Make space for sanity

Ken Anselment is the dean of admission and financial aid at Lawrence University and the father of a high school senior. One of his favorite pieces of advice to share with families going through this process is to set aside one (and only one) time per week when you as a family will talk about college.

“Maybe it’s a couple hours every Sunday afternoon (our family pick; hence “Sundays with Ken”). Maybe it’s Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Whatever. Pick a day and time, and agree that you as a family will reserve serious college talk only for those times. All other times during the week that college might come up (and that’s pretty much the remaining 166 hours), park it and save it till your next meeting. The exception, of course, is if it is urgent. (And it’s usually not urgent).”

You can learn more about the benefits of this in-house policy, and Anselment’s successful implementation of it within his own house, in his piece “Making Space for Sanity in the College Search.”

Create your application support group

College applications have a way of generating a competitive atmosphere amongst peers, whether or not those friends are actually applying to the same schools. And most of that competition stems from comparisons: who scored what on the SAT, who’s already completed their Common Application, who has the purported admissions advantage, etc.

Seniors, instead of comparing and competing, what if you selected 2-3 willing friends and formed your own application support group? Choose your cohorts based on their willingness to commit to these five ideals.

1. Come from a place of “We’re in this together.”
The foundation of this support group should be mutual feelings that while the college application process may be stressful, you’re in this together and intend to pull each other through it. When you reframe a stressful experience as a group challenge rather than an individual burden, you’re less likely to feel discouraged and more likely to feel emboldened by the common goal. Commit to each other not to compare, compete, or otherwise turn this into a status competition. You’re in this together now.

2. Leave negativity at the door.
Yes, talking about your stress can help you manage it. But there’s a fine line between vocalizing what’s eating you and serving up heaping portions of negativity. You’re creating this support group specifically to combat, not to invite, negativity. So commit to each other that your discussions about all-things-college won’t be just group gripe sessions. Instead, use your conversations to find the positives. Which brings me to…

3. Infuse positivity.
According to Harvard researcher Shawn Achor, a positive and engaged brain is one of the greatest competitive advantages, resulting in a 31% increase in productivity, 23% fewer stress-related symptoms, and a host of other effects that help humans perform better. Your support group can cultivate this advantage by infusing positivity. Give each other recognition and encouragement. Look for ways to celebrate wins like a completed essay, a submitted application, or the very last time one of your members will ever take the SAT. And don’t forget the fact that barring a serious error in your college list creation (one that can be avoided by getting your counselor to OK your list), all of you will be in college somewhere next year. Remind each other that while application season may be stressful, overall, life is good.

4. Keep each other accountable for work completed.
The most effective application support groups don’t just offer support and encouragement; they also keep each other accountable for getting the actual work done. Consider this recommendation by high school counselor extraordinaire Patrick O’Connor and carve out a two-hour block every Saturday or Sunday (or both) for the next few weeks to do nothing but work on college applications. If your group is focused enough to do that work together without interrupting each other, great—gather together at one of your homes or in the library. But if you just can’t resist turning those blocks into social time, then do the work independently, but check in about your progress collaboratively. Supportive and productive peer pressure can be a good thing if it helps you achieve a common goal.

5. Plan your application completion celebration.
One of the best ways to get through a stressful period is to have a bright spot at the end of it to look forward to. And in this case, the entire group can use that bright spot as a means to get your work done earlier than procrastination might have allowed. Plan an activity during the first weekend of your upcoming December holiday break to celebrate the completion of all your college applications, and make an agreement together that you’ll actually be true to the reason you’re gathering. No excuses, no “I just have a few more changes to make this week and I’ll be done.” I know you can’t possibly imagine just how wonderful it will feel to gather together, collectively say, “We’re done!” and mean it. But trust me on this one. The combination of pride, sense of accomplishment, and relief will feel almost as good as the inevitable acceptances to follow will.

Consistency in something vs. everything

Another solid entry from the University of Virginia’s blog, this one addressing the question of whether or not UVA looks for consistency in activities. It’s so refreshing to read that (1) they don’t value certain activities over others, (2) they don’t expect you to fill out the entire Common App activity chart, and (3) they don’t consider consistency a prerequisite.

Most colleges I can think of, with the possible exception of those offering specialized programs like performing arts, would agree with those activity guidelines.

