Should you take the SAT/ACT again?

When our Collegewise students get their SAT/ACT scores, they usually ask us, “Should I take it again?”  Even if they’re thrilled with their scores, that’s the question they ask.  Standardized tests have a way of doing that to people.  No matter what score you get, you always wonder if it could be higher.

Eventually, the law of diminishing returns applies itself to studying for standardized tests.  Spending your entire summer preparing to take the SAT a third or fourth time just won’t feel worth it if you only go up 20 points.

So how do you decide whether to take the test again?  There’s only a little hard science to this decision, but here are a few guidelines.

1. Did you nail it?

If you met or beat what you hoped you could score, move on. End your standardized testing career on a high note. I know it’s tempting to think you might be able to eke out even more points, but there are lots of other things you can be doing to prepare for college admissions that are more important, and more rewarding, than doing more test prep.

Also, if you scored 2150 or higher on the SAT, or 32 or higher on the ACT, walk away. Those scores are good enough at even the most selective schools. Higher scores won’t improve your chances, and taking the test again just makes you look neurotic.

2. Check average test scores.

Most colleges share the average test scores of the students they admit. You can find that information on their websites or on Before you make a decision about retesting, it’s good to know how you compare to students your chosen colleges admit.

Also, don’t forget that many colleges allow you to report your highest SAT Math, Critical Reading and Writing scores from different
sittings (a practice called “superscoring”). So your highest test score may be better than you thought it was. Visit the admissions sections on the websites of the colleges that interest you and find out how they use the scores. Then you can make an informed decision about taking the test again.

3. If you took a class or worked with a tutor, ask the instructor’s opinion. 

A good instructor should be able to tell you whether or not you have a good chance of improving your scores.  And if you’ve already shown that you can do much better than your most recent score, an instructor can encourage you and tell you where to spend your time reviewing.

4.  Are you feeling optimistic, or beaten down?

Some students want to take the test again because they know they can do better. They feel they’ve got the testing upper hand and want to show what they can do. If you’re feeling buoyed and want one more try at slaying the testing beast, have at it. But if you’ve done your best and spent your time preparing and now just wish you never have to take them again, do something else that doesn’t make you feel so discouraged.

For most students who plan and prepare well, two times is enough for any standardized tests. When a student decides he’s just got to try a third time, I tell him to go for it, but then mandate that he throw in the testing towel once he finishes. Part of managing standardized tests means knowing when to say when.

A fundaising secret for high schoolers

If you're trying to raise funds for your team, club, school newspaper or grad night committee, here's a tip that will help you tug at the generosity of others–don't let your parents do the fundraising for you. 

We're always willing to do our part to support high school activities.  And it makes sense for us to give back to the communities who bring their business to us. 

But when a parent calls me and asks if I'd be willing to support her son's soccer team by running an ad in their team directory, the first thing I wonder is, "Why isn't your son making this call?"

I know that parents are just being supportive and they should be applauded for that.  But when parents take this job away from kids, they take away a lot of the learning–and earning–kids should be doing themselves. 

Students need to learn how to approach people they don't know, how to make a phone call, and how to write a properly punctuated and grammatically correct email.  They need to learn how to shake a hand, how to follow up, how to send a thank-you note, and how to gracefully take, "No" for an answer.  When kids do their own fundraising, they learn these lessons.

It's much harder for a business owner to say, "No thanks" to a polite teenager who's just trying to raise some money for the soccer team or the pep squad or the school newspaper than it is to say, "No thanks" to a parent.  I'm not worried about hurting a parents' feelings.  But I want to reward that kid for making the effort.

Don't tell me that you're too busy.  I know you're busy.  But you have to be willing to earn support if you want people to support you.

It's OK for parents to advise.  But the more kids do for themselves, the more successful they'll be.   

Blast from the Collegewise past

I came across a file on my computer today entitled, "Counseling ideas" created Tuesday, August 10, 1999–six days before I opened Collegewise.  I remember writing it on the last day at my former job and saving it on, yes, a floppy disk.

Some of the suggestions look pretty dated eleven years later (like asking colleges to mail me applications).  But it's nice to see that we've made some version of all of these happen since then.  And reading it was a little bit like opening up a time capsule.    

Here's the unedited list. 

