Do you have a study ritual?

Many great artists, writers, musicians and other creative professionals follow a ritual to produce their best work. It might be a special place they go, the time of day they choose to work, the environment of the room where they create, etc. They find what works for them, and once they do, that becomes their creative ritual. Following their ritual helps them get into the zone to be as productive and effective as possible.

The best students do the same thing when they study or do homework. Some work best in a particular room in their house or even in the local library. Others might listen to music. But like the most effective professionals, they find what works. And when they need to produce their best work, they start by following their ritual.

If you want to do your best work in less time, make one of your goals to find and perfect your own ritual. You might need to experiment to find what works for you. For more on this topic, here’s Cal Newport’s most recent post on what he calls a “depth ritual.”

Repel some to draw many

CWTakesSeattleOur newest Collegewise counselors and I celebrated the conclusion of our week of training with a tour of Seattle University (that’s Curt and Leigh in the photo–and it’s a pen, not a cigarette, tucked behind Curt’s ear).

I asked the tour guide, Noah, to name a popular misconception people have about Seattle U (which happens to be a Jesuit school). His answer:

“The Jesuit thing. People think it means we’re really conservative. This is a very liberal school. Veeeery liberal. I’ve had people on tours ask me who the gays are on campus. People who ask questions like that aren’t going to be happy here.”

I liked his answer for a reason that might surprise some people—because his answer will inevitably turn off some students from applying.

In their efforts to draw as many applicants as possible (and often on the advice of expensive marketing consultants), many colleges try to appeal to everyone. But just like no student is right for every college, no college is right for every student. I have asked this question of many tour guides, and his was probably the most honest answer.

This isn’t a post about judging the validity of anyone’s values or politics. It’s about getting what you want and what you’re paying for when you accept an offer of admission from a college. Every student deserves to make informed college decisions. Colleges have a responsibility to tell the truth to potential customers, even if some potential customers won’t buy the product because of that truth.

It seems like a simple thing for colleges to do—be honest. Yes, you’ll turn off some students who probably wouldn’t have joined your freshman class anyway. But you’ll draw more of the students who are likely to accept your offer to attend, and who will thrive once they get there. You’ve got to repel some to get many.

Thank you, Noah.

And here’s a past post on how I wish colleges would do tours.

Great work pays off

Seth Godin’s recent post is meant to inspire people to do great work before they apply for a job, rather than waiting for the right job to do great work. That got me thinking about high school students who are planning for college. If you’re a freshman, sophomore, or junior, what would happen if you spent this academic year coming up with answers to some—or all—of these questions? You’d have some pretty great evidence to show colleges about just what kind of impact you make both in and out of the classroom.

  • Tell us about a non-academic achievement that you worked hard to earn.
  • Show us an example of academic work that made you proud.
  • Tell us about a difference you’ve made—something or someone that changed because of you or your work.
  • What’s an example of something you learned on your own time because it interested you, whether it was academic, athletic, technological, musical, artistic, etc.?
  • Tell us about a teacher who really inspired you. What’s the most valuable thing he or she taught you?
  • Is there something we can look at—a website, YouTube video, blog, etc.—that could tell us more about you?
  • What’s the best example you could point to of the type of student and community member you’ll be if you were to join our freshman class?
  • If we could ask one teacher, one friend, and one other person who is not related to you to tell us more about you, which three people would you like us to speak with, and why?

Spend less time searching for the magic formula that will make your dream college say yes (that formula doesn’t exist), and spend more time producing great work. Not perfect work, necessarily—part of doing great work means occasionally failing in spite of your efforts, learning from it, and then getting back to work. But in the long run, great work pays off no matter which colleges admit you.

When grandparents help pay for college

If a student is in the fortunate position of having grandparents who are willing to help pay for college, check out these two articles, here and here, with advice from expert Mark Kantrowitz on how to lessen what can be a corresponding negative impact on financial aid eligibility.

Like all of Kantrowitz’s advice, he’s not advocating that families should avoid paying their fair share, or that affluent families should hide their money so they can get more financial aid. He’s simply pointing out how the mechanics of financial aid calculations (in which grandparent contributions will always be factored) work, and how seemingly simple decisions, like the type of account in which the money is saved, can make big differences in those calculations.

In the same way that families can try to lessen their tax liability, there’s a difference between being smart and being deceptive. Kantrowitz’s advice, particularly around how to avoid mistakes that can cost you, falls on the smart side of the spectrum.

What do U.S. News rankings really tell you?

Valerie Strauss has an interesting piece, How US News Concocts its College Rankings, on her blog today. You might be surprised what data is—and is not—used to decide which colleges are really “best.”

And for a more in-depth rankings takedown, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s past piece in the New Yorker, shared on the Colleges That Change Lives website.

When the blog writer gets it wrong

As many loyal readers have pointed out this morning, today’s daily post was loaded with typos. I’d love to blame a rogue hacker, but those errors are all mine. Sometimes I write a draft of a post to use in the future that I later edit and give my excellent proofreader, Carolyn, time to review. But today, I mistakenly posted the first—rather than the final—draft, and did so much too late to allow Carolyn time to give it a clean proofing.

Once a post is up and live, any edits I make won’t show up in your RSS readers. And if you subscribe by email, you already received the error-filled version. It’s totally my fault. It’s embarrassing and it drives me crazy. I’ve written over 2,000 posts and I haven’t missed a day since October 2009. And the only way to keep doing that is to accept the sting of the occasional error and try not to do the same thing in the future. Thanks for sticking with me.

