What students and parents need to know about search letters

Colleges do a lot more marketing today than they used to.

When juniors take the PSAT, most of them check the optional box that asks if you would like the College Board to share their contact information with colleges that might be interested in you.  And for most students, that guarantees that as you get closer to applying to college,your mailbox will fill with information from colleges, many if not all of which you will never heard of.  And yes, a lot of those schools sending will probably admit you if you apply.

Colleges call these “search letters.”  They’re a marketing tool, as most of the over 2,000 colleges in this country actually do need to work to ensure they receive enough applications from qualified students.  It’s proof that it’s not as hard to get into college as a lot of people think it might be.

But I think some of them are misleading.

For students who get particularly high PSAT scores, many of the nation’s most selective colleges, the same schools who reject most of their applicants, will send out their own search letters.  And they’re just as positive and inviting, often saying things like:

“We congratulate you on your impressive academic record and encourage you to consider us,”


“We are looking for exceptional students who will flourish in our classrooms and make positive contributions to our campus community.  Based on your PSAT scores, I think our university might be the place for you.”

Some of these search letters come with invitations to attend local events the college will be hosting.  Some include college paraphernalia like decals (although I can’t imagine the flack a high school kid would catch if he put a decal from Yale or Princeton or Duke on his car before he was actually admitted?)

How could a student not take a letter like that as a good sign?  The college is encouraging you to apply, and telling you you’re the type of student they’re looking for.

But as Jay Mathews wrote in Harvard Schmarvard (a book every high school student and parent should read, by the way),

“The marketing executives for some of our nation’s finest institutions of higher learning seem to be making promises that their admissions offices can’t keep.”

Highly selective schools admit only 10-20 of every 100 students who apply, and you can imagine how impressive their applicant pools are.  They’re not sending out search letters because they have a shortage of applicants.  They’re sending them out because they want to have an even bigger pool of highly qualified students from which to compose a freshman class.  It’s not dirty pool to have that goal, but it can be misleading for kids who receive those letters, and many are left to believe they now have a much stronger chance of admission than they really do.

For those kids who apply and are later rejected, it’s hard not to feel a little misled.  It’s like a person at school saying to you,

“I know we don’t know each other that well, but based on the little time we’ve spent together, I really like you.  You’re smart and easy on the eyes.  And I’d love to go to the prom with you.”

So you ask this person to the prom feeling pretty good about your chances of acceptance.  Then you get rejected.  Ouch, right?

If you get a search letter from a highly-selective college, it means that based on limited information, the college thinks you might be the kind of person they’d like to see apply.  Most of the people who will apply are accomplished students, and you’ve shown early signs you might be like them.  That’s the good news.

But it doesn’t mean your chances of admission are better than those of other qualified students, or that you’re somehow on an admissions fast track.  And it doesn’t change the fact that most of the students who apply to those schools get rejected.  It’s nice when you’re Harvard and get 30,000 applications for 1600 spots in the freshman class.

Here’s what I tell Collegewise students who get search letters from ridiculously competitive colleges.

“The bad news is that (insert school here) is still a big reach, just like it is for everybody.  It’s not that you’re not good enough–they just get way too many applications from qualified students.  If you decide to apply, we’ll help you take your best shot because you’ve worked hard enough to earn your right to try.  But this search letter is documented proof that if you keep doing what you are doing, there will be hundreds of other colleges who will trip over themselves to admit you.  Let’s make sure to find some of those for you, too.”

I’m all for more positivity and encouragement in the college admissions process.  And I think it’s great to remind kids with strong academic records just how proud they should be of their accomplishments.  But
it’s important for students and parents to know what search letters really mean.

Meant to be?

Parents, imagine your son came to you one day and said this:

"Someday, I want to marry a blond lawyer who's really good looking.  So for now, I need to work hard in school so she'll think I'm smart.  I'll play soccer because I think women like athletes, do community service so I can show her I'm a humanitarian, and I'll keep thinking about things blond lawyers like so I can try to do them.  I know it won't be easy, but I'm sure that this future blond lawyer is my soul mate.  That's the goal I've set for myself."

After you got over the shock that your teenager is already planning a marriage to someone he hasn't met, you'd probably ask him why it has to be a good-looking blond lawyer (and why he's so sure that all good-looking, blond female lawyers want the same thing in a husband).  You'd probably tell him that it doesn't make sense to do all those things just to try to win someone over.  You'd tell him not to make decisions based on what he thinks a supposed future wife would want, that he should just be himself and wait to find someone he loves who will love him back for who he really is. 

