Monday, July 21, 2014

Return of the Daily Quiz

A regimen of low-stakes testing in class – and self-quizzing (reciting notes from memory) while studying – vastly improves learning outcomes and makes high-stakes testing far less daunting.

So says professor Henry L. Roediger III, author of "Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning" and an intriguing NYT article on the subject.

This certainly reflects my own experience as a student and teacher. The effort required to recall information does seem to exercise critical brain functions, improve intelligence, and promote academic success in a number of important ways. Well-established learning models like SQ3R and Cornell Notes are classic implementations of this idea.

Though out of fashion pedagogically for some time, memorization is an essential element of learning and an important part of what students should be doing during school hours and while studying at home.

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

How To Fail A Test With Dignity

Sometimes, you just can't win. In that case, there's no harm or shame in surrender.

So why not have a sense of humor about it?

These students tried and failed, but succeeded in turning their loss into laughs.

Enjoy!

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(blank line)
Who says failure can't be fun?

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Will Google Supplant The Dictionary?

It's not much of an exaggeration to say that Google knows everything.

Nowadays, thanks to the preeminant internet search engine, reference books the world over are gathering dust. No longer are phone books, encyclopedias, newspapers, or maps things which all people must own.

But it seems Google has turned even the venerable dictionary, former mainstay of every self-respecting home or business library, into an unnecessary, out-dated info-relic destined for relegation to garage sales and recycling bins everywhere.

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Julia Angwin highlights the ways in which those functions most often fulfilled by dictionaries – checking spelling, finding definitions, locating sample sentences, etc. – can now be carried out more effectively and efficiently using a Google single-word search:

These days, however, Google is our database of meaning. Want to know how to spell assiduous? Type it incorrectly and Google will reply, in its kind-hearted way: "Did you mean: assiduous"? Why yes, Google, I did.

Google then spits out a bunch of links to Web definitions for assiduous. Without clicking on any of them, the two-sentence summaries below each link give me enough to get a sense of the word: "hard working," and "diligent."

Still not satisfied? Fine, click on the Google "News" tab – and you will be directed to a page of links where the word assiduous appears in news stories. Presto, sample sentences and usage examples.

"You and I can be our own lexicographers now," says Barbara Wallraff, the longtime language columnist for The Atlantic magazine. "We don't need dictionaries."

Aside from the tips given in the article, internet users can use Google as a kind of "super-thesaurus," conducting "reverse definition" word searches constructed in the following format (typed directly into a Google search field without quote marks):

"word meaning X" (where X is a short definition of the word you wish to find)

For example, here's the reverse word search I just used to come up with the word "esoteric" that I needed for the last paragraph in this post:

"word meaning information available only to a select few"

The article also sings the praises of a wonderful online dictionary that everyone should have in their bookmarks list. Wordnik provides easy access to definitions from a variety of major online dictionaries, but then goes a step farther by listing a host of sample sentences for each word studied taken from unimpeachable academic sources as well as from current newspaper usage and vernacular found on Twitter.

Dictionaries still have a place for those requiring more obscure information about particular words: etymology, history, esoteric definitions, etc. But as Angwin's WSJ piece suggests, Google has already become all the dictionary most people will ever need.

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

SAT Scores Stratified, In Decline

Newly released results show SAT scores have declined since just before the introduction of the writing section and 2400 point system in 2006. During the fifteen years or so prior to that period, SAT scores had been on the rise.

The new data also show SAT scores sharply stratified according to race and family income, and will no doubt lead to increased criticism of the test as an unreliable measure of academic performance and potential.

A Huffington Post article by Justin Pope goes into detail (excerpts follow):

Results released Tuesday show the high school class of 2009 earned a combined score of 1509 on the three sections of the exam, down two points from last year.

Men also widened their advantage over women by 3 points; men scored 1523 on average compared to 1496 for women. The difference comes mostly from math scores.

Students reporting their families earned over $200,000 scored 1702, up 26 points from a year ago. That group is comparatively small, but the sharp increase could fuel further criticism the exam favors students who can afford expensive test-prep tutoring.

