The class experience hierarchy

Students, in every class you take, you are part of the experience. And you get to decide what part you’ll play.

The disruptive student detracts from the course experience.

The pleasant student who prefers to achieve quietly, almost anonymously, exists within—neither improving nor detracting from—the course experience.

The driven student who works hard and earnestly chimes in when called on is contributing to the course experience.

The engaged student, who not only works hard but is also legitimately curious about the material, who’s willing to ask questions and to contribute to class discussions, who will do the work for the A but is more concerned about learning than she is about her GPA—that’s the indispensable student. She makes that class better for her peers and for her teacher. If she disappeared, people would notice. The class wouldn’t be the same without her.

Which student will likely fare best when asking the teacher for a college letter of recommendation?

The most important factor in collegiate outcomes

The Washington Post reports that the Gallup Organization is launching an initiative to certify colleges based on the well-being of their graduates, defining well-being as “being happy, comfortable, and satisfied” in five areas: “social, financial, sense of purpose, connectedness to their community, and physical health.” Gallup’s research indicates that “just 11 percent of college graduates are thriving in all five dimensions. More than one in six aren’t thriving in any.”

But the part of the article I most want to share here is the acknowledgement that students must bear some responsibility for their collegiate outcomes—or the lack thereof.

Part of the problem is that too many students are sleepwalking through college. They don’t engage enough in what researchers call “high-impact practices” — internships, undergraduate research, study abroad, writing-intensive classes, and interactions with professors. Many of these activities come outside the classroom, and as a result, are often not graded or measured as part of the formal degree program for which students are paying tuition.

One of my mantras here is that what you do in college will be more important than where you do it. Yes, I use this phrase in part to remind students (and their parents) that they don’t need a famous college to become successful.

But the far more important message within the mantra is that you are in charge of your college experience. It’s what you do in college that matters. Dedicated professors, research, internships, activities, opportunities for learning and growth—none of it will mean anything unless you take advantage of them while you are there. And that’s true whether you attend Harvard of Haverford, Princeton or Purdue, Stanford or Stonehill.

Yes, the specific offerings and their relative quality may differ from school to school. But you are a constant. You control your own effort, initiative, interest in learning, and drive. The key to a fulfilling and successful college career—and an equally thriving life afterwards—is to bring those traits with you to the right school for you, then work in tandem with your new college to make the most of the experience.

By all means, be a savvy and discerning college shopper—this is a big investment in more ways than one. But don’t forget that you will be your own most important factor in determining your collegiate outcome.

Past actions vs. current words

My cynical side always does some eye-rolling when a public figure profusely apologizes after being caught in a crime, cover-up, or other scandal. Of course you’re sorry now. You got caught. You’re being forced to answer for what you did. And the only way to have any chance of emerging and continuing your career is to fall on the sword in public. It’s apology by necessity.

Students, it’s important that you don’t come off that way when you apply to college.

Many college applications ask students if they’ve ever been subject to any disciplinary action at school. If your answer to that question is yes, the only thing worse than making excuses and expressing no remorse at all is to use your college application as your first recognizable expression of apology.

For example, let’s say a student makes the questionable decision to participate in a senior prank that involved creating a mess on his school campus, one that had to be cleaned up as a result. That student then gets caught.  He makes excuses and claims he was just a passive participant rather than the initiator. The parents wage war with the school to suppress the infraction, citing potential damage to his college admissibility. But in spite of the family’s efforts, the student gets suspended for two days. And it becomes clear that he’ll need to explain his actions on his college application.

How much weight will an expression of remorse really carry then? Can an admissions reader actually believe this student regretted his actions before he was forced to stand up and own them?

Past actions speak louder than current words. An apology expressed today, especially one that’s not expressed to the person(s) affected, isn’t about making amends for the past. It’s about preserving your own future. That’s a difficult thing for someone to ignore.

Instead, imagine if the student had not only accepted his punishment, but also immediately visited—without parents in tow—the school janitor who had to clean it up, stood in front of him, and apologized face-to-face for the mess he’d taken part in creating. That’s a real apology in real time.

Now that admissions officer is reading about a completely different kid.

