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Collegebound juniors: Listen up!

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Article featured in U.S. News & World Report

Alex Kingsbury is an education writer for U.S. News & World Report. He is a graduate of the George Washington University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, though neither school taught him to be a better fisherman. A native of Maine, Kingsbury has a passion for Cold War history, the Boston Red Sox, and fried mozzarella sticks.

Rachel Toor, author of Admissions Confidential, has spent nearly a decade in the college admissions business. A former admissions officer at Duke University who now works as a private college counselor, Toor has some college knowledge to share with collegebound juniors.

What should juniors do right now if they are thinking about college?
Start talking to grown-ups who are not your parents or teachers. Find someone you can trust who is not directly involved in the process.

So Mom and Dad aren’t good enough?
Your parents will go insane. Junior year it’s not so bad. But as it gets closer and closer to application time, they lose their minds. Even the best parents lose their minds. It’s brutalizing what the college admissions process can do to the kids, and no one wants to watch someone get beat up.

So where do you find these adults—craigslist?
Friends of parents are good; employers are good also. There’s nothing better than being the “cool grown-up” in someone’s life. For a lot of adults, it’s really fun to be involved with somebody at that stage in their life, because it’s really interesting all the stuff that they go through. Start off by asking them what books they are reading and what books they recommend students read. For one thing, it starts students reading more widely, which will be very helpful.

Will parents feel left out?
In fact, parents also need to find someone to talk with. They need to be reassured that their kids are great candidates, but they also need someone to say, “Listen, Johnny is a great kid, but getting into some of these schools is very competitive and Johnny may not go to Harvard. But look at all the other schools that Johnny could go to and succeed.”

Any examples of kids and parents overlooking something?
One of my counseling clients, an awesome girl, was a junior in high school last year and was worried that she would not get into her top-choice school. I asked her what activities she did. “Nothing special,” she said. “I do all the typical things: cheerleading, trying to help develop alternative energies, and prom committee.” I love that quote: “I do all the typical things.” Many students do amazing things, and neither the parent nor the student realizes that what they see as typical or boring is really unique. The admissions process is about emphasizing how you are different from the other applicants, and having unique activities can really help.

Parents are spending tens of thousands on advisers to shape their kids’ game plans.

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Featured in MSN BusinessWeek.com

Even valedictorians are finding it hard to land spots at the nation’s most-selective colleges, so “Ben” wasn’t about to take chances. Over the past four years, the New Jersey father of two has spent about $30,000 for guidance from Michele Hernandez, a Lake Oswego, Ore. college counselor who charges up to $36,000 per student for advice on everything from what courses to take to how to spend summers.

“We have regular kids who are pretty bright and nice and do a lot of activities,” says Ben, who, like many interviewed for this article, requested anonymity. “We were looking to give our kids whatever advantages we could.” Both sons were accepted by their first-choice schools: small, private colleges that admit about 25% of applicants.

Despite the soaring cost of college, a growing number of families are paying as much as a year’s tuition, room, and board on independent consultants such as Hernandez. They seek advice not just on completing applications but also on the raw material that goes into them — courses and extracurricular activities. That means bringing these advisers on board as early as eighth or ninth grade.

Although college admissions officers take a dim view of these unregulated advisers, the Independent Educational Consultants Assn., a nonprofit in Fairfax, Va., estimates that some 22% of the freshmen at private, four-year colleges this year have used them.

Some advisers say they’re turning away potential clients. Hernandez began offering four-day “application boot camps” for about $8,000 last summer to accommodate overflow from her practice, which currently numbers 60 clients. “We’re very selective about the students we work with,” says Victoria Hsiao, a partner at IvySuccess in Garden City, N.Y., which charges up to $28,500. The firm has about 100 clients right now and has served about 1,000 since opening nine years ago.

The guides say their goal is simply to find a good match for each student. But with the nation’s most-selective colleges receiving record numbers of applications, they say they must also help their clients stand out. High school students “often don’t know what’s typical and what’s interesting about themselves,” says Rachel Toor, a former admissions officer at Duke University who charges up to $200 an hour. “I try to figure out what it is about them that’s going to get an admissions officer to fall in love.”

GOING DEEP

What you get depends on how close your child is to attending college. When a client signs on just before senior year, the focus is generally on the application process. Most counselors do not make calls to admissions officers on clients’ behalf. But they urge students to express a strong interest themselves by, for example, contacting professors whose research is of interest and attending lectures. To prepare her 200-odd clients for interviews, Katherine Cohen, founder of New York’s IvyWise, which charges up to $30,000, videotapes practice sessions for those who need it. Advisers help students compile activity resumés and athletic videos to send to coaches. They also help brainstorm essay ideas and edit drafts. The goal: to get students to write in a compelling way about a revealing experience or aspect of their personalities. A Princeton University student from a Western state says Hernandez urged him to explore “what home means to me and how heading east will never change the Western part of me.” Students whose parents hire consultants earlier receive guidance on much more. Some counselors say they steer students to unusual activities. IvySuccess encouraged a girl intent on Massachusetts Institute of Technology to enroll in beauty pageants, an activity that’s not typical of the school’s applicant pool. She was accepted. Counselors also help students think of ways to demonstrate a serious commitment to their interests. Cohen, whose agency advises on admissions from preschool through grad school, suggests submitting history papers to The Concord Review, a journal that publishes high school authors. She has introduced clients interested in internships to contacts in film, art, publishing, and on Wall Street. “To get into a top school, you have to show that you’re different and that you’ve done some amazing things,” Hernandez says, repeating a theory that most counselors espouse. Advisers say they are also seeing demand from students with learning disabilities. “Anna” relied on Cohen in her final three years at a private school in California to help her choose a challenging mix of courses that left time for theater: Anna’s credits include an off-Broadway play. Working partly at Cohen’s offices the summer before senior year, she polished off her applications ahead of deadline. “I don’t work well under pressure,” says Anna, who plans to major in theater and music at Brown University. Are the services worth it? Most advisers claim a high success rate in getting students into first-choice schools, but it’s impossible to verify their data. Anyone can set up shop —such counselors’ ranks have doubled, to about 3,000, in the past five years — because the field is unregulated, and practitioners aren’t required to have experience in college admissions or high school counseling. College admissions officers say such advice makes sense only for students at high schools that lack adequate guidance counseling. Some applicants “end up with a whiff of packaging that undercuts their candidacy,” says Bruce Poch, Pomona College’s dean of admissions. Many officials also worry that students are learning to put success above everything else. They point to Cohen client and Harvard University student Kaavya Viswanathan, who admitted plagiarizing portions of her novel about a high school student’s obsessive pursuit of Harvard. Cohen had introduced Viswanathan to a literary agent. “I have a fear that this [sort of counseling] is undermining people’s sincerity,” says Tom Parker, dean of admissions at Amherst College. Parents claim they get their money’s worth. Sometimes, they say, a third party can motivate kids in ways a parent cannot. For example, Hernandez nixed one of Ben’s son’s summer camp plans. “She said: ‘You’ve got to broaden your horizons,”‘ Ben recalls. The teen enrolled in a physics program at a university instead. “You never know whether you really need a counselor,” he says. “All you know is you gave it your best shot.

