What students can learn from Major League Baseball

A lot of colleges' essay questions ask you to describe a time that you failed or made a mistake.  Nobody is successful all the time, so colleges don't expect seventeen year-olds to be perfect.  But they ask the question because the way you handle these circumstances says a lot about your character. 

Baseball fans saw a great example of that this week when umpire Jim Joyce absolutely blew a call that cost pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game.  The replay made it obvious to everyone, including Joyce, that he'd missed the call.  So he did something you almost never see an umpire do.  He admitted he was wrong and apologized. 

“It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the sh*t out of it, I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay.”

He also apologized personally to the pitcher, Galarraga.

"Joyce felt badly enough about it that, long after the game was over,
he asked to meet with Galarraga. It’s an incredibly unusual move, but
given the circumstances, it was understandable.

Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski brought Galarraga
from the home clubhouse into the umpires’ room.

'He asked if he could see Armando and I brought Armando in there,' Dombrowski said, 'and [Joyce] apologized profusely to him and he said he
just felt terrible. They hugged each other and Armando said, ‘I
understand.’"

Major League Baseball gave Joyce the option to take the next game off, but he declined, even though he knew what he was in for.  He said he was, "Ready for boos" and promised,

"I’ll take it.  “I’ll take whatever you can give me, and I’ll
handle it like a man, and I’ll do the best I can.”

And here's what happened in the next game.

“Will my admissions chances improve if I pick an odd major?”

Occasionally, a family will ask us if a student's chances of admission will improve if she selects an odd major.  The thinking here is that there are so many "business" and "psychology" and "engineering" majors applying to college, you might have a better chance in a lot less popular major, like "forestry" or "food science" or "viticulture" (it's wine making, and don't laugh–it's a real major).

And yes, this can improve your chances…if you've walked your talk. 

A student who's shown a real interest in forestry, who's taken AP Bio and AP chemistry, who's volunteered for the parks service over the summer, who gives tours of the local wilderness park on the weekend, and who has a great answer to the "Why are you applying to this college?" question that includes a good knowledge of the forestry program, that student has an advantage.  She's a good fit for a program that's not a popular one, and the standards of admission for her might be less rigorous then they would for someone applying as a more popular major.

I'm sure there are cases where a less qualified student applied under an odd major with no intention of ever actually studying "soil science" and managed to slip in.  But is it worth the risk to do that?  Do you want to go to any school badly enough to fake your way in?  That's like pretending to love The Beatles just because a girl you desperately want to date is a huge fan of them.  Sure, it might work, but it's also kind of pathetic.  And just like she might expect you to listen to A Hard Days Night non stop once you're together, what if you have to spend a year or two as a "soil science" major before the college will let you switch.  Is it worth it?  I don't think it is. 

Think a lot about what you want to study in college.  Be a mature college shopper who understands that what you learn in college is important.  Pick colleges that match your interests. And don't try to fake your way in by pretending to be something you're not.  

Is it OK to apply as an “Undecided” major?

Some students who aren't sure what they want to study in college worry that colleges might hold that uncertainty against them.  They wonder if applying as an "undecided/undeclared" major makes them less appealing than an applicant who's declaring what she wants to study.

Thankfully, as long as you're applying to the right colleges, you won't have to worry.

Colleges that offer the undecided/undeclared option are perfectly OK with students choosing it.  It's a college's way of telling you that they don't expect every seventeen year-old to know what you want to do with your life.  They'll probably have you take general education requirements, the classes that everyone has to take regardless of their major, so you can try different things.  And as long as you select a major by the end of your sophomore year, you'll be fine.

Not all colleges offer the undecided option.  Lots of schools see their mission as one to help you reach a career that you've identified (Northeastern, Drexel and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are good examples of colleges that do this).  When schools like those ask you what you want to study, you need to have an answer.  

But for colleges that offer an "undecided" option, be confident that you're uncertainty is OK.  If they ask you to describe your academic interests, tell them what you're considering studying and why you'd like to keep your options open.  You should be thinking about those things, but the right colleges won't hold it against you if you don't have an answer yet. 

Can the major you pick affect your chances of getting into a college?

In my next few posts I'm going to tackle some common questions about if and how the major you select impacts your chances of admission.  I'll start with, "Can the major you pick affect your chances of getting into a college?"

The answer is, "At some colleges, yes."

At some colleges, certain popular majors are "impacted."  "Impacted" majors have more interested students than they can accommodate.  It's like arriving at a party that can hold 50 people, but 100 people are already in line to get in.  It would be much easier to get into one of the other, less popular parties.

Not all colleges have impacted majors.  But those who do usually don't try to keep it a secret.  If you want to know if a major is impacted, a quick call to the admissions office will get you your answer.  

So here's the follow up question.  "If the major I want is impacted, should I apply with a less competitive major and then change once I get there?"

It's important to remember that an impacted major isn't just impacted for high school students who are applying; it's also impacted for students who are already enrolled at the college and hope to get into that major. That means you could spend four years at the college and still not get into your chosen major.

