Celebrating one year of daily blog posts

Today’s a big day for me, as it was one year ago today that I set a goal to write at least one entry on this blog every day.  Here I am, 365 days—378 entries—later.

Why did I do this?
The first reason was personal—I just wanted to see if I could do it.  I wanted to see if I could discipline myself to write something on our blog every day.  And I didn’t want to ever phone it in and post just to say I posted that day—I wanted to be proud of what I put up.

But there were a lot of business reasons I did this, too.

I wanted our blog to be the best one out there about college admissions.  Our rule at Collegewise is that we don’t do anything unless we honestly believe we can do it better than anyone else.  We’ve had a blog since March 2006 and I’ve never been (and still am not) the only one from Collegewise to post on it.  But the blog needed a champion if we were going to make it as great as it could be.  Our counselors work incredibly hard and they just don’t have the time to post on the blog more regularly (and it’s not their job to do it).  So this was a natural fit for me.

Improving our blog was also a good way to decommoditize Collegewise.  It can be hard to tell the difference between private college counselors.  Other college counselors can tell kids when to take the SAT and whether or not they’re likely to get into Oberlin just like we do.  But we’re not like other college counselors.  We don’t do college admissions counseling the same way everybody else does.  Our passion, our beliefs about how families should approach college admissions, the way we hire and train our counselors, the fun we inject into the process with our students—that’s Collegewise.  And those things are much, much harder for someone else to copy.  The blog was another way to inject Collegewise into everything we do and to make it easier for people to see and appreciate just how different we are.

I also hoped that more regular blogging would help us build an audience.  It’s expensive to run advertisements and do direct mailing to interrupt people and beg them to pay attention to you.  I thought if we could dispense good advice on a regular basis, people would come to us for information.  And if we kept giving them good advice, they’d keep coming back.  We wouldn’t have to buy their attention—they’d give it to us.  And willing audiences are much more likely to become customers.

And finally, I wanted to use the blog as a tool to teach people.  I’ve always believed that teaching people about college admissions is what we do best.  Whether you’re a family in our program, an audience member at your high school’s college night where we're the featured speaker, or a subscriber to our email newsletter, when people tune in to what we have to say about college admissions, I think that's where we're at our best.  A blog can be a great vehicle to teach, which further differentiates us from our competitions.  Any college counseling company can run an ad or build a website that claims to have “premier college counseling.”  And any college counseling company can have a blog just to say they have one.  But if our blog can teach people better than anyone else can, it’s easy to see how we’re different.  If you actually learn something from us on the blog, you’ve gotten a sense of what we do and how we do it better than any ad could communicate.

What have the results been?

  • Our page views have increased dramatically.  In fact, we’ve gotten more page views in the last year since I started blogging daily than we did in the first three years of our blog.

Pageviews

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • We’ve gotten emails from students, parents, counselors and college admissions officers who probably never would have found us without our blog entries.
  • Many of our Collegewise families read the blog, too.  They’ve mentioned how much they enjoy it, and they often forward entries on to their friends, too.  It’s good for any businesses to make it as easy as possible for your customers to talk about you.  I think our blog helps our fan base do this.
  • Our blog is becoming a place where people land based on search terms.  If you Google, “Overused college essay topics,” “Should I take the SAT again,” or “How to fill out the activities part of the common app,” you’ll find our blog entries—and our advice.  Again, those are people who are finding us without us running ads to reach them. 

What’s next?
I plan to keep writing my daily entries for now, as long I feel I don’t have something to say.  But if it starts feeling like I'm posting just to keep the streak alive, I'll wait until I'm more inspired.  I’d rather post less frequently and keep it interesting than post mediocre stuff regularly.  But for now, I'll blog on.

More importantly, we’re going to start offering products to this audience we’ve patiently built.  I’m currently writing our college admissions book (the working title is “The Collegewise Way.”)  We’re going to be creating videos of some of our most popular seminars.  And we’d like to start offering training seminars for high school and private counselors who’d like to come spend a day with us to learn more about how we do college counseling.  Without the blog, those products wouldn’t have a willing audience who are coming to us to hear what we have to say.  But when each of these products is ready, we can announce it to our blog audience first.  And we can gauge interest in new projects by getting reader feedback, too.

