What you can learn from new college freshmen

Across the country this week, new college freshmen are moving into their dorms.  If you could see those kids, you'd notice something.

None of them are lamenting the rejections they got from schools back in the spring.  Nobody's talking about what their SAT scores were or whether or not they had 4.0 GPAs back in high school.  Nobody cares about any of that.  They're all too excited about finally being in college to spend time looking back. 

And none of the moms and dads who are helping their new college freshmen move into their dorm rooms are thinking about any of those things either. 

When you study hard and still get a ''C" on your chemistry test, or you take the SAT a third time and you still don't get the score you wanted, or you cross your fingers for an acceptance to Duke but a rejection arrives instead, it's easy to feel like your college dreams are slipping away.

But remember what those new college freshmen are reminding us this week.  At some point, you're going to be moving into a college dorm.  That's going to be an exciting day no matter what school you're attending.  And when that happens, things like your SAT scores aren't going to matter anymore. 

They next time you feel overwhelmed by the pressure of college admissions, when the stress is overshadowing any sense of fun and anticipation for your college future, think of those new freshmen and what it will be like when you're one of them. 

For counselors: Share your concerns with parents

When you're working with a student but find yourself on opposite sides of an issue with the parent, a good way to get back on the same side is to share your concerns rather than to debate.

For example, imagine a parent wants her student to add several more highly selective colleges to a list that you feel already has too many reach schools.  If you tell her that this is a bad idea, if you share statistics to show her that these are reach schools, if you tell her that her son has too many reach schools and needs to find some more realistic options, it creates a conflict.  It doesn't matter how gentle you are in your communication.  Even though you're confident in the advice you're giving, she hears you dismissing her request and maybe even feels like you aren't supporting her son.

Instead, just tell her what your concerns are.

"Dan is a good kid and he's worked hard.  He deserves to get a lot of acceptances and to have college choices he's excited about next spring.  But he's got a lot of reach schools on this list right now.  And if we add more, my concern is that he'll receive too many rejections and not enough acceptances.  And I don't want to see that happen to him."

Now she hears that you're just trying to protect her son from too much disappointment.  She's going to want the same thing.  Sharing your concerns instead of trying to win a debate puts you back on the same team.  Now you can work together find a solution that's best for her son. 

Sometimes parents make suggestions about what their kids should be writing in their college essays.  If you're worried that the parents' suggestions wouldn't serve the student's best interest, don't dismiss the idea.  Don't create an argument.  Just tell the parent what your concerns are.  

"I understand your suggestion and I actually agree with you that it could be an interesting story.  But sometimes parents notice things about their kids that kids don't notice about themselves.  Stephen didn't mention the community service experience as being important to him.  When I asked him about it, he didn't seem to have much to say.  I want the admissions officers to get to know the enthusiastic, likeable
kid that I know. My concern is that if we push him to write about community service, his heart won't be in it and they won't get to see the same kid that we see."

We teach our counselors at Collegewise that it's virtually impossible for a parent to be upset with you when you are genuinely, dutifully looking out for the best interest of their student.  Even if a parent disagrees with your recommendation, if they know that you're personally invested in the success and happiness of their student, they'll be appreciative of your intentions.

How great students are like Academy Award winners

Great students who get noticed by colleges don’t just have high GPAs.  They deliver great learning performances.

Lots of actors have great careers.  But the few who win an Academy Award are recognized for one particularly great performance when
the movie and the role and the script seemed to match perfectly with their abilities.  They’re not necessarily better actors than those who don’t win.  And they aren’t necessarily great in all of their movies.  But they work hard in every film, and when that one  perfect role came along, they made sure to deliver their best performance.

That’s a lot like how great students approach learning.

Yes, you should work hard in all your classes.  But the best students, the ones who love to learn and who will stand out to colleges are always on the lookout for their chance to shine in a subject.  They do more than just get an “A;” they actually turn the experience into an award-winning opportunity.