Teenagers make mistakes. Yes, some infractions are far worse than others. But parents, as frustrated or even heartbroken as you might be if your student ends up in a similar scenario, and as much as I understand your instinct to protect your college applicant’s good standing, please don’t undermine the work you’ve done to raise a good human being. Ensure that your son or daughter not only stands up and accepts responsibility for their role, but also expresses remorse to the people who were negatively affected.

Apologies carry less oomph in the future than they do at the time of the crime.

All work and no play?

Some high school students are so driven to gain admission to a highly selective college that they overschedule every minute of their days with classes, activities, tutoring, and volunteer work.  These students have a tremendous work ethic, but they’re not having any fun. I don’t mean fun as in, “I like math—that’s why I take college-level calculus.” I mean fun as in “I play video games” or “I throw the Frisbee with my dog,” or “I read teen lit you would never find in my English class.”

But play is important for your health and happiness, and yes, even for your college admissions chances.

Like your body, your mind can’t run at top-speed constantly. We’re not built to be “on” all the time. Everyone—especially teenagers—needs time off when we’re not being judged or evaluated or measured. We need to do things that fill up our emotional and spiritual tanks. Carving out that free time to rejuvenate, to do things that are purely for your own fun and enjoyment, helps you better sustain the demands of work. You won’t just be having fun—you’ll be setting yourself up to perform better when it counts.

But more importantly, while colleges certainly do appreciate students who’ve demonstrated that they know how to work hard, they also want students who are happy, well-adjusted, and interesting beyond their résumés. Many applications include short-answer prompts that ask what the applicant does for fun. College interviewers often ask the same question. When an applicant struggles to answer, or just recites their activities (which you’ve already listed on the application), you sound more like a robot and less like a real person who’d be an enjoyable addition to the dorm.

I once worked with a student who wrote one of his short essays about how much he enjoyed regular weekend surf trips with his friends. It included details about their favorite roadside hamburger stand, whose burgers “looked absolutely disgusting, but are in fact indescribably delicious, especially when you’ve been surfing all day.”

He was admitted to Stanford.

Realistically, the most successful applicants probably spend more time working than they do purely playing. That’s OK—it reflects the life you’ll likely lead when you graduate from college and join the working world. Most of us working stiffs don’t get to spend all day playing the harmonica or skateboarding, either.

But if someone asked you today, “What do you do for fun?” and you’d struggle to give a real answer, your work-play balance is off. Carve out some time for yourself, unscheduled time when you can do what you please without regard for its value to college. You’ll accomplish more and be happier when you’re not all-work-and-no-play.

P.S. For more on this, see Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant’s article, How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off. You might be surprised to learn how many Nobel Prize winners perform as actors, dance, write poetry, do arts and crafts, or even perform as magicians.

Next for Collegewise: training America’s college counselors

At our recent company meet-up, I announced our most ambitious, exciting initiative in 17 years, one that I’ll be leading at Collegewise in 2016.

We want to help train America’s college counselors.

The background
After 17 years at Collegewise, we’re lucky to count dozens (and dozens) of high school counselors as our close friends and respected colleagues. We revere them for their extraordinary work in a job far more difficult than ours. They’re not just expected to counsel the student who’s failing geometry or who wants to switch English teachers. They’re also on the front lines supporting students who are struggling with emotional or psychological problems, abuse, family upheaval, conflict with students or faculty—the list goes on (and on). Just about every counselor we’ve met is an unrelenting advocate and voice for their student populations. They do more, and they do it better, than most people will ever know.

But where’s the college admissions training?
As high school counselor extraordinaire, Patrick O’Connor, explained in his article, Why You Should Celebrate National School Counseling Week (this is not an implied Collegewise training endorsement by Patrick):

When someone’s life slips or they don’t know where to turn, school counselors give them the space for grace and dignity to rebuild and strengthen their lives, all without fanfare. Sometimes, if you don’t know we’re doing our job, we’re doing our job pretty well. Of course, we aren’t perfect. Most of us work with 450 students at once, and some have twice that number. Since many principals think we should change schedules instead of lives, we don’t have as much time to help students as we’d like, and most of us were never — never — trained how to help students apply to college.

