What if none of this mattered for college admissions?

What if all colleges were exactly the same, and everyone were guaranteed a spot in one as long as you graduated from high school?  Whatever your GPA, whatever activities you did or didn't do, you'd get into the same college everybody else gets into. 

What would you change about your life if none of this mattered for admission to college? 

Your answers say a lot about you, your motivation, and just how many of your decisions are being driven by what you think colleges want you to do.

With the exception of preparing for and taking the SAT/ACT (which nobody likes to do), the most engaged students aren't spending their time trying to please colleges.  They're taking difficult classes, studying and participating in activities because that's what they really want to be doing. 

They have enough faith in themselves to know that their future isn't dependent on an admission to one particular dream school.  They're living much of their high school lives as if none of this mattered for admission to college.   

And they're standing out because of it.

An easy way to get extra emotional credit

Sure, you only get a little credit for ignoring a call or text message when you're in the middle of talking or meeting with someone.  But when you divert your attention to look down to check your cell phone, it's like telling that person, "Wait, this might be more important than you are."  And if you take the call or respond to the message, well, it's clear who won the face off.

If you want to get extra emotional credit, turn the phone off and tell the person that you're doing it.

If a kid sits down with us at Collegewise and says, "Before we get started, I'm going to turn my phone off," he goes up a couple notches in our book.  It's like he's telling us, "This meeting is important to me–everybody else can wait for the next hour."

Please don't tell me that you have to be reachable all the time.  Unless you're on the transplant list, no seventeen year old needs to be reachable all the time.

So the next time you visit a teacher to ask for help, or go see your counselor, or have a conversation with a friend who needs your advice, or meet with your tutor, say, "I'm going to turn off my phone" and then do it.

Not a bad way to start your college interviews either, by the way. 

Yet another way to stand out

One of the more popular essay topics colleges now require is some version of, "How will you contribute to our campus community?" The best responses to that question come from students who've already become contributors to their high school campus communities.  Here's one way to do that, and it's a different way to stand out in college admissions.

Use your talent, skill or energy to benefit a campus group that you aren't even a part of.

Sure, it's good to lend your time and resources to the Red Cross club when you're a member, or the basketball team when you're the point guard, or the orchestra when you're the first chair violin.

But what if you made it your goal to get more people to come out and support the cross country team if you weren't actually a member of the team yourself?  Imagine how much the team would appreciate your efforts.  Even better, what if you started an organization whose mission was to support the school events that don't traditionally draw big crowds?  You'd be supporting members of the campus community.  And let's be honest.  Everyone who benefitted would love you for doing it.   

What if, after running a successful fundraiser for your own soccer team, you volunteered to help the football team, or the school newspaper, or the French club do the same thing, even if you weren't a member?  You'd be taking a skill you've learned and using it to make a broader impact on your campus community.  You'd be a selfless hero.

What if you love to write and offered to write an email newsletter for the student counsel, or to write the text for the football team's programs they sell, or snappy bios for the section editors of the school newspaper? 

What's something you can do that other people or organizations could benefit from?  Where could you make a contribution that would be needed and appreciated? 

One of the best ways to show a college how you'll contribute to their campus community is to contribute to your own.  And one of the best ways to contribute to your own is to use your talents and skills with no expectation of anything in return other than the grateful appreciation of the recipients. 

Save the date for spring college fairs

Every spring, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling sponsors college fairs across the country.  Here's the Spring 2011 schedule.  As we get closer to the actual fairs, I'll write a post about how to actually get something out of them (hundreds of college representatives in one place is a great thing, but I've found that lots of kids leave with more brochures than they do new information or perspective).

Also, if you're interested in studying music, dance, theater, visual arts, graphic design, or any other visual or performing arts, check out the information about visual and performing arts college fairs

More free financial aid advice

I posted last Friday about a series on The Choice blog where a financial aid expert was answering readers' questions.  He has since completed the series with four more installments, and this link will take you to a listing of all seven parts.

Topics he addresses include the best ways to save for college, the impact of a parents' divorce on financial aid eligibility, the viability of outside scholarships, and whether or not you can negotiate with a financial aid office. 

