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14 Secrets of College Counselors

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Applying to college can be an overwhelming experience. College counselors guide students and families through the entire process, whether it’s studying for standardized tests, writing application essays, asking teachers for letters of recommendation, or researching financial aid options. Unlike admissions counselors, who typically work for a college, college counselors work for high schools or as independent consultants. We spoke to a few to find out what they really think about helicopter parents, why perfect SAT scores aren’t always perfect, and how they help students deal with rejection letters.


While excellent grades are a boon to any college application, college counselors often enjoy working with students who don’t have straight As even more. “Contrary to what you might assume, it’s not the straight-A student who is most fun; it's truly the 2.5 to 2.9 [GPA] who struggles but itches to succeed,” Mae Greenwald, a college counselor at a private high school in Southern California, says. When this type of student is able to figure out what areas of study make them tick, a college counselor can help them choose a college that’s an ideal match for their passions, and that’s a more satisfying process than helping a student who is already well on their way. “Watching maturity set in and being able to set a mediocre student on a path to educational and career success is more satisfying than winning the lottery,” Greenwald explains.


Perfect SAT scores are less helpful than you might think (unless you have the grades to match), according to Houston-based college essay consultant Katerina Manoff. “For an admissions officer, that’s a red flag that a student got a lot of coaching,” she explains in a Reddit AMA. “If you have the intellectual horsepower to do well on the SAT, what were you doing for the last 3.5 years of high school?” Manoff advises students, especially those with less-than-stellar grades, to focus on extracurricular achievements and passions such as visual art, drama, and sports rather than solely studying for the SAT.


Because the end of high school marks an important rite of passage from childhood to early adulthood, students and parents often feel a rollercoaster of emotions during this time. Like a therapist or life coach, college counselors have to show empathy and navigate complex emotions. Dr. Steven Mercer, founder of Mercer Educational Consulting, tells Mental Floss that a big part of being a college counselor is knowing how to guide students and families through an emotional process: “As a counselor you have to listen more than you talk, you have to be able to quickly pivot when working with a student or family, and sometimes be forced to guess what they are truly needing because students and parents cannot always tell you outright.”


According to independent educational consultant Deborah Shames, who counsels students and families in northern New Jersey, helicopter parents are a very real thing. “I have had many, many helicopter parents who I suspect (or know) are doing the work for their kids, whether it’s the research, filling out the applications, creating the resume, or even writing the essays,” Shames says. “I have called out parents on this, explaining that this is only hurting their kid. Sometimes that’s effective; other times, not so much.”


While helicopter parents can be problematic, Greenwald explains that apathetic parents are actually more difficult to deal with than overinvolved ones. “Students are frequently embarrassed by their overeager parents, but they aren’t really a college counselor's problem,” she says. “Less involved parents are far more bewildering.” When parents are unwilling to participate in the college choice process or are unenthusiastic about their child’s future, students suffer and become less engaged in the process. “It strips the joy from exploring the future and students feel that in every ugly way,” Greenwald says. Parental involvement is also necessary when students fill out college financial aid forms, as they require information such as parents’ income and taxes. Failure to get this information from parents can become a big obstacle to students who might miss out on scholarship or financial aid funds.


Although some college counselors focus on getting their students into brand-name colleges, good college counselors scour the more than 3000 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. to identify the best fit for each student, academically and socially. “There’s just nothing wrong with going to a lesser-named college for an undergraduate degree and planning on a graduate degree later,” Greenwald says. Depending on what areas students want to study, college counselors may recommend applying to lesser-known schools that would be a better match for the student’s intellect, interests, and long-term goals. “College is a time to learn, collaborate and grow up, not run to keep up,” Greenwald explains. “It’s more than a fancy college that lands the job—leadership experience, executive skills, organization and time management skills, a sense of humor, and that develops in college.”


Besides working with a student and his or her parents, some college counselors also work with an entourage of assistants, coaches, stepparents, and tutors. Although Mercer says he enjoys all the families he works with, he admits that some families act in ways that make his job more challenging. Mercer once worked with a family that had two personal assistants, two academic tutors, an SAT coach, and a therapist. “In addition to [them], both parents, the student and myself [were] involved in every phone call, online meeting, e-mail thread, or in-person meeting. As a result, I never knew who was going to show up at which meeting,” he says. “I never absolutely knew who was writing the essays or filling out the applications. Making decisions about which colleges to apply to or where the student would attend in the fall took a long time!”


