(US News) Rankings Have No Place in College Football

Are you ready for some football?  USC is playing Notre Dame today, a
bitter rivalry with Trojans and leprechauns facing off.  It's homecoming
weekend at Penn State where the forecast is 30 degrees and snowing,
but I promise you the Nittany Lion fans will be out there in full force, as will their legendary coach, 83 year-old Joe "JoePa" Paterno. And the Red River Rivalry taking place between Oklahoma and Texas today has always among most bitter rivalries in college football.

Whether or not you're a sports fan, you can't argue with its rich history of college football, or with the energy and camaraderie
it generates for students.  Rain or shine, those students are out there
every Saturday decked out in their school colors, singing the fight
songs, and of course, hurling traditional insults at the other team ("We
don't give a damn for the whoooole state of Michigan, whoooole state of Michigan….we're from O-hi-oooo!").

Those
students can tell you where their team is on the controversial college
football rankings, but most don't know or care if their school is
ranked on the arguably more controversial US News college rankings. 
They're enjoying their college experience too much to be concerned with
an arbitrary ranking of their school's quality.  And those students who get the same enjoyment
playing in the marching band on the field, or doing physics research
with a professor, or being an RA in the dorms, or playing intramural
basketball with their new friends would all likely tell you that their
college's ranking (or lack thereof) isn't influencing their college
experience at all.  

Colleges can be evaluated, but they can't
be measured.  There are no win-loss records to compare for college
quality.  So don't rely on an arbitrary ranking to pick your school. 
It's easier to decide for yourself what you want from your college
experience and to seek out those schools that meet or exceed  your rankings. 

Wanted: Thoughtful and Deliberate College Applicants

The National Association for College Admissions Consulting just completed a survey that confirms that 90% of colleges have reported an increase in financial aid applications.  That's not surprising given the downturn in the economy.  And with every piece of bad news about increasing levels of competition and decreasing availability of financial aid, a lot of students are going to respond by firing off even more college applications.  It's hard not to panic during the throes of senior season, especially this year.

But there's an opportunity for the thoughtful and deliberative student to stand out here.      

Now more than ever, colleges don't just want applicants–they want applicants who are good matches for the school and are most likely to accept an offer of admission.  If you're applying to a school just because of the name, or just because your friends are applying, or just because you want to apply to as many colleges as possible to keep your options open, it's going to be hard for you to communicate your match to that school.  You're not going to appear to be someone who's likely to accept that offer of admission.  And that can hurt your chances of getting in. 

The best way to approach this is to slow down, to select your colleges thoughtfully, and to apply deliberately.  Get good advice about your college list.  It's OK to apply to a few reach schools, but make sure you apply to a reasonable number of schools that your high school counselor thinks are likely to admit you, schools that you also sincerely want to go to.  Consider applying to one financial safety school where you're sure you can get in, you're sure you'd want to attend, and your family is sure they could pay for even if you got no financial aid.   

Students who do show some evidence of thoughtful college soul searching are always appealing to admissions officers, which can make you more appealing to the financial aid office, too.

Just show up

Last night, we held our third and final Senior Parent Back to School Night at Collegewise.  In total, nearly 70 parents joined us over the span of those three nights to hear the updates on our work with their kids, to spend a little time with their Collegewise counselors, and to make sure they were informed participants on their student's journey to college.

Sure the Italian food probably helped lure them.  The fact that we promised them wine probably help lure them a lot.  But mostly, this was a group of parents who showed up because it was all about supporting the kids.  For these parents, it didn't matter that they were tired or that this was their third school or college-related event this week or that they were passing up time at home.  They gave up time to come to an evening of college information because they wanted to participate in their kids' college admissions process in a constructive way.

A lot of parents struggle to find the right ways to help their college applicants.  It's a difficult balancing act trying to let kids find their own way, yet also making sure you help enough without unintentionally taking over the process for them. 

But the most important thing a parent can do for their college applicant is to show up.  If the high school puts on a college information night, show up.  If there's a college fair in your city, show up.  When it's time to plan college visits, when your kids need a little cheerleading to boost their spirits, when they need to be reminded that they're still a good person even though their SAT scores didn't raise as much as they'd hoped, just show up. 

You don't necessarily have to handle the situation perfectly every time (as that's just not a reasonable expectation).  But just showing up is half the college admissions battle.