So thank you for reading our little blog and for letting me mark this day.  If you’ve got any feedback, I’d love to hear from you.  Leave a comment below, or email me at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com.

Kevin McMullin
President
Collegewise

Ask Collegewise: “How should I fill out the Common Application ‘Activities’ section?”

Ana asks:

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Hi there!  My name is Ana, and I am a huge fan of the Collegewise blog! The website is definitely one of the most informative resources for all things admissions, and it gives a levelheaded view that is rare in this often stressful process.  I was hoping you could answer a question of mine in a blog post. How should the extracurricular section of the Common Application be filled out? There is a drop down menu for selecting the type of activity, but where should the more specific title (ex. camp counselor, peer tutor, etc.) go: position held or activity?  What about the short description of the activity? If you have some spare time and could post an example Common App activities form with a few different activities, it would be extremely helpful to me and many other confused seniors!  Thanks for your time and your awesome blog."

Flattery like that will get you everywhere, Ana.  Here are a few tips for the activity section of the Common App.

Let's say your three principal activities are volleyball, writing for the school newspaper, and working as a camp counselor over the summer.  Here's how you might approach those. 

The drop down menu

Select the activity from the drop-down menu.  It's important to let this drop down menu do the work for you.  Look carefully and try to find a category that works before you select "Other club/activity."  There are a lot of categories you might not expect to find, like "Family responsibilities," "cultural," "academic," etc.

 Positions held, honors won, or letters earned

This section is for three things–your roles, titles and recognitions.  For example, if you work as a camp counselor, that's your role.  Put "Camp counselor" here.  If you were the Editorial Page Editor for the school newspaper, that's a title–put that here.  If you were the captain, MVP, and first-team all state in volleyball, those are recognitions.  Put those here.   

Roles, titles and recognitions are short and punchy, like “Varsity,” “Eagle Scout,” "Coach's Award," “Counselor,” “Founder,” “Sports Editor” or  “Captain”.  Anything that takes more space to explain should be put in the next section. 

Details and accomplishments

Ask yourself two questions for this section.  1)  Is it possible that whoever is reading this application might not understand what this activity really was based on the previous two sections alone?  2) Did I or the organization accomplish anything that can’t be summed up with a simple recognition that I listed above?  If the answer to either of those two questions is “Yes,” then you should provide that information here.

For example, let’s say you listed your camp counselor work under “Work (Paid).”  But what if the camp was specifically for children with physical and mental disabilities?  That’s something interesting the reader wouldn’t know just from the previous two sections.  So here’s where you could put the name and description of the camp, like “Special Camp for Special Kids: Camp for children with physical and mental disabilities.” 

And what if your school paper won a state-wide award during your junior year? That’s a cool accomplishment that can’t be summed up in the previous two sections.  So here’s where you could say, “2/2010 issue won the state-wide journalism award, “Excellence in Student Press.”

Somewhat annoyingly, the “Save and Check for Errors” function of the Common App will tell you you’ve made an error if you leave this section blank.  So even if you’ve already described everything necessary about an activity, you might need to just fill this space in with “High school football” just to get past the error message.  Try to include information here that fits the categories I’ve described, but if you just don’t have anything else to say, don’t ruin it by trying to make it sound good.  Just put the basic description in and move on. 

So using the example above, our completed Common App activity section would look like this when it's printed:

CommonAppActivity

 

A few other Common App activity tips:

