“It’s a good school.”

"It's a good school."

That's got to be just about one of the most banal (yep, somebody's bringing out an SAT word!) reasons you can give for being interested in a college.

Don't tell a college that you're applying because, "It's a good school."  When your college interviewer asks you what got you interested in Yale or Duke or USC or whatever the college may be, don't tell them, "It's a good school."  Citing that as a reason to apply is akin telling your parents you want to marry someone you barely know because your friends say she's "pretty cute."   The interviewers, the colleges, and your counselor will all think that you (almost certainly) know little about the school other than the fact that it's famous. You'll be outing yourself as someone who hasn't thoughtfully considered your colleges.

Instead, try this.  "It's a good school for me."  

When you can follow that answer with a detailed description that backs it up, it's usually a sign that you've done some thoughtful college soul searching.  It shows that you've considered what you want your college experience to be like, what you hope or expect to gain from your time on campus, and how you see yourself learning and contributing while you're there.  

Spend the majority of your college search seeking out the colleges that will fit that statement.  You'll inevitably spend as much time thinking about yourself as you do about potential colleges.  That's a good thing. And once you identify the schools and the reasons why you're picking them, you'll have a lot of things to say after,

"It's a good school for me."

Don’t rely on “who you know”

Chuck Norris
once cut me off in traffic.  Seriously.  He was polite and waived a
sign of apology.  And we all know that if Chuck Norris cuts you off,
you'd better thank your lucky stars it wasn't the other way around.  

Still, I'm not about to tell you that I know Chuck Norris.  Never actually met him.  The cut-off was the beginning and the end of our time together. So if you need someone to take
care of some messy business, I won't say, "Want me to text Chuck?" 

In my experience, someone who has real connections with people of influence doesn't feel the need to talk about it.  I
like to believe that hard work and success brings these people enough pride
that they don't feel compelled to remind me who they know.

So I'm always skeptical when someone voluntarily tells me, "I've got connections." 

In over 15 years working with high school students, I have met only
one kid who I am absolutely sure was admitted to the college of his choice
because of a connection.  His father called me in the fall and said,

"Kevin, I'm going to be honest with you.  My son knows where he
wants to go to school, and I know he's going to get in because I'm
giving them a building.  But I want to make sure he writes a good
college essay so he doesn't look like a privileged jerk."

I loved his honesty. 

But every other time a parent has told someone here at Collegewise that they "know someone" who can reportedly "get their student in," it never seems to pan out.  So the student and the parent with the reported connection end up feeling disappointed, frustrated and sometimes even a little misled.  

The reality is that the people making decisions in colleges' admissions offices aren't beholden to many others.  You might know an influential alum who sits on the board, or a professor in the sociology department, or a friend who's the head of alumni interviewing, but deans of admission don't answer to those people.  So the only way a connection can change the course of an admissions decision is if the school's vital interests are potentially at stake (don't want to reject the kid whose dad is paying 20 million dollars for the new science research center). 

I worry about the lesson it teaches kids when parents feel the need to pull connections on their kids' behalf.  It sends the message that an admission to one particular college is the measure of success, one worth taking the college admissions equivalent of a wild swing.  Won't those kids feel even worse about themselves if the connection doesn't result in an admission?

I wish that parents with reported connections would just tell their kids,

"I know someone at College X who might be willing to tell you more about the school. We could have lunch with him and log some father-daughter time if you'd like, maybe hear some of his college stories?  Of course, if I set it up, you have to pay for my sandwich.  That's the cost of doing business with Dad."  

Keep it fun.  Don't ratchet up the pressure. Don't make promises on behalf of your connection.  It's better not to rely on who you know.

By the way, I'm sure Chuck wasn't running late that day.  As I understand it, if Chuck
Norris is running late, time knows to slow down. 

Place your bets

For colleges, selecting a freshmen class is a lot like betting on horses.  As anyone who’s spent time at a racetrack will tell you, it’s hard to pick the winners.  A horse can have the best trainers, the right physical attributes, and a 26-pound jockey who can get a horse to deal blackjack, but still come in dead last. 

When a college accepts you, they're betting that you will perform well over the next four years.  High grades, good test scores, and successes in your high school activities indicate that you have the potential to do well in college.  But much like horse racing, there’s no guarantee that you will actually live up to those expectations once you get to college and the race starts.  It helps your case if the college can sense you weren't someone who made all your decisions based on what you thought would please colleges. 

The best way to show colleges that you're a safe bet is to be authentic in your pursuits.  Seek out the subjects that really interest you.  Pursue activities you really enjoy.  Make an impact.  Leave a legacy.  Challenge yourself.  Gracefully accept your failures and move on productively.  And most importantly, be who you want to be–a quarterback, a math nerd, a trombone player, someone who watches foreign films nobody else likes, a poet, a budding physicist, an interpretive dancer, or some bizarre combination of those things–just be authentic.  Base your decisions on the person you aspire to be, rather than on the perceived preferences of a college you aspire to attend.