Many students are reluctant to leave an activity behind and/or to pick up something new because they’ve heard that colleges want long-term, substantial commitments. But it’s important to understand the spirit of the law here. Like UVA, most colleges understand that teenagers change their minds. They don’t necessarily expect that an activity you first tried at age 14 will necessarily be one that you’ll stick with throughout high school.

But where consistency can become an issue is if you’re someone with a habit of picking up new activities and then putting them back down. Colleges do appreciate a student with the capacity to commit to something that matters to them long enough to make an impact. That capacity matters more than the type or quantity of the activities that benefit from it.

Consistency in something is a plus. Consistency in everything is not.

College reps, consider adding these two sentences

It’s travel season for college reps who are heading to college fairs, information nights at high schools, and other events to put their schools in front of (potentially) interested applicants. Unfortunately, many of those earnest reps are hamstrung by the canned spiels that have been approved by some combination of the president’s office and the marketing consultants, usually resulting in a sales pitch to draw in as many applicants as possible.

If you’re a college rep with even a little wiggle room for creativity and straight talk, why not include some version of these two sentences in your next pitch to students?

“If you haven’t yet considered us, here’s why we might be right for you.”

“If you’re already considering us, here’s why we might not be for you.”

Both of these statements move away from the same-as-all-the-others pitches that encourage any student willing to pay the application fee to apply. They force you to think about what actually makes your institution different. And most importantly, they seek not only to attract those applicants who are more likely to actually attend if admitted, but also to repel those who are just never realistically going to call your school home.

It might not boost your total application numbers. But I’ll bet it gets you a more interesting, committed, and engaged freshman class.

Monday morning Q&A: Subject Tests “recommended”?

Jean asks,

“I hear all the time that when a college says that Subject Tests are “recommended,” it actually means “required.” But I’d like to see some actual evidence of that. Do you know of students who’ve been rejected without taking these tests and believed that it hurt them? If a student has a very high GPA, high SAT scores, and all 4’s and 5’s in multiple AP exams, it truly seems like overkill.”

Good question, Jean. I find that“recommending” Subject Tests is frustratingly vague. There’s enough existing confusion in the college admissions process without colleges leaving students unsure whether or not an important choice like this will somehow work against them.

Unfortunately, while I’ve occasionally met students who were not admitted and believed it might have been because they elected not to submit Subject Test scores, I’d be very cautious making a testing decision based on anecdotal evidence. It’s not uncommon for students to draw conclusions about how colleges arrived at an admissions decision, but those conclusions are usually dubious at best. The truth is that the only people who know the actual reasons behind any admissions decisions are the committee members who were in the room when the decision was made. This works both ways, too—students who submit Subject Test scores and are ultimately admitted have no way of knowing if or how much those scores helped.

But here’s a potentially good strategy to use.

1. First, read the testing requirements on the school’s website very carefully.

For example, based on the language I’ve pasted here from their websites, which of these schools seems to mean “required” when they say “recommended”?

Georgetown (the typos are as they appeared on the site):

It is strongly recommended that all candidates, whether they have taken the SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT, submit three SAT Subject Tests scores. The scores from writing portion on the SAT Reasoning Test and the optional writing portion of the ACT will not be used in place of a Subject Test.


SAT Subject Tests are recommended but not required. Applicants who do not take SAT Subject Tests will not be at a disadvantage. Because SAT Subject Tests are optional, applicants may use Score Choice to selectively send their SAT Subject Test scores.


SAT Subject Tests are recommended but not required. Applicants who do not take SAT Subject Tests will not be disadvantaged in the application process. We will consider your application on the basis of the other testing, and all the other information, that we receive with your application. You may wish to consider whether there are particular areas of academic strength you would like to demonstrate to the Admissions Committee. Subject Tests can be one way to convey that strength. 

While Stanford and Yale come out and say that a lack of Subject Test scores won’t be held against an applicant, Georgetown’s language reads to me like a student would have a hard time getting admitted without those scores.

2. How strong is the student relative to the others in the college’s applicant pool?

A student with a very high GPA, high SAT scores, and all 4’s and 5’s in multiple AP exams (as you described in your question) is likely already a very strong candidate at Lafayette, University of Delaware, and University of Georgia, all of which recommend but do not require Subject Tests. But that same student is not a strong candidate at Caltech, Duke, or Penn, where even valedictorians and students with perfect test scores are routinely turned away.

3. And finally, have your student ask, “If I don’t submit Subject Test scores and ultimately am not admitted, will I regret that choice?”

