College applications with personality, and a side of bacon

After a recent seminar I did for Collegewise families, one parent who filled out an evaluation answered the question, "Are there any other comments you'd like to share with us?" like this…

"I like bacon."

I don't know who wrote it (the evaluations are anonymous), but I like that parent already.  This was probably a fun person, someone who knows how to enjoy him or herself, someone with a spirited personality.  I have no way of knowing if my assumptions are accurate, but you can tell a lot from an answer like that. 

College applications are the same way. 

A lot of kids are so wrapped up in trying to sound impressive that they won't be playful even when the college is begging you to play.  A question about why you want to attend this college requires a thoughtful answer.  A question about your favorite food or what book you would bring to a desert island or what one person, living or dead, you would like to have dinner with is begging you to be yourself and have fun.  Your answer doesn't necessarily have to be funny, but it should be true and revealing.  There are no right or wrong answers–just use the opportunity to help the college get to know you a little better.  So admit that you eat more Oreos than could possibly be healthy.  Tell them there's no way you'd go the rest of your life on an island without Harry Potter. Come right out and admit that you'd want to have dinner with the lead singer from Coldplay so you could ask him to please stop writing songs.  

A college will never come out and ask you to describe your personality.  But they'll be looking for it in your answers.  So make it easy for them to find it. 

Not-So-Shameless Plugging

PyforCollege

I did a financial aid seminar for families last weekend and as I revealed to them, I first learned a lot of the information I shared from "Paying for College Without Going Broke."  It helped me make sense of the financial aid process, and I was an English and history major in college who has never once successfully balanced my checkbook.

The 2010 version releases today, and I've already ordered my copy.

As with all previous versions of the book, the author describes exactly how the process of applying for financial aid works, with tips and strategies to increase aid and reduce costs.  But the description of the 2010 edition says that it has also been updated to reflect all of the current economic uncertainty, it will include the latest financial aid forms with guidelines to help you complete them, and it will explain recent changes to the tax laws and how they impact financial aid.    

Whether you're the parent of a senior who needs to apply for financial aid right now, or the parent of a freshman who wants tips on the best ways to save for college, I'd order a copy. 

Rule of High School?

Seth Godin, a business book author whose blog I read, published this post comparing the business world to high school.  Here's an excerpt I thought kids should see.

"Any sufficiently overheated industry will eventually
resemble high school. High school is filled with insecurity, social climbing, backbiting,
false friends, faux achievements, high drama and not much content. Much of this
insecurity comes from a market that doesn't make good judgments, that doesn't
understand how to reliably choose between alternatives. So it turns into a
popularity contest…As in high school, the winners are the ones who don't take
it too seriously and understand what they're trying to accomplish. Get stuck in
the never ending drama (worrying about what irrelevant people think) and you'll
never get anything done."

It doesn't sound like a very fun high school world to live in.  If what he describes here resembles your current high school experience, remember that you don't have to play that game.  You can be the exception, not the rule.  You can reject that vision of high school and create one of your own. 

What if you were a high school kid who went against that description?  What if you made the conscious decision to be nice to everyone, not to worry about what other people think, to be yourself, to be confident, to reject the idea of popular vs. unpopular, to be proud of who you are and what you stand for, to do what you want rather than what other people say is cool, to make it more important that you be yourself than it is to be liked?

I'm not saying it's easy.  But some kids are doing it.  They're happier, more fulfilled and more confident, and they'll probably get accepted to lots of colleges.  If you are one of these kids, good job.  And if you'd like to be one, start today.

It's got to be easier than the alternative. 

 

(US News) Rankings Have No Place in College Football

Are you ready for some football?  USC is playing Notre Dame today, a
bitter rivalry with Trojans and leprechauns facing off.  It's homecoming
weekend at Penn State where the forecast is 30 degrees and snowing,
but I promise you the Nittany Lion fans will be out there in full force, as will their legendary coach, 83 year-old Joe "JoePa" Paterno. And the Red River Rivalry taking place between Oklahoma and Texas today has always among most bitter rivalries in college football.

Whether or not you're a sports fan, you can't argue with its rich history of college football, or with the energy and camaraderie
it generates for students.  Rain or shine, those students are out there
every Saturday decked out in their school colors, singing the fight
songs, and of course, hurling traditional insults at the other team ("We
don't give a damn for the whoooole state of Michigan, whoooole state of Michigan….we're from O-hi-oooo!").

