The allure of the unexpected

One of the best ways to keep someone interested in your story is to lead with something unexpected.  This is not an example of that:

"The marching band practices every day after school for two hours.  It's very arduous, but necessary if we want to perfect our formations." 

Nobody would be surprised to learn that. But if you said,

"A polyester band uniform actually doubles in weight when it's wet.  Every time we practice in the rain, I gain 10 pounds for the next two hours."

Now you've got my attention.

When you share something people didn't know yet, it makes them want to know more.  It's like an intellectual itch they need to scratch.  That's what being interesting means–people want to hear and learn more from you.

Of course, there's an art to recognizing what people might be interested to know about and how much they can take.  If you drone on for twenty minutes about how to get to the expert levels in your favorite video game, a non-gamer is going to lose interest.  But if you told me about life as a game tester, when you're paid to do nothing but play video games 8-hours a day, I'd be intrigued because that's something I could never imagine doing.

So when you're writing your college essays, doing a college interview, or even just having a conversation with someone you've just met, get them interested by sharing something they probably wouldn't have guessed.  Give them the unexpected part of the story.

A prescription for over-scheduled kids

A lot of today's high school students are completely over-scheduled with absolutely no free time.  That's hazardous to their mental health as well as to their college admissions chances.

It's easy to spot a kid who's over-scheduled.  It's a teenager who doesn't have any life in her face.  She's tired and stressed out.  She spends all her time doing formal activities and meeting with tutors, making calculated choices based on what she thinks will help her get into college. 

If you ask her what she does for fun, she doesn't have an answer.  She doesn't feel confident about her ability to measure up to expectations–her parents', the colleges' or her own.  She spends a lot of time trying to fix her weaknesses, meeting with math tutors and doing test prep.  

If that sounds like you (or your teen), here are some suggestions to help you reclaim some time.

1.  Every day, reserve an hour of time that is just for you.

This should be a time you get to spend doing something that makes you happy.  And don't you dare use that time to study SAT vocabulary.  This is your time to read US Weekly, or play guitar with nobody watching, or listen to music, or play video games.  I don't care what it is.  Don't justify it to anybody.  Just do it.

2. Cut back on the time you spend trying to fix weaknesses. 

It is absurd to think that anyone including the colleges expects you to be great at everything.  If you're meeting with a guitar teacher because you're not very good at guitar but you really want to be, that's great.  But if you're doing yet another round of test-prep for the SAT because your first three tries aren't in Stanford's range, ditch your SAT tutor and pick up the guitar (or the video game or US Weekly).

3.  Don't measure everything by its potential value to colleges.

Your high school career should be about lots of things, and preparing for college is certainly one of them.  But it should also be about being a regular teenager.  Regularly do things that will in no way help you get into college.  Being productive is a good thing, but scheduling every second of your day trying to please colleges is just unreasonable.

4.  Sleep more.  

I'm serious.  Too many kids talk about how they're sleeping 5 or fewer hours a night.  No good.  You need to sleep to function well, to be happy and to enjoy your life.  If there's just no way you could sleep more and still get everything done, then you need to follow tip #2 above and tip #5 below.

5.  Quit any activities that you don't enjoy and/or don't really care about.

It's better (and less stressful) to do a few things that really matter to you than too many that don't.  If you don't look forward to doing one of your activities and/or it just doesn't mean much to you, quit.  If you're worried that quitting will make you look like, well, a quitter on your college applications, then don't list that activity at all.  Problem solved.   

Bonus suggestion:  If you read these tips and say, "I don't have time for free time and sleeping more," buy "How to Be a High School Superstar" and read pages 55-77 about "How to reduce your homework time by 75%."

What does your outgoing voicemail say?

If you list your cell phone number on your college applications, make sure your outgoing voicemail message is something you'd be comfortable with an admissions officer or, more likely, a college interviewer hearing.  I'm not saying you need to be as formal as a Fortune 500 CEO, but you might want to play it straight and generic for a few months.

On Veteran’s Day…

College applicants, Veterans Day is a good day to remember that you are lucky to be living in a country that has the strongest and most accessible system of higher education in the world, a country that encourages anyone who wants to do so to go to college, a country where you get to decide for yourself what direction you want your life to take when you become a legal adult. 

If your biggest worry is that you might not get into your first choice college, you're very, very fortunate.  We all are.

Don’t take anonymous college essay advice

You wouldn't just walk up to a random stranger on the street and ask him what you should write your college essay about.  But a lot of kids are actually doing the online version of that.

Pick a college, any college with an essay prompt on the application.  Type that prompt into Google and you'll find students who…

1)  …have posted their essays to open forums and are seeking feedback.

2)  …are asking for suggestions about what to write.

When you open up your college essays to the world wide web like this, you have no idea who's giving you the advice.  It could be a kid, a parent, or some troll who just lurks on the forums.  And whoever it is may or may not have the slightest idea what they're talking about.

There are plenty of people you can go to for advice who not only know know about college essays, but who also have a vested interest in seeing you succeed.  Ask your counselor.  Ask your English teacher.  Ask your older brother or sister who's already in college.  Ask a professional, someone who will be accountable for the advice. 

But don't take college essay advice from a stranger.

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.