Now, substitute "I want to marry a blond lawyer" with "I want to go to an Ivy League school."

Why should a parent's response be any different?

It’s a tradition…

Here's a quick way to get a sense if a college might be the right place for you.  Go to Google and type in the name of a college followed by the word "traditions." 

Seriously, try it.

Bryn Mawr, Bard, Denison, Ohio State, College of Wooster–pick any school that's interesting to you.

Some college traditions involve big parties before football games.  Some involve professors cooking breakfast for students during finals week.  Some are academic, some are social, some are superstitious, and some are just flat out strange.  But they all reveal a lot about the students and the schools.

College traditions are traditions for a reason–because students and faculty have embraced and honored them over time.  There's a reason why Duke students fondly recall camping out for basketball tickets the same way University of Chicago students remember camping out to get the coveted economics classes.  Both are great schools, but they attract very different students.    

If the traditions make the school seem like the kind of place you'd want to be, that's a good sign that you might have found a fit.  On the other hand, if you think to yourself, "If the president is going to cancel class, the LAST thing I'd want to do is go hike to the top of a mountain!" then maybe you should look elsewhere

Doing what works

What if I were to argue that football teams should do an onside kick every time they kick off?

If you watched the Super Bowl like I did on Sunday, you saw what happened when the Saints opened the second half with an onside kick.  It's being called arguably the smartest coaching call in Super Bowl history.  Sportswriters are referring to it as "the kick that won the Super Bowl.  It changed the tide of the game and, with one kick, gave all of the momentum–and the ball–to the Saints.

So if it worked so well for the Saints, why not do it every time? 

Because onside kicks almost never work.  They're a desperate long shot reserved for times when a team will lose if they don't get the ball back.  To try them every time would mean that you'd needlessly be giving the ball to your opponent in scoring position.  You'd probably lose every game.  Sunday's kicking call might have been a gutsy one, but Saints fans, coaches, and even the guy who kicked the ball will admit that the Saints were very, very lucky. 

A lot of students approach the college admissions process like recurring onside kickers.  Applying to ten reach schools in the hopes that one will admit you, sending a letter of recommendation from a congressman who's never actually met you, taking the SAT 6 times, these are long shots–wild attempts that almost certainly won't pay off.  They don't work.

Applying to a reasonable number of colleges that fit you well?  That works.  Seeking guidance from people who really know, like high school counselors and admissions officers?  That works.  Preparing and doing your best for standardized test and eventually moving on with your life?  That works. 

Risk isn't necessarily a bad thing.  I think students should dream big.  Work hard.  Go after what you want.  If you've got a dream college that's out of your reach, apply.  Take your best shot (or kick, as it were).  It's your life, and nobody ever became successful by refusing to risk failure.  

But there's a difference between taking smart risks and being desperate.  Desperation almost never works–football and college admissions are no exception (neither is dating, by the way).

The Saints got to the Super Bowl by going 13-3, and they won it in large part because Drew Brees had one of the most successful games for a quarterback in Super Bowl history. 

The occasional onside kick is a good thing in football and in life.  But you still have to do what works.    

An idea for high school counselors

Here’s my crazy idea of the month for high school counselors.  It will let you get all the necessary information to your students and parents faster, cheaper and more effectively.  And since most high school counselors have way too much work to do and not enough time to do it, this might actually add some time back into your day.

Start a blog for your counseling office.

People tend to think of blogs like online diaries.  But a blog is really just a website that you can update easily, and it could become the one place in your school that people know to go to for information about college.  Here’s my vision.

1.  Go to Typepad and sign up for one of their services. The cheapest option is $8.95 per month which will let you do everything you need to do except allow more than one person to write blog posts.  If you want that option, it will cost a total of $14.95 a month.  Pick a color scheme that matches your school’s.  And make sure to enable RSS feeds, which will allow people to subscribe to your blog.  Even better, offer to buy lunch for a nice student with blog knowledge and have him or her do it for you.  It will take less than 30 minutes for a teenage blogger to do this for you (and to explain to a newbie what all the blog fuss is about).

2.  Tell parents and students that this blog will be the first place you’ll share information about anything college or counseling related.   Of course, you should only say this if you’re serious, so you could also try this for six months, see how it goes, and then tell everyone.

3.  When you have anything to share with families, write it on the blog.  Handing back PSAT scores next week?  Announce it on the blog.  Notre Dame is coming to visit the campus to do a presentation?  Blog it.  College night?  Time to schedule classes for next year?  SAT deadline is coming up?  Blog ’em.