Don’t get GPA obsessed

The classes you take and the grades you earn are more important than the GPA that appears on your transcript.

I’m training two new Collegewise counselors who, between them, have worked in admissions at three different colleges. And not surprisingly, they compared past admissions notes and revealed that their former admissions offices each used a different formula to recalculate their applicants’ GPAs.

As I’ve discussed in past blog entries, most colleges don’t just take the GPA that’s calculated on your transcript at face value. They look at what classes were available at your high school, which ones you took, and then recalculate your GPA while paying attention to the rigor of your courses. Some colleges will also include college-level work outside of high school when calculating that GPA; others will not.

But that doesn’t change what virtually every college in the country is evaluating:

What was available at your high school? Which classes did you take, and how rigorous were they? And if you took classes outside of high school, colleges will be impressed by your initiative to pursue your academic interests, especially if you performed well. Whether or not those grades are calculated in your GPA for admissions purposes does not change the figurative credit for making additional efforts to learn.

Take the most rigorous curriculum you can reasonably handle. Thrive in your favorite subjects and do your best in those that don’t come as easily to you. And if you want to learn something outside of high school, from math to hip-hop dance, go for it. The GPA is one measure of your curiosity and work ethic, but it’s not the only one. A student who passes up a hard class just because it doesn’t come with a weighted grade is focusing more on his GPA than he is on the opportunity to take a great class. A student who takes an elective college course over the summer not because he’s interested in it, but because he hopes it will increase his GPA, is focusing on the wrong things.

You don’t have control over how a college treats your GPA. So focus more on your efforts to learn and your willingness to work hard. Academic rigor and performance are always rewarded in some way.

Welcome Curt Dircks and Leigh Weissman to Collegewise

Today, we’re welcoming two new counselors to the Collegewise family—Curt Dircks in New York City, and Leigh Weissman in Redondo Beach, California.

CurtDircksBlogCurt Dircks
College Counselor – New York, New York
After joining the admissions office of Mercy College in 2011, Curt quickly ascended the ranks and later joined Hofstra University as the assistant dean of admissions. There, he recruited and evaluated students from New York, California, and Tennessee while also training Hofstra’s new admissions counselors, eventually joining Collegewise in 2014. How did Curt manage so much professional success in such a short amount of time? By being, quite possibly, the world’s worst relaxer. In fact the only time that Curt can successfully sit still is when he’s meeting with families to talk about college because, as he puts it, helping high school students is the reason he was put on this earth (that, and to bleed orange for his beloved alma mater, Syracuse University). Curt is an athlete at heart who claims to “own the dance floor” at weddings. Not one to allow his encroaching middle age to douse his competitive fire, Curt is a 3-time Ocean Beach softball champion, a 2-time Corporate League basketball division champion, and perhaps most admirably, a 4-time Dircks family Thanksgiving Most Valuable Bowler. He’s also a successful lacrosse coach—in 2011 while pursuing a masters degree (in history, not lacrosse) at University of San Diego, Curt helped guide the Westview High School JV lacrosse team to their only undefeated season (a record that still stands). When he’s not tearing it up on the court, the field, or the dance floor, Curt enjoys watching the Travel Channel, finding inspiration from the Food Network, and fishing, usually with both his dad and his college roommate.

LeighWeissmanBlogLeigh Weissman
College Counselor – Redondo Beach, California 
Leigh is a graduate of Quinnipiac University, home of the beloved Boomer the Bobcat, where she studied communications and media studies and spent four years as the manager of the men’s basketball team. Upon graduation (and much to Boomer’s disappointment), Leigh joined the admissions office of fierce rival Sacred Heart University, eventually rising to the assistant director level. In her final two years at that post, Leigh set—and then broke again—the record for producing the most applications and the most enrolled students to ever come out of her recruiting territory in New Jersey. Her greatest success, however, is clearly her two superlative awards as voted on by her co-workers: “Most Likely to be in a Great Mood,” and “Most Likely to Get out of a Speeding Ticket.” Apparently, Quinnipiac students go on to become happy, successful, and ticket-free Bobcat alums. A two-time Field Hockey captain back in high school who was also the president of the Italian club, Leigh will defend her home state of New Jersey vigorously (with hockey stick in hand if necessary) when people make fun of the Garden State. Did you know that most of the cast of MTV’s Jersey Shore is actually not from Jersey? Well did ya’, buddy?!  She does concede, however, that the everyone-here-loves- Springsteen stereotype is absolutely true. When she’s not listening to Born to Run for the 1,348th time, Leigh enjoys traveling, feeding her insatiable need to visit colleges, and catching up on her favorite TV show, Pretty Little Liars.

Curt and Leigh are joining me in Seattle for training this week, after which they’ll be heading back to their respective offices and getting started making the college admissions process less stressful, more successful, and even a little bit fun for families. We’re very excited to have both of them.  Welcome, Curt and Leigh!

When boring turns interesting

Cal Newport shares a good quote in his recent blog entry, courtesy of composer and artist John Cage:

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

Discounting something as boring too quickly ruins any chance of finding it interesting. And most things become more engaging once you understand or even get quite good/knowledgeable about it.

Whether it’s a class, lecture, book, etc., that’s just not lighting you up, give it some time before you write it off as boring. You might be pleasantly surprised when boring turns interesting.