When you shouldn’t do whatever it takes

Doing whatever it takes sounds like a good idea.  But it can hurt your chances of getting into college.

You miss an "A" by two points in your Spanish class.  You argue with your teacher.  You try to make a case why you deserve an "A."  You get your parents involved and have them put pressure on your teacher and counselor.  Eventually, your Spanish teacher relents and gives you an "A-" just so he can be done with it. 

Yes, now you've got your "A-." But at what price?  Your Spanish teacher and your counselor think you're a whiny grade grubber.  They'll think twice before going out of their way to help you in the future.  And you can pretty much forget about getting a positive letter of recommendation from either of them.

When parents harangue a counselor because their daughter wasn't accepted into AP English, or when they pull strings with an influential alumni to get their son an interview with the dean of admission, there's a cost to those actions, and it's almost always the student who pays it.

The fact that the goal is to get into college doesn't always justify the action.  Think about the resulting cost before you do whatever it takes.

Tips to make the next semester your best one yet

Successful peole like to set goals.  So why not set yours to make your next semester the best–most successful, happiest, most productive–one yet?  Here are five ways to do it.

1.  Use spring break to catch up on all the sleep, mystery novels, guitar, bad reality TV, surfing, or anything else you regularly sacrifice for school, activities or the SATS.  Your goal should be to start the second semester happy and well-rested.

2.  Identify your favorite class and turn in a great performance.

3.  If an activity isn't fulfilling, or if you're just doing it to put on your college applications, quit.  Then redistribute that time to something more enjoyable and productive.  Trust me, it will be a good trade off in terms of both happiness and college admissions success. 

4.  Put high school in perspective.  In the not-too-distant future, the negative parts of high school like the back-biting, social climbing, and other negative drama will be a distant memory, one that nobody, including you, will care about anymore.

5.  Put college in perspective.  Stop obsessing about where you're going to get in and start obsessing about what you're going to do once you're in college.  I think you'll find that most of the things that excite you about college are not limited to just a handful of highly selective schools.

Taking these five steps will help you enjoy your life, make a bigger impact in activities you enjoy, stress less, and sleep better–all of which will lead to better performance on exams, higher grades, and more success in college admissions.   

High school counselors vs. private counselors

Whenever I go to conferences, I meet some high school counselors and some private counselors who feel the two groups are somehow pitted against each other.  Most of them have legitimate gripes about isolated members of the opposing party who've made them look bad with disparaging comments to kids, or somehow made it harder for them to do a good job for the families they serve.  Then they take those frustrations and apply them to the entire "opposing" profession.   

If you're a high school counselor who tells your students that all private counselors are snake oil salesmen out to make a quick buck off kids, guess what?  You're wrong.  And you're part of the problem.

And if you're a private counselor who tells families that high school counselors aren't qualified, that kids need you to get into college, that school counselors don't know enough or are just too busy to do a good job for kids, you're wrong, too.  And you're not part of the problem.  You are the source of the problem. 

Every great high school counselor I've ever met openly acknowledges that there are some wonderful private counselors out there who do a great job.  And there are also some far-from-wonderful ones who just aren't worth the money they charge. 

And every great private counselor I've ever met tells kids they don't need to hire someone to get into college, even a highly-selective one.  They advise families to avail themselves of everything their high school counseling office offers to them before they even consider hiring outside help.  And they'd never do anything to undermine a high school counselor's work with a student.

If we're in this to help the kids, our goal should be to emulate the greats on our sides.

For senior parents: celebrate every admissions decision

AustinThis is Austin, one of our Collegewise seniors.  And that plate of goodness in front of him is full of cookies shaped like "A's" to celebrate his admission to the University of Arizona.

Whenever a Collegewise family shares good admissions news with us, our first question is always the same.

"What are you going to do to celebrate?"

I don't care if it's the first choice college that offered an acceptance or the safety school whose admission was hardly a surprise.  When a proverbial fat envelope arrives from any college, acknowledge the success.  Put the acceptance letter on the fridge.  Do a family high five with your student and tell him how proud you are.

I hate to see the pressure of college admissions ruin what should be an exciting time in the house.  The opportunity to go to college is one worth celebrating, and I can't tell you how much it means to kids to see their parents excited about the good news (even if they don't show the same excitement themselves).  So don't reserve your celebration for the acceptance from a dream school.

And if your student is particularly happy about an acceptance, kick your celebration up a notch.  Buy a cake or make cookies (in the school's colors, of course).  Cook his favorite dinner.  Or go out to her favorite restaurant.  Parents can really set the tone for just how important these acceptances are in your student's life, so make sure you use this well-deserved excuse to commemorate the occasion.

And thanks, Austin, for giving us permission to share your photo.

Community service and college admissions

Community service is a tricky subject when it comes to college admissions.  A lot of families are convinced that their student needs to have done it, and if they do, it's going to be a real boost to their student's chances of admission.  But neither of those things are necessarily true. 

