traditional sense. “We honor students for academic achievement in all disciplines,” notes Nancy Mugele of Roland Park Country School, pointing out that the school awards more than 30 academic awards to its students. Why sidestep this traditional honor? For one, competition over class rank can lead to pressure and competition between classmates, and the final verdict often comes down to a fraction of a percentage point. Howard County schools don’t recognize a valedictorian, and Montgomery County schools don’t put class ranks on college transcripts.

Alas, eliminating the valedictorian doesn’t necessarily make students at these schools (or their parents) any aware of who got the best grades. For example, while Bryn Mawr doesn’t recognize a valedictorian, they do give a special award (the College Scholarship Prize) to the senior with the highest cumulative GPA. Which begs the question — if everyone knows who the de fact valedictorian is, why not just have a valedictorian?

Nationwide, other school districts are taking a different tack — honoring multiple valedictorians for the same graduating class. One Colorado district boasted a total of 94 valedictorians at its 8 high schools, all of whom had a GPA over 4.0, while a high school in the suburbs of Houston recognized 30 valedictorians — or 6.5 percent of its graduating seniors. Perhaps these kids are all so brilliant that it’s impossible to distinguish between them — or perhaps other forces are at work? “It’s honor inflation,” Chris Healy, associate professor at Furman University, told the New York Times

The valedictorians we spoke to all seemed to have a good sense of perspective about the honor. For one, they recognize that they weren’t alone in their academic achievement. As Goodman notes, “the top portion of my class [all] challenged themselves academically. For us, there were many long nights working on AP and honors assignments….[We] pushed each other to work hard and I share this honor with them.” Will being valedictorian have a big impact on Katz-Nelson’s future? “Not really,” she predicts. “It’s not as significant as other people think. It just means I focussed on getting good grades more than other people did.”  Schuster agrees:  “Quite frankly, I think it’s a title and nothing more than that.” What’s important to him is not so much the title itself as the skills that got him there:  his work ethic, and his ability to organize his time. “I didn’t stay in on Friday and Saturday nights, cramming over SAT books. I just did my homework.”

While these students have plenty to be proud of, there’s something a little wistful about the valedictory moment, as well. After all, “valedictorian” comes from the Latin for “farewell sayer,” and it’s true that these students are leaving a lot behind. But judging from what they’ve accomplished so far, the future should be pretty exciting, too.

Prom Pictures and a Contest Winner


We had a friend visiting from Poland last weekend who asked about a girl he saw at the Inner Harbor who was “dressed like a goddess.”  We explained that she was going to the prom and was there to take pictures. It made us realize how unusual this funny high school ritual must look to others. 

Proms have changed over the years and now include elaborate asks (from signs at school to videos on You Tube), post-parties, post-post parties, group dates, co-ed slumber parties and prom “goddesses.” But the pre-prom photo op remains the same: kids assemble looking their dressed-up best while mom and dad snap away. We’d love to post your prom pictures on Inside the Fishbowl on the Community page. You can post them yourself too. We already have a few. 

A few weeks ago we asked readers to post their prom horror stories.  The winning entry comes from Mrs. Batworth, who wrote: 

“It was 1977 and my then-best friend had a boyfriend, so she was hell-bent on going to the prom, and wanted me to go with her. I couldn’t find a date, so she told her little brother he had to escort me. I was mortified. Then-best friend wore red, slinky satin; I wore a recycled, very prim Gunne Sax dress in pale green. She and her boyfriend spent the whole evening making out while I tried to make conversation with my 15 year-old date. We danced to “Fooled Around and Fell In Love.” He was a very nice kid and surprisingly gracious, and I’ve always had the sense that he grew up to be a great human being.” 

She wins a $50 gift certificate from Pazo! Please email us Mrs. Batworth at [email protected] to claim your prize.