Why “it gets better” in college

I've often said to groups of high school students when I'm giving a college admissions talk, "In college, there's always someone who's stranger than you are." 

I used to say it because I wanted kids to know that the narrow social definitions of what's OK and not OK during the high school years disappear at most colleges.  I've always hoped there would be a few kids in the audience who could use that as yet another reason to be excited about going to college, whether or not it was in the Ivy League.

But anyone paying attention to the news these days can see things seem to be getting worse in high school.  It's not just about being told you're not wearing the right clothes, or not athletic or not listening to the right music. Some kids being psychologically and physically tortured by other students to the point that they don't want to live anymore.  And in response, a lot of people, from writers to musicians, to college kids are reminding them that it gets better.

I don't want to cheapen those recent tragedies by turning them into some kind of college admissions lesson.  And I know I can't make much of a dent here on my little blog.  But I do want to remind high school students who read this of one thing.

College is a place where individuality is celebrated. Sure, some colleges feel more like high school than others do, but there are plenty of colleges out there where the further you are from the mainstream, the better.  You'd never look or feel out of place, no matter how different you're made to feel are right now.

Whether you're someone whose high school years are being made miserable, or if you're just the kid who's never known or cared where the cool party is, you don't have to just cross your fingers and hope that it gets better someday.  You get to choose the type of college environment you want to live in just three months after high school graduation. Think about the kind of place you'd like to be.  What kind of people would you like to be around?  What would you like your college to stand for?  What would make you happy?  Whatever your answers to those questions are, there's a college out there for you.  You just have to find it.

There are over 2,000 colleges in the country and most of them take pretty much everybody who applies (that's surprising, but true).  You've got all kinds of choices.  So get yourself a good college guidebook, go to a college fair, or talk to your counselor about colleges that might be right for you.  Use your college search as a chance to create your ideal post-high school environment.  As you start to find schools that fit your vision, you'll have something to look forward to.  You'll get even more excited about life after high school.  And you'll probably feel it starting to get a little better already. 

Our most popular blog posts from the past year

Here are our ten most popular posts from the last year based on the number of pageviews.  Our tips for specific colleges dominate the list, as a lot of students find our blog by typing the actual essay prompt into their search engine.  

1.  Tips for Stanford University applicants: you need a little panache

2. Essay advice for Villanova University applicants

3. Badgers to Be: Tips for University of Wisconsin-Madison applicants

4. For Boston University applicants: A little essay advice

5. Should you take the SAT/ACT again

6. How important are PSAT scores

7.  Don't fall for the sham

8. 10 things every future pre-med should know

9. The five most overused essay topics

10. Start spreadin' the NYU (tips)

College application advice for seniors

I gave a talk to the senior class at Palos Verdes High School's "College Day" on Wednesday.  Here were some of the tips I shared. 

1. Don't let anybody else care about your college applications more than you do. 

You're going to college, not your parents, not your counselors, and not your teachers.  Don't wait for one of them to take charge and drive the process.  Yes, they can help you.  And when you need help, you should ask for it.  But if anybody else has to push you to fill out your applications and do a good job, you're putting your college future in the hands of someone else, and that's never a good idea.

2.  Don't apply to too many colleges.

All the bad news about getting into colleges today makes some seniors apply to too many.  The thinking is, "If I apply to 15, or 20 or 25 colleges, my chances of getting into one are better."  But odds don't work like that in college admissions.  Applying to too many colleges just dilutes the quality of your applications.  No student is equally interested in 20 different schools.  No student is as energetic on the 20th application as she was on the first five.  And no teacher or counselor wants to do the work of completing letters of recommendation for 20 colleges, 15 of which are reach schools or schools you aren't sincerely interested in.  Be smart with your college list.  6-8 colleges is reasonable.  And have your counselor look over your list to make sure you have a good chance of getting into at least half to 2/3 of them.  Don't play the college admissions lottery.

3. Start early.

Students who start (and finish) their applications early have a more manageable process.  They're less stressed, they write better essays, and their chances of admission are stronger at schools who admit applicants on a rolling basis (where they evaluate and make decisions as soon as your admissions file is complete).  But more importantly, students who finish college applications early can get on with enjoying their senior year.  So don't make excuses.  Don't claim that you work best under the pressure of a looming deadline.  Start (and finish) early.

4. Remember that people writing your letters of rec are doing you a favor.

It's not actually your teacher's job to write letters of recommendation for your college applications.  So it's important to remember that when a teacher agrees to do that for you, he or she is doing you a favor.  Be mindful of that.  Ask early–don't wait until a few days before the holiday break and force your teacher to make a choice whether or not to write letters over the holidays.  Be nice.  Give thanks and mean it.  Write a thank-you note and be sincere about how much you appreciate the help.  Most teachers are more than willing to help good kids, but that doesn't mean you should forget that they are in fact doing you a favor. 

