Join us live online for “Why Good Kids Write Bad College Essays”

We're about to try something new and exciting, and we're hoping you'll be a part of it.

This week, we're debuting College Admissions Live, a free session on the web where our experts will discuss the college admissions process.  We’ll stream it live from our webcam, and viewers will be able to ask us questions via a text chat that will run alongside the video.  Our first session will focus on writing great college essays.

"Why Good Kids Write Bad College Essays"
with hosts Kevin McMullin and Arun Ponnusamy
Wednesday, September 22
Live @ 6 p.m. PST 
Free at our new online channel

What we'll cover
Too many good kids write bad college essays—stories about life lessons learned playing sports or how volunteering at a blood drive taught them the importance of helping others.  Every good kid has a better tale to tell.  We’ll show you how.  Join us to learn…

    * What admissions officers really want (and don't want) to read
    * Overused topics you really should avoid
    * How to find and write your best stories

We’ll talk for about 30 minutes, then take questions for 15 minutes.
About the hosts
Kevin McMullin is the founder and president of Collegewise.  He also writes this blog and gets self-conscious when writing about himself in the third person like this.  Arun Ponnusamy is the founder and college counselor at Open Road Education.  He worked as an assistant director of admissions at the University of Chicago and Caltech, and as an admissions reader at UCLA.  He has read approximately 1,273 bad college essays about blood drives.
How to watch
Just visit our channel on Wednesday, September 22 at 6 p.m. PST. (What time is that in my time zone?)
No reservations required. Just drop in at the start time.  If you'd like us to send you an email reminder the day of the show, just register here.
We're not promising great production value (it will just be the two of us in front of a webcam).  But we can promise great advice and hope you'll tune in to join us.

One place not to find a better way

Colleges spend months creating their applications.  They compose the essay questions and arrange the information until the admissions committee has an application that will provide them the information they want, in exactly the way they want it presented. 

So how do you think an admissions officer reacts when in response to a question that asks you to list your activities in the space provided, an applicant simply writes, "See attached resume."?

There are lots of better ways to approach the application process.  There are better ways to get organized and to put together the information for the people writing your letters of recommendation.  There are better ways to choose the colleges to which you will apply, to write your essays and to conduct yourself in your college interviews.  It's worth considering all of them. 

But never do anything that ignores or contradicts the directions on the application.  No matter how unique you think your situation may be, no matter how much more compelling you think your candidacy would be, if you'd be ignoring their directions, don't do it.  Colleges would prefer you do it their way. 

Beyond the bottom line benefits

A lot of the reasons you go to college have to do with the bottom line.  If you have a college degree, you'll have more opportunities.  You'll get better jobs.  You'll have advantages that can lead to more success, more money, and arguably a better life than you'd have without a college education.  Those are the bottom line reasons to attend college–a means to an end.  They're all valid.

But college can give you other benefits beyond the bottom line.

In September, 1989, I started college and met my freshman roommate, Craig.  We lived in a dorm room the size of a matchbox and have now been good friends for 21 years, ever since that day we started our college careers together.

Tonight, I'm attending his 40th birthday party. 

People who went to college reap the bottom line benefits every day.  But ask them how their lives are better as a result of going to college, and they'll likely mention very different benefits, like the people they met who are still in their lives today.

You don't have to go to a famous college to reap the benefits–bottom-line or beyond-bottom-line.  

Getting into a good college is not that difficult


Remember that getting into a good college is not that difficult.  It may not be a college that your grandmother has heard of, but you have a better choice of colleges and universities here than in any other country in the world. You might pause for a moment and appreciate that. Notice all those young people moving here from China and Korea and the Philippines and Egypt and Nigeria and other places? They know that you can get a splendid education in the United States with nothing more than a basic understanding of English and a willingness to work hard. The vast majority of colleges accept most of their applicants, and some good ones still have empty spaces in September." 

Jay Mathews
10 Ways to Survive 11th Grade

Don’t blame other people–find a way to make it work

When you're explaining any type of academic under-performance, be careful blaming other people. 

Sometimes your academic performance suffers for a legitimate reason.  Maybe you were ill and had to miss several weeks of school.  Maybe you were only recently diagnosed with a learning disability.  Maybe you had to help take care of your sister when your parents could no longer send her to daycare.  You shouldn't hesitate to explain those circumstances that really were beyond your control. 

But blaming other people sounds like this:

"I got a 'C' because of a personality conflict with the teacher."

"I didn't do well in Spanish, but the language department at my school is terrible."

"I was just 3 points away from 'A,' but my teacher refused to raise the grade."

When you make excuses like those that blame other people, the colleges inevitably think,

"Well, another kid in that class still got an 'A'."

I don't deny that those excuses may be legitimate in some cases.  But sometimes, you get a bad teacher.  It could happen in college, too.  And after college, you might have a bad boss.  Or a bad landlord.  Or a bad mother-in-law.  When that happens, you won't always be able to just resign yourself and blame someone else.  Sometimes you're stuck and you have to figure out a way to make it work.

