Presumed good

One of the reasons the college admissions process can seem so complex and mysterious is that families don’t have a good sense of who the people reading students’ applications really are. It’s hard to guess what people you’ve never met will—and of greater concern, will not—appreciate. And that’s one of the reasons that families are often far too concerned about things that will make absolutely no difference in a student’s candidacy.

This week, one of our Collegewise students had such a concern. He’d done something smart, mature, and responsible while attending a program offered by his dream school (a highly selective college). But he was worried that the action he took might make him “look bad.”

We reassured the student that, if anything, his actions would actually be appreciated, not judged negatively. In fact, one of our Collegewise counselors was an admissions officer at the school in question, and he offered this final piece of insight in an email to our student:

“Look dude, that program is run by (names of the two in charge). I’m friends with these people. I went to lunch with them every single day for a year. Their favorite two subjects of conversation are Virginia Wolf and Justin Timberlake. They watch The Real Housewives and debate which of the husbands on the show is hottest. The last thing that I can possibly imagine them doing is putting anything negative in your file for doing something smart and responsible. So sleep tight.”

Families often have a vision of admissions officers as stuffy, uptight folks who gleefully spend their days watching and judging, always on the hunt for a way to knock a kid down a rung.

But it might help to remember that admissions officers are real people, and most of them are in their mid 20’s. Yes, at a highly selective college, one reality of their job is that they have to deny far, far more people than they accept. But for most, that’s the worst part of their days. They’re far more interested in finding good reasons to admit than they are in finding trivial reasons to deny.

Yes, if you graffiti your school, get caught cheating, or do anything that would put the safety of yourself or others at risk, there’s a good chance that will affect your admissions candidacy.

But for just about everything else, most admissions officers remember what it was like to be teenagers. They don’t expect you to behave as if you aren’t one now. And they’ll presume that you’re a good kid unless you give them a legitimate reason to believe otherwise.

For private counselors: are your practices best?

For many private (independent) counselors, one of the challenges of the job is that, depending on where and with whom you work, you can be both literally and figuratively on your own. You may not have coworkers. You may not have accessible mentors to emulate. You may not have a manager who can give you feedback and help you progress in your work. So no matter how good your intentions, it’s natural to wonder occasionally whether or not you’re doing things the correct, ethical, and professionally-approved way.

The best private counselors take many different steps to address those gaps. But a good place to start is to get familiar with—and follow—NACAC’s Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP), as Patrick O’Connor advises here.

There is no universally accepted operations manual detailing how to respond to every situation you’ll face with students, parents, high schools, and colleges. This is a complex job, especially when it comes to ethical considerations and managing the relations between all of those aforementioned parties. But following the SPGP will help you avoid doing anything that would tarnish your professional reputation. It will show you the standards by which the best counselors measure themselves. And most importantly, it will help you make sure that you always put the interest of the most important constituency—the students—first.

For junior parents: offer a boost

If I had to pick one high school group that most frequently shows the signs of stress, sleep deprivation, and college-preparation burnout, it’s the juniors as they approach the end of 11th grade (followed closely by seniors in the middle of application season).

Juniors have heard from everyone that 11th grade is the most important year for college admissions. So they’re taking rigorous classes. They’ve got SAT/ACT prep. They’re facing AP tests, and for many, SAT Subject Tests. Most juniors are still going strong with activities, and all of this happens before they take final exams and finally close out the year. It’s a lot to demand of a 17-year-old.

For the parents of these juniors, I have just one message—please don’t underestimate the power of a pat on the back.

Parents often get sucked into the college admissions craze in the laudable vein of supporting their kids’ dreams. So you offer up the tutors at the first sign of academic distress. You ask how the community service project is going and whether or not it’s likely they’ll be named captain of their ice hockey team. You inquire about grades and take them to college fairs and recommend they attend summer programs because someone told you it will help them get into their dream college. It almost always comes from a good place.

But teenagers are still kids. And kids need to be reminded occasionally that their parents appreciate them for who they are, not just for their college admissions qualifications. And if all your conversations involve measuring, advising, and managing, it’s easy for your kids to get the impression that they’re constantly on the verge of letting you down.

