When should you take the SAT/ACT?

Our friends at Compass Education Group have a great post that answers one of the most basic college planning questions: “When should I take the SAT/ACT?” Make sure to scroll to the bottom of the page to download the PDF.

Also, College Board is offering its first August administration of the SAT this year. If you’re considering taking that exam, register as soon as possible. It’s expected to be a popular date, and we’ve heard reports of some sites already registered to capacity.

First, peel the garlic

I enjoy cooking. But I really do not enjoy peeling garlic, especially for a dish that needs more than a clove or two. It takes too long. Some bulbs are just uncooperative. The paper goes everywhere, it sticks to the knife, some always clings to the garlic like a life preserver, etc. I love what garlic does for the right dish, but the work necessary to get it to that point can rob some of the joy from my favorite hobby.

The best way to minimize that frustration? Peel the garlic first. Just grit my teeth and get it out of the way. I still don’t enjoy it. But I get to put it behind me and enjoy the rest of the prep. I don’t have the garlic looming over me. Peeling the garlic first minimizes its negative impact.

The project, the conversation, the chore–whatever it is that you’re not looking forward to or even dreading, imagine how great you’ll feel when it’s done. Why not let that feeling start sooner rather than later?

Enjoy the parts you love. But first, peel the garlic.

Rest easy, and work hard

One of the pieces of college planning advice I feel most strongly about is one many people just don’t believe—get a job. Plenty of high school kids get part-time jobs, but too many families think the only way a job could possibly impress a college is if it’s a high-profile internship, a start-up later sold for big bucks, a research project with a professor that led to the cure for athlete’s foot, etc.

If you’re able to secure something like that (without your parents doing it for you), more power to you. But I hope you’ll believe me when I tell you there is just something inherently likeable and endearing about a teenager who works a regular job washing dishes, manning the register, refereeing youth soccer games, etc. It’s something we’ve heard from every one of our counselors who worked in admissions, including those who came to us from highly selective colleges.

Unlike so many parts of the college admissions process, regular part-time jobs are still pure. An overzealous parent can’t get a kid a job scooping ice cream. A high-priced tutor can’t be paid to get a student promoted at a fast-food restaurant. A private counselor with a propensity to do too much can’t hijack a student’s job interview like they can a college essay.

If your interest is piqued, here are a few relevant past posts on this topic:

If you’ve already planned a fulfilling and relaxing summer you’re excited about, no need to turn those plans upside down just to take my advice. But if you’re still searching for summer plans, or if you’ve considered getting a part-time job but are worried you’d be put at a college admissions disadvantage for waiting tables over attending Harvard Summer School, rest easy. And work hard.

Hitting reset

One of the best parts of college that’s waiting for you if you want it is the chance to hit the reset button.

It can be difficult to reinvent yourself in high school even if you really want to. You become known as the drama kid, the jock, the brooding musician, etc. If it’s the role you decided to play, one you’re both happy and comfortable with, great. But if your role felt assigned to you rather than chosen by you, or if you’ve grown out of your high school persona, it can start to feel like you’re an actor who’s been typecast and keeps getting offers to play the same character over and over again. You want to do something different, but that change might feel like an intimidatingly large course correction, one that you may not even be empowered to make.

But eventually, you’ll show up to college with little to no history. Nobody knows or cares what your reputation was in high school. They aren’t predisposed to see you the same way other people have seen you since you were fourteen. The judgements, the limits, the baggage, the anchors weighing you down–you can leave them all behind and start fresh. Hitting the reset button can be pretty exhilarating, especially if you’ve wished you could do just that for some time.

Part of enjoying the college admissions process is looking forward to the opportunities waiting for you on the other side—learning whatever interests you, discovering your talents, growing, meeting new people, making new friends, and having fun in ways that haven’t been available to you before. That excitement, that eagerness to get there and take advantage of what’s available, is also an admissions advantage. It’s not enough to just hope to get in. Colleges are looking for those applicants who are even more excited about what comes after the “yes.”

One of those things to be excited about—if you want it—is the chance to start over. And like just about everything else waiting for you in college, that opportunity isn’t limited to the schools that say no to most of their applicants.

If it feels like some (or all) of high school just isn’t working for you anymore, the chance to hit the reset button is coming soon.

For graduation speakers

A student who will be delivering her high school graduation address emailed me last week asking if I had any advice. As is often the case with a blog I’ve written every day for nearly eight years, that advice was somewhere, and not so easy to find, back in the archives. If you or someone you know might be interested (and if you’re attending a school where you weren’t required to submit the speech ahead of time to be selected), here’s my post from 2010, “How to write a high school graduation speech.”

Where’s the handbook?

When someone new joins your club, organization, team, counseling office, etc., how do they learn how things work? Do you have a process to teach them what you stand for, how you operate, who does what, etc.?

If not, you might take a look at the employee handbook that Basecamp, the software company, recently made public. It’s a great example of an organization that’s thought carefully about how and why they do things, explained it in clear, thoughtful writing, and likely helped every newcomer not only feel excited about the place they’re joining, but also start producing great work even more quickly.

