Are some SAT/ACT dates harder than others?

This week, a local news station featured a segment with a private counselor and self-proclaimed college admissions expert who got so many of her facts wrong that it generated widespread criticism on the private Facebook group with thousands of counselors and admissions officers. The most egregious error was the advice that students should avoid taking the SAT or ACT in the fall because the test writers intentionally make those exams more difficult to adjust for the number of seniors (many of whom have completed several AP courses) taking them.

It’s just not true.

“Certain SAT/ACT dates are always easier than others” is a pervasive college planning myth that a number of staunch believers swear they’ve heard from someone reputable. But if it were true, wouldn’t everyone, from students to test prep companies, be capitalizing on it by now?

If you still need convincing, here’s a piece from Bruce Reed of Compass Education Group, one of the most trusted and respected test prep organizations. And if you just want the answer, here it is:

“The concept is complex but the explanation and decision-making can be kept simple: never select a test date based on your assessment of the testing pool on that day. Students don’t influence one another; there is no comparative advantage or disadvantage.”

Game changers

A game changer is a person or thing that dramatically alters the course, strategy, or state of something. The birth of commercial aviation. The technology that killed the music industry as we knew it. The studies that showed sugar, not fat, is the real dietary enemy to our health.

But opportunities for game changing—and game changers—are everywhere. And you don’t need a disruptive technology or course-changing innovation to do it. The right person can change the game with effort, positivity, caring, etc. to make a fundamental impact worthy of the game changer title.

Ever had a meal at a restaurant where the server changed the experience (and the game) for the better?

Ever seen a fellow student who made club meetings or golf practice or the part-time job more enjoyable for everyone?

Or a counselor who makes you feel comfortable enough to open up and share your real worries about college?

Those aren’t radical innovations or initiatives. Just one person bringing their unique talent to a situation and fundamentally changing it for everyone involved.

It’s tempting for students going through the college admissions process to look for opportunities to check off boxes: run for a club office, get community service hours, snag the award or the honor that really pops on the application. Those aren’t necessarily bad instincts. In fact, those are all potential opportunities to change the game. But they aren’t the only ones.

You don’t have to change the world to stand out to colleges. If you’re looking to stand out, find an opportunity, even a small one, where you can make a real difference.

Make the game smaller, then find a way to change it.

For retiring readers

Every year, the number of readers subscribed to my blog drops sharply after May 1. That’s exactly how it should be. When seniors decide where they’re going to college, there’s not much left to talk about with your counselor or to read about on a blog like mine. Even the college counselors understand that every year, a portion of our constituency retires and moves on.

For the last two years, I’ve posted the same goodbye to graduates after the May 1 deadline by which seniors must commit to their chosen colleges. And it’s always one of my most read and shared posts. So I’ve copied it again below. For those of you who will soon be off to college (or parents who will soon be sending your college freshman), I hope you’ll take the time to read it so I can say goodbye, good luck, and thank you.

Goodbye to graduates
Reposted from May 2015

Today is graduation day for a lot of my blog readers. Not the official high school graduation, but, May 1, the final day for seniors to decide where they’ll be attending college next fall. When a student has made that decision or a parent finally knows the college fate of their last one to leave the nest, there’s no need to come back tomorrow for my advice about how to pick colleges or write the essay or maintain your sanity in what’s become an unnecessarily stressful process.

So, for those of you who will be moving on, here are my parting words.

To students:

First, congratulations. Whether or not you’re attending your first-choice school, you should celebrate today. You’re going to college. This is a big deal, one that many of you worked incredibly hard for. Take a second to enjoy it before you rush to think about what’s next. The stress, the applications, the waiting and wondering—it’s all over. Put the college sweatshirt on. This is the good stuff now.

Second, remember that you won’t get to do a first draft of college. This is it. You get four years. So really lean into them. Learn as much as you can. Grow as much as you can. Have as much fun as you can. Don’t be that person who looks back on college and wishes you’d done more to enjoy and benefit from it. Your college can offer all the opportunities and benefits you’d hoped for, but you’ll need to take advantage of them.

