Making college worth your time, money and memories

Interesting post from Seth Godin today that makes this argument–the notion that graduating from college is the key to future success has existed for hundreds of years, and it's about to be exposed as a scam for several reasons.

1. With some notable exceptions, the educations offered by most colleges aren't really all that different from one another.  

2. The price of colleges has risen much more than the pay increase you get from attending one has.

3. The public is about to realize that colleges can easily manipulate their rankings, so the rankings really don't mean anything.

4.  The data shows that the famous, most selective schools aren't necessarily better than the others. 

I'm not sure I'm ready to write off the value of attending college, but I am absolutely ready to say this. 

Just being a college graduate is not special; lots of people do it with varying levels of post-college success.  Just being there for four years doesn't guarantee you a better life.  And just managing to get accepted to a school that rejects most applicants isn't a guarantee that the world is going to throw jobs and money at you. 

It's what you do while you're in college that matters, not where you go.  It's up to you to make your college years worth your time, money, and memories.

Would you quit an activity for $1,000?

A lot of students think that once they start an activity, they should never quit because it would look bad to colleges. But colleges don’t want you to just plod through something for the sake of sticking it out. Successful people not only know how to commit to things, but also how to quit.

You change a lot while you’re in high school. A club or activity you joined as a freshman might lose some of its oomph by the time you’re a junior. Good quitters can sense when an activity, a job, a project or a relationship isn’t going anyplace good or is just making them unhappy. So they quit and move on, and they don’t beat themselves up about it.

One of my former Collegewise students was a standout football player, but he quit right before the start of his junior year. Football was making him miserable. He realized he just wasn’t the type of guy who would ever enjoy, as he put it, “doing something where he was regularly congratulated for trying to take someone’s head off.”

My student wanted to do other things that he thought would make him happier. So he quit, joined a steel drum band at his high school and started volunteering at his church. He went on to attend and graduate from Notre Dame.

When you give time and effort to an activity, it should give something back to you. If you hate every second of marching band practice and are pretty sure that lugging your tuba around every day after school has caused permanent damage to your spine—stop. Don’t march in the band anymore. Find something else that you enjoy with lighter equipment.

When quitting pays big
Knowing that quitting is an option can also strengthen your commitment to things you really care about. The online retailer Zappos bribes new employees to quit. “The Offer,” as it’s known at Zappos, is the brainchild of CEO Tony Hsieh. Every new call center employee at Zappos goes through a four-week training program during which time they earn their full salary. At the end of the program, Zappos offers $4,000 to any new hire who wants to quit. Only about 2 to 3 percent of the people take the money and run.

By giving new employees an easy way to quit, Zappos fills its ranks with people who really want to be there.

Are you doing an activity that your heart’s just not in anymore? If the answer is, “Yes,” why are you still doing it? Why not find something you love enough that you’d never take the bribe to quit?

Keep in mind, not all quitting is good. If you love being on the volleyball team, but quit just because you didn’t get picked as the starting setter, maybe you should stay and work to earn your spot back?

You get to choose which activities you do outside of class. If you make the wrong choice, or if what used to make you happy just isn’t working for you anymore, don’t be afraid to be a good quitter and make a different choice.

Excerpted from my book: If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted

Inspiration is perishable

I just finished a great business book called "Rework."  And like a lot of business books, it's got plenty of application for high school students, too.  Here's an example.

Page 271:  Inspiration is perishable. 

"Inspiration is like fresh fruit or milk.  It has an expiration date.  If you want to do something, you've got to do it now.  You can't put it on a shelf and wait two months to get around to it.  You can't just say you'll do it later.  Later, you won't be pumped up about it anymore.  If you're inspired on a Friday, swear off the weekend and dive into your project.  When you're high on inspiration, you can get two weeks of work done in twenty four hours.  Inspiration is a time machine that way…Inspiration is a now thing.  If it grabs you, grab it right back and put it to work."

