Five tips for UC (University of California) applicants

Today, we begin our "30 Colleges, 30 Guides to Getting In" series where we'll share Collegewise tips for admission to over 30 colleges.  We're starting with the flagship university system of the state where we were founded, California.  So here are five tips for applicants to the UC schools (University of California). 

1. Show academic initiative.

Curious learners who pursue educational opportunities are appealing to (and ultimately do very well on) UC campuses.  The history buff who takes a Civil War history class over the summer has academic initiative.  The future scientist who does independent physics research with a teacher, the flutist who takes extra music classes outside of school, or the budding journalist who enrolls in a summer school journalism program at a local university—they’re demonstrating just how motivated they are to learn more about subjects that fascinate them.  So think about times where you've sought out opportunities to learn more, and make sure you mention them somewhere in the application. 

[Read more…]

30 Colleges, 30 Guides to Getting In

A lot of high school seniors will be feeling not-so-thankful to be in the throes of the college application process this month.  So in the Thanksgiving spirit of helping our friends survive the brutal winter, we're bringing you "30 Colleges, 30 Collegewise Guides to Getting In."

Each day in November, we’re going to publish admissions tips for one school right here on our blog.  One school per day, for thirty days.  And while we're not promising magic formulas for admission to selective colleges, we do promise to show you how you can better communicate your match with schools and help colleges get to know you better.     

Here are the colleges we’ll be covering, with the dates the posts will be published.

November 1    UC (University of California)   
November 2    Tufts University
November 3    University of Notre Dame           
November 4    SUNY (State University of New York)   
November 5    Gonzaga University
November 6    Pomona College           
November 7    Oregon State University
November 8    Caltech (California Institute of Technology)
November 9    USC (University of Southern California)   
November 10    Loyola Marymount University
November 11    University of Puget Sound
November 12    Bryn Mawr College
November 13    University of Virginia
November 14    NYU (New York University)
November 15    University of Washington
November 16    Texas Christian University
November 17    Bucknell University
November 18    Virginia Tech
November 19    University of Michigan 
November 20    Saint Mary’s College of California
November 21    Cornell University
November 22    Washington State University
November 23    Villanova University
November 24    University of Chicago
November 25    Boston University
November 26    Gettysburg College   
November 27    Skidmore College
November 28    University of Wisconsin-Madison
November 29    University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
November 30    Stanford University

We're kicking things off today with tips for UC (University of California) applicants.  We hope you enjoy your reading.

Costume not requiered

I remember a Collegewise student who began his college essay,

"I hate Halloween.  Actually, it's not so much the holiday I hate as it is the obligation to wear a costume.  No matter what costume I wear, I just feel like an idiot."

In three sentences, he's already accomplished three important goals for college essays.

  1. Get the reader interested right away with a pithy first sentence.
  2. Inject some of personality into the writing. 
  3. Use your story to help readers get to know you in ways the application alone would not allow. 

What do the first three sentences of your college essay say about you?

Have fun, and be safe tonight.  Happy Halloween.

What if parents are invited to college interviews?

What should you with your parents while you have your college interview?  Simple.  Leave them at home.  Or send them to dinner.  Or send them to Jupiter.  Interviewers are far more interested in what kids have to say about themselves (after all, it's the kids–not the parents–who will ultimately be attending college).  So we tell our Collegewise students not to bring their parents unless the interviewer explicitly asks you to do so (or if it's just an informative interview taking place at a college you haven't actually applied to yet). 

So, what if the interviewer does specifically ask you to bring your parents? 

We've started to see this happen occasionally at some schools, and our Collegewise parents (wisely) ask us if they should take the colleges up on the offer.  A college who asks parents to attend the interview is likely doing so not only to get to know even more about the applicant, but also to get a sense whether or not you have the support of your parents in applying to this particular school.  That's a good opportunity to show colleges that your family is engaged in a thoughtful college search together .  So for parents who are specifically invited to attend college interviews, here are a few tips. 

1. Relax.

Our first tip for parents is the same tip we give to students–relax.  Very few students (or parents) have single-handedly torpedoed the chances of admission with one less-than-stellar answer.  College interviews are usually a relaxed affair.  Kids should treat them as a legitimate opportunity to make a good impression, but they shouldn't worry about this like they do the SAT or the calculus final.  The same holds true for parents. So relax.  Smile.  Enjoy the experience. 