Learning on their own
Somehow, with all of those other responsibilities, high school counselors are also expected to guide students through the college admissions process. Yet most were never trained to do that part of the job. They had to learn it on their own, from colleagues, by studying and reading, and by attending conferences. It takes too much time and attention that they don’t have. Not every counselor needs training from Collegewise (plenty of veteran counselors like Patrick now do that part of the job as well or better than we do). But many more are still struggling to learn the complexities of college admissions on their own. We want to train those counselors.

Why Collegewise?
Admissions and counseling training is at the core of our business. Every counselor who joins us completes an intensive 5-day training program. And that training never stops while they’re at Collegewise. From weekly Google Hangouts with each other to discuss their caseloads and timely webinars from our veterans on topics ranging from highly selective admissions to managing challenging families, to annual sessions at our company retreat, we’ve proven to be not just great learners, but also great teachers.

What do we plan to offer?
We don’t know yet what our specific offerings will be, but we’re considering many options. Some will be live in-person, some will be webinars, and some will be downloadable materials or videos. A few examples:

  • Crash college admissions trainings for new counselors
  • Advanced trainings for veteran counselors
  • 1-hour trainings on specific topics like advising for standardized testing, advising athletes, and helping students find the right schools.
  • Lists of our favorite counselor resources
  • Highly selective college admissions featuring our counselors who worked at those schools
  • Counselor outreach training on how to help colleges get to know your high school
  • How to run a college admissions case study night (with all the necessary materials)
  • Ongoing subscription programs for counselors to learn from and ask us questions
  • Letter of recommendation training for counselors and faculty
  • How to run a successful college night at your school
  • College essay curriculums for English teachers
  • Our guide to professional development for counselors
  • Materials such as step-by-step guides and checklists for important parts of the process

No single person at Collegewise is an expert in all of these areas. But we’ve got nearly 40 people at Collegewise with deep knowledge in a variety of different subjects. Our training talent pool is big. Whatever the topic, we plan to put the best trainer in front of the audience.

How much will these trainings cost?
Some will run several hundred dollars. Others will be less than $50. And some will be free. If you’re a counselor in a public school, especially one with a caseload of low-income students, you can expect generous discounts and in many cases, full scholarships. One of the reasons we’re doing this is to help make sure under-resourced students have well-resourced counselors.

Scratching our own training itch
We’re not leaving our college counseling business behind—we’re simply taking a byproduct of what we already do, refining it, and finding a new audience who can benefit. Much of what we create this year, we’ll also use internally. We’re scratching our own training itch, too.

Good for our business
Expanding our training programming to high school counselors is good for our business, too. One of the biggest challenges at Collegewise is that our customer base is constantly retiring. Once a Collegewise senior heads off to the perfect college, there’s nothing more for that family to buy from us unless they have a younger student. It’s much more expensive for a business to find a new customer than it is to sell to a current one. If we can help high school counselors better serve their kids, if we can give them affordable, expert training in areas they would otherwise have to try to learn themselves, and most importantly, if we can do it so well that they ask, “What else can you teach me?”, we’ll have a new customer base who needs and appreciates us, most of whom won’t be going anywhere next year.

What about independent counselors?
Some of our new offerings will be appropriate for—and open to—independent counselors. But we want to stay focused on where we believe we can do our best work for people who need it the most. So the bulk of our training time, attention, and offerings will be for high school counselors. If we can make a difference for them, we can make a difference for their students. And if we can do that as well as I think we can, we can help change the college admissions process.

We can’t wait to start
Nobody helps high school kids more than their counselors, and nobody spends more time training on admissions topics than Collegewise. I am personally excited to do my part to help bring those two groups together. It’s good for us, good for students, and we will work very hard to prove to counselors that we can be good enough for them, too. We’re excited about 2016 and can’t wait to get started.

If you’re a counselor who would like to be kept informed of our training plans for this year, just fill out a quick survey here. There may also be special discounts and early-enrollment options for those on that list. And if your colleagues, administration, or district might also be interested in receiving admissions training, please help us spread the word.

