Ask the grumpies: Things to help a kid get into the college of hir choice

Sandy L. asks

If a kid has his heart set on a college, what things could help them get in besides academics. For example, MIT has these science camps for kids that are expensive but could they also help with admissions later on?

We truly don’t know.  Take everything we say with a HUGE grain of salt.  I mean, we know people who got into Stanford but not Harvard and vice versa.  It really seems to be a crapshoot at a certain level, even if you’re your state’s math champion and have straight As, etc.  I don’t actually think it’s that hard to get into MIT if your grades and testscores are good and you have a true love of math and science compared to getting into Harvard (at least, I know a lot of people who got into MIT as undergrads who didn’t get into any ivies to which they applied).  It’s more difficult than getting into your state’s flagship, but there’s a lot less competition for those slots.  So I wouldn’t think that the science camps would be necessary.  Whether or not they help, I don’t know.

Back when it was called the Westinghouse science award, it helped to have won the Regeneron Science Talent Search.

It helps to have top scores and grades at a known-name school and to have come from nothing.  If you’re first gen, low income, and have fought your way to the top, that makes it easier for colleges to decide.  Particularly if you’re a scholarship kid at Eaton or at one of the state public boarding schools for GT kids.

One of my colleagues’ kids got in to our (state flagship) school (for engineering/CS) late admissions despite being low on grades and testscores because he did an after school club with a professor in the computer science department and did a very good job at said club, and the professor was able to pull strings.  I don’t know how universal that is– certainly I have never had any contact with undergraduate admissions– but some professors at some schools might have some pull.

If Caltech has the same application it had 15 years ago, you’re more likely to get in if you take it seriously.  Fill out that page that says, “put something interesting here” with something interesting!  I filled the entire thing in very tiny writing with math jokes.  My ex-boyfriend drew a comic showing the path of his life complete with adorable stick figures interacting with the line representing the timeline of his life.  I forget what my sister put in there but I’m sure it was interesting and entertaining.  We all got in.

On the application, if there’s a place for it, have an interesting story to tell that illustrates your interests and your academic path.  One of my college ex-boyfriends got in everywhere (he picked our SLAC over Stanford) partly because his admissions essay was a delightful story about how he built a trebuchet.  My sister got in everywhere she applied (including ivies) probably partly because she talked about how physics informed her dancing.  It probably also helps to be focused and to pretend you know what you’re going to do with your life and why and you have a path mapped out to get there.  Extra points if you are unusual– a young woman in an award winning Poms squad and an all-girls math team who has taken as much math and hard science as she can who really wants to design more energy efficient engines.  (Again, that was my sister.)

Many schools will make their final waitlist/admit decisions for people on that margin based on who has visited the campus/had an alumni interview.  I think this is unfair to low income kids who CAN’T just hop on a plane or spend two weeks in the summer driving up and down the East Coast from the Midwest, but it’s policy at many schools.

Applying early action, particularly the kind where you swear to go if you get in helps, though it decreases your financial aid offer many places.

Playing (and being really good at) the right instrument/sport can help.  But it is hard to predict what the school of your choice will need the year you’re applying.  (And this probably doesn’t matter at MIT, but I don’t actually know.)

Not needing financial aid can help at some schools.  I don’t know if MIT is one of them, but MIT is notoriously stingy when it comes to financial aid.  (Harvard is exceedingly generous!)

Being a member of an Olympic team or the child of a celebrity or owning your own profitable business or app or nonprofit that you started as a teen can make you more attractive.   So can having published a scholarly paper in an academic journal.  Or having a patent.  Or a parent who gives a multi-million dollar donation.

Passing the AMC 10 or 12 and doing well on the AIME can help.  Taking college classes and doing well in them doesn’t hurt (though as this becomes more common, it may no longer be as strong a signal as it once was).

We’re told that leadership experience, state and national awards, and volunteering can help, but I’m skeptical.  I don’t know if these are necessary, but they’re definitely not sufficient.  There’s just too many people each year who have these things.

Some people swear by college coaches.  I don’t know how to find a good one or what kind of value they add to someone who is already doing well.

I don’t know what we’re going to encourage our kids to do.  This is more timely for DC1 who starts high school in a year and a half.  Zie is really into math, but not competitions.  Zie like robotics, but not competitions.  Zie loves computers and games and likes programming but needs more formal training in programming.  Zie loves music but although better than I was at that age, is not at competition level either in piano or violin (the piano teacher is pretty lax and zie just started violin a year ago), and again, is not crazy about competition.  We might be able to get hir an unpaid summer internship with a professor at my school, or zie can do more work for me, possibly even something publishable.  Zie could take summer classes at the community college or the university (I still haven’t figured out how to do summer student-at-large classes, though it’s pretty easy for high school students to take college classes during the school year).  It is hard to say what’s best.  Most likely we’ll just let hir interests guide hir and focus on learning rather than on getting into a specific school.  Because for high income kids of educated parents, the specific school isn’t that important for earnings.