2.  Resist all urges to jump in and answer for your student.

Just because you were invited does not necessarily mean it's a good idea for a parent to jump in and answer questions directed at the student.  Believe us, we understand why you'd want to do so; part of a parent's job feels like you should be a publicist for your kids.  But budding in and answering for them just makes kids nervous and makes the interviewer wish she could hear more from the student.  We recommend you wait to answer questions until one is directed at you. 

3.  When asked to comment about your student, answer candidly.

You are allowed–encouraged, actually–to brag about your student when asked.  Be specific about which accomplishments made you the most proud.  Don't hold back when asked what his strengths are.  Let your pride show.  Just remember not to take over the interview with an answer that takes up the allotted time.     

4.  Consider how excited you would be for your student to attend this particular college.

Colleges know that while many students might apply to schools without outright approval from their parents, they won't get to attend unless Mom and Dad support the choice.  A parent who's invited to attend a college interview should expect to be asked how you see this school for your student, whether or not you think it would be a good match.  There's no need to lie.  In fact, if you have concerns about the fit, be honest.  Express your concerns, but let the interviewer know that you trust your student to make good decisions and that you'll support her choices (if that is actually the case).  An interviewer would be impressed by evidence that the student and parent have had some thoughtful dialog about the college even if they disagree. 

5.  If you're already butting heads about college choices, consider letting your student interview by him or herself.

The teenage years can be stressful on parent/teen relationships.  And the pressures of the college admission process can exacerbate this.  If you've found that the subject of college and how to get there seems to cause immediate conflict in your family, rest assured that it is entirely normal and like many of the trials and tribulations parents go through with teens, it won't last.  But if that's the case, a parent probably shouldn't attend the interview.  Agree to disagree, go to your neutral corners and let your student interview on her own.  That's better than risking a parent/teen flare up during a college interview.  

Competitiveness Reconsidered

You don't have to spend a lot of time reading our blog or hanging around our offices before you hear our Collegewise mantra.  The bad news you hear about getting into college is only true for about 40-50 schools.  The vast majority of the over 2,000 colleges out there accept most of their applicants.  Relax.  You're going to college.

We'll be using a new study by an economist at Stanford University (one of those schools where the bad news is true) to give our mantra additional legs.  From the article Competitiveness Reconsidered in "Inside Higher Ed"

"A small number of colleges have become much more competitive over
recent decades, according to Caroline M. Hoxby, an economist at
Stanford University. But her study — published by the National Bureau
of Economic Research — finds that as many as half of colleges have
become substantially less competitive over time."

Spread the word. 

Five Students Every College Loves

Different colleges look for different qualities in potential students.  But there are some characteristics that are appealing no matter where you apply, from Duke to Duquesne, Harvard to Haverford, Princeton to Purdue, Stanford to Samford, Vassar to…OK, you get the idea.  

1.  Students who raise their hands in class.
We really can’t emphasize enough how much of an advantage you will have if you just participate in class (at least, we can’t emphasize it enough without using all capital letters and bolder print).  The teacher will appreciate that you are engaged.  Your grade will likely be higher in the class.  And you’ll be much more likely to get a positive letter of recommendation from that teacher when you apply to college.  Colleges are looking for students who’ve shown they are ready and willing to take responsibility for their education.  Those are the students who will make the most of their time once they get to college.   

2.  Students who really love what they do outside of class.
Kids who have passion love what they do; they aren’t just going through the motions to please colleges.  You can hear it in the poet’s voice when she talks about how writing makes her feel, and from the future scientist who took college classes over the summer because he had to know more about physics.  You can sense it from the student who volunteers at the vet because she loves animals, from the artist who loves to paint on the weekends, and from the water polo player who rides the bench but still loves being on the team.   These passionate students are the ones who are most likely to make an impact on their campuses in college. 

