Right person, wrong time

I've written before that you should be careful taking college admissions advice from people who don't know what they're talking about.  But even when you've found the right person who can give you advice, there's a right time and a wrong time to ask for it.

Alex from our North White Plains office told me today that when he was being wheeled into surgery for an emergency appendectomy a few years ago, one of the nurses who'd found out he was a college counselor actually started asking him for free college counseling advice.  So just as the anesthesia is starting to take effect, she's saying,

"Oh, you're a college counselor?  My son has a 3.98 GPA and really wants to go to Cornell.  His SAT scores are. . .(anesthesia takes hold). . .should he take them again?  And he volunteers. . .(anesthesia coming on strong). . .should he apply early decision or would it be better to…(anesthesia wins)…."

Right person.  Wrong time.

10 things every future premed should know

We often see students at Collegewise who tell us that they want to be doctors someday.  If you're thinking about medicine as a career, here are few things to keep in mind as you pick your colleges (from our guide, Is there a Future Doctor in the House? The Collegewise Guide to Choosing a College and Preparing for Life as a Premed).

1. You probably won't be a "premed" major.

Not many colleges offer a major called "premed."  Premed just means that you intend on applying to medical school at the conclusion of your college career.  You can be an art major and still be "premed." 

2. You don't have to be a science major to go to medical school.

You have to take the sciences classes that are tested on the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test), but you can major in anything.  A music major can go to medical school if she takes the required science classes.  So you should major in something you enjoy.

3. You don't have to go to a famous college to go to medical school.

Just because you go to a famous college doesn't mean your chances of getting in to medical school improve.  You'll simply need to be successful wherever you attend college.   

4. It's important to evaluate the premed advising on campus.

Some colleges' premed advising "departments" are just one biology professor who holds advising hours once a week. Other colleges have robust programs, with dedicated advisors, peer mentors, workshops, and even application assistance when you eventually apply.  Tiny Juniata College has one of the highest acceptance rates to medical school of any four-year college because their advising is so good.  Look at what they offer as an example how good premed advising can be.

5.  You need to interact with people.

You won't get into medical school if you spend four years dividing your time between the library and the laboratory.  Medicine is a profession built on communicating and interacting with other people.  Get involved in activities that involve working in teams, teaching, mentoring or leading other students.  Start now.  Don't wait until you get to college.   

6. Readers and writers tend to make good premeds.

The more you read and write, the better communicator you'll be.  That's why successful medical school applicants take courses that involve substantial reading and writing.  They don't hide out in science courses all the time. 

7.  Have other interests besides the sciences.

It's great if you love science (most future doctors should).  But medical schools like students who have other non-science related interests, like playing the drums in the marching band, being on the swim team, or writing for the campus paper.  Be a real person with hobbies and interests that don't necessarily tie to the sciences, and continue developing those interests once you get to college. 

8. Practice the art of initiative.

Do you regularly participate in classroom discussions?  Do you visit your teacher after class to ask questions?  If you want to get involved in something, are you comfortable sending an email, or picking up the phone, or knocking on a door to pursue that interest?  You'll need to do these things to be a successful premed.  Practice the art of initiative while you're in high school so you can use it to be more successful once you get to college.

9.  Don't become a premed just because your parents want you to.

"He is interested in medicine," or, "She really wants to be a doctor" are phrases we sometimes hear from parents.  It's never a good thing to be a passive observer in your own education, especially for a path as demanding as medicine.  If you want to be a doctor, think about your reasons why, proudly declare what they are, and start taking steps to pursue that goal.  But if your parents are more interested in you being a doctor than you are, it's better to be honest with them then to reluctantly immerse yourself in the life as a premed.    

10.  Don't just say that you "…really want to help people."  Do it. 

When asked why they want to be doctors, a lot of premeds answer, "I want to help people."  If you really have a passion for helping people, you won't wait until you're a doctor to do it.  In fact, you'll go out of your way to help those most in need.  You won't just volunteer at a hospital. You'll volunteer at a mobile health clinic that goes to the poorest part of your city to give free medical care, or find another way to serve others out of a sense of mission.  If you really want to help people, start now and show medical schools later how important that mission is to you.

