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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.

The (potentially) perfect fit

Collegewise Class of 2016 senior, Sarah, recently made a decision that would surprise many high school students and parents—she’s decided to attend Case Western Reserve University over Cal (UC Berkeley). I think her experience might benefit students who are about to enter their own college search process, and she gave me permission to share her story here.

I know there are plenty of people (Collegewise counselors, high school counselors, and Case Western alums, to name a few) who find nothing inherently surprising about Sarah’s decision. Case and Cal are both wonderful schools. But in a process that’s driven so heavily by a perception that selectivity equals quality, it’s always refreshing to see a student set aside outside factors like rankings and prestige and instead choose a school based on where she believes she can be happy and successful.

Sarah sent her Collegewise counselor an email detailing all the reasons why she came to the conclusion that Case was the place for her. Case felt, to her, like a more flexible, nurturing environment, characteristics she knew she would appreciate after attending several college programs over her high school summers. Sarah investigated the curriculum and appreciated Case’s focus on preparing students for the workplace. She loved the Sears think[box] building that allows students to use 3D printers to bring their creations to life. She’ll be able to feed her interest in music with $15 student tickets to the Cleveland Orchestra concerts, and can even take the occasional conservatory-level classes from the Cleveland Institute of Music, which shares dorms with Case.

And these are just a few of the many qualities and offerings that she researched, considered deeply, and ultimately helped her see Case Western Reserve as her home for the next four years.

“Fit” can be an elusive concept for high schoolers choosing colleges. The teenager you are today is not the same person as the young adult who will emerge over the next four years. And while you can visit a college, you can’t really test drive one. How can you be expected to find a perfect fit between a version of yourself you don’t yet know and a college you can’t experience fully until you officially enroll?

But what you can do is take a lesson from Sarah’s book. Give your college search the attention it deserves. Look for places you feel match you well even though you can never be sure they’re perfect. You might ultimately decide that a prestigious college is your fit. But you’ll be a more confident and successful applicant (and college student) if you arrive at that conclusion yourself. Don’t let rankings and reputations and other outside criteria make that decision for you.

Chances are, you won’t find a school that’s a preemptive perfect fit. But a thoughtful, deliberate college search can help you find one that’s potentially perfect.

Avoiding potential admissions regret

There are two categories of college-planning decisions families need to make throughout high school–those that are likely to impact the admissions outcomes, and those that will not. The families who have the most success with—and enjoyment during—the process are very good at distinguishing between the two.

Which standardized tests will you take? Will you enroll in AP English? How will you address your struggles in your biology class? These decisions are likely to impact your admissibility to particular colleges. That doesn’t mean the answers are necessarily obvious—it just means that it’s worth investing the energy to find the right answer. Visit the websites of the colleges that interest you. Talk to your counselor. Ask a rep at a college fair. Go to the sources, ask questions, and find the information you need to make an informed choice.

But will you play tennis or join the jazz band? Will you spend your summer visiting your relatives or working a part-time job? Will you write your essay about your experience getting your black belt in karate or about your math club’s adventures in problem sets?

Yes, those decisions are important because they involve you. You want to enjoy your activities, have a good summer, and write a college essay you’re proud of. But none of those queries in isolation are likely to change the outcome. Get involved in the activity you think you’ll enjoy the most. Try to spend your summer in a way that makes you happy and productive. Write your college essay about what you want to write, not about what you think the colleges want to hear from you. The chosen path will not be the factor that pushes you towards the yes or the no pile.

Families who agonize over every decision usually do it because they have good intentions and they’re afraid of potential future regret. They don’t want to make a college-planning decision in 10th grade and find out two years later their student is inadmissible to her dream college because of it. But I honestly cannot recall a single instance where a family I’ve met had good intentions and still managed to make one college-planning decision that was legitimately regrettable in perpetuity.

The information you need to distinguish between decisions that will impact the admissions outcome and those that will not is readily available. Do the colleges’ websites mention a requirement or strong preference? Does your high school counselor have a clear recommendation? If yes, then it’s important, and you should treat it as such.