Anybody know more about what undergraduate admissions offices are looking for?


A new lunch plan for DC1

Getting DC1 to make hir lunch last year was an exercise in unpleasantness, so in the end we gave in and just had hir do cafeteria lunches.  It worked out relatively well.  This year at the middle school has been a bit worse– DC1 has been enjoying cafeteria lunches, BUT the cafeteria lunches are no longer healthy.  Basically DC1 gets cheese, pepperoni, or sausage pizza and fries, unless zie remembers to specifically request something other than fries.  Fries are the cafeteria server’s default.  In THEORY there are three different lunch stations, and in theory one of those stations is entirely salads (the third station has more traditional not-that-healthy cafeteria fare).  DC1 promised to try to choose healthier food options, but in the end just ended up eating cheese pizza and fries and the occasional fruit cup or carrot sticks for lunch 5 days a week.  Zie says zie doesn’t want the traditional cafeteria food (which usually isn’t any healthier than pizza– think chicken patty sandwiches without condiments, corndogs, or breadsticks and baked potato) and zie hasn’t been able to find the salad station.

Since school started, DC1 has become much more picky about not eating healthy food at home as well.  Which is annoying.  DH and I suspect the monochrome meals at school are contributing to skipping the vegetable portion of dinner.  We don’t like it.

So we’re trying something new.  Since we’re now higher income and pre-made healthy things are “in”, we’re letting DC1 pick out a bunch of overpriced healthy meals like pre-made salads, guacamole packs (which are like fruit cups, but with guacamole instead), and, of course, our standard applesauce/fruitcup/crunchy legume sides.  We also have a bunch more adorable lunch containers because I put a bunch on the amazon wishlist after writing this post and my mom came through with them at Christmas.   The hope is that this will produce less lunch-making angst than did actually making zir own salad/sandwich/etc.

I vaguely recall when I was in middle school, the lunches I made were mostly packaged orange-colored crackers with peanut butter (or better, the packaged sticks with dipping cheese), Doritos, and an apple.  Sometimes I would even get a Little Debbie snack-cake.  There are a lot healthier packaged options these days for those willing and able to pay for them.

How do/did you deal with middle schooler lunches?  How healthy are/were the school lunches you know or remember?

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Ask the grumpies: Math for ages 0-5 for kids who love math

Leah asks:

How did DC2 learn so much math? And when did you start? We’ve started discussing addition using finger counting or counting treats, but I’m not sure my little gal is picking it up yet. I sometimes wonder if I should be doing something more formal (or trying more) or if it’s fine to just chill. I do fractions and percentages when we cut nails (1 nail done, that’s one out of ten, or 1/10th, or 10%, etc).

So, this is based on a comment from a post about how my DC2 is age 5 in kindergarten and is doing multiple digit addition and subtraction with carrying and borrowing as well as some simple multiplication (no times tables memorization yet).

First off– I can’t take much credit for the multiplication.  DC2’s Montessori taught all the “big” kids multiplication.  This is pretty standard in a lot of Montessoris and I think it is part of the curriculum, though I do not actually know how it is taught.

Here’s some suggestions from people in the comments:

Becca says:

If you don’t know about Bedtime Math yet, get the app or the books :-)

A big part of very early math is pattern recognition. Grouping items according to different criteria, making designs with blocks or beads are good things to do.
The vocabulary of positions (over/under) and sizes (bigger/littler) and so on can also be good to get down early.
Other stuff, from a pretty evidenced-based group:

I’m also a firm believer in counting during swing pushing at the park. It gave me something to do, and gave Roo exposure to numbers bigger than 100 (ok, so we may have both had an inordinate patience for swinging).

I have to admit that we own the first Bedtime Math book (on Laura Vanderkam’s recommendation, along with Family Math, if I recall correctly), but we haven’t really used it.  DC1 already owned Aha! and Gotcha! (and had kind of outgrown Math for Smarty Pants), so we briefly looked through it but really had outgrown it.  I haven’t dug it out of DC1’s bookcase to try with DC2.  Maybe I should.

