For students who aren’t good test takers

The worst thing about standardized tests like the SAT isn't that they can keep you out of colleges you want to go to (though that's admittedly pretty bad).  It's that they make kids who don't score well feel badly about themselves.  Low scores chip away at the legitimate pride a student has about her good grades, or basketball achievements, or artistic talents.  Nobody in the history of civilization failed in life because of SAT scores (and nobody ever became happy and successful because of them either).

One of the most outspoken critics of the SAT is John Katzman, the founder of The Princeton Review.  This interview with PBS took place in 1998, but it still has legs today.  Here's my favorite part:


The SAT is a scam. It has been around for 50 years.  It has never measured anything.  And it continues to measure nothing. And the whole game is that everybody who does well on it is so delighted by their good fortune that they don't want to attack it.  And they are the people in charge. Because of course, the way you get to be in charge is by having high test scores. So it's this terrific kind of rolling scam that every so often, somebody sort of looks and says–well, you know, does it measure intelligence?  No.  Does it predict college grades?  No.  Does it tell you how much you learned in high school?  No.  Does it predict life happiness or life success in any measure?  No.  It's measuring nothing.

You might also like what Jay Mathews has to say here in "Your SAT score has little to do with your life." 

And every frustrated tester should get familiar with Fairtest's list of schools that don't rely on test scores to make admissions decisions.

Warren Buffet’s advice for parents

I don't think being a billionaire necessarily qualifies anyone as an expert on parenting.  But I can't help but like Warren Buffet.  He still lives in the same stucco house in Omaha, NE he bought for $31,500 in 1958.  He announced in 2006 that he's giving away his fortune to charity (with 86% of it going to the Gates Foundation).  Every time I read or see an interview with him, he's likeable, self-effacing, modest, and seems like a guy who'd be fun to have a beer with. 

So for what it's worth, here's his take on how "parents can make a better human being."


The power of unconditional love. I mean, there is no power on earth like unconditional love. And I think that if you offered that to your child, I mean, you’re 90 percent of the way home. There may be days when you don’t feel like it — it’s not uncritical love; that’s a different animal — but to know you can always come back, that is huge in life. That takes you a long, long way. And I would say that every parent out there that can extend that to their child at an early age, it’s going to make for a better human being.

The full interview is here.

Questions from our counselor training final exam

Every counselor hired at Collegewise must complete our 40-hour training program, observe meetings with students and parents, and pass a final exam.  Whether you're joining us right out of college or leaving a job in admissions at a highly selective university, we think it's important to train everyone from a common starting point. An experienced admissions officer obviously knows how colleges make decisions, but we've intellectualized that information and made it teachable to high school kids and parents.  Our training doesn't just teach the information; it also teaches new counselors the best way to explain that information to families. 

As I write this blog entry, our newest counselor (who was an assistant director of admissions at USC before joining us) has finished her Collegewise training and is completing her final exam.  There are over 100 questions on the exam covering everything from how colleges admit students, to how we counsel kids, to how to deal with difficult counseling situations. 

Here is a sampling of some of the questions we ask:

1. Why is matchmaking an especially important admissions element for students who want to attend the most selective colleges?

2. List the four elements colleges consider when assigning a student an “Academic Ranking” during the admissions process.  It’s not necessary to describe or elaborate on each of the elements at this time.

3. What are the 5 “Core-Subjects” that most colleges use to calculate a student’s GPA?

4. When a Collegewise counselor helps a student select extracurricular activities, what is the single most important question a counselor should ask the student in regards to each activity?

5. List 5 clichéd essay topics that high school students often choose for college essays.

6. Letters of recommendation are an important part of college admissions.  What are three important questions we should encourage students to ask themselves when considering which teachers might be good choices to write letters.

7. Name two schools that focus almost exclusively on “pre-professional”

8. Define “single choice early action” and name one school who uses it.

9. Create a testing calendar and a preliminary college list for the student
listed below.  Assume he started with us in August going into his
junior year.  Use the Collegewise testing calendar and the Collegewise
preliminary college list.       