  • Make sure you click the “Preview” button at the top of the screen when you finish this section.  That’s the only way to really tell whether your responses fit in the spaces provided.
  • Pay attention to the directions for this section:  “Please list your principal extracurricular, volunteer, and work activities in their order of importance to you.”  It's important to make sure your activities really are listed in order of importance to you.  The first activity you list should be the one you’d pick if you were only allowed to list one activity (that’s a trick we teach our Collegewise students).  
  • “Principal activities” mean activities that were important to you.  And they don't necessarily have to be formal activities.  It's OK to list a hobby that's important to you, too.  So if you played JV badminton freshman year and never played again, it obviously didn't mean enough to keep playing.  Why take up the space with it here?  But if you write a blog, or host a book club, or knit sweaters, and it's something you really enjoy and spend a lot of time doing, it’s OK to list that here. 
  • Don’t try to list everything you’ve ever done.   It’s OK to have blank spaces.  Our sample student above only listed three activities.  But they were the three activities that defined her high school experience.  The reader gets what was important to her.  She doesn't need her to list anything else.
  • Don’t attach a resume.  The directions in this section (“…even if you plan to attach a resume”) make it sound like that’s something the colleges invite.  They don’t.  In fact, most colleges hate resumes.  They’re too long, they come in too many different formats, and they ignore the activity section of the college’s application.  Unless a college specifically instructs you to do a resume, we tell our students not to do one. 

CommonAppGuideImage And (shameless self-promotion coming) if you'd like more help, you might enjoy our Collegewise Guide to the Common Application.  We take you through every section of the Common App and share the same advice we share with our Collegewise students. 

Thanks for your question, Ana.  I hope it helps.

A tip for seniors on managing your parents during application season

Seniors, as you move into the throes of the college application process, here's something you can do to keep the stress levels in your household manageable–talk to your parents about what you're doing.

I'm a big proponent of parents staying "hands off" and letting their seniors take the lead during this time.  And it's normal for seniors to want to assert some independence and tell Mom and Dad to stay out of it.  In fact, that's appropriate given that the seniors, not their parents, are the ones who will actually be going to college next year.

But seniors, understand that stepping back, especially at the time that you're doing something as important as college applications, is a hard thing for a lot of parents to do.  They're worried that something could go wrong and that they'll have to live with college application guilt of not being involved enough when it counted.  That's why parents ask if you've written your essays yet, and if you've started your application to Duke, and if you've seen your teachers about getting letters of recommendation.

You can put your parents at ease by just spending a few minutes every couple of days and actually telling them what you're up to.  That means you need to do more than say, "Mom, stop asking me about this.  I'll get it done!"  Instead, give some detail. 

Update your parents on your progress.  Tell them when you meet with your counselor, when you submit your letters of recommendation, and when you've visiting your English teacher to have her look at your essay.  Show them the information you print out from colleges.  Tell them when the deadlines are, and when you plan to submit yours.  Let them in on what's left to be done, like sending test scores or requesting transcripts or scheduling an interview.  And if you need help organizing all that information, ask your parents to help–not to do it for you–but to help.

If you feel like your parents are standing over your shoulder during this time, and you think it would be a lot less stressful if they would just back off a little, do the opposite of what you're inclined to do.  Instead of telling them to leave you alone, take a few minutes every couple of days to tell them exactly what you're doing. 

Let them in on the process, and they'll be more likely to take themselves out of it. 

Another reason not to put too much stock in college rankings

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But the larger problem with ranking colleges is that it
is based on the premise that attending college is like an amusement park
ride: a passive experience where the student picks the most thrilling
ride he can handle, straps in, and holds on to his digital camera.
College is nothing like that.  When students go to college–any
college–they take classes.  Some of those classes are taught by
brilliant professors, some are taught by lousy professors, and some are
taught by graduate students.  What they get out of their education is a
function of the effort they put in.  It's possible to go to the
number-two ranked college and get a terrible education, just as it's
possible to go to number 180 and get a wonderful education."

Zac Bissonnette
Debt-Free U: How I paid for an outstanding education without loans, scholarships or mooching off my parents

More advice on letters of recommendation

There's some good advice on The Choice blog today courtesy of Martha Merrill, Dean of Admissions at Connecticut College, concerning teacher recommendations and how they are used during the admissions process.

Seniors (and their parents) should pay particular attention to this tip:

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Follow instructions.  Admission officers will likely read only the required number of recommendations. If you submit too many, you leave it to chance which ones will be read."

A lot of seniors are under the impression that the more information they can share with a college, the better.  So if a college asks for two letters of recommendation from academic sources, but your dad's business partner and your youth pastor have both offered to write recs for you, it's hard to resist just tacking on those additional two letters.  Four people saying nice things about you might seem better than two. 

