Manage downs, maximize ups

A lot of the hysteria around getting into prestigious colleges comes from the belief that if you can just get into one, the advantage of attaching that name to yourself will leave you set for the rest of your life, assured that success and everything else will work out how you (or your parents) want it to.

But life doesn’t work that way.

People who get into Harvard aren’t set for the rest of their lives. They’ll still stumble.  They’ll have disappointments.  They may even have their hearts broken a time or two. These things don’t happen because Harvard failed them. They happen because that’s life, no matter where you went to college. Show me a happy and successful adult, and I guarantee you they’ve experienced their share of disappointments, too. You can’t insulate yourself from that.

But here’s the good news.

Wherever you go to college, you can learn as much as you can about a subject that fascinates you. You can discover your talents. You can try just about anything you’ve ever wanted to try, often with very few repercussions if things don’t go well.

And more importantly, you can prepare for what life will give you. You can try things that intimidate you. You can learn from your failures and come back stronger next time. You can find ways to make the best of situations that didn’t pan out like you’d hoped.

This is not my way of telling teenagers they should prepare for a life filled with nothing but recurring disappointment. There are a lot of wonderful things out there in the world for you during and after college. But a prestigious college doesn’t present an unobstructed path for you to access them.

If you’ve been working like crazy in high school to get into your dream school, you’re off to a great start. You know how to set goals and how to work for them. You’re invested in creating the future that you want. And you’re starting to prepare yourself for what it will take to get it.

But remember that no matter what your first choice college says, it won’t give you—or rob you of—those dreams. Pursue them wherever you go to college. And use your four years to learn how to manage the occasional downs so you can maximize the hopefully far more frequent ups.

How counselors can connect with each other

Every counselor at Collegewise is part of our larger group we call “The Hive.” We don’t all get to sit together every day, and many of our counselors work in one-person shops. But if a counselor has a question he or she can’t find the answer to, we can pose it via email to The Hive. Groups of counselors meet regularly on Google Hangouts to swap advice about college lists, best practices, and challenging counseling scenarios. We do an annual company meet-up so everyone can spend some time together in person. It’s nice to have the camaraderie with—and support of—over thirty other people in the company who do the same job that you do.

But even with a hive, counselors who work solo can still feel lonely from time to time. If you’re a high school counselor or private counselor who’d like to be more connected to people in your industry, Patrick O’Connor offers up some great advice here.

Back-to-school resources

Here are a few past posts, books, and other resources in the spirit of students heading back to school:

How to achieve your goals in school this year

Become more impressive by doing less

Five things you can start doing tomorrow that will get you better grades

Back-to-school resolution suggestions for students

My favorite study skills resource is Cal Newport’s How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less. Yes, he wrote it for college students, but most of it is equally applicable to high school students, with great advice about how to take notes, how to study, how to take a test, etc.

Cal’s blog is also excellent, though its new layout, and lack of search availability by subject, makes it harder to find what you’re looking for than it used to be.

My book, If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted, explains every step of the college admissions process, from classes and testing to applications, essays, and interviews.


Thank you’s

Breanne, our director in Mission Viejo, California, received a totally unexpected email yesterday from a former student who’s a freshman in college. Here’s the text, shared with the student’s permission:

Hi Breanne –

I hope you’re doing well. I was writing because I owe you a huge thank you! Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. I know I wasn’t the easiest student but you never gave up on me. I am in college because of you and all of your amazing help. So from the bottom of my heart thank you. I miss coming into your office and getting yelled at! Most things about home sound good right about now. I hope you have a great year with the incoming seniors and just know that all of your work was appreciated! I hope to hear from you soon.

Indiana University

It’s hard for me to describe to high school students what a sincere “thank you” like that means to your counselor, your teacher, your parent, or anyone else who’s taken an interest and helped you get where you want to go. I’ve mentioned before that my mother keeps a shoebox of the nice notes she received from her students during her 30-year run as a high school English teacher. That should give you some sense of how important those words are to the people receiving them.

Yes, basic social graces dictate that we should say “thank you” when somebody does something for us. But that can be easy to miss (I know I certainly did) when you’re seventeen, and those helping you are fulfilling their professional or parental responsibilities.

