Before you call or email a college…

Imagine you submitted a completed college application that you carefully prepared to make sure it included everything the college had asked for. And then several times a week for the next few months, someone from the college called or emailed you asking questions that you’d already listed on the application, like:

“What is your mailing address?”
“What major would you like to apply under?”
“What activities did you participate in as a junior?”
“Have you attended any other schools in the last four years?”
“What honors or awards have you won?”

After a while, you’d probably feel like saying, “I already told you all of this—just read the application!”

That’s not dissimilar to how colleges feel when a student (or worse, a parent) repeatedly calls or emails the admissions office to ask questions that are clearly answered on the website.

Most admissions officers I’ve met are nice people who genuinely want to be helpful to applicants. They would tell you that they are happy to answer your questions.

But they’d also tell you:

  1. They’re incredibly busy at this time of year.
  2. They always appreciate it when a student has taken the time to read the information they’ve painstakingly laid out on the website, particularly when it comes to the “Admissions” section, which spells out the requirements for a completed application.
  3. They prefer that you not harangue them with daily questions (see item #1).
  4. When a parent inquires, they can’t help but wonder why the student isn’t mature enough to handle it on their own (with the exception of questions that have to do with financial aid).
  5. They appreciate and recognize students who are polite and respectful. Please and thank you go a long way.

Start by carefully reading the directions on the “Admissions” section of the college’s website. If you have a question, take 5-10 minutes and make sure it’s not answered there. Then, if you can’t find the information you’re looking for, the student—not the parent—should feel free to reach out to the admissions office.

Paying for college: a primer

The idea of trying to pay for college can be intimidating. The potentially big bills and the seemingly complex system of applying for financial aid and scholarships can be enough to stop some families from taking the productive steps they need to take to help finance their children’s educations. So here’s my primer on the topic. Each of these five recommendations are important, and they’ll take time and some focus to execute properly. But I’ve distilled them into this short list to help readers see that it’s not a 100-item to-do list. A family who, along with their applicant, does just these five things will almost certainly be in a much better financial position to pay for college.

1. Start saving for college as soon as possible, preferably in a 529 savings plan.
The more you manage to save, the less you’ll need to rely on financial aid. And the more control you’ll have in your college destiny.

2. Become a competitive applicant.
A challenging curriculum combined with good grades and test scores can earn you more financial aid, which brings me to…

3. Apply to schools where you have a strong chance of admission, ideally those where you’d be in the top 10% of the class of incoming freshmen.
One of the best ways to get the money you need is to apply to those colleges most likely to pay. Financial aid offices earmark a certain percentage of money every year just to lure academically appealing students. Apply where you’ll appeal.

4. File the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
The FAFSA is the starting point to apply for financial aid at any college. Some colleges also require additional forms, and those will always be explained on the financial aid section of each college’s website. But failing to file the FAFSA will take you out of the running for most available aid.

5. Apply for outside scholarships.
These are awards from private companies, foundations, community organizations, churches and other benefactors. I intentionally listed this last because while many families believe that scholarships are the best way to pay for college, these awards actually account for about 5% of the aid that’s available. Landing comparatively small awards of a few hundred, or maybe a few thousand, dollars is worth it, especially if paying for college is a big concern. But don’t ignore the other items on the list and hope that scholarships will cover the cost.

How to talk to kids about school

Parents, if you were asked every day, “How was work?” would you give thoughtful, detailed answers every time? Chances are that as the question becomes more routine, so do your answers. Without something noteworthy to report, we’re likely to come back with a short, unrevealing response.

But what if someone routinely asked you questions that built on what you’d discussed before, like:

“How’d your meeting with the new supplier go?”
“Did you have a nice lunch with your team today?”
“I know you were worried about filling that position. Has anyone promising applied yet?”

You’d probably be a lot less likely to brush it off with a one-word answer.

Thoughtful questions get more thoughtful answers. They show that the asker has been paying attention and is genuinely interested. And they open up the chance to actually discuss something substantive.

So if your kids regularly respond to the question, “How was school today?” with the seemingly teenage mandated response of “fine” or “good,” try asking better questions, like:

“Do you like having a class with that much discussion?”
“That’s great that you have a favorite teacher. What makes her better for you than the others?”
“Which classes have more of your favorite students in them?
“If you could pick one class to attend every day, which one would you pick?”
“What would you change about your school if you were in charge?”

Notice that none of the questions have to do with grades or performance. That’s intentional. Most teenagers—even those who don’t do well academically—know that grades are important. Kids are graded, measured, evaluated, and compared enough as it is without asking them to recount all of it once they get home.

I’m not suggesting that you can’t or shouldn’t ever talk about grades. But the more you talk about performance, the less likely your student will be to cultivate that curiosity and love of learning that colleges find so appealing. As Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, associate professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California and author of Emotions, Learning, and the Brain says in this article, “Whether the grade is good or bad, you’re taking the student away from focusing on intrinsic interest and tying their experience to grades.”

