With activities, don’t follow the crowd

I've met a lot of kids who have volunteered at hospitals.  But I've only ever met one who worked as an emergency medical technician.  She wrote her essay about her first night on the job when she did chest compressions in the back of a speeding ambulance on a 19 year-old motorcycle accident victim who had just gone into full cardiac arrest. 

Volunteering at a hospital is a popular choice for high school kids.  But I'll bet she was the only kid working for that ambulance company.

Lots of kids go to expensive summer programs at colleges.  But I've only ever met one who spent his summers taking history classes at his local community colleges for $20 per unit.  He got to know one of the professors, and she shared the reading assignments for her upper division course on George Washington.  He didn't care whether any college would look favorably on it–that's not what it was about for him.  He was just obsessed with history and wanted to know more. 

Lots of kids play an instrument in the high school jazz band.  But I've only ever met one who also played trumpet in a real mariachi band. He wasn't doing it to put it on his college applications–he just liked playing good music (and wearing the authentic mariachi outfit). 

The problem with popular activities is that they're crowded.  It's much harder to make an impact and stand out if lots of other students are doing exactly the same thing you are.  And the truth is that if you really care about what you're doing, if you're really interested and you're not doing it just to put it on your college applications, the popular choices won't be appealing to you.

If you really want to help people, you probably won't be satisfied volunteering at a hospital doing exactly the same thing the other 30 student volunteers are doing.  Why not work at an ambulance company?  Or better yet, volunteer at a mobile health clinic that travels to the poorest parts of town.  Or find a doctor who focuses on under-served populations and offer to help her for free.

If you really want to learn more about history, don't pay thousands of dollars to go to a famous college's summer program where lots of other students are just paying to play.  Go after your knowledge and take a local class with only 12 students, one where you can really get to know the professor.  Or read as many books as you can about the period that interests you.  Or email a professor at a local college and ask if you can meet him during his office hours so he could recommend the best ways for you to learn more about the Civil War. 

If you really love to play music, you probably won't be satisfied just playing in the jazz band.  You'll find a mariachi band, or a dixieland band that plays at retirement homes, or a slot at a local coffee shop where you can play on Sundays. 

The students who have the most rewarding experiences in their activities, who ultimately stand out from the crowd when they apply to college, are the students who care a lot more about following their interests then they do about following the crowd.

When trying too hard is a bad thing

Being impressive is a good thing.  But trying too hard to be impressive usually isn't. 

Imagine you were on a first date with someone and he blurted out, "I've done over 200 hours of community service at the hospital.  In fact, I won an award for my hard work and dedication."  Sure, that's impressive.  But you'd also probably feel like he's trying too hard.    

Confident, self-assured people don't try to wedge their accomplishments into casual conversation.  Nobody likes someone who can't wait to tell you how great he is. 

But if your date had just said, "I volunteer at the hospital and get to work with some pretty great kids," you'd want to know more.  You'd ask him to tell you more about the kids, what kind of work he does with them, and even how many hours a week he volunteers.  Then he wouldn't seem too full of himself when he revealed how many hours he's spent there–after all, you asked.  You'd probably be even more impressed because you'd have a better a sense of how much this work really means to him, more so than you would have if he had just shared the impressive statistics.

Filling out your college applications (and writing the essays) works the same way.

When a college asks you to list your awards or to tally up how many hours you spent doing an activity, that's the equivalent of a date asking you, "Have you ever won any awards?"  Don't be bashful.  Answer the question, and be proud–you deserve it.

But when you wedge hours and awards and accomplishments into the other parts of the application, it sounds like you're trying too hard. 

When a college asks which of your activities has had the most meaning for you and you list all your awards, you're trying too hard.

When you write an essay that's all about how your time in the Model United Nations taught you many important life lessons about hard work and commitment, you're trying too hard.   

And if you complete community service hours, secure leadership positions, and live your high school life based on what you think will look good on your resume, you're trying too hard.  

The most impressive students are the quietly confident ones.  These are the students who want to learn, who commit themselves to activities they really care about, and who know that their hard work will pay off no matter where they go to college.  

Ask Collegewise: How do admissions officers feel about kids using private counselors?

Harris asks:


I'm a parent and I've read that admissions officers don't like it when students use private college counselors.  I'm not sure how comfortable you'd be answering the question given what you do for a living, but is this true?" 

It's a question of the type of assistance being provided.  I've never met an admissions officer who was against kids having help with their college application process; but they're certainly against a kid having too much help, not just from a private counselor, but from anyone.  They want to hear from authentic, 17 year-old applicants, not from packaged kids who are the product of too much help. 

