Is it still worth it to go to college?

In many ways, today's economy actually makes having a college degree less important.

It used to be that just having a college degree was special.  If you applied for a job and you'd been to college, you instantly stood out.  That's not true anymore.  Lots of people have college degrees.  Just about any job for which a recent college grad might apply, there will be at least a dozen other candidates with college degrees who look virtually identical on paper.  

Some people argue that the economy just makes it even more important to attend a prestigious college.  Not true.  There are lots of unemployed Ivy League grads right now.  There are lots of unemployed Ivy League grads who went back and got masters degrees, too.  It's rough out there.

So you could pay up to $150,000 to go to college and come out as just another recent college grad who can't get a job.  If you're going to college just to go, if you're going because you don't know what else to do after high school, that's an awful lot of time and money to invest in something whose rate of return isn't guaranteed at all. 

But I think there's a huge opportunity for future college freshmen here.  Recognize that college is a four-year opportunity to become remarkable–someone future employers won't be able to ignore.

You could coast through your college career, endure your classes and have some fun.  Or you could lean into it.  You could make it your mission to spend every single day of your college career discovering what you're good at, learning as much as you can, finding mentors who can guide you, pushing yourself in classes that scare you (and you could still have plenty of fun). 

Four years later, instead of being just another college grad looking for a first job, you could tell potential employers about…

  • The relief work you did in Haiti when you traveled there with an on-campus service organization.
  • The mistake you found during an accounting internship that saved the company a million dollars.
  • The $250,000 you raised for a non-profit where you volunteered over the summer.
  • The on-campus business you started that later had 20 employees.
  • The changes you made to the athletic department's intramural program during your three years of work that started as an unpaid internship.
  • The political campaign you worked on as an intern, and the on-campus speech for the candidate that happened because of you.
  • The drawings you completed in your art classes that are now featured in the school's largest performing theater. 
  • The 22 websites you built for free for every campus fraternity and sorority.
  • The teaching experience you gained when a professor asked you to TA for her and later to run her discussion group.
  • The speeches you gave to faculty and administrators as part of your work with the ombudsman's office.
  • The work you did with your physics professor to help her publish the latest textbook.
  • The computer program you wrote with a fellow student that you later sold to a software company for a ridiculously large sum of money. 
  • The campus coffee shop you managed during your senior year, and how you grew it 40%.
  • The marketing lessons you learned while working in your college's admissions office to help them recruit under-represented students.
  • The counseling skills you developed as a resident advisor, and how you put them to use when a student was considering committing suicide.
  • The campus photographs you took that the school later paid to have posted on the website.
  • The training program you created from scratch for the campus tour guides that was later adopted by the entire state university system. 
  • The speech the new chancellor asked you to help her write.
  • The meeting you had with the university's president to lobby for additional campus safety officers, and what you learned about beating bureaucracy. 
  • The music you wrote that was later commissioned to be an opera.

Every single one of those items has actually happened.  A few happened to me, others were my college friends, and lots of them are from our former Collegewise students. But they were all products of students who sought out the opportunities and made them happen during their brief four years of college.  

In today's economy, it's easy to ignore a kid with a college degree.  It's a lot harder to ignore one who pairs that degree with a remarkable college career.  It doesn't matter where you go.  Now more than ever, it matters what you do while you're there.

This is what college should be like

Today, I'm spending all day at a seminar given by one of my favorite authors.  It's expensive.  It's happening at our busiest time of year.  I'll be up at the crack of dawn to take a train over an hour each way so I can avoid what would almost certainly be three hours of LA traffic if I drove.  And I can't wait to go.

I want to get there early so I can sit close to the front.  I've spent the last week thinking about what I want to learn and what questions I want to ask.  I'd go every day this week if he offered it. 

I wish I'd felt this way about my classes in college.

