Just Breathe

I moderated a panel this week that featured admissions officers from Stanford and UCLA, as well as a high school counselor with 30 years experience helping kids get into college.  A parent asked what she should be doing with her kids in elementary and junior high school seeing that so many parents around her are shuttling their kids to private tutors, expensive lessons, and club teams.

The high school counselor jumped in first.  "Tell your kids to breathe." 

She went on to describe that elementary and junior high school are times when kids should be kids.  It's great for them to play on a club soccer team, or take piano lessons, or even take a summer school class if that's what makes them happy.  But not every nine-year-old is ready to pledge undying commitment to one activity.

And for the record, the panelists from UCLA and Stanford said they'd never seen any indication that successful applicants got there by starting their college journey in elementary school. 

So if your nine-year-old balks at piano lessons and would much rather build paper airplanes to have contests with the neighborhood kids to see whose can fly the farthest (that's what I did), that's fine.  It's normal. 

Everyone, just breathe. 

Elite Colleges Don’t Make Elite People

Where did your heroes go to college? 

That's a question posed by Jay Mathews of The Washington Post in this article.  You might be surprised where many past presidents, state governors, Fortune 500 CEOs and other people who have achieved great success did–and did not–go to college. 

Here's my favorite part:

"Researchers Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger found that admirable character traits — persistence, imagination, energy — produce success in life no matter which college a person attends.  So relax. Be happy about your chance to spend four years at any school, soaking up the wisdom of the world and deciding what kind of life you want. Those of you who become heroes will discover most of the qualities that made you so were already in your possession"

I knew that both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates dropped out of college (Reed College and Harvard, respectively), but I didn't know that Ted Turner was kicked out of college.  Twice. 

McEssays (with Cheese)

Any senior who's planning to write college essays this fall should stop and read Parke Muth's "Writing The Essay: Sound Advice from an Expert."  In fact, his analogy comparing boring essays to Big Macs is so good that I actually started to resent him a teeny bit because I didn't come up with it myself.  At least I'm honest. 

Here's my favorite snippet: 

"Ninety percent of the applications I read contain what I call McEssays
– usually five-paragraph essays that consist primarily of abstractions
and unsupported generalization. They are technically correct in that
they are organized and have the correct sentence structure and
spelling, but they are boring. Sort of like a Big Mac. I have nothing
against Big Macs, but the one I eat in Charlottesville is not going to
be fundamentally different from the one I eat in Paris, Peoria or Palm
Springs. I am not going to rave about the quality of a particular Big
Mac. The same can be said about the generic essay. If an essay starts
out: "I have been a member of the band and it has taught me leadership,
perseverance and hard work," I can almost recite the rest of the essay
without reading it. Each of the three middle paragraphs gives a bit of
support to an abstraction, and the final paragraph restates what has
already been said. A McEssay is not wrong, but it is not going to be a
positive factor in the admission decision. It will not allow a student
to stand out."

A website with some merit

I learned about what looks to be a great resource for high school kids today, www.meritaid.com.  The vast majority of merit-based scholarships come from the colleges themselves (as opposed to outside scholarships that come from companies, organizations, private donors, etc.).  And this website seems to be culling that information together so that a student can search for schools and research the scholarships that are available.  You can even create a profile that will generate a list of colleges with potential merit aid that match your profile. 

I would still argue that visiting the schools' individual websites is the only way to be sure you know about all of the scholarships they offer, but you could use this site as a way to narrow down your search.

Thanks to Mary Beth Kravets, a high school counselor and author of this fantastic college guide for students with learning disabilities, for sharing this.   

College applications with personality, and a side of bacon

After a recent seminar I did for Collegewise families, one parent who filled out an evaluation answered the question, "Are there any other comments you'd like to share with us?" like this…

"I like bacon."

I don't know who wrote it (the evaluations are anonymous), but I like that parent already.  This was probably a fun person, someone who knows how to enjoy him or herself, someone with a spirited personality.  I have no way of knowing if my assumptions are accurate, but you can tell a lot from an answer like that. 

College applications are the same way. 

A lot of kids are so wrapped up in trying to sound impressive that they won't be playful even when the college is begging you to play.  A question about why you want to attend this college requires a thoughtful answer.  A question about your favorite food or what book you would bring to a desert island or what one person, living or dead, you would like to have dinner with is begging you to be yourself and have fun.  Your answer doesn't necessarily have to be funny, but it should be true and revealing.  There are no right or wrong answers–just use the opportunity to help the college get to know you a little better.  So admit that you eat more Oreos than could possibly be healthy.  Tell them there's no way you'd go the rest of your life on an island without Harry Potter. Come right out and admit that you'd want to have dinner with the lead singer from Coldplay so you could ask him to please stop writing songs.  

A college will never come out and ask you to describe your personality.  But they'll be looking for it in your answers.  So make it easy for them to find it. 

Not-So-Shameless Plugging

PyforCollege

I did a financial aid seminar for families last weekend and as I revealed to them, I first learned a lot of the information I shared from "Paying for College Without Going Broke."  It helped me make sense of the financial aid process, and I was an English and history major in college who has never once successfully balanced my checkbook.

