Five second semester reminders for juniors

For the college-bound, the second semester of 11th grade is arguably your most important semester.  Here are five tips to help you make it count. 

1.  Take the SAT or ACT at least once.

Leave the fall of senior year to re-take a test if necessary, but not to take it for the first time. 

2.  If you're ever going to get the best GPA of your life, this is the semester to do it. 

If you're legitimately working as hard as you can in school, good job.  But if you haven't done as well in the past as you could have, here is your chance to show colleges that you're getting better with age.  If you need them, here are five things you can start doing tomorrow that will get you better grades.

3.  Pick one or two classes where you believe you can give a great performance and then deliver it. 

That will give teachers good stories to tell in letters of recommendation.

4.  Evaluate your activities and make sure you're actually enjoying them. 

Colleges are going to ask you what your most meaningful activities were.  If you're doing things just because you think you should, that doesn't lead to good answers (or to a fulfilling life outside of class).  You might even consider quitting an activity and that's not fulfilling and replacing that time with something you want to do. 

5.  Keep college admissions in perspective. 

There's nothing wrong with hard work and even an occasional late night.  But it's important to remember that applying and getting accepted to college shouldn't feel like being locked in a life and death struggle.  Some people are going to treat it that way, but please don't be one of them.  I would challenge anyone to find a smart, motivated kid whose life was forever damaged because his dream school said, "No."  Work hard, be nice to other people, and get more excited about the opportunity to attend college than you do about one particular school.  I promise you'll be fine.

One college planning guarantee

I spoke at a middle school last night and a parent asked me about my preference between AP and IB programs.

I told her the truth–that the IB program is great for some kids, but that it's not a magic key that unlocks the doors of admission to selective colleges.  Intellectual kids who challenge themselves in honors and AP courses have the same opportunities that those in the IB programs do.  The important thing is to pick an academic program that fits the student.

I could tell it wasn't the answer she wanted when she retorted, 

"Students in IB programs are accepted to college at double the rate of students in other programs.  I've seen the data."

I don't know what data she's seen (it's probably from a local high school who's pitching the program to prospective parents).  But I do know two things:

1)  If that data really does exist, it says less about the IB program and more about the kids in it.  Kids who end up in an IB program in the first place are, not surprisingly, the type of students who are likely to go to college.

2)  Wanting to believe it doesn't make it so.

That mother is worried about picking the right high school for her son, and it would be so much easier if she could be assured that the IB program was going to give him all the advantages she wants for him.  It would put her at ease to have an IB guarantee. 

Like just about everything important in life, there are no guarantees in college admissions planning.  No college, high school, private counselor, tutor, test-prep course, academic program, activity, essay or alumni contact can promise to make specific college dreams come true.

But if you put smart kids in academic programs that excite them, encourage them to pursue activities they actually enjoy, and celebrate the process rather than just the outcome, you'll have happy, motivated kids with plenty college acceptances from which to choose.  Guaranteed.   

College counseling done the wrong way

One of our Collegewise families got a letter in the mail this week that started:

You and your student, Kevin, are scheduled to participate in an educational group presentation followed by a personal interview to help determine college admission and financial aid eligibility. 

Colleges are now identifying prospective students as early as the 9th grade for admissions and financial aid assistance.  Therefore you need to attend in order to receive assistance in making critical decisions that will arise in the next few months.  Kevin's future is too important not to attend. 

Kevin's interview will take place either Saturday, February 5 or Sunday, February 6, 2011.  These may be the only dates we have available for Kevin this school year, so call or log on to make your appointment today. 

We told them to toss it.  

I have no issue with a company doing a free workshop at the end of which they tell the audience more about their services.  We've done that, and there's nothing wrong with it. 

But you still have to be honest about who you are and what you're doing.  When you're not, you leave it open to interpretation.  If you try to interpret this letter, at worst, this is a huge scam and really no different than the "Help me move my fortune from Nigeria" email.  At best, it's a company that preys on fear ("…you need to attend in order to receive assistance in making critical decisions…"  "Kevin's future is too important not to attend") and is passing themselves off as something other than a for-profit business.

