Don’t wait for your dream college to pick you–pick yourself

Seth Godin offers us "Reject the tryanny of being picked" 


It's a cultural instinct to wait to get picked. To seek out the permission and authority that comes from a publisher or talk show host or even a blogger saying, 'I pick you.' Once you reject that impulse and realize that no one is going to select you–that Prince Charming has chosen another house–then you can actually get to work.  If you're hoping that the HR people you sent your resume to are about to pick you, it's going to be a long wait. Once you understand that there are problems just waiting to be solved, once you realize that you have all the tools and all the permission you need, then opportunities to contribute abound.  No one is going to pick you. Pick yourself."

The college admissions version of that looks like this.

Are you making a difference?

If you stopped showing up to water polo practice, would it make a difference?  Would your absence be noticeable?  Would it negatively affect the team?

If you're a great player or the team captain, the answer is probably "Yes."  But even the kid who sits deep on the bench can still play an important role, one that would make his absence noticeable.  We worked with a student years ago who told us he was, without question, the worst player on his water polo team.  He'd played a total of about 3 minutes of actual game time in high school.  But he loved the team.  He brought a great attitude to practice every day.  His passion was contagious.  That's why he won the coach's award two years in a row even though he never played.

Making a difference means that something or someone is different as a direct result of your involvement.  Successful college applicants consistently make a difference.  They make their English class better because they participate and ask questions.  They bring energy and enthusiasm to their activities and improve the experience for everyone involved.  When they do community service, or take a summer class, or take a leadership position, they're not doing it to impress colleges.  They're doing it because they want to make a contribution. 

If you want to improve your chances of getting into college, find more ways to make a difference. 

Impress colleges by learning what you want to learn

Here's one of the surest ways to impress any college, including the most selective ones:

Find what you love to learn, and learn more of it.

Several years ago, one of our students wrote his college essay about his obsession with decoding the meaning of the last sentence of 100 Years of Solitude.   After he read the last line, he was sure it had to be the most important sentence in the book.  But he wasn't sure he understood it.  So he read the book again.  He read online study guides.  He went to a local book club meeting where he was the youngest member by about 40 years.  And in a final act of desperation, he tracked down the author's email address and sent him a plea for help and to explain it to him (the author, disappointingly, never replied). 

The student was accepted to Stanford… as an electrical engineering major.

It doesn't matter whether it's math, literature, science, cooking, automotive repair, computer programming, woodworking, dance–if you find it interesting, feed your curiosity.  Show colleges that you're not just a high achiever but also a curious learner.  And even if you're not a straight-A student, show colleges what you're capable of when you're learning what you want to learn. 

Ivy league prep for nursery schoolers?

If you're a parent who paid $19,000 to send your daughter to nursery school, and the school didn't teach what it promised it would teach, you have the right to be upset.  You may even have the right to demand your money back.

But if you file a lawsuit claiming that the nursery school has damaged your four year-old's chances of attending an Ivy League school one day, well, you have derailed.  Or your lawyer has derailed.  But somebody involved has most certainly de-RAILED.

Being invested in your student's education is a great thing.  Turning it into a life-and-death struggle where only an admission from an Ivy League school will suffice is not.  Perspective is important.  If you lose yours, you run the risk of ruining the process for yourself and for your student. 

Thanks to my college buddy, Jim, for the article. 

What colleges want

What colleges want actually isn't all that complicated:

1.  Students who enjoy learning and are excited about doing more of it in college.

2.  Applicants who will become a part of the campus community, like playing saxophone in the marching band, doing improv with the drama club, or staying up late doing physics problem sets with fellow future Nobel Prize winners.

3.  Students other people will like being around.

That's pretty much it. 

Everything in the college application process, from transcripts to applications to essays to interviews, is designed so colleges can look for evidence that you would do those three things if you were admitted.

An inside look at MIT admissions

This post, written in 2006 by MIT admissions officer Ben Jones, gives you a great look at just how personal–and difficult–the process of selecting a freshman class can be at a highly selective college.  They spend November-March deciding who they want to admit, people they are sure deserve to attend MIT (and you can imagine what that applicant pool looks like).  Then, as Ben puts it,


In March I go into committee with my colleagues, having narrowed down my top picks to a few hundred people. My colleagues have all done the same. Then the numbers come in: this year's admit rate will be 13%. For every student you admit, you need to let go of seven others."

That's why you can't blame yourself (or them, really) if you are denied admission from a highly selective college.  It doesn't mean you failed and it doesn't necessarily mean they didn't think you deserved to be admitted. 

Colleges love nice kids, and so do we

I think every kid who wants to go to college and is willing to do the work deserves to go.  But if you want people to help you, you've got to be nice.  You should be appreciative, and you should respect the time and effort the people who are helping you are expending.  You get a lot of behavioral allowances when you're a teenager, but it's hard to excuse a kid who can't even muster up the effort to be nice. 