Those
students can tell you where their team is on the controversial college
football rankings, but most don't know or care if their school is
ranked on the arguably more controversial US News college rankings. 
They're enjoying their college experience too much to be concerned with
an arbitrary ranking of their school's quality.  And those students who get the same enjoyment
playing in the marching band on the field, or doing physics research
with a professor, or being an RA in the dorms, or playing intramural
basketball with their new friends would all likely tell you that their
college's ranking (or lack thereof) isn't influencing their college
experience at all.  

Colleges can be evaluated, but they can't
be measured.  There are no win-loss records to compare for college
quality.  So don't rely on an arbitrary ranking to pick your school. 
It's easier to decide for yourself what you want from your college
experience and to seek out those schools that meet or exceed  your rankings. 

Wanted: Thoughtful and Deliberate College Applicants

The National Association for College Admissions Consulting just completed a survey that confirms that 90% of colleges have reported an increase in financial aid applications.  That's not surprising given the downturn in the economy.  And with every piece of bad news about increasing levels of competition and decreasing availability of financial aid, a lot of students are going to respond by firing off even more college applications.  It's hard not to panic during the throes of senior season, especially this year.

But there's an opportunity for the thoughtful and deliberative student to stand out here.      

Now more than ever, colleges don't just want applicants–they want applicants who are good matches for the school and are most likely to accept an offer of admission.  If you're applying to a school just because of the name, or just because your friends are applying, or just because you want to apply to as many colleges as possible to keep your options open, it's going to be hard for you to communicate your match to that school.  You're not going to appear to be someone who's likely to accept that offer of admission.  And that can hurt your chances of getting in. 

The best way to approach this is to slow down, to select your colleges thoughtfully, and to apply deliberately.  Get good advice about your college list.  It's OK to apply to a few reach schools, but make sure you apply to a reasonable number of schools that your high school counselor thinks are likely to admit you, schools that you also sincerely want to go to.  Consider applying to one financial safety school where you're sure you can get in, you're sure you'd want to attend, and your family is sure they could pay for even if you got no financial aid.   

Students who do show some evidence of thoughtful college soul searching are always appealing to admissions officers, which can make you more appealing to the financial aid office, too.

Just show up

Last night, we held our third and final Senior Parent Back to School Night at Collegewise.  In total, nearly 70 parents joined us over the span of those three nights to hear the updates on our work with their kids, to spend a little time with their Collegewise counselors, and to make sure they were informed participants on their student's journey to college.

Sure the Italian food probably helped lure them.  The fact that we promised them wine probably help lure them a lot.  But mostly, this was a group of parents who showed up because it was all about supporting the kids.  For these parents, it didn't matter that they were tired or that this was their third school or college-related event this week or that they were passing up time at home.  They gave up time to come to an evening of college information because they wanted to participate in their kids' college admissions process in a constructive way.

A lot of parents struggle to find the right ways to help their college applicants.  It's a difficult balancing act trying to let kids find their own way, yet also making sure you help enough without unintentionally taking over the process for them. 

But the most important thing a parent can do for their college applicant is to show up.  If the high school puts on a college information night, show up.  If there's a college fair in your city, show up.  When it's time to plan college visits, when your kids need a little cheerleading to boost their spirits, when they need to be reminded that they're still a good person even though their SAT scores didn't raise as much as they'd hoped, just show up. 

You don't necessarily have to handle the situation perfectly every time (as that's just not a reasonable expectation).  But just showing up is half the college admissions battle.

College essays need personality (and some guts)

I did an essay workshop at a local high school today, at the end of which, a senior approached me a question.  He was debating between two stories to write in his essays and wasn't sure which one was the best choice, so I asked him to describe both to me. 

The first story was about being a troop leader in Boy Scouts, how at first the younger kids didn't respect him, he had to earn their trust, it taught him about how to be a leader, etc. etc.  He didn't even seem to enjoy describing the story, so I couldn't imagine that he would enjoy writing it.

The second story was about the time he and his friends entered a talent show competition in which they reenacted a 1990s boy band act.  Apparently, they spent hours watching videos to learn the dance moves, recreating the costumes, and perfecting their four-part harmony.  Even as he described it, he was animated, and his personality was coming out just telling the story.