Michael’s GPA at the end of his sophomore year is a 3.6.  He is
scheduled to take the following in his junior year:  AP English,
Pre-calculus, US History, Honors Chemistry, Ceramics and AP French
IV.    Michael toured the UCSB and UCLA campuses 2 weeks ago.  He likes the
feeling of being on a big campus but being in a city like L.A. is too
scary for him. He’d prefer less of a city feel.  He also wants to stay
in California.

10. What are some signs that would indicate that a family might not be a
good match for the Collegewise program?

11. Based on your preliminary experience, describe the type of family who is
likely to appreciate and benefit from the Collegewise program.

12 Describe a circumstance under which a Collegewise counselor might endorse a high achieving student’s decision NOT to enroll in an available AP course (ex. AP Spanish) during her senior year of high school?  Assume the student wants to attend a highly selective college.

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How far can a love of learning take you?

I've written often on this blog that the most successful students work hard because they love to learn, because they're passionate about what they do, not because they want to be admitted to a prestigious college.  They don't make college the reward.  College is the fortunate byproduct of their drive to know more and to make an impact.

Richard Feynman was a professor of physics at Caltech who won the Nobel Prize.  He worked on the atomic bomb and was a member of the team that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  And he also wrote a fantastic book about how the best scientists are driven not by the chance at fame or notoriety, but by the joy of learning something nobody else has known before.

Here's a short video of Feynman explaining that he doesn't care about awards, not even the Nobel Prize.  As he puts it, "I've already got the prize–the pleasure of finding the thing out."

What do you think he would have said to a kid who was taking calculus because "That's what Harvard wants"?

What do great college matches sound like?

We try to stay in touch with our former students so they can tell us about their lives in college.  Their responses always remind me of three things:

1.  The vast majority of college students are happy where they are.

2.  College guidebooks will never be able to capture a college like
the students who actually go there can.

3.  A lot of what makes college wonderful can't be measured or
predicted.  You have to get there and discover it for yourself. 

Thanks to the following former Collegewise students for giving us permission to share their stories. 

Medrano College is great!!   I have been involved in the Appalachia program
since the beginning of the year, which is a community service program
that takes students from Boston College to the Appalachia region during
spring break.  I will be spending my spring break in South Carolina
building houses, and getting involved with the community.  It is a great
way to give back, and meet other freshman students from Boston
College.  Football is big at Boston College and everyone is really into
supporting the football team.  Weekends at Boston College during the
fall are all about football.  Go BC!!!!!!!

Samantha M.

Boston College, Class of 2012


American College is the most thrilling experience of my life. There are days I never sleep, it requires a lot of work (but once you start taking classes in your major, you find a newfound energy to succeed), and I've met people I will never forget. Weekend afternoons are spent doing homework, or sitting in my friends' rooms listening to blues and jazz stations, as we sip black coffee over political discussions.  The city is great and full of things to do. On Halloween, walk down Massachusetts Ave. to Dupont Circle and trick or treat at the embassies. You'll probably step onto the grounds of 20 countries if you're lucky.

Alex H.
American University, Class of 2012

HolyCrossCollege has been so much fun!  My classes are SO great, even organic chemistry!  I'm taking a psychology class too and I love it so much, I think it may be my major.  All the professors are so smart and so helpful, each one of them is more than willing to help out in any way that they can. Holy Cross is such a tight community that I felt so welcome the moment I stepped on campus.  We decorate for Christmas, we have small personal retreats throughout the year, you get a handwritten card from your class dean on your birthday.  Things like that make me feel at home here.  I feel like at any other school I wouldn't have had nearly the same, personal experience as I have had at Holy Cross.