But if a college doesn’t express a preference for your choice, and if your high school counselor advises that there’s no right answer and that you should worry less about making a mistake, take that as a trusted sign that whatever decision you’re facing is not the kind that carries potential admissions regret.

Be potentially perfect

Any selection process doesn’t just evaluate who you are today—it’s actually trying to predict who you’ll be tomorrow. Will this student make an impact at our college? Can this programmer do great work at our company? Is this person someone I want a long-term relationship with? Each of those decisions is based largely on potential. And potential is often found in the intangibles.

Just because you get straight A’s in high school doesn’t guarantee a college that you’ll do the same once you join their campus. The student council president might never win another election. The starting third-baseman might never play again after high school. Teenage musicians, philanthropists, photographers—who you are in high school is not a promise of who you’ll be tomorrow. And it shouldn’t be—you’re only seventeen.

But the student who loves to learn isn’t likely to turn that off after high school. The student who’s passionate about something in high school is more likely to bring that trait with them even if they redirect it to something different. And a nice kid who gets along well with peers and teachers probably won’t morph into a jerk after he moves into a dorm. Few applicants offered admission are perfect, but those who demonstrate these traits have a lot of potential to be perfect at the right college.

I notice this during our hiring process at Collegewise, too. There’s rarely such a thing as a perfect applicant, someone who presents the impeccable combination of pedigree, experience, and personality to appear as if they were made just for us. It’s a lot more common to find someone who’s proven that they have potential. They’ve got passion, drive, and curiosity. They’ve demonstrated those traits over and over again, even at jobs that they didn’t necessarily love. We don’t know for sure if they’ll be perfect here. But those intangibles are strong signals that they’re potentially perfect. And that’s a good reason to give someone a shot.

Colleges don’t expect perfection. They’re more interested in potential, a sign that you’re bound for great things. Yes, colleges want you to demonstrate that trait with your classes, grades, activities, etc. And a track record of hard work and success is your strongest starting point. But remember that intangibles, the things that can’t always be measured on a transcript or a resume, can be great signs of what you could be capable of at the right school. Potentially perfect tomorrow is more important than perfect today.

A potential tool for private counselors

One of the challenges of starting a private counseling business (or any small business) is figuring out how you’ll handle things that come with being a small business owner, like:

How will you accept credit cards?
How will you handle bookkeeping?
How will you keep track of customer contacts and files?
How will you manage projects with your customers?
How will you generate invoices?
How will you track time if you bill hours?
Will you give customers a way to pay online?

There might be a way for you to handle all of that, and more, with one service.

17hats is web-based software for “businesses of one.” They say their software is specifically designed to be simple enough for one person to use, and their plans, which start at $13 per month, seem reasonable.

I’m not a customer, as Collegewise is probably too large to use them, and we already have our own tools in place that are working well for us. But Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp and a business thought leader I really admire, mentioned in his twitter feed that the 17hats offering had really impressed him. I checked out their website and can say that I would have considered using it when I started Collegewise, especially given that there’s a free trial period, the price is guaranteed to you forever once you enroll, and you can cancel at any time.

Here’s the site if you’d like to give them a look.

Measuring potential

Parents, would you rather your student:

  • Get an A in chemistry with the help of a tutor, or get a part-time job entirely on her own?
  • Have high SAT scores, or have the personal skills to have a mature conversation with an adult?
  • Be the one with the skills to start at tailback, or be the one with the initiative to organize the team workouts over the summer?
  • Hold an office in a club, or have the confidence to suggest and run a new project?
  • Get an admission to Columbia or get comments from teachers about being a great kid?
  • Be a great test taker or be a great friend/sibling/son/daughter?
  • Have the skill to get the lead in the school play, or have the grace to congratulate the kid who got picked over him?
  • Be recognized at awards night or be missed by teachers and students when she graduates?

It doesn’t necessarily need to be one or the other. But grades, test scores, and accolades aren’t the only measures of potential.

When considering college costs, evaluate the potential partnership

Parents, when you question whether a particular college is worth the money, remember that you’re evaluating a proposed partnership between the college and your student.  It’s like deciding whether to invest in two companies who’ve just announced they’re teaming up; you need to do your due diligence on both parties to decide if it’s a good investment.