If you have a history teacher whose class you can’t wait to attend every day, jump in and deliver an award-winning student performance.  Put your hand up in class. Participate in the discussion.  Tell the teacher how much you’re enjoying the class, and be specific about what you find interesting.  Play the role of an engaged and enthusiastic learner, not just the kid who wants to get an “A.”

If you’re taking a video production class at school and you love it, find a way to deliver an award-winning performance and get really good at video production.  Read how-to guides about it.  Take a class outside of school at a college or community college.  Put what you’ve learned to use by producing great videos of water polo games, or the school musicals, or the graduation ceremony.

If you love Spanish, don’t stop at AP Spanish.  Go to Spain over the summer and come back fluent.  Volunteer as a translator or language tutor for recent immigrants.  Get a part-time job where your Spanish can be put to use.

And don’t do these things just because they’ll help you get into college.  That’s like an actor taking roles he doesn’t want to do just because he thinks they might earn him an award.  That doesn’t work in acting, and it doesn’t work in college admissions.

Award-winning performances come from someone doing what you love and flourishing at something you really enjoy.  That’s why it’s not realistic to be an award-winner in every class.  You’ve got to take the learning to new levels when the role is right.

Yes, it’s good to earn a high GPA.  That’s like an actor who always gets good reviews for his films.  But if you want to stand out to colleges, find the teacher, class and/or subject you enjoy the most and deliver an award-winning performance.

I wish more colleges would follow their own advice

If a family hired a $50,000 consultant to help craft their student’s application and essays to a particular college, to advise the student on everything from what activities to pursue to what to wear to his college interview, every admissions officer I’ve ever met would justifiably cry foul.  They’d almost certainly recommend that the student save his money and instead just be himself, secure in the knowledge that the right colleges would appreciate him.  It’s good advice.

I wish more colleges would follow it themselves.

lot of students and parents don’t realize just how much money colleges spend to market their schools to students.  Collegiate marketing is a huge industry in which colleges buy everything from lists of students based on PSAT scores to expensive marketing consultants to help them craft their messages and develop their brands for the college-bound audiences.   

Look at the exhibitors that will be in attendance at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s annual conference this fall, and note how many of them have descriptions like, “recruitment services,” “student leads,” and “lead generation.”

Sometimes those marketing experts just make colleges look silly, as Appalachian State and more recently Drake University learned the hard way.

I actually don’t fault the colleges entirely.  I’m always talking up the fact that there are over 2,000 colleges in this country and it makes sense that a lot of those schools are competing to fill their slots.

But to the colleges reading this, teenagers are a lot smarter and savvier than most of us give them credit for.  They’re not going to fall for carefully branded messages your marketing consultants create any more than you would fall for a strategically crafted essay the student didn’t actually write herself.

If you want to stand out to your intended audience and really generate interest from the kids who are most likely to appreciate what you offer, follow the same advice you’ve give kids–don’t try to sound like everybody else.  Be authentic.  Be specific.  Don’t worry about whether or not you sound impressive.  Like this…

“We’re a pre-professional school filled with students who’ve identified what they want to do with their lives and are looking to us to help them make those dreams realities.  Yes, you’ll go to class here.  But you’ll also learn by actually doing things outside of class.  If you want to be a teacher, we’ll put you in a classroom as a teacher’s aid during your first year.  If you want to be a journalist, you’ll see for yourself what life is like working at a newspaper or magazine during your first summer.  And if you want to be an engineer, we’ll have you designing your own buildings or machines or circuitry two years before you graduate.  Not everyone knows at age 18 what you want to do with your life, but if you do and you’re ready to start down that path, you might enjoy spending four years here.”

Or…

“We’re a place for thinkers.  Spend a day here and you’ll see students reading all day on our main lawn.  You’ll hear them discussing politics or Russian literature or Chinese history (seriously, you will).  Sit in one of our classes and you’ll see how engaged our students are in what’s being taught (it’s not surprising–students here interview their professors before picking their classes just like you’d test drive a car before you bought one).  We don’t have a football team, fraternities or a marching band.  But we do have a Civil War reenactment society, a club committed to a sustainable food project, and a gentlemen’s society dedicated to providing free homemade ice cream to the community.  Some of our students even have blue hair.  They’re a quirky, interesting, disarmingly intellectual bunch and we couldn’t be happier to have them all here.”    

