Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What is it they say about statistics, again?

A few weeks ago, on April 29 to be exact, The NYT ran a troubling article that recapped the torturous last days of college admission being endured by anxious high school seniors across the country.

According to the article, by Tara Parker Pope, this year's class of applicants faced some pretty tough competition and it's only going to get worse. One of the numbers cited is that 90% of the applicants to Harvard and Yale were rejected.

Unfortunately for many seniors, the arrival of that fat acceptance letter is their ticket to legitimacy. It proves that they are successful. In cases where the envelopes are slim and the news is not so good, students are suffering severely. The article quotes doctors and teachers who report sleeplessness, stomach pain and headaches among seniors who are facing rejection from a favored school.

The most troubling part of the story was this quote, from Denise Pope of Standford University: "...some of these kids have had college on the brain since sixth or seventh grade or even earlier. [emphasis mine] When you have that kind of stress over that kind of time, that's where it starts to worry us."

I'm sorry but if there is even one child out there who begins stressing about college acceptance at the age of 9, we are really doing something wrong.

One story recounted the perfect SAT scores of a student, a young man who rowed crew, played golf, performed in the school musical and thanked third in his class. Good kid, right? Nice catch for any school, right? He was rejected by both Stanford and Princeton.

Luckily, he was pragmatic about the news. As he put it, "I realize I didn't found a company or discover a new insect. I feel like it's coming to a point where you have to do something like that to get into schools like Princeton or Stanford."

That may be true; it seems like he would have been an asset to any number of schools, including those two.

But according to another story I read, we shouldn't be surprised by his news. Another Times article, this one from April 1, reported that "Elite Colleges Reporting Record Lows in Admission." Interesting, I thought. I wonder why?

I read the article to find out. Turns out, elite colleges are not admitting fewer students. It's just that more students are applying than in the past so the numbers look lower. The percentage of students being admitted is nearly the same as it's always been. Here are the numbers:

Yale College accepted 8.3% of its 22,813 applicants. Wow - seems very tough indeed.
In order to prove the point about record lows in admission, they compared this figure to the numbers Yale reported ten years ago. At that time, "slightly fewer than 12,000 students applied to Yale, but the admittance rate was nearly 18%."

Ummmm - calling all Math 101 professors. 8.3% of 22,813 applicants is 1,893. 17.8% (nearly 18%) of 11,850 (slightly fewer than 12,000) is 2,109. (Both those percentages and totals are my estimates based on the information at hand.) So let me understand this: a difference of 216 students is the basis for these "record low" admissions?

I think the article took the wrong approach to this information. For me, the question is this: In 2008, why did some 10,000 more students applying to college believe they were Yale material? Are they that much smarter than they were in 1998? If you watch the SAT reports each year, the answer is no - the numbers are going down.

So what is it? Can you spell entitlement? Somehow, I think that applies here.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

is anyone measuring this footprint?

To promote her new autobiography, Audition, celebrity newswoman Barbara Walters is doing what almost every author on the planet can only dream about: she's taking her story on the road and visiting 25 cities to promote her book. As I write this, the book is # 1 on the Amazon bestseller list.

This tour intrigues me for a number of reasons. First off, the number one thing publishers want to know about anyone who submits a book proposal is not what your story is, not what your goals are, not the wisdom you have to share with book buyers around the world nor the poetic voice in which you will deliver that message. Not one of those things matters to publishers. What matters most is that you have a "platform," a built-in audience who will not only welcome the news that you've written a book, they'll rush out to buy a copy or two or three as well. Having a platform means that the publishers can P/L your book with some measure of comfort about the number of books that will sell right off the bat; it means they can count on your audience to support their investment in you. It also means they won't have to engage a publicist to promote you or your book. They won't have to spend much on advertising or marketing. In other words, you've done their job for them.

But in the case of writers who may need a boost, whose platform may be lacking a bit in scope or reach, those writers who could benefit from some face time with a crowd to build momentum for their book, publishers create the "book tour" and put authors on the road. Authors visit bookstores and sell and sign books to their anxious public - or not. I've attended some book signings where the store is so empty your voice echoes. Yes, a tour can work but it's expensive and risky - for everyone.

So - at the risk of sounding jealous and petty, let me pose the following questions. Why is Barbara Walters on a 25-city book tour? Doesn't she have a national platform large enough to engender some good will with her publisher? Isn't it enough that she produces a daily talk show, commands network attention anytime she wants it to conduct her celebrity interviews and is arguably the most well-known female television journalist in the world? Is it possible her book will NOT sell because no one will have heard of her or heard of it? Particularly since she leaked the intriguing tidbit about her affair with a married politician some forty years ago?

But all that aside, here's what's really bothering me. According to a report in Publisher's Weekly, Ms. Walters is using private jet to travel to her tour cities. A private jet. Why isn't someone from the green police writing a scathing OP Ed about the wretched excess of Ms. Walters and condemning this wasteful carbon footprint from the sake of promoting a soon-to-be-bestseller book?

If a journalist from the FOX network or another conservative-leaning organization were doing the same thing to promote their own book, you can bet the media would be screaming for their decidedly not-green head.