I don't remember ever being this excited to attend a class in college.  And believe me, that wasn't my college's fault.  I did what too many college kids do.  I picked the major I thought I should pick.  I took the classes I had to take to graduate.  School wasn't the fun part of college.  It was the business I had to take care of for the right to do other things I thought were more interesting.

If I could go back again, I would make it my mission to find classes that I was as excited about as I am for this seminar tomorrow.  I would have enrolled in five classes each semester, attended them for a week, and then droppped the one or two that just didn't seem as exciting.  I would have sought out professors I'd heard great things about, gone to their office hours and talked about what we were learning. 

I'm not suggesting that I would have found the easiest classes so I could skate through college.  I would have found the classes that made me want to work harder just because they were so interesting.  My college life was great, but it would have been even better if I'd done these things.

High school doesn't offer you the opportunity to follow your academic interests the way that your college will.  So before you go to college, adjust your expectations of just how great school and learning can really be.  Make it your job to find classes, professors and a major that make you want to get up in the morning and keep learning. 

I know that might sound totally ridiculous if you're in high school right now, especially if you're taking AP Everything and just trying to survive.  But you will have the opportunity to create a great learning experience wherever you go to college.  The only question is whether or not you'll take advantage of it.  

How to show interest in a college

There are two reasons why telling a college, "You're my first choice" doesn't mean much to most schools.

1. It's too easy to say it without really committing to anything. 

2. It's often not true. 

Sometimes that statement is true. Many other times, a student is just feeling the college admissions pressure, reacting to the message that expression of interest in a college can improve your chances of admission. 

Expression of interest can be important at some schools.  Colleges all feel pressure to make sure their freshman dorms are filled.  So when they get the sense that an appealing student might actually enroll if admitted, they know they won't be wasting the admission on someone who passes it up to go someplace else.  But some expressions of interest are much more effective than others.

Here are five ways to demonstrate interest in a school, and all five are a lot more effective than just saying, "It's my first choice."

1.  Thoughtfully answer the questions about why you want to attend.  By "thoughtfully," I don't mean generalities like, "It's a great school" or a recitation of facts and statistics you pulled from the website.  I mean showing that you've done some college soul searching, describing what you've looked for in colleges and why you looked for them, and why you think you've found those things at this particular school.

2. Don't give your application an "Insert name of college here" feeling.  Giving an application a lot of time and attention is the best way to show love to a college.  I'm all for recycling essays when the prompts are similar.  But when they're not all that similar and you try to wedge in an essay you wrote for another school, the readers can tell.  Really take the time to read and answer each portion of a college's application.  Show them that you took it seriously by writing essays that clearly address their prompts.  And follow the application's directions very carefully (ignoring them usually doesn't go over well). 

3. Visit the campus if it's reasonably close.  If you choose not to get on a plane to go see a college before you apply, most schools won't take that as a sign of a lack of real interest.  But if a campus is one that you could easily drive to on a weekend and you haven't visited, it's hard for that college not to wonder just how interested you really are.  

4. Apply to the right schools in the first place.  If you picked schools based on their name brand reputation alone, it's hard to give a detailed answer about why you're applying.  But if you took the attitude that this is going to be your college experience, that you want to end up at a place where you'll be engaged both in and out of the classroom, a place where you can be happy and successful, then you won't have a hard time showing that you're interested.  You are interested.  It will show.       

5.  Just be authentic.  Colleges understand that it's hard to pick schools.  You're seventeen, you've never been to college, and this is a huge decision you're trying to make with limited information.  So they don't expect you to necessarily have a ranked list of choices with carefully planned expressions of interest in each.  Just be yourself.  Pick schools that really are interesting to you.  And if you can't articulate why you're interested, sometimes that's OK as long as you're not faking it.  I worked with a student once who wrote in an essay, "I really can't explain my attraction to Lewis and Clark.  All I know is that there's chemistry between us."  She was admitted.   

As is the case with most parts of college admissions, the more you try to strategize, the worse off you'll be.  You should care enough about where you'll be spending the next four years to apply to schools that really are interesting to you.  If you're doing that, all you have to do is relax and be yourself.  The expressions of interest will happen on their own as you learn and become more drawn to colleges that fit you.