Take the time to thank your parents. If they’ve been driving you crazy and you can’t wait to get out of the house, thank them anyway. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs there is. I didn’t get that until I became a parent myself, and you probably won’t, either. For now, just remember that while you may be a maturing adult now who’s ready to be out on your own, for most of your life you literally and figuratively could not have survived without your parents. Thank them now and you’ll be really proud of your maturity when you look back on this act years later. Really, trust me on this.

To parents:

Parents, congratulations to you, too. You’re officially sending your kid to college. One of the worst symptoms of college stress is that too few parents feel compelled to celebrate that milestone the way your parents did (or would have). But this is as big a deal today as it was in my day, your day, and every day before that. Do a parental high-five and soak this in.

Also, if your kids aren’t being all that nice and appreciative now, remember how little you knew at 18. They haven’t been on the planet that long. College and life will go a long way to mending this.

Remember that you get to demand a certain level of collegiate performance from your student, especially if you’re paying the bill. But consider demanding it in ways that aren’t measured just in GPAs and impressive accomplishments. You might consider bookmarking these past posts and emailing them to your kids after their first week of college.

How do you make the most of college?
How to build a remarkable college career
Turn college into career prep

And for everyone, I have a favor to ask.

I started writing this blog every day in 2009 because I wanted families to enjoy the process that you’ve just finished. If you’ve read and benefitted from what I share here, please pass it along to the next crop of college-goers. Tell a younger friend about it. Share it with a parent who’s about to go through this with their own son or daughter. Or just forward a particular post that really helped you. Those of us who are trying to change college admissions have to stick together, so when you move on, I need to add new members to the band.

And finally, thank you for reading. It’s a privilege for me to be able to do this, and I hope it helped you enjoy your ride to college a little more.

Good luck, and have a great time in college.

Bounce back with three P’s

According to Martin Seligman, author and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, our ability to deal with setbacks has a lot to do with three P’s: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.

Personalization: Is the failure or setback a fundamental problem with you? Snapping at a good friend one day doesn’t make you a bad friend or a bad person—it just means you weren’t as patient as you could have been in one instance, and you can try to do better next time. The denial from a college, the low grade on a test, the election loss or less-than-stellar play performance or absence from the list of those who made varsity—none of those things mean that you are a failure. Just because something happens to you doesn’t mean it happened because of you. Take a good, honest look at your role in the setback. Own and learn from the parts that actually have something to do with you. Then try to let everything else go.

Pervasiveness: Will this event affect all areas of your life? Or just specific parts? For example, a bad haircut might make you shudder at the thought of showing up to school tomorrow. And it might make you a lot less confident at the formal dance coming up. Those are real feelings. But your health, your grades, your family, your spot on the baseball team—most parts of your life will still be intact. The same can be said about most college-planning disappointments. Lament the portions that are affected (temporarily), but remember just how bad things would really need to be for the phrase “My life is ruined” to be accurate.

Permanence: Will this last forever, or will it go away in due time? Most non-tragic setbacks and the effects associated with them do not last forever. Yes, a denial from your dream college will remain. But the sense of loss you might be feeling will not. Almost nobody sulks through their freshman year of college lamenting a different school that said no. There will be too much learning and fun happening for that. It’s OK to be disappointed by a setback. But try to be realistic about just how long the effects will last.

For more on the three P’s, and maybe more perspective on the difference between a disappointment or setback and an actual tragedy, read or watch Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2016 commencement address at UC Berkeley, delivered just one year after her husband died unexpectedly.

Advise your hive

Once a month, a dedicated group of Collegewisers publishes an internal newsletter, Inside the Hive (“The Hive” is our term for our collective of Collegewise counselors). Each issue focuses on answering four questions for every Collegewise counselor:

1. What should you be doing for each grade level of your Collegewise families this month?
2. What should you be doing to improve your office and your counseling this month?
3. Do we have any helpful materials or guides to help you accomplish these things?
4. Any relevant timely tips from Collegewise veterans?