The next time you're excited about something, jump in and do it now.  If you've got a fundraising idea for the soccer team, start it.  If you write stories and come up with an idea you love, put it down on paper.  If you play music and get excited about putting a band together, get your first practice scheduled.  If you're excited about a new book or a project in physics or a new training program to get you in better shape for baseball tryouts, start.  Do it now. 

What's the worst thing that could happen?  Maybe you're not as excited about the idea when it's finished.  But that's not likely to happen.  And even if it does, you'll probably have learned something along the way.

More on parents (not) helping with college essays

I got a few emails from parents in response to my post where I advised that they not get involved helping their kids with college essays.  Most completely agreed with me, but there were a few who swore that they helped their kids successfully (and that the acceptance letters from Princeton and Yale were proof that it worked). 

I wasn't suggesting that no parent has the knowledge or ability to help your own kid with college essays.  I was saying that it's impossible for a parent to be a completely objective reader when the subject matter is your own son or daughter.  I was saying kids are inclined to resent their parents' involvement much like they resent you telling them what not to wear or whom to date.  I was saying that it's too much pressure, for you and for your student.

The American Medical Association's Code of Medical ethics advises against doctors treating their own children for similar reasons.

"Professional objectivity may be compromised when an immediate family member or the physician is the patient; the physician’s personal feelings may unduly influence his or her professional medical judgment, thereby interfering with the care being delivered…If tensions develop in a physician’s professional relationship with a family member, perhaps as a result of a negative medical outcome, such difficulties may be carried over into the family member’s personal relationship with the physician."

I think kids should get help with their college essays.  All good writers get feedback, and re-writing is part of good writing.  Kids can ask their English teacher, counselor, or even a good friend who knows them well and will call them out for saying things like, "My trip to Europe afforded me a plethora of opportunities to broaden my cultural horizons."

But it when it comes to parents helping, it really will take pressure off if you follow my (and the AMA's) lead here.

The truth about outside scholarships for college

I did a financial aid seminar for our Collegewise families last weekend and talked a little about "outside scholarships,"  which are little-known awards or scholarships from private companies and foundations.  Families are often given the impression that there is a lot of money available from these sources if you're able to find it.

But according to Paying for College Without Going Broke, the money from outside scholarships accounts for only about 5% of the aid that is available.  The author points out that the biggest chunk of scholarship money comes from funds provided by the federal and state governments, and from the colleges themselves. 

So, is applying for outside scholarships even worth a student's time?  It's not an easy question to answer.  Even if the amount of money available is comparatively small, free money for college is always a good thing.  So here's how I recommend families consider that question.

Applying for outside scholarships is a time consuming process.  Kids have to research and find the scholarships, fill out the applications, and often write essays, get additional letters of recommendation and maybe even interview. So, let's say your student took the time to find and apply for 20 outside scholarships and won $500 – $1000.  Would you think it was worth your student's time and effort? 

If your answer is, “Of course!", then you should consider having your student apply for outside scholarships. 

If, on the other hand, you'd feel like a $500-$1,000 return on your student's investment of time and energy just wouldn't be worth it, you might reconsider and have your student spend her time studying and playing on the soccer team.

Of course, my figure of $500-$1000 is an arbitrary one; your student might win more or less than that.  But our experience with our Collegewise students has been right in line with the logic in the aforementioned book; the biggest awards don't come from the outside scholarships.  In fact, I can't recall ever hearing that one of our students won a $15,000 scholarship from a private foundation or company, but we see it happen all the time from the other sources, particularly from the colleges themselves.  

If you do decide to search for outside scholarships, never pay someone to help you find them.  All the information is available to you for free if you're willing to look for it.  Two of the best places to search, and to do so for free, are here:

www.scholarships.com

www.fastweb.com

How parents can help kids with college essays

I did a seminar about college essays at an admissions event today.  And I gave parents the advice I've given for my entire career as a college counselor about how parents can best help their kids with college essays. 

Don't get involved.  Stay away.  In fact, run the other direction. 

Parents are the worst judges of their own kids' college essays.  You are not impartial observers.  You love your kids too much, and you are way too close to the subject matter to advise your son or daughter what and how to write in their college essays.