Whether they send their children to a public or private school, parents with more disposable income are more able to hire an independent college counselor who is unaffiliated with their child’s high school. Counselors at public schools may oversee hundreds of students, making it nearly impossible to give each student enough time and attention. “In reality, I oversee 700-plus students. Some will make it to college, some won’t. I don’t have time to even talk to them all … Of course I think parents should hire a private consultant if they can afford it,” says one counselor at a public school in Atlanta.


No matter how accomplished their students are, college counselors acknowledge that getting admitted or rejected can sometimes come down to luck. “When you are dealing with schools that accept fewer than 25% of their applicants, it’s a crapshoot; you have to hope you have whatever they are looking for on a given day. I always tell families there’s a whole lot of random at the tippy top,” Shames says. Because elite schools have a limited number of spots, there are more perfectly qualified students who apply than get in. As Shames explains, amazing grades, high test scores, and impressive extracurricular accomplishments aren’t enough to guarantee admission. “These accomplishments simply put you in the ballpark; they don’t guarantee a home run.”


College counselors see plenty of families with dysfunctional dynamics up-close. Whether parents are too involved or not involved enough in their children’s college application process, some parents don’t command respect from their children. “Parents often confuse rights and privileges. When I suggest phones go away when a struggling student studies, some parents look at me in disbelief. Respecting parents and their decisions should be non-negotiable,” Greenwald explains. “The scariest scenarios then and now are children in charge, the ones who hold their parents ransom with emotional and physical threats and parents so accustomed to handing over expensive toys, they forget their children can live without them if a child's behavior isn't up to par.”


As college admissions expert Lacy Crawford tells The Atlantic, some students and parents can take out their disappointment and anger on their college counselor. “I once had a father scream at me,” she reveals. “He had sent his daughter to private schools, he had done everything he thought he needed to do, and she didn’t get into Georgetown early.”

Similarly, Mercer explains that the most frustrating part of his job is dealing with students and parents who think that he’s responsible for the outcome. “Often this happens when a student and parent are overly focused on getting admitted into an uber-selective college,” he says. “I empathize with them, getting denied is disappointing. But what I find frustrating is when students and parents turn around and blame me for the outcome.”

Parents' and students’ unrealistic expectations may be par for the course, but it doesn’t make it any easier for college counselors. “I hate having to be the ‘dream crusher,’” Shames says.


Although many students approach the transition from childhood to young adulthood with maturity, others expect their parents and college counselors to do the heavy lifting for them. “Some students act as though the difficulty of this rite of passage should be taken away from them. They expect me to do things that they should be doing,” Mercer says. “So many students don't realize that this is a journey, sometimes harder and sometimes easier, exciting or even thrilling. But, I cannot take away the hard parts, I can only lead them through the difficult stages.”

Shames echoes that view, explaining that she can teach students and give them support, but they need to own their journey. “I see myself as the GPS and the kids as the drivers,” she explains.


Because they spend so much time with teenagers, college counselors are often hip to the latest memes, music, and movies. “I feel honored and privileged to hang out with 17 to 18 year olds and learn from them—music, trends, and how to respond to a quickly changing world,” Greenwald says. Unlike teachers, who usually only see their students in a classroom setting, college counselors often get a bigger picture view of who a student is by talking with their parents, learning their likes and dislikes, and hearing their hopes and dreams for the future. Many students also feel more comfortable around their college counselor than their teachers because their counselor isn’t grading them.


Where a student goes to college can impact what jobs they get, who their lifelong friends are, and who they marry. College counselors enjoy setting students on a path for future success, but they also relish in expanding young minds. “My favorite part of being a private college counselor is talking to a high school student about one or two distinctive colleges that I think are great places for the student to consider, often colleges that are unique or less well-known,” Mercer explains. “I love the moment when the student’s eyes light up, and they say, ‘I didn't realize there was a college like that!’”

All photos via iStock.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”