Learn from the child genius

Tanishq Abraham has accomplished quite a bit for a 12-year-old. He’s been enrolled in community college since he was 7 (the same age he also gave a TED Talk). He earned his high school diploma at 10. He’s earned three associate’s degrees, and he’s currently deciding where he’ll transfer (with junior standing) to college this fall—he’s been accepted by UC Davis and by UC Santa Cruz, where he won the Regents Scholarship, the highest honor they award entering undergraduates.

But Tanishq didn’t get into Stanford. And even this child genius is struggling to understand why.

To most counselors and admissions officers, the outcome actually isn’t that surprising. Stanford admitted only 5 of every 100 applicants this year, the lowest acceptance rate in the school’s history. When a school receives applications from the most accomplished students—not just from the United States, but from all over the world—they have to look for reasons to say no to plenty of brilliant, once-in-a-lifetime type kids. That’s what it means to apply to a highly selective college.

Good counselors have to spend a lot of time convincing high-achieving students (and those students’ parents) to include some less selective schools on their college lists. When students have taken the hardest classes, earned A’s, scored off the charts on tests, and flourished in activities, they’re recognized as some of the best and brightest at their schools. So it’s not surprising they often expect to be admitted to highly selective colleges. In fact, it’s totally reasonable for them to wonder what more they could possibly have done.

But if you’re going to take your shot at any school that denies just about all of its applicants, it’s important to understand what—and who—you’re up against. You owe it to yourself to have a college list that guarantees you a few options you’ll be excited about. And you can’t write off all your hard work as worthless if a highly selective college doesn’t say yes.

Tanishq is living proof that nobody, not even a genius, is a sure admit. But he’s also a good reminder that you can find smart, accomplished, talented students at plenty of colleges that may not vie for the top spot on the rankings lists.

When houses become homes

Some close friends of mine are house hunting. And in what’s proving to be a seller’s market–where just about everyone makes offers over the selling price, waives inspections, and does pretty much anything to beat out the other interested parties–hopeful buyers are experiencing a lot of heartbreak.

The only way to seriously consider buying a house is to imagine yourself and your family in it. You see where you’d put the breakfast table, where your kids would play, and where your favorite spot to read will be. Once you put an offer in, you’re emotionally committed. Even the most rational person can’t completely detach from that connection. And if the sale goes to someone else, it’s difficult to change gears and imagine yourself in a different house. You’re still sold on your current vision.

The only way for kids to seriously consider a college, especially one that they’ve been able to physically visit, is to imagine themselves there. They see themselves enrolled in those class they visited. They see themselves painting their faces for the football games. They see themselves living in one of the dorms, joining clubs, and becoming fully-fledged members of that campus’s community.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach—it’s what serious college shoppers should do. But it also means that if you fall in love with a school and you don’t get in, it’s hard to imagine yourself someplace else. You’re still sold on your current vision.

But most heartbroken buyers eventually find their house. And once they move in, they turn that house into their home. They start living their life and creating their memories, and pretty soon, they can’t imagine themselves anyplace else.

Colleges work very much the same way. If you don’t get into what you think is your perfect college (there’s no reason your perfect college has to be one that isn’t a slam dunk, by the way), it might be hard to imagine yourself anywhere else.

But once you make that commitment to a college that said yes, once you move into a dorm, attend your first class, make your friends, and create your new life at college, you won’t be imagining yourself anyplace else. You’ll be too busy living your new life and creating your memories. It might not happen overnight. But if you put the time and energy into making it work for you, your new college will feel like it was the right one all along. That’s what happens when houses become homes.

Five college planning tips for introverts

Natural leaders—the outgoing, charismatic kids who can seemingly win over just about anyone, from teachers to fellow students—find it easy to demonstrate their impact to colleges. But what if you’re not the outgoing type who wants to stand up and be heard? What if you’re quiet, reserved, or just plain shy? Nobody should have to fundamentally change who they are to get into college. So here are five college planning tips for introverts.