I am all for a student opting out of the testing craze. If your student were to decide that the testing is, in fact, overkill, that she’s simply not going to play that game, and that she would happily attend another college if one of those on the “recommended but not required” list said no, I would stand up and cheer.

But if she wants to know that she did everything she possibly could have done to gain admission to particular schools, and if she’s proven to have both smarts and the test-taking gene (which it sounds like she does), I’d probably have her submit those scores. Many of the schools that have this “recommended” Subject Test policy are among the most selective in the country (Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, Princeton, etc.). Those are schools that ultimately need to find reasons to say no to droves of applicants. If a student really wants to attend one of those schools, be careful making any testing decision that could give them that reason.

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

What kind of meeting will this be?

The colleagues at Collegewise who know me best know never to send me an email like this.

Kevin, could you and I schedule an hour of time to chat in the next few days? I’d really appreciate it. Thanks.

All that does is conjure up images in my mind of potential agendas, none of which are positive.

Somebody is leaving Collegewise.

Somebody really let down a customer who’s now upset.

Somebody has contracted the Bubonic plague, etc.

I know this is entirely my fault and that it doesn’t necessarily need to be this way (after all, I could just as easily think, This is probably going to be something great!) And in fact, those vague requests almost never lead to conversations that were as bad as I imagined they could be. But I always appreciate when someone gives me a 1-2 sentence preview of what this conversation will be about, so my mind doesn’t spin from now until the conversation. And I can even start thinking productively about how to make the meeting worth our time.

Given (1) how often students, parents, counselors, and teachers might be emailing each other, and (2) how many of those emails involve a request for a conversation or an actual meeting, it’s worth considering how the request itself colors the recipient’s perception of the impending meeting.

Do you want the meeting to be one that they actively dread? One that they worry could be bad but aren’t yet sure of? One that they’re tentatively encouraged by? Or one that they can actively look forward to and even begin considering how to best help you with your request?

For example, everything about this request leaves the recipient certain that this will not be a pleasant meeting:

We were extremely disappointed to learn that our son will not be placed in AP US History next year. He is a top student and this is completely unacceptable. Please contact us at your earliest convenience so we can address this with you.

And this sounds like a meeting that could go either way:

Are you available to meet this week about our son’s course schedule? We have some concerns we’d like to discuss.

This meeting could be positive:

Our son just informed us that he will not be placed in AP US History next year. We were hoping we could meet with you to get your feedback and to discuss his options, as we don’t want to make any crucial mistakes.

And this meeting sounds like an entirely positive one:

Our son just informed us that he will not be placed in AP US History next year, which certainly didn’t come as a surprise as we know that history was not his strongest subject last semester. But we want to make sure that we aren’t overlooking any available options that might help rectify this. And if there aren’t, we’d love your advice about the best course schedule for him given his college goals.

The way you ask for a meeting affects the likelihood that the meeting itself will be productive.

Bonus tip: Asking for “advice” is almost always a good way to open up meeting possibilities.

One last bonus tip: This goes best when the student, not the parent, sends the email.

Need some FAFSA motivation?

If you know you should be completing the FAFSA but just can’t quite muster the gumption to dive in yet (totally understandable), here’s some additional information from expert Mark Kantrowitz that might give you the oomph you need.

“The sooner you get your FAFSA done, the more money you’re going to get, on average… People who file it in the first few months tend to get double the financial aid, the grants, of people who file it later.” 

The rest of the article is here. And here’s the link to the FAFSA.

Guaranteed return?

Students, as you progress through high school and prepare to apply to college, one question worth asking about the ways you’re choosing to spend your time might be, “Does this investment have a guaranteed return?”

This class, this activity, this opportunity or experience, is it guaranteed to pay you back in some way?

Will it make you happier? Will it make you smarter? Will it help you learn, grow, and discover or enhance your talents? Will it challenge or push you? Will it help you or others? Will it earn you money, credibility, or trust? Will you learn to work with people, to manage complex projects, or to lead?

Or will the only acceptable return be an admission to a college of your choice?

Those two categories aren’t mutually exclusive. Let’s say you’re stronger in your English and social studies classes than you are in the sciences, but you enroll in AP Chemistry anyway because you want to show colleges you’re challenging yourself. For many students, there’s a guaranteed return on that investment whether or not your dream college ends up saying yes. Challenging yourself is good as long as it doesn’t leave you burned out or miserable. And taking AP Chemistry will be like a workout for your brain. The experience will leave you smarter and more prepared for the academics in (any) college. And it might even boost your confidence, too.