Families should evaluate colleges.  Learn about the mission of the school, the majors offered, the class size, the focus on teaching, the academic and personal support, and lots of other categories that will impact your student’s experience.   

But a lot of parents forget to evaluate the other partner—the student.  A college can only do so much, and both parties need to work together for the partnership to succeed.  

If you have a student who’s been academically disengaged in high school and he wants to go to an out-of-state (and more expensive) university because he wants to be at a big school with good snowboarding, you’ve got some hard questions to ask.

Is your student going to be more academically engaged in college?  Will he put his hand up in class when he has questions and visit the free tutoring center when he needs even more help?  Is he going to meet with an academic advisor and look for a major that excites him? Will he take advantage of all the opportunities that are available to him while his in college?

If he doesn’t do those things, is it really fair to blame the college?

I’m not arguing that B and C students don’t deserve to go to the colleges they’re excited about.  Lots of formerly B and C students become A students in college.  But that happens when the partnership is a good fit and both parties do their part. 

College is expensive and parents have every right to question the value. But when you do, don’t just evaluate what the college proposes to do.  Think about your student, too, and evaluate what both parties propose to do together. 

You can find even more advice in our “Financial Aid and Scholarships” video.  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download. 

How “B” and “C” students can show their potential to colleges

Too many students believe that if you don’t have perfect grades, perfect test scores, and a certificate proclaiming that you invented plutonium, you’re not going to get into college today.  That’s just not true.  If you’re a “B” or even a “C” student, you can still go to a good college if you want to.  Here a few tips to give you even more college options.   

1.  Remember that it’s never too late to improve.
If you feel that your GPA isn’t a good representation of how well you can really do, start improving now.  It’s almost certainly not too late.  Colleges will look closely at your junior year performance, and many will even take the first semester of your senior year into account.   They’ll also pay attention to your trend of improvement.  Don’t give up.  Show them that you’re getting better with age.  Even if you’ve only got one semester left to show colleges what you’re capable of doing, show them!  Start now.

2.  Maximize your academic strengths.
Yes, it’s important to try hard in all your classes.  But a lot of students spend so much time trying to fix academic weaknesses that they forget to make the most of their natural academic strengths.  If you’ve always liked history, take demanding history courses.  Be especially engaged your history classes by raising your hand and asking questions.  Take a Civil War history class over the summer at a local community college.  Colleges aren’t just looking at your overall GPA.  They’re always looking for individual areas of academic spark.  

3.  Be a savvy college shopper.
Don’t lament the fact that you won’t necessarily be competitive for the same twenty schools everyone else wants to attend.  Instead, embrace just how many college options you really have.  There are 2500 colleges out there and all but about 100 of them take virtually everyone who applies.   Buy a college guidebook.  Go to a local college fair.  Make it your mission to find colleges that are right for you.  (They are out there, we promise!)  You’ll be a lot more optimistic and the colleges will be impressed with your thorough college research. 

4.  Take responsibility for your academic performance.
A lot of students try to blame other people for their own academic shortcomings, saying things like, “I got a ‘D’ because my teacher didn’t like me.”  Colleges don’t want students who make excuses.  If you haven’t done as well as you’d like to have done in high school, admit it and be honest about why that happened.  Show colleges that you’ve learned from your mistakes by admitting fault and turning your performance around immediately.  Colleges will be impressed by the maturity you show when you take responsibility and do what it takes to change.    

5.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Many of the students who earn the best grades are also the ones who aren’t afraid to admit when they just don’t get it.  There’s no shame in asking for some help.  So if you didn’t understand a single syllable in your trigonometry class today, ask the teacher for help.  If you studied really hard and still did poorly on your chemistry test, meet with your teacher and try to find out where you went wrong.  And if you’re having trouble in a number of your classes and think you might need to make some changes, talk with your counselor and get her advice.  Students who are willing to ask for a little extra help when they need it are the ones who impress teachers, counselors and colleges.

For potential Wolverines: Advice University of Michigan applicants

It's not easy to be personal when you get 24,000 applications to review.  But that's what University of Michigan does.  Applicants have to write multiple essays.  You've got to get letters of recommendation.  You've got to compose a profane song about why Michigan will beat the snot out of Ohio State next year (yeah, I made that last one up). 