1. Channel your enthusiasm.
Just because you’re introverted doesn’t mean you aren’t passionate about your interests. So channel your enthusiasm in whatever it is that you love. Write the best programming code that you can. Take art classes to improve your skills. Learn to play the pieces of your favorite classical composer. One of our former Collegewise students wrote her essay about the 10th grade summer she spent trying to read as many classic works of literature as possible. She was admitted to nearly all of her colleges. Colleges understand that not everyone is outgoing, and they’re perfectly happy to admit interesting, engaged students who thrive in comparatively solitary pursuits.

2. Engage academically.
One potential admissions challenge for introverts is that they often don’t participate in class discussions. This can make it difficult for teachers to tell just how interested you were in the material, and that can affect your letters of recommendation. So if you can push yourself to put your hand up and offer a comment or question semi-regularly, it will help. You can also approach your teacher before or after class to ask questions or discuss the material. And whenever there’s a class project or any opportunity to do more than sit in class or take a test, bring a little extra oomph. There’s nothing wrong with being the quiet kid in class. Just make sure you don’t come off as the quiet kid in class who would  rather be doing anything else other than learning this subject.

3. Find ways to impact others.
You don’t need to be outgoing to do things that impact other people. Draw cartoons for the school newspaper. Bring your set designing skills to the school play. Build websites for clubs, fix computers for the administration, or write poems for the school literary magazine. Colleges are looking for students who will make contributions to their campus communities. And there are plenty of ways to do that, even for students who don’t necessarily feel comfortable front-and-center.

4. Show that you’ve got some social skills.
It’s one thing to be the quiet, shy type. It’s another, not-so-good thing to be a misanthrope who just can’t get along with people. It doesn’t take much to show that you’re in the first camp, but you’ll need to make the effort to do so. Be nice to your teachers, counselor, and fellow students. Be willing to pitch in and help when someone needs it. And don’t automatically rule out everything that doesn’t let you work in solitude. One of our former students wrote her essay about working the drive-through at a fast food chain where she would stand outside with a headset and take orders from the cars as they passed. She was still introverted, but she was justifiably proud of how much more outgoing she became as a result of that job.

5. Apply to the right colleges.
Maybe you’d like to attend a school where you can easily get personal attention without having to ask for it? Or maybe your introverted self would be happiest blending in at a large university? It’s important for all students to consider the type of college where they could be happy and successful. And there’s no one type of school that fits best with all introverts. Think carefully about your likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses. Imagine yourself in college and consider in what kind of environment you’d be most likely to thrive. Then get to work finding those schools—and communicating why they’re a good fit when you apply.

Temporary turbulence

When my 17-month-old son let loose an indescribable amount of vomit during a flight to San Francisco last week, it was easy to tell which of our fellow passengers had already raised kids of their own. They offered sympathetic looks, generous helpings of napkins and water bottles, and some encouraging words, my favorite of which was,

“This is something you’ll laugh with him about when he’s 16.”

Every parent has those stories–the tales of parental challenge and horror that seem so terrible at the time, but in reality are just temporary turbulence on an otherwise joyful journey.

The journey through high school can feel so high stakes, as if every grade, every test score, every decision takes your kids either one step closer to, or farther from, a desired college admissions destination. It’s no wonder so many families approach it like something to survive, rather than savor. The D+ on the biology exam, the test scores that defied your chosen course’s guaranteed improvements, the teenage missteps that make you wonder how you raised a child who could make such a decision—I know it’s hard to find humor in them when kids are 16.

But the truth is that most of the bumps are just temporary.

When your kids are 26 and 36 and 56, you’ll laugh together at the way that D+ proved he didn’t have a speck of scientific ability. You’ll joke about how fortunate she is that her professional success wasn’t tied to senseless standardized tests like those she took in high school. And your kids will have no choice but to shake their heads at some of their own high school behavior while simultaneously wondering if there’s any way to prevent their own kids from making the same choices.

