Join us for “How to Revive Lifeless College Applications”

Arun and I had a lot of fun doing our first episode of "College Admissions Live" (our experiment with online TV–you can watch the first episode about college essays here).  And while we did prove that we knew more about admissions than we did about good video quality, we're working on the latter and are excited to announce our next episode.

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

What we'll cover
Even the most accomplished student can look dull when reduced to a dry listing of grades, test scores and activities. How can your college applications tell a compelling story of you and your high school career?  Join us to learn:

•    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 about 30 minutes, then take questions from the audience for 15 minutes.

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

No reservations required. Just drop in at the start time.  And if you'd like us to send you an email reminder the day of the show, just register here.

We hope you'll tune in to join us!


Will a college know if you lie on your application?

There is in fact such a thing as a stupid question.  "How could a college really know if you lied on your application?" is a good example of one.

The problem with that question isn't that the answer should be obvious.  It's a stupid question because lying to your colleges is a stupid thing to do.  And most students aren't posing the question hypothetically.  They're asking because they're considering telling the lie.

Colleges know how to spot inconsistencies in your application.  They notice when things you say don't match with what your teachers or counselors say in the letters of recommendation.  And colleges won't hesitate to call your counselor to verify information that doesn't seem right.  They don't do it to catch you in a lie.  They do it to make sure they have accurate information. 

So sure, it's possible that you could claim to be a National Merit finalist and the college would never know.  You could claim to have played two years of varsity soccer when you only played one, that you did 50 hours of community service you didn't really do, or that you've never been suspended from school when, in fact, you were suspended once as a freshman.  A college might never find out. 

But the real question is, is it worth the risk?

If you lie on your college application and a college finds out–no matter what the lie is or how they find out–that's it.  You're not getting in.  And it wouldn't be unheard of for colleges to tell your other colleges what you did.  Colleges know that kids who are willing to take that risk are more likely to do things like cheat on a test or plagiarize a paper.  So the risk dramatically outweighs any potential reward.  And when you sign your college application, you're signing a formal document stating that all of the information is true to the best of your knowledge.  So if you get caught, forget it.  There will be no apologizing your way out of it.

Nice, confident kids who've worked hard don't ask us this question.  So don't let the pressure of college admissions influence you to lie on your college application.  Be better than that.  It's not worth it.  You don't need an admission to Princeton or NYU or UCLA badly enough to lie.  Just be honest.  Be proud of who you are and what you've done.  If you've made mistakes, be mature enough to own up to them.

It's hard not to like and respect people who have the guts to tell the truth. 

Good press doesn’t necessarily mean good advice

Which article about college interviews would you be more likely to read?

Option 1:  "College deans advise: Just relax and have a good conversation." 


Option 2:  "College deans advise:  Girls, don't show your cleavage.  Boys, don't scratch yourselves." 

Today, The New York Times chose option 2.

Today's entry on The Choice, a blog I usually enjoy and often recommend, led with the entry, "Advice for the College Interview: Girls, Dress Discreetly; Boys, Mind Those Hands."  Turns out there's very little useful advice other than don't text during the interview, don't burst into song, and don't talk about how much you like to light things on fire.  Seriously.  They might as well have just entitled the article, "College deans advise: don't be rude, stupid or dangerous."

Sure, it's accurate advice.  But most teens don't need the New York Times to remind them not to scratch themselves during their college interviews.

The job of the press is to entice readers and sell papers.  That's why every spring, there will be another round of front page articles about the rising competition of Ivy League admissions.  There will be stories about seemingly perfect kids who were rejected from all their colleges.  There will stats about rising wait-list numbers, decreasing financial aid, and families who are spending tens of thousands of dollars for tutors and private admissions counselors.

It's important to remember that just because these stories end up on the front page doesn't mean they encapsulate the reality of college admissions.  It's just that "Nice kids who work hard always end up OK" will never sell as many papers as "Valedictorian with perfect SAT scores now living in parents' basement after receiving rejections from 12 out of 12 colleges." 

The press isn't being deceitful here–they're just doing their job.  But if you want college admissions reality, rely your high school counselor or a college admissions officer before you rely on the front page.   

PS: In the spirit of always talking about other people as though they were there in the room with you, I submitted this comment to "The Choice."