So before you ask them if the chemistry grade is improving or how they scored on their last ACT practice test, let them know that you’re proud of how hard they’ve been working. Tell them you appreciate how nice they are to their siblings and how trustworthy they’ve proven themselves to be. You might think your love and pride are obvious. But assume that’s not the case and give them a pat on the back anyway. A little overcompensating in this area isn’t the worst thing. Your acknowledgement and encouragement are just what many juniors are in desperate need of this time of year.

The next time you’re tempted to push, offer them a boost instead.

Find the good days

When I would brainstorm college essays with Collegewise students and they would discuss something that they were involved in—from an after-school club, to a part-time job, to a hobby—I’d ask, “What’s a really good day look like when you’re doing that?”

  • What’s a really good day when you’re working those problem sets with the math club?
  • What’s a really good day at your part-time job?
  • What’s a really good day when you’re restoring that jeep with your dad?

I liked that question because it got a positive reaction just about every time I asked. The student would smile, get more animated, and start enthusiastically describing the little details that make those stories come alive.

We’d spend all this time trying to figure out a proof, and then there’s that moment when you realize you’re pretty close. You get all excited again and you just have to keep going at that point.  When we realize that we’re gonna get there, that’s actually the best part.

One day last month it felt like I was just in the zone at work. Every customer I talked with ended up buying something. And at the end of my shift, my boss pulled me aside and said that I’d outsold everyone in the store that day. I’d never done that before. I don’t think I’d ever even been close. I actually had a lot to say that night when my parents asked me how my day was.

There are some days out there in the garage when my dad kind of stops being, I don’t know, like a dad. He tells me stories about his college days. He curses really dirty words when he can’t find the oil leak. One time he even let me share a beer with him out there as long as I didn’t tell my mom. My dad doesn’t usually loosen up like that. Those are pretty cool days.

Asking “What’s a really good day?” helps the student describe what can be really rewarding for them about the experience, something beyond the clichéd responses about learning valuable lessons.

But here’s a way you can use that question for yourself. “What’s a really good day?” helps you zero in on the high points of an activity.

Students, parents, counselors—we’ve all got certain required responsibilities that we’d just as soon not take on. And even within those things we choose to do, we’re all susceptible to occasional bouts of burnout.

When you feel that motivation flagging a bit, think back to a really good day in the same role. What made that day so enjoyable and memorable? And even more importantly, how can you repeat it and spend more time doing whatever it was that made you happy?

Depending on what you’re facing, the best way to put an end to a stretch of bad days might just be to look back and find a few of the good ones.

Return expectations

Parents, if you’re considering spending the money to send your student to an expensive summer program at a prestigious college, and doing so because you hope it will improve his or her chances of admission, please read this Washington Post piece first.

I’m not against a student with the means to attend a summer program at Stanford, Harvard, or any other prestigious college actually doing so. But just as you would with any other investment, please make sure you have realistic expectations of what you can—and cannot—expect in return.

It’s what good kids do

I make this reminder annually because I believe it’s important enough to repeat—seniors, as you make your final college decisions, please take the time to properly thank the people who helped you get there.

  • Your high school counselor.
  • Anyone who wrote your letters of recommendation.
  • The college rep who interviewed you.
  • Your parents.
  • Your English teacher for reviewing your essays.
  • Anyone else who reviewed your essays as a favor to you (though I’m hoping you didn’t shop them around to too many people).
  • Your older friend or sibling who shared some college wisdom.
  • The teacher who took time after school to help you improve your grade.
  • And anyone who helped, advised, encouraged, supported, or otherwise took an interest in your college journey.

I know you’re busy. And you deserve to leave all the college prep worries behind. But good things happen to good kids. And thanking people who deserve it is something that good kids do.

Worried about choosing the wrong college?

Tufts University’s admissions blog consistently serves up well-written advice from their knowledgeable admissions officers. And this post by Assistant Director of Admissions, Meredith Reynolds, might help those seniors who are torn between two college options and worried about making the wrong decision.

For private counselors: have you debriefed your senior season?

If you run a private counseling business, you’re likely prepared to celebrate the May 1 end of senior season. Once you know where each of your students is headed this fall, consider doing your own senior season debrief.

