Sometimes it’s best to just accept reality

It's often a waste of time to get upset about things you can't change. 

When your flight is delayed or you're stuck in bad traffic or it's raining on a day you wanted to go to the beach, that's the reality.  Getting upset won't change things for the better (and I admit that I often make that mistake).  The better job you can do of just accepting things you can't change, the better you'll feel and the less negative energy you'll waste. 

There are about 40 colleges in the country where admission is absurdly competitive.  The applicant pools are full of the most accomplished students in the world, and just about all of them get rejected. A lot of those rejected kids were just as qualified and worked just as hard as those who were admitted.  It's neither rational nor fair.  But it's the reality at those schools.  You can complain about it or lament your admissions misfortune, but that's not going to make you feel better.  And it's not going to improve your college outlook at all.  You might as well accept it.

I'm not saying you should abandon your dreams if you think Princeton is the school for you.  You can (and should) work as hard as you can to give yourself as many college options as possible. 

But once you accept the admissions reality you can't change, you can put your mental energy to better use.  You can learn as much as you can in your classes motivated by the fact that knowledge is always a good thing.  You can enjoy your time on the soccer team or in the school play or at your part-time job because you know you're getting something good out of it even if Harvard says, "No."  You won't take any rejections from highly selective colleges personally any more than you could blame yourself for not winning the lottery. 

And maybe you'll even reject the notion that those 40 schools are inherently better than others (they aren't, by the way).  You could take charge of your college process and find some other colleges that fit you well and that would be excited to have you join their class. 

Sometimes acknowledging the reality actually leaves you with a lot more options.

What we’ve learned from our gong

Gong We tried something new in our Irvine office this senior season–we brought in a gong.  The idea was that kids would bang the gong loudly and proudly on the day they submitted their final college application.  We wanted to show families yet another way to celebrate the process, not just the admissions outcomes.  To be honest, we didn't know if kids would take to it or if they wouldn't exactly share our gonging enthusiasm.

But it's exceeded all of our expectations. 

At least a couple times a day, the gong rings out–LOUDLY–in our office to the delight of a proud college applicant.  You can see the wide grins and sense of accomplishment on their faces.  The counselors all applaud and offer our congratulations.   But the best part has been the parents–who smartly stepped back and turned this process over to their student and their Collegewise counselor, returning for this meeting, cameras in hand, to capture their kids' gonging celebrations.  A few moms have even joined their kids for their own photos in front of the gong. 

For those parents who can't make it, we take a picture and email home the photo on a certificate entitled, "There's a college applicant in your house!"  Kids have uploaded their gonging pictures to their Facebook pages and announced that they're officially done with college applications. 

The gong has proven to be more than just a silly tradition.  It's a big, loud acknowledgement of a job well done and a teenager taking one step closer to starting college.  A lot of these kids haven't been admitted anywhere yet.  But that's no reason not to celebrate this important step.  It reminds kids and parents that no matter which colleges say "Yes," they still have every reason to be proud.  And it's given our counselors their own sense of celebration for helping each student reach application completion.

So, what's your gong?

Students, are you reserving your celebration for when decisions arrive this spring, or are you celebrating the completion of your college applications in some way? 

Parents, are you letting your kids know how proud you are of their application efforts, and that your pride is not contingent on an offer of admission from a particular college? 

And counselors, are you not only finding reasons to celebrate your students' achievements, but also your role in helping them find their futures?

We can all learn a lot from the gong. 

For counselors: The inalienable rights of students, parents, and counselors

All good counselors occasionally find ourselves disagreeing with students and parents.  And it can be frustrating when you have to argue to get a family to consider advice that you believe really is in the best interest of the student.

But one of our Collegewise counseling credos is that it’s not our job to fight with students and parents.  And we work with that credo by acknowledging that everyone involved, the student, parent and you–the counselor–all have certain inalienable rights.

