How important are PSAT scores?

I think students and parents need to find reasons to stress less,
not more, about the college admissions process.  The PSAT is a good
example of this need. 

The stress students and parents feel
regarding PSAT scores (which are being returned to students about now),
is often totally out of proportion with the actual relevance of the
scores.  

The PSAT is just a practice test.  That's all.  It
was created to let students take a non-threatening trial version of the
SAT before they take the real thing.  It can't hurt you.  It can't
damage your future.  No student in the history of college admissions
has ever been rejected by a college because she scored poorly on the
PSAT. 

Even good PSAT scores don't actually get you into
college.  If you did well on the PSAT, it's good news because you will
likely do well on the SAT when you take it–and that exam absolutely can
help you get into college.  Doing well on the PSAT is like doing well
on a practice test a teacher gives you before the big final exam; it's
a good sign but you'll still need to score well when it counts. 

In
fact, the only way colleges use PSAT scores is to purchase names for
direct marketing mailings.  If you took the test, you and your mailbox
will see what I mean later this spring.

So if you didn't do
well on the PSAT, don't launch into a full scale panic attack.  As my
friend Paul Kanarek from The Princeton Review always says at the dozens
of PSAT scores back sessions he does at high schools every year, "You
are not allowed to panic over your PSAT scores." 

For anyone
who's not happy with your PSAT scores, use your results as your early
warning signal that you might want to do some work before you take the
real SAT.  That's what test preparation is for (a service whose cost
ranges from thousands of dollars in private tutoring to $15 for a good book).

Now, I can hear some people saying, "But it's NOT just a practice test!  What about National Merit scholarships?" 

Yes,
a small number of students (about 8,000 of the 1.5 million test takers)
are awarded scholarships every year, and the PSAT scores are the first
of many rounds of qualification you must endure.  If you're notified
that your PSAT scores qualify you for future consideration, that's good
news (being in a line for future potential scholarship money is always
good news).

But for everyone else, again, don't panic.  You're
in good company with the other 1.5 million test takers who will still
have plenty of the over 2,000 4-year colleges from which to choose.

My
point here isn't that students should blow off the PSAT.  My point is
that students and parents would be well served to remind themselves
that if you lose sleep over your PSAT scores, you're placing far, far
more emphasis on the exam than any college will.  That would be like
playing one bad game of pick-up basketball with your friends and
worrying that you won't make varsity because of it.  It just doesn't
make sense.

Less stress, not more.

On the art of the complaint…

Seth Godin posted an interesting take yesterday about how to voice a complaint. It's a good technique with lots of applications for students and parents going through the college planning years. 

The message here is not to complain more often.  I think the college admissions process needs less complaining, not more.  

But sometimes you do have a legitimate complaint.  Maybe your counselor didn't send your transcripts or the college never told you that they hadn't received your test scores?  Maybe your SAT scores didn't go up after the prep class, or you feel like you're not getting a fair chance to be the starting catcher on the baseball team?  Whatever the complaint, why not approach it in a way that invites respect and collaboration. 

You have a better chance of getting someone to try to be helpful.  And you'll be putting yourself and the person to whom you're complaining on the same team.

Make your own value

The Today show ran this piece yesterday on the "Top 20 Best Value Colleges" which came from the results of a recent survey by The Princeton Review.  Now more than ever, families are asking questions–as they should–about the quality of colleges in relation to their sticker price.

Are private schools worth the money?

Will my education at a less selective public school be as good as the kind I might experience at a selective private school?

Which colleges will help me get a better paying job when I graduate?

But as you're comparing different colleges and what you'd be getting for your money, keep in mind that each student has enormous influence on the value of her college experience.

Here are two very different examples of students attending two very different schools.