And if you'd like more advice about how to choose a college and prepare for life as a premed, we wrote a guide called "Is there a Future Doctor in the House?" where we discuss:

  • What can you do in high school right now to prepare for life as a premed? (It’s not just volunteering at a hospital—lots of people do that.)
  • What are the right colleges for you to have a successful premed career? (Just because a college is prestigious doesn’t mean it’s the right school for a premed.)
  • Once you get to college, how can you make sure you’re not one of the 60% of premeds who are rejected every year from medical school?

It's 44 pages, sold as a downloadable PDF.  You can get your copy here.

Music to my ears

I met with a student last week who's trying to decide which college he should attend.  He's a smart kid who's worked hard in high school and was torn between two good options.  His parents sat there quietly, listening, not even interjecting while we chatted.  So towards the end of the meeting, I asked them where they thought he should go.  And his reserved mother who hadn't yet said a word just said,

"This is his decision, and we support him.  He can go wherever he wants as long as it makes him happy.  That's all we care about." 

You should have seen how happy that kid looked knowing that he'd already made his parents proud no matter what college he was about to choose. 

I think she should teach classes on parenting during the college process.    

P.S.: He chose UC Davis, by the way.  Go Aggies.

For parents: how to pick your student’s high school

A lot of families with 8th grade students come to us looking for advice in choosing high schools (public vs. private and which private to attend).  Here are a few things we talk about with those families. 

1.  Where does your student want to go?

That's not a trivial question.  Just because an eighth grader doesn't want to compare the features and benefits of particular high schools doesn't mean you shouldn't ask him where he wants to go.  The first step in being successful in high school is getting happy and comfortable in your surroundings as quickly as possible.  Where he wants to go, even if his only reason is that his friends will be there, should be the first thing you consider. 

2.  Remember that high schools don't get kids into college; kids have to do that themselves.

Some families want us to tell them which high school will do the best job of getting their students into selective colleges.  It's important to remember that no high school gets a student into college.  A high school can provide rigorous course offerings, a dedicated college counseling staff and a student body full of high-achieving students, but it's still up to the student to work hard and take advantage of those opportunities.  Smart, hard-working students get into college no matter where they go to high school.

3.  Private schools aren't inherently better than public schools.

Sure, not all high schools are created equal.  But we've worked with hundreds of successful students from both public and private high schools, and we've seen no inherent advantage in enrolling a student at a private high school.  That doesn't mean that some kids won't flourish at a private school much better than they would at a public one.  But that's dependent on the student more than it is the school.  Not everyone needs an expensive gym with a personal trainer to get in shape, but some people swear by them.  The same can be said about private schools and educating a student. Make the decision based on what is best for your student, not by which school claims to be the best.

4. Don't avoid competitive environments for the wrong reasons. 

The smartest kids never have to say to us, "If I'd gone to a less competitive high school, I would have been at the top of my class."  The best students rise to the top of whatever environment they're in.  The fact that your student doesn't respond well to competitive
environments, or that he lacks academic confidence, or that he needs a
more nurturing environment might be good reasons to pick a school that's
known to be a little less competitive.  But don't pick a less demanding school if the only reason is that you hope it will be easier for him to stand out.   

5.  Focus on the next four years, not the four after that (yet).

Most high schools have little control over where your student will be accepted to college four years from now; they can only control how your student is educated until then.  And you have no idea what your student will be interested in four years from now, either.  So don't try to predict the future.  Instead, make decisions based on what you know about your student today.  A student who loves music today should be at a high school where he can have fun in a strong music program.  A student who works best when he has frequent interactions with teachers needs to be at a school that will give him that.  The student who thrives on competition and has soaring academic confidence needs to surround herself with the best and brightest over-achievers.

And most importantly, remember that you're not going to ruin your kid's future by choosing the wrong high school.  I'm not saying it's not an important decision, but lots and lots of happy and successful students come out of whatever public school they were directed towards.  It's hard to make a life-defining mistake with this choice. 

For independent college counselors: be undeniably good

Steve Martin said it best on the Charlie Rose show:

“When people ask me how do you make it in show business or whatever, what I always tell them–and nobody ever takes note of it ‘cuz it’s not the answer they wanted to hear–what they want to hear is, ‘Here’s how you get an agent.  Here’s how you write a script.  Here’s how you do this…  But I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’  If somebody’s thinking, ‘How can I be really good?’, people are going to come to you. It’s much easier doing it that way than going to cocktail parties.”

That’s good advice for anyone trying to make it as an independent (private) college counselor, too.

