What’s your tag line?

It’s hard to be memorable in an application pool when you’ve been reduced to a few
pieces of paper sitting in a stack with thousands of other
applicants.  So one of the best things
you can do for yourself is to develop a tag line.

I don't mean that you need a slogan (it's never a good idea to write something like "Got Kevin?" anywhere on your application).  I mean that when an admissions officer wants to read your file again and is trying to locate it amongst all the other paper, will she be
able to say something like,

“Where’s that tuba-playing surfer from California?”

“Where’s that journalist who works at her parents’ dry

“Where’s that female ice skater who also plays on the boys’
hockey team?”

“Where’s the dancer who teaches a limbo class for senior

“Where’s that black belt in karate who can break concrete
with her forehead?”

See what I mean?

The way you make yourself memorable, the way you
separate yourself from the pack, is to distinguish yourself not necessarily as a better or smarter applicant, but as
an interesting one.  You are more than your grades and test scores.  You
are not the same as the rest of the applicants.  You are unique.  

But your unique qualities will be more evident if you’re
passionate about what you do, if you love to learn, if you have initiative, and if you're comfortable just being yourself.  Don't try to mold yourself into what you think the colleges want you to be.  Just be who you already are.

Try it.  You’ll probably end up with both a tag line and an admission to college.

Seniors, don’t forget to give thanks

Nobody gets into college alone.  There are always supportive people in your corner who help you get there.  So as you submit the last of your applications, take some time to thank the people who helped you. 

Here are some people who might deserve your thanks.

1. Your high school counselor. 

Even if you never actually met to discuss your applications, counselors do a lot of work for you behind-the-scenes that you might not be aware of.

2. Anyone who wrote your letters of recommendation.

3. The college rep who interviewed you.

4.  Your parents. 

From providing moral support to paying for the SAT tutor, your parents likely deserve a healthy dose of your gratitude. 

5. Your English teacher for reviewing your essays.

6. Anyone else who reviewed your essays as a favor to you (though I'm hoping you didn't shop them around to too many people).

7. The helpful admissions officer who answered your questions or called you to tell you something was missing from your file (don't blow this one off–say thank you!). 

8. Your older brother or sister who lent you some college wisdom.

9. The teacher or tutor who helped you improve your grades or your test scores.

10. Anyone else who helped you, gave you advice, encouraged you, provided emotional support, offered monetary support, or just generally took an interest in your college quest and your happiness. 

It's so easy to say thank you.  And you'd be surprised how often it comes back to you.

What’s really important?

A lot of parents suffer through the college process, anxious about whether or not their kids will gain acceptance to a prestigious college.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  Parents (and kids) can eliminate a lot of the anxiety associated with college admissions by just focusing on what's really important. 

Imagine making the trip to college with your daughter (or son) and helping her move into her new dorm room.  Imagine welcoming her home at Thanksgiving and hearing her talk over turkey about how much she loves college, and then rolling out the family red carpet again a few weeks later when your college student is finally home for the holidays. 

Imagine visiting her at "Family Weekend" and meeting all her new friends while you buy a sweatshirt that proudly identifies you as the parent of a college student.  Imagine receiving her phone calls and emails when she tells you how much she's learning, how much fun she's having, and how happy she is at college.  

Imagine following her progress during college, seeing for yourself how much she's maturing, watching her discover her passions and talents that will help her choose which path to take as a college graduate. 

Imagine that day four years later when you are in the audience watching her walk across the stage at graduation, the day she becomes a college graduate (and you become the parent of one).

Now, when you were imagining those things, did it matter whether or not the college was a famous one?

What happens in college is a lot more important than the name of the school where it happens.  

When plagiarism and stupidity collide

Last month, I published "30 Colleges, 30 Collegewise Guides to Getting In"
on this blog.  I gave away a lot of advice about how to approach the
application essays for each college, and I even included samples of
what a good response might sound like.

It should go without
saying that you shouldn't lift those responses and use them yourself. 
In fact, you shouldn't lift responses from anyone. 

But you really shouldn't plagiarize sample essays from the college's own website like this applicant did at the University of Virginia.  Wow. 

I know the pressures of college admissions.  I know how hard kids work and how badly you want to go to your chosen schools.  But please, don't be that kid they describe here.  Don't be the kid whose essay gets passed
around the office for a laugh and then gets called out on the school's

This applicant deserved what he got.  If you think you deserve better (I'm sure you do), make sure your essays are your own. You've worked too hard and it's just not worth the risk.