... Asian-Americans, whose average combined score surged 13 points to a combined 1623, while scores for whites fell 2 points to 1581. For black students, average scores dropped 4 points to 1276. Average scores for two of the three categories the College Board uses for identifying Hispanics also declined, and overall ranged from 1345 to 1364.

Whatever Asian-Americans are doing, educators want to bottle it.

"For students who are planning to attend college, there's this one group that's outperforming everybody," said Seppy Basili, senior vice president at Kaplan Test Prep. "So what is it about this group? Can we do something to study it?"

Unquestionably, the SAT is a highly coachable test. It's really no big deal to raise an average student's score hundreds of points after several hours of private coaching and a few carefully critiqued practice tests.

Although I make my living party by training students to improve their SAT scores, I've long been a strident critic of the test. The SAT outlived any true usefulness, if it ever had any, many years ago.

Click here to read another post I've written on the subject of the inequity inherent in the SAT, and what it reveals about the worrisome trajectory of modern American culture.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Class On Stupid

Is it me? Or is this just plain ... dumb?

Students at Occidental College can now take a class that's genuinely daft. Critical Theory and Social Justice 180 is titled, simply, "Stupidity."

It's hard to decide which is most stupid: the very notion of a major institute of higher learning offering a (way too) serious course on stupidity, the course description (a truly masterful example of vacuous academic jargon), or the kind of dazed and confused cultural context that could give rise so such things in the first place (tellingly, "United States" is listed as the core course requirement this class fulfills).

The decussate levels of irony here are so numerous and humorous it's hard to know where or how to begin comment on them.

From the Occidental College catalog:

180. STUPIDITY.

Stupidity is neither ignorance nor organicity, but rather, a corollary of knowing and an element of normalcy, the double of intelligence rather than its opposite. It is an artifact of our nature as finite beings and one of the most powerful determinants of human destiny. Stupidity is always the name of the Other, and it is the sign of the feminine. This course in Critical Psychology follows the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze, and most recently, Avital Ronell, in a philosophical examination of those operations and technologies that we conduct in order to render ourselves uncomprehending. Stupidity, which has been evicted from the philosophical premises and dumbed down by psychometric psychology, has returned in the postmodern discourse against Nation, Self, and Truth and makes itself felt in political life ranging from the presidency to Beavis and Butthead. This course examines stupidity.

That's the actual course description.

Click here to see for yourself.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive

Math teachers, students, and other math enthusiasts will absolutely love the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive (MHMA) published online by the School of Mathematics and Statistics of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland (the third oldest university in the English speaking world, founded in 1413).

This comprehensive site allows users easy access to thousands of biographies of important mathematicians throughout the ages, informative articles on hundreds of math history topics, treatises on dozens of famous mathematical curves, fascinating time lines of mathematicians' lifetimes and key events in math history, a helpful glossary of mathematical terminology, indices of female mathematicians and math educational history, and links to other noteworthy math history sites.

Math fans can spend many enjoyable and informative hours on the MHMA. The articles and other resources it contains combine rigor with accessibility as scholarly works that nevertheless remain perfectly intelligible, interesting, and useful to the lay reader lacking a mathematics degree. It's no wonder the site gets two million hits per week and almost one million unique visitors per month.

One of my favorite sections is the quotations index, which lists pithy quotations by famous mathematical figures.

Here are a few gems I lifted from this area of the site:

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George Pólya


The first rule of discovery is to have brains and good luck. The second rule of discovery is to sit tight and wait till you get a bright idea.

To teach effectively a teacher must develop a feeling for his subject; he cannot make his students sense its vitality if he does not sense it himself. He cannot share his enthusiasm when he has no enthusiasm to share. How he makes his point may be as important as the point he makes; he must personally feel it to be important.

A mathematics teacher is a midwife to ideas.

Look around when you have got your first mushroom or made your first discovery: they grow in clusters.

A GREAT discovery solves a great problem, but there is a grain of discovery in the solution of any problem. Your problem may be modest, but if it challenges your curiosity and brings into play your inventive faculties, and if you solve it by your own means, you may experience the tension and enjoy the triumph of discovery.

