“Helicopter parent” is not a positive term

I had an interesting experience with "helicopter parents" last week.  I'd just finished doing a seminar at a high school and three mothers approached me with a question. The elected spokeswoman of the group proudly announced, "We're helicopter parents–and we have some questions about helping our kids find activities this summer." 

Parents who support your kids and want the best for them have every reason to be proud of their efforts.  Parenting isn't easy, especially during the teenage years. 

But if you identify yourself as a helicopter parent, you should know that the term is pejorative for a reason.  A helicopter parent hovers over your kid so closely that he doesn't learn to think and live on his own.  College administrators talk about helicopter parents who call professors and argue for grades to be changed, or who intervene in roommate squabbles.  Even employers are talking about parents who call on behalf of their (college graduate!) children to investigate job openings or to make sure their kids' resumes were received.  

There are times when we sit with a student at Collegewise and just know that she's going to be successful.  That feeling has a lot more to do with how she carries herself, her maturity, her self confidence and her work ethic than it does her grades or test scores.  But one thing this kids all have in common are parents who are supportive but know when to step back.

If you're a helicopter parent, you can be proud of your instincts to want everything for your kids, but you should consider different methods.  Become a proud former helicopter parent and then teach other hovering moms and dads how to follow your lead.

Easy steps to improve your writing

I just finished "Revising Prose," one of the best books I've read about improving your writing.  The author is a professor of English at UCLA who comes right out and says that academic writing encourages excessive wordiness and that clear, concise writing is the mark of good writer and thinker.  He teaches what he calls the "Paramedic Method" to improve any sentence.  Here are a few of the key points.

1.  Circle the prepositions. 

Too many prepositions take the action out of a sentence and make it unnecessarily wordy.  So circle anything like of, in, by, through, from, etc.

Removing the prepositions just makes this sentence better.

Original: "In this paragraph is an example of the use of a cliche in describing an experience." 

Revised: "This paragraph uses a cliche to describe an experience." 

2.  Circle the "Is" forms.

I never had a problem with the word "Is" until I read this book.  Now I understand that "is" and all its forms (is, was, will be, seems to be, have been, etc.) just suck the life out of a sentence.  Replace all "is" forms with action verbs, and get rid of unnecessary prepositions, and your sentence comes back to life. 

Original:  "The trend in college admissions seems to be that there is a general increase in selectivity at famous colleges."

Revised:  "Famous colleges are becoming more selective."

3.  Find the action.

The author calls this, "Ask who's kicking whom."  To revise your sentences and make them active and clear, just identify the action–ask yourself who is doing what to whom, and make that the focus of the sentence.

Original: "Attending a private college is considered too expensive by some people." 

Who is doing what to whom?  Some people are considering…  Let's revise it and focus on the action.

Revised: "Some people consider private colleges too expensive."  

4.  Make the "kicking" a simple action verb.

Original: "The need for safety schools is not satisfied in this college list."

Revised: "This college list does not satisfy the need for safety schools."

Even better revision:  "This college list needs safety schools." 

5.  Start fast. 

Every time you start a sentence with, "The point I'm trying to make is," or "What we need to focus on is," or, "My opinion is that," you're starting off a sentence too slowly.  The author calls these "slow windups." We always say that a college essay has to start with a pithy first sentence that comes right out and says something.  But that doesn't mean that other sentences should start slowly.

So when you write a sentence, start fast.  Don't do a slow windup.  Say what you want to say.

Those are just a few of his tips.  It's a great book that, somewhat frustratingly, makes me want to go back through everything I've ever written and totally revise it.

Advanced essay training

Last night, three of our veteran "essay specialists" came back for some advanced training in the art of helping students find and tell their best stories, and how to do it ethically so we don't take over the process.  If you work with students to help them with college essays, here are a few of the tips we taught.

1. Before you jump in and brainstorm, spend five minutes getting the kid to relax a little bit. 

Dentists do this before they start drilling.  They ask you questions about where you’re vacationing.  We do the same thing with kids.  Before you start asking a student which activity meant the most to him, just chat for five minutes.  It will help the kid relax and be more open about his stories.   

2. Always ask the kid if he’s got any ideas about what he wants to write. 

It's the student's essay, not ours.  Just because we have a great process to help kids find their stories doesn't mean we should ignore whatever ideas a student already has. So ask. 