But we always discourage our Collegewise students from submitting additional letters of recommendation unless the college invites you to do it.  A student who doesn't follow directions, who assumes that he or she deserves the right to submit additional materials while other applicants are following directions, just runs the risk that you'll annoy the admissions officer.

But Merrill makes an even better case.  If you submit additional recs, not only will the college likely not read all of them, but you won't get to decide which ones they read.  Why not maintain as much control over the process as you can?  Follow directions, choose your letter-writers carefully, and be confident that you're being represented as you want to be. 

Should you interview if it will have no bearing on the admissions decision?

There are really two types of interviews in college admissions.  The "evaluative" interview in which what you say can and will be used during the admissions process.  And the "informational" interview, which is your non-threatening chance to learn more about the school from someone who's an expert (like an admissions officer, a student, or an alum).  The admissions sections of colleges' websites usually tell you if interviews are offered and, if so, what kind they are.

So, is it in your best admissions interest to schedule informational interviews?

A lot of students (and just as often, their parents) are quick to
schedule an informational interview, especially when they're planning to visit
the college's campus.  It's hard not to think that making a good impression could still help in some small way.  And the idea of making a personal connection is pretty alluring in the college admissions process.

Still, I think a student should only do an informational interview if you:

1)  Are sincerely interested learning more about the school, and…

2)  Have questions you would like to get answered.

A lot of the informational interviews are very awkward for the interviewer.  Some students don't have any questions because it was actually their parents' idea to visit the school in the first place.  Or the student is already completely sold on the school and doesn't have any questions he needs answered.  So the interviewer has to sit there and try to fill the time.  It's like going on a date with someone and finding you have nothing to talk about.    

Think of informational interviews like a first meeting with a tutor.  A tutor can lecture you if you want her to, but it's much more effective to make the meeting collaborative.  Tell the interviewer what you know already about the school.  Then use the time to get a better mastery of this subject (the college).  What could you use help understanding?  What have you not been able to learn from the website, your counselor or the college guidebooks?  Be engaged and interested.

If you're not feeling engaged or interested, save both parties the time and don't schedule the interview.  And never do an interview just because you think you should.

You don’t need to be in AP classes to be challenged

Something happened recently that doesn't happen very often.  I disagreed with Jay Mathews.

His 9/26 column, "High School Barred Average Students from Taking AP" (the current link on the Washington Post doesn't work or I'd post it here), was about a high school that required students to have a 3.0 grade point average to take advanced placement courses.  Now, the fact that the school dropped the rule after Jay asked them about it is admittedly suspect.  But Jay's take seems to be that any kid who wants to challenge himself should be allowed into an AP course regardless of his GPA.  

And Jay's post today offers "two accounts from people who suffered because of the still widespread and wrongheaded view that only top students should be challenged."  

Here are my problems with that argument. 

1. I agree that access to education is important.  And any student who wants to be challenged should have a way to do it.  But a lot of high schools just can't accommodate every kid who wants to take an AP class.  If there's one AP US History course offered and 70 kids want to take it, you've got a problem.  Having a grade cut-off is a necessary evil in a lot of schools.

2.  Kids are under enough pressure to get into college today.  Opening up AP classes to more students will just encourage the kid who got a B or a C in trigonometry to take AP Calculus because "That's what colleges want."

3.  But most importantly, an AP class is absolutely not the only way for a kid to learn and challenge himself. 

A kid who wants to learn about US history can take a class at a local community college over the summer.

A kid who wants to learn calculus can learn from an MIT professor for free without ever leaving the house.  MIT's Opencourseware shares the actual MIT course materials, including lecture notes, problem sets, exams and occasionally video for almost all of their undergraduate courses.       

A kid who wants to read classic works of literature can buy them from a used bookstore on the cheap.  If you need help understanding them, hire a grad student to tutor you.  Or join a book club.  If you can't find a book club, you could join one online.

Of all the students I've known who were genuinely interested in a particular subject or idea, not one of them has ever abandoned the interest because he was shut out of an AP class.  There are plenty of other ways to learn and challenge yourself today.

Any college will do

There’s plenty of evidence to prove that what you do in college is more important than whether or not your college is prestigious.  Warren Buffet and the majority of the Fortune 500 CEOs are living proof.