Bertrand Russell

The method of "postulating" what we want has many advantages; they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil.

The desire to understand the world and the desire to reform it are the two great engines of progress.

Although this may seem a paradox, all exact science is dominated by the idea of approximation.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

Boredom is a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.

Men who are unhappy, like men who sleep badly, are always proud of the fact.

A habit of basing convictions upon evidence, and of giving to them only that degree or certainty which the evidence warrants, would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world suffers.

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Check here for the MHMA biography of Zeno of Elea, here for a discussion of the epicycloid curve (here for the Java-enabled version), here for a index of chronologies of important discoveries in mathematics, here for an index of time lines of mathematicians, here for the quotations index, and here for topics in the history of mathematics education.

If you like numbers, and you enjoy history, you'll love MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive.

See you there!

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Copyright © 2009 Chris Borland. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Myth of Multitasking

Does multitasking work? In a word ... no.

Though ardent multitaskers may deny it, study after study show that unitasking, tending to only one main task at a time, is clearly more efficient, effective, and productive way to get things done than attempting to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously.

Author Steven Aitchison put it this way:

How many times have you heard someone say, "I get so much done because I am able to multitask"? Usually said with a smug little grin. Whilst it has been a popular thing to be able to attempt, multitasking is on its way out of our lives, that is if we really do want to become more efficient and productive.



It has been shown in numerous studies that people who try and multitask actually lose efficiency and productivity levels drop. The guy on the phone, checking his emails whilst telling their work colleague what to do maybe be doing three things at once however he is doing three things at once very badly and not efficiently enough to be doing the job correctly.

Studies by Professor David Meyer at University of Michigan showed that young adults who had to perform two math tasks, back and forth, showed that it took longer doing the tasks this way than it would have if they had done them separately.

To read the entire article, click here.

While some limited multitasking can be a good idea, common sense dictates that one can pay full attention to only one mental processing task at a time. Many workers and students, put off by the boredom inherently a part of certain necessary activities and overwhelmed by the mountain of stuff they have to do, will dogmatically insist that multitasking works really well "for them" (thank you very much ...), and resist with gusto the whole concept of unitasking.

That's too bad, because by doing so habitual multitaskers are actually setting themselves up for increased stress, decreased productivity, and frantic, rushed mindlessness that characterizes the moment-to-moment experience so many of us have of our lives, today.

If you're still not convinced, click here for a list of LifeHacker articles that put the multitasking argument into proper perspective.

Click here to read about one man's quest to heal himself of frenzied "multitasking madness" in 30 days.

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Copyright © 2009 Chris Borland. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Highest Scores Money Can Buy

It's a sad but salient fact that SAT scores correlate extremely well to family income.

The greater the wealth of one's family, the higher one's SAT scores tend to be, and this discrepancy is most pronounced at the upper and lower ends of the income scale.

The obvious explanation is that affluent families can afford to buy the best in academic enhancements like private school tuition, special programs, tutors, coaches, and other advantages. Amidst increasing economic inequality and decreasing social mobility in modern American, it's increasingly true that money buys academic achievement, higher SAT scores, and attending economic opportunities.

An excellent article in the New York Times goes into detail.

As a professional academic coach, I know this to be so. My students succeed where others fail because they can afford to pay me to help them. Consistent with the law of supply and demand, the most experienced and capable academic coaches charge very high fees that only the affluent can bear.

Isn't it just a bit hypocritical for someone like me, who makes a living by exploiting the unusual ability of wealthy families to hire private teachers to make sure their children are successful in school, to complain about the foundational inequity at the root of the entire private education industry?

Guilty as charged.

Although the complete eradication of social inequality is neither possible nor desirable in a capitalistic society, I do maintain that severely tempering educational inequality would be a very good thing. Basic education at all levels should be much more equally available (and a LOT less expensive) in America. If necessary, I could simply find another job.

