How to study less and get better grades

A lot of students who get high grades don't actually study harder than other students do; they just make the most of the time they are already in class.

Say you're in class an hour a day for each subject, 5 days a week.  If you have a math test every three weeks, you've already invested 15 hours of time just by being in class.  If you really used that time that you're sitting there, seriously, how much additional studying should you really have to do for the test?

Here's how smart students use class time.

  • Treat class time like study time.  I mean really pay attention.  Zero in while you're there.  Don't think about other things high school kids think about (at least, don't think about them while you're in trigonometry). 
  • Don't try to write down everything the teacher says.  Instead, just pay attention and think about what's being said, and write down only what's important.  Here's what's important…
  • Anything the teacher writes on the board is important.
  • Anything the teacher repeats, makes a big deal of, or emphasizes in any way–it's important.  It sounds like, “This was a crucial turning point for the United States in World War II!”
  •  Pay attention to verbal ticks and pet phrases.  I had an AP Government teacher in high school who used to love to say, "C'mon, folks.  You need to know this stuff!"  While other people were drooling on their desks, the smart kids wrote down everything that followed that pet phrase.  Do you know why?  Because it was always—and I mean always–on the test.  I don't even think the teacher knew his giveaway, but like good poker players, we weren't about to let him know we were onto him.
  • Anything your teacher discusses at great length is important.  If you're studying the Great Depression all week but spend two days on the reasons for the stock market crash, that's a tip. 
  • If your teacher goes to the trouble to make a handout, it's important.
  • If your teacher spends a lot of time talking about something that isn't mentioned anywhere in the textbook, it's important.

Before you study harder, work smarter while you're in class. 

Why are you going to college?

Seriously, why do you even want to go to college?

I'm not suggesting that you shouldn’t go.  But most people never stop to ask themselves
this basic question.  And it’s an
important one, especially if you want to find–and get in to–the right school.

For example, look at these different responses to the
question, “Why college?”

  1. Because I have to know more about physics.
  2. Because I want to be a journalist, and I have to go to college to do that.
  3. Because I want to be able to study exactly what interests
  4. Because I want to meet new people and have new experiences.
  5. Because if I don’t go, my parents will give my room to my
    brother and make me live in the attic.  I don't want to live in the attic.  It's scary up there.   

These are very different answers, and you probably have your
own.  Or maybe you’ve never really
thought of it before and you’ll need some time to consider it.

That’s what makes the college search difficult.  For most high school students, picking a
college is like entering into an arranged marriage without dating.  You can’t be expected to know everything you
want from a college experience, because a lot of what you’ll inevitably take
away from college will be the things you never expected to find.

Nevertheless, your reasoning for wanting to go to college is
central to picking a school.  If you want
to meet a variety of different people, you probably shouldn’t go to a commuter
school near your home.  If you have no
idea what you want to study or what you want to do with your life, don’t go to
a school with exclusively pre-professional programs.

I don’t expect that you will read this entry and have a perfectly defined answer to the question, “Why college?”  It’s part of the continuous college
soul-searching process that you need to do. 
So, as you go through your college search, keep asking yourself why you
are going in the first place.  This will
help you stay focused on the big picture. 

And when the colleges you eventually choose ask you to explain how they ended up on your list, you'll have a much more thoughtful, revealing answer than the standard, "Um, it's a good school."  

Five New Year’s resolutions for parents

"This is the year I'm going to do it." 

We've all got conviction in the New Year.  So parents, why not capitalize on the annually-renewed sense of self-improvement that comes with the New Year and make some resolutions that will help you not just survive, but actually enjoy your student's ride to college? 

Here are my top five college admissions-related resolution suggestions for parents.

1. Put college admissions in perspective. Your student's college future deserves to be taken seriously.  But if you're panicked because your son scored 1900 on the SAT and "that's just not good enough for Princeton," you've lost sight of the big picture.  Going to college is important.  Going to a famous college is not.  Don't make the acceptance into one particular school the end-goal.  Instead, celebrate your student's opportunity to attend college–any college.  Recognize it as just one step in what will be a lifetime process of education, growth and life experience.   And while you're at it, pat yourself on the back for raising a good kid who's college bound.     