For example, here’s a screenshot of page two from this month’s edition.

Inside the Hive has become one of the most vital tools we use in our work. College counseling can be a complex business. It’s not always obvious where to focus our time, how to adopt the techniques of the greats, or what resources are already available so we don’t create a new version unnecessarily. And our counselors don’t sit in the same building. Collegewisers in Los Angeles, Austin, Columbus, New York, etc. don’t always know what their far-flung colleagues are up to like we would if we all worked in the same building together. But once a month, we put all the most vital and useful information in one place. Do what Inside the Hive recommends, and no counselor has to wonder if they’re focusing on the wrong things or somehow missing something.

What would a company, school, club, or organization’s version of Inside the Hive look like? What if you committed to sharing the most important to-dos, advice, resources, etc.? In the ensuing years, you can revise and update it. But you’ll probably only need to write each issue from scratch once.

And if you’re having trouble getting started, or if you work as a solo independent counselor and don’t necessarily have a hive to share it with, here’s a tip—write retroactively. Look back at the last 2-4 months and ask yourself:

  • What were the most important things I did each month?
  • What specific monthly advice would I give someone (or myself) next year, knowing what I know now?
  • What resources or other helpful information did I use, and what else would have been helpful to have on hand?

Repeat that a few times throughout the year and you’ll have retroactive issues for every month. Then next year, just unearth the appropriate issues at the appropriate times.

Big or small, everyone in the group gets better when you carve out time to advise your hive.

Should you really visit colleges?

Most families who are college searching have heard the advice about visiting schools. It makes sense. It’s hard for students to commit to spending four years someplace they’ve never even seen in person. But much of the advice surrounding college visits is difficult to follow, especially if students don’t have the resources to spend on substantial travel.

For example:

You should visit colleges. There’s just no substitute for actually being there.

Fair enough. But easier said than done, especially if the student is applying to schools that require significant travel to get there. That time and expense adds up fast. And what if a student is applying to 8 or 10 or 12 colleges? Do you really need to book that many trips to be a responsible college searcher?

Don’t visit during the summer—nobody will be on campus. Visit when school is in session so you can fully experience it.

Good advice in theory. Hard to pull off in practice. “Get good grades in challenging courses” is college prep 101 advice. Now students are supposed to take time off from their own schooling to visit colleges?

Demonstrating interest is important to getting in. That’s why you have to visit!

True for some schools, but even for those, it really only applies to students who live close by and can visit at little to no expense. I’ve never heard of a college that would penalize an applicant for electing not to incur expensive travel expenses to visit a school they haven’t even been admitted to yet.

Take the tour, sit in on a class, talk to students, tour the local area, meet with an admissions officer, tour the dorms, etc., etc., etc.

I’ve worked with plenty of engaged students at Collegewise. But I’ve never met one who wanted to turn a college visit into a combination of a homework assignment and boot camp. And even a seasoned adult can only hear so many spiels about school history and how many volumes are in the library before their eyes glaze over.

So, what’s the smart, responsible approach to college visits that won’t necessarily break the bank? There’s no one right way, but here are a few resources.

Here are two past posts, this one with a basic tip, this one with five.

Here’s a recent New York Times article arguing for skipping the visit. Each family should make their own decisions, but I’m including it for any readers who may be feeling like the visits just aren’t worth it.

And if you want to do a deeper college visit dive, here’s our Collegewise College Visit Guide. It includes frequent planning mistakes and how to avoid them, advice on how to spend your time on (and off) campus, and suggested questions to ask admissions counselors and current students. Best of all, it’s free.