3. Don’t just sit in silence while you read the student’s responses. 

Our students type long responses to our 20 brainstorming questions.  It takes a while for us to read through them before we discuss them.  But while we read, we don't want the student to feel like a teacher is grading her test right in front of her.  So ask questions, or even just say, “Oh, that’s good.”  Give some feedback as you go to let the student know he's doing fine.

4.  Don’t hold back when you like one of their responses.
 
Enthusiasm is contagious.  A student will feel encouraged when you get excited and say, “What a minute.  You're on the football team AND you play the tuba?!?  I've never heard of that before.  You've got to tell me more about that." 

5.    “Forget the essay.  It’s just you and me talkin’ now…”

If a student seems reserved, or if you can sense that he's more enthusiastic about a topic than he's letting on, take the essay reins off and say,

"Forget the essay.  It's just you and me talkin' now…” 

Physically set your notes down when you say it.  Watch how much more enthusiastic and relaxed the student gets.

6.  When you see an example of great writing in their brainstorming responses, highlight it, show it to them, and explain why it’s good. 

We want students to understand what good writing looks like.  When you're reading their brainstorming responses and you see examples of good detail, or funny lines, or just a great turn of phrase, circle it, point it out and explain why it's good.  Then tell him, “That’s what I want you to do in your essays!”

7. Ask the student to explain the stories back to you. 

We don't want to tell the story for a student.  So rather than say, "In the second paragraph, you can describe how your coach got angry when the starting fullback quit, and how he asked you to take his place."  Instead, ask the student, "So, tell me again what happened when that player quit…" Make them tell the story and recall their own details.

8. Warn kids that “Track changes” makes things look a lot worse than they are.

We love the "Track changes" feature in Microsoft Word.  But most students are used to associating markings on an essay with errors.  The first time a kid opens a draft with changes marked, it looks a lot worse than it is, especially given that even your positive feedback looks like red-penned editing.  So warn a student.  Tell him, "Don't be alarmed when you see the draft.  The track changes looks like a blood bath but a lot of what I've written is to comment on what you did well!"

9. Don’t be afraid to use the “Show, don’t tell” concept in your comments.

We tell kids that good writing is descriptive.  So are good comments from editors!  Sometimes the best way to explain something to a student is to show him what you mean, but use examples that the student couldn’t just lift and use himself.

    For example, a student writes:

"Now as a senior, I am taking AP psychology and I find myself engrossed in the course.  The “theory of the fundamental attribution error” and the “foot-in-the-door phenomenon” are now phrases that have been incorporated into my daily vocabulary." 

    And the editor comments:

"Great example!  Can you give one or two more specific examples of how you use or think about these concepts?  It’s more believable if you say something specific like (and I’m totally making this up because I don’t know what these concepts mean AT ALL!), 'I used to think that the reason my brother lied to other kids I and told them I wet the bed until I was 12 was just because he was mean.  Now I know that he’s not only mean, but he’s also possibly suffering from fundamental attribution error.'" 

If you're trying to get a soccer player to give you more detail, write a sample for him…using a golfer or a poker player as an example.  Just don't use a soccer playing example because the kid will want to use what you've written. 

10.    Don’t forget to insert praise in your comments, too.

We're not just editors here; we're also teachers.  If all you do is point out what needs to be changed, improved or revised in an essay, it's discouraging for the student.  So always include some sincere praise.  Show the kid what he did right.  Insert the occasional “I love that line” or “Good example!” into your comments. It will keep the student engaged and leave him more inclined to accept your constructive criticism. 

What students can learn from Major League Baseball

A lot of colleges' essay questions ask you to describe a time that you failed or made a mistake.  Nobody is successful all the time, so colleges don't expect seventeen year-olds to be perfect.  But they ask the question because the way you handle these circumstances says a lot about your character. 

Baseball fans saw a great example of that this week when umpire Jim Joyce absolutely blew a call that cost pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game.  The replay made it obvious to everyone, including Joyce, that he'd missed the call.  So he did something you almost never see an umpire do.  He admitted he was wrong and apologized. 

“It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the sh*t out of it, I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay.”

He also apologized personally to the pitcher, Galarraga.

"Joyce felt badly enough about it that, long after the game was over,
he asked to meet with Galarraga. It’s an incredibly unusual move, but
given the circumstances, it was understandable.

Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski brought Galarraga
from the home clubhouse into the umpires’ room.

'He asked if he could see Armando and I brought Armando in there,' Dombrowski said, 'and [Joyce] apologized profusely to him and he said he
just felt terrible. They hugged each other and Armando said, ‘I
understand.’"

Major League Baseball gave Joyce the option to take the next game off, but he declined, even though he knew what he was in for.  He said he was, "Ready for boos" and promised,

"I’ll take it.  “I’ll take whatever you can give me, and I’ll
handle it like a man, and I’ll do the best I can.”

And here's what happened in the next game.

“Will my admissions chances improve if I pick an odd major?”

Occasionally, a family will ask us if a student's chances of admission will improve if she selects an odd major.  The thinking here is that there are so many "business" and "psychology" and "engineering" majors applying to college, you might have a better chance in a lot less popular major, like "forestry" or "food science" or "viticulture" (it's wine making, and don't laugh–it's a real major).

And yes, this can improve your chances…if you've walked your talk. 

A student who's shown a real interest in forestry, who's taken AP Bio and AP chemistry, who's volunteered for the parks service over the summer, who gives tours of the local wilderness park on the weekend, and who has a great answer to the "Why are you applying to this college?" question that includes a good knowledge of the forestry program, that student has an advantage.  She's a good fit for a program that's not a popular one, and the standards of admission for her might be less rigorous then they would for someone applying as a more popular major.

I'm sure there are cases where a less qualified student applied under an odd major with no intention of ever actually studying "soil science" and managed to slip in.  But is it worth the risk to do that?  Do you want to go to any school badly enough to fake your way in?  That's like pretending to love The Beatles just because a girl you desperately want to date is a huge fan of them.  Sure, it might work, but it's also kind of pathetic.  And just like she might expect you to listen to A Hard Days Night non stop once you're together, what if you have to spend a year or two as a "soil science" major before the college will let you switch.  Is it worth it?  I don't think it is. 

Think a lot about what you want to study in college.  Be a mature college shopper who understands that what you learn in college is important.  Pick colleges that match your interests. And don't try to fake your way in by pretending to be something you're not.  

Is it OK to apply as an “Undecided” major?

Some students who aren't sure what they want to study in college worry that colleges might hold that uncertainty against them.  They wonder if applying as an "undecided/undeclared" major makes them less appealing than an applicant who's declaring what she wants to study.

Thankfully, as long as you're applying to the right colleges, you won't have to worry.

Colleges that offer the undecided/undeclared option are perfectly OK with students choosing it.  It's a college's way of telling you that they don't expect every seventeen year-old to know what you want to do with your life.  They'll probably have you take general education requirements, the classes that everyone has to take regardless of their major, so you can try different things.  And as long as you select a major by the end of your sophomore year, you'll be fine.

Not all colleges offer the undecided option.  Lots of schools see their mission as one to help you reach a career that you've identified (Northeastern, Drexel and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are good examples of colleges that do this).  When schools like those ask you what you want to study, you need to have an answer.  

But for colleges that offer an "undecided" option, be confident that you're uncertainty is OK.  If they ask you to describe your academic interests, tell them what you're considering studying and why you'd like to keep your options open.  You should be thinking about those things, but the right colleges won't hold it against you if you don't have an answer yet. 

Can the major you pick affect your chances of getting into a college?

In my next few posts I'm going to tackle some common questions about if and how the major you select impacts your chances of admission.  I'll start with, "Can the major you pick affect your chances of getting into a college?"

The answer is, "At some colleges, yes."

At some colleges, certain popular majors are "impacted."  "Impacted" majors have more interested students than they can accommodate.  It's like arriving at a party that can hold 50 people, but 100 people are already in line to get in.  It would be much easier to get into one of the other, less popular parties.

Not all colleges have impacted majors.  But those who do usually don't try to keep it a secret.  If you want to know if a major is impacted, a quick call to the admissions office will get you your answer.  

So here's the follow up question.  "If the major I want is impacted, should I apply with a less competitive major and then change once I get there?"

It's important to remember that an impacted major isn't just impacted for high school students who are applying; it's also impacted for students who are already enrolled at the college and hope to get into that major. That means you could spend four years at the college and still not get into your chosen major.