We have two different sets of brightly colored manipulables that I will dig out to play math with the kids with.  One set is a set of pixel-blocks that DC1 loved to play with.  Zie has always been into small things (and not into putting things into hir mouth), so pixel blocks work well for that (not safe for many small children!).  DC2 prefers a set of bigger circular pieces that DH initially bought to use as game pieces for game design (I can’t easily find them on amazon, but there are a lot of reasonably priced options if you search for manipulatives).  We also have lots of fun toddler sorting games because apparently I never grew out of them.  (I may be messy and disorganized in most of my life, but I find sorting to be extremely soothing.  This is part of why my bookcases and spice cabinet are beautifully alphabetized.)  Back when we had access to swing sets (our town has removed them all for “safety”/lawsuit reasons), we definitely counted pushes.  Once my kids were able to talk, I would ask, “How many pushes do you want this time?” and then I’d count out that many pushes and ask again.

omgd says:

I started trying to introduce fractions by talking about sharing. As in, “There are 6 apples and your friend takes half. How many do you have left?” She doesn’t really get thirds or quarters yet, but I think it’s because of the vocabulary.

I have to admit, I haven’t really thought about teaching fractions other than what DC2 is getting in hir brainquest book.  They will become more prevalent in the Singapore book a book or three from where DC1 is right now [Update:  the day after I typed this, DC2 had to color in halves and quarters in hir Singapore Math 1b book, but only for a couple of pages].

Ok, now back to me:

When my kids are bouncing off the walls someplace that they shouldn’t be bouncing off the walls, we practice counting.  When counting is too easy, we practice skip counting.  When skip counting becomes too easy, we will practice multiplication.  Then division.  I use this technique with my brilliant but overly energetic nieces and nephews who are too excited at being with extended family to be controlled by their parents.  (Back when I flew Southwest, I would keep the small children I invariably ended up sitting next to given my need for a window seat occupied by figuring out what their math level was and teaching them the next thing.  There are kids who learned long division from me because I wanted them to stay still!)

I LOVE Singapore math SO much.  It’s really great because it sneakily builds up to future concepts.  Examples are chosen specifically to help the subconscious pattern-match to figure out new things that won’t be introduced for chapters.  It is lovely.  Plus they teach a lot of really great mental math techniques that those of us who are really comfortable with use automatically (things like realizing that 10-1 = 9, so sometimes it’s easier to mentally add 10 and subtract 1 than it is to add 9 directly).  I am extremely impressed at how much facility DC2 has with numbers right now. Here’s me talking more about the workbooks the kids do.

DC2 had learned the borrowing and carrying from Brainquest (and me)– we spent about a month slowly cranking through double and triple digit addition and subtraction.  There are a lot of problems on a page and I would have hir just do 3 a day once we got to carrying and borrowing.   But zie wasn’t really facile with it until we got Dragonbox Big Numbers which is an enormously fun and addicting game (I finished it, but I still sort of wish I could be picking apples now.  It is a really great game.)  DC2 sped through it (as did DC1 and I– I finished first, then DC2, then finally DC1 sometime after that English project finished [for those who are curious, it wasn’t interpretive dance next… they’re doing another powerpoint (or, she suggests, PREZI UGH) use MOTION!… and a bunch of other suggestions that are super bad powerpoint etiquette].)   By the end of Big Numbers, DC2 was a multiple digit addition and subtraction wizard.

DC2 is mostly through DragonBox Numbers right now and is really good at it, but it’s not really as much fun as Big Numbers was, and it’s got some bugs which are irritating.

And, as I said earlier, I do break out the manipulables a lot.  Sometimes we use them to illustrate a particularly tricky workbook problem, but sometimes we just have fun doing number patterns.  We’ll also do patterns with fingers.  I really like playing games with these and making 10s.  So you start associating 3 and 7, 4 and 6, and so on.  We can also do grids of squares and rectangles with the manipulables to get used to multiplication (which I did more with DC1 than with DC2 because DC2 came home from preschool one day completely understanding multiplication).  There are a lot of fun ways to mix and match numbers and different colors to get an understanding of the patterns (and the beauty) of mathematics.

We also give the kids an allowance at a pretty early age, at first so they can get familiar with money and learn the denominations of coins and dollars.  (After the sticking random things in mouths stage though!)

Later on, I will introduce Hard Math for Elementary Students, but DC2 isn’t ready for that yet.  DC1 is really enjoying Hard Math for Middle School right now, as well as Saturday Math Circle, and zie just started doing every other week competition-based Math Club once a week after school, though zie is skipping the competitions this year/semester.  (Mainly because the first qualifying one is at the same time as a birthday party!  But also partly because zie does math for fun, not to compete.)

Later on, DC2 will also get introduced to Martin Gardner and Aha!  and Gotcha!  But not yet.