Students and parents have the right to approach the college admissions process any way they please, even if it flies in the face of your advice.  That means…

  • Parents have the right to believe that personal connections will get their son into the six Ivy League schools to which they insist he apply.
  • Students have the right to write their college essay about whatever they choose, even if they ignore your advice and choose an inappropriate topic.
  • Parents have the right to require their student be a pre-med.
  • Students have the right to apply to colleges for the wrong reasons, like where their boyfriend or girlfriend is applying.
  • Parents have the right to dismiss what might be great colleges for their kids on the basis of what they think is a lack of prestige.
  • Students have the right to delay the completion of all of their applications until hearing back from an early decision school.
  • Parents have the right to choose all of the student’s activities, to select the colleges, and to get way too involved in the college essays, even if their efforts actually hurt the student’s chances of admission.
  • Kids have the right to apply only to schools that are reaches and to refuse to consider colleges that would be safety schools.
  • Families have the right to believe that’s OK to ignore the language on the application and place deposits at multiple schools, thereby violating the signed terms of the application and jeopardizing the student’s accepted status at all of her schools.  Sure, they don’t have the legal right to do it.  It’s dishonest, it’s risky and it’s not something any professional counselor would endorse.  But the family has the right to make their own choice.

But we–the counselors–have the right to respectfully and professionally disagree with all of those courses of action.  The fact that we disagree with each other doesn’t make either of us bad people.  It just means that we disagree.  And sometimes it means that maybe we shouldn’t be working together.

It’s not a counselor’s job to argue with a student or parent.  But it’s also not your job to capitulate and agree to a course of action that you believe is detrimental for the student.  So when you feel the debate coming on:

1. Explain, calmly and professionally, why you disagree. 

A family is under no obligation to follow your advice without explanation.  So explain it to them.  Do so without judgment.  Express your concerns while highlighting that your only agenda is to see this process go well for the student (It’s hard for someone to be mad at you when you’re honestly looking out for them or their kid).

2.  Never debate for debate’s sake. 

After you’ve explained your concern, there is no debating.  They can certainly ask for more information or for your assistance to help them understand it better, but debating for the sake of debate won’t get you anywhere. Remind the family that it’s their choice and ask them what they’d like to do next.  (By the way, backing off and reminding them that it’s their decision is often the fastest way help them become more open to your advice).

3.  Decide what your next steps should be together.

If the family elects to ignore your advice, how will that decision impact your work together?  Can you move on after agreeing to disagree?  Or do you simply have fundamentally different approaches to the process that can’t be resolved.  If a student wants to write his essay on a cliche topic, we can still do a lot of good work with that kid.  But if the parents want to write the essays for him (or if they want us to do it), that’s not something we’re ever going to endorse and we’ll probably need to part friends.


Five things you can start doing tomorrow that will get you better grades

Whether you're an "A" student, a "C" student or someone in between, here are five easy ways to earn higher grades. 
1.  When you're in class, pretend there is a state law prohibiting you from studying the material later.
If you knew you'd never be able to study the material later before tests, you'd pay intense attention in class. You'd try to soak up every piece of information and you'd work to commit it to memory.  Pretend that law just went into effect, and watch your study time decrease while your grades increase.  

2.  Put your hand up at least once a day in each class to ask a question or contribute to the discussion.
Participating keeps your mind engaged.  Instead of just passively listening, you're thinking of questions and how to answer those the teacher has asked the class.  You'll remember more of the material.  And your teachers will be impressed by your enthusiasm for learning.

3.  Put yourself on an interruption diet.
When you're studying or doing your homework, eliminate every possible interruption.  Don't check Facebook.  Don't check email.  Don't receive or answer text messages.  Just focus and get your work done.  You'll learn more in half the time you were spending before.

4. Before you study for your next test, review your last test.
Cal Newport, author of "How to Be a High School Superstar," recommends that you do a testing autopsy after every exam, rigorously examining what went right and what went wrong for you.  You can learn a lot about your teachers' testing tendencies by reviewing your past exams.  How much of the reading was actually tested?  What did your teacher seem to care most about?  Testing autopsies help you customize your studying for each class and teacher.  You'll constantly be adjusting your approach, like a NASCAR pit team adjusting the settings on a driver's car at every pit stop (did we stretch too far on that one?).  So before you start studying, do an autopsy.

5.  When studying, pretend you have to teach it to your class tomorrow.
If you can teach it, you know it cold.  So instead of just reviewing your math or chemistry or US history, pretend that you're going to have to stand up in class and teach it tomorrow.  What would you say?  How would you explain it?  You'll understand it and remember it much better.