Got financial aid? How to compare your awards

As college decisions begin to arrive for the class of 2016, those who receive financial aid will also get their “award letter.” Colleges know not to bury the lead, so you’ll often see a bold line of text summarizing the total award package. Some colleges do a much better job of explaining this than others do, but that number doesn’t necessarily mean you can just subtract it from the sticker price of the college.

There are three types of financial aid, and they are not created equal—(1) grants and scholarships (which are free money that doesn’t have to be paid back), (2) loans, and (3) work-study program. That’s why the awards are typically called “packages.” The rest of the letter should explain the breakdown for the recipient.

If you’d like some help deciphering your award package so you can accurately compare it to what are hopefully offers from the many other colleges that have accepted you, Mark Kantrowitz, as usual, comes through with all the necessary information and advice here.


At the “Advanced Highly-Selective College Admissions Training” held during our recent Collegewise company meet-up, Arun shared the following example of two students who decide to do volunteer work:

One student plans to spend the summer volunteering halfway around the world because his parents paid $7,000 to send him via a pay-to-play program.

Another starts cold-calling local non-profits and asking, “Do you guys ever let high school students volunteer with you?” and doesn’t stop until one says yes.

One is already doing a much better job of self-directing than the other.

Texting vs. writing

Students, when you’re emailing teachers, counselors, college interviewers, or anyone that you’re hoping will take you and your message seriously, never compose anything that reads like a text message. In fact, even your text messages to those people probably shouldn’t read like text messages.

Texting is fine for just getting a point across to someone you know. But when you need to communicate, stick with real writing.

And here’s a past post on how to write a great email message.

Should parents or kids pay for college?

I’ve seen a few stories in the press debating whether parents should pay for their kids’ college educations, or whether the time has come to shift that responsibility to the student.  But whenever possible, I recommend that students and parents pay for college together as a partnership. The student will be successful during and after college, the parents will remain financially secure without sacrificing their retirement, and both parties can emerge from this process with a minimum of debt. Here’s why:

1. Colleges expect both parents and students to contribute.
College financial aid officers expect both the student and the parent to contribute to college costs to the maximum extent they are able; their formulas measure each party’s ability—not their willingness—to pay. When a parent or student refuses to contribute, the paying party has to bear the other’s share of the cost. Financial aid will not make up the difference.

2. Part-time jobs are good for college students.
Studies show that students who work up to 12 hours a week do just as well or even better academically than those who don’t. And in today’s economy, whether a student studies business or botany, they’ll need to have a resume that shows real experience if they want to get a job after graduation. In fact, a poll of 2010 graduates showed that 29% of them regretted not having done more internships or worked part-time in college.

3. Parents need to protect their own financial wellbeing.
Parents shouldn’t invest so heavily in their kids’ education that they put their own future at risk. A parent who sacrifices security or retirement to pay for their kids’ college is taking a big risk (and making it more likely that their kids will need to support them one day).

The best partnership approach begins long before the student actually starts college. We recommend that our Collegewise families have honest, open conversations about college costs when they begin the college search. Then we help them find and apply to schools where the student has a good chance of acceptance, as that can lead to merit-based scholarships. And every family of a college-bound student should apply for need-based financial-aid, beginning with the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). There are billions of dollars in aid available and the worst college financing mistake a family can make is to assume that they won’t qualify.

Don’t plan to be the exception

With so much discussion and misinformation about what colleges are supposedly looking for, one resounding truth always comes through:

The strength of your course schedule and your grades in those classes are always the most important factors for admission.

Yes, depending on the schools, lots of other factors, from activities to essays to interviews can come into play. And I’m sure we can all find examples of students who bucked this truth and were admitted without the classes and grades of their fellow admits. But they’re the exception, not the rule.

But you’re attending college to be a student, first; your academic rigor and performance are the best predictors.

I’m not suggesting that you must take AP Everything and have a perfect GPA—the vast majority of colleges in this country don’t require that level of achievement.

But if you ever wonder if you’re doing the right things to prepare for college, ask yourself if you’re taking the most challenging classes you can reasonably handle, and if you’re making the effort every day to do your best work. Plan to be the rule, not the exception.