From the Wall Street Journal article, “Any College Will Do: Nation’s Top Chief Executives Find Path to the Corner Office Usually Starts at State University”:

“I don’t care where someone went to school, and that never caused me to hire anyone or buy a business.

Warren Buffett
CEO of Berkshire Hathaway

Collegewise note:  Buffet started college at U-Penn’s Wharton School of business.  But he hated it and transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Go Huskers.

A message (and some encouragement) for over-involved parents

I've written a lot about how over-involved parents can actually hijack the college admissions process from their kids, a mistake that can hurt their students' chances of getting into college.  And one of our core beliefs at Collegewise is that kids need to step up and take ownership of their own college process. 

But today's entry on The Choice blog, "How Difficult Parents Look from the Counselor's Side of the Desk," actually made me feel bad for the moms and dads they were describing.  If I put myself in those parents' shoes, I'd be angry and maybe a little bit hurt that the counselors are venting about how awful I am.  So today, I'm really trying to see this from the parents' perspective. 

I can imagine how it must feel for these parents, parents who are trying their best to help their kids through something as important as college admissions, to be told that they're doing too much, that they're actually hurting their children, and that both counselors and colleges will resent them for it.

If you fit the description of an over-involved parent of a college-bound student, first of all, I think you deserve some acknowledgment that you're a good parent.  You're worried about your kid and you're doing everything you can to help your student through what has become an unnecessarily stressful and complicated process.  Lots of students who don't have supportive parents would welcome some parental over-involvement in their lives (as this student commented).  

But given that you just want this process to go well for your kids, here are a few reasons why I still encourage you to step back and let your student take charge.

1.  Once kids go to college, they'll need to take care of themselves, handle their own problems, and manage their lives. And you'll need to accept that no matter how much you may want to, you're not going to be there to take care of everything for them.  The college application process is the time when you should both be getting comfortable with those new roles, not staying put in your old ones.    

2.  Over-involved parents tend to produce passive or absent college applicants.  I know that sounds critical of your parenting, but when parents pick the colleges, the students don't have answers to the "Why are you applying here?" questions.  When parents fill out the applications and get too involved with the essays, the kids' voices disappear.  Colleges want students who are fully-engaged in determining their college futures.  When parents take charge, kids disengage.

3. As well-intentioned as your help is, a lot of kids will take it as a sign that you don't believe they're competent or mature enough to handle their college application process on their own.  I don't even think that most overly-involved parents actually believe that, but your teenager may not be able to make that distinction.   

Parenting a college applicant isn't easy.  And forcing yourself to be less involved is the opposite of the parental instinct for a lot of moms and dads.  Still, that's what your kids (and their future colleges), need you to do.  While you try to make the adjustment, maybe the rest of us can try to be a little less judgmental.    

The wrong way for colleges to use new media

I just got back from St. Louis and the annual conference of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC).  More
than any other topic, the sessions offered for admissions officers were
about reaching out to students using new media, social networking, Iphone apps, etc.  And there were dozens of exhibitors in attendance selling their services to help colleges take advantage of those mediums. 

I think new technologies offer huge opportunities for colleges to communicate with students quickly and cheaply, but more importantly, honestly.  Some colleges are using the technology but missing the opportunity.  Here's an example. 

Visit the admissions section of the Boston University website and you'll find this video, "Write an Essay That Stands Out."  It's 2 minutes and 20 seconds of polished, over–produced video with quick
cuts, background music, and ultimately not that much advice. It's the exact opposite of what they want kids to do with their essays, which is to be themselves without trying too hard.  

How much easier, cheaper, and more effective would it have been to have 2 or 3 members of their admissions staff just speak openly and honestly to students in that video?  They could have talked about some of their favorite essays they've read, and which stories are over–used and worn out.  They could have given some practical, encouraging advice to students.  And they could have used it as an opportunity to connect with students and show the real people behind the normally faceless admissions committee.

It's clear that new media is going to be a part of the college search and application process whether colleges want it to be or not.  I hope more colleges use it as an opportunity to be more personal rather than more commercial.