How much do AP classes help admissions chances?

The good folks at Challenge Success recently released their white paper, The Advanced Placement Program: Living Up To Its Promise? It attempts to answer questions like, “Does taking AP courses inherently boost a student’s chances of college admissions?” (Spoiler alert: it depends on the college.)

For families who would rather not read and weed through all of the data, page 10’s “Suggestions for Students” has some good advice that might help you decide if AP courses are right for you, and if so, how many—and which particular courses—to take. And I appreciated their sensible, student-friendly advice like,

“Don’t take AP courses just to get into college. While many elite colleges will expect applicants to have enrolled in rigorous and challenging courses, particularly in subject areas of interest to the student, AP enrollment alone will not guarantee your college admission. Moreover, taking AP courses and doing poorly because you are taking them for the wrong reasons or are not interested in the subject or are in over your head or are spread too thin will not reflect well upon you, nor will taking AP courses that cause undue stress, limit your ability to participate in other meaningful activities, or impact your ability to get enough sleep each night. It’s best to enroll in AP courses only in areas that are of real interest to you and in which you are prepared and able to work hard.”

Is the financial aid offer good for four years?

Consumer Reports just came out with this piece, Having the College Money Talk: 10 key questions every family should discuss. While a good read for any family concerned about college costs, #4 is particularly important for senior families who are or will soon be reviewing their various offers of financial aid:

4. Are Financial Aid Offers Good for Four Years?
In what can seem like a bait and switch, some schools may offer more generous scholarships and grants to freshmen to entice them to enroll, but be aware that this money might not be fully renewable, says Kalman Chany, author of Paying for College Without Going Broke. “You need to know what strings are attached to get it every year,” says Chany. If you receive a merit-based scholarship, ask what the requirements are to qualify each year. You may need to maintain a certain GPA, for example. If you have a generous athletic scholarship, find out whether it continues if you sustain a career-ending injury, and have a contingency plan in case it doesn’t. Even if the amount of grants and scholarships stays the same for all four years, tuition is likely to rise, so the aid will cover less of the cost.

To maintain federal financial aid, you need to file the FAFSA each year. The amount of assistance you are eligible for can change if your financial circumstances change.

The path to making things right

Author and former Navy Admiral David Marquet penned this Forbes piece about Volkswagen executives ducking and bumbling their way through their diesel emissions cheating scandal. There are so many press-garnering examples of companies and public figures who get caught doing something they shouldn’t have been doing but still refuse to take appropriate responsibility for their actions. It’s no wonder so many teenagers are reluctant to own up to their mistakes given the bad public examples of so many famous adults and successful companies they’re being shown.

People make mistakes. That’s especially true for teenagers who aren’t supposed to have learned everything about life yet. Most people will find a way to forgive youthful indiscretions if you take the right steps.

Here’s a past post with some advice about how to handle yourself if you get into trouble, and a second reminding you that the best time to apologize is when the infraction is still fresh.

For all but the most egregious violations, the path to making things right might not be easy. But it’s not all that complicated, either.

Adventures in babysitting

Nearly two years ago, I wrote this entry about a sophomore in high school my wife and I were about to interview to babysit our then infant son. We were impressed with her initiative in offering up her services on a parent listserv, and with how responsive and mature she seemed in her communications with us. Too many families might think that babysitting isn’t a remarkable enough activity if a student wants to impress colleges, but as I explained:

“This kid is learning how to pitch herself in writing and in person. She’s learning how to meet people and make a good impression. If she gets gigs, she’ll be learning how to manage customers’ expectations, and hopefully, how to be remarkable enough that she’ll earn referrals and repeat business. And she’ll be earning (and hopefully managing) her own money. I can’t imagine that she could learn any of these things at Harvard Summer School or at a pay-to-play expensive summer program in a foreign land.”

So, whatever happened to that sixteen-year-old?

  1. We hired her.
  2. She’s been our go-to babysitter for two years.
  3. She was recently admitted early decision to Dartmouth.

No magic formula. No contrived experiences designed to impress. Just a smart, nice, responsible, hardworking, happy kid who wanted to go to Dartmouth, but also had enough confidence to know that she’d be just fine wherever she went.

Parents and students, I hope you’ll go back and read that past entry (here’s the link again). And I hope you’ll think twice about choosing (and especially about paying for) activities based solely on what you think will impress colleges.

Start with an audience of one

That email you’re writing…
That website you’re building…
That flyer you’re creating…
That brochure copy you’re penning…
That t-shirt you’re designing…

Who’s it for?

It’s a good question to ask, and a good person to envision, as you’re making it.

When I sit down to write a blog post, I try to envision exactly who it’s for. Not “parents,” or “students,” or “counselors”—that’s too broad. I want to imagine the one person out there who’s most likely to read and share it.