  • Write monthly newsletters home to parents.  Help them understand more about admissions and why I do things the way I do.
  • Do a lecture series as part of the program, things like interviews, college essays, secrets of admissions, etc. 
  • Student panels–former students who are freshmen in college come back at Christmas and discuss their experiences.
  • The focus of this business should be on cultivating fulfilled students and helping them find the best college for them.  We don’t want students to spend 4 years just trying to make themselves competitive for competitive colleges if it makes them unhappy.
  • Teach basics of the college essay during free speeches.  Show how quickly we can make an impact with smart advice.
  • Encourage kids to come to meetings without parents.  They'll talk more.  
  • Make files for students–maybe include a Polaroid. 
  • Things to have in a brochure: photos of kids/testimonials, big picture of “graduates” of program with their college sweatshirts, let people know we'll speak at PTA’s, community events, etc.  We also have newsletters for teachers/counselors, kids and parents. 
  • Starting in September, request applications from the most popular colleges.  Keep hard copies of colleges' applications filed so you always have the most current versions to work off.
  • Posters from colleges on the walls (framed)
  • At the conclusion of the senior year, have students and parents fill out evaluation form that includes space for testimonials. 
  • Develop a training program for new counselors.  A 30-40 hour rigorous one.  Include a practicum where they complete 20 hours of counseling work with me before they can meet with kids.  Make a manual and materials.  Possibly sell the training program in the future to other institutions.

Counselor tip: Try this at your next student/parent meeting

When we know there's a lot of material to cover in an appointment with one of our Collegewise families, we'll start the meeting by saying,

"I have my list of things I want to cover in the next hour.  But before we start, what are the things you want to make sure we talk about today?" 

Then we write down whatever they say on our agenda.  If we think the topic would be better handled at a different time, we can say so, explain why, and ask if they'd be OK tabling it for a future meeting. 

Starting meetings like this helps you get a sense of just how much you'll need to cover in the allotted time.  It also lets the other people know that you're not just here for you; you're here for them, too–in fact, the first thing you're doing is asking what they want to talk about. 

They'll know you're not just going to wait until the end of the meeting to ask what questions they have. 

It sets a good tone of collaboration for the meeting and makes everyone feel comfortable that they'll be heard.  You'll know right away if there are any contentious subjects that you need to address. 

And most importantly, it demonstrates that you're prepared for the meeting because you've already composed a list of the things you want to discuss.  They'll know you're not just winging it and that they shouldn't be, either.     

What do we expect from kids at Collegewise?

A father asked me recently if the Collegewise message was, "It's OK to expect less." 

It's not an unreasonable question given how much time we spend preaching that you don't have to have straight A's, perfect test scores, or a degree from a famous college to be successful.  Still, I think he's missing our point (or we're not explaining it well enough).

I think our message is, "It's OK to expect more."

If you believe that kids have to go to one of the most selective
colleges to be successful, you actually believe that most kids
aren't going to make it in the world.  The most selective colleges only
take about 10% of the students who apply.  So those 10% are golden and the other 90% are bound
to fail?  I don't agree.  We expect more than that.

We expect kids to throw themselves into their classes and try their best, but to do it knowing that scraping out a B in a tough course is something to be proud of. 

We expect kids to develop a love for learning so they have an answer when someone asks them what their favorite class is. 

We expect kids to have enough initiative and gumption to find and commit to activities they really love, not to just plod reluctantly through activities they've heard colleges like.  

We expect kids to appreciate what a wonderful opportunity college is, to be excited for the chance to have four years of learning, self discovery and fun regardless of where they go. 

We expect kids to step up and actively search for colleges that are right for them, not to sit back and be passive observers in their educations. 

And we expect parents to encourage and reward the process, rather than the outcome.  Raising a nice kid who works hard, who's respectful of his teachers, who's nice to his peers, who likes school and enjoys his activities, all of those things are much more important than a GPA, test score or an admissions decision from a particular college.

So yes, we have higher expectations for our kids at Collegewise.  And I think it's good for parents, kids and counselors to expect more, too. 

The importance of asking kids, “How are you doing?”

About this time every year, we start to see it on our students' faces.  They're tired, especially the juniors.  The classes, activities, AP tests and SAT prep start to take their toll on even the hardest of workers. 

So when our students come in for their meetings in May and June, the first thing we ask almost all of them is, "How are you doin'?"  And we ask in a way that shows we really want to know how they're holding up, how they're feeling and whether or not things like soccer and drama and jazz band are still fun.  We still get to all the college planning stuff.  But first we want to check in. 

I don't want to be an alarmist here, but kids today are the most overworked, over scheduled and stressed out of any generation before them.  Hard work and high goals are good things.  And part of being successful means handling a reasonable degree of stress.  But nothing is worth sacrificing sleep, sanity or happiness, especially when you're seventeen. 

If you're a parent or a counselor, don't make your next question to your student about the SAT or college or whether or not they're ready for finals.  Instead, asking them how they're doing.  Really listen to their answer.  And remind them that their best effort is good enough regardless of what the outcome is. 

Does the senior year count in college admissions?

Students often ask us how the classes and grades from their senior year are factored into colleges' admissions decisions.  Here's the answer. 