Grades and test scores still drive the process, but it's clear that Michigan is taking the time to evaluate more than just your numbers; they're going to give you a thoughtful and thorough review.  It's important that you be just as thoughtful and thorough when you complete your application, so here are a few tips.  

Speaking of tips, read Michigan's


Michigan gives away some good advice about how to write your essays.  In particular, pay close attention to the "What we're looking for" section.  It's got great advice like, "Remember that athletics can be a reason, but should not be the only reason you want to come to Ann Arbor!"

How to approach the short-answer question

Michigan asks that you provide a 250 word response to the following prompt:

“We know that diversity makes us a better university – better for learning, for teaching, and for conducting research.” (U-M President Mary Sue Coleman)

"Share an experience through which you have gained respect for intellectual, social, or cultural differences. Comment on how your personal experiences and achievements would contribute to the diversity of the University of Michigan."

To answer this prompt, you've got to do three things:

1)  Appreciate how and why differences can make experiences more fulfilling for those involved.

[Read more…]

For potential Cavaliers–advice for University of Virginia applicants

UVA (University of Virginia) is one of those selective public schools that often behaves like a private college.  Their application is a good example of this.  You've got several essays to write that range from describing your academic interests to just being playful and helping them get to know you better.  It’s a good opportunity for the serious applicant to demonstrate just how interested you are in UVA by sitting down and writing some thoughtful, revealing responses.  Here are a few tips to get you started. 

1. Read their Tips on The Application Process.  In particular, pay attention to this advice about writing essays. 

“Write good essays. Write in your style and voice about what you know, not about what you think colleges want to hear. Distinguish your experiences. Pick a small topic. Proofread.

That’s good advice.  Write essays that sound like you.  Don't write what you think they want to hear.  Avoid writing essays that lots of other students could write (like "Volleyball taught me the importance of teamwork"). 

2. Speaking of essays, read this, too. 

Parke Muth, one of UVA's very own admissions officers, wrote what we think is the definitive piece on college essays, especially his advice on avoiding trite, overused stories he calls "McEssays."  It's so good that we've featured it on our blog before. 

OK, you've read the advice from the admissions office and you're ready to start your essays.  UVA requires two supplemental essays as part of their application.  Some colleges' essay topics are seeking thoughtful responses, while others are inviting you to be playful.  UVA serves up examples of both. 

Here's prompt #1

We are looking for passionate students to join our diverse community of scholars, researchers, and artists.  Answer the question that corresponds to the school you selected above. Limit your answer to a half page or roughly 250 words.

*College of Arts and Sciences: What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?

*Engineering: Discuss experiences that led you to choose an engineering education at U.Va. and the role that scientific curiosity plays in your life.

*Architecture: What led you to apply to the School of Architecture?

*Nursing: Discuss experiences that led you to choose the School of Nursing.

The key words to notice in this prompt are "passionate students."  Yes, UVA wants you to be excited about dorm life, rooting for the Cavaliers, making new friends, staying up late eating pizza with the aforementioned new friends, etc.  But first and foremost, they want passionate students.  College academics aren't like high school academics; in college, you have choices.  You get to pick what interests you and pursue it as far as you are willing to go.  UVA is looking for students who are excited about this opportunity, and who have shown glimpses of that intellectual passion and academic initiative already.

All four of those prompts appear to be different, but they're really all just looking for you to give them specific examples of experiences where you were excited to learn, or to apply what you'd already learned.  So in crafting your responses, use some emotion. 

Don't tell them…

"Working as an EMT taught me that I have the aptitude for nursing." 

Instead, tell them…

"Ten minutes into my first shift as an EMT, I was doing chest compressions on a 19 year-old motorcycle accident victim who'd just gone into full cardiac arrest.  At some point in the next 8 hours of that shift, I was sure for the first time in my life that I had found what I am meant to do." 

There it is.  