Say “thank you” anyway. A real one, like the one in Garret’s email. It’s the right thing to do, a good habit to get into, and the best possible gift you could give in return.

We’re making some social media changes

I started writing this blog every day in October 2009 just to see what would happen if I stuck with it. It’s taken a lot of time, energy, and commitment to get here, but almost six years later, I, and I think the rest of the Collegewisers, are really proud of the role my blog plays in our little college counseling corner of the world.

But we don’t do as well in other areas of social media, particularly on Facebook or Twitter. We set up my blog posts to automatically push to those platforms, but that’s a lazy way to do it. Yes, it lets us say that we have something to look at on Facebook and Twitter. But blogs, Facebook, and Twitter each do very different things well. We decided we had to make a choice—let’s either find Collegewise counselors who will commit to making our Facebook and Twitter compelling and great. Or let’s drop Facebook and Twitter altogether and re-focus those efforts elsewhere.

I’m happy to say that Collegewise counselors Colleen Boucher and Chelsea Block have volunteered to be our social media champions. They even devoured the incomparable Gary Vaynerchuk’s Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World before they ever went near a post or a tweet. They’ve thought a lot about what we could offer on those platforms that would be so good people would want to come back over and over again. And they’re about to start rolling out content for our subscribers.

If you subscribe to my blog, nothing is changing. You’ll still get one post a day, written by me.

If you follow us on Twitter, you’ll still get my daily blog post. But you’ll also start to see some posts that are more Twitter-appropriate—short, bite-sized chunks of compelling advice, news, or data.

And while my blog will still post daily to Facebook, followers over there will start to see more frequent updates that are more Facebook-ish in nature, whether it’s updates from conferences, feedback on admissions news, sharing of photos from our campus visits, etc.

Much like I said about my blog back in 2009, we don’t know what’s going to happen on Facebook and Twitter. But we’re excited to try, to learn more as we go, and hopefully to share even more great stuff with people who find and follow us.

The best stories present themselves

Students often approach me at the end of my college essay seminars to ask what I think about a topic they’re considering. It’s difficult for me to tell students I’ve just met whether the story they’re considering is the right one. In fact, few stories are inherently good or bad—it depends on how they’re approached and written.

But I can say that a student who struggles to even describe the topic is likely to struggle to write it in an engaging way.

For example, is there potential in a story about how a student found her love of poetry after leaving the violin behind? The way she describes it tells me a lot. Compare these two sample descriptions of her own topic (this is fictional, but based on actual conversations I’ve had with students):

I started playing the violin when I was younger, but I kind of want to explain that I did it for social and family pressures, not so much in elementary school, but later in junior high. And I thought I could talk about how writing poetry was like a way of going against that. And how my parents always encouraged me to do music, so at first I only wrote in my spare time even though it wasn’t really something that other people were doing. And then I could talk about how poetry took the creative side of me that music used represent. Basically, I’m a creative person. That’s what I want to get across.


The best decision I ever made was to quit playing the violin and start writing poetry. I’m so much happier now. I actually lose track of time when I write. It’s my favorite thing to do.

I’m not evaluating the student’s story-telling ability. But the first description sounds like a student who is working too hard to wring meaning from the experience. It’s not top-of-mind or from the heart. It sounds like so many college essays where a student scans her life for something that she thinks colleges will appreciate, then tries to draw a formative experience or lesson from it to share in her essay.

The second description isn’t just pithy—it’s real. She isn’t struggling at all to find the story or the meaning. It’s right there, spilling out of her. Her biggest challenge will be just fitting all she likely has to say about it within the word limit.

I’ve often said that the best stories for college essays write themselves. But that’s not entirely true. Great writing takes time, thought, and revision. The best stories for college essays present themselves. You don’t have to work too hard to find—or quite as hard to write—them.

Do what you can

Jay Mathews, Washington Post columnist and author of the fantastic Harvard Schmarvard, has been preaching college admissions sanity much longer than I have. So he got my attention when he reminded his readers that only about 10% of US high schools fit into the high-pressure category like those discussed in Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. In fact, he even points out that the far more prevalent problem in US education, especially at schools in low- to middle-income communities, is “asking students to do too little.” The problem at many schools isn’t that kids are loading up on AP classes—it’s that they don’t have any AP, or even enough solid subject, courses to take.