Assaying the Essay

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Featured in Duke University Alumni Magazine

By Rachel Toor

Students apply themselves to the art of standing out in the admissions process, writing as if their futures depended on it

College admissions is an art, not a science. As application numbers go up and the applicant pool gets stronger, as grades and rigorous curriculum choices and standardized testing scores all are going through the roof, the “subjective” parts of the application become increasingly important. We look not only for students who are involved in their communities, but also for those who have made an impact. We look not only for well-rounded students, but also for well-lopsided applicants who have demonstrated real prowess, potential, and focus in a particular area.

This year, the admissions staff at Duke read 14,580 “personal statements.” Although we use six criteria to evaluate applicants, it is surprising how similar many of our hopefuls look. They’ve all taken hard classes and done well. Standardized testing is all in pretty much the same ballpark. Teachers all say they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. Even extracurriculars look pretty similar: captain of three varsity sports, president of student government, accomplished musician, and so forth. So, the personal statement becomes a way of making the applicant a person, explaining to us in a few double-spaced pages who these students are and why we would want to invite them to join our community.

As in every profession, admissions has its own jargon, its own conventions. We tend to think in shorthand and in categories. There’s a certain inevitability when you ask seventeen-year-olds to write on “a matter of importance” that you will get many similar topics and essays. We understand this commonality of experience and understand, too, how heartfelt and tentative these attempts are, especially given how much our applicants think is riding on their work. They’re trying to impress us; they think they should tell us what they think we want to hear. They try to sound smart and sophisticated and profound. Sometimes they succeed. Mostly, they are truly and painfully and wonderfully honest.

In terms of subject matter, there are a number of common genres. The catalogue of achievements. The meaningful activity. The community-service essay. The horrible tragedy, the death or illness of a friend, relative, stranger, or dog. The “me” essay, where they find some way to talk about themselves; these are often the best. Even though we lump these together, we try never to forget that for each applicant, the personal statement is personal–and about something intensely important. We resist cynicism even in the face of incredible similarity because we know how powerful these experiences are.

As far as we’re concerned, any topic for the essay is fair game. It’s not so much what they write about, but how they write. The writing doesn’t have to be perfect, though some of these applicants are amazing writers. There are often spelling errors, typos, and, sometimes, the last line of their application essay to Duke does read, “and that’s why I really want to go to Stanford.” One applicant this year said she wanted to go to a private school like Duke, not one of the “big state pubic institutions.” We notice these things, but we’re really in the business of content, of looking for substance over style (though we do, of course, appreciate good style).

Can a good essay get an average student into a school like Duke? No, not really. In fact, many of our admitted students write fairly average essays. It’s just one of the criteria we use in our evaluations. But when we read a good essay, we share it with our colleagues. We tell our friends about it. We get excited about the prospect of having the person, who shared his or her life, insight, or humor with us, come to Duke. College is fundamentally about getting to know other people and oneself. While we all learned a lot in our college courses and from our professors, college students ultimately learn from other students, in the dorms, in the dining halls, during late-night study breaks in the library. What a good essay can do is let us get to know a person whom we think other students would enjoy getting to know.

There’s no such as the perfect college admissions essay, no formula for writing one’s way into college, no winning topic. These are just some of our favorites.

A Devil’s Dictionary of College Admissions

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The Chronicle of Higher Education, Admissions & Student Aid

From the issue dated February 25, 2005
By Rachel Toor

ad. com. n. 1. an all-powerful committee deciding one’s fate in life 2. a body riddled with judgment flaws. Created by high-school students in Internet discussion groups

college fair n. a gala extravaganza of tables covered with a confusing array of lavish college brochures all promising similar experiences

development case n. an applicant to college whose family wealth may be in direct proportion to his academic unpreparedness. Archaic but still in use

hook n. something that turns an otherwise mediocre (or worse) applicant into an admissible candidate. See also: development case, legacy, and student-athlete

legacy n. a birthright of the American aristocracy

likely letter n. 1. an ambiguously written missive 2. a letter saying one is a strong applicant to a college, but shouldn’t assume any kind of commitment 3. something that leads to abject confusion

package n. 1. a messy sheaf of hopes, dreams, and half-truths put together by aspiring applicants 2. a messy sheaf of forms, folders, and information sent out by a financial-aid office

rankings n. a marketing strategy for maximizing magazine sales school visit n. a method of increasing the number of applications to colleges, carried out by admissions officials, usually consisting of one day, five stops at high schools, eight wrong turns. Archaic, based on the Fuller Brush approach

student-athlete n. an employee of the university

tour guide n. a cheerleader who has the ability to walk backward on a college campus

viewbook n. a fanciful work of fiction describing an imaginary institution of higher learning

wait list n. 1. a list of extremely well-qualified applicants who, if they lived in a different part of the country, went to a less competitive high school, had been born to more-savvy parents, had their application read earlier than 3 a.m., or had a last name that started with a different letter of the alphabet, would have been admitted to a college 2. a list of fine but ordinary applicants whom an admissions committee does not want to turn down outright because such an action is likely to send a wrong message to the high school that prepared the applicant (the right message: We want more like this, but better) 3. a list of applicants who are substantially below the quality of those admitted, but who cannot for political reasons be denied

yield n. a mathematical criterion, based on the percentage of 17-year-old applicants who accept an offer of college admission, used for reckoning how good an institution is; as important as faculty productivity, quality of teaching, and general academic standards. See also: rankings

Rachel Toor is the author of Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process (St. Martin’s Press, 2001).

http://chronicle.com Section: Admissions & Student Aid Volume 51, Issue 25, Page B25

Holden Caulfield, C’est Moi

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Featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review

From the issue dated June 2, 2000
By Rachel Toor

I work in the admissions office of a highly selective private university. In the past few months, I’ve read about 1,200 applications from eager and hopeful prospective students. Now that the admissions cycle is coming to a close, I have a little time to think about what I’ve been reading.