Student #1 chooses to attend the cheapest public school in his state.  It's neither famous nor selective as it admits over 70% of the applicants.  He throws himself into the college experience.  He starts by visiting regularly with his academic advisor to talk about his courses and which ones he seems to like the most.  He visits professors during their office hours and gets to know them.  During his sophomore year, he chooses "regional development" as his major, a subject he first investigated at the urging of his advisor who thought he would love the courses (the advisor was right).  He's excited to go to class every day because he loves the subject matter.  He explores various activities and gets a part time job in the athletics office scheduling intramural sports games.  That job later turns into an internship where he works for the Director of Campus Activities.  When the school wants a student representative on the committee to plan for the new athletics complex, he interviews and is selected.  The summer before his senior year, the Director of Campus Activities hires him for a full time summer internship to coordinate student volunteers.  He does such a great job that they allow him to trim his hours and continue working during his senior year.  All the while, he's creating lifelong friendships and enjoying the fun that college has to offer.  He flourishes inside and outside of the classroom.  He graduates with honors, with a resume of experience, with professors and mentors who can advise him and serve as references, and with a lifetime worth of college memories.

Student #2 attends a highly selective, famous private college.  He majors in business because that's what he always said he wanted to major in.  He meets with his advisor only when he's required to and never fully avails himself of that resource.  He doesn't visit professors during their office hours.  He attends most, but not all of his classes, and is naturally smart enough to study the night before the test and pull off "B." He does fine academically, but certainly doesn't love his classes.  He plays intramural sports and makes some good friends, but doesn't ever seek out or locate an activity that he's passionate about.  During his college summers, he hangs out with his friends and has the occasional part time job to make extra spending money.  He doesn't cultivate any professional relationships with people who could serve as mentors or recommenders.  He makes some good friends and has his share of fun, but if you ask him, he really likes, but doesn't necessarily love college.  He graduates with a degree in business from a famous university, but no real experience other than his part-time summer jobs.  

So, who had the better college education?  Which student is likely to be more successful after college?  Which student got the best value for his college education?

The student is the variable in every college's education.  That's why it is almost impossible to measure with any degree of accuracy the potential quality and value of any one particular school.   

The best funded university in the world with small classes, plenty of support and loads of Nobel Prize winning professors won't be worth its tuition to the student who isn't willing to take advantage of those resources.  And the cheap public school that makes no appearance in the annual college rankings can become the launching pad to success for the right student who is naturally inclined to work hard and achieve his goals. 

Yes, you should be cost conscious when choosing colleges.  You should ask what you're going to get for your money.  And you should evaluate the spending decision just like you would with any purchase of a similar magnitude.  To do anything other than that would be irresponsible.

But it's important to remember that colleges don't make kids successful–kids have to do that for themselves.  A student's work ethic, curiosity, initiative, integrity and maturity–and what she does to apply those traits during her time in college–will have far greater influence over her happiness and post-college success than the name of her college will.  

If you want to get the most bang for your college buck, start your evaluation with the variable–the student.  Think about the kind of environment where a student would flourish, the kind of place where she can put her natural talents to the best use.  Then find the colleges that match that description.  Don't do it the other way around; don't pick famous colleges because you're sure they're "good" and then try to find a way to get accepted.

In college, you don't automatically get what you pay for.  You have to make your own value.

Life advice from Steve Jobs

When Steve Jobs of Apple gave the commencement address at Stanford in 2005, the transcript made its way around cyberspace in a flurry of forwards.  But nearly five years later, I wonder how many of today's high school students (and parents) have read it.  I think it's worth it, so I'm posting it here.

For high school students, I see three direct parallels between his advice and your college planning. 

1.  Don't expect that you can plan your entire future in advance.  You can't draw a line forward that perfectly predicts what your life will be in 5 or 10 or 50 years.  But once you're there, you'll be able to draw a line backwards to see how it happened.  It will make sense when you look back. I can't tell you how many successful people, some famous and some not, describe what was a somewhat uncharted and surprising route that brought them where to they are today.  In the meantime, you just have to work hard, trust yourself, and follow the next two guidelines.   So don't try to convince yourself that the only way you'll ever be happy and successful is to go to one particular college–there are lots of different routes and colleges that can get you where you're meant to go. 