College essays need personality (and some guts)

I did an essay workshop at a local high school today, at the end of which, a senior approached me a question.  He was debating between two stories to write in his essays and wasn't sure which one was the best choice, so I asked him to describe both to me. 

The first story was about being a troop leader in Boy Scouts, how at first the younger kids didn't respect him, he had to earn their trust, it taught him about how to be a leader, etc. etc.  He didn't even seem to enjoy describing the story, so I couldn't imagine that he would enjoy writing it.

The second story was about the time he and his friends entered a talent show competition in which they reenacted a 1990s boy band act.  Apparently, they spent hours watching videos to learn the dance moves, recreating the costumes, and perfecting their four-part harmony.  Even as he described it, he was animated, and his personality was coming out just telling the story.

Neither of those topics is inherently good or bad.  And whichever one he chooses, he'll need to tell an effective story that helps readers get to know more about him.  But I can tell you this–every year, thousands and thousands of college applicants write stories about leadership, perseverance, commitment, and other supposed "valuable life lessons" that they learned  Most of those kids didn't actually think those deep, reflective thoughts during and after those experiences.  And most aren't excited about those stories; they're just relating what they think the admissions office wants to hear.  Do you have any idea how many, "My trip to Europe broadened my horizons" and "Community service taught me the importance of helping others" admissions officers have to read every year?

The best college essays are about topics that make the writer tick, that give a glimpse into some part of your life (sometimes a big part, sometimes a small part).  Those essays almost write themselves because you are so engaged in the story.  It doesn't matter whether it's about a life-threatening illness or working a part-time job at a hamburger stand.  It's the energy behind the topic that's contagious and can move an admissions officer.

This student was excited about his boy band story.  So I told him to go with it.  When in doubt, write what you want to write.  Inject your personality.  Write something that if your best friend read it, she would acknowledge that it sounds exactly like you. 

It takes guts to write what you want to write, but that's a lot less risky than giving them what you think they want to hear.

Best of Our Blog Posts for Seniors

We spend a lot of time writing about how to apply and get in to college.  So if you’re a senior trying to figure out how write your essays, how to fill out your applications, or even now to have a great interview, chances are, we’ve already written something about it here.

To save you the trouble of searching our blog, here are ten of our best past blog entries for seniors.  Enjoy, and best of luck on your applications.

1. Five Things Seniors Should Never Do When Applying to College

2. Stay On Their Good Sides      

   Tips to help you make sure you don’t
unintentionally annoy admissions officers

3. Five Things Seniors Can Still Do To Help Them Get Into College

4. College Essay Dos and Don’ts

5. How to Ruin Your College Application

    Sharing some advice from Jay Mathews at the Washington Post

6. Why Parents and College Essays Don’t Mix

7. Five Things Every College Wants You to Be

    And even if you’re a senior, it’s not too late to be them.

8. Inside the Admissions Office

    A reminder that admissions officers are just regular people.

9. Attack of the Killer Cliches

Please oh please, think twice before you write that essay about that one time you worked on a blood drive.

10. The One Thing You Need to Know About

College interviews, essays, getting in to college today–we’ll break them down and share the most important thing you need to know about each topic.

The more things change…

At one of our Collegewise Back to School Nights last week, we were discussing how much pressure kids (and parents) are feeling surrounding the college admissions process today.  A father asked this question.

"When I was in high school, I only applied to two colleges, and got in to both of them.  What's changed?"

It's a good question.  Why are colleges so hard to get into now?  What's caused all this change?

On the one hand, a lot has changed.  There are more kids are applying to college today than ever before (we're just finishing the post-baby boom, with over 3 million kids graduating from high school this year).  And unfortunately, a lot of them want to go to the same 40 schools, schools whose capacity for students hasn't changed much, if at all.  So the applicant pool is growing, but the number of spots at the most selective colleges has remained the same.  It's the law of supply and demand at work, and that's very different from the college admissions landscape of 20-30 years ago. 

But at the same time, not a lot has changed.

A student can still take the SAT just once and accept whatever score he
gets.  He can still apply to just two colleges, get in to both of them,
and go to one.  And he can do all this without perfect grades, perfect
test scores, or a legal proof that he invented photosynthesis. 