Christina G.
College of the Holy Cross, Class of 2012

SLO Cal Poly is an awesome, small townish, safe school.  I mean safe as in I've walked around at 10:30 at night and not felt the least bit uncomfortable.  It's really mellow here.  Everyone is laid back but hard working.   If you're looking for an engineering school, this is your best bet!

Jessica D.
Cal Poly  SLO, Class of 2012


CKatieollege has been the most amazing experience of my life so far. I joined a sorority, started writing for the school newspaper, and even spent this last year studying abroad in London and Athens.  I really feel like I have grown up in college, but the responsibility isn't something that weighs me down; it’s what I love about it. I couldn't wait to get out of high school, but I never want college to end!

Kate Sc.
Pepperdine, Class of 2010

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Final week of training for our new counselor

It's our last week of training for our new counselor here in Irvine. So as she prepares for her big final exam (and graduation dinner this week!), here are the last two sessions of training we completed with her.

Topics for Day 8: Collegewise Marketing
A lot of people think of marketing as running ads or handing out stress balls at conferences.   The marketing that we do at Collegewise is a little unusual in two ways.  1)  We take the majority of the money that we could have spent on traditional marketing and spend it to run a program that our customers will talk about.  2)  We’ve found that  the best way to market ourselves is to build an audience and teach something when we’re in front of them.  So in this session, we’ll discuss the various ways we make it easy for people to learn more about what we do, like referrals from other families, speeches at high schools, and writing our email newsletters and our blog.  Then we’ll talk more about the different programs that we offer, what is included in each, and how much they cost so that everyone can explain them to interested parties. 


•    How most businesses think of marketing
•    Out definition of marketing
•    Why marketing is not a department
•    The Five principles of Collegewise marketing   
•    Overview of the Collegewise Programs
Topics for Day 9: How to Do an Introductory Consultation
Nearly every family who enrolls at Collegewise first schedules a free, 30-minute introductory consultation.  We think this is the perfect way for families to meet the person they’d be working with and learn more about the program.  It’s also a chance for counselors to assess the fit and make sure that every family who enrolls is one who is likely to appreciate and benefit from what we do.   We don’t do sales presentations here, but we don’t just give away free advice either.  This session will teach you our system for running an introductory meeting that helps both the counselor and the family decide if it makes sense for us to work together. 

•    The difference between our introductory meetings and (slimy) sales presentations
•    What our introductory consultation is not
•    Your most important job in a consultation   
•    Steps to ensure a great meeting
•    Indications that the fit might not be good   
•    How to tell someone they might not be a good fit   
•    Common questions prospects might ask

For counselors: time to rethink your PowerPoint presentation?

At most of the conferences we attend, presenters feel compelled to use PowerPoint as part of their presentations.  But the truth is that PowerPoint isn't really improving most of the sessions.  It's not making the presentation more compelling, or helping the audience understand information any better.  If anything, it's sometimes even more confusing to see a list of ten complicated bullet points up on a screen than it would have been if the presenter just explained the most important idea she's trying to communicate. 

I'm a big fan of Seth Godin, and he's got a helpful guideline, for free, that made me rethink how I use PowerPoint, and even made me reconsider whether to use it at all.  If you'd like to use PowerPoint to make your presentations even more memorable, it might be worth a read.

College admissions advice for parents of 6th, 7th and 8th graders

We occasionally get calls from parents of 6th, 7th or 8th graders hoping to enroll their students in a college counseling program.  They’ve heard how difficult college admissions has become and they don’t want to make any mistakes.

But we don’t offer programs for students still in junior high school.  I think junior high is too early to start tying decisions to college admissions.  It’s too early to mold a 12 year-old’s love of computers into an activity that will help him get into college.  Parents shouldn’t panic that 13 year-old’s consistent B’s in math won’t be good enough for the Ivy League schools.  And it is much, much too early to begin any kind of preparation for the SAT because, well, that’s just crazy.

But it’s not too early for junior high students to develop habits that will help them be successful once they get to high school (which will help them get into college).  Here are five ways parents can help.