The 2010 version releases today, and I've already ordered my copy.

As with all previous versions of the book, the author describes exactly how the process of applying for financial aid works, with tips and strategies to increase aid and reduce costs.  But the description of the 2010 edition says that it has also been updated to reflect all of the current economic uncertainty, it will include the latest financial aid forms with guidelines to help you complete them, and it will explain recent changes to the tax laws and how they impact financial aid.    

Whether you're the parent of a senior who needs to apply for financial aid right now, or the parent of a freshman who wants tips on the best ways to save for college, I'd order a copy. 

Rule of High School?

Seth Godin, a business book author whose blog I read, published this post comparing the business world to high school.  Here's an excerpt I thought kids should see.

"Any sufficiently overheated industry will eventually
resemble high school. High school is filled with insecurity, social climbing, backbiting,
false friends, faux achievements, high drama and not much content. Much of this
insecurity comes from a market that doesn't make good judgments, that doesn't
understand how to reliably choose between alternatives. So it turns into a
popularity contest…As in high school, the winners are the ones who don't take
it too seriously and understand what they're trying to accomplish. Get stuck in
the never ending drama (worrying about what irrelevant people think) and you'll
never get anything done."

It doesn't sound like a very fun high school world to live in.  If what he describes here resembles your current high school experience, remember that you don't have to play that game.  You can be the exception, not the rule.  You can reject that vision of high school and create one of your own. 

What if you were a high school kid who went against that description?  What if you made the conscious decision to be nice to everyone, not to worry about what other people think, to be yourself, to be confident, to reject the idea of popular vs. unpopular, to be proud of who you are and what you stand for, to do what you want rather than what other people say is cool, to make it more important that you be yourself than it is to be liked?

I'm not saying it's easy.  But some kids are doing it.  They're happier, more fulfilled and more confident, and they'll probably get accepted to lots of colleges.  If you are one of these kids, good job.  And if you'd like to be one, start today.

It's got to be easier than the alternative. 

 

(US News) Rankings Have No Place in College Football

Are you ready for some football?  USC is playing Notre Dame today, a
bitter rivalry with Trojans and leprechauns facing off.  It's homecoming
weekend at Penn State where the forecast is 30 degrees and snowing,
but I promise you the Nittany Lion fans will be out there in full force, as will their legendary coach, 83 year-old Joe "JoePa" Paterno. And the Red River Rivalry taking place between Oklahoma and Texas today has always among most bitter rivalries in college football.

Whether or not you're a sports fan, you can't argue with its rich history of college football, or with the energy and camaraderie
it generates for students.  Rain or shine, those students are out there
every Saturday decked out in their school colors, singing the fight
songs, and of course, hurling traditional insults at the other team ("We
don't give a damn for the whoooole state of Michigan, whoooole state of Michigan….we're from O-hi-oooo!").

Those
students can tell you where their team is on the controversial college
football rankings, but most don't know or care if their school is
ranked on the arguably more controversial US News college rankings. 
They're enjoying their college experience too much to be concerned with
an arbitrary ranking of their school's quality.  And those students who get the same enjoyment
playing in the marching band on the field, or doing physics research
with a professor, or being an RA in the dorms, or playing intramural
basketball with their new friends would all likely tell you that their
college's ranking (or lack thereof) isn't influencing their college
experience at all.  

Colleges can be evaluated, but they can't
be measured.  There are no win-loss records to compare for college
quality.  So don't rely on an arbitrary ranking to pick your school. 
It's easier to decide for yourself what you want from your college
experience and to seek out those schools that meet or exceed  your rankings. 

Wanted: Thoughtful and Deliberate College Applicants

The National Association for College Admissions Consulting just completed a survey that confirms that 90% of colleges have reported an increase in financial aid applications.  That's not surprising given the downturn in the economy.  And with every piece of bad news about increasing levels of competition and decreasing availability of financial aid, a lot of students are going to respond by firing off even more college applications.  It's hard not to panic during the throes of senior season, especially this year.

But there's an opportunity for the thoughtful and deliberative student to stand out here.      

Now more than ever, colleges don't just want applicants–they want applicants who are good matches for the school and are most likely to accept an offer of admission.  If you're applying to a school just because of the name, or just because your friends are applying, or just because you want to apply to as many colleges as possible to keep your options open, it's going to be hard for you to communicate your match to that school.  You're not going to appear to be someone who's likely to accept that offer of admission.  And that can hurt your chances of getting in. 

The best way to approach this is to slow down, to select your colleges thoughtfully, and to apply deliberately.  Get good advice about your college list.  It's OK to apply to a few reach schools, but make sure you apply to a reasonable number of schools that your high school counselor thinks are likely to admit you, schools that you also sincerely want to go to.  Consider applying to one financial safety school where you're sure you can get in, you're sure you'd want to attend, and your family is sure they could pay for even if you got no financial aid.   

Students who do show some evidence of thoughtful college soul searching are always appealing to admissions officers, which can make you more appealing to the financial aid office, too.