Most colleges ask kids to write some sort of personal statement a few pages, double-spaced, explaining themselves. It’s a daunting task (try it, you’ll see). Not surprisingly, at the ripe old age of 17, many kids tend to write basically the same kinds of things: the catalog-of-achievement essay; the meaningful-activity essay (sports=life, music=life, religion=life); the community-service essay (our most well-heeled kids discover that those less fortunate can be—gasp—happy); the horrible-tragedy essay (the death or illness of a friend, relative, stranger, or even dog); and the “me” essay, where they find some way to talk about themselves (those are often the best—one of my favorites began, “My car and I are a lot alike.”).

At Duke, we also ask kids to write two additional short essays. Why do you want to go to Duke? In 99.9 percent of the cases, that question elicits a less-than-interesting response. The earnest will spit back information gleaned from our marketing materials. The gung ho will mention basketball, or more specifically The Shot, when, in 1992, Christian Laettner fired a final-second, game-winning basket in the N.C.A.A. quarterfinals. Ugh. Some applicants will cite a specific faculty member who’s doing interesting research (that’s impressive) or mention meeting an admissions officer like me who wears cool purple shoes (that’s not). I’ve argued, unsuccessfully, to get rid of this essay.

The other question is about a book. We used to ask applicants to write about their favorite book, and we got lots of book-reportish plot summaries. Those tended to be pretty painful to read. So this year, we started positing the question a little differently, asking kids to write about the way a book has “changed your understanding of yourself, the world, or other people.”

We still get lots of book-reportish plot summaries. What’s interesting is not so much how the kids write, but which books they choose to write about. It gives you insight into the workings of the 17-year-old mind. (It also tells you a lot about the reading lists for Advanced Placement English courses.)

The Catcher in the Rye never seems to lose its appeal. Kids just love it when Holden Caulfield wanders around New York City denouncing phonies. One smart kid this year wrote that, when, at age 12, he first read C.I.T.R. (you tend to start abbreviating after about the 385th essay), he really identified with Holden. Part of his maturation, he wrote, was to see that he didn’t want to be like Holden after all. Holden was, he thought, a jerk.

Many kids want to be like Jay Gatsby. An interesting signifier, I think, of our historical moment. The scrappy self-made (very rich) man is a hero. I don’t know how they are teaching A.P. English classes, but a lot of kids seem to be missing the boat, at least in the harbor of East and West Egg. I went back and reread The Great Gatsby again this year, because I started to doubt my own memory of it. Gatsby the hero? I wasn’t misremembering the book; they were misreading it.

Some students go for novels of cultural identity. Many Asian-American kids write about The Joy Luck Club; a number of Jewish applicants write about The Chosen or Night. A large group of Asian Indians write about Siddhartha. Then there are those who choose to write about novels of nonidentity (white kids write gee-whiz essays about Native Son, Invisible Man, and any of a number of Toni Morrison books). A lot write about Huck Finn. This year, a valedictorian from California wrote that when he finally read Twain for himself, he realized that his mother had edited it heavily to eliminate the “racism” when she had read it to him at bedtime. It was a different book, he said.

Into Thin Air is huge. No surprise: It’s a great story and appeals understandably to risk-taking teenagers. A Prayer for Owen Meany has long been a big hit. THE 17-YEAR-OLD CROWD LOVES TINY OWEN MEANY AND HIS CONTEMPORARY MORALITY TALE. Kids seem to learn about Vietnam from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and about the Civil War from Cold Mountain. The fact that they think they are learning about feminism from Memoirs of a Geisha, written by a man, kind of baffles me. Not, I think, a feminist text. Go figure.

All in all, a pretty unsurprising list. However, for the past couple of years, one book has been popping up with a frequency that astonishes me. Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson has been atop the best-seller list for about a bezillion weeks—over two years, in fact. It also seems to have found its way onto the A.P. reading list, and to have inspired thousands of high-school students, both boys and girls.

And that, I think, tells us something about their understandings of friendship, love, and mortality.

“Who is Morrie Schwartz and why, by the end of the night, are so many of you going to care about him?” Ted Koppel intoned on Nightline five years ago. Morrie Schwartz was a professor of sociology at Brandeis, who was dying of A.L.S., Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The touching human-interest show—the first of three—caught the attention of the Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom, who had been a student at Brandeis some 20 years before, and had been particularly devoted to Morrie. When he found out that his old professor was dying, Albom began making a weekly pilgrimage from Detroit to Morrie’s home, in Newton, Mass., for what his book calls “one last class.”

On the whole, Tuesdays With Morrie is pretty innocuous stuff. Morrie becomes something of a philosopher. He chooses to go gentle, if public, into that good night, determined to leave a legacy of words. Sometimes he’s merely a quoter: “A wise man named Levine said it right. He said, ‘Love is the only rational act.’” He repeats “the line he believed in like a prayer,” from Auden: “Love each other or perish.” But he also delights in coming up with aphorisms, which tend to be about death. The one quoted most often by kids is: “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”

Unlike a more famous but never-seen-on-TV aphorist, Morrie is not interested in creating an Ubermensch. Yeah, he does want to change his former student. Mitch is a product of his generation, a late-millennial Everyman. “What happened to me?” he keeps asking. “I traded lot of dreams for a bigger paycheck, and I never realized I was doing it.” Forget about the Ubermensch, says Morrie. He just wants Mitch to be a mensch.

That is, I think, what appeals. Kids today want to grow up to be Good People. They are seeing the work-oriented, success-driven world of their parents, and they’re rejecting it. (Or, at least, they think they should reject it—they still can’t help feeling the pull of that Gatsbyesque life.)