Our children’s education is important. It deserves a parent’s time, attention, and sacrifice. And of course, there are some limitations, challenges, and decisions that are no laughing matter, now or later. I hope you and your kids don’t experience those, as most college admissions concerns pale in comparison.

But after watching so many families go through this process, and after seeing not just what happened at 16, but also where those kids ended up in college and beyond, I promise you that most of the college admissions anxiety will not only pass, but will ultimately prove to have caused far more worry than necessary.

If the high school bumps arrive, find some solace in just how many parents have been where you are now with their own children, pretty much all of whom eventually emerged unscathed. And look forward to that inevitable day when you’ll laugh with your kids about what ultimately proved to be temporary turbulence.


Be a good teammate

Arun shares this (previously shared on the College Counselor Facebook page) from the women’s rugby coach at Quinnipiac University. While written for athletes hoping to play in college, many of the observations have direct crossover to non-athletes applying to college as well.

For example (though I do acknowledge the irony in the writer scolding a student for poor punctuation, but then making numerous errors herself, which I’m leaving unfixed here):

Our staff explained to your parents that we would prefer to connect with you directly, but they continue to respond on your behalf. This will be a red flag for any coach, so please be aware of this feedback being a possibility from any of your other options.

When you visited the campus with your parents, the first thing I noticed is that they [your parents] did most of the talking for you.

In the second half, when you scored I noticed you waited for the other players to huddle around you and celebrate. In contrast, when a teammate scored, you retreated to your position without acknowledging or congratulating them.

You added much depth in the scoring category with some impressive runs but when you made mistakes you became vocal and eager to point out where your teammates needed to improve.

Getting recruited isn’t just about athletic ability, and getting into college isn’t just about your GPA and test scores.

Parents, let your kids drive the process. Students, show the initiative to take the wheel. And remember that whether or not you’re an athlete, being a good teammate goes a long way.

What if your school limits APs?

Students who aspire to attend highly selective colleges need to be taking the most rigorous course curriculum available at their high schools. Kids who attend schools with limited or no AP (Advanced Placement) courses won’t be judged negatively as long as they take what’s available—you’re evaluated in the context of what your school provided.

But what about those students at high schools that have lots of APs available, but limit the number that a student is allowed to take?

It’s not uncommon these days for some high schools, in the name of lessening the stress and the inherent student competition, to prevent students from enrolling in APs before the junior year, or to limit the number of APs a student can take simultaneously. How does that student explain to their colleges that there’s actually a good reason why they haven’t taken the most challenging combination of the courses available?

The Collegewise crew exchanged more than a dozen emails last week about this question. To make sure colleges have the information they need about AP limits, here are our recommendations for high schools, counselors, and students.

High schools and counselors

*Note to students and parents: Please don’t march into your counselor’s or principal’s office and demand that they follow these recommendations. And don’t worry that a failure to do so will somehow be hurting your chances of admission. It won’t, but making a big stink about it certainly could. Just do what we describe below and you’ll be fine.

  • Most schools have to write a “School Profile” that’s submitted to colleges. This is the ideal place to describe your curriculum, including any AP limits. If you’d like guidance on creating or improving a profile, The College Board and NACAC have good resources here and here respectively (though at the time I’m writing this, the NACAC link is down for “scheduled maintenance”).
  • If the school profile does not mention the limit, a counselor can do so in their recommendation letters, which are required as part of many selective colleges’ applications.


  • Don’t worry. If your school limits APs, colleges will understand this was not something you were empowered to change. It won’t be held against you. Admissions officers look for and value context wherever they can find it. The steps we’re outlining here will give it to them.
  • Most applications have a section to add “additional information.” This would be the perfect place to explain your school’s academic offerings. Do not complain or blame your school. Just a simple declarative sentence or two will suffice.

Here’s an example, courtesy of Meredith Graham, our counselor in Columbus, Ohio, who also worked in admissions at Cornell University.