The best way for a high school student to stand-out is to be authentic and proud of who he is.  I think more colleges should do the same.

Back to school resolution suggestions for students

A lot of students are heading back to school today, so I'm suggesting 5 back-to-school resolutions to help you have a productive and enjoyable year.

1.  Study better, not more.

Most students who get the best grades actually study less than everyone else.  It's not because they're smarter–they're just better studiers.  So rather than resolve to "get a 4.0" or to "study harder," set a goal to become a better studier.   Here's one post that can get you started, and another to keep you focused.

2.  Stop doing activities that don't make you happy.

Extra-curricular activities should be a welcome part of your day, things that make your high school experience more enjoyable.  If you're doing an activity you hate just because you think colleges will appreciate it (they won't if you hate it, by the way), stop doing it.  If you're going to club meetings every week and feel like all you're doing is meeting, stop going and find something else.  If you dread going to track practice every day because you're broken down and it just isn't fun anymore, find something else to do that doesn't involve mile repeats.  Productive, successful students find and commit themselves to things they really enjoy doing.  They don't plod through life.   

3.  Find–and protect–your free time.

I don't know where so many students and parents got the idea that free time is a bad thing.  No college in the universe wants you to schedule every minute of every day with school and activities.  Successful people find and protect their free time, time when they can think, rest, or enjoy relaxing activities that can recharge them (like playing video games, hiking, or just reading something for pleasure).  If you watch seven hours of TV after school, you've probably got too much free time.  But there's nothing wrong with working hard during your work time, then enjoying free time for relaxing, thinking and having fun.

4.  Get excited about college for the right reasons.

A lot of students work hard so they can "get into a good college."  But they don't seem all that excited about the goal.  I think that's because they're scared the work won't pay off with an acceptance to one of their dream colleges.  The hard work that you're doing will mean more to you if it isn't tied exclusively to an admissions decision from one dream school.  Be excited about the opportunity to attend any college.  Have faith that your hard work will pay off in lots of ways no matter where you go.  And if you need some suggestions, here are 50 reasons to be excited for college that have nothing to do with ranking or prestige.

5.  Be nice to the kids other students aren’t nice to.
Once they get out of high school, most students realize that those kids who made fun of the socially less fortunate were secretly racked with insecurity themselves. So be nice. Say “hi” to the kid nobody else says “hi” to. Don’t join in when everyone else starts to make fun of the easy target. Your teachers and counselors will notice, the kid you’re nice to will appreciate it, and you’ll be in line for karma points later in life.

Ask Collegewise: Is this really what college admissions has come to?

Duncan asks:

NewQuotation

I attend the parent nights at my daughter's high school,
and I listen to everyone talking about the competition for college.  All our friends keep bringing up the test preparation courses and private tutors and
college counselors they're using.  I can't help but ask, is this really what it's come
to?  My daughter is a good student but she's not at the top of her
class.  I'm wondering if I'm being naive in thinking that she will
still get into college."  

You're not being naive at all.  The vast majority of students who start college every year weren't at the top of their classes.  They didn't take expensive test prep courses, hire tutors, or have the guidance of a college counselor.  We've got over 2,000 colleges in this country and all but about a hundred of them accept pretty much everyone who applies. 

But too many kids and parents mistakenly believe that the more selective colleges are somehow better than the less selective ones.  So a lot of good kids who work hard believe that the only acceptable reward for their efforts is an admissions to one of those supposedly elite colleges.  That's why you're seeing the kind of behavior you've witnessed.  

I'm not against kids working hard and placing value on their educational futures–smart, mature kids should do that.  And I think that good tutors, test-preparation courses and college counselors can add value for some families.  But nobody's success or failure in life is determined by an admissions decision from a particular college.  A student's work ethic, desire to learn, her personal qualities and her willingness to extract the maximum value from her college experience are much more important than the name of the college she'll attend.