But that activity you’re doing that you don’t enjoy, that you don’t really pour your heart into, that you’re really just going through the motions so you can list it on your college application, where’s the guaranteed return?

That summer program you really don’t want to attend but resolved to do because you’ve heard it will look good to colleges, is there a guaranteed return on that investment?

Those community service projects where you’re just showing up to do the bare minimum until you get your 10 or 30 or 100 hours you want to cite on your college application, is that minimal effort actually doing any good for the people, the organization, or yourself?

I’ve never met a student who actually enjoys test prep, and it certainly won’t teach you anything useful other than how to take a standardized test. But there’s a potential guaranteed return if you balance your college list beyond those schools that are reaches for you. Higher test scores will make you more admissible to many (though certainly not all) colleges.

If you don’t see a guaranteed return in what you’re doing, maybe you need a new way of spending your time, a new goal, or both.

Straight talk about overparenting

When Julie Lythcott-Haims’s messages about (1) the dangers of overparenting and (2) how to raise mature, capable adults are no longer resonating or necessary, I’ll (happily) stop bringing them here. But until that day comes, I think it’s important that counselors, admissions officers, and other experts continue to speak frankly about what this group of admittedly well-meaning parents is doing to their kids. I never worry about those kids who happily seek their parents’ feedback and guidance while driving their own education and journey to college. But I worry a lot about those kids who sit passively waiting for Mom and Dad to talk to the counselor, choose the activities, research the colleges, complete the applications, etc. What’s going to happen to those students when they get to college?

Haims is featured here on a recent episode of Straight Talk MD, a podcast covering science, medicine, and healthcare, hosted by medical doctor Frank Sweeney. While the first 16 minutes focus more on Haims’s background and her preparation for her TED Talk that has since received over 2.6 million views, the remaining 45 minutes are spent not just defining overparenting, but also advising parents how to recognize and correct it.

Good and bad testing news

The Atlantic’s “When Grades Don’t Show The Whole Picture” makes a compelling argument for all the ways that SAT scores are good for, among other things, offsetting grade inflation, allowing students of all backgrounds to showcase their strengths, and providing colleges with a useful evaluation tool. Except it’s not an article at all—it’s an advertisement from the College Board (with accompanying tiny print that indicates so). The quality of this news is bad. In fact, it’s not news at all. It’s advertising.

Why did they do an advertisement? Because the SAT is big business (the College Board’s 2015 revenues were over $915 million). After spending years in second place, the SAT’s main competition, the ACT, has surpassed the SAT’s popularity in recent years. And nearly 1,000 colleges are now test-optional for many or all applicants. Whether a huge company makes razors, cars, hotels, or tests, advertising is a popular strategy to protect—or to reclaim—market share.

I mention this because at colleges with applications that go beyond just grades and test scores—those that require descriptions of your activities, lists of your honors or awards, essays, letters of recommendation, interviews, etc.—the evaluation process is a personal one. Most of the human beings reading the applications at these schools are genuinely committed to understanding the human beings behind those apps. They care about context. They care about your environment and your upbringing. They care about the circumstances that have impacted your education. They’re looking at your numbers, but also looking at the person. It’s not a meritocracy and it’s not infallible, but at the very least it’s driven by good people trying to do the right thing.

Standardized test scores don’t measure the whole you. They don’t care how you’ve grown up, what opportunities you’ve had or missed out on, or whether you’re a committed student who works hard. They don’t care if you didn’t have the money to spend on expensive preparation or whether you work 30 hours a week to help support your family. They don’t care whether you’re a good person who treats people right and makes every class or activity you’re in that much better for those around you.

Standardized tests only measure one thing well—how good you are at taking standardized tests.

So if you’re a good test-taker, congratulations. You have one less thing to worry about and you should show off that skill by nailing your standardized tests.

But if you’re not a good test-taker, I encourage you (and your parents) to not take your scores personally. Don’t let those scores make you feel bad about yourself. And please don’t obsess so much about transforming yourself into a good test-taker that you ignore school, your activities, your time with your friends and family, and anything else that makes you feel happy and engaged. Test scores are never the most important part of the admissions process–the majority of colleges don’t require high test scores to be admitted, and again, nearly 1,000 schools don’t require test scores at all.

And that’s good testing news.