You can't fake character traits like passion, curiosity, character, persistence, humility.  That's why those students are such good bets.  

Five college visit tips

For many high school students and parents I meet, the idea of visiting colleges feels more like a homework assignment than it does an adventure. They feel pressure to visit ALL the colleges they’re interested in, to turn every visit into an intense fact-finding mission, and to do all of it while the colleges are in session as opposed to over the summer. Those expectations can make college visits stressful and not nearly as fun as they should be. So here are some visit tips to help you enjoy what should be a positive part of the college search process.

1. No need to visit all your chosen schools before applying.
“Visit all your schools before you apply,” is great advice in theory. But it’s just not practical, especially if you’re applying to colleges far away (and in many different directions from your home). Remember that you can also visit colleges after you apply, and even after you get accepted.

You apply to most colleges in the fall of your senior year. You hear back around March, and you usually have until May 1 of your senior year to make a decision. That means there are five to seven months after you apply when you can still visit colleges.

Before you apply, gravitate toward schools near places you’re visiting anyway, like for a sports tournament, a band competition or even a Thanksgiving weekend at Uncle Frank’s house. That will get you the most bang for your visit buck.

Also, prioritize visiting schools you aren’t yet convinced of. This gives you the chance to fall in love or decide they’re not right for you. The rest, you can save until after you apply.

2. Don’t limit your visits to “reach” schools.
Many of the students I meet plan visits to only their top choices, which all too often are schools most likely to reject them. Instead of widening their college choices by visiting schools where their chances of admission are solid, they’re narrowing the pool by renewing vows to dream schools.

If you love Duke, if you’ve cheered on their basketball team since you were 12 years old and simply cannot envision a universe where you wouldn’t apply to Duke, you don’t need to fall any deeper in love with Duke by visiting the campus. Spend this time visiting other colleges, preferably some more likely to love you back. Baylor, Gonzaga, Syracuse and Michigan State have great basketball teams, rabid fans, and a lot less competition for spots in the freshman class. If your Duke admission comes through in the spring, then go see the home of the Blue Devils.

3. A summer visit is better than no visit.
Some students are told to only visit a college when it is in session; that visiting over the summer doesn’t give you the same feel as when the campus teems with students. There’s some truth to it—a lot of colleges are deserted over the summer and it’s absolutely not the same as if you were there in the fall. But it’s not easy to put your high school classes and activities on hold to go see colleges, so the visit-while-it’s-in-session logic doesn’t always hold up.

If you can visit a college during the school year, do it, especially if you want to sit in on a class, get a sense of whether a big school’s population is too much for you or do anything else that only is revealed when students are there. But if you just want to see the campus or find out just how small the college’s small town really is, a summer visit is probably fine, and certainly better than not visiting at all. Before you make the trek, just check the college’s website to make sure they’ll be offering tours while you’re there.

4. Don’t see more colleges in one trip than you can handle.
It’s possible to commit college-visit overkill by trying to see too many colleges in one trip. I remember one student only somewhat sarcastically recalling her family’s marathon college tour: “We saw four colleges the first day, another four the second day, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to go to college anymore—I just want to go home,’” she said.

I understand why this happens to families. If you’re going to take the time to travel someplace to see colleges, it makes sense that you should see as many as possible as long as you’re there. But the average person wouldn’t enjoy seeing nine amusement parks in three days, either. So be realistic about just how much college touring you can really handle.

I’m a college junkie who will see schools anywhere I happen to be visiting. But even I can’t see more than two or three in a day before I’m ready to do something else.

5. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Some of the advice about visiting colleges you read borders on the absurd. “Take the tour, listen to the admissions presentation, sit in on a class, eat in the cafeteria, interview a faculty member, stay overnight in a dorm, visit the athletic facilities, tour the library, visit the surrounding community…” The list goes on.

I can’t imagine my Collegewise students wanting to do all of those things, or finding the time to do them for every college on their list. It’s not realistic. I’ve never met a student who said, “That college visit wouldn’t have been nearly as valuable were it not for this two-page checklist I brought with me.”

Yes, it’s a good idea to contact the campus tour offices and make some formal arrangements for your campus visits. Once you’re admitted, there will likely be some schools that deserve more time to give a thorough evaluation, maybe even one that includes a visit to a class and an overnight stay. But until that time, most college visits don’t need to be so rigorously planned. Gut instincts are surprisingly accurate when visiting schools.

Have a little fun
Take the tour, look around, maybe have lunch on campus and try to imagine what it would be like to attend. Most importantly: enjoy yourself. Looking at colleges is like getting to shop for your own birthday present. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

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

Is it true that, “It never hurts to ask”?