Most kids resent their parents' involvement in the college essay anyway.  And the colleges can always tell when you got too involved.  Kids think and write differently than parents do, and you'd be surprised how obvious is it to the trained reader when too many of the ideas or the words came from Mom or Dad. 

I know what some of you are thinking.  Some of you are thinking I'm wrong.  Every time I give this advice to a crowd, there's one parent who scowls at me.  It's inevitably a parent who inserts herself into everything her kid is doing.  It's the parent who's sure that she's the exception to the rule. 

She's not.  And neither are you. 

So preserve your family relationship and the purity of the essays. 
Stay out of them.  Help with other things like planning college visits,
and filling out financial aid forms and cheering your kids on
throughout the process.  But when it comes to college essays, remove
yourself from the process.  Your kids and the colleges will thank you for it.

Do you have a favorite book?

I don't necessarily think that every student has to love to read.  But I do think every kid—every adult, too, really—should have a favorite book.

If you love to read, that's wonderful.  Read like your hair is on fire.  There are few interests that will make you think more analytically, argue more persuasively, and write more clearly than reading will.

But even if you don't love reading, it's a great way to take whatever your passion is to a logical extreme.

If you love to play the saxophone, who's your favorite saxophonist?  Why not read a biography about him or her?  Or read a book about music theory, or the building of brass instruments?  Or read about life as a member of a college marching band, or about the history of jazz.  It doesn't matter what you read about.  Let your interest be your guide. 

If you love football, why not read a book about how to coach defense, or about your favorite team, or your favorite quarterback?

If you love computers, why not read a book about programming?  Why not read ten books about programming and learn ten different languages?  Or read a biography about Steve Jobs or Bill Gates?  You could read about video games or the history of the internet or about how Facebook was created.

Here's the bottom line—smart, motivated people like to throw themselves into their interests.  They want to know as much as they can about what they're doing because that's how you get good at it.

So if you don't have a favorite book, why not make it a goal to find one?  Lots of colleges will ask you what your favorite book is.  And they won't care if it's a classic work of literature or a biography about your favorite band.  If you read it, it shows you were interested enough to want to learn something.

Ten not-so-easy college search questions for juniors

Last weekend, I gave our "How to Find the Right Colleges for You" seminar for our Collegewise junior families.  Here are ten questions I recommended our juniors consider while searching for colleges.

1.    Why do you want to go to college?

2.    Do you think you’re ready to go to college?

3.    How do you like to learn?

Do you work best when the material is interesting?  When the teacher is great?  Or when you can sense the competition with other students? Do you enjoy classes with a lot of discussion?  Or do you prefer to do more studying on your own.

4.    What would you like to learn more about?

5.    How hard do want to work academically? 

6.    Do you have any idea what you want to do with your life?

7.    What would you like to be doing on a typical Tuesday night in college?  What about on typical Saturday night?

8.    How do you like the place where you live now?  Would you like to be someplace similar or different for college?

9.    Do you want to be with students who are like you, or different from you?

Ask yourself, “Am I more comfortable being around a lot of people who are
similar to me? Or Am I excited to meet new people who are very different
so I can learn from them?”  Differences can come in lots of forms, by the way, like ethnicity, sexual orientation, where they’re from, whether or not they drink, etc. 

10.    When you envision yourself in college, what parts of it are you most excited about?

Students who really think about these questions don't just find the right colleges–they get in, too.

Savoring moments of laughter in the college search

From yesterday's "The Choice" blog:

"As a parent, it’s so easy to get sucked into what has been described
as a gut-wrenching, grueling, ridiculous, harrowing (I could go on and
on) process. When I bumped into a friend at the bagel store last week
whose son had just decided where he’ll be going to college next year,
she looked at me and said, 'You are in for the worst time between now
and next year.'”

I grabbed my bagels, got in my car and thought about what she said.
What could be so bad? Is anyone sick? Going to jail? Nope. I continued
on with my day."