It's hard to imagine any parent of a college bound student not finding at least one question he answers that wouldn't be of interest to you. And I was impressed by how much free information he gives away.

What schools, businesses and organizations can learn from Southwest Airlines

Time Magazine ran a story today about a Southwest Airlines pilot delaying his departure of a full airplane so they could wait for a grandfather who was trying to get to his grandson's funeral.  The article points out that this was a courageous decision, as the pilot risked the wrath of angry travelers who might end up missing their connections at the next stop. But I didn't think his decision was all that surprising.  Not only was it the humane thing to do, but Southwest Airlines doesn't let corporate policy get in the way of doing the right thing. 

From page 289 of Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success.


I can’t anticipate all of the situations that will arise at the stations across our system.  So what we tell our people is ‘Hey, we can’t anticipate all of these things.  You handle them the best way possible.  You make a judgment and use your discretion; we trust you’ll do the right thing.  If we think you’ve done something erroneous, we’ll let you know…without criticism, without backbiting.  We never jump on employees for leaning too far in the direction of the customer."

Herb Kelleher
Former CEO of Southwest Airlines 

That pilot knew that as long as he was doing what he thought was the right thing, Southwest Airlines would have his back.  That's the kind of place where people like to work.

Standardized testing plans for juniors

One of the most important college planning choices for juniors is deciding which standardized tests to take and when to take them.  Here are a few guidelines to help you.

First, for those of you who just got your PSAT scores returned, please read this post I wrote a year ago about what PSAT scores mean and why you should never stress over them.

All juniors should plan on taking either the SAT or ACT at least once this year.  Colleges accept either one of them, so a smart strategy is to figure out if you're better at one test or the other, then focus your test-prep efforts on your stronger test.  The Princeton Review offers a free practice test for both the SAT and the ACT.  Take both and see if you score higher on one test or the other.  But whatever you do, definitely don't prepare for both.  You want good test scores, but you don't want to spend one second more than necessary doing test preparation.  Pick one test and go with it.  

If you're planning to apply to more selective private colleges, you might need to take a few of the SAT Subject TestsCompass Education has put together a great resource for Subject Test requirements here.  But as they mention, there's really no replacement for visiting the websites of your chosen colleges and verifying their testing requirements.  If you find that some colleges you're considering require the Subject Tests, plan on taking those in May or June in the classes you'll just be completing (like US history or chemistry).

And finally, before you make a decision about how to prepare for the SAT or ACT (class, tutor, book, etc.), you might want to check out this post I wrote for parents about choosing test prep (as parents are usually integrally involved in that decision).

Summary for juniors:

1.  Visit the websites of any colleges you might be considering and review their testing requirements.  This is a good way to get an admissions context for the testing plans you're about to make.

2.  Don't panic over your PSAT scores.  Just use them to help you make good testing decisions.

3.  Determine if you're a stronger SAT or ACT test-taker, and make that your test of choice.

4.  Prepare for, and take, either the SAT or ACT at least once this year.

5.  Consider taking the SAT Subject tests if any colleges you're considering require them.

There's no such thing as one perfect testing schedule (we spend almost an entire meeting with our Collegewise students planning their testing calendar), but if you use these guidelines and verify your choices with your high school counselor, you'll be in good testing shape at the end of this year.

What should you wear to your college interview?

We get the "What should I wear to my college interview?" question a lot from our Collegewise students.  Here's what we tell them.

Imagine your parents were making you dress up for Thanksgiving dinner at your grandparents' house.  What would you wear?  A t-shirt and jeans is too casual.  A full suit or formal dress is too much.  Anything in between those two will probably be fine as long as you use good judgment.

That's a good rule of thumb for your college interview attire.   

On the one hand, you need to show the interviewer that you appreciate the importance of this meeting.  Making an effort to look nice conveys that.  A college interviewer once told us that a student showed up to meet her wearing yoga pants and looking like she'd just come from the gym.  No good.

On the other extreme, if you dress up so formally that you feel awkward and uncomfortable, you're going to ooze tension during the interview.  It's never going to make you look bad to be the best dressed person in the room.  But if it affects your ability to relax and be yourself, it's just not worth it.  