I mention this because some independent counselors I meet at conferences lament that admissions officers won’t talk to them. They complain that high school counselors don’t want to work in tandem with them.  They want to know how we market ourselves, where we find potential clients, and how we get speaking engagements.  A lot of those particular counselors are looking for shortcuts where they’re aren’t any.

The independent counselors who are full every year, who love what they’re doing and have raving fans, who are liked and trusted and admired in the profession, they got that way by being undeniably good.  That’s the starting point.  Do a great job for your families.  Inhale college admissions information and share it with other counselors.  Attend conferences.  Do sessions at conferences.  Tour colleges.  Read all the books about admissions.  Read all the press about admissions.  Make families happy and keep your promises.  That’s how the best counselors–and there are lots of them–do it.

Stop looking for ways to get people to pay attention to you.  Instead, start being so good that they don’t have any choice but to notice.

Genuine beats polished

When something or someone is too polished, it's hard to trust them. 

When I hear a politician on the news evade the real question and give a polished, rehearsed answer, it doesn't encourage me to change my vote.   

I'm much more likely to buy a product that has open reviews online from customers, both positive and negative, than I am to buy one that has a glowing testimonial from one hand-picked fan. 

When I interview someone for a job at Collegewise, I like it when they give real answers, when they're confident enough to tell the truth even if they make a little fun of themselves.  When our former college softball pitcher who struck out all the batters admitted that she also went 0-16 at the plate during her freshman year (way to own it, Katie!), I knew I wanted her to work here. 

Colleges are the same way when they evaluate applicants.

When you apply to college, it's much more important to be genuine than it is to be polished.  Be proud of your accomplishments, sure.  But more importantly, just be proud of who you are.  Make your application and essay sound like you.  Admit what you like along with what you aren't good at.  Let your personality come out.  Your application is not a marketing piece–it's a reflection of you.  It needs to have some soul. 

That's why we don't over-edit essays–they sound like the 17 year-old who wrote them.  It's why we'll encourage a student to be honest rather than to try to guess what colleges want to hear.  We want students to be who they really are, not some manufactured-to-perfection version of themselves. 

It's easier for colleges to trust you when you're genuine than it is when you're just too polished.

Measuring college counseling success

"What's your success rate?"

Families ask us that sometimes in our introductory meetings.  It's a fair question, and our answer doesn't satisfy every family who asks.  Not everyone defines college counseling success the way we do.

If what the family really wants to know is how many of our students get into Ivy League schools, they're probably not going to like the answer–we don't know.  Some get in every year, but we don't keep a running tally.  That's not how we measure whether or not we (or our students) did a good job.

How you measure success in anything will define what you do and how you behave while you're doing it.  I don't want to turn away a "B" student just because he won't add to our Ivy League tally.  I don't want to feel pressure to tell the high achiever who loves Oberlin that she should really consider Princeton too, even though she has no interest in it.  And most importantly, I don't want to play a role in perpetuating the misguided belief that the best schools are the famous ones, and that a student's failure to gain admission to one means that he was somehow inadequate.

We measure our success by how happy our families are with their students' college choices.  We like that our kids have attended over 700 different colleges.  When a student emailed one of our counselors yesterday from the Millsaps College campus
and said, "As of today, I'm going to Millsaps!"–that's a success (for
him especially, but for us, too).  If a student has college options, if he's excited about where he gets to go, and his family is itching to get the parent version of the school's sweatshirts so they can attend orientation weekend in style, we think that's a good success for everyone involved.  

That measurement means we can work with families who care more about fit than they do about prestige.  We can encourage students to be themselves in their applications and essays, to research colleges and find ones they love even if they haven't heard of them yet, and most importantly, to have some fun while they're doing it.

If you're a student, a parent or a counselor who's not enjoying the process as much as you'd like to, the fastest way to change that is to change how you measure your success. 

On school bullying

I'm deviating a little today.  This post isn't college admissions related.  But I'm going to forge ahead and write it anyway. 

The story of Phoebe Prince has been in the news a lot lately.  I don't think anyone needs me to chime in about how pointless and tragic her death was, or how unforgivable it will be if we learn that the school administrators really did sit by and do nothing to help her.  I think a lot of people are in agreement about that.  

But I do want to say this.  Every high school has at least one student who gets targeted, certainly not as mercilessly as in Phoebe's case, but I think you know what I mean.  There's always at least one kid who gets laughed at, harassed, and maybe even bullied.  The kid may not be that different from a lot of other kids, but once the laughing starts, it gains perpetual motion and doesn't stop.  High school is an awful place for that kid.