America currently finds herself fighting for her life in what Thom Hartmann has described as the self-destructive cancer stage of capitalism ... the final chapter in the story in which greedy, consumptive, parasitic instincts inherent to the capitalist system begin to eat and ultimately destroy the system itself and bring to ruin any society which rests upon it. At this critical point, the elimination of gross economic inequality is not only possible and desirable in our society, but essential for its survival.

Just as we cannot rely on foxes to guard hen houses, markets cannot responsibly police themselves. After the near economic meltdown we've just been through, I think this conclusion should be obvious to all but the most delusional "free marketeers." In the face of such terrifying and overwhelming evidence, even neo-liberal cheerleader and Ayn Rand acolyte Alan Greenspan has had to admit he was wrong about the "innate evil" of government regulation.

More and more, success in America requires prior success. We are, in fact, witnessing the death of the American Dream. A society in which achievement and advancement are based largely upon heredity and family wealth is fundamentally incompatible with basic moral, ethical, and democratic ideals such as meritocracy, fair play, and freedom. The rest of the developed world already understands this.

Eventually, we Americans will learn the same lesson. (Perhaps it's more accurate to say "relearn," since this truth was first realized by Americans during the Great Depression of the 1930's.)

I just hope we won't have to learn it (or relearn it) the hard way.

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Copyright © 2009 Chris Borland. All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Best Cities For Job-Seeking Grads

After years of acquiring arcane knowledge in challenging classes and performing arduous tasks dictated by their professorial overlords, recent college grads are handed a final assignment to complete with alacrity and general excellence: get a good job with your shiny, new diploma.

Where in America are newly graduated scholars most likely to find gainful employment? Turns out they may not have to leave their off-campus housing. As it happens, an abundance of research activity and highly skilled workers means that bustling university towns are great for business, and an excellent place to look for that first job out of college.

An article on the abcNEWS Money web site explains:

Research universities tend to be great environments for business, as they're flush with cheap, highly talented labor (recent grads), and the massive research and development budgets universities have. Plenty of the world's top companies, including Dell, Cisco Systems and Google, began in university settings.

Universities provide the future educated labor force and are centers of innovation, which creates an ideal ecosystem for start-ups," says Antonio Ubalde, chief executive of ZoomProspector.com, a San Francisco-based corporate relocation and start-up consulting firm. He notes that new technologies developed in many schools wind up growing into businesses of their own: "Research universities spin off academic innovations into commercial enterprises."

In general, college towns also tend to be more interesting places in which to live, with the kind of well-developed cultural and intellectual diversity that can help keep sharp minds happy, healthy, and growing. Strong economic environments and the ever-present need for student housing also makes real estate in university burgs a better than average investment.

As an adjunct to the abcNEWS article, Forbes.com lists job growth, university employment, and other details about the cities that made the list of their "Top College Towns for Jobs" (click here to view the slideshow).

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

How Much College Debt Is Too Much?

As tuition increases make higher education harder and harder for average American families to afford, more and more are now forced to consider "mortgaging the farm" to get kids through college.

The average college grad leaves school with $20,000 debt collar wrapped around his or her diploma, and while this is not a catastrophic sum, the question of where to draw the line concerning college debt is certainly an important one for students and parents to consider, especially during uncertain economic times.

An interesting and informative article by Kim Clark in U.S. News and World Report discusses the details:

One third of all new bachelor's degree recipients in June of 2008 started their working lives without owing a penny in federal or private educational debt. Only 10 percent of last year's graduates owed more than $40,000, according to the lead author of the report, College Board researcher Patricia Steele. (She did not count credit card debt or other noneducational liabilities such as car loans.)

The median borrower graduated last year owing almost $19,999, a $1,026 increase from the typical debt load of 2004 graduates. "Most people would say that is a reasonable amount of debt to take on for a baccalaureate degree," especially if students stick with federal loans, which now allow borrowers to adjust their payments to their income, Steele says.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a recent Bloomberg interview that unless colleges whose tuition schedules are "out of whack with reality" manage to reign in the cost of education they could soon find themselves pricing themselves into irrelevance as consumers turn increasingly to "no-frill" institutions offering less expensive three-year degree programs and other cost-cutting measures.