Should you be doing more or is it fine to chill?  I’m sure it is fine to chill.  But I can’t not teach math anymore than I can not drink water or keep from breathing.  It’s my nature.  It’s what I do.  And I gotta say that counting/practicing tables is the best for getting kids to behave while waiting for food at a restaurant, though occasionally it does get you dirty looks from other people who think you’re somehow harming your precious child or doing this to show off and don’t realize how much the alternative would interfere with their dining experience.  (Pro-tip:  It is often more fun when you trade off saying the next number, especially when sometimes you get it right away and sometimes you pause dramatically to think for a bit.  This also helps them to notice that skip counting by 2 is literally skipping every other one, and that skip counting by 10 is the same as every other 5.  It’s pretty amazing when they make that Aha! on their own.)

Oh man, I love math so much.

Grumpy Nation:  What are your math teaching tips?

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Facts and Opinions are not the same thing: Part 2

Part one from five years ago at the private school where they do not teach untruths about the civil war but still do not understand the difference between objective statements and opinions.

As promised, DC1 ended the semester being tested on the idea that the cause of the civil war was not reaaaaalllly slavery, but state rights.

I read out the reasons for the civil war given by the southerners who withdrew from the union.  They are PRETTY CLEAR that it was about slavery.  On top of that, South Carolina was pretty pissed off about NY getting to keep its state right of not allowing people to be property in its borders so that Southerners couldn’t take slaves with them to do business in NY.

Then DC1 said, “people have a lot of different opinions”.

And that led to a really lengthy discussion about what is an opinion and what is an untrue statement of fact.  DH and I threw around a lot of terms like “subjective” and “objective”.  Also “hypothesis”.  We talked about climate change.

It drives me nuts that people label incorrect statements as “opinions” and don’t seem to understand the difference between objective truths (which are true no matter what we believe, but sadly cannot always be tested) and subjective opinions.  (“Can an opinion ever be wrong?” DC1 asked. “Sure,” I said, “Saying ‘Eggnog is the best drink in the world’ is an example of a wrong opinion.”)  And this is codified in the South through the K-12 system and reinforced by Fox News.  It is in the airwaves.  I hate it.  And I don’t want to have to add it to my stats class, but maybe I should.

Last year I asked my grad students if we should spend some time on what is “fake news” and they all said no, they understood.  This year they’re not as sure.  Last year “fake news” really was fake– spewed out by what we now know were Russian bots.  This year Republicans have labeled reputable news organizations as “fake news” so it’s more confusing.  On top of that, even formerly reputable news organizations like WSJ have been taken over by ideologues so there’s a lot of crud coming out.  (NYTimes has always had a contingent of crud, and NPR started to kind of suck a couple of years ago.)

How do you all deal with the difference?

Another internet post on what to do if your elementary schooler keeps chewing on hir clothes

DC2 has always liked putting things in hir mouth.  As a baby we had to keep chokable stuff away from the floor for much longer than we did with DC1.  And there was the whole biting thing.  But zie outgrew it and we thought we were in the clear.

Then sometime in November or December, we noticed that DC2 had started chewing on hir shirt sleeves (if wearing long sleeves) and collar.  Zie didn’t want to chew on clothing.  Hir teacher didn’t want hir to chew on clothing.  We didn’t want hir to chew on clothing.

As an experiment, DC2 and I put cayenne on the top of hir (already wet) shirt to see if that would help.  Like most remedies involving cayenne, it did not.  Basically DC2’s chin started hurting from resting on it, so we aborted, rinsed off, and got a new shirt.

Next, we went TO THE INTERNET!  And found a bunch of blogposts, some sponsored, some not, from professional “mommy bloggers” talking about various silicon necklaces and singing their praises.  It turns out there’s a whole cottage industry of silicone teething necklaces (for mom), bracelets, toys, and even rings.  DC2 picked one out from amazon (note:  as always, buying stuff from amazon links gives us a little bit of money, so we’re just like those other “mommy bloggers”) that is meant for moms to keep from being chewed on by their babies.  But they had some pretty cool other shapes– I’m surprised zie didn’t go for one of the bat shapes given how popular batman is in this household.

Also the internet suggested that it might be anxiety (DC2 denied this), sensory processing disorder, autism, oral fixation and so on.  Or it might just be a phase.  I used to chew on my hair at this age but DC2 doesn’t have enough hair to be capable of doing that.  I may have had anxiety or sensory processing disorder or oral fixation (I do like kissing DH!) or who knows.  But eventually I stopped.  So if it is still happening in August at the annual checkup we might bring it up, but we don’t think it’s worth taking a doctor’s trip for given that DC2 doesn’t seem to have any other problems (other than the occasional hives).