Smiling is contagious

I once brainstormed a college essay with a particularly cheerful student who wrote about her practice of consciously smiling at people. She would walk through the hallways at school and smile at anyone who looked like they needed a pick-me-up—the student who looked stressed or unhappy, the new kid in school who appeared unsure, the easy target who was accustomed to hurtful barbs rather than warm grins. She said they almost always smiled back. She was naturally positive, it came easily to her, and sharing the smile felt like an easy way to give even a small lift to someone’s day.

That might sound idealistic or naïve, but it turns out she was onto something. Here’s a short article by Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and author, demonstrating why smiles really are contagious. And the linked study within the article demonstrated that when an overtly positive person entered a room full of people:

“…his jovial mood was picked up by the rest of the group almost instantly. Incredibly, the performance of each individual increased, and the group’s ability to achieve its goal improved.”

You can actually improve the performance of both individuals and groups, and help them reach their goals, just by bringing some positivity to the table. It turns out smiling really is contagious.

By the way, that smiley student went on to her first-choice college, UC Santa Barbara. Today, she’s a merchandiser for a children’s clothing company. And she’s yet to share a single smile-free photo on social media.

Email vs. face-to-face

According to the research cited in this Harvard Business Review article, if you need to persuade someone, asking face-to-face is 34 times more successful than asking over email.

Given that the sample group (who was asking people to complete a survey) approached strangers, I don’t find it particularly surprising that face-to-face contact was more effective. You can easily delete an email without even reading it, but you can’t delete a person sitting in front of you. And we’ve all been cautioned that clicking links in emails from unidentified senders could infect our computers with the electronic version of the Ebola virus.

Still, when you’re making a request of someone, it’s worth considering whether or not you might have better results asking face-to-face. Even the best writers can struggle to communicate the intended tone over email. And there are visual cues that a face-to-face meeting allows, the kind you can’t send through cyberspace.

And if you just have to ask over email, remember that the order matters.

Five ways to annoy your teacher when asking for help

Engaged students aren’t afraid to ask for help from teachers when they need it. And most teachers are happy to help a nice, earnest kid who’s struggling. But there are right ways and wrong ways to ask for that kind of help. Here are five wrong ways.

1. Forget that you’re asking for a favor.
A teacher who spends time to help you outside of class hours is doing you a favor. Instead of preparing before school for their first class, they’re meeting with you. Instead of eating their own lunch at lunchtime, they’re meeting with you. Instead of going home after school when the day is done, they’re meeting with you. That’s their time, not yours. And if you don’t ask them nicely to allocate some of that time to you, if you’re unwilling to meet on days and times that work best for them, and worst of all, if you don’t express your appreciation for their help, it’s hard for any reasonable person to feel good about extending themselves on your behalf.

2. Send your parents to do your talking for you.
Sending your parents on your behalf to ask a teacher for help sends the wrong message. It tells the teacher that your parents care more about this than you do. It tells the teacher that you aren’t taking responsibility for any of your own struggles. And it doesn’t allow your teacher the opportunity to diagnose the root of your struggles or give any preliminary feedback directly to you. When you’re sick, you don’t send your parents to the doctor on your behalf to diagnose what’s ailing you. Like the responsibility for your own health, the responsibility for your education is not something that you should outsource to someone else.

3. Take no responsibility.
How would you feel if you’d worked hard in class all semester and a friend who hadn’t tried at all came to you before the final and said, “This class is so hard! I really need your help to get my grade up. Can you tutor me?” Wouldn’t you feel a little taken advantage of? Wouldn’t you want that friend to at least acknowledge their role in the jam they’d gotten themselves into? That’s roughly how your teacher feels if you ask for help without recognizing what, if any, responsibility you have for your current academic state. If you haven’t paid attention, if you haven’t completed your assignments, or if you just haven’t tried as hard as you should have, and you combine those mistakes with a refusal to take any ownership of them, don’t be surprised if your teacher points out those facts when you ask for help.

4. Blame the subject or the course.

I just don’t get any of this.

This stuff makes no sense!