3.  Students who work regular part-time jobs. 
There’s just something likeable about a kid who flips burgers, or washes cars, or finds outfits for screaming children at Baby Gap.  These—not a fancy sounding job at your dad's law firm—are regular jobs.  And kids who have them are always appealing to colleges.  We’re not suggesting that you should drop your current activities and run out to get a job if you don’t currently have one.  We’re mentioning it because too many students think you need to spend summers shearing sheep in Tibet or attending a pricey summer program to impress colleges.  You don’t.  Colleges would be just as impressed (maybe even a little more impressed) if you waited tables or stocked inventory at a clothing store down the street.

4.  Students who do thoughtful college searches.
Colleges want to admit students who have really thought about what they want their college experience to be like.  That’s why the most successful college applicants do a lot of college soul searching about what they hope and expect their college experiences will be like.  So start asking yourself what part of college academics you are most excited about.  In what kind of college environment do you think you would flourish socially and academically?   What are you hoping to gain from your college experience (in addition to a degree)?  You don't need answers to all of these questions right away.  But thinking about them will show the colleges that you are a mature college seeker. 

5.  Students who are comfortable just being themselves.
Individuality is something every college wants to see from an applicant.  They want students with different strengths, interests, beliefs, and backgrounds.  So don’t try to be something you’re not just to impress colleges.  If you’re terrible at sports but love math, don’t be ashamed of it—embrace it.  Take additional math classes outside of school.  Join the math club and become its fearless leader.  Openly admit that you have a relationship with math that borders on romantic.  Colleges know that if they put these different, interesting, motivated students together, they’re going to learn from each other.

The Five Most Overused Essay Topics

One of our counselors referred to his last year working in admissions at Caltech as the year of the blood drive essay. That year, an unusually high number of applicants told the same tale of how one on-campus blood drive changed their lives and made them appreciate the importance of serving humanity.

Writing such grandiose statements into your essays won’t help you stand out. The statements sound cliché. So here are the five most overused clichés I—and every admissions officer I’ve spoken with—see most often, and which you should avoid.

1. The aforementioned “blood drive essay” or “How community service taught me the importance of helping others”

Colleges appreciate students who are concerned about their communities. But one blood drive does not a humanitarian make. A claim to have learned how important it is to help people needs to be substantiated with evidence of a sincere, long-term commitment to helping people. Otherwise, your message loses some oomph.

If you had an experience during your community service that really meant a lot to you, say so. And be honest. Otherwise, consider doing a good deed for admissions officers and avoid the community service cliché.

2. “Hard work always pays off,” and other life lessons learned while playing sports

The problem with many sports essays is they explain what life is like for every athlete. You go to practice. You work hard. You compete.

Then the student makes it worse by saying sports taught him the importance of hard work and commitment, which is almost certainly not something he would say to his friends.

Be original. Tell your sports story that nobody else can tell. If you can’t find a story you own, just write about something else. The sport will still be listed on your application.

3. “How my trip to another country broadened my horizons”

This essay essentially says, “France is very difference from the United States—the food, the language, the customs. But I learned to appreciate the differences and to adapt to the ways of the French.”

Visiting a country and noticing that it is different is not a story that you own. The admissions office doesn’t want to read your travel journals. Instead, make yourself, not the country, the focus of the essay.

One of my students who had never previously ventured onto any sort of dance floor wrote that his trip to Spain was the first time he’d ever danced in front of other people. That wasn’t an essay about how Spain was different—it was an essay about how he was different in Spain.

4. “How I overcame a life challenge [that wasn’t really all that challenging]”

Essays can help admissions officers understand more about a student who has overcome legitimate hardship. But far too many other students misguidedly manufacture hardship in a college essay to try to gain sympathy or make excuses (e.g., for low grades). That won’t work.

If you’ve had a difficult hardship and you want to talk about it, you should. Otherwise, it’s probably better to choose a different topic. Note: The pet eulogy falls into this category. Lovely if you want to write one. Just don’t include it as part of your college essay.

5. Anything that doesn’t really sound like you

Your essays are supposed to give the readers a sense of your personality. So give your essays a sincerity test. Do they sound like you, or do they sound like you’re trying to impress someone?

Excerpted from my book: If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted

You can also find even more advice in our video, “How to Write Great College Essays.”  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.