I'm sure the woman who signed her name to the letter would take issue what that.  But–no surprise–there is no email address or other contact information for her.  If you go to the company's website, you can't find any information about who's running the place.  You can't get a straight answer about what they do, who you work with if you hire them, or what the real agenda of this free workshop is.

Correction 1/27/11:  The website included in the letter was not the same as the their corporate site, which did include the information mentioned above.  But I had to find it by Googling the company's name.  If your marketing makes you feel the need to make it hard for people to figure out who you are, you need different marketing (or a different company).   

Parents and students, don't trust a private counselor, tutor or test prep company whose pitch makes you feel scared, guilty or inadequate.  There are plenty of those emotions going around already in college admissions, and the harder a company works to exacerbate them, the less likely they'll work hard enough to make you feel better when you hire them.

And to the private counselors out there, we have to be better than this.  We're in an unregulated industry with absolutely no barrier to entry.  There are plenty of good people doing what we do who want to help kids and do a good job.  The best thing we could do for families and for our industry is to be so undeniably good, so unquestionably committed to running fair and honest businesses that the differences between us and the people who send these letters will be obvious.

Writer’s block is sometimes just typer’s block

When we first started helping students with college essays, the first draft they'd send us often lacked the same emotion or energy that the student conveyed when he first told us the story in our brainstorming meeting.  The first draft didn't light up the way the student's face did when he was talking about playing the trombone or working at a daycare center or completing a physics project.  It wasn't surprising.  It's easier for most people to tell a story, one in which you don't have to edit yourself, than it is to sit down and actually write it line by line.

So we started writing down good "lines." 

When we brainstorm essays with a student, whenever she says something funny, emotional, or meaningful, we write it down (or better yet, we have the student write it down).  Sometimes a student will just use a great turn of phrase.  When that happens, we write it down.

That's how gems like this make their way into essays:

"Artistically, I peaked in kindergarten."  

"My mom is the only person I know who will get up at 5 a.m. to go buy a vase."

"I was in such a deep academic hole, I didn't think I'd ever get out.  I didn't even know how to start."

"Poker night has officially been cancelled because of me.  I'm that good."

"The guys on the team were really good to me.  They totally understood when I had to miss practices to take care of my mom."

"I absolutely hated Catcher in The Rye.  I loved my English class, but I hated that book." 

What we're doing is helping a student capture her best words as she says them.  Those sentences often become the best sentences in the essays.  And it's yet another step we take to make sure that the essay is the student's–her idea, her voice, and most importantly, her words.    

If you do any kind of writing at all, there are a lot of applications for this technique.  Here's an entry from the 37signals guys' blog they call "Writer's block is sometimes just typer's block" about how they made sure their emotional voice came through in their latest book.


“Everybody is doing it”

"Everybody's doing it" is rarely a good reason to do things, especially in high school.  And the way you prepare for college is no exception. 

If everybody else has tutors in four subjects and a year-long program to prepare for the SAT, it's easy to feel that you should do the same thing.

If everybody else is talking about "doing some community service for college apps," you might start to feel like you should find an easy, non-committal community service project where you can accrue some hours.

If everybody else is stressed, sleepless and waiting for an admission to a highly selective college to make the last three years of academic boot camp worth it, you might take on that same attitude.

If other parents talk incessantly about their connections at an Ivy League school who are "very influential" (those reportedly influential connections almost never are, by the way), you might feel like you're failing your own kid by not knowing the right people. 

If everybody else wants to go to the same 25 colleges, it's understandable why you'd start to believe that those must be the only 25 colleges worth attending.

But like virtually any action motivated by peer-pressure and the fact that "Everybody's doing it,"

1) Just because everybody is doing it doesn't make it a good idea.

2) You're almost always better off ignoring what everybody else is doing and instead making your own informed decisions. 

What if none of this mattered for college admissions?

What if all colleges were exactly the same, and everyone were guaranteed a spot in one as long as you graduated from high school?  Whatever your GPA, whatever activities you did or didn't do, you'd get into the same college everybody else gets into. 