Read what you’re signing before you sign it

It's just good business sense to read any document carefully before you sign it.  But on college applications, a lot of students don't read the fine print in the signature section.  They just sign and send.

It's important to understand what you're agreeing to when you sign anything.  Here's some of the text from the signature section of the Common Application: 


I certify that all information submitted in the admission process-including the application, the personal essay, any supplements, and any other supporting materials–is my own work, factually true, and honestly presented..I understand that I may be subject to a range of possible disciplinary actions, including admission revocation, expulsion, or revocation of course credit, grades, and degree should the information I have certified be false.

Based on this agreement you're signing, if a college were ever to find out that you lied on your application, even a little bit, they could take back your admission.  They could kick you out of college.  They could invalidate classes that you've taken.  And if you've already graduated by the time they find out, they could take away your college degree.  No refunds, by the way.

Considering the possible consequences, it should make it easier to answer the question about whether or not it's worth fudging the truth a little bit on your app.  I don't think it is.

It also says…


I affirm that I will send an enrollment deposit (or equivalent) to only one institution; sending multiple deposits (or equivalent) may result in the withdrawal of my admission offers from all institutions.

Later this spring when acceptances arrive, a lot of students are going to refuse to make up their minds by the May 1st deadline.  They (with their parents' knowledge in most cases) are going to plunk down deposits at multiple schools just to buy a little more time to come to a decision.

But once you sign your Common App, you've verified your understanding that if you place multiple deposits at more than one school, all of the schools that accepted you can withdraw their acceptances.  Again, it just doesn't seem like it's worth the risk to me.

Once you sign the document, you can't claim later that you didn't know the rules.  Read it–and understand it–before you sign. 

How to spot a smart person in the room

Here's a good way to spot someone who's smart and engaged.  When the conversation turns to something they don't understand, when there's a term or concept that's unfamiliar to them, that person doesn't sit there and nod his head.  He doesn't pretend to understand when he doesn't.  He doesn't disengage and become less interested just because he's no longer following.  He confidently and politely says,

"I'm sorry.  I was with you until just a second ago.  What does that mean?"

High school teaches you to believe that you should always know the answer.  When you're doing a problem in trig, answering a question on the SAT, or being called on by your Spanish teacher and you don't know the answer, it's bad.  There are points deducted and penalties to pay.

But here's the thing about smart people–they don't always know the answer.  Nobody does.  And how you handle yourself at those times says a lot about you and your desire to learn.

Chris Rock on accountability

I've written posts before about the importance of students accepting responsibility, rather than blaming other people for their mistakes.  Of course, it's not just a good lesson for kids.  It's one of the secrets of successful adults, too.

From comedian Chris Rock while being interviewed on Inside the Actor's Studio:


It's never the audience's fault.  Never.  Ever, ever, ever.  If the movie's not good, it's my fault.  TV show's not good?  It's my fault.  Any time I'm in front of the audience–I don't care if somebody got shot in the middle of the show–if I can't get the crowd back, it is my fault.  It is my responsibility to rock the house every…single…time.  No matter what."

The quote comes about 5 minutes into this clip.

How Collegewise counselors take it or leave it

Whenever a Collegewise counselor comes across news, a helpful website, or other information she finds useful, we send it to each other in an email with the subject line, “Take it or leave it” (“TIOLI” for short).

Originally Arun’s brainchild, the idea was that whenever one of us came across anything small or big that made our counseling lives a little easier, we’d share it in a “Take it or leave it” email.  TIOLIs remove email pressure.  If I find something interesting, I can share it with impunity.  If you like what I’m sending, great–“take it” and use it.  If you don’t find it interesting, “leave it” and delete it.  No hard feelings…for either of us.

Here’s an example.

Katie went to an Ursinus College info session yesterday.  She came back, did a quick write up about what she learned, and sent us all an email entitled “TIOLI: Ursinus College.”  Now I know that 90% of Ursinus pre-med students with a 3.3 GPA or above get into medical school.  I’ll take it, Katie. Thank you!