After we had admitted one student, I met with her and commended her for writing a heartbreakingly beautiful essay about her family. She replied that I now know more about her than her parents do: They work all the time, and she never sees them. She doesn’t want to be that way.

Even though many of these 17-year-olds have already started computer-consulting businesses, they reject the materialism—let’s face it, the greed—of Mitch Albom’s and my own generation. They have no patience for the grunge, the slacker mentality, the sloth of Generation X. The 20-something dot-com crowd is too shallow for them. Pierced and tattooed, that group is missing a little spiritual something.

Kids who read Morrie in their A.P. English classes, and write about it on their college applications, are desperately searching for meaning. That may be why, for many of our applicants—and for students on many college campuses—organized religion is gaining popularity as an extracurricular activity. Kids are seeking clarity. With Mitch as his Plato, chronicling his last days, Morrie’s voice comes through loud and clear. This book is just about right for 17-year-old minds and souls: In our agonistic, antagonistic culture, with widespread violence and competition in just about every facet of life, Morrie’s gentleness is appealing.

If kids weren’t finding Morrie so “meaningful,” I would never have read it; I’d certainly never recommend it to a grownup. I find it unbearably hokey, and Mitch not a particularly bright student (I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to admit him to Duke). It bothers me a little that there isn’t a smarter, sharper version of this book. I don’t have a generic problem with it; I like the genre (sort of). It’s covert self-help, palatable personal growth. Kind of an end-of-the-90’s Gift From the Sea or Letters to a Young Poet.

To be sure, most of Morrie’s lessons are unassailable. Love each other or perish? Why not? What I don’t like is that there seems to be so little discussion — either in the hoopla about the book or in the essays of our applicants—of intimate relations across gender, or of sexuality and how to be a good person in a romantic relationship. Both Mitch and Morrie have wives. Both of their wives remain shadow figures in the book. There’s a lot of discussion about loving one’s friends; not a lot about loving your lover. The fact that Morrie is dying makes it reasonable to assume that sexuality is not foremost in his mind. But these guys are talking about the meaning of life here. How come they don’t ever talk about sex?

Maybe that, too, is part of the appeal. This is a safe book. It doesn’t upset any assumptions about what is important. Love, friendship, family, long walks, dancing, good food: There’s nothing risky here. Sure, it’s a little unsettling for Mitch, a sportswriter, to touch another man, to hold Morrie and to kiss him the way Morrie wants to be held and kissed. But it’s like kissing your Dad; again, it’s safe.

It would be less safe if these two men had, in the course of their discussion of the meaning of life, ventured into the realm of intimate sexual relationships. How to be a man—in connection with a woman or with another man. Now that would be interesting. I find myself wondering if such a discussion would make the book more, or less, appealing to all those 16- and 17-year-olds. Somehow, I think it’s the simplicity — in harsher moments, I think the simple-mindedness—of this book that makes it so popular. Love each other or perish. ‘Nuf said.

Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled at the idea of teaching young boys the importance of friendship. (I think the lesson comes easier to girls.) And of teaching them the awesome beauty of a mentoring relationship; certainly everyone in academe knows how good that can be (when it’s good, it’s very very good; when it’s bad, it’s horrid). I just wish that, in the course of teaching kids this stuff, we could find ways to teach them how to speak across gender and to speak about sexuality.

In general, as a culture, we’re not so good at speaking across gender and about sexuality. I suppose I’m waiting for a bestseller that hasn’t yet been written. We may not be ready for such a book. When it finally comes along, I fully expect that there will be lots of college-application essays written about it.

In the meantime, I guess these kids will continue to read about Tuesdays with Morrie. And we’ll continue to read what they think about it.

Rachel Toor works in admissions at Duke University and writes frequently for The Chronicle

http://chronicle.com Section: Opinion & Arts Page: B9

Confessions of a Recovering Admissions Officer

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Featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Admissions & Student Aid – A special supplement
From the issue dated April 30, 2004
By Rachel Toor

It broke my heart. In over three years as an admissions officer, thousands of essays read, only one ever made me cry.

I got my share of tear-jerkers–kids who wrote about the slings and arrows of horrible illnesses. Grandparents, siblings, beloved pets all died and were mourned. Sometimes the essays were raw and unprocessed, with language that stuttered and fumbled; sometimes rich in both emotion and cliché. After a while you got a little numb.

And then I read the one that made me cry.

It told a story, in breezy, unaffected manner, that went something like this: My mom died. I was a little kid, too young to understand, too young to miss her. Don’t feel sorry for me, I turned out just fine. But when I see a woman gently stroking the hair of her daughter, I know in a heartbeat what I am missing: a mother’s touch. It was gorgeously written, moving without being lugubrious, vivid and specific in its details, funny in expected right places.

It was the kind of essay that made you run from your office to find colleagues who would share and appreciate this amazing kid. My colleagues oohed and aahed. All except one.

“Can I borrow this for a minute?” she asked.

“Of course.” I was sure she wanted to make a copy for her files.

Instead, what she did was make a few phone calls, to seasoned admissions officers.

“Just as I suspected,” she marched back to announce. “This essay has been around. It was submitted by other applicants at other schools.”

It broke my heart.

Working in admissions, you know that students are trying as hard as they can to play the system, pulling out every available stop to get an edge. And why shouldn’t they? The competition is stiffer than the Donald’s comb-over. Even if they do everything “right,” there’s no guarantee that they’ll get in. When you’re recruiting, you know that they’re trying hard to impress you both with their accomplishments and their desire. You know that parents are paying consultants upward of $30,000 to help, taking off a year of work to manage the process of their children’s applying to colleges. You know that each kid has something special to offer, but that there are enough great kids to fill your first-year class by at least 200 percent. You know all this.

But to do your job—to do it well and to enjoy it—you have to believe. When you sign up to spend time traveling the country for a college or university—whether you see yourself as a sales rep, a cheerleader, a snake-oil salesman, a cult guru, or a professional marketer—you have to believe. You have to like talking to kids, getting them excited about the institution you represent. You have to believe that they are basically good and truthful.

Even as I watched the episode of the television show Felicity where the curly-locked, angst-ridden eponymous heroine discovered that her love interest, Ben, had invented a brother who died of cancer for his application essay, I pushed it out of my mind. “My” kids wouldn’t do that. I couldn’t bear to read cynically, and so I didn’t. And so my heart got broken.

