What’s your story?

I was meeting with a Collegewise family once when the student revealed that his now bald father had an afro back in college.

The dad held his hands six inches from his head and said, "It was out to here."  

As the student sat there giggling, I told the father how hard that was for me to imagine.  And he had the perfect reply with an exaggerated, relaxed college tone.

"Hey, it was the seventies, man." 

Every respectable adult I’ve ever met who’s been to college has a story to tell, a story from a time when they weren’t always so smart, perfect and grown up.  That’s part of college.  Kids get to make their mistakes and be who they are (afros and all) with impunity, knowing that as long as they manage to learn something in their classes along the way, they’re pretty much going to be OK.    

Parents, when you feel the stress of your kids' college process getting to you, think back to your college days and what you were like back then, how you spent your time, and what path you took to become the responsible adult that you are today.  I'm hoping if you do this, it will remind you that you have good kids who will enjoy the opportunity to create their own stories at whatever colleges are lucky enough to get them. 

Burgers and shakes for the parent’s soul

To really experience college, I think you need to pull at least one all-nighter.

I look back at my college life and marvel at the things I could do back then, like play intramural basketball at midnight, live on pasta and canned sauce, and stay up all night writing my six-page paper for “English 201: Modernism.”

I’d known about the modernism paper for weeks.  But two weeks became one week, and five days became one day, and the next thing I knew, my paper was due in nine hours.  It was time to get serious.

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone.  My roommate was an electrical engineering major and was facing a final exam at 8 o’clock the next morning.  By midnight, I was starting up my computer and he was cracking the books.

We were giving it the old college try in our tiny living room, not all that concerned about the impending academic deadlines, when he sounded an alarm at 1:45 a.m. that brought panic to us both.

“Dude, if we’re going to get to In-N-Out Burger before it closes, we need to leave RIGHT NOW!”

A six-page paper and a final exam in electrical engineering sparked no sense of urgency in us.  But the impending lights out at the local In-N-Out Burger made these two procrastinators spring right into action. 

I see the sun rise every day now, but it’s certainly not because I’ve stayed up all night.  Since I graduated college, my body has essentially switched time zones. 

Part of the college experience for kids means being a little irresponsible.  In fact, stories like this are the ones parents tend to share with us about their own college experiences.  I would never want kids to be unsafe, unhealthy or just plain reckless.  But, when a kid stays up all night to do a paper he’s known about for two weeks, it's not mature, but it is wonderfully collegiate.  I can't tell you one thing about that "English 201: Modernism" course today, but I remember that night fondly. 

When your kids get to college, they won’t be adults yet.  Experiences like the all-nighters are what will ultimately teach them the hard lessons about planning, preparation, and digging in to give something the old college try.  And they're probably the experiences they talk (and write) about 20 years later.     

Thoughts for parents about college costs

One of the difficult parts about researching colleges is that kids have to apply without parents knowing what it is actually going to cost.  You know the listed price (tuition, room and board, etc.), but you don't know how much financial aid you receive until you are actually admitted to the school.  So how can parents assign any kind of financial guidelines to the kids' college search?

If your kids are starting to talk about colleges and you're starting to worry about the costs, here are three basic guidelines to keep in mind.

1. Don’t necessarily eliminate a college based on the cost.

Every financial aid talk I've heard emphasizes how much money is actually available for college.  And the amount of aid you can receive isn't dependent only on how much money you have (or don't have).  The academic strength of the student, her match with the school, and the college's desire to have her on campus can also influence a financial aid award. So while I wouldn't recommend applying to a list of schools that are all out of your price range, don't necessarily limit your list to colleges you're sure you can pay for. 

2. Talk with your kids about the cost of college.

I don't think parents should feel obligated to hide the economic realities of college from their kids.  It won't hurt kids to know how much money is being invested in their education; a student who knows how much his parents are sacrificing to send him to college is more likely to get up for that 8 a.m. calculus class every day during his freshman year.  Don't forget that while parents may be paying the tuition, student loans are taken out in the student's name.  And it will be the student–not the parent–who takes that on-campus job as part of a work study financial aid award.  That’s why college financing is often a family decision whether you want it to be or not. 

3.  Consider picking a financial safety school.

Consider encouraging your student to apply to at least one school where you're sure the student
can get in, you're sure he'd want to attend, and you're sure
you could pay for it even if you got no financial aid.   

Life changers…

I've made a living doing public speaking almost since the day I graduated from college.  But I never knew I was any good at it until that one day in college when I ran for an office in my fraternity and we had to get up and give a speech.  I learned something about myself that day (I would also later learn that "Rush Chair" is a pretty thankless job in a fraternity, but that's not really the point). 

In “Making the Most of College,” a Harvard education professor interviewed more than 1600 undergraduates about what had been their deepest, most meaningful college experiences.  When he asked students to think of a specific experience that changed them profoundly, four-fifths of them chose something that happened outside of the classroom.