I'll bet there are students who want to help that student but worry about becoming targets themselves. If that's the case for you, if you'd like to do something to support that student, here's a suggestion. Pull that kid aside, or send him an email, or find some other way to discreetly say something to the effect of,

"Those kids are as*holes.  I'm sorry about what they're doing.  Keep your chin up."  

It won't end the bullying.  It probably won't dramatically change that kid's life at school.  It's not even the most you could do.  But it's something.  You'll be throwing a show of support his way when he might feel like nobody else wants to offer any. 

It's so easy to do, you risk nothing by doing it, and it will probably mean the world to a kid who needs it. 

Five tips for seniors to help you pick your colleges

May 1 is almost here, the official deadline when seniors must formally commit to the college at which they'll spend the next four years.  If you're in the enviable position of struggling with multiple college choices, here are five tips to help you make a good decision.   

1.  Stop and smell the letters.

I don't mean that you should literally sniff your acceptance letters (that would be ineffective and, well, strange).  But when faced with a number of college acceptances from schools they want to attend, a lot of students forget to celebrate how lucky they are, and some go as far as to lament how stressful it is to have too many choices.  Don't be one of those people.  If you have 2 or 4 or 10 colleges from which to choose, you should celebrate what you've accomplished.  You're going to college.  You get to pick which college you want to attend.  Life is good.   So embrace your options, feel proud that you worked hard enough to earn this, and enjoy the process of deciding where you're going to spend the next four years.

2.  Expect to be uncertain.

A lot of high school students expect that they should be certain of their choice when they decide where to go to college.  We can make this easier: don't expect to be certain.  In fact, expect to be uncertain. Selecting a college is a big decision.  And big life decisions almost always come with some uncertainty (why do you think so many people are nervous on their wedding days?).  You likely won't be sure that you've made the right college choice until you get there, eat some dorm food, and get lost trying to find a class (it happened to all of us).  So if you're feeling unsure about your choice, don't worry; it just means you're giving this big life decision the care and attention it deserves.   

3.  Visit the colleges that interest you most…again.
If you're really interested in attending a college, you've probably visited already.  Visit again.  We know–you only have a few weeks.  Do it anyway.  Take a day off school if you have to.  Unless it's too far (and too expensive) to see again, visiting a college campus after you've been accepted lets you walk on campus and say, "I can be here this fall if I want to be."   It gives you a chance to potentially experience that feeling that you've found your college home.  And if that happens, you're right there on campus and can buy a sweatshirt with your new college's name on it. 

4.  Trust your instincts.
A lot of students will try to weigh the positive and not-so-positive traits of their colleges choices.  They might even seek advice from people they trust.  You should do all of these things.  But in most cases, you can't pro-and-con your way to a college decision.   No matter what the pros and cons are, and no matter what anyone tells you, you are the one who will spend four years at the college you choose.   At some point, your gut instinct has to kick in.   So listen to it.  You'd be surprised how right it usually is.

5.  Remember that there is no such thing as a perfect college.
Great college experiences happen everywhere, including at non-Ivy League schools and at colleges in Delaware.  But there is no college that will be perfect in every way for you.  It's going to be up to you to make your college experience perfect for you. So whatever you do, pick a college where you feel excited to spend four years, a place where you can't wait to go to class, to meet new friends, and to find what college life has in store for you.   If you accept that it will be your responsibility to make the most of your college experience, you'll be a lot more likely to find a school on which you'll look back after four years and feel you made the perfect choice.

And seniors, in case we don't see you back around our blog, congratulations, and have a great time in college…

The work you do along the way

A good blog post today from my favorite marketing author, Seth Godin, about the relentless pursuit of specific goals.  It got me thinking about students who relentlessly pursue a goal to gain admission to a highly selective college. 

It's risky to measure your success by whether or not Stanford says "Yes," because they reject most of their applicants.  That's giving too much power to someone else. 

What's broken in college admissions isn't necessarily the fact that
kids are working hard; what's broken is that too many kids (and a lot
of parents) only find value in the work if the chosen college offers
admission.  There's a reason why those who are rejected from their dream schools aren't relegated to substandard lives.  The work you do to be a competitive college applicant means you're smart, dedicated, and willing to work hard.  Those traits will make you successful no matter where you go to college.  Whether or not your dream school admits you, there's value in the work you do along the way.