Sometimes it was impossible not to spot deception. Like when the number of hours that applicants said they spent on various extracurricular activities exceeded the hours in a week. Like when his English teacher said that while he was a nice guy from a good family, the kid needed a lot of help with his reading and writing — and then you read his flawless essay and suspected that it had been written by his dad, or by one of his friends.

But generally, as an admissions officer, you read with an open mind and an open heart. You want—you need—to believe. While it’s easier to say no to an applicant, it’s more fun to say yes.

I try to remember that now that I have gone over to what I used to call the Dark Side. I am involved in helping kids put together their applications. I do that as a consultant, and I do it as a high-school track coach. It’s fun to hang out with teenagers. I hear a lot of frank talk from the kids. Since I have no real authority over them, they open up to me, especially if they want my help. I’ve learned some things.

Cheating. I rarely thought about it when I worked in admissions. Then one of my runners told me about a girl from her high school who had landed a prestigious merit scholarship — one with a large character-and-community-service component. The girl had cheated her way through school, and everyone knew it, students, teachers, administrators. Everyone but the college that awarded her the scholarship. I’ve heard about elaborate admissions scams from kids you’d think were too smart to want or need to cheat.

I used to think of the transcript as a fairly objective document in a subjective system of evaluations. Now I see kids wheedle and whine their grades up, by doing extra credit, by nagging and wearing down their taxed and tired teachers. On the other hand, I’ve also seen how those kids who hear different drummers march alone, unheralded by teachers and unappreciated by their peers, and how that can’t be found on a transcript. I’ve seen parents bully, hector, and harangue teachers (and coaches) in such a way that it is an act of saintly generosity not to hold it against the kid. Or an act of cowardice when the student is rewarded, simply because it is the path of least resistance.

When I was in admissions we looked for leadership and participation. I recently learned of a high school where every senior on the swim team is a captain. (There are schools with 34 valedictorians; why did having 13 swim captains surprise me?) I know more than one kid who is founder and president of a club with exactly one member. Students who show up for track practice once a week are no less quick to list their participation than those who show up every day. Key Club meetings are rarely held and sparsely attended. Or a Key Club will build an entire Habitat for Humanity house. National Honor Society is either a great honor or a joke. Much depends on your high school.

An alarming number of colleges ask, “Why us?” The truth is that most high-school students have no good idea why they are applying to the colleges they are applying to. The question is an invitation to armchair traveling. Students read guidebooks and visit Web sites, not campuses, and then they tell the lies they think the admissions offices want to hear. Some apply because they like the city they think the school is in. (As far as I can tell, geography is not a strong subject for many teenagers.) The answers to the question are as grueling to read as they were to write, and I wonder why colleges continue to ask for what they surely know is disingenuous filling of space.

What I’ve realized, looking at the process from the student’s perspective, is how unimaginative the applications are, how there is a rote form that is understood by everyone: These are the things that count; do them so you can list them. I appreciate MIT’s and Caltech’s applications, where, in addition to more-traditional essay questions, they ask students to fill a blank sheet of paper in whatever way they feel will represent them. Although it’s not surprising that those institutions, Meccas for techies, recognize that geeks may not express themselves best through language, it would be nice if others made the same nod toward creativity.

Lying, cheating, plagiarism, résumé-padding — in addition to drug and alcohol abuse — these are at risk of replacing baseball as our national pastimes. Why should we expect high-school students who read the newspaper to hold themselves to a higher standard than Martha, Barry, Ken, or the U.S. government? Besides, if they told the whole unvarnished truth, would we reward or penalize them?

Spending time with high-school students, I also witness the time-consuming activities that were never listed on the applications I used to read: SAT prep classes can take up to 10 hours a week. Visiting grandma can be a huge time drain, as can mowing the lawn or making dinner for little brother. You’re in high school, so you want to look good. You run, lift weights, and shop. Spending time with friends, family, doing homeworkyou don’t get any credit for putting those down in the white space of your application. Pity the students who are made to believe that there should be no white space, either on their application forms or in their lives.

Recently, one of my runners said he thinks having a girlfriend should be considered an extracurricular activity. The former college-admissions officer in me scoffed and sneered. But my inner coach sang when I heard him talk about how much he’s had to learn just by being in a relationship: how he has grown in understanding not only himself but the challenges of trying to communicate emotion; the excitement and terror of “young love” (as he calls it); the joy and anxieties of trying to integrate into another person’s family. It’s certainly a more meaningful activity than Key Club, he said.

How much better would it be for him to write about that than, say, to kill off, fictively, a mother who’s alive and well? How would I have responded if a student like him had filled his application with the truth about how he spent his time: thinking, wondering, talking, dreaming? That kind of application — well, that could break your heart.

Rachel Toor, a former admissions officer at Duke University, is the author of Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process (St. Martin’s Press, 2001).

http://chronicle.com Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 50, Issue 34, Page B16

Picking the Right College Is a Vital, Unimportant Process

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Featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review
From the issue dated April 27, 2001
By Rachel Toor

April is the sweetest month. At least for the small percentage of applicants who get a thick envelope from their first-choice college. For those (and their parents) who receive an anemic thin letter of rejection, the month brings the stages of grief: disbelief, anger, and finally adjustment. By the time fall rolls around, most kids merrily go off to a college that they are convinced is right for them.

So how much does it matter where you go to college?

Many people, especially those who went to “prestigious” institutions, think that it matters a lot: a trump card to pull out in need. A fancy degree can help in getting that first (or later) job or in getting into graduate school. It can, in fact, help you for the rest of your life: make you a member of an elite club, regardless of whether you join the alumni association. Each month, I see advertisements for “The Right Stuff,” an “Introduction Service” for anyone who is a “graduate or faculty member from our group of excellent schools” (think the Ivies, Stanford, Smith, M.I.T., etc.). “Date someone who knows that The Uncertainty Principle is not about first date etiquette,” it reads.

When I was an admissions officer at Duke University, I had parents tell me that they didn’t want to be embarrassed when acquaintances at a cocktail party asked where their child went to college. I also met parents who argued that, having themselves come of age in a recession, they wanted to make sure their child had every possible economic advantage. Rightly or wrongly, they believed that going to an elite school would provide a financial leg up.