With real family incomes in retreat, and textbook prices going through the roof, even budget-conscious students at low-cost community colleges are often finding it difficult to make ends meet without taking on sometimes oppressive levels of educational debt.

For those about to face the prospect of taking out substantial student loans, this short piece by Associated Press outlines important things to keep in mind.

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Copyright © 2009 Chris Borland. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Are Our Boys In Crisis?

Growing up has never been easy, but the evidence indicates that it's been getting a whole lot tougher in recent years for boys. While the feminist movement has brought much needed attention to issues facing girls and young women in our culture during the past two decades, a similar commitment to critical issues facing boys and young men has failed to materialize.

One result is that from 1995 to 2005 males 15 to 24 years old were more than five times more likely to commit suicide than were females of the same age.

According to William S. Pollack, director of the Centers for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital (Harvard Medical School), psychological, educational, and other problems affecting male youths have worsened to such a degree that the word "crisis" may well be required to adequately describe them.

Rachael Rettner recently penned an informative and sobering article on this subject for LiveScience.com (excerpts follow):

"... it tends to be boys whose deeper problems are not looked into, and for whom programs that exist are not funded ... that’s absolutely true."

... compared with girls, American boys have lower literacy rates, lower grades, less engagement during school and higher drop-out rates. Boys also have higher rates of suicide, arrests and premature death.

... From 1995 to 2005, the rate of suicide among 20 to 24 year-old boys was 20.7 suicides per 100,000, while the rate for girls was just 3.5 per 100,000. Among 15 to 19 year olds, the rates were 12.5 per 100,000 for boys and 2.8 per 100,000 for girls.

An expert quoted in Rettner's article brings attention to the alarming increase in the gender gap with regard to suicide rates. In 1933 young males killed themselves 1.54 times more often than did young females, but by 2005 the rate among males had grown to 4.63 times the female rate. It's a profound and deeply disturbing fact that in just over 70 years, the suicide gap has fully tripled in size.

These numbers are a real punch in the gut.

How are we so favoring one gender and ignoring the other in so many critical areas that such brutal, heart-bruising statistics could come to reflect reality in our society?



Certainly, our girls and young women deserve all the help and dedicated, devoted attention we can give them. But we've got to start earnestly and deliberately addressing the emergency affecting our young men, who we love no less, and who at present are, apparently, in even greater need of rescue.

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Copyright © 2009 Chris Borland. All rights reserved.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Enter The Three-Year Degree

With college costs skyrocketing, the economy contracting, and America falling behind international competitors in the all-important educational arena, is the three-year undergraduate degree an "idea whose time has come?"

Although the four-year degree has been the predominant model for higher education in the U.S. since before the Declaration of Independence, three-year degrees are standard at England's Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and more than a few American colleges have been experimenting with the "express degree" idea for some time, now.

The idea has it's adherents as well as it's naysayers. Molly Corbett Broad, current president of the non-profit American Council on Education and former president of the University of North Carolina, lauds the idea. Derek Bok, president emeritus of Harvard, is a detractor.

From an article appearing last May in the Washington Post:

At Chatham University in Pittsburgh, a three-year bachelor of interior architecture will be offered without summer courses, allowing students to get into the job market a year earlier, school officials said. School officials reconfigured the four-year degree by cutting the studio classes from 14 weeks to seven.

"It's a creative solution to a lot of different things," said program director Lori Alexander. "Students enter the workforce quicker, they save a year of tuition and they can go on sooner for graduate study. And no, they aren't missing anything. Academic quality stays the same."

If three years is too long to wait, Purdue University's College of Technology has begun offering a two-year bachelor's degree!

Are quickie degrees a good idea?

Undoubtedly, for those able to handle the increased work and stress load, the economic savings and other advantages may outweigh the downside of compressing the traditional four-year undergraduate education into just three years. For those more affluent students unable or unwilling to give up their non-academic lives for three years of ultra-intense academic commitment, however, the four-year model will almost certainly be a better fit.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

How To Save Thousands On Textbooks

Textbooks demand scandalously high prices these days. It's nothing for math and science texts to cost more than $150 apiece, and list price on some books has soared to more than $200! That means that today's college students can easily spend well over $1000 or more on textbooks alone in a single year.