One of the teachers at DC2’s school (who isn’t DC2’s actual teacher) told hir such things were for babies.  But DC2’s actual teacher was really happy and literally clapped her hands with happiness.  So far, no more wet shirts with pulled collars.  So yay internet!

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Ask the grumpies: Apps for 3-5 year olds

The frugal ecologist asks:

You did a toddler app post I think, but any other apps that your little one is into? Thinking for the 3-5 set….

Ooh, we need to know the answer to this question too.

We did like endless words, but boy was it an ipad memory hog.  I had to delete it eventually.  Starfall was another favorite, though we’ve just let it lapse since DC2 has really outgrown it.  ABCMouse seems pretty similar to Starfall– I don’t know if it is worth the cost, but we just got it free for the year with DC2’s kindergarten.  It’s fun, but too easy for DC2 right now– but it would have been good when DC2 was 3!

DC2 now spends a lot of time on the PBS Kids website on DC1’s computer on weekends after zie has done hir chores.  Zie wants to play games just like DC1 does.

Dragon Box has been pretty fun, both the algebra version and the geometry (elements) version, though DC2 hasn’t been able to complete them yet because the difficulty seems to hit frustration level after a while (but zie had fun during the first parts!).  We haven’t tried the numbers apps because they came out after DC2 had seemingly mastered numbers, but maybe it’s worth trying them anyway.  Update:  After typing this up we got Big Numbers and DC2 is hooked (some knowledge of addition and subtraction makes this game more fun).  (Right now, I admit I wish I were picking apples and gathering stones and turning fish into gold coins.)

A free one if you do it on the computer instead of an app is Teach your monster to read.   DC2 is also doing this one in school (even though zie knows how to read) and is enjoying it, but I must say after listening to hir play it this weekend, some poor princess keeps getting kidnapped over and over again and one would think would have better security by now.  Or maybe a weapon of her own or something.  They should mix it up and have the crown prince get kidnapped or something.  The narrator has a pleasant Britishy accent.  Update:  Level 2 does much better on gender–DC2 repeatedly feeds a female monster cookies and helps another find her lost words instead of rescuing a newly captured princess.  (Again, this is too easy for where DC2 is right now, but gee it would have been nice to have had a year or two ago!)

But yes, we really would like to have more suggestions on this one as DC2 has really outgrown most of what is on the ipad.  Extra points for stuff in Spanish!

Update on the gift card donation thing

So we asked you all for suggestions on how to get a cash-value gift card to DC2’s teachers.

Becca noted:

To actually address your preferred option-it looks like Gift Card Mall will sell you a $500 Visa card for a fee of $5.95, probably with a $2 shipping fee. It just looks like getting large denomination gift cards is getting more challenging- maybe it’s fraud related.

We had originally tried an AmEx card because I had found a code for free shipping, bringing the cost down to ~$8.  But they emailed and said it would take 1-3 days to approve and send.  When I called on day 4, they said, no, it was 1-3 business days and it would be shipped out “tomorrow”.  When I called on business day 3, they said that was a lie, it was actually 2-4 business days and it would be shipped “tomorrow”.  When I called on business day 4, they said no, day 1 didn’t count because we’d ordered after 11am, and it would be shipped “tomorrow” at which point I cancelled and said screw it, I’ll pay the additional $4 and go with Visa.  It didn’t help that when I googled AmEx gift cards there were lots and lots of complaints about people’s card-money suddenly disappearing and customer service being no help in retrieving it.

Gift card mall turned out to be extremely easy to deal with.  They gave a date that our cards would be shipped and they were indeed shipped on that day (no shipping fee) and came well within the 5-10 days they said it would take with shipping.  The other neat thing was that we were able to customize the cards by picking out teacher related card pictures, putting the teacher’s actual names on the cards, and getting greeting cards, envelopes, and a message typed out in the greeting card.  Almost worth the $11.90 we paid over the cost of the cards themselves.  Definitely less hassle than “tomorrow never comes” AmEx.

So DH dropped the cards off with DC2’s teachers’ principal.  The next day, DC2 excitedly told DH that someone had given hir teachers each a $500 giftcard for the class and they’d asked the kids what to do with them.  50 guinea pigs!  A swimming bag pool (we’re not entirely sure what that is)!

Hopefully they’ll use it for differentiation/enrichment/independent learning, though I suppose 50 guinea pigs could count as enrichment.   We will probably never know what they get spent on in the end, but we did feel a bit of a warm fuzzy knowing that the teachers had gotten them.

What would you spend a $500 giftcard on?