How one graduate from a not-so-famous college made it big

Jon Favreau was just a twenty six year-old kid when he wrote President Obama’s inauguration address (he did it on his laptop at Starbucks).  Today, he’s not even thirty and he’s the Chief White House speechwriter.  Time Magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.  I don’t care what your politics are—most people would agree that this guy is pretty successful.   When asked how he got here, Favreau once told an interviewer,

“It all started because of Holy Cross.”

College of the Holy Cross isn’t on my list of the 40 colleges in the country where all the bad admissions news is true.  About 65% of their students were ranked in the top 10% of their high school classes; 95% of Princeton’s students can make that claim.  Holy Cross admits almost half of the students who apply; Stanford admits 9 out of every 100. 

But if there’s ever been someone who’s proven that it’s not where you go to college, it’s what you do while you’re there, John Favreau’s your guy.

Back in college, “Favs” as his friends call him studied political science. He volunteered at the local welfare office and started a project defending the rights of welfare recipients.  He was the editor of the opinion section of the school newspaper.  Then he took advantage of Holy Cross’s “Washington Semester” where he moved to Washington DC and interned for Senator John Kerry.  His junior year, he was named a Harry S. Truman Scholar, winning a $30,000 scholarship awarded to 75 students nationwide each year who have extensive records of public and community service and are committed to careers in public service.  He was named valedictorian of his graduating class and showed everyone in attendance that he had speechwriting chops in his address that closed with:


There seems to be one last bulletin here that Career Planning forgot to drop in our mailboxes.  Now, I realize that most of us already have jobs, but all of these positions are part time, and I’m sure all of us have the necessary qualifications. The employers are our communities, and while each position is already being filled by millions all over the world, there is a desperate need for more help. And here’s some of what we need:

Soccer coaches, Den Mothers, PTA members, Neighbors who help you move in and promise to keep in touch when they move you out, Friends who come early and stay late, Shoulders to cry on, Big Brothers and Sisters, Family comedians, Tee Ball Umpires, Letter-to-the-Editor authors, Voters who care about any issue from Traffic Lights and Tax Reform to Potholes and Peace on Earth, Organizers and Activists, Critics and Supporters, Voices for those who are having trouble getting theirs heard, Summertime Porch-Sitters with special degrees in talking about everything and nothing until the mosquitoes bite, Mentors, Philanthropists, Signature collectors, Boo-boo fixers, Grocers to the hungry, Roofers to the homeless, and Believers—especially believers.”

A few years later when then-Senator Barack Obama interviewed Favreau to join his office as a speechwriter, Obama asked him how he got started in politics and what originally got him interested.

Favreau told him about the welfare office where he volunteered back in college.  At the end of the interview, Obama hired him on the spot. 

Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to go to a famous college to be successful.  It’s what you do while you’re there, not where you go, that matters. 

A word of advice for early decision applicants

Imagine you meet your boyfriend or girlfriend for a dinner date on Friday night and instead of sitting down to eat, you're met with the words, "I'm sorry, but I want to break up."  Ooof.

You'd be hurt, probably surprised, and would likely head home for a weekend of mourning. 

Now imagine that when you got home, you remembered that you have a huge research project due on Monday and you haven't even started.  What would that feel like, having to throw yourself into an important project immediately after your breakup?  Could you do a good job when your head and heart just aren't in it?  Would it make your post-break up pain even worse? 

That's how a lot of students who are applying early decision to colleges are going to feel in December.

Early decision deadlines (the binding admissions program in which you promise to attend a college if they accept you), are quickly approaching.   In return for applying early, you'll hear back from those colleges in early December.  A lot of students apply to one of those schools and then wait with their fingers crossed, leaving all of their other college applications to wait until they get the news back from their dream school.  That's a fantastic system if you get an acceptance from that one school.  But if you don't…

1.  You now have to start all of your other college applications.

2.  You'll only have a few weeks to do them, and you'll be working all through your holiday break.

3.  You'll have to muster the enthusiasm to put all the necessary love and attention into these remaining college applications, all while nursing the emotional hangover from the dream school that rejected you.

Don't do it to yourself.  Plan for the worst.  Work on and complete all of your college applications. If your dream school says "No," you'll be able to take some solace in the fact that at least your other applications have already been submitted.  It will be like having a date with a new person already lined up before your significant other breaks up with you.  OK, maybe that's not good relationship advice, but with your college applications, it's just good planning.