And remember, you're not dressing up for a date here.  It's fine to be fashionable, but you don't want your outfit (or an overwhelming application of perfume or cologne), to speak for you. Wear something that would make your grandma say, "You look nice, dear."

You can find even more advice in our "College Interviews" video.  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.


How I wish colleges would do tours

Touring colleges is an important part of any student’s college search.  It’s just too bad so many colleges’ tours are so ineffective.

Here’s your typical college tour.  Parents and students are led around the campus by a polished, rehearsed student who tells them that the library has two million volumes, the average class size is surprisingly small, and students can study abroad.  Tour ten colleges, and I promise you that at least nine of them will say those three things.  So while students still get to see the campus and breathe in the atmosphere, the only real insight they pick up from the tour is whether or not they liked their tour guide.

Given that so many colleges seem alike to the college researcher, I think schools are missing a huge opportunity to stand out and make a memorable impression on the students who are most likely to apply and later enroll.

If I ran tours at a college, here’s what I’d do.

1.  Understand that your job isn’t to sell the school to the group.  It’s to help the visitors make good decisions about whether or not your school might be a good fit.

2.  Accept that you’re not for everybody.  Once you do that, it will make it easier to do #1.

3.  Let the tour guides design the tour based on what they think students would want to see and learn about. If your ten tour guides do ten slightly different tours, that’s good.  No cookie cutter tours.  Sure, they’d have to get their versions approved.  But if you’re terrified that your tour guides would say something inappropriate, you either need new tour guides or you need to start trusting the ones you’ve already got.

4.  At the end of the tour, separate the students and parents.  Let the students go to a room staffed by five undergrads who take their questions for the next 30 minutes.  And here’s the important part.  Empower those five staffers to tell the truth.  Have them say to students,

“Our job isn’t to sell you on our school; it’s to help you make the best decision for you about whether or not you might enjoy spending four years here.  So for the next 30 minutes, you can ask us any questions you want to, and we’ll answer them honestly.  We won’t be telling our bosses or your parents what you ask us.  This will probably be your only chance throughout your college search to get honest answers from someone at a college who isn’t trying to sell you anything, and we hope you’ll take us up on it.”

Do the same thing with parents, but make the panel a mix of faculty and staff.  You could have two professors, an academic advisor, a counselor from the health center and someone from the housing office.  Bonus points if the panelists have their own kids in college (any college).

5.  Have the visitors fill out evaluations of their visit.  And I don’t mean long forms where they have to choose  statements like “strongly agree” or rate the tour from 1 to 5.   Just come out and ask them what they liked most, what they liked least, and give them space to write.  Add a space at the end where they can ask a question that wasn’t covered on the tour, and invite them to leave their email address if they’d like it answered.  Have the tour guides reply with answers within 24 hours.

It wouldn’t be easy.  It would take guts to make the change.  But imagine the impression you’d make.

And more importantly, don’t you owe it to your prospective students?

Why paying for college is like buying a gym membership

Paying for college isn't like paying for a car or a house. It's easy to research cars and houses to the point that you really do know exactly what you're getting.  Have a mechanic look over the car before you buy it.  Get the house inspected.  Read what Consumer Reports says about the car.  Research the schools in the house's neighborhood.  Sure, there can be unforeseen surprises.  But in most cases, you know what to expect once you buy it. 

Colleges can't be measured like that because there's a gigantic unknown in the equation–the student.

You can pay top dollar for a private college that offers small classes, personal attention from professors and the most supportive, encouraging environment you can find.  Still, your kid has to take advantage of all those opportunities for it to mean anything.  You can send your kid to the cheapest public school in your state that has huge classes, and professors who care more about their research than they do their teaching.  If your student commits to extracting the maximum value from her four years there, she'll probably get a great education.  

Choosing a college is a lot like buying a gym membership.  If you enroll in the nicest gym in town but don't utilizes all the classes and trainers (or if you just don't go at all), the guy who works out every day with old dumbbells in his garage will be in much better shape than you will be.   

I think colleges can and should be rigorously evaluated.  But they can't be measured or ranked.  You can't research your way to a college that guarantees future success.  The student is the X-factor in any college decision. 

So when you're trying to decide whether or not a particular college is worth the investment, don't forget to evaluate your student, too.