Some advice on choosing activities…

What you choose to do outside the classroom, and the passion with which you pursue it, tells the colleges a lot about the potential impact you are likely to make on their campuses.  As you think about how you want to spend your time outside the classroom, here are some pointers to keep in mind:

1.  Start with what you already know and like.
Think about what you like, and ask yourself, "What else could I do in this area?"  For example, if your passion is sports, there are a lot of ways to get involved.  Join a team at your school.  Be the manager of the baseball team.  Write the sports column for the school newspaper.  Be the announcer at the basketball games.  Take pictures of sports for the yearbook.  No matter what you like to do, if you commit yourself to it, the colleges will be impressed.

2.  Don't be a "joiner."

Don't sign up for every club on campus to try and make the colleges
think you were involved.  A long list of activities alone isn't going
to impress the colleges as much as a substantial commitment will.  Pick
the things you really enjoy instead of padding your resume.

3.  Always try to make an impact.
When you graduate from high school, what
legacy will you leave behind in your involvements?  It might be
something big, like the fact that you founded an organization that
raised $12,000 for Juvenile Diabetes.  It might be something small,
like the fact that even though you rarely played, you still got the
Coach's Award on the soccer team because of your dedication.  Whatever
you do, find a way to make contributions in your own way.  Colleges
like the students who make an impact wherever they are.

4.  Never ask, "Would (insert activity here) look good?"

Every time one of our Collegewise students asks us this, we make that
student go run a lap around our offices.  OK, not really, but that
question is like fingernails on the blackboard for us, and for the
colleges.  Instead, ask yourself, "Am I really interested in this, and
does is seem like something to which I could commit to substantially?"
If the answer is "yes," you're probably on the right track.

5.  Never quit an activity you enjoy just because you aren't succeeding.
If you love being on the soccer team even though you spend most of your time on the bench, don't
quit!  Colleges understand that you're not going to be great at
everything you do.  Besides, it takes just as much fortitude to stick
with something that's challenging as it does to continue in an activity
where everybody is always telling you how great you are.

Conversely, if you don't like an activity, get out!  If you hate every
second of wrestling and you got beaten so badly at the last match that
your liver fell out, stop.  Don’t wrestle anymore.  Find something else
that you enjoy where you won’t be slammed into a mat quite so often.

Starting from scratch

"We don't know anything." 

I hear that occasionally
from parents and students who have no idea where to start with college
planning.  Any family who
takes these five steps will be more informed and in control of their
student's college destiny.   If you've come to the realization that you should be doing
more, but aren't sure what exactly to do, this is where I'd start.

1.  Visit your high school counselor.  

you have a high school counselor (not everybody does these days), start
there.  And don't make excuses that your counselor doesn't know you or
has somehow failed you by not providing you with college information. 
Yes, part of a counselor's job is to lend college planning assistance
to students.  But it is not your counselor's job to take over the responsibility for your
college planning.  The most successful students take on this
responsibility and then advocate for themselves by seeking out their counselor for advice.

In particular, you want to get answers to the following questions. 

  • Am I taking a college prep curriculum?  If I'm not, what do I need
    to do to get on track to go to college?  Do I have any classes I need
    to make up, or courses I need to take that I haven't yet taken?
  • What standardized tests do I need to take for college and when
    should I take them?  (In particular, ask about the PSAT, SAT, ACT and
    SAT Subjects Tests).
  • What are some reasonable choices for colleges I could consider?

2. Check out the college planning calendars on the NACAC (National Association for College Admissions Counseling) website. The Princeton Review has lots of helpful college information
on their website, too. In particular, pay attention to what they have
to say about standardized tests, which ones to take, and when to take

3.  Try to attend a college fair in your area. 

4.  Learn about the process of applying for financial aid.  I think the three best sources of information are:

5.  Pick five colleges that interest you, visit the admissions sections
of their websites, and research their admissions requirements.  They'll
tell you what classes you need to take, what standardized tests are
required, and what the deadlines are to apply for admission.  While
you're there, read about their process of applying for financial aid,

These steps won't complete your college planning, but they'll get you started (and caught up). 

Ten ways seniors can still ruin your college applications

We're getting close to the end of college application season.  And unfortunately, the mad rush to finish can lead some seniors to making some big mistakes.  So here are some things to avoid.

And just to clarify, these are things you should not do.