2.  Make your most important goal to find what you love.  From your high school activities, to your chosen college, to your college major, to your post college career choice, find what you love.  Don't spend your time doing something just because you think you should be doing it.   

3.  Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.  Don't choose a college just because it's famous or because your friends are going.  Listen to yourself and go where you want to go.  As Jobs says,
"Your heart and intuition already know what you want to become.  Everything else is secondary."

If you were ever looking for advice about how to be successful, Steve Jobs seems like a good source.  And he never even graduated from college. 

Attitude adjustments

While I was in the grocery store today, two teenage workers who were stocking fruit were griping to each other about how much they hate their job.  It wasn't hard to hear them, as they were making no effort at all to keep their conversation private.  So while I was selecting my apples, I got to hear them complain how "bulls@&t" their job is, what an "idiot" their boss is, and how easy it was to get by with as little effort as possible.

I was thinking two things.

1)  That's pretty stupid to do that right in front of the customers.

2) It's pretty sad that they're so disengaged. 

I don't think there's anything unusual or wrong with a kid who doesn't exactly love his part time job.  But a kid who's that negative about it, who's so brazen about his complaining, he's infecting the staff and even the customers around him.  And I'd bet the money I spent at that store today that their attitude isn't remarkably different in the other areas of their lives. 

What do you think those kids are like in class?  Even if they're among the best students in the school, (they might be–I don't know), do they them seem like the kind of kids a teacher would be thankful to have in class?

What do you think they're like on the soccer team?  Or in their clubs and activities?  I wonder how they treat their friends. 

I hear lot of students and parents complain about the seemingly arbitrary nature of college admissions today.  They compare applicants at their high school and wonder how Stanford could possibly admit one but deny another whose test scores were 60 points higher. 

But grades, test scores, and activities don't tell a college everything.  There's a lot to be said about attitude. 

Teachers are happy to write letters of recommendation for a student who never exactly set the curve in trig, but was pleasant and cheerful and always gave his best effort.  The soccer coach always appreciates the kid who may not be a starter but who sets an example for the stars with his work ethic and attitude.  Clubs and organizations love members who bring positivity and energy to the meetings even if they aren't in charge.  Nice, positive, kids never seem to lack for friends, either.  And colleges are always happy to add another kid with a good attitude to their freshman class. 

So, how is your attitude?

Are you positive?  Do you make classes, teams, activities and friendships better for other people because you're in them?

Or are you a complainer, someone who finds the negative, who focuses on the reasons not to like what you're doing, someone who drags others down with your negativity.

If you're the latter, maybe you need to be doing different things.  Or you may just need a new attitude.

Two ways sports can help you get into college

There are two ways that a successful high school athletic career can help you get admitted to college.

One is to be so good that a college coach says, “I want this kid on my team so badly that I will my forfeit my salary and donate blood to get him here.”  When a college coach makes a firm decision that he wants you on his team, athletics can be a huge advantage to you.

But we can’t forget the second way that athletics can help you.

Athletics can help you get into college even if the coach has no idea who you are.  Just because you aren’t being recruited doesn’t mean that an admissions committee won’t be impressed with your accomplishments.
Athletics are an extracurricular activity, just like drama, music, clubs, or student government.  If you dedicated significant time and showed your passion for the sport, an admissions committee will be impressed, just like they’d be impressed if you were the editor of the paper or if you acted in your school play.

Don’t assume that only the recruited athletes get the admissions benefits.

“Insert name of college here”

College applicants could learn a lot from successful (and unsuccessful) job applicants. 

A friend of mine is applying for a job she really wants. Today, she asked me to read over her cover letter and give her some feedback.  This woman is wonderful.  She's smart, talented, likable, totally committed to her work, and I think the company (or any company) would be crazy not to hire her. 

But I had to be honest and tell her that her letter had an "Insert name of company here" feeling that wouldn't help her stand out.

In today's economy, job applicants feel pressured to play the numbers, to apply to as many employers as possible in the hopes that one will invite them for an interview.  And they have to do so under the pressure of deadlines and the reality that if nobody says "Yes," they're unemployed.