Great together

At a wedding I attended last weekend, the groom’s father gave a heartfelt toast about raising a sensitive, happy boy who truly blossomed when he went to college. Dad spoke about watching his son throw himself into Model United Nations, spend a summer interning on the South Side of Chicago doing outreach for those who were HIV positive, and eventually emerge four years later a confident, mature, socially-conscious leader.

Today, the groom is a successful public relations executive. He’s also a proud graduate of Willamette University in Oregon.

This isn’t a post touting Willamette specifically. College applicants need to find the schools that best fit them. And just because Willamette sparked this transformation in the groom doesn’t necessarily mean it would have the same effect for every student.

But prestigious colleges don’t hold patents on transformative college experiences. A student who is eager to learn, grow, and take advantage of the opportunities that college has to offer can fulfill those goals at plenty of different schools. For you, that could be Willamette, Williams, Wabash, or Wesleyan.

It’s not about getting into what the rankings say are great colleges. It’s about finding schools where you can be great together.

Save for retirement, or college?

Saving for college, and saving for retirement. Parents know both are important, and many of us worry that we’re not saving as much as we should for one or both. But if you’ve ever considered doubling down on the retirement stash and then just relying on loans to pay for college, consider this tip for parents from financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, as shared in this piece.

“They should not forgo college savings in favor of retirement savings. ‘So long as the interest rate on the [college] loan is higher than the rate paid on [retirement] savings, you’re better off saving for college AND retirement,’ says Kantrowitz. ‘You’ll end up with more money for retirement than if you had just borrowed for college and repaid those loans.’”

More reasons to file your FAFSA

Courtesy of Money Magazine’s 4 Things to Know About the New FAFSA, here’s a well-argued response to any family who resists filing the FAFSA:

“Just submitting a FAFSA will automatically qualify you for a low-cost federal student loan of up to $5,500 for freshman year. The interest rate on undergraduate student loans is currently 3.8% plus about 1% in fees, which works out to an annual percentage rate of roughly 4.1%. The FAFSA is also required for many other kinds of aid, including work/study jobs; federal parent PLUS loans; scholarships from state agencies, private foundations, and colleges; and, in a few cases, merit aid.”

How to fall in like with less selective schools

If you want to have a successful college application process in just about every way imaginable, it’s hard to think of a better strategy than to start with a balanced college list, one with a healthy mix of schools (slightly) out of reach, some where you’ll likely get in, and a few where you’ll definitely get in. Students with balanced college lists have less stressful application processes, they get admitted to more schools, and they get more financial aid.

Where college list balance typically falls apart for students and parents is through a focus on prestigious colleges. Students or their parents believe that the schools they’re most likely to get into are somehow beneath them; they don’t see the point in wasting their time applying to schools that accept many of their applicants. They’d rather play the reach school lottery and double down with a few more applications to famous, highly selective colleges.

If your list has fallen out of balance and you’re having a hard time getting excited about schools that might readjust the scales, here’s a fast way to reengage with some colleges that are a lot more likely to say yes.

Imagine that every school on your existing list said no.

Unfortunately, most counselors see this happen every year. A few students combine a bad case of namebranditis with a refusal to apply to schools they think are beneath them, only to be left with no college options. And when the alternative is to attend no college at all, most of those students suddenly become a lot more open-minded about less famous colleges.

I’m not suggesting that you go college list haywire and apply to 25 schools. In fact, one big benefit of a balanced college list should be that you have a reasonable number of schools. For most students, that’s somewhere between 6-10 colleges depending on where you apply and what your counselor recommends.

Compared to those dream schools you most want to attend, plenty of other schools may not shine so bright. But those that seem dull today by comparison would have plenty of luster if they were your only options tomorrow.

You, your parents, and your counselor want you to get into those colleges you’d be most excited to attend. That’s the desired outcome. But it’s important to make sure you’ll have options if those schools don’t come through.

Don’t tell me or anyone else that none of the other schools are good enough. There are over 2,000 colleges in this country and plenty of them—including those that admit lots of applicants—are loaded with smart, interesting people to meet, fascinating experiences to be had, and plenty of learning and growth to be done.

You’ve spent plenty of time imagining yourself at your dream colleges, and it might be unpleasant to picture yourself anywhere else. But it would be much more unpleasant not to have a college to attend at all. Dream schools may say no, but a balanced college list means that others will say yes.

Here are two past posts, here and here, with advice about how to balance your list.

The just right approach

One extreme approach to college applications is to procrastinate until the impending deadlines leave you no choice but to get things done. But that’s stressful, risky, and almost never leads to applications and essays that are as good as they would have been had you started earlier and spent more time getting them right.