So, no, what you're seeing isn't necessarily what college admissions has come to be.  It's what the race for admission to the schools most likely to say "No" has come to be.  Kids and parents get to make the choice whether or not you want to participate in that race.  And I don't think it's a very healthy race to run.

Thanks for your question, Duncan.  If you've got a question of your own, email us at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com

Two thoughts about work

I know two great quotes about working, one from an author, one from my dad.

NewQuotation

The best advice I got from Eric should be on a bumper sticker on every car in America: 'If it feels like work, you're working too hard.'"

Christopher McDougal
Author of
Born To Run

And…

NewQuotation

It's called work for a reason.  If it wasn't work, they'd call it vacation."

Roger McMullin (my dad)

It might seem like those two ideas are in conflict, but here's how I think they work together. 

Every successful person, from an Olympic marathoner, to the owner of a successful business, to an "A" student in high school accepts that to be successful, sometimes you have to do things you'd rather not do.  Some mornings, the marathoner gets up and runs when he'd rather sleep in.  The successful business owner sometimes stays late when she'd rather be at home relaxing.  And there are probably lots of nights where the "A" student studies when he'd much rather watch TV or go out with his friends.  It is, after all, called "work" for a reason.  

But the most successful people still love what they do.

Elite runners will tell you that there's no better feeling than finishing a good, hard run.  Successful entrepreneurs love being in charge of their own professional destinies and making their businesses successful.  And "A" students like challenging themselves, learning and mastering material.  The success feels good, and once someone has a taste of it, the work it takes to get there is part of the enjoyment.

So yes, work hard.  And accept that to be successful, you're going to need to do things that you might not always want to do.

But work shouldn't make you miserable.  It shouldn't be a gut wrenching, soul crushing experience.  If it feels that way for too long, you're working too hard. 

Don’t play the reach school lottery

Some students think that the best way to improve their chances of getting in to a highly-selective college is to apply to as many of them possible.  They think that by submitting 10 or 12 or 20 applications to those schools (we call them "reaches" for everyone given that up to 90% of the applicants are rejected), their odds of winning an admission improve dramatically. 

But they don’t.

We work with hundreds of students every year.  And whatever your dream schools are—Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, Yale, Duke, Georgetown, or any of the others—we’ve had students accepted there.  But in the nearly 11 years we’ve been doing this, not one of our kids who got into those schools got there by playing the lottery and applying to as many as possible. 

Applying to any reach school is always a gamble (you always run the risk of losing in the form of a rejection letter).  But we don’t have a problem with students gambling on a reach school or two.  In fact, we encourage it.  You’ve worked hard and you’ve earned the right to chase your dream schools.  

But if you place all your bets on long shots, you’re going to lose a lot.  And you're going to take too much time away from your applications to other colleges–colleges that are just as good–where your chances of admission are better.  A student who's really worked hard enough to consider the most selective colleges deserves a number of college options when the decisions come back.  You shouldn't be just crossing your fingers hoping that one of fifteen schools says, "Yes." 

The Collegewise students who get into at least one reach school do it by selecting the 1-3 reach schools that are the best matches for them—the ones for which they have a good, ten-minute answer to the question, “Why do you want to attend this school?” 

So find your 1-3 dream schools.  Take your best shot.  But don't don’t apply anywhere “just to see what happens.”  And whatever you do, don't play the reach school lottery.

For parents: Guidelines for emailing teachers

It should be a good thing that parents can communicate with teachers so quickly and easily over email.  But I'm not sure that the introduction of email has improved the relationship between those two parties. 

Email is actually a terrible communication tool.  All the subtle cues and tone that you can use when you speak with someone are almost impossible to convey over email.  Sometimes you sound angry or critical even when you don't mean to be.