Five college admissions factors that don’t matter as much as people think they do

The stress of college admissions makes a lot of students and parents focus on the wrong things, things that don't matter nearly as much to colleges as we're often left to believe.  Here are five examples. 

1.  Connections.

Most people who think they have an influential connection later find out just how little influence those connections really had.  In the 11 years since starting Collegewise, I've known only two kids (out of several thousand) who were admitted because of connections.  Both had parents who donated several million dollars to particular schools that paid for a new building on campus.  So while I don't deny that there are cases where connections can have huge influence, the truth is that those are extraordinary, and rare, instances. 

2.  Standardized test scores.

Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are not nearly as important as the college admissions frenzy makes them out to be.  There are very few legitimately intellectual, hard working kids who are shut out of colleges because of low test scores alone.  The tests play a role at lots of schools, and some kind of focused test preparation can be useful.  But if you ultimately spend a lot more time studying for the SAT than you do reading, studying for trig or playing soccer, you're focusing on something that just doesn't matter as much as the things you're ignoring to focus on it. 

3. Your GPA.

Your grades are a lot more important than your GPA is.  What's the difference?  Most colleges don't just take the GPA that's calculated on your transcript at face value.  They look at what classes where available at your high school, which ones you took, and recalculate your GPA while paying attention to the rigor of your courses.  A student who passes up a hard class just because it doesn't come with a weighted grade is focusing more on his GPA than he is on the opportunity to take a great class.  A student who takes an elective college course over the summer not because he's interested in it, but because he hopes it will increase his GPA, that kid is focusing on the wrong things.  Your GPA is not an endangered species that needs to be protected.  Focus more on what you're learning and how hard you're working.

4. Expensive summer programs.

You will not impress Harvard by paying thousands of dollars to attend their summer school.  Programs like that are "pay to play" and often measure a student's financial resources more than they do his interest in learning.  The same can be said for expensive travel programs where you dig ditches in Costa Rica or swim with dolphins off the coast of Fiji (don't laugh–I've met kids who've done it).  Get a job at the supermarket.  Take a cooking class.  Volunteer or intern at the community newspaper or coach a little league baseball team.  No need to shell out all that money to learn or to make an impact. 

5. Strategy, packaging yourself, and anything involving a "hook."

Getting into college isn't about strategy; it's about authenticity.  Intellectual students want to take summer classes.  Students with a sense of service want to volunteer at the soup kitchen.  Leaders want to run for club office.  If you're doing those things as a strategy for getting into what you think is a good college, you'd be far better served working hard doing something you really enjoy.  They are far too many great colleges out there for you to spend your high school years trying to mold yourself into what you think a few selective colleges want.

“He’s seventeen. He’ll screw it up.”

At a high school college night last week, a parent approached me afterwards and said,

"I know I'm not supposed to be filling out my son's applications.  But he's seventeen.  He's procrastinating and leaving it all for the last minute.  I feel like this is just too important for me to let him screw it up." (A phrase referenced often in the book by the former dean of admissions from MIT, Marilee Jones, about how parents should approach the college application process.)

As much as I discourage parents from taking over their kids' college application process, I still understand why even the most well intentioned moms and dads sometimes can't stop themselves.

I understand why, after watching your kid grow up, and saving all those years for his college fund, you'd get nervous when you see him leaving those essays and applications unfinished with the deadlines creeping up.  And when you imagine him losing out on college options all because of seventeen year old procrastination or disorganization, it's hard not to jump in and protect him, and you, from that disappointment.  I get that. 

For those parents, I'd just offer two gentle reminders. 

1.  When your kids go to college, you really are going to have to let them take care of things, both important and unimportant, on their own.  The press writes articles about parents who don't let go then. This is the time to start preparing your kids for that independence.