If you're going to college because you want to be a journalist, and you've picked your colleges based on the strength of their journalism programs, it wouldn't make sense for you to apply under a different major to any school just so you can get in.

But if you're just considering a particular major and aren't necessarily sure whether or not you'll like it, you might pick a less popular major at some of your schools so you don't unnecessarily weaken your chances of admission. 

Tomorrow: "Is it OK to apply as an 'undecided' major?"

Don’t be a grade grubber

Counselors, teachers and college admissions officers use a term to describe some students–"Grade grubbers."  You don't want to be one.

Grade grubbers focus obsessively on their GPAs.  They're not interested in learning–they just want the "A."  They'll participate in class discussions…if participation is counted towards your grade.  They'll do the outside project or extra reading…if they get points for it.  When a grade grubber gets a "B" in the class, he'll go right to the teacher and ask what extra credit is available so he can get an "A."  And grade grubbers aren't above having their parents wage the, "My son needs an "A" in the class" fight for them. 

Grade grubbers aren't bad kids.  They work hard and they're not disruptive in class (that would hurt their grade).  But it's hard to really like them.  There's no sense of intellectualism, no keen interest in any particular subject matter with grade grubbers.  They're all about the grade itself. 

It's much better to be branded a "learner."

There's a big difference between grade grubbers and learners.  Learner work hard, too.  And they earn good grades.  But they can also tell you who their favorite class or teacher is.  They take hard classes because they want to be pushed intellectually.  They enjoy learning new things and aren't afraid to pursue their favorite subjects outside of class through extra reading or classes.  They participate in class discussions because it makes the material more interesting.  

Teachers feel lucky when they have a couple learners in their classes.  Learners make the experience better for everyone.  The grade grubbers just take what they need to get the "A," but the learners are giving something back with their enthusiasm. 

It's easy for teachers and counselors to write great letters of recommendation for learners.  And it's easy for colleges to admit them. 

 

Should you take the SAT/ACT again?

When our Collegewise students get their SAT/ACT scores, they usually ask us, “Should I take it again?”  Even if they’re thrilled with their scores, that’s the question they ask.  Standardized tests have a way of doing that to people.  No matter what score you get, you always wonder if it could be higher.

Eventually, the law of diminishing returns applies itself to studying for standardized tests.  Spending your entire summer preparing to take the SAT a third or fourth time just won’t feel worth it if you only go up 20 points.

So how do you decide whether to take the test again?  There’s only a little hard science to this decision, but here are a few guidelines.

1. Did you nail it?

If you met or beat what you hoped you could score, move on. End your standardized testing career on a high note. I know it’s tempting to think you might be able to eke out even more points, but there are lots of other things you can be doing to prepare for college admissions that are more important, and more rewarding, than doing more test prep.

Also, if you scored 2150 or higher on the SAT, or 32 or higher on the ACT, walk away. Those scores are good enough at even the most selective schools. Higher scores won’t improve your chances, and taking the test again just makes you look neurotic.

2. Check average test scores.

Most colleges share the average test scores of the students they admit. You can find that information on their websites or on collegeboard.com. Before you make a decision about retesting, it’s good to know how you compare to students your chosen colleges admit.

Also, don’t forget that many colleges allow you to report your highest SAT Math, Critical Reading and Writing scores from different
sittings (a practice called “superscoring”). So your highest test score may be better than you thought it was. Visit the admissions sections on the websites of the colleges that interest you and find out how they use the scores. Then you can make an informed decision about taking the test again.

3. If you took a class or worked with a tutor, ask the instructor’s opinion. 

A good instructor should be able to tell you whether or not you have a good chance of improving your scores.  And if you’ve already shown that you can do much better than your most recent score, an instructor can encourage you and tell you where to spend your time reviewing.

4.  Are you feeling optimistic, or beaten down?

Some students want to take the test again because they know they can do better. They feel they’ve got the testing upper hand and want to show what they can do. If you’re feeling buoyed and want one more try at slaying the testing beast, have at it. But if you’ve done your best and spent your time preparing and now just wish you never have to take them again, do something else that doesn’t make you feel so discouraged.

For most students who plan and prepare well, two times is enough for any standardized tests. When a student decides he’s just got to try a third time, I tell him to go for it, but then mandate that he throw in the testing towel once he finishes. Part of managing standardized tests means knowing when to say when.

A fundaising secret for high schoolers

If you're trying to raise funds for your team, club, school newspaper or grad night committee, here's a tip that will help you tug at the generosity of others–don't let your parents do the fundraising for you. 

We're always willing to do our part to support high school activities.  And it makes sense for us to give back to the communities who bring their business to us. 

But when a parent calls me and asks if I'd be willing to support her son's soccer team by running an ad in their team directory, the first thing I wonder is, "Why isn't your son making this call?"

I know that parents are just being supportive and they should be applauded for that.  But when parents take this job away from kids, they take away a lot of the learning–and earning–kids should be doing themselves. 

Students need to learn how to approach people they don't know, how to make a phone call, and how to write a properly punctuated and grammatically correct email.  They need to learn how to shake a hand, how to follow up, how to send a thank-you note, and how to gracefully take, "No" for an answer.  When kids do their own fundraising, they learn these lessons.

