SIS Futures

News and Information from the South Island Careers Team

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Decisions, Decisions and the ‘Agony of Choice’

It’s that time of year that students in Years 11,12 and 13, with your support and encouragement, have some important decisions to make in regard to their futures.

Year 11s are reflecting on their choices for the different diploma programs and subjects for their final two years of secondary education, through the ‘Application to the Senior School’ and in interviews with both Careers/H.E. Counsellors and Heads of House.

Year 12s are at the mid-stage of their research into courses and colleges for the undergraduate stage of their tertiary education, in anticipation of formal interviews in May and June with their respective Careers/H.E. Counsellors.

Year 13s are at various stages of receiving replies from the institutions applied to and face varied decisions in terms of accept or decline, Firm or Insurance, deposit or not etc.

All three predicaments are often made more painful than pleasurable by extending rather than reducing the choices involved.

I have often used the phrase ‘Agony of Choice’ to describe the results of considering too many countries and too many courses and colleges in the research and application process (for Y11 Option Choices there is, at least, a finite number of courses to choose from). This often results from looking at others (both students and parents are guilty of this) rather than starting, as we recommend, with oneself. As one sees others choosing this or that destination or institution, one can be gripped by the awful fear of ‘missing out’. This is a greater danger in a school like ours where H.E. destinations span the world, encompassing literally millions of possible country/course/institution combinations.

Not being an economist or a social psychologist, I naively wondered whether anyone agreed with me and I googled the phrase “too much choice”. Little did I realise that there was a whole body of research into this phenomenon; that ‘overchoice’ was an established concept, as were the ‘tyranny of choice’ and the ‘paradox of choice’. The Wikipedia take on ‘overchoice is that:

The phenomenon of overchoice occurs when many equivalent choices are available. Making a decision becomes overwhelming due to the many potential outcomes and risks that may result from making the wrong choice.

Examples of overchoice include increased college options, career options, and prospective romantic relationships. Many of these increased options can be attributed to modern technology. In today's society we have easy access to more information, products and opportunities.

‘The Paradox of Choice’ is the title of a book by Barry Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore College, a highly selective liberal arts college in suburban Philadelphia. Though many studies apply this theory to shopping dilemmas, Schwartz puts it in the context of college choice and admissions. He argues that both selective colleges and students seeking admission to them put far too much time and effort into fine distinctions that matter little at the end of the day, compounding the stress and anxiety of the process for all concerned:

A new college admissions season is upon us, culminating a lengthy period of intense anxiety for high school seniors and their parents. Teenagers who have tortured themselves building up stunning credentials approach their mailboxes each day with a sense of dread. Everything seems to hang on the contents of those envelopes. But how much does it really matter whether your child will soon be enjoying a first year at Harvard or Yale or will instead end up at her third or fourth or fifth choice? Probably much less than you think.

High school seniors trying to get into the best college are on a fool's errand. Chance factors (eg., ones first year roommate or Bio 101 teacher) will have a bigger effect on success and failure -- satisfaction and disappointment -- than the tiny differences among schools that are within the range of acceptability. Decision scientists Detlof von Winterfeldt and Ward Edwards wrote many years ago about "the principle of the flat maximum," to describe situations in which random variation or measurement error was larger than the differences among the things being measured. It's a pretty good bet that when it comes to differences among highly selective institutions, high school seniors are operating in the region of a "flat maximum."

In terms of the college side of the process he argues:

And the same is true of selective colleges and universities trying to decide which, say, 100, out of 5,000 great applicants should be admitted. The differences among the well-qualified applicants are trivial in comparison to the error in the tools used to predict their college performance. And yet, just as students compete for admission to selective universities, universities compete for the "best" students.

So we are collectively engaged in a college admissions “arms race” that is almost a complete social waste, for once a set of “good students” or “good enough schools” has been identified, it probably doesn’t matter very much which one you choose; or if it does matter, there is no way to know in advance what the right choice is. Hair-splitting to distinguish among excellent students (or schools) is a waste of time and effort; the degree of precision required exceeds the inherent reliability of the data.

Stuart Jeffries of the Guardian echoes Schwartz and uses the analogy of jeans to make the point:

Increased choice, then, can make us miserable because of regret, self-blame and opportunity costs. Worse, increased choice has created a new problem: the escalation in expectations. Consider jeans. Once there was only one kind, says Schwartz – the ill-fitting sort that, fingers-crossed, would get less ill-fitting once he wore and washed them repeatedly. Now, what with all the options (stone-washed, straight-leg, boot-fit, distressed, zip fly, button fly, slightly distressed, very distressed, knee-holed, thigh-holed, knee and thigh-holed, pretty much all holes and negligible denim), Schwartz feels entitled to expect that there is a perfect pair of jeans for him. Inevitably, though, when he leaves the store, he is likely to be less satisfied now than when there were hardly any options.

How can we heed this advice at SIS? We can make a start by seeing what is often obvious: which country should I focus on for Higher Education? This question often answers itself when one considers factors such as heritage, citizenship, finance, family support networks and future occupational/residential plans. Then ask: “Can I really justify application to a second or third destination?” and reason that through together. The answer will often be “No” and we can almost hear your sigh of relief and see your shoulders relaxing already!