1.  Help your kids to be independent. 

You don’t want to raise a high school kid who depends on you to wake him up in the morning.  Kids need their parents, but when Mom or Dad makes all the decisions,  you raise a student that is too dependent on his parents and ultimately not well-prepared for college.  I’m not suggesting you need your 13-year-old to open and maintain a checking account, but you can have them get themselves up in the morning, organize their own school assignments, and maybe even assume some responsibilities for helping around the house.

2.  Encourage kids to approach their teachers with questions or concerns. 

If your junior high school student has questions or is struggling in a class, don’t contact the teacher for him to seek help.  Encourage your student to approach his teacher himself.  This is a good time for kids to start taking some responsibility for their own educations.  They need to learn how to advocate for themselves, and how to seek help when they need it.

3.  Encourage kids to follow their passions.

Colleges love students who are passionate about what they do, whether that’s doing scientific research or riding dirt bikes.  Teach your kids that interest is a good thing.  Don’t assign value to the interest based on how you think it will translate into an admission to college someday.  Kids who have the capacity to enjoy something tend to seek out that enjoyment even when their interests change.  That’s a good trait.  I don’t care if your student likes making jewelry, walking dogs in the neighborhood or just playing basketball with his friends.  As long as it isn’t covered by the criminal code, it’s probably an interest you want to encourage.

4.    Help kids find a love of learning.

When you ask a successful college applicant what her favorite class, subject or teacher is, she’s got an answer.  Grades are important, but they are not the only measure of a student’s academic potential.  A sincere interest in learning goes a long way with teachers and with colleges.  So if your student thrives in her math class and even joined the math club, tell her how wonderful it is that she loves math.  Encourage the enjoyment.  If your daughter is fascinated with birds, ask her how she might be able to learn more and decide together whether to buy some books, take a class, or maybe just do some birdwatching.  If your son raves about his history teacher, let him know how lucky he is and ask him to tell you more.  Don’t tie academic enjoyment to grades alone.  Curious learners are always appealing to colleges, and that intellectual love of learning is something you can foster in your kids.

5. Relax.

A lot of the information you hear about seemingly perfect kids being rejected from college is exaggerated.  There are over 2,000 colleges in the country and all but about 100 of them have plenty of room.  Nice kids who work hard (even if they aren’t “A” students) still get into plenty of colleges.  So let your kids be kids.  They don’t need to spend all their time maximizing strengths, fixing weaknesses and molding themselves into future college students.  Let them play and hang out with their friends and maybe even goof off a little.  When your kid is 12, 13 or 14, you’re not going to make a mistake that will keep your child out of college someday.  So relax, and encourage your kids to do the same.

Words to the wise about writing college essays

I share words of wisdom from Jay Mathews on this blog often enough that I probably no longer need to identify him as "from the Washington post and author of Harvard Schmarvard."  Jay's advice is just so easy to follow and, frankly, correct that I think he deserves as many mentions as we can give him.

Here's my favorite blurb from his latest piece "Words to The Wise about Writing College Application Essays":


 Reveal an endearing flaw…some bit of self-deprecation that will convince the college that you would be a pleasant person to have around.  Is the essay about your love of chess? Describe the day you set your high school team's record for being checkmated. Are you writing about your effort to ride every bike trail in the state? Say how you felt when you got hopelessly lost in the woods and had to be guided to safety by a passing Cub Scout troop."

It's good advice.  There's a book called "Getting In" in which the former Dean of Admission at Princeton recalls that one of the students he admitted the fastest was a kid who wrote that he was the worst soccer player on the worst soccer team in the state.   

Have you ever known someone who could admit when he wasn't good at something, someone who laughed at herself easily, or a person who was just generally was confident enough not to be ashamed when he made a mistake?  It's hard not to like those people.  And since your college essay is all about making the admissions officers like you, it doesn't hurt to occasionally poke a little fun at yourself.