It's much harder for a business owner to say, "No thanks" to a polite teenager who's just trying to raise some money for the soccer team or the pep squad or the school newspaper than it is to say, "No thanks" to a parent.  I'm not worried about hurting a parents' feelings.  But I want to reward that kid for making the effort.

Don't tell me that you're too busy.  I know you're busy.  But you have to be willing to earn support if you want people to support you.

It's OK for parents to advise.  But the more kids do for themselves, the more successful they'll be.   

Blast from the Collegewise past

I came across a file on my computer today entitled, "Counseling ideas" created Tuesday, August 10, 1999–six days before I opened Collegewise.  I remember writing it on the last day at my former job and saving it on, yes, a floppy disk.

Some of the suggestions look pretty dated eleven years later (like asking colleges to mail me applications).  But it's nice to see that we've made some version of all of these happen since then.  And reading it was a little bit like opening up a time capsule.    

Here's the unedited list. 

  • Write monthly newsletters home to parents.  Help them understand more about admissions and why I do things the way I do.
  • Do a lecture series as part of the program, things like interviews, college essays, secrets of admissions, etc. 
  • Student panels–former students who are freshmen in college come back at Christmas and discuss their experiences.
  • The focus of this business should be on cultivating fulfilled students and helping them find the best college for them.  We don’t want students to spend 4 years just trying to make themselves competitive for competitive colleges if it makes them unhappy.
  • Teach basics of the college essay during free speeches.  Show how quickly we can make an impact with smart advice.
  • Encourage kids to come to meetings without parents.  They'll talk more.  
  • Make files for students–maybe include a Polaroid. 
  • Things to have in a brochure: photos of kids/testimonials, big picture of “graduates” of program with their college sweatshirts, let people know we'll speak at PTA’s, community events, etc.  We also have newsletters for teachers/counselors, kids and parents. 
  • Starting in September, request applications from the most popular colleges.  Keep hard copies of colleges' applications filed so you always have the most current versions to work off.
  • Posters from colleges on the walls (framed)
  • At the conclusion of the senior year, have students and parents fill out evaluation form that includes space for testimonials. 
  • Develop a training program for new counselors.  A 30-40 hour rigorous one.  Include a practicum where they complete 20 hours of counseling work with me before they can meet with kids.  Make a manual and materials.  Possibly sell the training program in the future to other institutions.

Counselor tip: Try this at your next student/parent meeting

When we know there's a lot of material to cover in an appointment with one of our Collegewise families, we'll start the meeting by saying,

"I have my list of things I want to cover in the next hour.  But before we start, what are the things you want to make sure we talk about today?" 

Then we write down whatever they say on our agenda.  If we think the topic would be better handled at a different time, we can say so, explain why, and ask if they'd be OK tabling it for a future meeting. 

Starting meetings like this helps you get a sense of just how much you'll need to cover in the allotted time.  It also lets the other people know that you're not just here for you; you're here for them, too–in fact, the first thing you're doing is asking what they want to talk about. 

They'll know you're not just going to wait until the end of the meeting to ask what questions they have. 

It sets a good tone of collaboration for the meeting and makes everyone feel comfortable that they'll be heard.  You'll know right away if there are any contentious subjects that you need to address. 

And most importantly, it demonstrates that you're prepared for the meeting because you've already composed a list of the things you want to discuss.  They'll know you're not just winging it and that they shouldn't be, either.     

What do we expect from kids at Collegewise?

A father asked me recently if the Collegewise message was, "It's OK to expect less." 

It's not an unreasonable question given how much time we spend preaching that you don't have to have straight A's, perfect test scores, or a degree from a famous college to be successful.  Still, I think he's missing our point (or we're not explaining it well enough).

I think our message is, "It's OK to expect more."

If you believe that kids have to go to one of the most selective
colleges to be successful, you actually believe that most kids
aren't going to make it in the world.  The most selective colleges only
take about 10% of the students who apply.  So those 10% are golden and the other 90% are bound
to fail?  I don't agree.  We expect more than that.

We expect kids to throw themselves into their classes and try their best, but to do it knowing that scraping out a B in a tough course is something to be proud of. 

We expect kids to develop a love for learning so they have an answer when someone asks them what their favorite class is. 

We expect kids to have enough initiative and gumption to find and commit to activities they really love, not to just plod reluctantly through activities they've heard colleges like.  

We expect kids to appreciate what a wonderful opportunity college is, to be excited for the chance to have four years of learning, self discovery and fun regardless of where they go. 

We expect kids to step up and actively search for colleges that are right for them, not to sit back and be passive observers in their educations. 

And we expect parents to encourage and reward the process, rather than the outcome.  Raising a nice kid who works hard, who's respectful of his teachers, who's nice to his peers, who likes school and enjoys his activities, all of those things are much more important than a GPA, test score or an admissions decision from a particular college.

So yes, we have higher expectations for our kids at Collegewise.  And I think it's good for parents, kids and counselors to expect more, too.