Ask Collegewise: Is this really what college admissions has come to?

Duncan asks:

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I attend the parent nights at my daughter's high school,
and I listen to everyone talking about the competition for college.  All our friends keep bringing up the test preparation courses and private tutors and
college counselors they're using.  I can't help but ask, is this really what it's come
to?  My daughter is a good student but she's not at the top of her
class.  I'm wondering if I'm being naive in thinking that she will
still get into college."  

You're not being naive at all.  The vast majority of students who start college every year weren't at the top of their classes.  They didn't take expensive test prep courses, hire tutors, or have the guidance of a college counselor.  We've got over 2,000 colleges in this country and all but about a hundred of them accept pretty much everyone who applies. 

But too many kids and parents mistakenly believe that the more selective colleges are somehow better than the less selective ones.  So a lot of good kids who work hard believe that the only acceptable reward for their efforts is an admissions to one of those supposedly elite colleges.  That's why you're seeing the kind of behavior you've witnessed.  

I'm not against kids working hard and placing value on their educational futures–smart, mature kids should do that.  And I think that good tutors, test-preparation courses and college counselors can add value for some families.  But nobody's success or failure in life is determined by an admissions decision from a particular college.  A student's work ethic, desire to learn, her personal qualities and her willingness to extract the maximum value from her college experience are much more important than the name of the college she'll attend.

So, no, what you're seeing isn't necessarily what college admissions has come to be.  It's what the race for admission to the schools most likely to say "No" has come to be.  Kids and parents get to make the choice whether or not you want to participate in that race.  And I don't think it's a very healthy race to run.

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

Two thoughts about work

I know two great quotes about working, one from an author, one from my dad.

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The best advice I got from Eric should be on a bumper sticker on every car in America: 'If it feels like work, you're working too hard.'"

Christopher McDougal
Author of
Born To Run

And…

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It's called work for a reason.  If it wasn't work, they'd call it vacation."

Roger McMullin (my dad)

It might seem like those two ideas are in conflict, but here's how I think they work together. 

Every successful person, from an Olympic marathoner, to the owner of a successful business, to an "A" student in high school accepts that to be successful, sometimes you have to do things you'd rather not do.  Some mornings, the marathoner gets up and runs when he'd rather sleep in.  The successful business owner sometimes stays late when she'd rather be at home relaxing.  And there are probably lots of nights where the "A" student studies when he'd much rather watch TV or go out with his friends.  It is, after all, called "work" for a reason.  

But the most successful people still love what they do.

Elite runners will tell you that there's no better feeling than finishing a good, hard run.  Successful entrepreneurs love being in charge of their own professional destinies and making their businesses successful.  And "A" students like challenging themselves, learning and mastering material.  The success feels good, and once someone has a taste of it, the work it takes to get there is part of the enjoyment.

So yes, work hard.  And accept that to be successful, you're going to need to do things that you might not always want to do.

But work shouldn't make you miserable.  It shouldn't be a gut wrenching, soul crushing experience.  If it feels that way for too long, you're working too hard. 

Don’t play the reach school lottery

Some students think that the best way to improve their chances of getting in to a highly-selective college is to apply to as many of them possible.  They think that by submitting 10 or 12 or 20 applications to those schools (we call them "reaches" for everyone given that up to 90% of the applicants are rejected), their odds of winning an admission improve dramatically. 

But they don’t.

We work with hundreds of students every year.  And whatever your dream schools are—Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, Yale, Duke, Georgetown, or any of the others—we’ve had students accepted there.  But in the nearly 11 years we’ve been doing this, not one of our kids who got into those schools got there by playing the lottery and applying to as many as possible. 

Applying to any reach school is always a gamble (you always run the risk of losing in the form of a rejection letter).  But we don’t have a problem with students gambling on a reach school or two.  In fact, we encourage it.  You’ve worked hard and you’ve earned the right to chase your dream schools.  

But if you place all your bets on long shots, you’re going to lose a lot.  And you're going to take too much time away from your applications to other colleges–colleges that are just as good–where your chances of admission are better.  A student who's really worked hard enough to consider the most selective colleges deserves a number of college options when the decisions come back.  You shouldn't be just crossing your fingers hoping that one of fifteen schools says, "Yes." 

The Collegewise students who get into at least one reach school do it by selecting the 1-3 reach schools that are the best matches for them—the ones for which they have a good, ten-minute answer to the question, “Why do you want to attend this school?” 