Neither of those topics is inherently good or bad.  And whichever one he chooses, he'll need to tell an effective story that helps readers get to know more about him.  But I can tell you this–every year, thousands and thousands of college applicants write stories about leadership, perseverance, commitment, and other supposed "valuable life lessons" that they learned  Most of those kids didn't actually think those deep, reflective thoughts during and after those experiences.  And most aren't excited about those stories; they're just relating what they think the admissions office wants to hear.  Do you have any idea how many, "My trip to Europe broadened my horizons" and "Community service taught me the importance of helping others" admissions officers have to read every year?

The best college essays are about topics that make the writer tick, that give a glimpse into some part of your life (sometimes a big part, sometimes a small part).  Those essays almost write themselves because you are so engaged in the story.  It doesn't matter whether it's about a life-threatening illness or working a part-time job at a hamburger stand.  It's the energy behind the topic that's contagious and can move an admissions officer.

This student was excited about his boy band story.  So I told him to go with it.  When in doubt, write what you want to write.  Inject your personality.  Write something that if your best friend read it, she would acknowledge that it sounds exactly like you. 

It takes guts to write what you want to write, but that's a lot less risky than giving them what you think they want to hear.

Best of Our Blog Posts for Seniors

We spend a lot of time writing about how to apply and get in to college.  So if you’re a senior trying to figure out how write your essays, how to fill out your applications, or even now to have a great interview, chances are, we’ve already written something about it here.

To save you the trouble of searching our blog, here are ten of our best past blog entries for seniors.  Enjoy, and best of luck on your applications.

1. Five Things Seniors Should Never Do When Applying to College

2. Stay On Their Good Sides      

   Tips to help you make sure you don’t
unintentionally annoy admissions officers

3. Five Things Seniors Can Still Do To Help Them Get Into College

4. College Essay Dos and Don’ts

5. How to Ruin Your College Application

    Sharing some advice from Jay Mathews at the Washington Post

6. Why Parents and College Essays Don’t Mix

7. Five Things Every College Wants You to Be

    And even if you’re a senior, it’s not too late to be them.

8. Inside the Admissions Office

    A reminder that admissions officers are just regular people.

9. Attack of the Killer Cliches

Please oh please, think twice before you write that essay about that one time you worked on a blood drive.

10. The One Thing You Need to Know About

College interviews, essays, getting in to college today–we’ll break them down and share the most important thing you need to know about each topic.

The more things change…

At one of our Collegewise Back to School Nights last week, we were discussing how much pressure kids (and parents) are feeling surrounding the college admissions process today.  A father asked this question.

"When I was in high school, I only applied to two colleges, and got in to both of them.  What's changed?"

It's a good question.  Why are colleges so hard to get into now?  What's caused all this change?

On the one hand, a lot has changed.  There are more kids are applying to college today than ever before (we're just finishing the post-baby boom, with over 3 million kids graduating from high school this year).  And unfortunately, a lot of them want to go to the same 40 schools, schools whose capacity for students hasn't changed much, if at all.  So the applicant pool is growing, but the number of spots at the most selective colleges has remained the same.  It's the law of supply and demand at work, and that's very different from the college admissions landscape of 20-30 years ago. 

But at the same time, not a lot has changed.

A student can still take the SAT just once and accept whatever score he
gets.  He can still apply to just two colleges, get in to both of them,
and go to one.  And he can do all this without perfect grades, perfect
test scores, or a legal proof that he invented photosynthesis. 

But he just can't do that if the two schools are Georgetown and
Northwestern.  Or Amherst and Williams.  Or Berkeley and UCLA.  Or
Stanford and Yale.  Or Swarthmore and Tufts.  Or Columbia and Cornell.  Or Boston College and Notre Dame.  Or Duke and Michigan.  Or any of the other schools that reject 60-90% of their applicants.   

The competition for admission has changed dramatically at the nation's most selective
colleges.  But there are over 2,000 other colleges from which to choose
and all but about 100 of them accept almost all of their applicants.

It's up to you.  You can buy into the thinking that a more selective college means a better education and the promise of a successful life beyond college (we'll disagree, but you can believe it).  Or you can spend more time finding the right college for you where you'll be happy and successful, one who will gladly take a kid who doesn't necessarily have straight A's, where your potential to contribute is worth as much or more to them than your grades and test scores are. 

Not everything has changed since Mom and Dad applied to college.