4.  Invite families to subscribe to the blog (that’s what the RSS feed was for) so that every time you post something, they’ll be notified.

5.  If you’re going to be away at a conference or closed for the holidays, mention it on the blog and your families will know.

Now any time you’ve got important information to share, you or your colleagues can post it right away.  No need to rely on someone else to upload it to the counseling website.  No need to send out emails or print flyers.

Once you’ve done those basics (and depending on your workload), you could also use the blog to bring even more value to your counseling program.  Here are a few ideas:

  • When you have a counseling event–like college night or PSAT scores-back or a financial aid presentation, take photos at the event and put them on the blog along with a short write-up of what was covered.  You could also upload any handouts from the evening.  Those who missed it can still get the information, but they’ll see from the photos just how many people took the time to show up (sometimes a little subtle guilt can be a good thing).
  • When you attend a conference, do a quick write-up of any interesting things you learned and post them on the blog.  I think it will show families just how much effort you’re extending on their behalf.
  • If you read a relevant article in the press, or an entry on another blog that you think is worth sharing, blog it.
  • If you add a new person to the counseling staff, snap a photo, write a bio and introduce them to families on the blog.
  • Offer up timely servings of your expertise for students and parents.  What would you like every student and parent to know about how to choose summer activities, or how to plan a campus visit, or how to handle college rejections?  Blog it once and you can post it again next year when the new class is ready for the advice. You should only need to write a detailed description of your school’s letter of recommendation process once.  Do it once and post again next year for the new class.
  • After you’ve done this for awhile, you’ll have lots of great write-ups with tips and advice to share with families.  Then you won’t always need to keep generating as much new material.  Instead, you could group links to appropriate articles together and post them at the right times.  For example, when college application season begins, post an entry with all of your relevant past articles that the new senior class needs to read, like this.

Sure, there are lots of reasons you could argue not to do it.  Not enough time, don’t know enough about blogging, families won’t use it, etc.  But most high school counselors I know are overworked, and still always trying to find ways to more for their students.  If you’re open to trying something new that might actually let you do more in less time, this might be a low risk venture.

If you’re already doing this at your school, I’d love to hear about how it’s going.

“It’s a good school.”

"It's a good school."

That's got to be just about one of the most banal (yep, somebody's bringing out an SAT word!) reasons you can give for being interested in a college.

Don't tell a college that you're applying because, "It's a good school."  When your college interviewer asks you what got you interested in Yale or Duke or USC or whatever the college may be, don't tell them, "It's a good school."  Citing that as a reason to apply is akin telling your parents you want to marry someone you barely know because your friends say she's "pretty cute."   The interviewers, the colleges, and your counselor will all think that you (almost certainly) know little about the school other than the fact that it's famous. You'll be outing yourself as someone who hasn't thoughtfully considered your colleges.

Instead, try this.  "It's a good school for me."  

When you can follow that answer with a detailed description that backs it up, it's usually a sign that you've done some thoughtful college soul searching.  It shows that you've considered what you want your college experience to be like, what you hope or expect to gain from your time on campus, and how you see yourself learning and contributing while you're there.  

Spend the majority of your college search seeking out the colleges that will fit that statement.  You'll inevitably spend as much time thinking about yourself as you do about potential colleges.  That's a good thing. And once you identify the schools and the reasons why you're picking them, you'll have a lot of things to say after,

"It's a good school for me."

Don’t rely on “who you know”

Chuck Norris
once cut me off in traffic.  Seriously.  He was polite and waived a
sign of apology.  And we all know that if Chuck Norris cuts you off,
you'd better thank your lucky stars it wasn't the other way around.  

Still, I'm not about to tell you that I know Chuck Norris.  Never actually met him.  The cut-off was the beginning and the end of our time together. So if you need someone to take
care of some messy business, I won't say, "Want me to text Chuck?" 

In my experience, someone who has real connections with people of influence doesn't feel the need to talk about it.  I
like to believe that hard work and success brings these people enough pride
that they don't feel compelled to remind me who they know.

So I'm always skeptical when someone voluntarily tells me, "I've got connections." 

In over 15 years working with high school students, I have met only
one kid who I am absolutely sure was admitted to the college of his choice
because of a connection.  His father called me in the fall and said,

"Kevin, I'm going to be honest with you.  My son knows where he
wants to go to school, and I know he's going to get in because I'm
giving them a building.  But I want to make sure he writes a good
college essay so he doesn't look like a privileged jerk."