So find your 1-3 dream schools.  Take your best shot.  But don't don’t apply anywhere “just to see what happens.”  And whatever you do, don't play the reach school lottery.

For parents: Guidelines for emailing teachers

It should be a good thing that parents can communicate with teachers so quickly and easily over email.  But I'm not sure that the introduction of email has improved the relationship between those two parties. 

Email is actually a terrible communication tool.  All the subtle cues and tone that you can use when you speak with someone are almost impossible to convey over email.  Sometimes you sound angry or critical even when you don't mean to be.

Imagine your student comes home with a "D" on her chemistry exam.  She never told you she was struggling in chemistry and you're frustrated that she let it get to this point.  So you decide to send the teacher this email to request a meeting:

"Jenna just informed us that she received a "D" on her last exam.  We were shocked and very disappointed.  Jenna is an excellent student and she has never received anything but top grades.  We need to meet with you immediately to decide what can be done to rectify this situation." 

You're not necessarily assigning blame or being critical; you're just being a concerned parent.  But remove yourself from your parent role and imagine you're the teacher receiving that email. 

If a parent sent that to me, I'd be on the defensive.  It sounds like you're somehow blaming me for your kid's chemistry deficiencies.  I understand that Jenna is an excellent student.  But other kids did well on the exam–it's not like everybody got D's.  So clearly, Jenna has to assume some of the blame here.

Since email has become a preferred communication tool with parents and teachers, it's important to use it wisely.  Here are a few guidelines. 

1.  Use email as a tool to foster a relationship before you need something. 

If your student likes a class, drop the teacher an email and mention that "Jason just can't stop talking about how much he's enjoying your AP history class."  If a teacher stays after school to help your student, email the teacher and thank her.  Everyone likes to be acknowledged when they do a good job.  And as long as you're sincere, you'll have built some history together if you need to email for a less positive reason in the future.

2.  Be human, and be nice.

Just stating the facts can actually come off as cold and impersonal.  And negative emotions will be distorted and exaggerated in the mind of the reader.  So be a real person, and be nice.   

Imagine how a teacher would react differently in the above scenario if she received this email:

"Jenna just informed us of that she received a 'D' on her midterm.  My husband and I are both chemists so we're probably not as compassionate with our child as we should be when it comes to her struggles with the periodic table.  But we want to do the right thing and would appreciate any guidance you could give us on how we can help her.  Would it be possible to meet with you at your convenience?" 

That's a message written by a real–and nice–human being. 

3.  Don't forget to use email as a tool of thanks, too.

Here's where email can be a great communication tool.  Sending a quick, sincere thank-you note is easy and effective.  Look what you can accomplish in just four sentences:

"I just wanted to thank you for meeting with us last week.  Jenna came out of the meeting encouraged about her opportunity to improve her grade, and we felt so fortunate that she has a teacher who's willing to meet with panicked parents like us.  I can't tell you how much we appreciate it.  Thank you again, and have a great weekend."

I've written two other posts that might be helpful, too–one on how to write a good email message, and one about how to approach someone when you need help with a problem. 

Giving the gift of undivided attention

How would you feel if you were in the middle of a conversation with someone and he or she pulled out a magazine and started reading it?  You'd probably think it was rude.  You'd probably be insulted.  The person might as well have just said,  "You are excruciatingly boring, so I'm going to do something else now."

But that's pretty much what you're doing when you check a text message on your phone while you're in the middle of a conversation. 

One of the ways the world has changed is that we're constantly
exchanging information.  If you're a teenager, you're getting bombarded
with messages in multiple formats throughout the day.  So you're constantly
having to make a choice.  Which is more important–what you're doing
right now, or stopping what you're doing to read and respond to that message? 

The choice you make in each situation says a lot about you. 

When a student types a text message during one of our
meetings, we let him know that's not OK.  Turn the phone off
until we're done here.  Your college applications are more important
than that text message.  And I think we've got an obligation to teach kids that teachers, professors and bosses interviewing them for jobs someday won't like it either.  We work with mostly good kids, so thankfully, we don't have to say that very often. 

But I'll let you in on a secret–we know who's likely to do it before it ever happens.