Yes, if your dream school admits you, you'll have completely wasted your time on those other applications.  But which problem would you rather have?

What should parents’ expectations be for their high school students?

The stress of college admissions leaves a lot of parents rewarding or punishing kids for all the wrong reasons.

Two days ago, I shared the link to "A Father’s Acceptance: His Son Won’t Be Following His Ivy Footsteps," an entry on the New York Times "The Choice" blog from a father who'd realized his son didn't have to go to an Ivy League school to make him proud. 

Today, that blog ran a selection of readers' comments, many from parents, they've received in response to the entry.  A lot of them were positive affirmations from parents who'd learned that their kids' GPAs and test scores didn't measure their worth as kids (or their parents' success at raising them).  But a few were like this one:


Ugh. Attitudes like this are part of the problem. Your kid can be a unique snowflake and still get good grades. Kids are failing in school and at life because parents are lowering their expectations.  This P.C. acceptance … is tiresome & fake. There is nothing wrong with expecting your kid to get all As, take honors and AP courses, top scores on SAT, and get into a top school. There is nothing wrong with being disappointed if your kid fails to accomplish these goals. It is your failure as a parent, too.  Stop pretending you need to just accept your kid as is when s/he fails. Your kid can be an individual & still get top marks in school.

Parents, that is not someone you want at your next dinner party.

First, it's important to acknowledge that there are some kids who could do nothing but study and still not get straight A's in AP classes.  There are some kids on whom you could spend a fortune for SAT tutors and they'd still never come close to the average score of the Stanford admits.  Hard work can influence those things, but not every kid gets the genetic hand of cards to achieve those admissions-related results.

But more importantly, when did it become reasonable to expect kids to be great at everything?  Do you know any adults who are great at everything?  Why should we expect kids to be great at math, chemistry, English, Spanish, athletics, music, public speaking and leadership?  The admissions process at highly selective colleges rewards the tiny percentage of students who somehow found the natural ability and work-ethic to achieve exceptional results.  If any kid could do it based on hard work and high expectations alone, every high school senior class would have 75 valedictorians.  

I'm not suggesting you should lavish praise on your student in every situation.  If your student gets a D on his chemistry midterm because he blew off studying and just played video games until 2 a.m., I think a parent has a right to be disappointed. I think it would be appropriate to take away his video game privileges and tell him you weren't happy with his effort.  It's OK to expect more than that from your student.  

But if that same student tried his best and still didn't do well on the exam, praise the effort.  Tell him you're proud of how hard he worked, and ask if there's anything you can do to help.  High expectations for your kid are absolutely a good thing.  But the expectations should be tied to the effort rather than the outcome.

Let your kids know that you expect them to put in a real effort to learn not because that's what it takes to get into Yale, but because education is important.  Encourage their interests not because you heard Georgetown likes students who've shown leadership, but so you can help them find their natural talents and passions.  Focus on the bigger picture. 

There are only eight Ivy League schools, but there are hundreds and hundreds of different paths someone can take to be happy and successful.  

Great college applications are sticky

A great college application is one that makes you stand out from all the other applicants.  The admissions officer remembers it when it's time to discuss who to admit.  In fact, a great college application is sticky.

I just finished reading Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The authors, professors of business at Stanford and Duke, define a "sticky" idea as one that people understand and remember, one that changes the way people think or act.  That story about the guy who goes to Vegas and wakes up in a tub full of ice to find that someone has harvested one his kidneys?  It's fake and it's ridiculous.  But it's sticky–people heard it, remembered it and shared it with all of their friends.

They share six principles you can use to make your idea sticky–whether you're doing a sales presentation, writing an article or hunting for a job.  And it struck me how aligned they are with the tips we give our Collegewise students when they're filling out their college applications. 

1.  Simple

A idea is more likely to stick when you make it simple.  You do that by weeding out everything that's unimportant and focusing on the core.  Take the activities section of a college application.  An admissions officer can't remember ten activities that you've participated in.  So don't list JV golf if you only played it for one year back in 9th grade.  If it wasn't important to you, why would it be important to an admissions officer? Use the limited space you have to focus on the few activities that really meant something to you and defined your high school experience.