The parent of a nice B student who’d like some reassurance that there are plenty of great colleges out there for her child, too.

The over-achieving student who needs a reminder that the work will pay off no matter which colleges say yes.

The high school counselor who wants to alert her large caseload of families about upcoming changes in the financial aid process.

Of course, each of those posts will probably appeal to more than one person. But they won’t appeal to everyone, and that’s OK. If it’s good enough, the person each post is written for will share it with people in their tribe who think and act similarly.

It’s impossible to make something that everyone will like. But pleasing one specific person is an attainable goal.

And if your answer to “Who’s it for?” is, “This isn’t for anyone—it’s just for me,” then you’ve got a willing audience of one—yourself! So go make yourself happy with your art, writing, music, reading, learning, etc. and let all the other potential audiences go.

The path to the most receptive audience starts with an audience of one.

Find the “Yes” in assignments

My neighbors—both full-time working parents—have a daughter in kindergarten. While visiting their house this week, I watched as their five-year-old sat patiently at the dinner table while her mother painstakingly crafted a stack of valentines.

Apparently, the kindergarten class’s forthcoming Valentine’s Day celebration came with the following requirements. Not only did the students need to bring individual Valentine’s Day cards for every student in the class, but the cards were also mandated to be:

Homemade.
Inscribed with personal messages complimenting each individual student.

And the school had just announced those requirements the week of the celebration.

I’m not an expert in kindergarten-level skills, but what five-year-old could actually create and produce customized cards for 25 students without significant parent involvement? As her mother calmly but frustratingly put it:

“This is pretty much a homework assignment for the parents.”

I understand the thinking behind the assignment. No student should feel left out on Valentine’s Day if the class is going to celebrate. It’s a nice sentiment for each student to express something positive about each of their classmates. And there’s nothing wrong with projects that kindergarten kids and their parents can work on together. That comes with the parenting job.

But this five-year-old, who apparently loves Valentine’s Day by the way, was bored and ready to move on no matter how much her mother created and encouraged opportunities to participate in the project. It had been several hours already and the project had long lost its appeal.

I write often here about the need for parents of high school kids to step back, to give your kids the space to do for themselves those things they’re capable of doing without your help. Those parents who continuously hover, manage, and otherwise run their kids’ lives aren’t preparing them for the independence of college.

But this Valentine’s Day card mandate reminded me that even well-intentioned parents might be trained early in their kids’ schooling to get involved because that seems to be what’s expected. If the assignments for your five-year-old require you to manage or even to complete them, how is a parent supposed to recognize when that involvement is no longer necessary when the assignments only get more advanced and more time-consuming as kids progress through school?

And even more troubling, why wouldn’t kids continue to expect or even depend on their parents’ help if the standard is set so early?

My best advice for parents: With each project, ask yourself if this is something your student can do. Then adapt your role to accommodate the “Yes.” Give them as much room or opportunity as you can to do the parts they’re able to complete, even if it means the end result won’t be perfect.

My advice for teachers and schools is largely the same. With each assignment, ask yourself, “Is this something a student can do?” If your answer is “Yes,” including one that will challenge kids to reach a little higher than they might think they can, give them a chance to learn, grow, and surprise themselves.

But if the answer is “No,” if your instincts and experience tell you that the assignment will rely more on parents than it does students, change the assignment until you find the “Yes.”

Reach the carrots by ignoring them

Author Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which is also nicely summarized in his 20-minute TED Talk, argues that the carrot-and-stick approach doesn’t lead to long-term motivation. Telling someone, “If you do this, you’ll get this” works for simple, rote tasks. But for 21st century jobs requiring creative thinking and innovation, the extrinsic motivators like money and authority are actually less effective than three intrinsic motivators:

Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives.
Mastery: The desire to get better and better at something that matters.
Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Too many families approach the high school years using the carrot-and-stick approach to college prep.

If you do this: take hard classes, get good grades, study for the SAT, do community service, take leadership positions, etc.

You’ll get this: admission to a prestigious college.

Given the science that supports Pink’s argument, it’s no surprise that this approach fails far too often in one of two ways: (1) Kids do what they were told to do but still don’t get into their dream college, or (2) kids just can’t find the motivation and won’t engage in their college prep.

What if families took a different approach and focused their college prep on autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

Find the subjects and activities that appeal most to you. Work hard to engage and excel where your strengths naturally fit. And do all those things not just because they’ll help you get into college, but because they’ll also make you smarter, happier, more fulfilled, and ultimately more successful in whatever you decide to pursue.

Pink isn’t arguing that the path to motivation is to do only what you want to do whenever you want to do it. We all have responsibilities at school, at work, and/or at home that deserve our attention. And there’s nothing wrong with having aspirations and working hard to achieve them.