Now, I’m not going to be the guy who says kids shouldn’t do community service (we should all be doing something).  But colleges don’t expect that every kid will be out ladling soup at a homeless shelter every weekend.  And there is no penalty imposed on a student who chooses to do other things.  Colleges just want kids to be productive and to pursue their interests.  For some students, that’s doing volunteer work.  For others, it’s soccer or jazz band or a part-time job at The Gap. 

Whatever the activity, focus more on whether or not you're enjoying it than you do on the total number of hours.  If you're going to do community service, do it because you really want to help, not because you're trying to please colleges. 

And never, ever ask a college admissions officer how many community service hours are "enough."  That's a quick way to make a not-so-good impression. 

A reminder for juniors to hang in there

Finals week begins soon at many high schools, and this is about the time of year when we start to see the first signs of the stress getting to our juniors.  With the courses, SAT classes, activities and college planning, it's important for juniors to remember two things. 

1.  Most college students would tell you that while the academic material is more difficult in college, the sheer demands on your time are much, much more rigorous in 11th grade.  This is as difficult as school is likely to get for you.

2.  You're just 18 months away from starting college, where you'll take classes you want to take, live in a dorm, meet new people, go to football games, take road trips and have plenty of time to catch up on all the sleep you gave up to get there.  It's going to be an amazing four years where your most important jobs will be to learn and have fun.

11th grade isn't easy, but most college students would tell you it's all worth it to do what they're doing now. 

Five college-related activities for at-risk youth

I gave my annual "You Can Still Go to College" workshop yesterday at CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).  CASA pairs volunteer advocates with foster youth who've been removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect.  I shared five college-related activities advocates can do with their CASA kids free or almost free, and I thought they might be helpful for anyone who works with kids who are under-resourced, disadvantaged, or just in need of some extra care and attention to get college-bound.    

1.  Visit a college or community college and take the tour.

Most high school kids have never been to a college campus.  And it's so easy to do.  Just visit the website for a local college or community college and find the information about when tours are offered.  Then take one.  If tours aren't offered at a convenient time, just do a self-tour.  Walk around.  Smell the air.  Have lunch on campus.  Just treat it casually and browse around–no need to make a day out of it (unless the student really wants to).

2.  See a college sporting event.

Sure, football and basketball are popular college sports.  And they can be quite a spectacle to watch live, especially at Division I schools.  But if your student is interested in any sport–from tennis to water polo to volleyball–go see a game at a local college.  And best of all, a lot of those less famous sports are free to watch.       

3.  Attend a national college fair.

If you ever need a student to get a sense of just how many great colleges there are, go to a natoinal college fair.  They bring together hundreds of four-year colleges, community colleges, trade and technical schools for one afternoon.  And admission is always free.  If one of the fairs isn't happening in your area, find out if your student's high school or district might be putting on one for their students. 

4.  Take a class together at a college or community college.

I know, I know.  You're thinking that most students won't want to take a math class for fun, and you're right.  But look into continuing education or extension programs offered by colleges and community colleges.  These are open to the public and offer classes on everything from video game design, to yoga, to how to be a private investigator.  It doesn't matter what the class is as long as it's something that fits the student's interest.  The point is to get inside a college classroom and actually have it be an enjoyable experience for your student.

5.  Attend a "prospective student day" at a local college.

Some colleges throw day-long extravaganzas to show off their school for high school students and parents.  They'll offer tours, presentations, food, bands, panels of students, sample classes, etc.  And they're almost always free.   Check your local schools and see if they have any coming up.  They often take place in the spring as that's when seniors have received acceptances, and colleges particularly want to show off to those kids who've yet to decide where they'll spend the next four years.  

How high school counselors and private counselors can work together

Allison co-presented a session at a local conference yesterday called "It's All About The Kids: How High School Counselors and Private Counselors Can Work Together."  Private counselors can be a great resource for schools, delivering workshops, sharing information, and even training new counselors, but we have to a) earn schools' trust and b) deliver real value through our involvement.  For Allison's portion of the talk, she focused on how private counselors can forge relationships with schools and overcome the (sometimes justified, sometimes not) negative perception that we're all just money-grubbers who make school counselors' jobs harder.

Here were the three most important tips she shared. 

1.  Become an expert at one thing.

There is so much to know about college admissions that while we all want to be experts at everything, none of us are.  So pick one part of the process and make that your "thing."  It could be athletic recruiting for non-blue chip athletes, colleges that give generous aid to first-generation students, great schools for B and C students, etc.  Dive in and become an expert.  You may not necessarily limit your business to this one area.  But developing an expertise is the quickest way to stand out.