2. Spend more time celebrating your student's strengths than you do trying to fix weaknesses.  The pressure surrounding college admissions often breeds far too much focus on kids' weaknesses.  "Her test scores are low."  "Her GPA isn't high enough."  "She doesn't have enough leadership."  Focusing too much on weaknesses just hurts kids' self-confidence.  Don't forget to celebrate strengths, victories and other achievements that are worthy of parental pride.  Is she great at her job at the daycare?  Is he well-respected by his peers at the church youth group?  When she didn't get the lead in the school play, did she cheerfully offer to run the lights instead?  You know your kid is a good kid–so take the time to acknowledge the reasons why.  And remember that a GPA, test score or decision from a particular college do not measure your student's worth (or your worth as a parent). 

3. Don't run with the wrong crowd.  Some parents seem intent on turning the college admissions process into a status competition.  These are not the parents you want at your next dinner party.  They talk about how many hours of community service their kid has done and how expensive the SAT tutor is that they're housing in the guest room this summer.  They ruin the ride to college for everybody and, sadly, they don't ever seem to find any joy in this process, even when the most desirable schools say "yes."  So don't join in.  Associate with other parents who care more that their kids end up happy in college than they do about whether or not those schools are Ivy League schools.  They're more fun to be around at dinner parties anyway.

4. Encourage your student to take responsibility for her own college process.  Being a supportive parent is something you should be proud of.  But you should resist the urge to do things for your student that she can do herself.  College-bound kids need to develop their own initiative and independence if they want to get in and be successful at college.  Let your kids approach teachers when they're struggling in class.  Let your kids talk to college representatives at college fairs.  Let your kids fill out their own college applications and write their college essays.  Parents can be supportive partners, but you shouldn't take over the process. 

5. Enjoy this time as much as possible.   The worst part of the frenzy surrounding the college admissions process
is that it ruins what should be an exciting time for both parents and
students. You're only going to go through this process once with each kid.  So enjoy it.  Resolve to find the joy in it.  A positive attitude won't make things like the SAT go away, but it will help you revel in the parts that should be fun, like visiting colleges, discovering new schools that fit your student well, and watching kids make the transition from home room to dorm room.  

Happy New Year…

Five New Year’s resolutions for high school students

A lot of high school students are going to make New Year's Resolutions like, "Get a 3.8 GPA next semester" and, "Spend more time studying for my SATs."  I think those are commendable goals.  But I'd like to invite you to make some resolutions that will not only improve your chances of getting into college, but will also make you happier and more confident along the way.

Here are five resolutions that would improve the life of just about any high school student. 

1. Be excited about the opportunity to go to college…any college. I'm not saying you should give up and just be happy with any college that takes you.  I'm saying that if you decide there are only three colleges where you could ever be happy, that puts an awful lot of pressure on yourself.  The hard work you're doing in and out of school shouldn't just be about trying to get into Stanford.  It should be about learning, finding your passions, and enjoying your teenage years.  Wherever you go to college, you're going to meet new people, learn and have fun. That's reason enough to be excited.  So, keep working hard, but try to enjoy yourself while you're doing it. 

2. Quit something worth quitting this year.   Almost everyone has something in their life that's not making your life any better, something in which you're just going through the motions, or that's actually making you unhappy or unhealthy.  Identify one of those things in your life and quit.  Quit it today and replace it with something that improves your life.  If you used to love swimming but now you secretly dread it every day, quit and take the art classes you've been dying to take.  If you're tired of hanging out with kids who aren't nice to each other, quit the group and find nicer friends.  The message here isn't to quit and do nothing.  It's to replace the thing you quit with something more positive and productive.  Happy and successful people do that all the time.

3. Stop getting caught up in high school drama.  Some parts of high school are wonderful.  Other parts, not so much–like the popularity contests, backbiting, and social insecurity.  The happiest and most well-adjusted students I've met don't engage in the negative dramas of high school.  They're happy being themselves and don't care what other people think of them.  They're nice to the kids other students aren't nice to.  They don't gossip or speak badly of their friends or worry about what's popular.  It's hard to disassociate from the social dramas of high school, but you'll be much happier if you do.  And believe me, once you get to college, you'll see for yourself just how petty a lot of the bad parts of high school really were.

4. Do more things for yourself that your parents have been doing for you.  When you make your parents do things for you that you can and should be doing for yourself, you're making it easy and maybe even necessary for them to run your life.  If you're having trouble in a class, don't make your parents contact the teacher.  If you have scheduling conflicts, don't make your parents talk to your counselor to resolve them.  If you have questions about a college's application requirements, don't make your parents get that information for you.  These are things you can and should be doing for yourself.  So start doing them.  You'll be happier, your relationship with your parents will improve, and the colleges will be appreciative of your independence. 

