Match colleges to you

Many students approach the college process like performers trying to please judges. They spend their time wondering what the colleges are looking for, then frantically try to do those things. But those applicants often forget that they, not the colleges, are the ones with all the options.

So here’s a suggested exercise for juniors who are just starting your college search:

I’m going to assume that if you’re a student reading this blog, (1) you want to go to college, and (2) you’re at least a little excited about the idea. Before you think about specific schools, make a comprehensive list of everything you want to do when you’re in college. Nothing is out of bounds, so don’t edit yourself. If you want to study biology with a Nobel Prize-winning professor, write it down. If you want to minor in theater, write it down. If you want to go to football games, join a fraternity, play late night video games with new friends or just finally experience life on your own, add it to the list. If you need a little inspiration, here’s a past post.

Whether you’ve got 10 or 100 things on the list, it’s a start. We call this a college wish list. Now, as you learn about schools, you know what to look for—the items on your wish list.

A savvy college shopper will change your wish list over time. You’ll add new things, take away others, and rearrange your priorities about which items on the list are non-negotiable and which you can take or leave. But the point of the exercise is that you’ll be consistently training yourself not to ask questions like, “What is Dartmouth looking for?” Instead, you’ll be asking, “What am I looking for, and which schools can offer those things to me?”

If you do this for 6 or 8 or 12 months, you may put some items on your list that can only be found at a particular school, such as a specific professor, program, or opportunity that simply can’t be found anywhere else. Those will make for great inclusions in your “Why this college?” essays. Unlike many other applicants, you won’t just be visiting the website and grabbing a few statistics to include in the essay. Instead, you’ll have some good college soul-searching to back those desirable offerings up.

But more importantly, you’ll probably be consistently reminded of just how many schools can actually give you what you’re looking for, whether or not they’re prestigious.

So instead of making a college list and then trying to match yourself to those schools, start with a wish list and match the colleges to you.

Let kids do the knocking

Last week, my nine-year-old neighbor knocked on my door and gave me a pitch about sponsoring him in his school music program’s upcoming jog-a-thon. He was a little nervous and probably not as polished as he likely became ten neighbors later. But he stood there on my front porch and gave it a good shot, explaining that the funds would go to pay the music teacher’s salary and telling me why he likes playing the cello.

The best part? His mother stood twenty feet behind him, not saying a word. She just smiled and offered silent sales support. I would have written him the check even if he didn’t live right next door.

That nine-year-old kid was doing something too many high school kids skip (often because their parents take over the project). He’s looking an adult in the eye, shaking a hand, selling an idea, etc. It’s hard to imagine those skills not coming in handy in the future. And he’s learning them because his mother is letting her kid do the knocking himself.

From selling sponsorships, to seeking help from teachers, to securing part-time jobs or volunteer opportunities, when parents jump in and take over the process for their kids, the students might get what they (or you) wanted, but they miss out on the learning.  It’s the learning from the knocking that will help them be successful in the long run.  Here are a few past posts on this topic, including five fundraising tips and a nice reminder (with a link to a great Seth Godin post).


Should you send it?

Breanne in our Irvine, California office shared a nifty graphic from a Tufts admissions blog post entitled, “Should I send it?”  It demonstrates visually how infrequently the act of sending unsolicited, extra materials with your application is actually a good thing.  I’ll stop short of saying it holds true for every college (my rule is always to follow each college’s explicit directions—if they don’t ask for it, don’t send it), but I love how this graphic pushes students to make every effort to share the necessary information within the application itself before you rely on additional materials.

What would you actually discuss?

The most common college essay advice is some version of, “Write about something important to you.” It’s good advice, but often difficult to execute. For example, playing on the football team may be important to you. But if you write an essay about how football has taught you the importance of committing to your goals, you’ve just written an essay that thousands of other students will write. You followed the advice, but it didn’t serve you well.

Here’s a different version of that advice:

Imagine you had a relaxed, 1-hour conversation with your favorite teacher at a coffee shop (I’m assuming your favorite teacher is someone you like and respect).

What do you think you might talk about?
What do you imagine you would say about those topics?

Chances are, you wouldn’t go on for 20 minutes detailing what it means to be on the football team, explaining why teamwork is important, or recounting a teammate’s injury and how that taught you that it’s just a game, after all.

But you might talk about how great it was that your dad left work early to come watch you play the first time you were named as a starter.

You might talk about how the fact that you’ve never been successful at sports didn’t stop you from learning how to punt a football and practicing all summer so you could try out for the team.

You might talk about why you love being on the team even though you’ve never gotten a single minute of playing time.

Those are real conversations you might have with an adult you like and respect. And that’s why those topics, each of which is a real example from a Collegewise student, are great choices for college essays.

Asking yourself, “What do they want to hear?” or “What’s going to sound good?” is the worst way to start a college essay. Those are the same questions your competition is asking, and a surprising number of students will reach identical conclusions.

Instead, write your essay as though you were having a real conversation with an adult you respect and feel comfortable with. You’re still following the advice and writing about something important to you. But you’ll do so in a way that makes an admissions officer want to keep reading. And more importantly, you’ll stand out from the other applicants.

Embracing beginnings and endings

Madeline Levine over at Challenge Success has some good advice in this post for parents about how to embrace and even enjoy the transition of sending your kids off to college. My favorite part:

“Growing up, growing older, letting our children move into their own lives are not exactly decisions. They simply happen. Better to meet these transitions with optimism, enthusiasm, humor and grace. Life is all about endings and beginnings. For our children. And for us.”