I summed it up like this in our staff meeting this morning.


We don't judge a kid negatively if he's got C's.  If he's a nice kid who wants to go to college, welcome to Collegewise.  We can help that kid.  But if you're a jerk, we can't help you.  I don't care what your GPA is."

For parents: Five things to consider before you hire a tutor

When a student is struggling in a class, a lot of well-meaning parents throw a tutor at the problem.  A good tutor can be wonderful for a student who's struggling.  But if you want the investment of your money and your student's time to pay off, here are five questions to consider before you enlist tutorial help.

1.  Is your student getting at least a "B" in the course?

No student excels equally in every subject.  A kid who's trying his best in chemistry and getting a "B" should be proud of the effort he's making.  Hiring a tutor can send a message to your kid that his best isn't good enough and that only "A's" are acceptable.  Some over-achieving kids put that pressure on themselves and they're prepared to handle it.  Many others are not.

2.  Is the problem something that a tutor can fix?

Before you hire a tutor, try to diagnose the problem first to see if it's something a tutor can address.  If your student isn't paying attention in class, or just isn't studying for exams, those aren't problems that a tutor can fix. 

3.  Is it a comprehension problem, or a study skills problem?

A tutor can help a student who just can't seem to wrap her brain around trig.  But if the student's study skills are lacking, it's a problem that a math tutor might improve, but probably won't solve.  That would be like hiring a hitting coach for a player who's got a pulled muscle in her back–you're addressing the wrong issue.  I've written a couple posts about study skills here, here and here, and they recommend some resources that might help.

4. Has your student talked to his or her teacher?

The first step with any academic struggle (assuming you've considered #2), is for the student, not the parent, to approach the teacher and ask for advice.  Any teacher will appreciate a kid who comes to her and says,

"I studied like crazy for that last test and you saw how badly I did.  I really want to get better at this.  Can you give me some advice where I should focus?"

Most teachers will be willing to help a student who takes ownership of the problem like this and genuinely wants to improve. 

5. Does your student seem relieved by the idea of a tutor?

If your student seems relieved by the idea of a tutor, you know you're doing the right thing.  A tutor should be like an academic lifeline that a student is grateful to receive.  It should be a positive thing where your student feels, "I'm struggling, I can't seem to fix it myself, and my parents are getting someone to help me."

A Stanford grad with a lot left to learn

I got a call once from a graduating senior at Stanford asking about our "engineering opening."

I told him we didn't have an engineering opening, and it became clear pretty fast that someone in their career center had goofed and listed our job opening incorrectly.

But this Stanford grad just refused to believe it.  No matter how I explained to him that we do college counseling, not engineering, and that someone in the Stanford office must have made an error, he just got more defiant and told me, "I have the listing right here in front of me."  He wasn't just misinformed; he was rude about it (and I thought I was actually being pretty nice). 

When he said, "OK, can you put me on with your manager since you don't seem to know much about the position?", I told him I was the manger and gave up trying to help him.

The point here is not that Stanford grads aren't bright (for you Cal Bears who might be reading this).  The point is there are certain things that GPAs, test scores and degrees from prestigious universities don't measure. This guy had to be smart to go to Stanford and major in engineering, but he was clearly lacking some people skills that he's going to need to get a job. 

Don't assume that you need a degree from a prestigious college to be successful.  And if you get to attend a prestigious school, don't assume that you've got nothing left to learn.

How stories make your activities stand out

It's hard to make your activities stand out on a college application when you have to list them like this (the numbers are the grades in which the student participated):

Varsity soccer: 11, 12
Key Club: 10-12, President (12)
Spanish Club: 9-12, Treasurer (11)

This student should be proud of his involvement.  But it's not going to make him more noticeable than the hundreds of other students in the pile who have similar lists.  The problem isn't the activities–it's that the lists all start to look the same.

But what if that student used his short essay to talk about how he organized a fundraiser to bring the entire team to a soccer camp over the summer?

What if he mentioned in his interview that under his leadership, the Key Club raised $2,000 to put on a special prom for special ed students to attend?  What if he also pulled up a picture on his phone to show the interviewer the group photo taken at the event?

What if his long essay talked about how 60% of the students at his high school are recent immigrants from Mexico, and how he started a program in the Spanish Club that gave special campus orientations–in Spanish–to new Spanish-speaking students and their families?

He listed his activities just like the colleges asked him to.  But now it's clear that he is not like every other student.  He used the other parts of the application to share stories that showed exactly what kind of impact he makes on campus.  He's left the admissions officers with a snapshot of who he is.

Unless you're going to win an Olympic gold medal or invent a new element on the periodic table, it's hard to do an activity nobody else applying has done.  But you can do things in your activities that make you stand out.  And you can use the application to tell those stories.