Future engineers, don't tell them that you love math because there's always a right answer, or that you've always excelled in math and science (they know that–they have your transcripts).  Have you ever seen how engineering majors spend their time on college campuses?  They're designing machinery, engaging in cutting-edge research, solving complex equations, and reveling in the science that is engineering.  If you want to be one of those mathematical revelers, let UVA hear your passion for this subject matter. 

Tell them how the best night you’ve had in high school was the night you and the physics Olympics team stayed up all night perfecting your object projector, or how you learned the basics of mechanical engineering fixing your family's mini-van, or how you taught yourself how to repair computers over the summer and are now the go-to tech support source for all your parents' friends. 

Don't hide behind an emotionless answer.  The more you love the subject matter, the more evidence you should have that you are already one of those passionate students who’s just chomping at the bit to bring that passion to UVA and get started.  

Now, prompt #2…

Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words:

What is your favorite word and why?

Describe the world you come from and how that world shaped who you are.

Discuss something you secretly like but pretend not to, or vice versa.

"We might say that we were looking for global schemas, symmetries, universal and unchanging laws – and what we have discovered is the mutable, the ephemeral, the complex." Support or challenge Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine's assertion.

These are the kinds of prompts for which there are no right answers–they are simply designed to give you the opportunity to share more about yourself and help the admissions committee get to know the student behind the grades and test scores.  So you should feel free to be serious, funny, reflective, etc.  Just tell the truth and be yourself.  And whatever you do, make sure the essay sounds like you and don't try to guess what's going to sound good. 

Here are a few more prompt-specific tips.  

"What is your favorite word and why?" 

Really, the best advice I can give is that if you don't have a favorite word, don't answer this one.  Don't try to "find" your favorite word.  People who love to write, tell stories, speak in public, etc. tend to have favorite words.  For example, mine is "kitschy."  I just like that word.  We have history together.  I love that when I need a word to describe something tawdry and designed to appeal to undiscriminating taste, kitschy has always been there for me.  

If you have a favorite word, serve it up here and explain why it's your favorite.  If you don't, move on to the next question.

"Describe the world you come from and how that world shaped who you are." 

Remember their "Tips on the Application Process" and their recommendation that you "Distinguish your experiences" and "Pick a small topic"?  Now it's time to put that advice to use.  If something or someone in your upbringing, family, personal life, community or school has made an impact on you, something that has "shaped the person who you are," describe that someone or something here, and zero in on specific details that are unique to you.  Immigrating to this country, going through your parents’ divorce, growing up in an economically depressed area—all of those stories are worth telling, but they've also all got the potential to sound just like every other student who shared that experience unless you distinguish your story by putting in as much detail as possible. 

"Discuss something you secretly like but pretend not to, or vice versa.

Again, honesty wins here.  You can be serious, like,

"I pretend to like my boss because I help support my family and I can't afford to lose this job.  But pretending to like him is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, because he makes derogatory comments about homosexuals that I find terribly offensive." 

Or it could be playful.

"OK, I'm just going to say it.  Right here, right now.  I like the Jonas Brothers.  There.  It's out there in the open.  Sure, my friends hate them, but that’s not why I hide my enjoyment of their music.  The internal conflict at work here is that I'm actually a musician.  A good one, in fact.  And the Jonas Brothers are just terrible musicians.  So why can't I stop listening?  Why does their music affect me so?  Why do they make me want to dance?  Please oh please keep this just between us." 

"We might say that we were looking for global schemas, symmetries, universal and unchanging laws – and what we have discovered is the mutable, the ephemeral, the complex." Support or challenge Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine's assertion.

How eager are you to jump into this debate?  If you read this prompt and immediately had a reaction, either to support or contradict it, go with that.  The chemistry buff who spent the summer doing complex research with a professor might immediately have something to say about this, or the student who knows everything there is to know about astronomy, or the kid who read one of Richard Feynman's  books just for fun.  If you have a reaction to this, you might have a good answer. But I recommend that you only take it on if you really feel that you have something to say.  And be comfortable geeking out with your answer–this question is pretty much begging to do so.

It takes some time to think through these prompts and to write thoughtful answers.  But UVA will read them carefully, much like a private school would do.  That’s a huge opportunity for you if you’re willing to take the time.

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.