“I had hoped to take AP XX and XX in addition to the three AP classes I have taken; however, my high school has a policy that students are limited to one AP class in 11th grade and two AP classes in the 12th grade.”

  • Students who have real intellectual curiosity don’t let a course schedule alone determine what they learn. Kids who get into the most selective colleges find a way to learn what interests them, regardless of whether they have an available AP class attached to it. If you’re at a school that limits your APs, look for other ways to learn what interests you. Read books. Take summer courses at a community college. Do an independent study with your teacher. Theoretically, you should have even more time for those pursuits if you aren’t enrolled in six AP courses.

When infractions and applications collide

Many college applications ask questions about whether or not a student has (1) been suspended, disciplined, or put on probation at school, and (2) charged with, or convicted of, a misdemeanor or a felony.

Parents, if your student ever does something while in high school that would constitute a need to check “Yes” for either of those questions when they apply to college, please read this past post of mine (maybe bookmark it now, just in case).

And high school counselors, since you’ll also be asked these questions about your applicants, check out Patrick O’Connor’s excellent advice here on how to handle these situations.

Don’t just promise to “get to it”

Author Dan Pink shares a simple but certainly effective productivity hack here—start by identifying the day’s MIT (Most Important Task), and do that first. No emails, social media, organizing, etc. Just get the Most Important Task done.

But most students (and a lot of adults) don’t have the option of embracing this strategy. You’ve got school, activities, and other commitments that can’t necessarily be rearranged, no matter how much you might like to dive in and complete your MIT before doing anything else.

If that sounds like you, consider author Tim Ferriss’s secret to getting things done (the full description is here on his blog):

  • Identify the 3-5 things that are causing you the most stress.
  • For each item, ask yourself, “If this were the only thing I got done today, would I be satisfied?”
  • Pick one of the yeses, block out the necessary time, and attack it.

While they take slightly different approaches, both techniques share the same overarching strategy–whatever is causing stress, or whatever just plain needs to get done, you’re more likely to complete it if you make a plan of when and how to do it. Don’t just promise to “get to it.”

For students considering internships

Students, if you’re considering an internship this (or in a future) summer, please consider reading these two posts.

This is one of mine, to help you decide if you should seek an internship.

And this is from the smart folks at Basecamp on what they learned while hiring their first batch of summer interns. I think the entire article is interesting, but students can scroll down to the “Tips for Prospective Interns” (just about all of which overlap with my advice for job seekers).


Ironman essay tips

My brother, Scott, forwarded me this article about how triathletes can make their race reports less boring because he thought the tips might also be applicable to college essays. They are, and it’s not surprising, as the rules for writing a good college essay overlap with the rules for most good writing.

Here are the relevant tips, with my college essay corollaries.

1. Keep it short.
Most college essays have word limits to guide you here. But in just about all written communication, good editing usually leads to making your point just as effectively with fewer words. And most readers will thank you for that.

2. Know your audience.
High school students should be careful with this one, because the surest route to a clichéd college essay is to try to impress admissions officers by writing what you think they want to hear. Just remember that there is a difference between writing something to send to your best friend and writing something to send to a college. Knowing your audience doesn’t necessarily mean you should pander to them or try too hard to impress—it just means that you should remember who will be doing the reading.

3. Talk more about what you thought or felt, and less about what happened.
Yes, the story of what happened is still important. But some students get so caught up in describing the events of their debate victory, life as an army brat, or struggle to overcome a learning disability that the writer actually disappears from the story. College essays are supposed to help the reader get to know you. Make sure you include yourself in the story. Often, the best way to do that is to describe what you thought or felt.

4. Explain what you learned and, hopefully, how that might benefit others.
College essays don’t need a moral, and you shouldn’t try to inject deep meaning that wasn’t there. But you also don’t want admissions readers wondering why you bothered to share this story with them. If you learned something, even if it’s important only to you, be honest about it. Lesson or not, make it clear why this particular tale is important to you. And as far as how it might benefit others, the best way to do that is to describe what’s next.