Monday morning Q&A: How many colleges to apply to?

Kathryn asks:

The number of colleges that guidance counselors at our high school recommend students apply to has risen over the last decade – almost at the same pace as college tuition. This year they’re recommending students apply to 8-10 colleges. That number doesn’t seem unusual in our area (outside Boston). If the increasing number isn’t just specific to our area, why is this happening? Our family has theories and frustrations, since we have a student who can’t find 8 colleges that he wants to apply to.

You’re right, Kathryn—it’s happening, and not just in your area. There are a lot of reasons, but here are the three that are really driving that change. In no particular order:

1. Submitting multiple applications has gotten easier.
I completed my college applications using a typewriter. Then came online applications. Then came the Common Application, which allows students to complete one application and submit it to multiple colleges. Adding just 1, 2, or 8 more no longer necessarily requires a comparable addition in time and energy required to do so.

2. Lottery logic runs rampant.
Many students, particularly those who want to attend the most prestigious colleges, use lottery logic and assume that the more schools they apply to, the better their chances of getting in. But as I’ve written before, that logic doesn’t work. Harvard’s Dean of Admissions explained the flawed approach of applying to 20 highly selective colleges in a bid to improve your odds by using the analogy of an archer standing 1000 feet away from the target. His words: “The fallacy is to think that if you apply to all 20 schools that you will broaden the bull’s eye…all a student has done is drawn a circle around the pea-size target 20 times.”

3. Fear.
There was once a time when a student could apply to just 2-3 colleges and feel confident they’d be admitted to one. With over 2,000 colleges in the country, that’s still a viable approach, but not for the most popular colleges. Add in all the surrounding pressure, anxiety, and drama that the admissions process creates and you’re left with fear. That fear sounds like:

“What if I don’t get in anywhere?”

“What if I was wrong about the colleges on my list?”

“What if we don’t get financial aid?”

And many families choose to combat that fear by applying to even more colleges.

There’s no universally accepted number of schools students should apply to, but the best way to combat the three behaviors above is to create a balanced college list. Here’s a past post on just how to do that, and another for families who may need help falling in love with less famous colleges.

Thanks for your question, Kathryn. I’ll answer a different question next week. Here’s the form for readers to submit one of their own.

Updated advice on paying for college

Kalman Chany is a nationally recognized financial aid consultant and the author of Paying for College without Going Broke, a book I’ve consistently recommended since I started Collegewise in 1999. If you’re looking for advice on the best ways to save for college, to get the financial aid you need, and to avoid mistakes that can cost you thousands of dollars, I’ve never come across a single work with better or more thorough advice. He also updates the book every year, and the 2018 version was released last week. It includes line-by-line instructions for completing not only the updated FAFSA with all of its changes for this year, but also the CSS PROFILE application required by many private colleges.

I don’t have a personal or professional connection to the author—I’m just a fan of good advice that helps families, and this book is chock full of it.

Embracing “just fine”

I loved everything about Julie Surrat’s piece “In Praise of Mediocre Kids” except the title. “Mediocre” has such a pejorative connotation. But what she’s really preaching, and I agree with, is that we should celebrate those pursuits that make our kids happy even in the absence of extraordinary talent or achievement. No adult achieves at the highest levels with everything we try. And a student who throws her all into a subject or activity but doesn’t necessarily reach the top is just fine.

“It’s not easy to ignore societal pressure to push, push, push; to trust that our children will find their own way without our stepping in to be their street sweeper, snowplow, Zamboni, or whatever you want to call it. But here’s some perspective: Our parents didn’t sign us up for all the extras—in fact, they didn’t sign us up for much at all, instead booting us outside to make our own fun in the neighborhood. They were more concerned with whether we ate our vegetables than how many goals we scored (at a game they likely didn’t attend). And look how well we turned out. We don’t owe our success to private coaching and tutoring; we owe it to our intrinsic desire to be our best self. That’s what we need to focus on with our children: building their self-esteem; creating a safe environment where it’s okay to fail and okay to try again; and encouraging them to be nice, honest, and loyal. And, perhaps most important of all, embracing mediocrity.”


For counselors: download our NACAC notes

NACAC Notes 2017The annual NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) conference serves up some of the best, most up-to-date information about college admissions. But it’s expensive to attend, and many high schools aren’t able to send their counselors.

Since 2009, our Collegewise counselors have shared with high school counselors our notes from the sessions we attended. This year’s bundle of notes is complete, and you can download your copy here.

Please share them with your colleagues who might be interested (there are no copyrights or other restrictions). I hope you find them helpful.

Just (let them) make progress

Studies keep showing that helicopter parenting is bad for kids. Back off, don’t run their lives, let them fail and learn, etc. But other recommendations, like those in this article, remind readers that “…a little hovering is just right.” I sympathize with those well-intentioned parents who want to do the right thing by their kids but may struggle to find the right balance between hovering constantly and heaving them out of the nest entirely.