2.  Taking over the college application process sends a pretty bad message to your kid.  It means you either don't trust him or don't believe he can get into college on his own.  I understand that when a kid plays 5 hours of video games instead of working on his college applications, he's not giving you a lot of reasons to trust him.  Still, the message will be received.

If you're worried that your teen isn't taking the college application process seriously enough, resist the urge to jump in and take it seriously for them.  Instead, be honest about your concerns.  Tell them how excited you are about their college future.  Let them know the efforts you've made to save for their college tuition, and the sacrifices you're willing to make to send them. 

I'm not suggesting you say those things to make your teen feel guilty.  I think a mature teen will appreciate how much emotional and financial investmenet you're willing to make in them. 

Then they might be a little more open to hearing your concerns about the looming deadlines and the lack of application action.

For high school counselors: How to teach families more by sharing less

As counselors, we're all teachers, too.  We educate families every day.  Most high school counselors I've met do a lot to teach their families how to prepare for, apply, get accepted and pay for college.  It's a crucial job with an unreasonable amount of information to convey.  But I think the best way to teach families–not just give them information, but to actually get them learn and to use it–might be surprising. 

Share less.

I've done hundreds of college admissions speeches at high schools.  But I realized this year that when I share ten college application tips with seniors and their parents, while most families (hopefully) enjoy the speech, they don't remember the tips when they leave.  They remember one or two of them, but they don't recall all the advice about how to put them into action.  They remember the story I told about the Collegewise kid who wrote her essay about losing all those elections, but they don't remember why I shared it.  So while I gave an entertaining speech that people seemed to like, I haven't really taught them anything (they didn't learn it if they can't go home and do it).   

So I've been trying something new.  Before I do a speech, I figure out the 2-3 most important lessons I want the audience to take away from it.  Everything other than those 2-3 main points is secondary and either gets cut out or used to support one of the main points.  It's hard to delete information because everything feels important.  But I do it anyway and focus on the upside–that my most important points are going to get the majority of the attention.

Then I spend the entire speech selling those 2-3 main points. I share stories about Collegewise kids and parents, what they did, and what happened as a result.  I try to paint a vivid picture of what will happen if they follow these 2-3 pieces of advice.  And I give them marching orders–I tell them how to put it in action when they leave.  The feedback I've been getting so far has been great. 

I'm not suggesting that you dumb down your information; it's just the opposite.  You're picking the points that deserve the most attention and then carving out time to give it to them.  I don't need 45 minutes to explain what it means when a college has a January 1 deadline.  Instead, one of my points might be, "Don't let anyone care more about your college applications than you do."  That one idea lends itself to several stories about kids taking responsibility for the college applications, not allowing parents to fill out the application or write the essays, and following up with schools to make sure the application is complete.  But they all lead back to the main point that kids are the ones going to college, so they should care about it more than everyone else in their life.  If families just remember that one point, they end up making better decisions throughout the application process. 

Here are a few ways I think a high school counselor might try this:

  • If you write a newsletter, instead of writing 12 articles on different topics, pick the 2-3 most important things you want families to know at this time of year, and use your newsletter to teach them.  A family that learns and does those three things won't get mad at you for cutting out the article about good questions to ask on a campus visit.  And they'll be even more likely to read the next issue because what you taught them was so valuable.
  • If your office is hosting a "senior parent night" at your school, what are the most important actions you want your audience to take after they leave?  Do you want them to start their college searches, begin their applications, utilize the services your school provides?  Pick the most important ones and use the speech to sell them on it.
  • If you keep a webpage of helpful college planning resources, trim it down and play favorites.  Giving them 18 links to different websites with information about financial aid and scholarships isn't as helpful as telling them which 2-3 you and your counseling team think are the best. 
  • If you attend a conference, take great notes during the sessions, pick the 2-3 best ones you attended, and do a write up for your families and fellow counselors.   
  • You can also use the "less rule" to help set families' expectations of how your office can help them.  If you encourage them to "utilize your counseling office," they don't have a clear picture of what that means.  Promise less, and they'll utilize you more effectively.  That sounds like this.