Yes, colleges are like academic supermarkets where you can study anything that interests you.  But don't forget about the opportunities for self-discovery that take place in college, too.  What you learn in your psychology class may not ultimately be as life-changing as that one day the professor told you that she saw great potential in your work.  The one internship you get over the summer, or the time you spend writing for the school paper, or the research you do with a professor, or the volunteer work you do at a local non-profit, your college experience will give you a lot of opportunities to discover your talents, likes, dislikes and potential life paths. 

At Collegewise, we tell our kids all the time that it's not where you go to college, it's what you do while you're there.  If you spend your college years putting yourself in the positions to have these kinds of self-discoveries, you'll find them.  I don't care where you go to school–the famous colleges do not dole out life-changing experiences with any more efficiency than the non-famous ones

That's an importing thing to keep in mind as you're searching for colleges.  Remember that the college rankings don't take these experiences into consideration.  The websites and literature and tour guides can't tell you what your discoveries will be.  But your chances to find them for yourself will be waiting for you wherever you go.

And if you're a senior who's starting to receive your college news, remember that if your dream school says "No," you'll still have these life-changing moments in college.  You'll just be doing it somewhere else.  It doesn't matter where you have them; lives change at lots of colleges.

Five college search tips for juniors and their parents

This is the time of year when a lot of juniors (and their parents) start getting serious about the college search.  That's a good thing; choosing where you apply to college is a big decision and it's not one that should be put off until the fall application season.  To help your family enjoy it a little more, here are five college search tips for juniors and their parents.  

1. Students need to take the lead.

I think any parent (especially one who's paying the tuition bill) deserves input on your kid's college choices.  But it's important to remember that it's the student's college experience that matters, not a parent's.  The more students do for themselves, including researching and selecting appropriate colleges, the better. 

2. Remember that where you apply is totally different from where you actually go.

I mention this because it’s OK to want both big schools and small schools.  It's OK for parents and students to disagree on some of the college choices. It's OK to not be completely sure you're ready to move 1500 miles away from home. You’re not going yet—you’re just researching schools and deciding where to apply.  Acknowledging that difference can take some pressure off students and parents during the search process.  

3. Remember that what you do in college will be much more important than where you go.

It will be up to you to extract the value your college has to offer, whether it's atop all the college news rankings, or some tiny school your friends have never heard of.  So it's much more important that you find the right fit than it is you find a college that's famous. 

4. Don’t expect to be certain about your college choices until you get there.  

Big life decisions always have some uncertainty.  It’s normal.  And almost none of our happy college students perfectly articulated their current college existence back in high school when they were researching colleges.  For now, you just need to be engaged and curious.

5. Relax.

Statistics show that most students like their colleges, even those who are attending schools that weren't their first choice.  You are, after all, with a bunch of 18-22 year-olds and your most important responsibilities are to learn and have fun.  College is a pretty good arrangement, no matter where you are.  So enjoy this.  Be engaged in the process, trust your instincts, and have a little fun while you're at it.  You're only going to get to go through the college search process once, and you'll enjoy it a lot more if you allow yourself to do so.

On College Visits, Just See What You Want to See

Stadium_2 I visited Notre Dame once and I only wanted to see one thing–Notre Dame Stadium.  I didn't take a tour or hear the information session or sit in a class.  I just wanted to see "The House that Rockne Built."  Sure, it's possible that I had to squeeze through an opening in a locked gate just to get in and take a peek.  I don't advocate trespassing for teenagers, but it was worth it (for me).  It was one of the most memorable college visits I've ever made. 

Many families are planning to visit colleges this spring.  When you do, don't feel pressured to do anything but see what you want to see.  Tours and information sessions and class sit-ins are great for some people.  But there's no wrong way to visit a college, much like there's no wrong way to take a vacation.  So whether it's the football stadium at Notre Dame or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, see what you want to see.  Take in the scene.  And have fun.  Concentrate more on making it memorable than you do on making it productive.  Just enjoy the time with your family on a college campus. There's enough stress surrounding the process of getting in to college–the visits should be the fun part. 

How to compare financial aid awards

Comparing financial aid awards from colleges isn't as easy as asking, "Who's giving us the most money?"

We've met more than one family who admitted to being swept up by the total figure in the financial aid award letter they received along with an offer of admission from a college.  When a college says that you've been awarded, "$16,000 in financial aid a year for four years:" that doesn't necessarily mean that you're getting a $16,000 discount off the college's sticker price. 

Financial aid awards can be a combination of free money (scholarships), loans, and work study.  To figure out who's giving you the best offer, you need to consider the total cost of attendance for the college, the amount of free money, loans and their accompanying interest rates, etc. 

For senior parents, the award comparison tool available from Finaid.org is wonderful.  You plug in the numbers; they'll tell you who's giving you the best offer. 

Just remember that the "cost of attendance" (COA) is not just the tuition–it's tuition, room and board, personal expenses, etc.  Most schools list their estimated COA on the financial aid section of their websites.


Adding up…

When I was at the grocery store this afternoon, a group of four college guys were stocking up for what appeared to be a college roommate barbecue–hot dogs, buns, charcoal, chips, generic brand ketchup and mustard, and of course, (very) cheap beer.

