Would you want yourself there?

If you were your English teacher, would you want you in class?  

I don't mean that as some weird philosophical question.  I mean, try to put yourself in your teacher's place and imagine what it would be like to teach the current, high school version of you.  Would you want yourself in the class? 

If you were your baseball coach, would you want yourself on the team?

If you were the editor of the school paper or the drama teacher or the director of the non-profit where you volunteer, would you be happy to have yourself involved? 

If after careful consideration, the answer is, "Yes," why is that?  Whatever the answer is, do more of it.

If you'd want yourself in class because you really love English, you ask great questions, and you're always respectful of other students' opinions, accentuate those strengths as much as you can.

If you really wouldn't want yourself in class because you look bored, you never participate, and you complain about your grades even though you know you could have worked harder, then good for you–you were honest with yourself, which is not an easy thing to do.  Now decide how to minimize those qualities.  

This isn't about changing yourself to be what everybody else wants you to be.  But people who can see themselves through other peoples' eyes are a lot more self-aware.  They're more in touch with their strengths and what they can bring to a class, team or organization.  They understand their weaknesses and how to minimize them. 

And they tend to be people that others want in classes, on teams, in groups, etc. 

Why seniors and their parents shouldn’t worry

Colleges are making admissions decisions now.  Some early returns have already arrived.  But most seniors will learn the rest of their news in the next 3-6 weeks.  So, exactly how much time should those seniors and their parents spend worrying about it?

None, if they can swing it.

I'm not suggesting you should be indifferent.  But worrying about whether or not your dream college is going to say, "Yes" doesn't do you any good.  If you spent all day every day from now until the decision arrives worrying about it, wishing and wanting a particular outcome, you won't do a single thing to influence the result.  So why do it?  How will all that worrying improve your life?  How many other more productive, positive things could you spend your time thinking about?

Almost everything you did before you applied to college was in your control.  But after you submit your applications, you're no longer in charge.  The most successful students accept that what happens from here is out of their hands.  They'll spend their time dreaming about how great college is going to be, how much they're going to learn and how much fun they're going to have no matter where they go. 

And if their dream school says, "No," they'll bounce back much faster because they didn't spend all their time leading up to the decision attaching themselves to one particular outcome.

A new way to look at senioritis

There's a great exchange in the movie Office Space that goes like this:

Michael Bolton: "You were supposed to come in on Saturday. What were you doing?"

Peter Gibbons: "Michael, I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing, and it was everything that I thought it could be."

I completely understand why so many of today's college-bound seniors wish they could morph into the high school version of Peter Gibbons.  You're tired.  You've done the AP classes, SAT prep, college applications, activities, essays, and everything else you're supposed to do to get into college.  You really want nothing more than just to relax and do less, maybe even do nothing.  I think you deserve that luxury.  But you know you just can't do it quite yet. 

Every year, some seniors let the party start too early and end up with one or more of their grades plummeting.  When that happens, the colleges that have admitted you reserve the right to take back their offers of admission.  Then you have to find a new college to go to.  It's an awful experience.  

So here's my senioritis proposal.  Just delay it a little bit.  Keep working for another semester, but plan a summer of senioritis, one in which you carve out three months to do whatever you'd like to do.  

I'm not saying you necessarily should do nothing for the entire summer.  But you could make your summer what YOU wanted it to be.  You could get a part-time job with your friends, play guitar in your band, read a few trashy romance novels and still sleep until noon two days a week when you don't have to work.  You could take a road trip with your friends.  You could finally join that rec basketball league at the gym and just play for fun.  You could rent the DVDs for your favorite TV show you never had time to watch and view the entire second season in one weekend.

Having the summer off is nothing new.  But what I'm suggesting is that you look at this summer as your reward for everything you did to earn the right to go to whatever college is lucky enough to get you next fall.  It will give you an extra something to be excited about and help you finish strong in this one final semester of high school.

Every college in the universe wants its freshmen to show up wide awake and eager to get started on their college careers.  One of the best ways to do that is to catch a serious case of senioritis this summer. 

Seniors, if ever there were a time to pay attention to your email…

…this is probably it.

I know how much email you get, including from colleges.  But the next 30 days or so is the time when the colleges you've applied to are most likely to email you with important notifications like,

1) They haven't received your 7th semester transcripts and need you to send them.

2) They'd like you to send some additional information that wasn't required in the application.

3)  They're inviting you to schedule an interview with your local admissions rep.

So for the next six weeks or so, pay very close attention to your email.  If you get any message from a college, open it, read it and respond appropriately.

Once a college clicks "Send," they've done their job. You have to take it from there.