I can’t imagine a formula that would effectively dictate to any parent the precise measurements of exactly how engaged they should be with the high school and college lives of each of their kids. Parents, kids, and circumstances are different. And each deserves their own appropriate consideration.

But here’s a suggested guideline: Are you and your kids making progress?

Not compared to other parents and kids. Not compared to what an article or a speaker or a blogger like me tells you. But compared to where you were a month, six months, or a year ago.

Are you doing less for your kids than you were?

Are they able to do more for themselves than they were?

Are you stepping in, taking over, managing, and directing less than you were?

Are they needing less direction, less intervention, and less delegation than they were?

Are you seeing a more capable, mature, independent young adult than you were before?

Bottom line: Are they making more of their own decisions, handling more of their own problems, finding more of their own solutions, and learning more from both failure and success than they were before?

Progress is the key to a work in progress. Just (let them) make it.

Text talk is for text messages

To the chagrin of language, spelling, and grammar purists everywhere, many best practices in the art of written communication seem to be suspended when writing a text message. Rules and protocols like capitalization and punctuation slow down sending. And it’s hard for many people to justify writing 50 words if 5 are sufficient to get both your message and your meaning through. Given how many of today’s teens do the majority of their written communication over text, it’s no surprise that the truncated style of text talk seeps into other writing.

College applicants, please remember that while it might now be socially appropriate to suspend the rules of capitalization, punctuation, spelling, etc. when texting, that same style is not appropriate for written communication during the admissions process. When sending emails to admissions offices, college interviewers, teachers, counselors, etc., remember that what you put on the page sends a message about you, your writing, and in many cases, how seriously you’re taking both the task at hand and the process.

I’m not suggesting you need to pen a novel-like, publishable piece of work. But you likely wouldn’t talk to these people face-to-face the same way you’d talk with your friends, so don’t write to them that way, either. Pretend your message will be printed and added to your file for future review (that often happens). And save the text talk for actual texting.

Here’s a past post that includes some relevant links to help you write good email messages.

Enrolling now: “How to Write Letters of Recommendation”

My online course for counselors and teachers, How to Write Letters of Recommendation, is currently open for enrollment. I think you’ll find that this course has the power to transform the way you and your colleagues approach these letters. You’ll give your students an even bigger admissions lift. And you’ll spend less time writing, rewriting, and wondering if you’re giving the colleges what they’re looking for. The course includes videos and downloadable materials, all of which can be completed at your own pace. It’s fast, it’s focused, and best of all, it’s just $19, with a money-back guarantee if you’re not satisfied for any reason. All the details are here. I hope you’ll join.

Monday morning Q&A: the FAFSA and merit scholarships

Samantha asks:

Could a decision not to file a FAFSA for need-based aid negatively impact a student’s eligibility for possible merit scholarships? We have diligently saved for college and will not qualify for financial aid, but the cost still won’t be easy with other children at home. My child is a top student with a perfect GPA and near perfect test scores, and many applications ask if we will be applying for financial aid. We can’t lie and say yes. But checking “No” makes it seem like we don’t want help. Most financial aid departments have been somewhat vague when we ask.

Good question, Samantha. The foremost expert in all things financial aid and scholarships, Mark Kantrowitz, certainly wasn’t vague in this New York Times piece, “Answers to Readers’ Questions About Scholarships”:

“Never check off a box that says that you are not applying for financial aid. You can turn down the specific types of aid later. Some colleges will not consider your child for merit-based aid if you indicate that you do not need financial aid. Most colleges practice need-blind admissions, so checking the [“No”] box will not increase your chances of getting in.”

I’ll go even further than Kantrowitz does. Every admissions and financial aid officer, every knowledgeable counselor, and every qualified financial aid advisor I’ve ever heard, read, or actually spoken with about this topic advises against families assuming they will not qualify for need-based aid. The formulas are complex, they can vary by school, and they can be impacted by the strength of the student relative to the rest of the applicant pool at each college. You have nothing to lose but the time spent completing the forms.

For Samantha, and for any other readers who might still need some convincing to file a FAFSA, I’m sharing two past posts, here and here, that I hope will help you.

Thanks for your question, Samantha. I’ll answer a different question next week. Here’s the form if other readers would like to submit one of their own.

Avoidable public speaking mistakes

I’m blessed to work in a company full of public speakers ranging from capable to truly great. But I’ve been cursed by years of attending conferences, weddings, and other speaking-worthy events where well-intentioned speakers repeat the same blunders. You don’t necessarily have to be a natural-born public speaker to get the job done, but anyone who stands up in front of the room at the very least owes the audience a speech free of easily avoidable mistakes. Here’s my incomplete list.