Folks often point out how a Harvard man (feel free to insert another institution) will somehow work into the first five minutes of conversation the fact that he is a Harvard man. It’s funny, but it’s also evolutionarily useful: It does something for him. You may think he’s a jerk, but you will also, on some level, be impressed (unless, of course, you went to Yale). This kind of name-dropping serves a purpose. It’s a shorthand route to status and, like all credentials, tells you nothing specific. You don’t know if the Harvard man was admitted because he was a legacy, a football player, or the son of a rich philanthropist. You also don’t know how well he did in college. It’s like the old joke: What do you call the person who graduates last in her medical-school class? Doctor.

So a brand name matters because people think it matters. But there’s more. Part of what you get when attending a highly selective college or university is the benefit of a rigorous admissions process: a handpicked class that contains more talented and accomplished people than any group you are ever likely to meet again. Your peers often provide a better education than the classroom. It’s in conversations about string theory with fellow students in the dining halls, late-night marathon sessions arguing about the existence of God, lifting weights in the gym and discussing the weirdness of the Electoral College, and speaking tentatively about the vagaries of sex that the value of being in a select group comes out. And sure, college is also about making the friends, the connections, who will follow you through life.

Of course, every institution of higher education has a core of students who are intellectually engaged. It’s just that the selective admissions process appears to guarantee a higher percentage who’d rather talk about Kant than kegs.

However, the price of getting to be a Harvard Woman or a Princeton Tiger is that, even on today’s fairly diverse campuses, you may become less like yourself and more like your classmates. Most colleges still have a dominant culture.

People who are 18 to 22 years old are highly susceptible to acculturation. When you observe students during their four years of college, you notice the changes in dress, hairstyles, even speech. Gone is the blue eye shadow from high school, replaced by black fingernail polish. Boys from cold rural areas trade in down parkas for cool long black overcoats. They don’t just look more like their classmates than they did at the beginning: They may also think more like them. I used to say that our students entered Duke more interesting than they left it.

I was recently having a conversation with academic friends who teach at places with reputations for eggheady kids — in this case, Chicago, Columbia, and Reed. What astonished me was that my friends were saying the same things about their students: By senior year, many of the kids stop talking in class. They are intimidated not so much by their professors, but by other students. They no longer feel as confident as they did when they were at the top of their high school. The most important thing is belonging. Perhaps, on a few campuses, fitting in means appearing more intellectual. But where is that the case, if not at Chicago, Columbia, or Reed? At Duke they may wear Abercrombie, drink beer, and go to basketball games, while at Chicago they may dress in black and smoke endless cigarettes, but the result is not much different. They have been acculturated.

There’s something to the fact that prospective students and their parents think that they can get a sense of the right “fit” by traveling around to college campuses. It’s because, even at a glance, you can get a bead on the dominant culture at most places. Driving past the gym at Duke and seeing students camping out to get basketball tickets tells you something. I was at Caltech recently. The students I met were all unique, highly individual, contentious, quirky people. But they were all like that. They talked about how difficult it was to feel at home, to be comfortable. I was interested to hear reputed dining-hall rules: no “nerd talk” (“nerd talk,” like Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity, was not defined), no reading at the table, and no language other than English. That told me a lot about Caltech.

Similarly, while hanging out not long ago with students at Cornell, I kept hearing the same answer to the question “Why Cornell?” A few had applied early decision, but most said, “I came because I didn’t get into…” They were each happy at Cornell, but they were also united in a kind of culture of defeat. What does that do to the teenage psyche? And to the sensibilities of the place? (Again, the reader can substitute any number of excellent institutions where phenomenally talented students see themselves as “rejects” of “better schools.”)

At the fancy schools, kids react in various ways to the transition from big fish/small pond to small fish/ocean. Some develop an arrogance in direct proportion to their feelings of inadequacy; others are humbled. A small group define themselves in opposition to the dominant culture. I know a number of “intellectuals” at Duke who boast that they have never attended a basketball game. “Shane?” they ask, raising an eyebrow. “It’s a great movie.”

So how much does it matter where you go to college? In terms of classroom education and level of undergraduate teaching, I think there’s probably not a great difference among the many “good” private colleges that can afford to hire good faculty members and offer some small classes. I also know from years in academic publishing that there are equally good big state universities — and non-elite private universities — that have equally good faculty members. The professors there may be less accessible to students, simply by dint of numbers, but they — and their graduate students — may still be excellent teachers. And researchers. And we all know talented academics stuck in the boondocks.

Moreover, plenty of people will tell you that they went to a perfectly stinky school and nonetheless managed to become extremely successful, thank you very much. It’s also the case that some of the most interesting, most intellectually alive people I know are autodidacts, either never graduating from college or never going. They seem to have a different relationship to learning — they read because they want to, not because they have been told to.

Where you go to college, I think, ultimately has to do with issues of social class. More than anything else, the fancy schools offer access to money, prestige, and power. For some students, that is old hat (the admissions process does, after all, privilege those who are already privileged); but for others, it means that their lives may be appreciably different from those of their parents.

I find myself now, in the wake of April acceptance and rejection letters, thinking about what an odd time this is in the life of high-school seniors. Once they send in their tuition deposits, they become members of a community that they neither know nor understand, but to which they still feel a strange connectedness. It’s a time of fantasy and potential. The first thing many kids do after being admitted to “their” college is to broadcast their choice on a T-shirt or car sticker. That name may well become a part of who they are and who they will become.

So how much does it matter where you go to college? I suspect the answer is both “a lot” and “not at all.”

Rachel Toor, a former book editor and admissions officer at Duke University, writes frequently for The Chronicle. Her book, Admissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in the fall.

http://chronicle.com Section: The Chronicle Review Page: B11

Which of These Essay Questions is the Real Thing?

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Featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Admissions & Student Aid
From the issue dated April 27, 2007
By Rachel Toor

Please tell us what you do in your free time.
(No more than 500 words.)

When I was 12 years old, I got the international record for my age group for the marathon. After that I moved up to running longer races, and regularly compete in 100-milers. I run eight miles before school (I get up at 3 a.m.) and on some days do 12 to 15 miles after school. I am a member of the Future Farmers of America and a nationally ranked cheese taster. I go to Dairy Products contests and Agriscience Fairs at the local, regional, state, and national levels. In order to fully appreciate the process of making cheeses, I have purchased a cow, a goat, and a sheep.

