Lessons taught at “Preparing for College Night”

I spoke to a group of eighth grade parents last week about the college admissions process they'll soon be facing as their kids move into high school.  Here are the five tips I shared with them at the end of the talk.

1. Kids should take the most challenging courses they can reasonably handle.
The more rigorous her high school classes, the better prepared a student will be for college academics.  A college will be more impressed by a student who earns B’s in difficult courses than they will by a student who earns A’s in easy ones.  A student should not, however, challenge himself so much that he loses sleep, sanity, or the ability to enjoy his activities.  Hard work is good.  Academic-induced misery is not.    
 
2. Students should study (a little) for standardized tests. 

Standardized tests like the SAT or ACT are an important part of the admissions process at many colleges.  But they are never the most important part.  Taking a course, or buying a book, and doing some focused preparation is a good idea.  But turning into a professional test-taker and spending inordinate time and money just takes kids away from their classes and activities.

3. Encourage kids to choose activities they love.
There are no prescribed extracurricular activities that “look good” to colleges.  Colleges just want kids with passion. If your student loves soccer, encourage him to play on the team, to go to soccer camp, to referee games, and take his interest as far as he would like to.  The same goes for artists, musicians, stamp collectors, kids who are involved in youth group and those who love their part time jobs.  As long as the activity is not covered by the criminal code, colleges will be impressed if a kid really commits himself to it. 

4. Don’t rule out any college because the sticker price is too high.
Not everybody on an airplane pays the same price for a ticket.  The same can be said of students and the price of attending their particular colleges.  There are billions of dollars in financial aid available and plenty of places where you can learn how to get it.   Two of the best sources of information and advice I’ve seen are www.finaid.org (it’s a treasure trove of free information about financial aid and scholarships) and the book “Paying for College Without Going Broke” by Kalman A. Chany. 

5. Be careful who you listen to about college admissions. 
Whenever a parent asks me a college admissions question that begins with, "I heard that…," two things are usually true about the statement that follows.  1)  It's wildly inaccurate, and, 2) It comes from a source that is in no way associated with college admissions.  I don't take advice on dental hygiene from my stockbroker, and you shouldn't take college admissions advice from your friends and neighbors.   Admissions officers, counselors and other professionals are reliable sources of college-related information.  Most other people are not.  Seek out and accept information from those in the know.   

Information seeking

Have you visited the websites of the colleges that interest you (or that interest your kids)?  I'm often surprised by how few families have. 

It's good to be an information seeker when it comes to colleges.  You can't sit back and wait for people to hand you the information you need to find, apply and pay for college today.  That's why the colleges' own websites are your best friends. 

Most of colleges' sites do a very good job of detailing everything from what curriculum they recommend to prepare for admission, to what standardized tests to take, to what forms to fill out for admission and financial aid.

If you want to know what a college requires, their website is the first place you should go.

Your high school counselor can give you good information, too.  So can an admissions representative at a college fair, or a professional private counselor with the right experience.  But the most important information will be available any time, for free, by just visiting the colleges' websites.

If you feel like you need more guidance about what colleges are looking for, a little information-seeking via their websites will clear up a lot of your confusion. 

No excuses

I worked with a student who once lamented to me that the police in his neighborhood were so "bored" that they'd given him three speeding tickets in one month. 

What?  You're blaming the police?

Then his parents told me, "Can you believe how unlucky he is?  To get three speeding tickets in one month!"

Again…what???

One of the most important skills a person can have is the ability to admit fault.  Take responsibility.  Own up to your mistakes and apologize if you've hurt anybody.

It's so easy to do, and it will go so far towards making you more likeable, responsible, and trustworthy.

Excuses rarely make someone like and respect you more.  And it's not likely to work on colleges, either. 

Moving the goalposts

Exclusivity breeds popularity. 

The more exclusive the
night club, the more we wish we could get inside (and the longer the
lines outside will grow). 

The popular kids in high school aren't necessarily the nicest or the smartest–it's
the air of exclusivity that makes them popular (an air that disappears
approximately two-and-a-half minutes after graduation, but still…). 

When celebrities were seen wearing ugg
boots, the prices and the demand soared to a
point that for a time, the boots were very difficult to get.  The harder they were to find (and pay for), the more people wanted to wear them.

The night clubs and the cool kids and the uggs aren't necessarily better than their counterparts.  They just benefit from the part of human nature that makes us desire something more if we can't get it. 

The most exclusive colleges, and their associated popularity, work the same way.

There are over 2,000 colleges to go around.  We are lucky to be living
in a country with the best, most accessible system higher education in
the world.  No matter what you read in the press about how hard it is
to get into college, just about any kid can go. 