What’s the point?
Just because it’s interesting to you doesn’t mean it’s interesting to your audience. I recently sat through a graduate school address filled with inside jokes and esoteric references about the fellow students’ favorite candy to binge on during study time and the hue of the lighting in the specific rooms on campus. Those references may have meant something to them, but given that each graduate had at least one family member with them, the majority of the audience had no idea what the speaker was talking about it. As you prepare your speech, keep asking yourself, “Who is my audience, and would they care about this?” A reader can delete an email or skip to the next article. But an audience member is being held hostage. Speakers owe it to them to keep it interesting.

A long list of thanks
Many speakers like to begin with a long list of thanks—to organizers, sponsors, and other people who are rarely siting through the speech themselves. If someone in attendance deserves to be thanked, thank away. But otherwise, just get to it. We’ll thank you for it.

Allow me to introduce myself (for a really long time)
Did the audience willingly show up to hear you speak? Did an organizer introduce you? Great—the audience knows who you are. Skip the introduction and jump right in. If the audience doesn’t yet know who you are, give us the 30-second elevator version of your intro. We’re here, we’re listening, and you’ve got our attention. Spend less time convincing us why you’re worth listening to, and more time actually telling us something worth listening to.

Tech troubles
You can’t help it if the mic goes out in the middle of your talk. But failing to test your mic, your laptop, and any other tech before you get started only to end up troubleshooting live on stage? That’s on you. I recently sat through a speech with two concurrent speakers who spent the first ten minutes trying to get their microphone to work. By the time it did, they’d lost their audience. Test ahead of time and make sure everything works. Even better, be wary of making your speech so reliant on tech that you’re toast if there’s trouble (Steve Jobs once said that people who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint). A tech-free presentation will be tech-trouble-free, too. But if you will rely on electronics or other media, make sure they work before you start.

“And now, I’ll read slide 22 to you out loud.”
If you’re just going to read your on-screen bullet points out loud, cancel the speech, email your presentation, and save the audience the trip.

Going over your time
Don’t do 20 minutes when you’re asked to do 10. Don’t end at 7:45 when you were supposed to end at 7:30. But all the other speakers went long, and I prepared for this! Doesn’t matter. End on time, even if you need to cut your talk short. The great orators of our time may have left audiences thinking, “I wish that speech were longer.” But most of us just aren’t that good. Trust me, your audience will thank you, which is exactly what you want them to do when you finish speaking.

No end in sight
I’ve now been to three weddings where a groomsman’s toast went so long, and so far off course, the bride and groom had to ask him to stop. It was as if those speakers were hoping to meander their way during the talk to find an ending. Wherever you’re speaking, treat attention like a precious, scarce resource. The more of it you demand from your audience, the more likely you are to expend it all. Shorter is almost always better. And if you don’t know where you’ll end, don’t even start.

Refusal to read the room
If you went on a first date and the person across the table was yawing, looking at their watch, and generally looking like they didn’t want to be there, would you take it as a good sign? Probably not. Your audience will tell you how they’re feeling and how you’re doing during a speech. Just look at them. Agreeing nods, responsive chuckles, and enthusiastic note-taking are good signs. Yawns, time-checks, and heads nodding off are not. A less-than-warm reaction might not always be fair or rational. In fact, it might not even be your fault, especially if you’re following several other speakers who committed mistakes on this list. But forging ahead as planned no matter how long it takes isn’t always a best practice. Read your audience and be prepared to adjust as necessary.

Ending with a whimper
The end of your speech is your moment, your time to end on a high note. And yet too many speakers spend too little time preparing for that ending. “So, unless there are any questions, I think that’s all I have. . .” Really? That’s your ending? The end of your speech is the last memory you can give to your audience. Make me laugh, think, reflect, etc. Tell me what you want me to do, change, or notice moving forward. Leave me with something good to remember you and your speech by. Last impressions matter even more than first impressions. Don’t let a whimper at the end ruin all the material that preceded it.

Find your fun

One of the worst symptoms of the college admissions arms race is the disappearance of downtime, frivolity, or anything else that can’t be directly connected to a college admissions advantage. Kids stop being kids and spend all their time resume building, measuring the worth of every potential choice with, “Will this help me get in?”

Here’s one deceptively simple way to combat that. Many colleges, and college interviews, ask the question, “What do you do for fun?” To not have a genuine answer that lights up would actually be an admissions disadvantage. You’re hurting your chances if you don’t regularly have a little fun.

Please don’t tell me you don’t have time. If that’s actually a true statement, you’ve just identified a problem. Now it’s time to change it.

And if you don’t have an answer to the “What do you do for fun?” question, now is the time to find one.