"It never hurts to ask."  I'm not so sure that's true. 

I think whether or not it hurts to ask depends on the question, and even more importantly, it depends on the way you ask.

you approach your teacher ten days before college application deadlines
and blurt out, "Can you write me a letter of recommendation for
college?"  What are the chances that your teacher is going to feel good
about that question?  You're obviously not very organized.  You're
making your teacher pay for your disorganization by asking so late, and
you don't seem to feel badly about it at all.  What if you've also
never seemed too interested in the subject matter and you spent a lot
of time yawning in her class?  What if this is the first time you've
ever tried to have a conversation with this teacher?  Doesn't it hurt
to ask now?

What would have made that question a better one?

could have spent the duration of the course earning the right to ask. 
You could have been an engaged student who didn't just work hard, but
also seemed genuinely interested in the subject matter.  You could have
said, "Hi" to that teacher in the hallway.  You could have given a lot
of thought as to why your work in this teacher's class is worthy of a
recommendation.  You could have respected the teacher's time by
approaching her earlier, and by asking if it would be OK to schedule an
appointment at a time that would be convenient for her to discuss your
college applications. 

And instead of blurting out the
question, you could have had a real conversation with the teacher about
your work in the class, what you hope to study in college, and why you
were hoping she could share your story with the colleges in a

It takes a lot of work to earn the right to
ask, to invest the time and energy to build a connection like that. 
But whether you're asking for a favor, a raise, some assistance, an
opportunity, or some advice, putting the work in ahead of time makes it
a mutually beneficial exchange.

It never hurts to ask right

How to not take “no” for an answer

I was at the video store over the weekend and overheard a teenager inquiring about a job.  Here's how the conversation went.

Teenager (to sales clerk):  "Hi, can you tell me how old you have to be to work here?"

Sales clerk:  "Yeah, you have to be eighteen."

Teenager:  "Oh, OK.  Do you know if they ever make exceptions?"

Sales clerk: "I don't know.  But I can get my manager and you can ask him if you want."

Teenager:  "That would be great.  Thanks."

I don't know what happened after that.  But whether or not he gets the job, that teenager is doing a lot right.  He's showing initiative.  He's out there looking for a regular job, not working at his dad's law office.  He's courteous and cheerful.  And when he didn't get the answer he wanted, he didn't get upset about it, but he didn't just shrug his shoulders in defeat, either.  He's not taking "no" for an answer, but he's not being disrespectful.  He just really wants that job and is willing to do just a little more to show it than your average job seeker would. 

I hope the manager hired him.  Those are the kinds of characteristics colleges appreciate, too.

Five nice things high school kids can do for their parents

It's hard for teachers, counselors and colleges not to like a kid who's nice to his parents.  And it's impossible for a parent not to be moved by their own kid's thoughtful gesture.  If you're looking for ways to be an even better son or daughter, here are a few simple things that every parent I've ever met would appreciate, things that have nothing to do with grades, test scores or colleges.

1.  Thank them.

Say "thank you" to your parents more often.  Not just for the big stuff, like putting a roof over your head or paying for college (though your parents certainly deserve thanks if they do those things).  But also for the little stuff, like fixing your dinner, doing your laundry, coming to all your soccer games, helping you with your math homework, giving you advice, etc.  Even if it's a good parent's job to do some or all of these things, that doesn't mean they don't deserve thanks.

2.  Every now and then, spend five minutes answering the question, "How was your day?"

Almost every student answers that question with one word–"Fine" or "Good."  Switch it up every now and then.  Actually tell your parents what happened during the day that made you happy, or encouraged you, or frustrated you, or worried you.  They'll appreciate that you're sharing bits and pieces of your life with them.

3. Let them know if they were right about something.

If your parents gave you advice, or predicted something that would be good for you, or even if you were arguing about an issue that you can now see from their perspective, admit it.  Say, "You know what, Mom, you were right about ____."  Your parents will enjoy hearing it and they'll appreciate that you're mature enough to say it. 

4.  Pitch in.

Parents do a lot for kids.  Every now and then, offer to lend a hand and help even if your parents don't ask you to.  Offer to help wash the dishes or take the trash out or walk the dog.  Or offer to do something on your own that they normally do for you.  They'll appreciate your efforts to ease their workload just a bit.

5.  Give them a break.

It's not easy being a teenager today, but it's not easy being the parent of a teenager, either.  The next time you feel yourself getting frustrated or annoyed with your parents, take a deep breath and try to put yourself in their shoes for a second.  Be nice and try to be understanding.  Don't vent your frustration at them. 

If you did all five of these things, how would it make your parents feel?  Isn't it worth it?