I loved his honesty. 

But every other time a parent has told someone here at Collegewise that they "know someone" who can reportedly "get their student in," it never seems to pan out.  So the student and the parent with the reported connection end up feeling disappointed, frustrated and sometimes even a little misled.  

The reality is that the people making decisions in colleges' admissions offices aren't beholden to many others.  You might know an influential alum who sits on the board, or a professor in the sociology department, or a friend who's the head of alumni interviewing, but deans of admission don't answer to those people.  So the only way a connection can change the course of an admissions decision is if the school's vital interests are potentially at stake (don't want to reject the kid whose dad is paying 20 million dollars for the new science research center). 

I worry about the lesson it teaches kids when parents feel the need to pull connections on their kids' behalf.  It sends the message that an admission to one particular college is the measure of success, one worth taking the college admissions equivalent of a wild swing.  Won't those kids feel even worse about themselves if the connection doesn't result in an admission?

I wish that parents with reported connections would just tell their kids,

"I know someone at College X who might be willing to tell you more about the school. We could have lunch with him and log some father-daughter time if you'd like, maybe hear some of his college stories?  Of course, if I set it up, you have to pay for my sandwich.  That's the cost of doing business with Dad."  

Keep it fun.  Don't ratchet up the pressure. Don't make promises on behalf of your connection.  It's better not to rely on who you know.

By the way, I'm sure Chuck wasn't running late that day.  As I understand it, if Chuck
Norris is running late, time knows to slow down. 

Place your bets

For colleges, selecting a freshmen class is a lot like betting on horses.  As anyone who’s spent time at a racetrack will tell you, it’s hard to pick the winners.  A horse can have the best trainers, the right physical attributes, and a 26-pound jockey who can get a horse to deal blackjack, but still come in dead last. 

When a college accepts you, they're betting that you will perform well over the next four years.  High grades, good test scores, and successes in your high school activities indicate that you have the potential to do well in college.  But much like horse racing, there’s no guarantee that you will actually live up to those expectations once you get to college and the race starts.  It helps your case if the college can sense you weren't someone who made all your decisions based on what you thought would please colleges. 

The best way to show colleges that you're a safe bet is to be authentic in your pursuits.  Seek out the subjects that really interest you.  Pursue activities you really enjoy.  Make an impact.  Leave a legacy.  Challenge yourself.  Gracefully accept your failures and move on productively.  And most importantly, be who you want to be–a quarterback, a math nerd, a trombone player, someone who watches foreign films nobody else likes, a poet, a budding physicist, an interpretive dancer, or some bizarre combination of those things–just be authentic.  Base your decisions on the person you aspire to be, rather than on the perceived preferences of a college you aspire to attend.

You can't fake character traits like passion, curiosity, character, persistence, humility.  That's why those students are such good bets.  

Five college visit tips

For many high school students and parents I meet, the idea of visiting colleges feels more like a homework assignment than it does an adventure. They feel pressure to visit ALL the colleges they’re interested in, to turn every visit into an intense fact-finding mission, and to do all of it while the colleges are in session as opposed to over the summer. Those expectations can make college visits stressful and not nearly as fun as they should be. So here are some visit tips to help you enjoy what should be a positive part of the college search process.

1. No need to visit all your chosen schools before applying.
“Visit all your schools before you apply,” is great advice in theory. But it’s just not practical, especially if you’re applying to colleges far away (and in many different directions from your home). Remember that you can also visit colleges after you apply, and even after you get accepted.

You apply to most colleges in the fall of your senior year. You hear back around March, and you usually have until May 1 of your senior year to make a decision. That means there are five to seven months after you apply when you can still visit colleges.

Before you apply, gravitate toward schools near places you’re visiting anyway, like for a sports tournament, a band competition or even a Thanksgiving weekend at Uncle Frank’s house. That will get you the most bang for your visit buck.

Also, prioritize visiting schools you aren’t yet convinced of. This gives you the chance to fall in love or decide they’re not right for you. The rest, you can save until after you apply.

2. Don’t limit your visits to “reach” schools.
Many of the students I meet plan visits to only their top choices, which all too often are schools most likely to reject them. Instead of widening their college choices by visiting schools where their chances of admission are solid, they’re narrowing the pool by renewing vows to dream schools.