2.  Share that information for free.

Once you become an expert, share it with everyone. Go to conferences and present.  Write a blog or a newsletter.  Give free sessions at your local public library.  Make videos on YouTube.  This might seem counter-intuitive to just give it away, but marketing by sharing like this is the most effective way to build an audience and convince them of your expertise.  As Allison pointed out, Emeril puts hundreds of recipes on the Food Network website that you can get free.  But that just makes people more–not less–likely to eat at his restaurants and buy his cookbooks.     

3.  When a high school or organization invites you to share with their students or parents, don't betray their trust.

We've seen private counselors and representatives from for-profit companies who get invited to present at high schools and spend 20 of their allotted 60 minutes selling their service.   When you do that, you've just guaranteed that you won't get invited back.  It's fine to be clear about who you are and what you do.  But that doesn't mean you should abuse the permission the counselor has given you.  If you forget about selling and concentrate on giving a presentation so good that you send the crowd away thankful that they gave up the time, the business part will take care of itself.

Five people you want to work with

Some talents are easier to spot than others.  In fact, some of the most valuable people may not score the most goals or win the elections or come up with the brilliant idea.  But their talents actually make everyone else better, happier and more effective.   
Here are five people you want to work with.

1. People who make things happen.

It's the person who says, "I'll do it."  She takes a stalled project and gets it going again. She offers up an idea and then backs it up by doing the work.  And she's not afraid to skip asking for permission if it has to happen right now.  When I worked at The Princeton Review, our entire office building burned to the ground overnight.  We had several hundred students starting classes the next day.  One of our teachers saw the fire on the news that morning, called his friend who worked at a local hotel, booked conference rooms for us to hold our classes, and THEN called the boss to tell him about the fire.  That's getting things done.

2.  People who are quick to offer praise.

Praise is a great motivator, especially when it's sincere.  And the people who do this well are really good at paying attention.  They'll notice when the usual second-stringer had a good game and say, "Hey, nice game today."  They'll thank the person who went out to get lunch for everyone during the fundraiser and tell them how much it helped.  When a project goes well, they make sure to tell the person who came up with it what a great idea it was.

3.  People who can laugh at themselves.

I've learned this lesson from other people but admittedly wish I were much better at it. People who will make fun of themselves are great to have on your team.  They keep things fun and lighthearted but never at the expense of anyone else.  Of course, it's only a valuable skill if they actually do good work, too.  But comic relief is important, and these folks tend to help others enjoy their work. 

4. People who genuinely like what they're doing. 

You can't fake enthusiasm.  And when someone seems genuinely happy to be at basketball practice or planning the junior prom or working behind the counter at his part-time job, he lifts everyone else up around him without actually trying to.

5. People who bring emotional energy to what they do.

"Emotional energy" sounds hokey but I can't think of a better way to describe it.  This is the person who knows every customer's name at the ice cream shop.  It's the ad manager who writes letters to all the businesses after they run ads to thank them.  If they staff the front desk at the homecoming dance, they greet arrivals and tell everyone how great they look.  No job is unimportant to them.  They never phone it in.  They see every job, no matter how big or small, as a chance to perform.

Those are the people you want to work with.  Which one are you? 

Five people you don’t want to work with

From the high school Spanish club to Fortune 500 companies, there are some people who make work less productive and less enjoyable for everyone else involved.  It’s good to be able to spot those people so you can try to minimize the damage they can do.

Here are five people you don’t want to work with:

1. The idea person.

Ideas and vision are good.  But the idea person never wants to do the work to make it happen.  They say, “I know what we should do,” but never, “I’ll do it.”  They’re just the idea person.  The work part is somebody else’s problem.

2.  The permanent resident of Negativetown.

She criticizes everybody else’s suggestions but never offers any of her own.  She complains, points out what she thinks other people are doing wrong and is quick to place blame.  She seems so unhappy being there that you wonder why she keeps coming to the meetings.

3.  Anyone who repeatedly says, “That’s not my job.”

“That’s not my job” is almost always a cop out.  It’s a reason not to pitch in and help.  It’s the opposite of, “What else can I do?”  The next time someone says, “That’s not my job,” ask, “OK.  So what are you doing?”  And if they answer by naming their title, that doesn’t technically count as doing something.

4.  The excuse generator. 

He’s always got an excuse when something he was supposed to do didn’t go right.  He never thinks it’s his fault.  If you offered an excuse generator $500, he still couldn’t bring himself to say, “I screwed up, and I’m sorry.”

5. The person who speaks negatively of whoever isn’t in the room.

That person who’s always tearing down whoever isn’t in the room at that moment?  Not a good teammate.  He’s creating animosity that wasn’t there before.  He’s turning people against each other who were previously getting along.  How does that help?  How is that improving anybody’s experience?

If you work with one of these people, how about trying to help him or her change?  Pull the person aside, point out just how much they have to offer, why the group needs them, and what’s holding them back.  It might be enough to do the trick.

Tomorrow’s post: Five wonderful people you do want to work with…