The engaged kids who are excited about college and really seem to want our help aren't on their phones during our meetings.  They're too busy talking about colleges, asking questions and making sure they understand their next steps.  But the kid who always looks a little bored, who treats his college process like a chore other people are making him do, that's your likely text-er, right there.   

One of the nice things about the information age is that it's easy to give someone a gift–undivided attention.  If you're talking with someone you like and respect, put the phone away for two minutes.  It's a gift that doesn't cost you anything and you'll get all kinds of subtle credit for doing it. 

The text messages will be there when you get back. I promise. 

What would you do for a million dollars?

Sometimes you say you can't do something because you really can't.  Other times, you're just making excuses.  A good way to tell which one it is is to use the million dollar scenario. 

When we have a student who repeatedly misses or arrives late to meetings but always seems to have an excuse (traffic, too busy, I forgot, etc.), I'll ask,

"What would you do if you knew you'd win a million dollars if you arrived at your next meeting on time?" 

I'm not looking for, "I'd be there on time."  That's too easy.  I mean what specific actions would you take that you're not taking now? 

The student inevitably says something like , "I'd write it down so I wouldn't forget" or "I'd leave earlier to beat traffic."  The million dollar scenario exposes when you're making excuses for things that you really could do if you wanted to.

I'm an equal opportunity user of the scenario; I'll use it to call myself out when I'm just making excuses, too.  People in my life would tell you that I often think I'm busier than I really am.  When I think I'm too busy to get a project done on time, I'll use the million dollar scenario, and it calls me on it.  Every time.  I used it 11 months ago when I thought I was too busy to write a post on this blog every day.  I haven't missed a day since.

I'm not saying you should necessarily always do what the million dollar scenario suggests.  If there were a million dollars riding on you getting a 4.0 this semester, but in order to do it, you'd have quit the jazz band you love and sleep 3-hours a night (probably not true, by the way), that's not improving your life. 

The million dollar scenario shouldn't push you to do things that will make you unhappy; it should push you to get out of your own way and achieve the goals that will make you happy.  It should help you prioritize your responsibilities and make better use of your time.

When it's important, knowing there's a million dollars on the line can really make you focus.  Give it a try and see what happens. 

With activities, don’t follow the crowd

I've met a lot of kids who have volunteered at hospitals.  But I've only ever met one who worked as an emergency medical technician.  She wrote her essay about her first night on the job when she did chest compressions in the back of a speeding ambulance on a 19 year-old motorcycle accident victim who had just gone into full cardiac arrest. 

Volunteering at a hospital is a popular choice for high school kids.  But I'll bet she was the only kid working for that ambulance company.

Lots of kids go to expensive summer programs at colleges.  But I've only ever met one who spent his summers taking history classes at his local community colleges for $20 per unit.  He got to know one of the professors, and she shared the reading assignments for her upper division course on George Washington.  He didn't care whether any college would look favorably on it–that's not what it was about for him.  He was just obsessed with history and wanted to know more. 

Lots of kids play an instrument in the high school jazz band.  But I've only ever met one who also played trumpet in a real mariachi band. He wasn't doing it to put it on his college applications–he just liked playing good music (and wearing the authentic mariachi outfit). 

The problem with popular activities is that they're crowded.  It's much harder to make an impact and stand out if lots of other students are doing exactly the same thing you are.  And the truth is that if you really care about what you're doing, if you're really interested and you're not doing it just to put it on your college applications, the popular choices won't be appealing to you.

If you really want to help people, you probably won't be satisfied volunteering at a hospital doing exactly the same thing the other 30 student volunteers are doing.  Why not work at an ambulance company?  Or better yet, volunteer at a mobile health clinic that travels to the poorest parts of town.  Or find a doctor who focuses on under-served populations and offer to help her for free.

If you really want to learn more about history, don't pay thousands of dollars to go to a famous college's summer program where lots of other students are just paying to play.  Go after your knowledge and take a local class with only 12 students, one where you can really get to know the professor.  Or read as many books as you can about the period that interests you.  Or email a professor at a local college and ask if you can meet him during his office hours so he could recommend the best ways for you to learn more about the Civil War. 

If you really love to play music, you probably won't be satisfied just playing in the jazz band.  You'll find a mariachi band, or a dixieland band that plays at retirement homes, or a slot at a local coffee shop where you can play on Sundays. 

The students who have the most rewarding experiences in their activities, who ultimately stand out from the crowd when they apply to college, are the students who care a lot more about following their interests then they do about following the crowd.