Advice for Ivy League Hopefuls

Olympic medalists.  Concert pianists.  Teenage mathematicians who enjoy pointing out the inherent limitations of calculus.   Ivy League applicant pools are chock full of these students.  But there’s one trait those students who are ultimately admitted all have in common; something that when coupled with their perfect GPAs, top test scores and multiple Nobel Prizes makes them that much more appealing to Ivy League admissions officers.

Most of them never said the words, “I want to go to an Ivy League school.” 

The “Ivy League” (there are eight schools in the Ivy League—Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Yale) is not a label that was bestowed upon colleges that were somehow recognized as the best; the term actually refers to an athletic conference.  In the 1940s, eight schools agreed to standardize their athletic eligibility requirements and financial aid practices for athletes.   That’s about all that the Ivy League schools have in common (well, that and the fact that Ohio State would beat the snot out of any of them in a football game). 

A student who says, “I want to go to an Ivy League school” is really just revealing that he cares more about how famous a college is than he does about what the unique learning environment will be like.   He’s showing symptoms of a bad case of name-brand envy.  That’s not a student that’s going to get an Ivy acceptance.      

Highly selective colleges like those in the Ivy League don’t want name-brand seekers.  They want ambitious, passionate, intellectually curious students who want to make valuable contributions in and out of the classrooms.  And more importantly, they want students who are confident enough to select each particular school based on fit, regardless of the school’s inclusion in the Ivy League athletic conference.

The fact that Brown University (a school that puts the liberal in “liberal arts”) is in the Ivy League isn’t what draws students who are ultimately accepted there.  They apply because they want to embrace the academic freedom Brown offers to explore a wide range of intellectual interests.  Accepted students talk about how they want to create their own major that combines music and physics (you can do it at Brown), how frustrating it was that their high school didn’t offer German as a foreign language option, and how they’d love to try a few anthropology courses using Brown’s “Pass/No Pass” option.  They appreciate the uniqueness that is Brown.

We’re not suggesting that you should pick an Ivy League school and then attempt to reverse engineer yourself to fit that school’s mission.  You are a not a widget—don’t act like one.  You need to find the colleges that fit you, not fit yourself to the colleges. 

If you really want to attend a highly-selective college like an Ivy League school, show them that you’re mature and confident enough to care more about what you’ll experience in college than you do about how famous a college’s name is.  Find the schools that fit you best.  And when you’re asked, “Why do you want to attend this college?” have a better answer than, “It’s a great school” (they hate that answer, by the way).

If some of the Ivy League schools end up on your list, great.  But if they don’t, that’s OK.  There are plenty of other leagues out there for you.

Just Breathe

I moderated a panel this week that featured admissions officers from Stanford and UCLA, as well as a high school counselor with 30 years experience helping kids get into college.  A parent asked what she should be doing with her kids in elementary and junior high school seeing that so many parents around her are shuttling their kids to private tutors, expensive lessons, and club teams.

The high school counselor jumped in first.  "Tell your kids to breathe." 

She went on to describe that elementary and junior high school are times when kids should be kids.  It's great for them to play on a club soccer team, or take piano lessons, or even take a summer school class if that's what makes them happy.  But not every nine-year-old is ready to pledge undying commitment to one activity.

And for the record, the panelists from UCLA and Stanford said they'd never seen any indication that successful applicants got there by starting their college journey in elementary school. 

So if your nine-year-old balks at piano lessons and would much rather build paper airplanes to have contests with the neighborhood kids to see whose can fly the farthest (that's what I did), that's fine.  It's normal. 

Everyone, just breathe. 

Elite Colleges Don’t Make Elite People

Where did your heroes go to college? 

That's a question posed by Jay Mathews of The Washington Post in this article.  You might be surprised where many past presidents, state governors, Fortune 500 CEOs and other people who have achieved great success did–and did not–go to college. 

Here's my favorite part:

"Researchers Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger found that admirable character traits — persistence, imagination, energy — produce success in life no matter which college a person attends.  So relax. Be happy about your chance to spend four years at any school, soaking up the wisdom of the world and deciding what kind of life you want. Those of you who become heroes will discover most of the qualities that made you so were already in your possession"

I knew that both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates dropped out of college (Reed College and Harvard, respectively), but I didn't know that Ted Turner was kicked out of college.  Twice.