2.  Unexpected

If you want someone to care about your idea, you have to pique their curiosity.  When someone wants to know something and doesn't, it's like an itch that needs to be scratched.  Starting your college essay, "I have been in the marching band for the last four years and it has taught me many important lessons about hard work and commitment" is not going to pique any admissions officer's curiosity.  You might as well have just said, "I'm going to tell you a story you've already read over and over again."  But if that same kid started his essay,

"The first time I picked up a saxophone, I actually injured myself.  Really, my mother had to take me to the doctor." 

Now, you've piqued my curiosity.  

3.  Concrete

A sticky idea isn't abstract–it's tangible, something that someone can easily understand and see for themselves. A lot of activities, honors or awards aren't recognizable to an admissions officer.  Listing the "Triton Award" isn't concrete.  Nobody knows what that is.  Tell them that it's awarded to only one student in the junior class each year and that the faculty selects the winner.  Now your reader gets it.

4.  Credible

No idea is going to stick unless someone believes you.  So don't tell a college that you're very interested in science; tell them a story about what it's like to spend two hours looking through a microscope.   Don't tell them you learned how to be a leader in student government.  Share a story about what that one meeting was like when nobody would listen to you.  And don't tell a college they're high on your list because of the "great reputation" and "small faculty-to-student ratio."  Anybody can rely on generalities or recite statistics from the website.  You have to make them believe you.

5.  Emotion

A sticky idea makes someone feel something.  So don't write your essays in a stiff, academic tone.  Come right out and say, "My parents really stuck it to me by not giving me a science gene."  Or "I love it when we're at our busiest, when I'm behind the grill and everyone is running around in hamburger pandemonium."  Or, "I'm not sure my dad understands how much it meant to me that he left work early that day to come watch me play."   When I read those sentences, I feel something.  Put your emotions into your stories, and you'll make your reader feel something, too.

6.  Story

We tell our Collegewise students that details in your college essays help you take ownership of your stories.  But more importantly, they make your reader feel like he or she was there with you.  They understand a little more about you because they feel like they've been a part of something important to you.  The stickiest ideas aren't just facts–they tell stories that people remember.  Just like great teachers tell stories to help explain the material. you need to tell stories to explain you.

You're not like every other applicant–so use your application as a tool to help them understand what makes you different.  Be yourself.  Tell stories.  Share what you're proud of and admit what you aren't good at.  Be confident and self-aware.  That's how you create an application that sticks. 

Sometimes a parent just needs to hear it from a fellow parent

It's one thing for me to tell parents to relax, enjoy the ride, and stop worrying about whether or not your kid will get into an Ivy League school.  But I'm sure it resonates better when a fellow parent, especially one of a college applicant, can offer up some reassurance and advice. 

From the New York Times "The Choice" blog today:


Above all, I urge parents of high school juniors and seniors not to see their kids as SAT and ACT scores and G.P.A.s, but as creative, unpredictable, unprogrammable teenagers with their own gifts."

Dave Marcus
A Father’s Acceptance: His Son Won’t Be Following His Ivy Footsteps

Ask Collegewise: How do you handle customer complaints?

Kristen asks:


I'm the counseling director at an independent school in Maryland and I was wondering if you could give me some advice about how to handle parents who complain, especially when the problems they're experiencing aren't necessarily our fault.  These parents are our customers and they're paying a lot of money for their kids to be here.  But sometimes it feels like we're apologizing for things we really shouldn't have to apologize for, like when a student doesn't get into a highly competitive college we told him was out of his reach in the first place.  How do you make those parents happy without capitulating when you shouldn't have to?"

We train our counselors to do four things whenever a customer has a concern or a complaint.

1. Acknowledge the problem.

Imagine you took half a day off of work to wait for the cable guy at home and he never showed.  So you call the cable company and they tell you, “We have you on the schedule for tomorrow, not today."  They’re pretty much telling you that you’re wrong.  They don’t care that you waited all day.  Now instead of just being upset, you're furious.

If a customer thinks there is a problem, no matter who's fault it is, the first step is to just acknowledge it.  Hear their concern.  Show them that you’re on their team.  You don’t necessarily have to admit that you screwed up if you didn’t.  But to just say, “I can’t believe you had to wait for four hours and we didn’t show up.  I completely understand why you're frustrated”—that makes all the difference.  You’re acknowledging the problem, and you’re showing the customer that you care.