Guiding, advising, and doing a little cheerleading to keep a kid's college spirits up are all within the acceptable boundaries.  Most admissions officers would be happy with a knowledgeable person recommending colleges for the student to investigate, or helping him get organized, or telling him that you think the fact that he taught himself how to make sushi (and that he now makes it for his family) might be an interesting thing to write about in an essay–those are all within the rules.  But if you pick the colleges for him, fill out the applications and overrule his choice of topic for his essay, then you're going too far.  Good counselors know where the boundaries are.   

If you've got ten minutes, here's a good 2008 NPR interview about this very issue.  Just make sure you listen to it all the way through so you hear the admissions officer's take what the right kind of help really is.

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

To get into college, get off Facebook

Cal Newport
says that by working smarter, high school students can develop what he
calls an "under-scheduled life" that will leave you with better grades,
more college acceptances and–here's the best part–all kinds of free
time.  In fact, he says that students who do this right can finish all
their work by dinnertime almost every day and have the rest of the
evening to do pretty much anything.  Here's one of his most important


Rule #6: Do not, under any circumstances, do any work anywhere near an internet connection.

not do any work while online.  If you're writing a paper, or working on
math problems, or taking notes on your history textbook, with an
instant messenger window open, there's absolutely no way that you can
realize the ideal student workweek.  The work done in this state is
poor, it is draining, and it takes forever.  If you work while online,
you will end up staying up late, you will end up doing shoddy work, and
you will fail to achieve an underscheduled lifestyle–and therefore lose
all the benefits that it generates…When it comes to productivity,
there's no avoiding this truth: Facebook is the tool of the devil.  If
you want to significantly reduce the time you spend working, then you
absolutely have to keep the internet far, far away until you're
completely done for the day.

Page 68:  How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out) 

*Note: Cal also makes it clear that he's not against Facebook or
anything else you might like to do–he's just arguing that you need to
separate your work time from your free time–and that letting them overlap just
ruins both.

How your free time can make you more interesting to colleges

How you answer this question says a lot about how interesting you'll be to colleges.

Imagine that all of your obligations–school, homework, soccer practice, anything that fills your schedule–magically disappeared for the next month (and you were somehow guaranteed that their disappearance would in no way negatively affect you or your college future).  What would you do with that time?

Interesting students have interesting answers that question, like..

  • Try to see one baseball game in every single major league park in America.
  • Take some Italian cooking classes.
  • Adopt a guide dog for the blind and train it.
  • Travel to Europe and backpack for a month.
  • Make more of my jewelry and sell it on Etsy
  • Surf every day and maybe take some fishing trips with my friends.
  • Run a marathon.
  • Relax, write in my journal, and read whatever I wanted.
  • Take all the cool classes my gym offers that I never have time to take, like yoga and hip-hop dance.
  • Draw a lot.  Maybe do some painting, too.
  • Play pick-up basketball games with my friends.

Here's the thing about interesting people–they have interests.  Not things they're doing just to help them get into college, but real interests, things they enjoy and want to spend more time doing, or new things they'd like to explore.  That's why interesting students love this scenario. 

Less interesting kids say things like:

  • I have no idea. 
  • Sleep a lot and hang out with my friends.
  • Study for the SAT.
  • Get more community service hours at the local homeless shelter.

There's nothing wrong with those answers.  It's not bad to work at a homeless shelter.  It's just sad that the kid's doing it just to pad his service hours.  How much better would it be for him and for the people he's helping if he volunteered somewhere he really cared about?  Answers like these aren't indicators of real interests.  They indicate either a lack of interests, or a focus on doing things just to get you into college.   

lot of high school students fill their schedules with so many
obligations, so many scheduled activities that they believe will make
them "look good to colleges," that they don't have any genuine interests of
their own.  Working hard and committing yourself to your college future is a good thing, but you're still allowed to have free time to pursue real interests.  In fact, the colleges will reward you for doing it.

Where college essays are “brutally bland and predictable”


Most of the roughly thirty-six thousand essays that pass before the bleary eyes of the Berkeley admissions staff each year follow the well-worn format of these two examples: choose your most impressive activity; tell a story about how the activity helped you develop a trait you think the admissions officers care about; if possible, work in passing references to other items from your brag sheet.  Bonus points are awarded, of course, if you can start the essay with a dash of first-person, new-journalism-style description ('I was out of my element…').  After reading a collection of these essays while researching this book, I developed some serious sympathy for the Berkeley admissions staff.  This stuff is brutally bland and predictable."

-Cal Newport

Page 12:  How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out) 

What love of learning looks like

There's often a difference between having a high GPA and being a real learner.

After a workshop at a high school last spring, a student asked me if he should write an essay explaining why he hadn't taken harder classes.  His explanation was that his high school "wouldn't let him" for a variety of reasons.  After he gave me a little more information, I told him the truth–I didn't think it was a good idea.  It would only draw more attention to something he wasn't proud of.  And it would sound like he was making excuses. 