But he just can't do that if the two schools are Georgetown and
Northwestern.  Or Amherst and Williams.  Or Berkeley and UCLA.  Or
Stanford and Yale.  Or Swarthmore and Tufts.  Or Columbia and Cornell.  Or Boston College and Notre Dame.  Or Duke and Michigan.  Or any of the other schools that reject 60-90% of their applicants.   

The competition for admission has changed dramatically at the nation's most selective
colleges.  But there are over 2,000 other colleges from which to choose
and all but about 100 of them accept almost all of their applicants.

It's up to you.  You can buy into the thinking that a more selective college means a better education and the promise of a successful life beyond college (we'll disagree, but you can believe it).  Or you can spend more time finding the right college for you where you'll be happy and successful, one who will gladly take a kid who doesn't necessarily have straight A's, where your potential to contribute is worth as much or more to them than your grades and test scores are. 

Not everything has changed since Mom and Dad applied to college.

How to be a good audience member

I do a lot of speeches for high school kids.  And I've noticed something about audience members.  If you sit up, pay attention, give me eye contact, and maybe even write some things down that I'm saying, it sends me a message.  It tells me that you're here because you want to be, that you've got your act together and that you're serious about getting in to college.  And it tells me that you're expecting something from me.  It makes me work even harder to make our time together worth your while.  I'll give you more attention.  I'm more likely to call on you when you ask a question.  I'll feel like you owe you something in return (because I do).    

This isn't a post about paying attention to me.  It's a post to remind high school kids that how you behave sends a message to the world.  If you look and act bored and disengaged, that's how the world is going to perceive you.  If you spend most of your time in your high school English class sending the teacher a message that you'd rather be just about anyplace else but there, what do you expect her to do when you ask her to write a letter of recommendation?  Or if you miss an "A" by 2% and ask if she can raise your grade?  Of if you ask her to read your college essay and help you edit it?  What motivation have you given her to go above and beyond for you?

The engaged get more attention, more help, and more effort in return than the disengaged do.  

A few testing thoughts PSAT and SAT test-takers…

October is a busy month for standardized test-taking; juniors will be taking the PSAT, and a lot of seniors will be taking what for many of them will be the last SAT they will take in their lifetime (that milestone alone is worth celebrating).

For PSAT test-takers (and their parents), remember that the PSAT is just a practice test.  Its purpose is to show you how you would likely do on the SAT (which is NOT a practice test).  That means that even if you somehow managed to achieve the lowest PSAT test score in the history of college admissions, it can't hurt your chances of getting in to college.  Yes, for particularly great test-takers, the PSAT score is a predominate factor in determining your eligibly for National Merit Scholarships, but for most testers, the PSAT is nothing to stress about.  Do you best and use the PSAT for what it is–a non-threatening chance to test the test-taking waters and help you later make decisions about how to prepare for the SAT.

For SAT test-takers, I'd just like to remind you that your SAT score is not a measure of your intelligence or of your worth as a human being.  Lots of smart people struggle with the SAT, and lots of those people go on to be very successful during and after college.  So do your best, accept whatever score you get, and move on.  I don't mean to be flippant about this, and I acknowledge that the SAT is an important factor of admissions at many colleges.  But far too many students have had their confidence ruined by test scores that just wouldn't go as high as they'd like them to go, and you shouldn't allow yourself to be one of those people.  If you'd like some encouragement, check out some of the over 800 colleges who've decided that low SAT or ACT scores don't necessarily have to hurt your chances of admission to their freshman classes.

Give us Ninety Minutes, and We’ll Get You a Little Closer to College

Are you a senior (or a parent of a senior) who is applying
to college this fall?

If you answered an enthusiastic "YES!" to that
question and you live in Southern California or the Pacific
Northwest, we'd like to invite you to attend one of our FREE
college admissions seminars for seniors and their parents.

We'll be sharing some of the strategies we've perfected and
used to help nearly 3,000 students in our Collegewise programs get accepted to
college.  There is no cost and no catch–just good information for senior
families.

Click on your location below for a list of available
seminars.  Our free seminars tend to fill up quickly, but we'll save as
many spaces as we can for our loyal newsletter subscribers.

Select your location: 

Irvine,
CA
   Los
Angeles, CA
  Bellevue,
WA

We hope you'll join us!

PS:  Families already enrolled in the Collegewise
programs do not need to attend these seminars.  We'll see you at your next
meeting with us!