When trying too hard is a bad thing

Being impressive is a good thing.  But trying too hard to be impressive usually isn't. 

Imagine you were on a first date with someone and he blurted out, "I've done over 200 hours of community service at the hospital.  In fact, I won an award for my hard work and dedication."  Sure, that's impressive.  But you'd also probably feel like he's trying too hard.    

Confident, self-assured people don't try to wedge their accomplishments into casual conversation.  Nobody likes someone who can't wait to tell you how great he is. 

But if your date had just said, "I volunteer at the hospital and get to work with some pretty great kids," you'd want to know more.  You'd ask him to tell you more about the kids, what kind of work he does with them, and even how many hours a week he volunteers.  Then he wouldn't seem too full of himself when he revealed how many hours he's spent there–after all, you asked.  You'd probably be even more impressed because you'd have a better a sense of how much this work really means to him, more so than you would have if he had just shared the impressive statistics.

Filling out your college applications (and writing the essays) works the same way.

When a college asks you to list your awards or to tally up how many hours you spent doing an activity, that's the equivalent of a date asking you, "Have you ever won any awards?"  Don't be bashful.  Answer the question, and be proud–you deserve it.

But when you wedge hours and awards and accomplishments into the other parts of the application, it sounds like you're trying too hard. 

When a college asks which of your activities has had the most meaning for you and you list all your awards, you're trying too hard.

When you write an essay that's all about how your time in the Model United Nations taught you many important life lessons about hard work and commitment, you're trying too hard.   

And if you complete community service hours, secure leadership positions, and live your high school life based on what you think will look good on your resume, you're trying too hard.  

The most impressive students are the quietly confident ones.  These are the students who want to learn, who commit themselves to activities they really care about, and who know that their hard work will pay off no matter where they go to college.  

Ask Collegewise: How do admissions officers feel about kids using private counselors?

Harris asks:

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I'm a parent and I've read that admissions officers don't like it when students use private college counselors.  I'm not sure how comfortable you'd be answering the question given what you do for a living, but is this true?" 

It's a question of the type of assistance being provided.  I've never met an admissions officer who was against kids having help with their college application process; but they're certainly against a kid having too much help, not just from a private counselor, but from anyone.  They want to hear from authentic, 17 year-old applicants, not from packaged kids who are the product of too much help. 

Guiding, advising, and doing a little cheerleading to keep a kid's college spirits up are all within the acceptable boundaries.  Most admissions officers would be happy with a knowledgeable person recommending colleges for the student to investigate, or helping him get organized, or telling him that you think the fact that he taught himself how to make sushi (and that he now makes it for his family) might be an interesting thing to write about in an essay–those are all within the rules.  But if you pick the colleges for him, fill out the applications and overrule his choice of topic for his essay, then you're going too far.  Good counselors know where the boundaries are.   

If you've got ten minutes, here's a good 2008 NPR interview about this very issue.  Just make sure you listen to it all the way through so you hear the admissions officer's take what the right kind of help really is.

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

To get into college, get off Facebook

Cal Newport
says that by working smarter, high school students can develop what he
calls an "under-scheduled life" that will leave you with better grades,
more college acceptances and–here's the best part–all kinds of free
time.  In fact, he says that students who do this right can finish all
their work by dinnertime almost every day and have the rest of the
evening to do pretty much anything.  Here's one of his most important
tips:


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Rule #6: Do not, under any circumstances, do any work anywhere near an internet connection.

Do
not do any work while online.  If you're writing a paper, or working on
math problems, or taking notes on your history textbook, with an
instant messenger window open, there's absolutely no way that you can
realize the ideal student workweek.  The work done in this state is
poor, it is draining, and it takes forever.  If you work while online,
you will end up staying up late, you will end up doing shoddy work, and
you will fail to achieve an underscheduled lifestyle–and therefore lose
all the benefits that it generates…When it comes to productivity,
there's no avoiding this truth: Facebook is the tool of the devil.  If
you want to significantly reduce the time you spend working, then you
absolutely have to keep the internet far, far away until you're
completely done for the day.

Page 68:  How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out) 

*Note: Cal also makes it clear that he's not against Facebook or
anything else you might like to do–he's just arguing that you need to
separate your work time from your free time–and that letting them overlap just
ruins both.