Excerpts from a recent article in the Pittsburg Post-Gazzette:

Like college tuition, the price of textbooks has soared faster than inflation. From 1986 to 2004, textbook prices nearly tripled, according to a Government Accountability Office report in 2005.

Nationwide, the GAO figured that textbooks were about a fourth of the cost of tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities and as much as three-quarters of the cost of tuition and fees at two-year public institutions.

Fortunately, there's a simple way to avoid falling victim to the college textbook extortion racket: ditch the college bookstore ... and buy new, used, or previous editions online!

Over the course of a four year college education, this tip plus a little disciplined research could easily save students and parents thousands of dollars.

Start by putting together a reliable list of the exact titles and ISBN numbers of all textbooks you'll be required to obtain for your classes during the upcoming semester (give yourself more time to save money and avoid problems by doing this as far in advance as possible).

To begin shopping, first search for the books you need by title, author, and/or ISBN on Amazon. It's possible to save nearly 30% or more when buying new books through Amazon or other online book dealers instead of at college bookstores, and even more (over 70%!) by buying used books online (at amazon, just click on the "... used" link a few inches below the title on the book's product page).

In addition to amazon, a host of online textbook price comparison sites like DealOz, CheapestTextbooks, and BookFinder enable one to directly compare prices of new and used textbooks offered for sale online at drastically reduced prices.

The latest edition of a given text is, of course, going to be the most expensive. But if the course instructor will allow students to use a previous edition rather than the most current one (it doesn't hurt to ask!), you could save nearly 70% on a brand new book by buying it online.

When buying textbooks online, whether new or used, it's a good idea to buy only from highly rated merchants (DealOz and Amazon provide this important information when doing book searches; CheapestTextbooks and BookFinder do not); otherwise, if your books don't arrive in a timely fashion or in acceptable condition, you may have to procure them again in great haste and at full retail price through the college bookstore.

And don't forget the option of selling your textbooks after you no longer have a need for them! Amazon makes this easy, and doing so could recoup much of the money you've had to spend (even after highlighting and marking your books, you'll still be able to get something for them by passing them along to another buyer).

The movement to lower textbook prices is growing fast. Some university professors are fighting back, opting to use free and low-cost online resources rather than force students to get ripped off at the college store. Aside from saving a pile of wallet green, buying used books online is also environmentally greener than purchasing brand new books to be used only for a short time and then discarded.

Save a bundle ... buy texts online!

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Monday, May 25, 2009

"Honor Society" Rip-off Alert

You know those slick "honor society" membership enticements you get in the mail once your high achieving teenager gets about halfway through his or her sophomore year? The ones that tempt you to provide your child membership in a "selective and prestigious" national honor roll that may boost chances of admission to top colleges just by joining? You know ... offers that seem perhaps too good to refuse?

Refuse them.

Writing in the Education section of the New York Times, high school guidance director Robert Bardwell exposes the fraudulent nature of these seemingly legitmate offers:

I NEVER recommend that a student pay to join any organization that will supposedly have an impact in the admission process. Even free honor societies available to high school students (i.e.: National Honor Society, Pro Merito and individual subject area societies) have little or no effect, especially at highly visible institutions. If a student wants to join such an organization for the other benefits of membership, that is fine, but not to help get a leg up on his admission chances.

If there is a hint that admission chances would be improved as a result of his being a member, I would suggest you report it to the Better Business Bureau as it may constitute fraud.

You can read Bardwell's entire post here.

As usual, too good to be true is neither true nor good. It's amazing how deeply infected with manipulative, deceptive commercial spin American culture has become in recent decades. What appear to be beneficient invitations may in reality be academic industry shakedowns, and any unfamiliar but official-sounding scholastic organizations that solicit enrollment by mail should be regarded with strong suspicion and thoroughly investigated before raising your hopes or sending any money.

Bardwell is also the president of the New England Association for College Admission Counseling, and provides Times readers with additional advice about the daunting college admissions and financial aid processes here.

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