2. Apologize for the problem.  And mean it.

Has anyone in the history of customer service ever felt better when a business says, “We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused"?  No.  So why do businesses even bother saying it? 

A real apology is sincere.  It comes from a human being.  There’s some remorse and regret expressed.  It’s an honest expression that you feel badly for your customer and wish that things were going better.

If the situation really is your fault, then you’ve got to own up to it.  You have to say some version of, “You’re right.  We totally screwed up.  There’s nobody else we can blame for it, and I'm so sorry that we let you down.”

But if it’s not your fault, apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean you have to accept blame.  Years ago, a mother in our program called and yelled at me because her son’s application to his dream school wasn’t done yet and the deadline was in just two days.  We’d left voicemails for the kid and the parent for weeks.  We’d sent emails to both.  When we didn’t get a reply, I mailed a letter home addressed to the mother telling her we were worried about them and needed to hear back.  I didn’t feel one ounce of blame for this situation, and I didn’t accept any.  But I did say,

“I’m so sorry about the stress this is causing in your house right now.  Families enroll in our program to avoid exactly this kind of situation, and I feel terrible that you had to find out at the last minute that David was behind.”  

A sincere apology is usually the first step towards reconciliation.  Your customer will be more likely to acknowledge any role they might have played in this problem, and they'll be more open to whatever solution you offer.

3. Take ownership of the problem and do something about it. 

Is this a problem that can be fixed?  If so, your customer wants to know that something is going to be done to address the situation.  But more importantly, they want to know that somebody is making it a priority, that one person is taking ownership of it. 

One effective way to approach the problem is to promise to follow up by a specific date and time. 

Wrong way:  “I need to speak with our editor to find out the status of David’s essays.  I’ll let you know as soon as I hear back from her.”

Right way:  “I want to speak with our editor about this.  So I’m going to call her as soon as I get off the phone with you.  Hopefully she’ll pick right up, but if for some reason I don’t hear back from her by the close of business tonight, would it be OK if I called you by no later than 6 p.m. tonight just to update you?  I don’t want to make you sit around for another day wondering what happened.” 

Don’t ever make it your customer’s job to follow up with you.  Take on the responsibility not just of fixing the problem, but also of letting your customer know that you’ve fixed it.

4.    Leave this situation and your customer better off than you found them.

Problems can sometimes be a good thing.  They let you show your customer just how much you care about their experience.  When you listen, acknowledge the problem, offer up a sincere apology, and personally take on the effort to try to fix it, the customer will feel better.  She’ll be reminded why she trusted you in the first place. 

And if the problem is one that you just can’t fix, taking the steps above will still leave the customer better off than when she came to you with the complaint.

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

If you've got a question of your own, email us at blog [at] collegewise [dot] com.  If we pick yours, we'll answer it here on our blog.

How truly intellectual students approach school

9th-grade algebra teacher Dean Sherman takes a different approach when his students ask, "When are we ever going to use this?"  He just says…


'Never. You will never use this.' Then he points out that people don’t lift weights so they’ll be prepared should, one day, somebody knock them over on the street and trap them under a barbell. 'You lift weights so that you can knock over a defensive lineman, or carry your groceries or lift your grandchildren without being sore the next day. You do math exercises so that you can improve your ability to think logically, so that you can be a better lawyer, doctor, architect, prison warden or parent.  MATH IS MENTAL WEIGHT TRAINING. It is a means to an end, (for most people), not an end in itself.'”

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

That's a lot like how truly intellectual students approach school.

A truly intellectual kid doesn't take AP English because "That's what Princeton wants."  He takes it because he wants to learn it.

He doesn't obsessively calculate and re-calculate his GPA.  He does his best and accepts whatever the outcome is.

He doesn't arrange his schedule to get the easiest teacers.  He arranges it to get the best teachers.

Your GPA and an admission to college should be a by-product of a larger goal–to become better educated, a better thinker, and someone who's more aware of your intellectual interests. 

If students (and parents) can somehow find a way to embrace that idea, it will be easier to accept the B in trigonometry that just refuses to raise higher, or the SAT score that won't crack 1900, or the dream school that says "No." 

As long as you're focused on the larger goal of becoming a better thinker, colleges are going to appreciate you.  And you'll accomplish your goal no matter what college you attend.