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The Cost of College – Not Always What It Seems

A recent article in the BBC highlighted some common misconceptions around the cost of higher education in the US, somewhere that is traditionally assumed to be an expensive option for citizens and non-citizens alike. Whilst some of the information in the article is a little misleading *, it still highlights that if a family is paying international fees in either country, it might be worth not discounting the US.

Some of the most expensive options are the institutions that everyone has heard of – the private Ivy League institutions for instance. However, it isn’t always the case that families will face the full ‘sticker’ price. In a very few cases, these schools can afford to meet all of your demonstrated need, so could actually be fairly cost effective (but no less challenging to get into). Unfortunately there is never a guarantee that they will match what you consider to be your family’s needs and this could be a barrier to a student taking up their place. It is vitally important that as a family you know you are able to afford the sticker price, just in case you do not get any financial aid, as it is hugely disappointing for a student to secure a highly competitive place and then have to turn it down due to financial constraints.

Public institutions are a little more affordable, especially for someone with strong connections to the State in which the institution sits. As an international student the fees are likely to be comparable to the UK for someone undertaking one of the more expensive science degrees. For instance at Warwick a Band 2 subject, which is a laboratory based subject, costs £22,340 sterling per year and this also includes Economics and Warwick Business School. Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences tend to be more affordable because they are classroom based.umHu University of Washington costs US$ 34,143 for tuition, but at first glance can seem like a lot more. What US universities often do is to talk about the ‘total’ cost of studying with them, which means they will price up accommodation and food, something the UK schools keep very separate.

Certainly we would suggest as a family you have conversations about what your hopes and realities are, to save students applying inappropriately to institutions or destinations that are unaffordable. Equally, you might want to explore the value for money attached to the cost of Higher Education in different destinations, as a higher cost does not always mean a higher quality, something that can be seen very clearly in Hong Kong. It is important to keep up to date with finance information as it is subject to frequent change.

* The tuition fees for both UCLA and U of Washington are for In-State applicants and US citizens from elsewhere would pay the same as international applicants (i.e. $34-38k rather than $11-13K). UK fees quoted are ‘home’ fees.

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Unique Institutions - Reed College

A small private liberal arts and sciences college of 1,400 students, located in a small wilderness reserve just outside Portland, Oregon; Reed, if known at all, is probably best known for its most famous drop-out, Steve Jobs who, perhaps, had better things to do.

My notes from my 2007 visit, include the following observations:

“It has an intensive and in some ways ‘quirky’ academic atmosphere. One student commented that the work will “swamp you”. Students who are bright but not independent and self-motivated should not apply to Reed. There is a work hard, play hard philosophy there that sometimes results in ‘high jinks’ of one sort or another.

Other significant features include:

The founder’s insistence on No Fraternities nor Inter-College Sports.

7% international students and only 7% Oregon students.

The classical elements of the Liberal Arts Core.

Grades are not normally given nor, where given, are they compared to other students.

All students do a Senior Thesis.

All Financial Aid is need-based (none merit-based) and the college will meet total need!

Reed is not for everyone, but I have taught a few very bright and independent students at South Island School who would thrive at Reed. A unique college for unique students!”

I also discovered that my theory of the inverse ratio between college selectivity and the quality of student rooms was correct; when I discovered that a whole window was missing from the bedroom I was sharing. Luckily it was a warm summer.

Nationally known education and career advisor Donald Asher ’83 characterizes Reed as “an extremely liberal student body wedded to an extremely conservative curriculum … liberal in the old sense of free and conservative in the old sense of guarding a known good.”

The Hidden Ivies guidebook writes, “Reed has remained true to its original mission to provide intelligent, intellectually passionate young men and women with a first-rate education in an atmosphere of free inquiry and reflection … A premium is placed on the quality of teaching and advising since intellectual dialogue and study is the key point of the Reed experience.”

Reed is skeptical of numerical college rankings and, as a result, does not submit data to U.S. News & World Report for their so-called “America’s Best Colleges” issue.

However, it is one of the nation’s top producers of future Ph.D. recipients as a percentage of all graduates; 70% of alumni earn a graduate degree: plus it has produced 31 Rhodes Scholars to date.


Reed is the only college in the country with a research nuclear reactor that is staffed primarily by undergraduates. The Reed reactor has more female reactor operators than all other research reactors combined.

Reed did have a reputation a few years back for an overly ‘liberal’ approach to recreational drugs but this is no longer the case and perhaps the quote on it’s home page sums Reed up best:

“It’s hard , but in the end it’s so worthwhile.”

Help Needed!

We are in search of support for two upcoming events. The first being work experience in MAD week this year - 10th - 14th October. We are looking for placements for our year 11 students and would be very grateful if anyone can offer the opportunity to spend a week learning how your organisation works. We have seen that it has really helped our year 13s when applying for university, so if you could help at all, please contact Angela

Likewise we are looking for people to attend some of our careers events. We would love representation from all kinds of industries to give our year 9 students a flavour of the wealth of opportunities that there are available to them. If you can help or put us in touch with anyone who can, we would be really appreciative! Please Email us if you can help!

Wishing you all a very happy Easter, with best wishes from South Island Careers Team