So a lot of applicants resort to a general cover letter, one that describes past employment experiences and cites the applicants' strengths, like, "I am very dependable and deadline-oriented," or "I show great initiative and am comfortable taking a leadership role," or "I believe my skills and talents are a good match with this job."  Then they recycle the letter at as many companies as possible changing only the name of the employer (though I admit that I've received cover letters from people who even forgot to do that–and I didn't hire them).

That's the approach my friend took.

A cover letter like that isn't going to make you stand out from all the other qualified applicants.  Job seekers need to show employers that they have thoughtfully considered each potential position, that they've identified why they believe they're a good match, and most importantly, they need to do so in a way that doesn't sound like anyone else.  It's not enough to tell them that you're "Dependable, honest and trustworthy."  You've got to help them see those traits with relevant, specific, compelling examples.  It's not easy, but it's what you have to do.

Students often approach the college application process the same way, applying to as many colleges as possible, using and re-using your application essays, and (hopefully) substituting the right name of each college. 

It doesn't work in job applications.  And it doesn't work in college applications, either. 

The good news for students is that college admissions doesn't have to be a numbers game.  There are over 2,000 colleges in the country. Only about 100 of them actually reject more than a small percentage of their applicants.  And over two dozen except literally every student who applies.

So don't try to play the college admissions numbers.  Don't apply to 5 Ivy League schools, Stanford, Duke, Georgetown and Northwestern and then hope for the best.  Those schools all reject the vast majority of their applicants.  Applying to as many of them as possible with recycled applications doesn't improve your chances; in fact, since your applications will have an "insert name of college here" feeling, you've actually hurt your chances taking that approach.  You've turned college admissions into a numbers game that you can't win.

Instead, don't be so concerned with whether or not a college is famous.  Find the colleges that are right for you.  Spend your application space showing them how you arrived at your decision to apply and why you would be excited to be a freshman there.  Be thoughtful and deliberate.   

And whatever you do, don't be an "insert name of college here" applicant.

Good common sense

This article in The New York Times college admissions blog written today by the Dean of Admissions at Connecticut College made my day.

First, it's great advice.  Every parent of a college-applying senior should read it.  And parents are more likely to listen when the advice comes from one of the admissions deans herself. 

But it also made me happy because it's similar to the advice I gave to our Collegewise senior parents in a newsletter I wrote for them earlier this week. It feels good when I get it right.

I have no reason to be smug here.  The Dean of Admissions at Connecticut College is (obviously) intimately familiar with college admissions and how the pressures surrounding the process can affect kids and parents.  And the advice she–and I–gave is not part of a proprietary set of strategies known only by reported experts; it's just an example of good common sense and perspective applied to college admissions.  A lot of counselors and admissions officers who work with kids and parents, who see what happens when families lose their college admissions perspective, would likely give the same advice.

Still, it's nice to be in good company.  

So when in doubt, listen to people in the know, and use good college admissions common sense.

 

High school counselors: need help writing your school profile?

Northwestern University posted a guideline for counselors that describes what they look for in a high school profile.  Northwestern makes no claims to speak for all colleges (and we’re sure that students at the University of Chicago, in particular, would never permit their arch rival to speak for them), but it’s hard to imagine that a profile that met these criteria wouldn’t be appropriate for other colleges, Northwestern rival or not.

A good resource for high school counselors

If you spend 30 minutes looking around the NACAC (National Association for College Admissions Counseling) website, you’ll find all sorts of useful information, including college planning calendars that you can distribute to your students.  There’s also a solid “Resources” section  with lots of tools to use with your kids.   And the NACAC website is also the first place we go to find the dates for national college fairs and for performing/visual arts college fairs.

In May, NACAC releases an annual “Space Availability Survey” that lists colleges who still have room for freshman applicants (even though many application deadlines have passed).  This survey would be a lifesaver if you had a kid who was not accepted to any colleges.