This class is really confusing.

Statements like those subtly make the case that the teacher, the material, or both are somehow failing you. But there are almost certainly students in your class who are not having the same struggles, so you can’t completely assign blame somewhere else. It’s entirely reasonable to struggle with particular subjects—nobody is great at everything. And like all professions, some teachers are better than others. But directing criticism at chemistry or trig or French is not the best way to elicit help from someone who’s dedicated their professional life to teaching that subject.

5. Ask what to do to improve your grade.
Of course, you want to raise your grade. There’s no shame in that. But there’s a difference between asking, “What can I do to improve my grade?” and, “What can I do to better understand biology?” I understand that many students may not see a difference, but trust me on this one. Asking how to improve your grade smacks of grade grubbing—not a likeable trait in a student. It’s like a struggling restaurant owner contacting Yelp and asking how to improve their low reviews. The low reviews themselves are not the problem. What the restaurant is doing (or not doing) to earn such low marks is the problem. A grade is the measurement of your performance. Asking your teacher to help change the measurement alone just shows that you’re not focusing on the actions (or inactions) that led you to this place.

That’s my summary of what not to do. Here’s a past post focusing on the better ways to ask teachers for help.

Disagree and commit

When two parties can’t come to an agreement over a particular decision, here’s a way to help make the call and move forward with everyone (including those who disagree) on board: disagree and commit.

According to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s recent letter to shareholders, one of the principles that keeps Amazon working like an innovative startup rather than a static behemoth slowed by size and bureaucracy is to make high-quality decisions quickly. Bezos wants people to vigorously debate ideas including his own. But Amazon’s leadership won’t allow the often fruitless pursuit of consensus to prevent smart, necessary decisions from being made. When they reach an impasse, one party will reiterate the reasons they disagree, then commit to doing whatever it takes to make the decision work. They disagree, then commit.

As Bezos describes it:

“I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with ‘I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.’ Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.”

Bezos didn’t keep arguing. He didn’t schedule another meeting to try to convince everyone he was right. And this time, he didn’t change his mind (he often does). But after disagreeing, he committed. He wants the project to be “the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” That’s a lot more supportive—and productive—than someone who says, “This will never work, and I can’t wait to say, ‘I told you so.’”

Not surprisingly, disagree and commit could be really helpful to counselor teams, clubs, and organizations. But it might even be useful in college planning, too.

A student wants to apply to an expensive college that’s out of her family’s budget. The parent doesn’t see the point in expending the application energy and potentially getting the student’s hopes up. The parent could say, “I disagree, but take your best shot—I hope you get in with a generous financial aid package.” Disagree and commit.

A parent is considering hiring a private counselor for her student. The student doesn’t see the need and wants to handle the process on his own. The student could say, “Mom, I don’t think I need someone to help me. But I’ll go to the free introductory meeting. I actually have some questions for her, too. Who knows—maybe it will turn out to be something I want to do.”

The student isn’t committing to working with a counselor yet. But he’s committing to investigate the possibility with an open mind.

A student who struggles with standardized tests wants to take the SAT again. Her counselor thinks that twice is enough and recommends that the student adjust her college list to include schools that will admit her with her current scores. A counselor could say, “I worry that you’re spending too much time on standardized tests. (Disagree.) But it seems like you really feel strongly about this. And it’s your college process, not mine. So I’ll be cheering you on and hoping you get a score that you’ll feel great about. Do you need some recommendations on how to prepare?” (Commit.)

Sometimes we get entrenched in our arguments just so we don’t have to be connected to a decision that eventually proves to be wrong. We don’t want the other party to later say some version of, “Don’t complain—you agreed to do this, too!”

But disagreeing and committing doesn’t just free us from that worry. It also lets us feel more comfortable relenting, allowing the decision to take place, and actually being a productive part of making the decision successful.

The next time you can’t come to an agreement, do more than just agree to disagree. Agree to disagree and commit.