I work part time as an auto mechanic. Mostly I rebuild engines and program automobile computer equipment. When I saw the photos on the wall at Pete’s (where I work), I began thinking of earning extra money that I need through modeling. Now I do runway shows for Victoria’s Secret and Frederick’s of Hollywood.

At school this year, I am taking eight AP classes, and because I have maxed out the math and science curriculum, I am auditing classes in topology, geophysics, and nonlinear dynamics at our community college. I have written a play that will be produced at the local rep company, and my self-titled debut CD will be released next fall.

I am president of the National Honor Society, the Speech and Debate Club, the Pro-Life Club, the Gay/Straight Alliance, and the Unwed Mothers on Crack Club. I am treasurer of Key Club, Habitat for Humanity, Teens for a Drug-Free America, and the Legalize Cannabis Club. I participate in French Club, Latin Club, Multicultural Club, the Aryan Youth Nation, Kids on Prozac, the Anime Society, Parent Management Group, and the Knitting Bee.

I am captain of the field-hockey, soccer, and bingo teams. I am a cheerleader for boys’ water polo, and occasionally I join the Polar Bear Club for a dip.

I attend meetings of NYLC, AIME, SADD, FBLA, ASB, JROTC, JSA, YCC, FCA, Al-Anon, and BYOB.

I go to Chinese school and Hebrew school, and participate in our church youth group.

I am certified as a PADI scuba diver and am currently licensed to fly a plane, give manicures, and do Reiki massage therapy.

I have more than 30,000 friends on MySpace.

Please forgive me, but I do not understand the question

What is the most important social problem currently facing society?

The most important social problem currently facing society is homelessness. There are more homeless people today than ever before in history! Many people do not have homes and are living on the street, and this is not a good thing. Something must be done about homelessness!

Every day on my way to soccer practice, I see homeless people. They’ve got grocery carts they steal and use to carry their crud around. They use cardboard boxes like blankets. Sometimes they write crazy stuff on the boxes, like “Out of Work Vet.” I mean, if you’re a vet, there are plenty of sick animals that could use your services. Get a job! Other people do.

When I had to do my court-ordered community service, I got sent to work in the homeless shelter. These people smelled bad! It’s like they didn’t know the first thing about personal hygiene. I was wearing a nice pair of Abercrombie khakis and an Izod shirt and they called me “rich boy”! My Beemer is two years old!

In conclusion, homelessness is a big problem.

If you were a vegetable, which vegetable would you be?

If I were a member of the vegetable kingdom, I would be an artichoke. First, I am unique. I am not like the cookie-cutter cucumbers, all long and cylindrical and boring. I am not one of those oddly formed root vegetables—you know the way sweet potatoes can go all twisted and weird, with fat middles and pointy ends? I am unique, but not weird. I have more substance than the leafy greens, more heft than an herb. No anorexic carrot am I. I am neither miniature, like a brussels sprout, nor overgrown, like a squash. I don’t have the flashiness of eggplant, nor the dirtiness of a potato.

It is true, my edges are sharp. (It’s not easy being green.) On the outside I can be incisive to the point of drawing blood, especially if you rub me the wrong way. I’m not shiny and polished, but rather a bit gruff and gritty. But that tough, sturdy, complex protective covering is there for one reason.

My outer shell is a coat of armor. While some people may find me off-putting and different, when you peel away the many layers and get to know me, you realize that at the core, I am all heart, soft and fuzzy.

I am an artichoke. Not your average vegetable, but one that stands out from the crowded produce shelf.

Please tell us why you want to attend Fancy Pants University.

Fancy Pants University is an excellent school, with excellent teachers and excellent students. Fancy Pants University has a beautiful campus, with nice buildings and big trees and very green grass. The food at Fancy Pants is delicious and nutritious. The sports teams always win and the parties are always fun. Everyone I met while visiting was friendly and welcoming. My tour guide was extremely intelligent and hot. I have wanted to go to Fancy Pants since before I could talk. Everyone I know who went there is really, really smart and got really well educated. I like that the classes are smaller than at State U., and that there is an honor code and a club for left-handed origamists as well as a support group for perfectionists. Plus my parents say I need to be able to get a high-paying job after college, and they think the Fancy Pants name will help. Those are some of the many reasons I really want to attend Different Name University.

Rachel Toor, a former admissions officer at Duke University, is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. Her most recent book is The Pig and I: How I Learned to Love Men Almost as Much as I Love My Pets (Plume, 2006). She alleges that none of these questions is the real thing.

Personal Record: The Singapore Sling

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How the character of a place comes across in its marathon

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the JulyAugust 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine

Think about New York. It’s overwhelming. It’s crowded. It’s noisy. (It used to be dirty, until Rudy Giuliani rode into town.) It’s international, multi-culti, diverse across any spectrum you can think of. Everything is a hassle. There are always long lines.

Think about Boston, with its traditions of Brahmanism and primacy, of elitism and sectarianism. You have to prove you are worthy and show your bona fides. Boston is not a place for the hoi polloi.

Los Angeles, a pedestrian unfriendly city, is forever messing around with its marathon course.

Las Vegas is a place where time has no meaning. This can make it a gamble for certain kinds of events. The year I ran the Las Vegas Marathon there were 26 clocks on the course. Not one of them was at a mile marker.

The editor of Runner’s World France told me that the Parisians have no patience for their city’s marathon. It annoys them. If you are still running when they open the course back up, drivers will follow behind you and honk and curse and make rude gestures.

We all do things in our own image; you can tell something about a person by the way she makes a sandwich, and about a place by the way it puts on a marathon. I was delighted to go to the Singapore Marathon to see what I could see. My friends worried that since I spit and chew gum, I was going to get caned.

Wrong. This is not your father’s Singapore. You can buy sugarless gum behind the counter at pharmacies (it’s seen as a healthy alternative to candy) and spitting is a non-issue. Homosexuality is no longer illegal; there’s a gay bar called “Does Your Mother Know?”

Singapore is the easiest farthest away country I have ever been to. The streets are cleaner than the floors in my house, everything is in English, and the nightlife is hip and cosmopolitan. There are acres of shopping malls offering clothes by the Gap and Armani, providing sustenance from Starbucks and Subway. There are mall rat teenagers.