When the elected accountant of the group did a rough calculation and told his friends they didn't have enough money for everything in the future feast, one of them–and I swear I'm not making this up–made a quick executive decision and said,

"Dude, that charcoal is nine bucks!  Put it back.  Let's just microwave the hot dogs." 

That, my friends, is college ingenuity at work.

If you're a high school student right now, you're probably worried about your GPA.   You're probably worried about your SAT scores and your AP tests and whether or not your dream school is going to say yes.  It's a lot of pressure and it can sometimes be easy to forget how much you have to look forward to.

But someday, none of those things are going to matter anymore because you'll be in college.  And even if you don't end up at the school that you're sure today is the only one for you, you'll still get to do things that you talk about 5 and 10 and 30 years later. 

Not too long from now, those college guys I saw at the store will be grown-ups with jobs and families and real responsibilities.  And they'll look back fondly at their time in college.  They'll laugh when they remember how they could get a whole weekend's worth of meals (and beer) for under 20 bucks and be completely happy.  Great college memories are created everywhere from Harvard to the tiny college you haven't even heard of yet.  

By the way, two of these guys had sweatshirts identifying them as attending the University of California — Irvine, one of those schools that rejects a lot of qualified applicants.  Don't assume that smart kids don't enjoy roommate barbecues and cheap beer in college.  

Don't worry.  Whether or not a barbecue like that is your idea of a great time, everything you're doing will eventually add up to a great college experience you'll remember. 

Your best academic experience?

The best academic experience I ever had was my eighth grade science class.  It was better than any class I ever took in high school or college, and it was almost entirely due to the teacher, Mr. Schmidt.  I'd never been a science guy, but I loved that he could make everything from introductory physics to aeronautics fascinating.  I loved how he treated us like we were smart unless we made the mistake of proving otherwise.  And I loved that on the very first day, when the resident class clown, Matthew Hurley, made one of his dopey comments, Mr. Schmidt told him, "You pick your ass up out of that chair and get out of my class.  Now." 

I never worked harder to succeed or to earn a teacher's approval then I did that year.  I looked forward to third period science every single day.  On the last day of class, I actually felt a little choked up when I walked out and said to him, "Keep teaching like you are, Mr. Schmidt."

I never had another class like Mr. Schmidt's.  And that's my fault.  I could have had them, but I never sought out teachers or classes whose reputations sounded like they might duplicate that experience for me.  I just assumed that how much you like a class or a teacher is all about the luck of the draw.  What a mistake. 

What has your best academic experience been, the one class that you actually looked forward to attending every single day.  What made it so great?  Was it because of the subject matter?  Because the teacher was so great?  Because you fed off the sense of competition, or the class discussion, or the opportunity to be pushed to work harder than you thought you could? 

Maybe it was a combination of all of those things.  But whatever it was, I encourage you to think about it, identify what made it special, and then make it your personal academic mission to duplicate it as many times as possible throughout high school and college.

It may not feel like it now, but you're in charge of your academic experience.  You can pursue subjects that interest you.  You can seek out teachers with great reputations.  You'll get to choose your college and your classes and your major.  When you do, think about your best academic experiences and whether or not these choices will create more of them. 

Why not try to create academic experiences that you look forward to every day, every semester, and every year? 

Who deserves the credit?

According to the Boston Globe, Harvard received a record 29,112 applications for the Class of 2013.  

2,900 of them scored a perfect 800 on the SAT critical reading section.  3,500 got a perfect SAT math score. Nearly 3,700 were ranked first in their senior class. 

Still, 93% of those amazing, brilliant, accomplish students were rejected.  Why?  Because Harvard only has 1655 spaces in the freshman class. It's not a miscarriage of justice; it's just simple math (I was an English major, and let's just say that for me to call math simple is really saying something). 

So, when those 1655 lucky students who are currently freshmen at Harvard go on to do great things in their lives, who deserves the credit?  Does Harvard deserve it? 

I don't think so.  Those students' future success will come from of qualities they developed long before they ever took up residence at Harvard, like their work ethic, interest in learning, character, persistence, and maybe even their personality and charm.  Schools like Harvard go out of their way to accept students with those qualities.  So it really should come as no surprise if the graduates go on to do great things. 

And what about the 27,000 amazingly brilliant and accomplished applicants who were rejected?  Are they doomed to substandard lives now that they won't have Harvard degrees?  I know–that sounds like a stupid question because it is.  Of course they're not doomed.  They're too amazingly brilliant and accomplished to be left behind. 

I'm not arguing that the Harvard experience isn't a special one; I'm sure most of those 1655 freshmen will have an amazing four years.  But so will the rest of those hard-workers who got rejected and ended up someplace else.  Smart, hard-working, passionate kids will almost certainly make something of themselves wherever they go. 

The notion that you have to go to a famous college to have a happy and successful life is a scam. If you had to go to one of those schools to have a good life, we'd never
have 2,000 colleges in this country that people would pay good money to
attend.  So don't fall for name-brand-itis.  It's not where you go to college; it's who you are and what you do while you're there that counts. 

The right college–famous or not–can certainly help you.  But you'll still deserve the credit for your own success.