But motivation isn’t an unlimited resource. It needs to be refueled occasionally. And the promise of just-do-this-and-you’ll-get-this won’t refill the tank. There are plenty of things worth learning and worth doing. Students might do well to follow their internal motivators, the ones that draw them towards their natural interests and talents. Listen to those intuitions, put the work in to master them, and connect them to a greater purpose of becoming a better human being.

Do that over and over again, and you’ll be a lot more likely to reach those carrots, too.

Prove the yes’s right

We’re hiring for a number of positions at Collegewise right now, all of which have generated dozens (and dozens) of applications of interest. Some are easy no’s, especially for those people who don’t read our post all the way through, don’t follow directions, and don’t seem to care enough to do more than send the same recycled cover letter and resume. But many more come from highly qualified, interesting, compelling people who could almost certainly make great contributions here. They took the time to get to know us. They cared enough to put together personal materials to show us how and why they’d be a good fit here. They gave thoughtful, honest answers to our interview questions, and asked equally good questions in return.

If we had 5, 10, or 20 positions open, I’d hire many of them. But given the comparatively small number of available positions, in the end, we have to say no to most qualified people who apply. It’s one of the few parts of my job I don’t like.

We’re very good at hiring at Collegewise. We’ve built a process that, from the first read of our “help wanted” ad, all the way to the formal job offer, tends to attract the best fits and repel those who just wouldn’t like working here. We’ve learned how to evaluate materials, how to ask questions that reveal someone’s talents, motivations, and personalities, and how to go with our guts to pick people who will do great things here and make everyone proud to work with them. We’re almost always right about who we pick.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t wrong about the people we don’t pick.

A decision to hire one person is also many decisions not to hire other people. The answer to whether or not we made a good “yes” choice reveals itself. Working with them, watching them in action, seeing them fulfill all the potential we saw in them—it’s a confirmation that we made a good choice.

But we don’t get to confirm those choices we made about people we didn’t hire. We know they’re going to go on to do great things someplace else. But we’ll never know just how great they could have been here.

People are complex. That’s why selecting them—for jobs, for dating, and yes, for college admissions, is not an exact, infallible science. You can look for the right things. You can evaluate thoroughly and thoughtfully. You can give yourself the best chance of making a “yes” choice you’ll be happy about. But even the best systems don’t guarantee you’ll be right about who you pick, or who you don’t pick.

Most admissions offices do a very good job of evaluating their applicants. They’re as thorough as time and opportunity allows them to be. They try to be reasonable and fair with every application. They genuinely want to admit not just the students who are qualified, but also those who are most likely to be happy and to thrive in that college’s particular environment. And they’re usually proven right about who they pick.

But that doesn’t mean they’re right about who they don’t pick. Selective colleges can’t take everyone who applies. Many yes’s will be right, and many no’s will be wrong. The only difference is that the colleges each get to see how their yes’s play out. The no’s will play out somewhere else, likely at another college that had the good fortune and good sense to say yes.

For seniors who are receiving decisions from your colleges, remember that a no doesn’t necessarily mean they made the right choice with you (or the wrong choice with one of their yes’s). It just means that they made a series of difficult choices they had to make.

It might not always seem fair. It might not always seem to make sense. But remember that one college’s decision to say no is also your opportunity to prove one of your yes’s right.

Your best self on a bad day

It’s easy to show your best self when you’re getting what you want. When you get the elected position you wanted, the grade you wanted, the college acceptance you wanted, etc., you’ve got a pre-existing lift that makes it easier to be nice, polite, and grateful.

But how do you behave when things don’t go your way?

When someone else gets elected club president over you, do you congratulate them? Or do you criticize the club’s choice?

When you come up short of the “A” you wanted, do you thank the teacher for spending time helping you after school and try to do even better next semester? Or do you blame the teacher and complain that you couldn’t get extra credit?

When a college you really wanted to attend doesn’t admit you, do you find a way to be happy for those who got in? Or do you belittle their accomplishments and claim one of their spots should have been yours?

And here’s the most important question—if your behavior depends on whether or not you get what you want, which version is the real you?

People will assume great things about you if you can be your best self, even on a bad day.

Feeling pressured to commit before May 1?

Senior families, are your acceptance letters implying—or outright stating—that waiting until May 1 to commit could somehow have adverse implications, like being left out of classes, housing, or special programs? If so, please read this past post, Do you really have until May 1 to decide? (Spoiler alert: as long as you didn’t apply in a binding admissions program, yes, you do have until May 1.) I’ve updated the links and the screenshot to include the most recent language from the policies governing colleges’ behavior in these areas.

It’s a big decision. You can’t buy more time past the deadline (which I address in the aforementioned post). But if you need time, don’t let anyone, least of all the colleges themselves, pressure you into making a decision sooner than the rules allow.