But the same 50 schools keep getting more and more competitive, with greater numbers of highly qualified applicants vying to gain admission every year.   The more difficult it is to get in, the stronger our desire to go to those schools (or see our kids go to them).  We believe there must be something special about those places because so few people are invited to attend.  That's why when you hear people talk about the "best schools," they're almost certainly basing that analysis on one factor–how difficult it is to get in. 

Kids today are working harder, studying more, and sleeping less in an effort to get into what amounts to an exclusive collegiate nightclub whose very appeal is the fact they reject most of their applicants.  That's an academic arms race in which no amount of hard work and success can guarantee victory.

What if we moved the goalposts?  What if we encouraged kids to work hard with a different goal in mind, one that won't need the validation of an admission offer from an exclusive college.

A kid who works hard in challenging classes, who studies for his SATs, who makes an impact in his activities, who’s nice to his peers and respectful of his teachers will be better educated.  He will be more mature.  He'll probably have a better sense of his real intellectual interests and inherent talents. He will be more prepared to succeed during and after college.    That should be reason enough to do it.  That kid doesn't need an admission to an exclusive college to prove his worth (or his parents' worth).  

He will, of course, also be admitted to hundreds of colleges.  Most of the 2000 colleges will trip over themselves for this kid.  But if it's not UC Berkeley, or Yale, or Duke, or Stanford, or Pomona, he hasn't failed.  He'll still go to a college where he will use his talents and abilities to make a success of himself.  

I have nothing against the popular schools; I'm against kids and parents putting too much luster on them just because they're exclusive.  There are lots of valid reasons to work hard and improve yourself, but trying to get the popular colleges to like you shouldn't be one of them

It might be time for some different goals.

Can you teach it back?

The best way to learn something is to get to a point where you could teach it to someone else.

When the University of California first announced their new eligibility requirements, I was asked to explain them to a group of students and parents at a local high school.  I'd already read all the material and was comfortable that I understood the changes.  But getting ready to teach other people about it meant I needed to decide what information deserved the most attention, figure out how to best explain it, and try to anticipate what questions families might have.  I understood it all much better as a result of that process.

Preparing to teach something is a great example of active learning.  You can't just passively review the material.  You've got to be actively engaged, testing yourself as you go along to make sure you're ready to explain it to someone else. 

The next time you're studying for a test, imagine you had to go in the next day and teach the material to your class.  How would you explain it?  What would focus on?  What parts might generate a lot of questions from your classmates, and how would you answer them?  In fact, what If you did that every night as you did your homework?  If you pretended every night that you were going to have to go in and teach the material the next day, how much better would you understand it? 

And how much time would you really need to spend studying for your next test?

If you're prepared to teach it, you'll be prepared to take a test on it.

Don’t be a title collector

In their efforts to impress colleges, a lot of students become title collectors. 

They're driven to accomplish things so they can list them on their resumes.  And when they apply to college, they can't wait to rattle off their list of leadership positions held, awards won, and total number of community service hours completed.

But titles aren't unique.  They're everywhere.  You're not going to impress a college with a long list of titles alone.  It's much more important to make an impact. 

Every school paper has an editor-in-chief.  But not every school paper has a section editor who takes a journalism class at a college and then offers to share the material with the rest of the writers on the paper once he completes the course.

Every basketball team has a captain.  But not every basketball team has a point guard who organizes informal practices during the summer so they can run the team's new offense.

Every student body government has a president.  But not every student government has a treasurer who researches examples of effective high school student governments and shares ideas with the president about how they can better serve the students.

Every high school musical has a lead.  But not every high school musical has a lighting tech who hosts a viewing of the Broadway production of the musical (on DVD) at her house the weekend before opening night. 

Every orchestra has a first chair violinist.  But not every orchestra has a second chair oboe player who convinces the conductor of the local community symphony to come to one of their music classes to talk about life as a professional musician. 

Every high school physics class has a student with the highest grade.  But not every physics class has a B student who organizes an all-star team of classmates to compete in the county-wide high school physics Olympics. 

There's nothing wrong with titles.  A lot of them are bestowed upon hard-working, passionate students who are making an impact.  But don't become the editor or the president or the captain just so you can say you held the title.  Your goal should be to make an impact first. 

The collection of titles will almost certainly follow. 

How to write a thank-you note

There are two ways to write a thank-you note.  One is to get it over with, to say the basics, keep it short, and send a quick email (capitalization optional).  Those notes sound like this.

Dear Mr. Gerard:

Thank you very much for writing my letters of recommendation for
college.  I know that you were very busy at the time and I appreciated
your help. I hope you have a good summer, and thank you again for your assistance.