5.  Look for ways to make an impact. One of the best ways to feel good about yourself (and frankly, to get into college) is to find ways to make an impact.  You don't have to be the captain of your soccer team to host the team dinner.  You don't have to be the smartest kid in your English class to participate and contribute to class discussions.  And you don't have to be the editor of the school paper to take a journalism class over the summer and then share what you learned.  Titles, leadership positions and awards aren't the only ways to demonstrate that you're valuable and appreciated.  If you make efforts to contribute and try to make an impact, you'll feel good about how you're spending your time–and people around you will take notice.    

Happy New Year…


Why a college interview is like a first date

Have you ever been on a first date where the person you were
with was a terrible conversationalist?  It’s just about the most agonizing thing in the world.  You sit there at a table in a restaurant
trying desperately to think of things to say so you can avoid the excruciating
silence that you know is going to come unless you keep talking.  And after about twenty minutes of trying, you
want to pull an imaginary ejection handle and catapult yourself away from the

If you sit in your college interview waiting to be asked
questions and then give short answers without any details, it's like putting the interviewer through a terrible first date. 

Don’t confuse the college interview with a job interview
where you will be asked difficult, probing questions about your experience and
what you can bring to the company.  This
is a first date (without the chance for romance at the end). The initial conversation could be awkward until you find
common ground.  You’ll need to call upon
your personal characteristics that you think make you likeable.  You’ll probably want to bathe
beforehand.  But ultimately, you and the
interviewer are going to try to get to know each other.  You’re going to have to find something to
talk about.   

If you want to be impressive, make the interviewer’s job
easier and try to find some common ground. 
Be a good conversationalist. 
Don’t just sit there.   

Things that shouldn’t matter at all when picking colleges

Here a few factors I think should have absolutely no influence over where you apply or attend college. 

1. Where your friends want to go

Going to a college where you don’t know anybody can be an intimidating prospect.  And after four years of high school, you might have some pretty close friends who seem the perfect companions for your upcoming college years.

But the cold, hard truth is that you will not be going to high school anymore.  You are about to go to college.  You’re going to have to make this decision based on what is best for you, not based where your friends will be.

2. Where your boyfriend or girlfriend wants to go

No matter how strong your romantic connection and conviction may be, I don’t recommend that you allow it to be a factor in determining where you go to college. 

3. Trendiness

In some cases, teenagers adopt a dog-like pack mentality.  It is a scientific phenomenon that as yet defies explanation.  But if there is a significant jump in applications to a particular college, you can be that school will be on kids’ lists the following year.  We see it happen all the time. 

Sometimes, this might happen for good reason.  After all, there are a lot of great colleges out there who deserve to have their good word spread. 

But if the only reason you are applying to a school is because everybody else seems to be doing it, you might want to think twice before you fill out the application.

4.  Where the school is ranked on the US News list

It's funny how many the same schools who are so proud of their US News ranking would be unimpressed if a student cited it as a primary reason he wanted to attend.  Really?  That's like spending an inordinate amount of time, money and energy to get the perfect outfit before a date and then penalizing your date for telling you your outfit looks nice.   

Don't pick your colleges because of where they are ranked.  The rankings are very controversial, and they change every year.  So you could effectively pick a college ranked in the top ten and have it drop to outside the top 15 before the following year.  Is it worth this risk?

5.  Anything you'd be embarrassed to admit to the college when applying. 

You should be proud of your reasons for applying to a college.  If you're not, you need different reasons (or different colleges).


Putting standardized tests into perspective

A lot of people have completely lost their minds.

Nowhere in the word of college admissions has so much of the
population gone so far over the deep end as they have with standardized
tests.  Sixth graders are taking SAT prep
classes.  People are paying obscene
amounts of money (sometimes upwards of 10 or 20 thousand dollars!) for the
“best” prep tutors.  Families are taking tutors with them on vacation so as not to break the summer prep streak.  

In some cases, people are right to be concerned.  If you want to go to Yale and you have a
1520 on the SAT, your chances are probably going to be slim.

That’s the bad news.

But most of the over 2000 colleges out there don’t expect
sky-high test scores.  There are plenty of good colleges out there that will gladly take a good kid with average or even below average test scores.   

In fact, Fairtest,
organization that works to end the misuses and flaws of standardized
testing, maintains a list of over 700 schools where SAT/ACT scores are
not even required for
admission.  Id love to see that list grow to include all four-year
colleges–dare to dream.