The value of an activity/accomplishment journal

We see some students (and often their parents) who meticulously record every hour of community service, every award and every academic achievement.  There's value to that, especially given how many college applications will ask you to describe how you've spent your time, and to estimate the number of hours per week and weeks per year that you participated in each activity. 

But even those carefully updated resumes leave out something that lots of colleges want to know about.  How did those activities and accomplishments make you feel?  That's why I think students should keep an activity/accomplishment journal. 

Lots of colleges have essay questions that ask you to describe the activity that had the most meaning for you, or an accomplishment that makes you proud, or a mistake/failure you've experienced and what you've learned from it.  Colleges don't want just factual recitations of the events.  They want to hear how these experiences affected you.  And you'll never be better able to describe those moments than right after they actually happen.

You're never going to be more in touch with the pain of losing a city basketball championship, or the thrill of winning your first student council election, or the pride you felt when your first issue as editor of the school paper was published, than on the days those events took place.  Why not capture how you feel by writing a short paragraph, something just for yourself that you don't have to share with anyone? 

Here's an example of how this could really help you later. 

When you're a senior and a college asks you to describe an achievement that made you proud, you could try to think back three years ago and remember how it felt when you raised your grade in geometry from a D to B+.  You could try to describe how much you struggled in math and why it made you proud that you never gave up.  But it will be hard to recall the details of what it really felt like.     

Or you could look back at a short journal entry you wrote three years ago that read,

"Today I got my geometry test back, and it was the first time in my life that I got an 'A' on a math test.  As soon as I saw that big red "A" with a smiley face next to it that Mrs. Ashlock drew, I actually welled up with tears.  I was seriously worried my football teammates were going to see me cry, but I pulled it together.  It was a good day."

Bam.  You now have a powerful, specific example to include in your essay.

Five more college prep tips for juniors

Here's a good college prep exercise for juniors.  Pick five colleges you're interested in.  If you haven't done your college search yet and don't know where you want to apply, pick five colleges you've heard good things about from other people.

Then visit their websites and find the answers to these questions:

1.  What academic preparation is recommended?  Most colleges will give at least general guidelines about what kinds of courses successful applicants take.  This can help you make good decisions for your senior year schedule like whether or not to take another year of language, calculus, physics, etc.

2.  What standardized tests are required for admission?  Just the SAT or ACT, or are Subject Tests required, too?

3.  What are the requirements for a complete application for admission?  Do you need letters of recommendation?  Are interviews recommended?  And what essay questions did this year's applicants have to complete?  The prompts might change when you apply, but it's good to get a sense of what the college requires from applicants.

4.  Does the school have a clear mission?  What is their purpose?  What kind of graduates are they looking to send out in the world, and how do they promise to transform college freshmen into those kinds of graduates?  This isn't an insignificant question.  Colleges take very different approaches to how they educate students and what they hope you'll be able to do when you leave.  You should know what you're getting into before you apply.

5.  What is the next step for an interested applicant?  How can you learn more?  Is the college participating in any college fairs near you?  Is there an inquiry form you can fill out?  How can you take a campus tour, or maybe visit during a special weekend for prospective students?

Don't wait until the fall of your senior year to ask these questions.  Start now and you'll make better college planning choices. 



Play favorites

Playing favorites isn't always a bad thing.  It's actually one of the best ways to get into college.

Every happy, motivated, successful high school student should have a favorite:

1.  Class, subject and teacher…

2.  Activity…

3.  Thing you do for fun that has absolutely nothing to do with getting into college…

4.  Person you admire…

5.  Quality about yourself…

If you don't have favorites in any of those categories, it's time to find them.  Make changes now–to what you're studying, what you're doing, how you're doing it, or with whom.  Take charge of your academic, extracurricular and social life.  You don't have to just accept whatever you have now.

Once you find your favorites, play to them.  Work like crazy in your favorite subject or to impress your favorite teacher.  Throw yourself into your favorite activity and really make an impact.  If you play the guitar just for fun, relish that time you get to spend doing it and make sure you keep it relaxing and rewarding.  Find a way to learn even more from the person you admire, either by working with, spending time with, or reading more about him or her.  And whatever your favorite quality is about yourself, be proud of it and put it to good use.

Nobody likes every class, every activity, every person or every little thing about yourself.  But finding your favorites and then playing to them is one of the best ways to stand out.

Subtle ways to prepare middle schoolers for college

For middle schoolers, I put preparing for the SAT right up there with driving and voting–they'll do it someday, but it's much too early now.

Still, there are some productive measures parents can take with their middle schoolers to prepare them for college, and Jay Mathews offers up eight of them here today. 

And if you don't mind a few instances of advice-overlap, here's my July 2010 post with college admissions advice for 6th, 7th and 8th graders.