Since the early years of Collegewise, we’ve taken some time after senior season to look back and evaluate how things went for our students and for us. It’s tempting to turn your thoughts to things that have nothing to do with college essays and early decision deadlines, but the best time to evaluate senior season is as soon as possible after it’s complete. The work, the challenges, the results—it’s all fresh in your mind. That won’t be true when the next season starts. And by that time, you’ll likely be too busy to reflect.

Here are a few questions to consider to get you started:

1. What were your seniors’ results, and what numerical qualifications did they present (GPA and test scores)? We track all of this on a spreadsheet at Collegewise. And next year when one of our Collegewise students wants to know how she stacks up against applicants at Stanford or Colorado College or UNC or DePaul, we’ll first look at the data from last year. Yes, for many colleges, predicting admissions results involves a lot more than just grades and test scores. But numbers have their place. In fact, the exercise of recording those numbers and results can actually help reveal some of the answers to the questions below.

2. What were your surprises this year? This might be an individual student’s admissions results or a particular school whose admissions or denials were not as predictable last year. Will you change your work next year in response?

3. What types of families did you most enjoy working with? What type did you least enjoy? Could you somehow attract more of the former, and better manage—or even turn away—more of the latter?

5. And most importantly, looking back at this season, what would you have done differently in retrospect? What would have made you a better counselor, or taken stress away from your job, or created a better experience for your customers?

Write it all down, almost like a reminder or a to-do list for yourself. Then file it away and get on with your post-senior season enjoyment. When you start to gear up to help the Class of 2017 apply to college, the lessons learned from the Class of ’16 will be right there waiting for you.

“The feel good movie of the year”

In many high school student and parent circles, the college application process is like a movie made up of equal parts thriller and suspense, but with varying climactic endings ranging from tragedy to triumph. From the senior families who’ve been participating to the underclassmen who’ve been spectating, all this drama just reinforces the message that this is a high-stakes process, one that merits the high anxiety it produces.

But watch how quickly life is about to return to normalcy.

May 1 is approaching, the date by which all seniors must commit to one of the colleges that accepted them. And while there will be exceptions for students placed on waitlists (note to those families, do not forget that you still need to accept an offer of admission by May 1), all of that drama will soon subside. The dinner (and dinner party) conversations about admissions, the hypothesizing of why who got in where, the celebrating and the wound licking–nearly all of it will subside. There’s nothing left to predict, reveal, assess, or explain. Everyone knows the ending. And for most students who have at least one college to choose from, it’s ultimately a happy one.

The truth is that the college admissions process is more romantic comedy than it is high-drama. You may not necessarily know at the beginning where the protagonist will find love, but you can be pretty sure that by the end, he or she will find it with someone and live happily ever after. It may not feel that way now. But trust me, if you’re open to it, this will eventually be your feel good movie of the year.

For families who will soon be starting this movie, remember how it’s likely to end. Remove unnecessary drama and inject some normalcy throughout if you really want to enjoy this flick.

Participation points

Yesterday’s entry on the University of Virginia’s admissions blog, When the Trophy Generation Applies to College, relates a recent conversation with a waitlisted applicant’s mother who is having trouble eating and sleeping because her son still hasn’t received any good news. Turns out that he has, in fact, received good admissions news—just not any from “elite schools.”

Setting aside that she’s not only calling the school for her son (not recommended), but also seemingly forgetting that this is all happening to him, not to her, the conversation encapsulates how so many families are approaching this process in a way that piles on the pressure with maximum risk of disappointment.

Is all of his hard work and effort for naught just because the schools that deny almost all of their applicants said no?

Why can’t the family celebrate the schools that said yes?

Will he be doomed to a substandard life unless he comes off UVA’s waitlist?

I understand that it’s frequently the kids, not the parents, who set their own goals of attending a highly selective college. Many parents who react like she is reacting are disappointed for, not with, their kids.

But parents, please remember that in spite of your kids’ actions that might often reflect the contrary, you still have an enormous influence on them during the high school years, and there is a fine line between supporting and endorsing their goals to attend prestigious colleges.

If you’d like more specific advice on just how to do that, here are a few past posts:

One with a suggested pledge parents can make to college-bound kids.

Another on how to praise kids effectively.

And finally, one on the value of parent-introduced long-term perspective.

We can debate the pros and cons of raising a trophy generation where everyone gets a prize. But the opportunity to go to college at all is one occasion when every hardworking kid deserves points just for participating.