If you're going to college because you want to be a journalist, and you've picked your colleges based on the strength of their journalism programs, it wouldn't make sense for you to apply under a different major to any school just so you can get in.

But if you're just considering a particular major and aren't necessarily sure whether or not you'll like it, you might pick a less popular major at some of your schools so you don't unnecessarily weaken your chances of admission. 

Tomorrow: "Is it OK to apply as an 'undecided' major?"

Don’t be a grade grubber

Counselors, teachers and college admissions officers use a term to describe some students–"Grade grubbers."  You don't want to be one.

Grade grubbers focus obsessively on their GPAs.  They're not interested in learning–they just want the "A."  They'll participate in class discussions…if participation is counted towards your grade.  They'll do the outside project or extra reading…if they get points for it.  When a grade grubber gets a "B" in the class, he'll go right to the teacher and ask what extra credit is available so he can get an "A."  And grade grubbers aren't above having their parents wage the, "My son needs an "A" in the class" fight for them. 

Grade grubbers aren't bad kids.  They work hard and they're not disruptive in class (that would hurt their grade).  But it's hard to really like them.  There's no sense of intellectualism, no keen interest in any particular subject matter with grade grubbers.  They're all about the grade itself. 

It's much better to be branded a "learner."

There's a big difference between grade grubbers and learners.  Learner work hard, too.  And they earn good grades.  But they can also tell you who their favorite class or teacher is.  They take hard classes because they want to be pushed intellectually.  They enjoy learning new things and aren't afraid to pursue their favorite subjects outside of class through extra reading or classes.  They participate in class discussions because it makes the material more interesting.  

Teachers feel lucky when they have a couple learners in their classes.  Learners make the experience better for everyone.  The grade grubbers just take what they need to get the "A," but the learners are giving something back with their enthusiasm. 

It's easy for teachers and counselors to write great letters of recommendation for learners.  And it's easy for colleges to admit them. 

 

Should you take the SAT/ACT again?

When our Collegewise students get their SAT/ACT scores, they usually ask us, “Should I take it again?”  Even if they’re thrilled with their scores, that’s the question they ask.  Standardized tests have a way of doing that to people.  No matter what score you get, you always wonder if it could be higher.

Eventually, the law of diminishing returns applies itself to studying for standardized tests.  Spending your entire summer preparing to take the SAT a third or fourth time just won’t feel worth it if you only go up 20 points.

So how do you decide whether to take the test again?  There’s only a little hard science to this decision, but here are a few guidelines.

1. Did you nail it?

If you met or beat what you hoped you could score, move on. End your standardized testing career on a high note. I know it’s tempting to think you might be able to eke out even more points, but there are lots of other things you can be doing to prepare for college admissions that are more important, and more rewarding, than doing more test prep.

Also, if you scored 2150 or higher on the SAT, or 32 or higher on the ACT, walk away. Those scores are good enough at even the most selective schools. Higher scores won’t improve your chances, and taking the test again just makes you look neurotic.

2. Check average test scores.

Most colleges share the average test scores of the students they admit. You can find that information on their websites or on collegeboard.com. Before you make a decision about retesting, it’s good to know how you compare to students your chosen colleges admit.

Also, don’t forget that many colleges allow you to report your highest SAT Math, Critical Reading and Writing scores from different
sittings (a practice called “superscoring”). So your highest test score may be better than you thought it was. Visit the admissions sections on the websites of the colleges that interest you and find out how they use the scores. Then you can make an informed decision about taking the test again.

3. If you took a class or worked with a tutor, ask the instructor’s opinion. 

A good instructor should be able to tell you whether or not you have a good chance of improving your scores.  And if you’ve already shown that you can do much better than your most recent score, an instructor can encourage you and tell you where to spend your time reviewing.

4.  Are you feeling optimistic, or beaten down?

Some students want to take the test again because they know they can do better. They feel they’ve got the testing upper hand and want to show what they can do. If you’re feeling buoyed and want one more try at slaying the testing beast, have at it. But if you’ve done your best and spent your time preparing and now just wish you never have to take them again, do something else that doesn’t make you feel so discouraged.

For most students who plan and prepare well, two times is enough for any standardized tests. When a student decides he’s just got to try a third time, I tell him to go for it, but then mandate that he throw in the testing towel once he finishes. Part of managing standardized tests means knowing when to say when.