It’s one of the few remaining city-states, and since the government puts on the Singapore Marathon, logistics are easy. Roads are closed, cops are on duty, and there is plenty of help.

The Sports Council gave 4,000 volunteers specific instructions on how to cheer. The youngsters never seemed tempted to say “Good job”; Singaporeans are not big on praise. Their “Don’t give up!” and “You must finish!” had a hectoring tone, like kids on a playground. Volunteers had been told to “be open-minded, respectful, and possess a positive team attitude.” The rah-rah attitude continued on the 42 kilometer markers, each of which had a sports cliche on the order of “Winners never quit, quitters never win.” Some were in what everyone calls “Singlish.”

On race day the streets of Singapore looked like the Dean Dome during a UNC-Duke game, with nearly everyone wearing a brand new sky blue singlet. When I expressed surprise about this to an expat friend she told me that Singaporeans are accustomed to wearing uniforms. If you give them a shirt, they think they are supposed to wear it. Singaporeans try to do what they think is expected.

The Singapore Marathon started in 2002 with 6,000 runners. It has grown to 50,000, and according to an article after this year’s race in The Straits Times, the national newspaper, is “now one of the biggest marathons in the world.”

This is, of course, not true. There were about 18,000 people in the marathon. The numbers quoted included the half marathon and the 10K. Singapore likes to pump itself up. While there is prize money, the emphasis is on getting folks–even if they’re not runners–out and moving; the average finishing time is six hours.

Singapore, Singapore, is like the big corporate campus of a progressive company. Folks are encouraged to do things that are good for them–to be healthy, active, educated, clean, and to embrace and maintain their diverse cultural identities. They are told to play. (The many leafy public parks are littered with signs that say Let’s Play!) When I asked one of the organizers if they had experienced any race-related deaths, he said, simply, “That is not allowed.”

After centuries of invasion and colonization, Singapore has charted a self-determined and deliberate course. The nation’s financial situation–it’s one of the richest countries in the world–attests to its success. It’s like those American companies where workers begin to think and speak in lingo and don’t even realize it. If you’re cynical, you say they drank the Kool-Aid.

The slogans for the Singapore Marathon say a lot: “Your spirit our inspiration,” “Run your own race” and finally, “Keep Singapore Running”–an intentional double-entendre.

Singapore was nothing like what I had expected. But once I got to know what kind of place it is, the efficiently managed, swag-heavy, orderly and team-spirited marathon was exactly what I would have expected. It’s a long way to travel, but it’s a far more interesting country than I had anticipated.

Personal Record: The Perfect Training Partner

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A runner’s best friend

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the Jul/Aug 2011 issue of Running Times Magazine

Helen is a new runner. She’s eager to get out, starts too fast, and then tries to save face by maintaining that she has to stop–to say hello to a stranger, to notice the view, to pee. Her pace is erratic–mad sprints and slow jogs. She moves in ways that feel good at a particular moment.

This can make her a frustrating running partner, so I know not to invite her along when I’m serious about training. But the zeal of the convert, the thrill of the newbie, is so attractive and contagious that it’s always more fun to have her along than to go alone.

Nearly two decades ago, when I was a new runner–eager to go, starting too fast, getting crabby when I tired–my training companion, Hannah, knew how to keep me in line. She’d learned well from Andrew, the person who had started her as a runner. She’d set an easy pace and I’d follow along. Often, Andrew would go with us; he’d chatter away the miles and make them feel shorter.

Over the years, as I got faster and liked to go longer, Andrew stopped coming with us. When I started going really long, Hannah began to refuse as well. I’d ask if she wanted to go for a run and she’d walk into another room. My running partners were smart about knowing their limits.

I started running because I was a Manhattan intellectual and Hannah was a four-year-old coach potato and we had just moved to North Carolina and Andrew, my boyfriend at the time, encouraged us to get out. Hannah, wise and measured, blossomed quickly into a prudent runner. She knew in hot weather to submerge herself in any stream we came across to cool off, and to drink before she needed to drink.

When we were going long, she knew not to do “dog running”–dashing ahead to smell things, coming back, lagging behind and having to sprint to catch up–and instead kept a steady pace at my heels.

She died at 18, old for a 60-pound mutt. And I lost my best running partner.

In the years since, many of my group runs have included dogs. Last summer I did a 26-miler in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana with seven people, Luna, a beagle, and Tallulah, a Cairn terrier (think Toto). Nadine and I entered the canine division of the Snow Joke Half Marathon, though she was disappointed that we were going so slowly, accustomed, as she was, to humans with a quicker pace. Black and white Lewis, sweet, skittish, with only an ear and a half, used to run with us. Then he aged out.

Helen’s mom was an Australian cattle dog who got knocked up (by whom–a pit bull? A lab? A mutt?), arrested, sent to the pokey, and then was taken into a home for wayward bitches two weeks before she gave birth.

I’d been haunting the shelters for months. As is the case when I’m looking for someone to date, I had a long list of Match.com criteria: smart, calm, thoughtful–not stupid-happy–medium size, short hair, quiet, not ball-obsessed, a runner (no smushed-in snouts).

On my 783rd visit, when I described what I was looking for to a shelter volunteer, she told me she’d just fostered a litter and had the perfect dog for me. Even as a puppy, Helen met all of my picky criteria. (No surprise: it’s easier to find a dog than a man.)

Helen’s eight months now. She sprawls when she sleeps and forces me onto a sliver of the bed, parades around the house with my clean socks and dirty underwear in her mouth, rings a bell on the door when she needs to pee or poop, and rings it when she’s bored and just wants to go outside.

She’s too young to run much; I know I need to give her time to grow and mature. But she gets me out the door, even if it’s just for walks. With freedom to choose, I will choose to lie in bed and work–or read novels–all day. Helen reminds me that we both inhabit physical bodies that need exercise and she reminds me, too, that working in spurts is more productive than long slogs.

We go to a dog park with a half mile dirt track around the perimeter. There I do interval workouts while Helen dashes off to play with her friends. We both end up dog-tired.

As she ages and is able to go longer, I will push myself to keep up with her. I have found, finally, the perfect companion and training partner.