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.  

How to prioritize activities on a college application

If you had the chance to have a ten-minute conversation with an admissions officer to explain everything you do that is important to you, what would you talk about?  How would you sum up the way you’ve spent your life in high school when you weren’t in class?

You probably wouldn’t start with, “One time, I went to a meeting of the Spanish Club.” 

It wouldn’t make sense to talk first about an activity that you didn’t care about or spend much time doing.  Instead, you’d probably begin by discussing your most important activities—the ones in which you spent significant time and energy.

But, you’d be surprised how many students list their activities in no particular order when filling out college applications. 

Listing an activity that meant little to you is like telling an admissions officer that the one week you attended a meeting of the “Ping Pong Club” was just as important to you as everything else you did in high school.

Share things that meant something to you, where you really dedicated time and energy.  List them in order of importance to you.  If something wasn't all that important to you, consider leaving it off.  An admissions officer is a human being–he or she can only retain a certain amount of information that you present.

And remember that the key is to share things that are important to you, even if they may not seem overly impressive to someone else.  I'm not saying you should be open about watching 6-hours of television a day.  But if you write a blog that shares critiques of your favorite reality television shows and you've got several hundred loyal readers, that's something important to you that you should probably share. 

College Essays should be about life’s smaller slices

It's good to see that the press still taps the well of admissions wisdom from the former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago, Ted O'Neil.

From US News and World Report's The Right Way to Pitch Yourself to Schools

NewQuotation

In truth, he says, what you write about "doesn't have to be a week in Africa. It can be you were a clerk at Safeway for the summer and that changed the way you view race relations or the environment." Adds Ted O'Neill, the former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago: "Turning points in their lives are kind of premature for kids of this age…We're looking for a thoughtful, earnest presentation that shows complicated interests and thinking…This can be achieved in stories reflecting on life's smaller slices—why you like helping your dad fix up old cars on the weekend, being the only boy in a family of seven girls, why you like to write birthday limericks."

Why perfect GPAs don’t always make perfect applicants

Which of these students is more appealing to colleges?

1. The straight-A student who’s spent his high school years obsessed with his GPA.  He does extra work only if it comes with extra credit.  He had his parents argue with his Spanish teacher to get his lone “B,” raised to an “A.”  He always asks during the first week of classes if participation is counted towards the final grade (if it's not, he doesn't participate).  He's tired and burned out and can’t tell you what his favorite subject is.

2.  The mostly-A student who always gets “B’s” in math but still tries her best.  She loves literature and took some college level creative writing courses during the summer just because she was so interested in them.  She loves participating in her English classes and talking to her teacher after school about books.  She's happy, she looks forward to going to school every day and she can’t wait to join a book club in college so she talk Shakespeare with other lit-geeks. 

Both students have proven that they can do college level work.  Both have great work ethics and both have achieved impressively in high school.  But there’s more to the second kid.  She enjoys school and likes learning new things. She’s curious.  Her love of learning paints her as someone who will keep being that same happy and engaged kid once she gets to college. 

And a lot of colleges will take her before they take the student with the perfect GPA. 

Beer, pizza and college admissions

Tomorrow, I'm heading to the nation's largest annual college admissions conference where I'll get to spend some time with admissions officers I've had the pleasure of getting to know in the last several years.  And based on past experiences, here are some things that various members of the group might do. 

Some will go out for a beer or two when the sessions conclude.  Some will skip a workshop if their beloved Dallas Cowboys or Chicago White Sox or New Orleans Saints are being televised.  Some will go out of their way to find what's reported to be the best pizza in town.  Some will talk about looking for love on match.com, or why Lost is the best television show ever created, or how they've wasted $60 a month for the last two years on a gym membership they've never used.  They'll talk about what they love–and what drives them crazy–about their jobs.  And they'll do some gossiping about who's dating whom from their offices.

I mention all of this because some students have an impression of an admissions officer that couldn't be further from the truth–cold, emotionless professionals who are moved only by high grades and test scores. 

These are real people.  They're just like everyone else.  It's important for students to understand that when you apply to college, one of these real people reads your application, a person who might like Glee just as much as you do, who may have many of the same songs on their Ipods that you do, who may love baseball or musicals or reading People magazine just as much as you do.  And just about all of them are good people who work hard and want to do right by kids.  Even those who work at schools that have to reject most of the applicants would much rather admit a kid than deny him. 

So when you apply to college, don't try too hard to sell yourself.  Don't be too self-conscious to admit what you aren't good at.  Just be confident enough to tell the truth and be yourself.  They don't expect you to be perfect.  They just expect you to be a 17 year-old who's happy, confident and excited about college.     

Should you waive your rights to see your letters of rec?

Most colleges that require a letter of recommendation also ask you to fill out a form that the writer sends to the college along with the letter.  One of the questions on that form asks you if you agree to waive your right to access the letter in the future.  If you waive your right, it means once the writer sends the letter to the school, you have no right to view it.  You will never know what the writer said about you or whether it helped or hurt your chances of admission.  I know–that sounds risky.

Still, you should always waive your rights to access. 

Here's what happens when you don't waive the right.

1.  You're essentially telling the writer that you don't trust him or her to do a good job.  And you're making that implication while asking this person to do you a favor.  A teacher or counselor can't help but be a little offended by that.  And offending the person you want to recommend you is never a good strategy.

2.  A writer who's worried that you'll see the letter one day is often less likely to be honest, and more likely to say things that are technically positive but widely recognized by admissions officers as generic statements that mean nothing.  That's bad for you.  It's the difference between…

"William is never going to be a chemist.  That much is clear.  But while he's struggled at times in my class,  he's cheerful, he keeps trying his best, and he's never given up on chemistry.  I like that in a student."

versus…

"William has shown consistent effort and is both diligent and determined."

That second example means absolutely nothing to an admissions officer.  You are far better served by an honest and revealing recommendation, even one that acknowledges a weakness, than you are by generic faint praise.

3.  The college will wonder why you didn't feel comfortable enough to waive the right, and what you were worried the writer might say about you.

If you're feeling uneasy about waiving your rights, consider asking someone else to write the letter, someone who's more unwaveringly positive about you.  And if you're still uneasy, try to relax.  Teachers and counselors are out to help, not hurt, students.  Just about all of them will do their best to say something positive about a nice kid.