First, raise happy and healthy kids

I got an email last week from a former Collegewise parent. What she wrote didn’t surprise me at all, but it completely made my week.

She and her husband put four kids through our Collegewise program.  As is often the case with siblings, these kids were very different from each other.  They ran the gamut in terms of their academic achievements (from A’s to C’s), their chosen activities, and their personalities. And they attended four very different colleges—from an Ivy League school to a school that accepts almost everyone who applies.

But these four very different siblings had one thing in common—they were good kids. These were the kinds of kids who would voluntarily show up to cheer on their siblings at their respective events. They each did their best in school albeit with different results. They were nice to their fellow teens. They were always polite and respectful with adults. They loved their family and were beaming happily in the annual holiday card photo we’d receive. Not surprisingly, their wildly different GPAs, test scores, and college options did not change the unconditional love and pride they all received equally from their parents.

Their mother’s email to me detailed how well each of them is doing. Three are successful professionals about to get married and start families of their own soon. One is in his senior year of college and enjoys being spoiled when he visits his big sisters.

But she signed off with the most important update of all:

“The kids are happy and healthy, and I am blessed.”

In that one sentence, she summed up what I have to imagine is every parent’s biggest hope for their kids—that they are happy and healthy.

The stress of the college admissions process can make you feel like a GPA, test score, or decision from a particular college will fundamentally impact your kids’ ability to be happy and healthy in the future. It won’t.

Admissions anxiety might occasionally make you feel like the outcomes are somehow a measure of your parenting. They’re not.

The entire process can feel like a high-stakes, escalating arms race where all but the highest achievers will emerge unscathed. It isn’t.

There’s a lot to focus on when you’re a parent. And there are times when GPAs and test scores and other parts of the process will demand some of your attention. But don’t lose sight of the most important goal of all—to raise happy and healthy kids.

The GPA and test scores and even admissions decisions will fade. But the happiness and health have staying power.

Is your ambition worth the price?

Ambition is a great thing. When you combine it with focus and a work ethic, you’ve got the traits successful people use to get where they want to go.

But it’s important to ask yourself—what price am I paying to pursue this ambition?

Here’s an example. If you’re relentlessly focused on doing well in school so you can learn and prepare yourself to succeed in college, kudos. The hard work seems like a fair price to pay for ambition (especially given that your odds are roughly 100% that the work will pay off in some way).

But if you’re relentlessly focused on doing well in school so you can get into a prestigious college, your ambition and work ethic are still great. But your odds are not so good. And more troublingly, your ambition may come at a high price.

I’ve met plenty of students who were so focused on getting into a prestigious college that they refused to apply to or even consider schools where their chances of admission were strong. Those students are filled with anxiety throughout the entire process. Many are ultimately left without colleges they were excited to attend. In the worst cases, some are left with no college options at all. Those students have paid a terrible price for their ambition.

I would never tell a student to dream smaller.  But if you aspire to attend a prestigious college and you’re doing the work to get there, please don’t pay too high a price to pursue that ambition. Embrace your ambition, but at the right price. Patrick O’Connor’s newest column shows you how.

Parents: want responsible, conscientious kids?

Here’s an excerpt from the article How Helicopter Parenting is Ruining College Students (the study referenced was done by two management professors):

“The study showed that those college students with ‘helicopter parents’ had a hard time believing in their own ability to accomplish goals. They were more dependent on others, had poor coping strategies and didn’t have soft skills, like responsibility and conscientiousness throughout college, the authors found.”

It’s not that parents should completely sever ties with your college student. But college is preparing them for life after college. Your job is to step back so they can learn the necessary skills. For parents of high school students, now is the time to start a taper period.


Ten not-to-do’s for parents

Liz Willen doesn’t claim to be a college admissions expert. But she is a parent of a college applicant, and she has covered education as a writer for many years. I think most of her Ten things not to do when your child is applying to college—don’t talk about test scores, don’t think of the admissions outcomes as a reflection of your parenting, don’t pin hopes on one or two colleges, etc.—are spot on.

The one adjustment I’d make is to #7’s “DO NOT anticipate much personal attention, guidance and hand-holding from school counselors if you attend a large public high school. Their caseload is too big and they simply do not have the time.”

My revision: “Don’t make assumptions about how much help you will or will not receive from your high school counselor.”

Is it true that many public school counselors are too busy to provide one-on-one attention to all of their college applicants? Yes, and many of the counselors would be the first to tell you so. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t help you at all or that you’ll need to pay someone else for guidance.

Only your counselor can tell you what you can or cannot reasonably expect in terms of personal attention. So ask what level of assistance is reasonable to expect. Even better, have your student ask. And do so before you actually need the help.

Secrets to time management

Dan Ariely, a psychology and behavioral economics professor at Duke, shares six secrets to being more efficient. Ironically, I thought the article itself was not at all efficient—too many links and videos and other distractions trying to turn my attention someplace else. But two of the tips in particular seemed valuable, especially for high school students hoping to improve their grades:

1. Control your environment.
Great work doesn’t happen just anywhere. You’ve got to create the right environment. How do the most productive computer programmers get the job done? As Ariely puts it:

“…top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.”

2. Email kills productivity.
Ariely points out that interruptions of any kind kill productivity. But email is the worst of the killers because as Ariely puts it:

“People think that checking email refreshes them. It doesn’t. If you want to get refreshed, close your eyes, meditate, breathe deeply, or think about some things that are important. The reality is the right way to do things is shut your email down and focus on what you’re doing.”