Imagine your student comes home with a "D" on her chemistry exam.  She never told you she was struggling in chemistry and you're frustrated that she let it get to this point.  So you decide to send the teacher this email to request a meeting:

"Jenna just informed us that she received a "D" on her last exam.  We were shocked and very disappointed.  Jenna is an excellent student and she has never received anything but top grades.  We need to meet with you immediately to decide what can be done to rectify this situation." 

You're not necessarily assigning blame or being critical; you're just being a concerned parent.  But remove yourself from your parent role and imagine you're the teacher receiving that email. 

If a parent sent that to me, I'd be on the defensive.  It sounds like you're somehow blaming me for your kid's chemistry deficiencies.  I understand that Jenna is an excellent student.  But other kids did well on the exam–it's not like everybody got D's.  So clearly, Jenna has to assume some of the blame here.

Since email has become a preferred communication tool with parents and teachers, it's important to use it wisely.  Here are a few guidelines. 

1.  Use email as a tool to foster a relationship before you need something. 

If your student likes a class, drop the teacher an email and mention that "Jason just can't stop talking about how much he's enjoying your AP history class."  If a teacher stays after school to help your student, email the teacher and thank her.  Everyone likes to be acknowledged when they do a good job.  And as long as you're sincere, you'll have built some history together if you need to email for a less positive reason in the future.

2.  Be human, and be nice.

Just stating the facts can actually come off as cold and impersonal.  And negative emotions will be distorted and exaggerated in the mind of the reader.  So be a real person, and be nice.   

Imagine how a teacher would react differently in the above scenario if she received this email:

"Jenna just informed us of that she received a 'D' on her midterm.  My husband and I are both chemists so we're probably not as compassionate with our child as we should be when it comes to her struggles with the periodic table.  But we want to do the right thing and would appreciate any guidance you could give us on how we can help her.  Would it be possible to meet with you at your convenience?" 

That's a message written by a real–and nice–human being. 

3.  Don't forget to use email as a tool of thanks, too.

Here's where email can be a great communication tool.  Sending a quick, sincere thank-you note is easy and effective.  Look what you can accomplish in just four sentences:

"I just wanted to thank you for meeting with us last week.  Jenna came out of the meeting encouraged about her opportunity to improve her grade, and we felt so fortunate that she has a teacher who's willing to meet with panicked parents like us.  I can't tell you how much we appreciate it.  Thank you again, and have a great weekend."

I've written two other posts that might be helpful, too–one on how to write a good email message, and one about how to approach someone when you need help with a problem. 

Giving the gift of undivided attention

How would you feel if you were in the middle of a conversation with someone and he or she pulled out a magazine and started reading it?  You'd probably think it was rude.  You'd probably be insulted.  The person might as well have just said,  "You are excruciatingly boring, so I'm going to do something else now."

But that's pretty much what you're doing when you check a text message on your phone while you're in the middle of a conversation. 

One of the ways the world has changed is that we're constantly
exchanging information.  If you're a teenager, you're getting bombarded
with messages in multiple formats throughout the day.  So you're constantly
having to make a choice.  Which is more important–what you're doing
right now, or stopping what you're doing to read and respond to that message? 

The choice you make in each situation says a lot about you. 

When a student types a text message during one of our
meetings, we let him know that's not OK.  Turn the phone off
until we're done here.  Your college applications are more important
than that text message.  And I think we've got an obligation to teach kids that teachers, professors and bosses interviewing them for jobs someday won't like it either.  We work with mostly good kids, so thankfully, we don't have to say that very often. 

But I'll let you in on a secret–we know who's likely to do it before it ever happens.

The engaged kids who are excited about college and really seem to want our help aren't on their phones during our meetings.  They're too busy talking about colleges, asking questions and making sure they understand their next steps.  But the kid who always looks a little bored, who treats his college process like a chore other people are making him do, that's your likely text-er, right there.   

One of the nice things about the information age is that it's easy to give someone a gift–undivided attention.  If you're talking with someone you like and respect, put the phone away for two minutes.  It's a gift that doesn't cost you anything and you'll get all kinds of subtle credit for doing it. 

The text messages will be there when you get back. I promise.