If you love Duke, if you’ve cheered on their basketball team since you were 12 years old and simply cannot envision a universe where you wouldn’t apply to Duke, you don’t need to fall any deeper in love with Duke by visiting the campus. Spend this time visiting other colleges, preferably some more likely to love you back. Baylor, Gonzaga, Syracuse and Michigan State have great basketball teams, rabid fans, and a lot less competition for spots in the freshman class. If your Duke admission comes through in the spring, then go see the home of the Blue Devils.

3. A summer visit is better than no visit.
Some students are told to only visit a college when it is in session; that visiting over the summer doesn’t give you the same feel as when the campus teems with students. There’s some truth to it—a lot of colleges are deserted over the summer and it’s absolutely not the same as if you were there in the fall. But it’s not easy to put your high school classes and activities on hold to go see colleges, so the visit-while-it’s-in-session logic doesn’t always hold up.

If you can visit a college during the school year, do it, especially if you want to sit in on a class, get a sense of whether a big school’s population is too much for you or do anything else that only is revealed when students are there. But if you just want to see the campus or find out just how small the college’s small town really is, a summer visit is probably fine, and certainly better than not visiting at all. Before you make the trek, just check the college’s website to make sure they’ll be offering tours while you’re there.

4. Don’t see more colleges in one trip than you can handle.
It’s possible to commit college-visit overkill by trying to see too many colleges in one trip. I remember one student only somewhat sarcastically recalling her family’s marathon college tour: “We saw four colleges the first day, another four the second day, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to go to college anymore—I just want to go home,’” she said.

I understand why this happens to families. If you’re going to take the time to travel someplace to see colleges, it makes sense that you should see as many as possible as long as you’re there. But the average person wouldn’t enjoy seeing nine amusement parks in three days, either. So be realistic about just how much college touring you can really handle.

I’m a college junkie who will see schools anywhere I happen to be visiting. But even I can’t see more than two or three in a day before I’m ready to do something else.

5. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Some of the advice about visiting colleges you read borders on the absurd. “Take the tour, listen to the admissions presentation, sit in on a class, eat in the cafeteria, interview a faculty member, stay overnight in a dorm, visit the athletic facilities, tour the library, visit the surrounding community…” The list goes on.

I can’t imagine my Collegewise students wanting to do all of those things, or finding the time to do them for every college on their list. It’s not realistic. I’ve never met a student who said, “That college visit wouldn’t have been nearly as valuable were it not for this two-page checklist I brought with me.”

Yes, it’s a good idea to contact the campus tour offices and make some formal arrangements for your campus visits. Once you’re admitted, there will likely be some schools that deserve more time to give a thorough evaluation, maybe even one that includes a visit to a class and an overnight stay. But until that time, most college visits don’t need to be so rigorously planned. Gut instincts are surprisingly accurate when visiting schools.

Have a little fun
Take the tour, look around, maybe have lunch on campus and try to imagine what it would be like to attend. Most importantly: enjoy yourself. Looking at colleges is like getting to shop for your own birthday present. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

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

Is it true that, “It never hurts to ask”?

"It never hurts to ask."  I'm not so sure that's true. 

I think whether or not it hurts to ask depends on the question, and even more importantly, it depends on the way you ask.

you approach your teacher ten days before college application deadlines
and blurt out, "Can you write me a letter of recommendation for
college?"  What are the chances that your teacher is going to feel good
about that question?  You're obviously not very organized.  You're
making your teacher pay for your disorganization by asking so late, and
you don't seem to feel badly about it at all.  What if you've also
never seemed too interested in the subject matter and you spent a lot
of time yawning in her class?  What if this is the first time you've
ever tried to have a conversation with this teacher?  Doesn't it hurt
to ask now?

What would have made that question a better one?

could have spent the duration of the course earning the right to ask. 
You could have been an engaged student who didn't just work hard, but
also seemed genuinely interested in the subject matter.  You could have
said, "Hi" to that teacher in the hallway.  You could have given a lot
of thought as to why your work in this teacher's class is worthy of a
recommendation.  You could have respected the teacher's time by
approaching her earlier, and by asking if it would be OK to schedule an
appointment at a time that would be convenient for her to discuss your
college applications. 

And instead of blurting out the
question, you could have had a real conversation with the teacher about
your work in the class, what you hope to study in college, and why you
were hoping she could share your story with the colleges in a

It takes a lot of work to earn the right to
ask, to invest the time and energy to build a connection like that. 
But whether you're asking for a favor, a raise, some assistance, an
opportunity, or some advice, putting the work in ahead of time makes it
a mutually beneficial exchange.

It never hurts to ask right