On giving more to your kids than you had…

The unpublished law of parenting is that you should want your kids to have more than you had.  It's a good law, one that makes parents work hard and sacrifice for the betterment of their children.

But this law causes a lot of problems when it comes to kids applying to college today.

A generation ago, just sending your student to college, any college, meant you'd probably given your kid more than you'd had.  In doing so, you'd virtually guaranteed your children a path towards better career opportunities and upward mobility that would never have existed without a college education.  

So, what's "more" than that?

For many of today's parents, the act of simply going to college doesn't feel special.  You did it, and a lot more people are going to college today than were doing so when you applied.   

So in the hope of wanting more for your kids, parents start to think about "good" colleges for their kids, "better" colleges, famous colleges with the allure of prestige.  Those schools seem like the next step, the most secure pathway to a happy and successful life.  But it's often a misguided goal, and one that can ruin the college admissions process for your family.

Working and saving to send your kids to college is entirely in a parent's control.  But molding your student into one that will supposedly be appealing to selective colleges is not in your control.  The fact that many of those colleges accept only 10-15 of every 100 students who apply is also not in your control.  Even the most well-intentioned parents can't influence the admissions decisions that colleges make. 

So parents worry.  Some get over-involved.  Some pick activities for their kids and write their kids' college essay.  The college admissions process becomes something loaded with fear and frustration for the entire family.  Parents take on the pressure of feeling that if your kids aren't accepted by the more selective colleges, you've somehow failed to give them more.   

But there's a key distinction here that many parents could benefit from knowing.  There is still an ocean of difference between life with a college degree and life without one.  But there is no guaranteed difference between a life with a degree from a famous school and life with a less famous school's degree. 

Famous colleges are not the "more" you're looking for.  It's not something you can just give your kids, and even if you could, it doesn't necessarily offer the outcome you're hoping for.  If you want to give your kids more than you had, change their experience of applying to college into one with more excitement and opportunity than you enjoyed in yours.  

Celebrate with your kids just how many colleges (over 2000) there are from which to choose.  Let your past enjoyment of your own college experience be contagious.  Be a supportive spectator, one who doesn't take over the process for your student, but one who knows how to encourage and cheerlead along the way.  Help your student make the most of the opportunity to select colleges that are a good fit, not just those that are close or cheap or happen to say, "Yes."   

You won't just be giving them the opportunity to attend any college.  You'll be given them the opportunity to choose from a wide variety of schools, and the chance to do so with a supportive and knowledgeable parent by their side.  You'll be embracing a goal that you can influence, one that will make you and your kids happier. 

And most importantly, you'll be still be abiding by the law of parenting and giving your kids more than you had.

The power of enthusiasm

Have you ever been to a store where the workers seem genuinely happy to be there (Trader Joe's and In-n-Out Burger come to mind)?  Those employees make your customer experience that much better.  

Have you ever taken a class where the teacher obviously loves the subject?  Her passion makes the material that much more interesting and usually makes you enjoy the class. 

Ever listened to somebody talk about why they love the Red Sox or the opera or taking baths instead of showers?  It's hard not to be a little intrigued when you hear their passion. 

Enthusiasm is contagious (I mean genuine enthusiasm, not contrived enthusiasm that you're manufacturing because you think it will help you get into college). 

Enthusiasm is also free.  You don't have to pay for an expensive tutor to teach you to be more enthusiastic.  Enthusiasm is available to anyone regardless of your GPA or test scores.  And colleges are just as likely to contract your contagious enthusiasm as anyone else is.   

If you have a favorite teacher or class, let your enthusiasm show.  Smile when you walk into class.  Raise your hand.  Ask questions.  Throw yourself
into it by doing extra reading or taking a more advanced course in the
subject during the summer. 

Don't join a club or play a sport or volunteer
at a hospital if you're just doing it to get into college.  Find a
club you're excited about.  Play the sport you love.   Volunteer
someplace where you really believe in the mission of the organization.

Students who approach the college process the right way are usually enthusiastic because it's easy for them to enjoy the ride.  They're working hard but they're not limiting their college choices to the schools that reject almost everyone who applies.  They picking activities based on what they like to do rather than on what they think colleges will appreciate.  They're excited about the opportunity to be a college student regardless of whether or not the college is famous.

If you want to enjoy your college process (and get in to more colleges), add a little enthusiasm to your life.

Something you never hear

Here's something you never hear.

"He was a smart kid who worked hard in college, pursued his interests, found mentors, and made the most of the experience.  But unfortunately, his college wasn't a famous one, so he never went on to be successful."

Seriously, why do you think you never hear that? 

You've never heard that because you do not have to go to a famous college to be successful.  Anybody who tells you that you do is either misinformed or misguided, but whichever reason it is, they're wrong.