1. If you send an email to an admissions office, completely ignore the standard rules of English grammar, capitalization and punctuation.

When you email each other, you and your friends might not care about anything other than just getting the basic point across. But colleges do. Emails devoid of things like punctuation and correct grammar make admissions officers wonder if you were too lazy to use them, or if you just didn't know how.  Both are equally bad.  

2. Do something goofy with your application.

What's goofy?  Sending a box of cookies to the admissions office with a note that says, "There's more where these came from if you admit me!"  That's goofy.  Seriously.  Don't do that (or anything like that).

3. Don't thank people who helped you, like your high school counselor or your teachers who wrote your letters of recommendation.

It's not unusual for a college to contact your counselor or one of your recommendation writers if they have a question about something that was unclear on your application.  If that were to happen, what final impression have you left on those people?  You wouldn't want your teacher to be thinking, "He's the kid who asked me to write his letter ten days before the deadline, gave me no supporting materials, and never bothered to say thank-you."  Be nice.  Say "Thank you."  Maybe even buy them a little gift.

4. Don't call the colleges to make sure they received all your application materials.  Just assume it all got there.

Testing agencies, teachers, counselors–a lot of people besides yourself are responsible for sending parts of your applications to colleges.  And colleges are absolutely inundated with materials at this time of year.  It's easy for something to get lost in the shuffle.  So follow up and make sure they've received everything for your applications. 

5. Stop studying and let your grades drop (Just hope that colleges won't notice).

A lot of colleges will ask to see your first semester grades before they admit you.  And I've yet to find a college who won't ask for your second semester grades before they let an admitted student become a freshman on their campus.  So don't let your senior celebration start too early.

6. Recycle an essay from another application but forget to switch out the college's name.

This is like phoning a girl to ask her to go out with you and calling her the wrong name.  It's not going to go over well.  And it happens a lot (the application mistake, I mean). 

7. Post some questionable pictures of yourself on your Facebook page.  And make it public for all the world to see.

Admissions officers have Facebook pages, too.  And they know how to use them.  So, no party pics.  No photos of you making obscene or lewd gestures at the camera.  No blog entries detailing things that you wouldn't want colleges to know about.  The internet is public (it is the world wide web, after all).  So keep  your content clean, and keep everything private so that only your friends can find your profile. 

8. Let your parents get way too involved.

Over-involved "helicopter parents" who fill out applications, help write essays, and call the admissions office repeatedly inadvertently paint a picture of a college applicant who can't/won't do things for himself.  I'm not suggesting that parents have to stay out of everything college-related.  Be a supporter.  Answer questions.  Maybe even help impose some organization.  But this should still be your kid's process. 

9.  Bend the truth as much as possible.

When you sign a college application, you are signing a document in which you are claiming that everything, to the best of your knowledge, is true and accurate.  You should never, ever sign a document that says that unless you feel comfortable that it's accurate.  So if you've bent the truth anywhere on your application, bend it back and be straight.  No college admissions officer in America will fight to admit you if you lie on your application, even a little bit.

10.  Don't bother checking your email regularly.

It's not unusual for colleges to communicate via email.  So check your email once a day, at least.  If you created a separate email address for your college applications (a good idea if your email address is sexypartyguy@email.com), don't forget that once you list it, you also need to check it.

Lost arts

I think every high school student would be well served to master these ten skills.

  1. How to shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye, and introduce
  2. How to call someone you don’t know and articulately ask a question.
  3. How to write a thoughtful, appropriately composed and punctuated email that makes a good first impression.
  4. How to talk to adults comfortably.
  5. How to express thanks.
  6.  How to give praise.
  7. How to apologize and accept responsibility when something is your
  8. How to laugh at yourself.
  9. How to celebrate what you’re good at (and acknowledge what you’re not good at).
  10. How to rely less on your parents to do things you can do for yourself.

All ten can help you get into college, be successful once you get there, and even continue that success once you get out.

How many of them can you do?  How long would it take to master them all?

Another reason to love Wikipedia

Sure, you can't necessarily believe EVERYTHING you read on Wikipedia.  But everyone’s favorite research tool can also be used in the
college search.  Wikipedia has great
college write-ups that include information on everything from the make-up of
the student body to dorm life descriptions and listings of notable alumni.  And really, who wouldn't want to know that Ben
Affleck, Luke Wilson, and President Obama all went to Occidental College (although none of them went on to graduate from Oxy.)