5.  You're seventeen years old–it's OK to sound like it on your college applications.

Some students transform themselves into 50 year-old philosophers when they fill out college applications.  They mention valuable life lessons they've learned on the wrestling team, how they were enchanted by the lush scenery during their travels, and the epiphany they experienced during a volunteer shift at the homeless shelter.  You're seventeen (or maybe eighteen) years old.  The colleges don't expect you to be anything but that.  So if you wouldn't think or say those thoughts to a friend, don't express them in a college application.  Don't try to sound like something you're not.  I'm not suggesting you should write your essays the same way you would write a text message to a friend, but you're still allowed to see the world the way you really see it.  Colleges will find you much more charming if you're honest than they will if you try to be something you're not.

6.  Remember that it's all going to be OK.

A lot of seniors convince themselves that college admissions is an all-or-nothing proposition.  They have one or two dream schools, and they believe that if both those schools deny them, it will be a college admissions tragedy.  It's important to remember that nobody's life is made or broken by an admissions decision from a particular college.  If a school you loved denies you, you're still going to college.  You're still going to move into a dorm, meet more people than you've ever met, and have four years of fun and learning no matter where you go.  Aim high, work hard, and treat the college admissions process with the respect it deserves.  But remember that no matter what happens, it's all going to be OK.

The folly of Ivy envy

I saw (and enjoyed) The Social Network, and Jay Mathews extracted a good blog post about what the Facebook founders remind us about an Ivy League education.


(Facebook founder, Mark) Zuckerberg seems to have figured out that Harvard wasn’t going to do much for him. He dropped out, like his fellow billionaire Bill Gates, and neither of them has reenrolled. This year’s crop of applicants will discover if they embrace all their college has to offer, no matter where it ranks on the U.S. News list, they will get far more out of it than they ever expected.

Introducing the redesigned collegewise.com

This week we launched a redesign of our company website, collegewise.com.  It’s been about three years since we did a major overhaul, but we had some specific goals in mind this time around.

1.    Make it easier for visitors to find what they’re looking for.
We didn’t want to assume what information people wanted from our site.  So we looked at our site data for the last year, found the pages that people navigated to most often (“Counselors,” “Services,” “Contact us,” Testimonials,” etc.) and displayed them prominently on the right side of the screen.  People that just want our contact information can get it quickly, but people who really want to take the time to learn more about us through our site will have that information, too.

We also set it up so that when visitors have to scroll down the site, the menu follows them down the right side of the page.  That should make it easier for them to move on to a new page when they’re ready.

2.    Allow us to make updates quickly and easily. 
We didn’t have the ability to update most portions of the previous site without involving a web designer.  Even something simple, like if one of our offices changed their address, we couldn’t just make that change ourselves.

In the new version, about 90% of the site is totally under our control.  We can add or delete pages, edit copy, and even insert our own photos.  If we have a big announcement to make, we can put it on the home page.  If we record video of one of us speaking at a conference, we can share it on the website.  When we add a new service or need to post a job or want to indicate that one of our free seminars is full to capacity, we’ll be able to do it ourselves right away.

3.    Less polish, more Collegewise.

We’d already overhauled most of the copy on our last version to accomplish that goal, so we just tightened it up a little in spots to make sure it said exactly what we wanted it to say.  And we made sure it was absolutely clear what we do, how we do it, and what we believe in.

But we also wanted to do with our website what we tell our students they should do with their college essays—just be ourselves.  We don’t want it to be an over-polished version of something we’re not.  We wanted it to be more Collegewise.

To accomplish that goal, we removed some of the flashier (for us) design elements.

Our old site looked like this:












The new redesigned site looks like this:













Our new site might not be as pretty as the old one in some places, but that was a trade we were comfortable making.  This isn’t 1999.  No prospective customer is wowed by a flashy website anymore.  We wanted it to be clean, easy to navigate for the visitor, and a good representation of what we’re all about.

A site that depicts who we really are will draw the right people to Collegewise.  Not everyone is going to like our vibe, but that’s OK.  We don’t do college counseling like everybody else.  If what we have to say on our website speaks to you, you might be a good fit for Collegewise.  If it doesn’t, that’s OK, too.

In the next 6 months
The new site gives us the ability to host our own online store.  That’s where we’re going to sell our book about how we do college admissions, videos of our seminars, and guidelines for admission to particular schools.

We’ll also be considering how we could use private, password-protected areas of our site for our Collegewise families.  One thought we’re exploring is putting recordings of our seminars up for families who aren’t able to attend, or giving them free access to the chapters of or book.

What we want to improve next
We’re not as happy with the posed current photos of the kids as we are with the rest of the site. We like that they’re all real Collegewise kids (no stock photography), but they came from a professional photo shoot we did at our offices.  They’re too posed and polished.  They aren’t real examples of what it’s like to be a Collegewise student any more than an overly-polished essay is a real example of the kid who wrote it.

So we’re taking photos ourselves now.  Not posed photos, but real pics taken with our own digital cameras of the things that happen every day at our offices—like counselors meeting with families, parents enjoying dinner at our “Senior Parent Back to School Nights” and kids banging our gong when they submit their final application.  That’s Collegewise. And we don’t need a professional photographer to share that.

We probably won’t start sharing those photos on the site until those kids are officially done here and off to college.  So that’s going to take a little longer.  But we’ll keep at it.

We hope you like the new design, and thanks for reading.

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.








  • 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

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

Ana asks:


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:



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


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:


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.