"We're here to try to answer all of your college-related questions.  In particular, here are three areas where we feel we can be of great benefit to our students."

Telling them everything might not be as valuable as teaching them something.  As usual, your mileage may vary.  But it's been working well for me and I thought I'd share.  I hope it helps.   

 

45 minutes of free college application advice

In case you missed our regulararly scheduled programming, here's a link to last night's episode of our online TV show.  We talked for 30 minutes about college applications, then did 15 minutes of Q and A. 

We'll be back on air Tuesday, December 7 at 6 p.m. PST.  You can join us at our channel.

"How to Revive Lifeless Applications"

with Kevin and Arun



Watch live video from College Admissions Live on Justin.tv 

Advice for nervous parents of college applicants

Kids aren't the only ones who feel judged during the college admissions process.  A lot of parents understandably worry that their student's admissions success or failure will somehow be a reflection on their parenting, that if the dream college says, "No," it will be a sign that you just didn't do as good of a job as the other parents at the dinner party who won't stop talking about their kids' awards, SAT scores and total number of community service hours completed. 

When you feel that college application anxiety start to come on, ask yourself two questions:

1.  Have you raised a good kid (even if your teen occasionally tries your patience like even the best teens do)?

2.  Have you done your best as a parent (even if you've occasionally made mistakes like even the best parents do)?

If you can answer "Yes" to those two questions, really, how much more can any parent reasonably be expected to do?

A parent can't control which colleges accept or deny your student.  All you can do is make sure you keep answering "Yes" to those prior two questions.  Instead of letting yourself feel judged, be proud of your efforts to raise a good kid and be a good parent.  And remember that our entire system of education (and our society) would have collapsed long ago if the only way to become happy and successful in life were to attend one of about 40 prestigious colleges who reject almost everybody who applies.

Good kids with supportive parents will be fine no matter where they go to college.

Last call to join us online tonight for free college application advice

We'll be live online tonight for:

How to Revive Lifeless College Applications
with hosts Kevin McMullin and Arun Ponnusamy
Wednesday, November 3
Live @ 6 p.m. PST 
For free, at our online channel

We'll discuss…

•    Why sharing fewer activities and awards can tell a college even more about you.
•    How successful applicants inject personality to make their applications memorable (without resorting to gimmicks).
•    Why resumes, extra letters of recommendation, and samples of your art or music sometimes hurt your chances more than they help.

We'll talk for 30 minutes, then you ask questions for the final 15 minutes (via the channel's chat function).

How to watch
Just visit our channel tonight, November 3rd at 6 p.m. PST. (What time is that in my time zone?)

We hope you'll tune in to join us!

Are you the Randy Moss of the classroom?

Randy Moss is one of the greatest receivers ever to play in the NFL.  And as of today, he appears to have been cut from his team (again).

Nobody disputes that Moss is a great receiver.  It's his attitude that's the problem.  He's known to give up in the middle of a play especially if he doesn't think the ball is coming to him.  He complains (about coaches, the team, and not getting the ball thrown to him often enough).  He can make a team a lot better when he wants to, but coaches know that they can't count on him to lead by example with a good attitude and a consistent work ethic.  That's why it appears that he's unemployed for the second time in three months.  

A straight-A student who only participates when participation is counted towards his grade, who only talks to teachers after class when he needs extra credit, who fought with his counselor for two weeks to get his Spanish grade changed from a B to an A, and who seems to care a lot more about his grade than he does about learning the material?   He's like the Randy Moss of the classroom.

Your attitude towards learning says as much if not more about what kind of student you are than your grades do.  The students who teachers enjoy having in class, who teachers are happy to recommend strongly to their chosen colleges, they're often those who have the best attitudes, even if they don't have the highest grades.

A lot of receivers who aren't nearly as good as Randy Moss still have jobs today.  They don't have better hands–they just have better attitudes.