What would you change about your life if none of this mattered for admission to college? 

Your answers say a lot about you, your motivation, and just how many of your decisions are being driven by what you think colleges want you to do.

With the exception of preparing for and taking the SAT/ACT (which nobody likes to do), the most engaged students aren't spending their time trying to please colleges.  They're taking difficult classes, studying and participating in activities because that's what they really want to be doing. 

They have enough faith in themselves to know that their future isn't dependent on an admission to one particular dream school.  They're living much of their high school lives as if none of this mattered for admission to college.   

And they're standing out because of it.

An easy way to get extra emotional credit

Sure, you only get a little credit for ignoring a call or text message when you're in the middle of talking or meeting with someone.  But when you divert your attention to look down to check your cell phone, it's like telling that person, "Wait, this might be more important than you are."  And if you take the call or respond to the message, well, it's clear who won the face off.

If you want to get extra emotional credit, turn the phone off and tell the person that you're doing it.

If a kid sits down with us at Collegewise and says, "Before we get started, I'm going to turn my phone off," he goes up a couple notches in our book.  It's like he's telling us, "This meeting is important to me–everybody else can wait for the next hour."

Please don't tell me that you have to be reachable all the time.  Unless you're on the transplant list, no seventeen year old needs to be reachable all the time.

So the next time you visit a teacher to ask for help, or go see your counselor, or have a conversation with a friend who needs your advice, or meet with your tutor, say, "I'm going to turn off my phone" and then do it.

Not a bad way to start your college interviews either, by the way. 

Yet another way to stand out

One of the more popular essay topics colleges now require is some version of, "How will you contribute to our campus community?" The best responses to that question come from students who've already become contributors to their high school campus communities.  Here's one way to do that, and it's a different way to stand out in college admissions.

Use your talent, skill or energy to benefit a campus group that you aren't even a part of.

Sure, it's good to lend your time and resources to the Red Cross club when you're a member, or the basketball team when you're the point guard, or the orchestra when you're the first chair violin.

But what if you made it your goal to get more people to come out and support the cross country team if you weren't actually a member of the team yourself?  Imagine how much the team would appreciate your efforts.  Even better, what if you started an organization whose mission was to support the school events that don't traditionally draw big crowds?  You'd be supporting members of the campus community.  And let's be honest.  Everyone who benefitted would love you for doing it.   

What if, after running a successful fundraiser for your own soccer team, you volunteered to help the football team, or the school newspaper, or the French club do the same thing, even if you weren't a member?  You'd be taking a skill you've learned and using it to make a broader impact on your campus community.  You'd be a selfless hero.

What if you love to write and offered to write an email newsletter for the student counsel, or to write the text for the football team's programs they sell, or snappy bios for the section editors of the school newspaper? 

What's something you can do that other people or organizations could benefit from?  Where could you make a contribution that would be needed and appreciated? 

One of the best ways to show a college how you'll contribute to their campus community is to contribute to your own.  And one of the best ways to contribute to your own is to use your talents and skills with no expectation of anything in return other than the grateful appreciation of the recipients. 

Save the date for spring college fairs

Every spring, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling sponsors college fairs across the country.  Here's the Spring 2011 schedule.  As we get closer to the actual fairs, I'll write a post about how to actually get something out of them (hundreds of college representatives in one place is a great thing, but I've found that lots of kids leave with more brochures than they do new information or perspective).

Also, if you're interested in studying music, dance, theater, visual arts, graphic design, or any other visual or performing arts, check out the information about visual and performing arts college fairs

More free financial aid advice

I posted last Friday about a series on The Choice blog where a financial aid expert was answering readers' questions.  He has since completed the series with four more installments, and this link will take you to a listing of all seven parts.

Topics he addresses include the best ways to save for college, the impact of a parents' divorce on financial aid eligibility, the viability of outside scholarships, and whether or not you can negotiate with a financial aid office. 

It's hard to imagine any parent of a college bound student not finding at least one question he answers that wouldn't be of interest to you. And I was impressed by how much free information he gives away.