The other extreme is the student (or parent) who meticulously plans an application schedule. Every application, every essay prompt, every necessary to-do is itemized and scheduled on a calendar, spreadsheet, or other organizational tool of choice. It’s better than the wait-until-the-last-minute approach, but these schedules tend to fall apart quickly. Seniors are busy, and many of their schedules are in a constant state of flux. You just never know when you’ll end up rehearsing late, completing an AP government assignment, or getting stuck on one of those application essays that takes more than the allotted time to complete.

Patrick O’Connor has a reasonable approach that seems just right to me. As shared in his post for counselors, What to Say When Your Students are Freaked About College Apps:

“Carve a two-hour block out of Saturday or Sunday (or both), work on your applications then — and only then — and forget about them during the week. That way, you get to study and learn, work on the homecoming float, have a great senior year, and write great college essays to boot. Plus, your applications will be done by Thanksgiving, so you can spend Christmas break with your family, not with your computer.”

I’ve helped a lot of students apply to college. My counselors have helped even more. And I can tell you that depending on where you’re applying and how many applications you’re submitting, if you follow this schedule–two hours, Saturday and Sunday—for even just 2-3 weekends in a row, you will either be finished with applications, or you will have made such significant progress that your stress levels will lower considerably (and you’ll have momentum on your side).

Here’s the key, though. You’ve got to make those two-hour blocks count. Turn off all your notifications. Avoid all interruptions. Go to a library or someplace else quiet with nothing to distract you. And then focus like your college applications depend on it.

Five ways to show potential

Part of a college admissions officer’s job is to be a fortune teller. Who you were yesterday in high school is a lot less interesting to colleges than who you’ll be tomorrow in college. They choose a freshman class based on the predicted future success of the applicants. And while a track record of success in high school reveals a lot about an applicant’s preparation for the rigors of college, there’s another quality that, while hard to spot, is just as appealing–if not more so.


The word “potential” actually means something promising that has not yet been fully realized. An applicant with potential may have done good work in high school, but the potential means he or she has a good shot to do even better work once they get to college. So here are five ways to demonstrate potential to colleges. All of them are available to any student regardless of your GPA or test scores.

1. Be hungry.
(Figurative) hunger is a great pre-college trait. Are you hungry to learn as much as possible about the Civil War? Are you hungry to make a difference in your community? Are you hungry for a chance to play in the orchestra or serve on student council or design pages for the yearbook? Successful people aren’t satisfied just taking whatever happens to come along. They’re hungry to learn, help, accomplish and impact as much as possible. And successful high school students are hungry for more than just items to list on their college applications.

2. Capitalize on opportunities.
Not everything you do in high school will pay you back the same rewards. But applicants with potential recognize when they’re in a particularly good situation and try to capitalize on it. Do you have a favorite class or teacher? Did you get named a varsity starter, or get picked to play a major part in the musical, or get the part-time job you really wanted? These opportunities don’t come around every day. Now that yours is here, how will you extract the most from it? Will you try to challenge yourself, learn, and make as much of an impact as you possibly can? Or will you do just what’s asked of you until it’s time to move on to the next thing? High school is the perfect time to demonstrate that you recognize and appreciate these opportunities when they come along.

3. Get good at (good) failure.
Failing an exam because you didn’t study is a bad failure. But failing to win an office, failing to sink the free throws at the end of the game, failing to get that promotion at your part-time job in spite of your best efforts–those are good signs. They prove that you go after what you want and that you don’t shy away from things that are hard. And best of all, failing gives you the chance to show colleges your resiliency. Here are a few past posts, here and here, with examples of how to get good at good failing.

4. Be impatient for real experience.
It’s easy to sit back and talk about big plans, like how you plan to be premed because you want to help people, or how you want to run your own business someday. But a plan not pursued just remains a lot of talk. So why not start now? Take a class (in person or online). Get an internship or a part-time job. Read a book about the field. You don’t necessarily have to know what you want to do with your life or even what you want to study in college. But whatever you’re interested in or drawn to today, don’t just observe from afar. Take a few steps closer, maybe even to the point of getting some real experience if possible.

5. Let your excitement for college show.
A student who’s excited to attend college, to learn and grow and experience as much as possible, that’s a student who will work to satisfy that hunger (see #1) during their college years. Think about what you hope or expect to gain from college. Look for colleges that fit. Answer questions honestly about why you’re applying to your chosen schools. And don’t base your college excitement on being admitted to just one particular school (or a range of prestigious schools). Why? Because if your primary motivation in high school is just to get into a famous college, where’s the guarantee that you’ll keep being that same motivated, hardworking student once Prestige U actually lets you in?

And if you’re a “B” or “C” student, here’s a past post with a few more ways to show your potential to colleges.

Practicing paying attention

The evidence just keeps growing that multi-tasking increases the time you spend working and decreases the quality of what you produce. You end up doing more but getting less done. As this New York Times article points out:

“Indeed, multitasking, that bulwark of anemic résumés everywhere, has come under fire in recent years. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — which is to say, less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.”

It’s not easy for most of us to just disconnect and focus on one thing, but the article also goes on to give some helpful tips on how to practice paying attention.