Other TIOLIs have shared everything from how we can use our work email (through Google Apps) to send text messages to our students, to an article about how to make your Outlook function better, to “The Dirty Thirty” most common grammatical mistakes, to how to handle the question when a prospect asks how we’re different from the competition.

The most useful part of the TIOLI is that all of our counselors have it at their disposal.  It’s a tool we all use, and it makes it that much easier to share information with each other.  It’s so easy to do.  Ask your colleagues if they’d like to try TIOLIs.  Maybe kick it off with a good take-it-or-leave-it of your own?

So there you go–take it or leave it.

Take a class at Harvard, Stanford or MIT for free

Not many people in the world have ever experienced calculus at MIT.  No surprise there since you had to, well, get into MIT, which almost nobody does.  But now you don't have to get in.  You don't even have to apply.  All you need a computer to experience calculus…MIT style.  Here it is.  35 lectures, all free.  No grades.  No pressure.  Just watch and learn for the fun of it (if calculus is your idea of fun).

Even if you don't like math, c'mon–that's pretty damn cool. features online lectures and full courses from colleges and universities.  There are so many lectures available from the Stanford Business School that there's a good chance I won't get any work done for the next three-and-a-half weeks.

Look at some of the great classes you could take: 

One of the most popular courses at Harvard is a philosophy course called "Justice: What's the right thing to do?"  The professor examines difficult moral dilemmas and then challenges your opinion with new information, tackling subjects like affirmative action and-same sex marriage.  Interested?  Here it is.  12 lectures.  You're taking one of the most popular classes at Harvard.  Free.   

Organic chemistry has dashed the pre-med hopes of countless students who just couldn't survive it.  Why not test drive it at UC Berkeley?  Here it is.  26 lectures, all free.  

Are you a Civil War buff?  Want to take a class at Yale that examines the causes and consequences of the American Civil War?  Here they are.  27 lectures, all free.  

Two things worth noticing here:

1. Now more than ever, you don't need a high GPA, perfect SAT scores or a lot of money to learn about subjects that interest you.  Access to quality education is increasing all the time.   Real learners don't have to go far, or pay a lot, to feed their minds.

2. Who's really more intellectual?  The kid whose parents pay thousands of dollars to send him to a summer school session on an Ivy League campus?  Or the kid who takes history classes at his local community college over the summer, checks out every book on the Civil War from the library, and watches free history lectures like the ones at

Few qualities are more appealing to colleges than a genuine curiosity and interest in learning.  There are more opportunities to demonstrate that trait now than there ever have been before.

A pep talk for counselors

Whether you're a high school counselor or a private counselor, you've probably experienced some combination of the following stresses:

Not enough time to focus on the admissions part of your job.  Working too many hours.  Too many letters of recommendation to write.  Parents with unrealistic expectations–for their kids, for the college admissions process, or for you.  Kids you want to see succeed who are struggling because they don't have the money or a stable home life.  Too many kids to to help.  Not enough hours to do it.  Not enough recognition for everything that you do.  Not enough sleep.  Too much worry.  Too much pressure.  Wondering if you're doing any good.  Wondering if people appreciate what you're doing.  Wondering how much longer you can do it.  

On those days where you can feel the stress affecting you, when you know you're just not as eager to face the day as you have been in the past, please remember something.

I don't believe there is any job that is more important than helping kids achieve their educational dreams. 

There are other jobs that are just as important–I'm not devaluing the likes of social workers, community organizers or scientist who are trying to cure cancer.  But I do not believe there is a profession that makes more of a difference, that has a bigger impact on kids, families and our society, than helping students find their way to college.   

If you're helping kids realize their college dreams, you never have to go home at night wondering if you did anything worthwhile with your day.  The longer you do it, the more kids there will be who got to college with your help, who found great schools they didn't know about, who better understood the application and financial aid process or were accepted to the college they'd dreamed of attending in part because of help that you gave them. 

And there will be some kids who simply would not have made it to college at all without you.  Kids who never could have done it on their own and didn't have other people to rely on.  Those kids will go on to be college graduates in the world, and they'll be there because of you. 

There are a lot of dedicated counselors out there who work very hard and do it all for the kids.  If you're one of them, thank you.  And keep at it.  It's too important for you not to.