So, that’s the good news.  You can pretty much walk into the SAT, take it cold, and
as long as you don’t draw dirty pictures on the answer sheet, you’ll still get
into college.  I'm not suggesting you should actually do it that way, but test scores are not a life or death experience.  Don't treat them like one.  Maintain your perspective.

So you want to play sports in college

If you are a four-time All-American quarterback who can no longer open the door to your bedroom because it is so full of recruiting letters, you don’t need to read this blog post.  All you have to do is avoid felonies and interceptions and you’ll probably get into a college with a football team.   

But there are a lot of students out there who have had more modest, but still admirable, athletic success in high school and they’d like to try and parlay it into an admission to college—maybe even to a school to which they would otherwise not stand a good chance of gaining admission.  

If you want to explore college athletics, here's the most important thing you can do.

Don't stand still.

Standing still seems to be a bad thing in almost every sport.  Coaches are always telling you to “move to the open space,” “move to the ball,” “move to the bench until you learn not to shoot at the wrong goal,” etc. 

Standing still and waiting for college coaches to find you is the worst thing you can do if you want to get recruited to play sports in college.  You are going to need to find them, to contact them, to initiate the first, second, and third moves.

Here are some important steps to take:

1. Learn the rules governing eligibility and recruiting.

You can find them on the NCAA’s website.

2. Find out which schools offer your sport

Go here on the NCAA's website. 

3. Get your coaches on board.

If your coaches don't know that you are interested in playing in college, this would be a good time to tell them.  Make sure they know where you are interested in attending, too.  You don’t want a college to call your coach and say, “We understand that David is interested in playing soccer for us,” and have your coach respond,

        “What?  David who?  Oh, THAT kid?  He is?  Is he CRAZY?” 

That would be bad. 

College coaches like to communicate with their own kind.  You, your parents, and anyone who knows you will sing your praises about how wonderful you are.  But your coaches can tell college coaches exactly what they want to know, in exactly the right language. 

4. Ask your coach's advice

Your coach can tell you what else you can do to help your recruiting cause, what other schools you might want to consider, and of course, what you can do to improve your game even more.

5. Initiate and maintain contact with college coaches

Send an email to college coaches at your schools of interest, or fill out the online recruiting form, and do so early in your junior year.  Let them know that you are interested in their program.  Provide them with a resume that summarizes your achievements.  If a coach is impressed with what you have accomplished, she may ask you to fill out additional forms for prospective athletes, to continue to update her, or to send her a game schedule.  Make sure to keep in mind that these kinds of responses do not necessarily mean you are being recruited.  But it does mean that the coach would like to learn more and to keep informed of your athletic progress.

Start with these five–just don't stand still.

A simple tip for college interviews

Want to do something simple that will help you have a great college interview? 

Look like you're enjoying yourself. 

It’s hard for an interviewer to
relax and enjoy your company if you are twitching, sweating, and appearing to be
on the verge of complete respiratory failure. 
So relax.  Smile.  Don’t be afraid to be yourself.  The more relaxed you are, the easier you will
be to talk to, and the better the interview will be.   

So, what’s your major?

One of the great things about college is that everyone receives a standard issue pick-up line to use whenever you'd like–"What's your major?"  I'm not saying it's a good line.  But it's a line, and it's an opener that won't offend anybody.  Sometimes you just need a good opener.

But you don't necessarily need an answer to that question when you're applying to college.

Obviously, when you’re considering a college, you need to
think about what you want to study.  But
keep one thing in mind—the average college student changes his or her major twice
while they are in college.  If you don’t
know what you want to study, don’t panic—it’s normal.  You’ll just want to make sure that you pick a
school that can accommodate students who don’t know what they want to

If you think you are interested in business, it obviously
wouldn’t make sense for you to apply to eight colleges that don’t offer a
business major.  But we recommend that
you don’t focus all of your college match efforts on the availability or
reported strength of a major.  After all,
if you elect to attend a college because it has a strong business program, and
you decide after the first semester that you no longer want to be a business
major, you might regret your choice of college.   

Here’s a tip.  Let's say you
think you might want to be a business major.  Visit the websites of a few
schools that interest you and read about their business programs.  Print up a list of the
required courses you’ll have to take as a business major, along with the descriptions
of what is taught in each course.  If you
say to yourself, “Calculus?  Finance?
Accounting?  Statistics?  I thought I was going to be learning how to
do marketing and advertising!” then you know that this particular business
program might not be for you.