And here’s a past post with some snippets from Life at Collegewise, our version of an employee handbook.

Do colleges appreciate solitary activities?

Any discussion of the potential admissions value of a high school activity usually involves some combination of accolades, impact, and helping others. Your captainship of the cheerleading squad, published articles for the school paper, volunteer hours with Habitat for Humanity—they all involve contributing to a team, a project, a cause, or some other benefactor.

But what if an activity you really enjoy is something you do just for yourself, one that doesn’t improve, impact, or even involve anyone else?

What if you love to write poetry but don’t have any desire to publish or share it?

What if you teach yourself to play songs on the piano but you get stage fright even imagining performing?

What if you like to draw, or cook your own dinner a few nights a week, or make old-school scrapbooks to preserve your own memories, but choose to reserve those hobbies just for your own enjoyment?

Students frequently ask our Collegewise counselors some version of these questions. They have an activity, interest, or hobby they enjoy, one in which they aren’t trying to master or win or solve anything. It’s something they do just for themselves. And they wonder if colleges will see any value in that time.

First, it’s important to remember that not everything in your life should be about getting into college. If you work hard, get good grades, and you really enjoy playing 30 minutes of video games every night before you go to sleep, I can’t think of a college that would begrudge that fun. It’s important to have balance in your life. And part of that means doing things that aren’t measured, evaluated, or otherwise judged against the metrics of getting into college.

Also, interests—even those that aren’t typical activities—make you interesting. Would you enjoy a first date with someone who talked only about their GPA, test scores, and number of community service hours they’ve completed? Probably not. And a dorm full of 18-22 year olds with their own interests, hobbies, and ideas is a lot more interesting than one where every resident is a resume-padding robot.

But if you just can’t resist evaluating even your off-time, here are a few questions to ask yourself about that thing you do that’s just for you.

Is it taking time away from work you should be doing?
“Do no harm” is a good rule of thumb for just about anything that you do. If you’ve got a record in and out of the classroom that you’re proud of, there’s no harm in allowing yourself the frivolous novel from your favorite author even if that book would never make its way into your English class. On the other hand, those nighttime video game sessions aren’t so harmless if they’re getting in the way of completing your assignments or studying as much as you should. Balance works both ways.

Is this time paying you back in some way?
What do you get from the way you’re spending this time? Do you enjoy it? Does it relax you? Does it break up the monotony of the day, make you feel rewarded for other work well done, or otherwise do something that benefits you? Einstein used to play the violin alone when he needed to work through a difficult problem. Whether this time helps you relax or conquer physics, if it gives something back without taking too much, that’s probably a good trade-off.

Do you exert physical, mental, or emotional effort during this time?
You don’t have to be on the cross country team to benefit from running. Watching and learning from guitar tutorials on YouTube is an exercise in curiosity even if you don’t play in public. And those freehand drawings you care so much about getting right are worth something to you even if those sketches stay tucked away in your notebook.

Is there a by-product of this time?
Maybe this solitary poetry pursuit has made you excited to attend poetry readings in college. Maybe those solo runs led to your interest in learning more about sports medicine. And maybe you wouldn’t mind sharing some of those delectable dishes you’ve learned to cook when you live with college roommates. Sometimes that thing you do just for yourself leads to other interesting and even not-so-solitary pursuits. Even the most involved passions had to start somewhere. If that seemingly insignificant thing you’re doing now is also leading you to new discoveries, connections, or interests, you just might be on your way to something bigger.

And if you’re just not comfortable participating in traditional activities because you’re on the shy side or you just need a little more confidence to engage at that level, see this past post, “Five college planning tips for introverts.”

For no reason (?)

The teacher gave me a C…

My parents grounded me…

My boss fired me…

The principal suspended me…

My coach benched me…

…for no reason.

Are you sure? Or do you just not know the reason?

It’s possible you’re the victim of someone else’s bad day or bad mood. If you’re not sure, just ask, like this:

Can you help me understand why so I don’t make this mistake again?

You may not agree with the answer. But at least you’ll know the reason. And you’ll be able to avoid a repeat performance.

Stretch, learn, and grow

Since becoming a parent myself, I bristle a little at didactic parents who dispense free advice about how people should raise their kids. Beyond the universal parenting principles just about everyone can agree on, every kid is different. What works for one may be a train wreck for another.

Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, recently gave a talk at Cannon School in Concord, North Carolina, on how parents can help kids ages 5-10 start learning skills that will later help them succeed independently from their parents. She also distilled that advice into Avoiding Helicopter Parenting: 8 Tips for Parents of Young Children, a piece published in the school newsletter and shared publicly here.

I mentioned the earlier caveat because while I agree with Lythcott-Haims’s suggestions, they may not be appropriate for every child within that age range (it took me several tries to figure out how to correctly do a load of laundry with our new washer—I can’t imagine trying to teach a five-year-old to take that chore on).

But if you have younger kids, give the piece a read and ask, “Which of these suggestions could my student do with just a little help getting started?” If you make a habit of helping your kids to take on just a little more responsibility for themselves, I think you’ll enjoy the feeling of watching them stretch, learn, and grow.