1.  Any college you apply to this fall will ask you what classes you're taking, and what classes you plan on taking second semester.  They want to see that you're still challenging yourself. 

2.  Some, but not all, colleges will ask to see your grades from the first semester of your senior year (the 7th semester) before they make an admissions decision.  If you apply to those colleges, the grades you get in your first semester can help or hurt your admissions chances.  Hint: you can go to the admissions sections on colleges' websites and see if they'll ask for 7th semester transcripts for admissions.   

3.  Any college that admits you will ask to see your transcripts from both semesters of your senior year.  If you swapped out your hard classes for easy ones, or if you let your grades drop substantially, that can jeopardize your admission.

So for soon to be seniors, take the hardest classes you can reasonably handle while still enjoying your activities and a good night's sleep most nights.  Keep working hard and showing colleges what you're capable of achieving in your classes.  It will help you get into some schools and keep your admissions valid for any who accept you. 

How good writing can get you dates…and get you into college

Writing a great college essay is a lot like writing a headline. 

From a great article in Fast Company:

As a dater on, you have two key ways to
communicate something quickly about yourself: a picture and a headline… Given the stakes, these headlines should really zing. They
don’t. We examined more than 1,000 ads—from men and women,
old and young. Our search yielded headlines like this one: “Hey.”
Folks, if your opening line is “Hey,” you better be hot.

said “Looking for love.” Well, duh, you’re on At least
two-thirds of the headlines said nothing—and did it poorly.

do these headlines suck so much? Fear. Fear of saying too much. Fear of
saying something clever that someone might think is stupid. Fear of
saying something revealing that might turn someone off. The headlines
try desperately not to exclude anyone. In doing so, they succeed at
boring everyone.

…Some singles have figured this out. Here's a brilliant example: "Athletic math nerd seeks someone to hum the Seinfeld intro music with." While excluding, he's simultaneously becoming more interesting to potential soul mates."

If your college essay starts out with, "I have been on the basketball team for three years and it has taught me many important lessons about hard work and commitment," you might as well have just said, "Hey." 

Successful people don’t just “think” about doing things

Successful people don't just think about doing things; they actually do them.  That's why colleges are always looking for students who make things happen. 

According to his IMDB biography, Stanley Kubrick once said, "Perhaps it sounds ridiculous, but the best thing that young filmmakers
should do is to get hold of a camera and some film and make a movie of
any kind at all."  Note to potential film majors:  You don't become a filmmaker by talking about your favorite films.  You've got to actually make some.

Most people didn't know who Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were back in 1996.  Then they wrote "Good Will Hunting" and won an Academy Award.  They could have just talked about writing a movie; but they actually did it.

Bill Bowerman was a track coach at the University of Oregon in the late 60's.  He thought the standard racing shoes with metal spikes were too heavy.  So he started making his teams' shoes himself complete with rubber soles he forged on his wife's waffle iron.  A few years later, he co-founded a little shoe company called Nike.

Steve Jobs didn't know much about computers when he started Apple in 1976.  But his friend Steve "Woz" Wozniak did.  Woz had been building circuit boards that computer hobbyists could buy and turn into computers.  But he was just doing it for fun.  It was Jobs who saw the potential for the personal computer.  It took awhile, but he eventually convinced Woz to start a company with him–Jobs even sold his VW bus for $500 to help fund the start up (according to iCon).  Jobs wasn't just a thinker–he was the person who actually got Woz on board and started the company.

Ben and Jerry were sitting on the steps at Jerry's parents' house in 1977 talking about what kind of business they could start together.  They both loved to eat and decided to open an ice cream parlor because it was cheaper than opening a restaurant.  First, they took a $5 correspondence course through Penn State (they split the tuition and shared the material) to learn how to make ice cream. Then they found an abandoned gas station they could rent cheap and did all the renovations themselves.  They put the last coat of orange paint on the ceiling the night before they opened.  They combined thinking with doing (and eating) to start their business.   

What are you thinking about doing that you actually could be doing?

  • Does your softball team need to raise money new uniforms?
  • Is your senior class looking for a place to hold your prom?
  • Do you wish you knew more about the Civil War?
  • Do you need to learn more about which colleges are right for you?
  • Would you be a better basketball player if you could sink more free throws?
  • Does the homeless shelter where you volunteer need someone to supervise people on Saturdays?
  • Does the store where you work part time need a website?
  • Could you be the first chair violinist if you practiced a little more?
  • Does your soccer team need to organize practices for the summer?
  • Would it be great if your art class could display their work in the hallway?
  • Is there a kid at school who's being treated badly and would like someone to reach out and be nice to him?

Thinking about doing something is the easy part. It's the doing that's important.