High school is a great training ground for this.  If you really do have a personality conflict with a teacher, what are the other students doing differently that you are (or are not) doing?  If the language department at your school really is terrible, what steps could you take to improve your own learning experience?  And if you really were just 3 points away from an A, remind yourself that lots of things, from Olympic gold medals to sales awards at big companies are based on systems where the highest numbers win. 

Colleges–and future employers–aren't looking for the students who blame other people.  They want the students who find a way to make it work. 

Balance rigor with reality

Some students can take the hardest available classes and still do well, have fun, and sleep regularly.  But everyone has different abilities.  Part of being successful in high school means pushing towards, but not past, your own academic limits. 

You should enjoy your activities.  You should get enough sleep.  You should see your friends, have fun and occasionally do things that have nothing to do with college admissions or improving yourself.  

There is nothing wrong with a course schedule that demands hard work.  Some stress and the occasional late night are OK, too.  But no college in the world would want you to make yourself unhappy or unhealthy because of your classes.  Even the highest achievers still need to be happy and well-adjusted teenagers.       

If you’re hoping to go to one of those schools that rejects most of the people who apply, you’re going to need to take the most demanding courses offered at your school and you’ll need to get A’s in just about all of them.  But most of the over 2000 colleges don’t demand that kind of perfection from their applicants. 

Work hard and take classes that challenge your academic limits.  But balance that rigor with reality so you can be a happy and well-rested teenager, too. 

Ask Collegewise: How do I get started as a private counselor?

Liz asks :

I’m interested in becoming a private college counselor but I don’t have any experience.  Can you recommend some of the best ways to learn more about this field so I can get started?

There are a lot of ways you can learn more about college admissions.  Read books.  Go to conferences.  Read blogs like ours, or this one.

There are also a number of college counseling certification programs (many of which are offered online) that you could consider, like those at UCLA or UC Berkeley.

You can also learn about college counseling by actually helping counselors.  Why not contact a high school in your area and offer to volunteer your time as an administrative assistant to the counseling staff?  If you have a full time job and can’t be there during the day, offer to help them organize their college nights or to proofread their monthly newsletter.

You could also volunteer your time to programs that assist students, like College Summit.

Like any field, it’s going to take some time for you to develop an expertise.  But there’s plenty of room in the marketplace for people who want to help kids and are willing to put the time in to be great at it.

Thanks for your question, Liz.  If you’ve got a question of your own, email us at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com.

Interests make you interesting

My friend's husband owns a bar.   Last month, I had a fascinating conversation with him about how he runs it. 

This guy was raised in Ireland and has a vision for how an Irish pub should be run.  He knows exactly what kind of feel the bar should have.  He knows how to adjust the volumes of the orders he places to stock the bar based on the seasons and how much business he can expect to see.  He knows what type of customer they want to serve and how to make those patrons happy.  And most importantly, he knows how he wants the Guinness poured.  

As he explained it to me, any legitimate Irish bartender knows that Guinness needs to be poured a certain way.  The glass needs to be held a particular angle.  The pour should be stopped halfway through and restarted again to help create the perfect head on top of the beer.  When a customer complains that he wants his beer faster, he'll remind the customer that he ordered a Guinness, not a Bud Light.  And nothing drives him crazier than seeing one of his bartenders rush a pour.  As he put it,

"If you're going to pour it, pour it right."

This isn't a guy who takes over a conversation by talking only about himself.  He only kept sharing more because I kept asking him questions about it. I was totally fascinated by it. 

I don't own a bar.  I have no interest in owning a bar.  And I don't even enjoy Guinness.  But the fact that he feels so passionately about what he does makes for great conversation.  It's interesting to learn about something from a person who knows so much more about it than I do.

That's what you want to do in your college applications. 

If you're a basketball player, there's a good chance the person reading your application wasn't.  If you're a guitarist, an artist, a stamp collector, an EMT, a dancer or a Civil War buff, chances are that your reader won't know as much about it as you do.  

So don't hide how much you know or how passionate you are about the things you do.  Show the colleges that you care about your interests like this guy cares about his Guinness.  Your interests make you interesting.  They make the colleges want to meet you so they can know more.  And when a college wants to meet you, that gets you a lot closer to being admitted. 

What you can learn from new college freshmen

Across the country this week, new college freshmen are moving into their dorms.  If you could see those kids, you'd notice something.

None of them are lamenting the rejections they got from schools back in the spring.  Nobody's talking about what their SAT scores were or whether or not they had 4.0 GPAs back in high school.  Nobody cares about any of that.  They're all too excited about finally being in college to spend time looking back. 

And none of the moms and dads who are helping their new college freshmen move into their dorm rooms are thinking about any of those things either. 

When you study hard and still get a ''C" on your chemistry test, or you take the SAT a third time and you still don't get the score you wanted, or you cross your fingers for an acceptance to Duke but a rejection arrives instead, it's easy to feel like your college dreams are slipping away.

But remember what those new college freshmen are reminding us this week.  At some point, you're going to be moving into a college dorm.  That's going to be an exciting day no matter what school you're attending.  And when that happens, things like your SAT scores aren't going to matter anymore. 

They next time you feel overwhelmed by the pressure of college admissions, when the stress is overshadowing any sense of fun and anticipation for your college future, think of those new freshmen and what it will be like when you're one of them.