Sincerely,

Rebeca Callahan

Sending a thank-you note like that means you've accomplished one
thing–you've made sure nobody can accuse you of not sending a
thank-you note. 

Don't get me wrong.  Sending any kind of thank-you note is better
than sending nothing at all.  But if someone deserves to be thanked, don't they deserve to be thanked well? 

Put some effort into your thank-you note.  Show the person that you recognize the fact they did a favor for you, that you sincerely appreciate the effort made on your behalf.  Write it on stationary (not over email).  Use capitals and punctuation (seriously, use capitals and punctuation). 

There's no formula for what to say; the key is to just be sincere and take the time to give a proper thanks.

It makes a difference. 

Dear Mr. Gerard:

Now that the college admissions process is officially over, I wanted to thank you again for taking the time to write my letters of recommendation.  I can only imagine how many letters you must have written for students this fall (I know that most of my friends
planned on asking you to write their letters, too), but I really do appreciate the time and effort that you took for me.

I also wanted to tell you that I've decided on Hamilton College and I'm planning to major in history.  I'm not sure I ever would have considered studying history in college if I hadn't taken your class, but after I did that oral report on the Hamilton-Burr duel in front of the entire class without passing out, I'm sure I'm ready for whatever college history throws my way.

You're a good teacher, Mr. Gerard, and I always looked forward to going to your class every day.  My younger sister, Jenna, is a freshman this year, and I've told her to do whatever it takes to get into your class.  She's a much better public speaker than I am, by the way, so she won't be prone to fainting when it's time to do oral reports.

I'm so excited to go to college, and I'm sure I would not have had as many options as I did were it not for your help.  Thank you again for everything you've done for me, and have a wonderful summer.

All my best,

Rebecca Callahan

Hamilton College, Class of 2014

Who needs a champion?

In my life before Collegewise, I worked for a local office of The Princeton Review, best known as an SAT prep company.  But they prepare students for other exams, too, and for a two year stretch that immediately preceded my time there, the Princeton Review office where I worked enjoyed record-breaking enrollments in their LSAT course (the LSAT is the entrance exam for law school).

But the enrollments never returned to those record highs.  Not even close  So I asked my boss what he thought had changed, and I never forgot his answer.

“Because The Princeton Review had an LSAT champion in Ian.”

Ian was in charge of running the LSAT courses during their heyday at The Princeton Review.  He knew everything about the exam and loved teaching students how to beat it.  You could feel that energy when he would do free seminars for pre-law students.  Teachers he hired caught his contagious enthusiasm and passed it on to the students.  When Ian would write letters home to students about course details (yes, this was 1991 before everyone had email), he would always inject humor and spirit into his communication.  He wasn’t just phoning it in.  He loved what he was doing and he was exceptionally good at it.

During Ian’s tenure, everyone involved with the LSAT courses could sense they were getting involved in something special, something they couldn’t find from the competition.  You can’t fake that kind of enthusiasm Ian displayed.  That’s why students enrolled in record numbers.

As my boss put it, “Once Ian took over the courses, the students just kept coming.”

What project, organization, class, club or team in your life needs a champion?  What do you think would happen if you took it on the way that Ian took on the LSAT courses?  And most importantly, what would people be saying about you when your tenure as the champion was over?

If you want to make an impact that people will appreciate, find something or someone who needs champion.

How to handle college rejections

This is the month when the majority of college decisions arrive home.  And while there will be a lot of happy squealing and celebrating by the mailbox, it can also be a disheartening time for students when a college for whom they were holding out hope doesn’t come through with an offer of admission.

I don’t want to minimize that disappointment.  Many kids today (I believe unfortunately so) predicate their hard work on goals to be admitted to particular, often very selective, colleges. For those kids, it’s an especially painful sting when those colleges say, “No.”

But like break-ups, bad hair cuts, and embarrassing moments, the pain associated with the rejection will eventually pass.  Here are a few tips to speed up the healing process a little.

1. Maintain your perspective.

You are allowed be disappointed by a rejection.  But (warning, a little tough love coming here), you are not allowed to treat the rejection like a tragedy.  This isn’t a tragedy; it’s a disappointment, and all successful people have their share of them.  It’s important to remember how lucky you are to be living in a country with the best system of higher education in the world.  Wherever you go, you will carve out a college experience that you’ll one day tell your kids about.  It’s still going to happen, and that’s something worth appreciating.

You should also know that while not everybody gets into their first choice colleges, statistics show that the vast majority of college students report that they are very happy where they are.  Seriously, can you blame them?  Have you ever been to a college party?

That statistic is a good thing.  It means that thousands and thousands of students who were right where you are today, students who felt the sting of a rejection from a college they loved, are reveling in their college lives now.  It will happen for you, too.