If you’re a student at one of those schools, there’s no cheerleading around the fact that you don’t have the same resources offered at schools in more affluent communities. But I hope you’ll remember that most colleges work very hard not just to evaluate applicants, but also environments. That means that your drive to do what you can will be recognized and appreciated.

A student who finds a way to achieve at a high school with no AP classes, no dedicated college advisors, and no college-going culture, is someone who deserves to be taken seriously as an applicant. Colleges understand this.

A student who takes a part-time job after school to contribute to her family’s finances is someone whose extracurricular time was filled with a necessary obligation. Most colleges would assign the same if not great value to that job.

I once worked pro-bono with a student who spent a total of four hours a day just getting to and from school. She had been removed from her home by the courts and assigned to live with her grandmother in a town two counties away. She didn’t want to switch schools because she was worried it might hurt her college chances if her credits didn’t transfer. So every day of her junior year, she got up at 5 a.m. to take a train and a bus to school. She wrote her essay about the commute, and how the trip home after school was a chance to do her homework and study when she previously would have spent time with her friends. That was the first time in her life that she got a 4.0 GPA. Her circumstances were far from perfect. But it was pretty clear that this kid was willing to do whatever she could to go to college.

The educational opportunities for kids at under-resourced schools is a much more serious problem than I can address effectively here. But I’ll just remind those students, parents, and counselors that the fewer resources you have, the less support you receive, the more challenges you face as a result of where you live, learn, parent, or counsel, the more laudable it will be when you find a way to do what you can, at whatever level that might be.

Connection powers

A friend of mine is a journalist with a forthcoming non-fiction book that’s getting a lot of attention, so much so that she’s regularly invited to speak to groups about the subject matter. Her public visibility also means that she frequently gets emails from people she’s never met asking questions, like:

Can you connect me with someone who can help me get a job at ______?

Can you pass my resume on to your contacts who might be able to hire me?

(Insert long personal story)…what’s your advice about the best way to handle this?

She does what she can, but in most cases, she finds the requests selfish and inappropriate. I would, too. To fulfill the requests wouldn’t just be an expenditure of time. Forwarding a resume or brokering an introduction is like offering a tacit approval of the asker (again, she’s never met these people). It puts her own reputation and relationships at stake. And in almost every case, there’s nothing being offered in return. It’s a win for the asker but a lose for her.

But given how often I write about the importance of initiative here, I can see why–particularly for a 17-year-old who’s learning the ropes of the world outside of high school–there might be some gray area between creating opportunities for yourself and taking selfish shortcuts.

I don’t think there’s a precise metric to follow to make sure you end up on the right side of the spectrum, but here are a few tips:

1. Please read this past post about deserving the help. It could help you avoid some embarrassing missteps.
2. Consider the order of the ask.
3. Be polite. Acknowledge that this person is busy. And if you get a helpful reply, send an effusive and sincere thank-you email, not a follow-up request for more help.
4. Give the person an out. Make it clear that you’ll understand if they aren’t able to help you.

The Internet has made it easy to connect with just about everyone. It’s up to all of us to use those connection powers wisely.

The arc of high school activities

I often write that when colleges evaluate a student’s extracurricular activities, they’re looking for evidence of impact. Have you made contributions that have fundamentally impacted this club, team, workplace, etc.? That’s also why a long list of activities in which you dabbled is less impressive than a short list of those to which you really dedicated the substantial time and energy it takes to make a noticeable impact.

But you may not find those activities right away.

If you’re starting your freshman or sophomore year of high school, and haven’t yet found where you love spending your time outside of class, that’s OK. This is the time to experiment. Try different things. If they don’t stick, replace them with things that look more appealing. Yes, you’ll need to occasionally have to get through some hard parts to really make the impact. But if you try something new and realize a few months down the road that you just don’t enjoy it, move on, and do so guilt-free.

Some students find their high school passion by age 14 or 15. Many more do not. For most applicants, the arc of their high school activities involves some early experimentation, followed by some pruning to make room for those few things that really light them up. Don’t put pressure on yourself to find them too early. Instead, just lean into whatever point on that arc you are at today.