Colleges believe that the true learners always find a way to learn what interests them.  If a class isn't offered at their high school, they'll find another way to get the information because they want to know it, like this kid… 

Our counselor Allison received the following email today from one of her students (shared with the student's permission):


Subject: Registration is evil

Hi Allison,
So, I had to drop AP Statistics. Did I want to?  No.  I'm actually really frustrated about it because that is the class that I was most looking foreword to taking.  But it conflicts with dance and AP English.  I emailed the stats teacher to see if there was any way I could take the class as an independent study, which would be perfect if he says yes.  If he says no, I already checked all the math classes at my local community college, but they're are full (and they all started today for fall semester). I guess I could take it next spring if worst comes to worst.  I wish the high school scheduling didn't keep me from learning what I want to learn. 

She's not writing that because we prompted her or told her that colleges like students who enjoy learning.  I also appreciated that she's not asking, "Will Stanford still accept me without AP stats?"  It's not about that for her.  She wants to learn statistics.  She was excited about it.  And when she found out her school wouldn't let her take it, she didn't give up.  She started taking action to find a way to learn it.  That's what a true learner does. 

An easier way to find what you’re looking for on our blog

We've just added "Categories" at the left below the "Search" box.  So whether you're looking for advice for parents, tips for counselors, test prep advice, essay guidance, Collegewise news or all of our entries about why famous colleges aren't necessarily "better" colleges, you won't have to search through hundreds of entries to find them.

Thank you, Rosie, for the suggestion (and for reading this blog every single day).

A change that’s coming in college admissions?

I think a change is coming in college admissions.  As more colleges become outrageously expensive, more families will ask, "Is it actually
worth it?" 

Sure, smart families have always asked that question when it came to college.  But the colleges they thought were "the best" were immune to that examination.  Most families wouldn't question the worth of attending a prestigious college.  They might not have forked over their life savings for a college they'd never heard of, but for Princeton, it was just assumed that the benefits of attending will pay the family back both literally and figuratively.  And that's what I think is going to change.  Families are going to become much more college cost conscious.  More families will consider whether the education at a private schools that costs $50,000 a year to attend is really that much better than the education a student could receive at a public university for a comparative fraction of the cost.

Other people are asking the question already.      

Washington monthly just published this article called "The Prestige Racket" that examines one college's attempts to join the rankings of the most prestigious schools, and what it's costing the students who attend. 


Welcome to today’s increasingly elite higher education system, where lavish campuses, high tuition, and huge undergraduate debt loads have become the norm. In dogged competition for affluent, high-scoring students, today’s second-tier colleges aim to achieve higher prestige by aping the superficial characteristics of America’s traditionally elite schools. Indeed, there are few alternatives for ambitious administrators. “If you want to rise, you try to do the things that make you look like Harvard,” says David Labaree, a professor of education at Stanford University. “It’s hard to take a different path.” 

And a 23 year-old recent college grad just published his book, "Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents."  Jay Mathews says,


It is the perfect antidote for those seeing the unattainable top schools
on the new U.S. News & World Report list and wondering how they
will ever be a success going to No-Name University. It is thoroughly
researched and taps the experiences of a student who investigated the
odd and often-indefensible ways college is sold to families while he was
going through the experience himself. ” 

Ask Collegewise: Where do you get your admissions information?

Connie asks:


I'm curious where you guys get your admissions information…Are admissions officers willing to speak with you?  Or do you visit the campuses yourself?  It seems like there would be a lot of colleges to keep up with and I'm wondering if/how you guys manage to do it." 

We get our information from a lot of different sources.  We do talk to admissions officers, but we try to keep in mind that it's really not their job to help us understand admissions better.  And we do visit campuses to see for ourselves what they're like before we recommend them to our students. 

Still, there's no way you could learn everything you need to know by just doing those two things.  So in no particular order, here are some of the sources from which we regularly get admissions information. 

1. Our Collegewise training program.

Every counselor we hire goes through out 40-hour training program that includes a day-long final exam at the end.  And we update that training each time we do it.

2. Books

There are several great books that can teach you a lot about how admissions works. 

3.  Conferences

We attend local and national conferences.  This is one of the best ways to stay up-to-date with major changes in admissions–those kinds of things are always discussed at length at these conferences.

4.  Press and blogs

Another great way to keep up with the latest in college admissions is to set Google news alerts so you'll automatically be notified when the press covers admissions-related news..  We also read several good blogs regularly. 

5.  Each other

One of the nice advantages for us is that we have four offices in four different states.  So if one of our Californian students is interested in University of Rhode Island (where not a lot of CA kids apply), we can call one of our counselors on the East Coast and they'll tell us what kind of student is a good fit for that school.   

There are lots of other places to get good information (and the best counselors always seem willing to seek that information out).  But those are the five sources we rely on the most.  Thanks for your question, Connie.

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