2. Try not to take the rejection personally.

College rejections often feel bitterly personal.  But a rejection does not necessarily mean that the admissions office didn’t love your essay or appreciate your activities or think you wouldn’t be a great addition to the campus.  A rejection often just means that there weren’t enough spaces to go around.  So don’t think that a rejection invalidates all of the work you’ve done.  It just means that you’ll be taking that work ethic with you to a different college.

3.  Move on.

Not getting into a college you loved is a little like going through a break-up.  Break-ups can be rough.  It’s almost impossible to imagine feeling the same way again about someone else.  But you always do eventually (have you ever met a 20 or 30 or 50 year-old who’s still devastated over a high school breakup?).  You just have to put yourself out there and find someone else.

A college rejection is a lot like that.  It hurts, but you’ll get over it faster if you let yourself move on. If you’ve been accepted to other colleges, you already have your suitors awaiting you.  It’s like getting dumped at noon and having six voicemails by 2 p.m. from desirable people who want to date you.  If only romance worked that way.

You won’t remember this rejection in a few months once you move into a dorm.  So you’re allowed a brief period of college-rejection mourning if necessary.  But as quickly as you can, move on.  Start to imagine yourself at one of the other
colleges.  The sooner you begin falling in love with a college that said, “Yes,” the sooner you’ll be excited about the next four years. And speaking of that…

4. Look six months down the road.  

One of the best ways to get over a college rejection is to look ahead six months from now.  This September, you will be moving into a dorm.  You’ll be meeting your new roommate while your parents exact a promise that you’ll call home on a regular basis.  You’ll be buying a sweatshirt bearing the name of your new college. You’ll go to your first college class, start making your initial college friends, and officially begin your life as a college freshman.  Do you have any idea just how exciting that’s going to be for you?

Six months from now, the college rejection that stings today will be a distant memory.  That’s why rejections don’t dash college dreams in the long run.  Once a student commits to a college who said “Yes,” the rejections and their associated pain will disappear.  I promise.

5.  And here’s a tip for the parents.

The most important advice I can give a parent whose son or daughter receives a disappointing rejection is to remember that your kids are looking to you to set the example of how to handle it.  I recognize that this is a lot of pressure on a parent, especially given that you can’t help but share the same disappointment your kids feel.  But as adults, we’ve had more experience handling life’s disappointments. Kids are relatively new to this and will inevitably follow a parent’s lead.

Tell your son or daughter your love and pride doesn’t change because a college said “No.”  Be excited about the schools who said, “Yes.”  And most importantly, show your kids what it means to just be thankful for health and family and the chance to attend a college at all. Your kids will follow your lead.

This is how it’s done

I admit it–I've got a collegiate crush on the College of Wooster.  I've written about them before and this probably won't be the last time.  But for now, I'll hold off on my praise for Wooster and instead praise a parent I've never actually met.

This is a video, presumably shot by a father, of his son Kyle's freshman orientation day at Wooster (parents are encouraged to attend this day at Wooster–and lots of them do so). Wooster tradition dictates that the Fighting Scot marching band leads the new freshman through the campus to their first convocation where they are reunited with their parents. 

My favorite part is at the 0:57 mark when the father yells, "Kyle!  Kyle!" from behind the video camera in a valiant attempt to get his son's attention. And Kyle does his best to ignore his father, just as any 18-year-old college freshman would be virtually bound by law to do in this situation.  

Parents of students who are going through the college application process can learn a lot from this video. 

No, you should not fill out applications for your student.  You should not write his essays, pick his colleges for him, or in any way hijack the process from your college applicant.  One of the most important steps a parent of a college applicant can take is to back off and recognize that this is your student's college process, not your own. 

But you retain the inalienable parental right, nay, the parental obligation to embarrass the bejeezus out of your kids with overt displays of pride and excitement over whichever college they choose to attend.  Don't hold back.  This is the time to let loose.

The College of Wooster is not what you would call a "name-brand" school.  But this parent obviously knows that how famous a college is should have no bearing on his level of excitement for his son.  He's out there with his video camera capturing every moment of his son's experience (and then posting them on YouTube!).  This is a father who's taking his responsibility to display parental pride seriously.

Kyle may act embarrassed now, but I bet he will later recall fondly how happy his father was to see him starting college. 

Parents, you've got a choice to make.  You can pin your excitement on the admission of a few selective colleges, crossing your fingers in belief that anything less than an Ivy League acceptance just won't be good enough for your son or daughter.

Or you can resolve to get the video camera out and flaunt your pride wherever your student ends up in college.  It might not be easy for some parents, but this dad shooting the video is showing you how it's done.