Want to help kids get into college?

For the last five years, our counselors have been volunteering at College Summit, a program that helps under-resourced students apply and get accepted to college. And one of the things I like best about them is that you don't need any experience with college admissions to volunteer.

Each workshop is staffed by experienced college counselors who handle the admissions advising.  But volunteer "writing coaches" help the students find their best stories for college essays.  College Summit trains you in their system, so you don't need any experience with college admissions, teaching, writing or editing.  All you need is a willingness to help and a desire to do a good job.  At the workshops I've attended, the writing coaches have ranged from a high school English teacher, to a retired police officer, to a director of a Jewish community center, to an engineer for the city of Los Angeles.

So if you're a counselor, you can lend your college counseling skills to a group of kids who really need them.  But if you've never been involved with the college admissions process and would like to do something to help good kids find their way to college, look into being a writing coach.  You can find out more about all of College Summit's volunteer opportunities here.

I think every teacher should read this book

TeachWithYourStrengths I don't like most career/personality tests.  Maybe that's because the one I took at school when I was sixteen told me I should be a mortician (I swear I am not making that up).  I think most of those tests are blunt instruments that either tell you what you already know about yourself, or give you results that you can't really use.

But I feel a lot differently about the Gallup Organization's "StrengthsFinder" test.  I've taken it, all the Collegewise counselors have taken it, and I made all my friends and family members take it.  I've yet to recommend it to a single person who wasn't fascinated by their results.   

And they have a version that's specifically for teachers. 

What are strengths?

Gallup defines strengths as natural recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied.  The StrengthsFinder test identifies your top five strengths and describes exactly what they mean.

For example, the test won't just tell you you're outgoing (if you're outgoing, you know that already).  It's more specific than that.  It will tell you if your strength is winning new people over, or developing deeper relationships with people you already know, or gaining the respect of those you admire, or appreciating what is unique about each individual, or bringing people together so everyone feels included.  You're more than just outgoing.  Each of those is a very different and uniquely valuable strength.  You might have one but not the others. 

Or maybe your strength is a sense of confidence in yourself, or an ability to arrange and manage complex situations, or a desire to continually learn new information, or an ability to draw on past experiences, or to fix situations that are broken.     

Whatever your strengths are, the test identifies them.

How does Gallup tell you to use your strengths?

What I love most about Gallup's philosophy is that they don't believe in expending time and energy to fix weaknesses.  We're taught in American society to believe that: that if we just try hard enough, we can be great at anything.  Gallup says that that just doesn't hold up, and they're right.  I'm never going to win a gold medal in the Olympic marathon no matter how hard I try.  Yes, you can get better at anything.  But if it's a weakness, something that you don't have the innate talent for and almost certainly wouldn't enjoy doing all the time, don't bother.  It's not worth it.  Gallup argues that it is much more effective and gratifying to spend that time learning to maximize your strengths. 

Why is this exciting for teachers?

One of the criticisms of the StrengthsFinder book (you buy the book and get an access code to take the test online) is that once you learned your strengths, there wasn't much advice about what to actually do with them. But "Teach With Your Strengths: How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students" lets you take the same test, then tells you how you can apply those strengths in your teaching and your career, with examples of how great teachers are putting each of the particular strengths to work. 

If you're a teacher or a counselor, I think it's a great read.

Ask Collegewise: How should we choose a private counselor?

Debbie asks:

My daughter is about to start her senior year, and we’re considering hiring a college counselor to help her with her applications, essays, etc. What would your advice be on finding a good counselor for her (credentials, experience, etc)?  Any advice would be appreciated. Thank you.

Anyone can hang a shingle and call themselves a college counselor.  So it’s sometimes hard for families to know what questions to ask or how to even evaluate the counselors in your area.  Here are a few things to consider as you look for the right counselor.

1.  Before you hire someone, investigate the resources your school offers.

The vast majority of students applying to college do so without the assistance of a private counselor.  So before you go to the trouble of finding and hiring someone, you should investigate the college counseling options at your high school.  Students often aren’t aware of just how much help is available right there on campus.  And if you decide you need more help than your school can offer, you’ll have a better sense of exactly what services you want to pay for when you hire someone.

2.  Talk to friends and ask for referrals.

If you have friends whose kids have gone on to college, friends that you feel you have a lot in common with and whose opinions you can trust, ask them if they hired a counselor, and if so, how the experience was.  Of course, just like a referral to a hair stylist, lawyer, personal trainer or accountant, the fact that your friend had a great experience doesn’t guarantee that you will.  But it can be a great first step and will certainly make you feel more comfortable to have an enthusiastic recommendation in hand.

3.  Ask to schedule a free introductory meeting.

It’s important that the student gets a chance to meet the person he or she would be working with.  So most counselors will offer a free introductory meeting where you can all get to know each other.  Don’t necessarily expect to get free counseling at this meeting, but it’s the right time to ask all your questions, learn more about how they work, and assess the match for your student.

4.  During the meeting, ask questions that will reveal a counselor’s passion for the job.

Most great professionals exude a passion for their job, and college counseling is no different.  I think you want someone who’s got good energy and a real interest in the job.  Here are some questions that can reveal not just whether you’ve found the right person, but also just how much this counselor is enjoying what he or she is doing.

  • “What type of student do you really enjoy working with?”  A good counselor will have an answer that isn’t “I enjoy working with all students equally.”
  • “We want to make sure we have realistic expectations.  What would be some reasonable expectations for us if we were to work with you?” A good counselor will be confident and sure when he answers this question, and he’ll be able to describe some clear outcomes you can expect from your work together.
  • “How do you stay up-to-date with college information?”  All the great counselors we’ve met not only make the effort to keep learning as much as they can, but they also seem to love that part of the job.  You don’t want a counselor who’s checked out any more than you’d want a surgeon who doesn’t go to medical conferences anymore. You’re looking for someone who enthusiastically tells you about visiting colleges and reading blogs and attending conferences and subscribing to list serves and reading books, etc.
  • “Do you think we seem like a good fit for you and your program?” Good counselors wish families would ask us this question.  Anything less than a genuine, enthusiastic “Yes” means that either the counselor doesn’t believe you would work well together, or you have expectations that don’t match what the counselor can provide (or both).

5.  When in doubt, let your student pick.

The best college counselor for your student will probably be the one that he listens to and enjoys working with.  So if you’re trying to decide between a few reputable choices, ask your student her preference and let her participate in the choice.  Parents aren’t applying to college, and you’re not really the one working with the counselor, either.  Kids deserve to have their say in this decision about who will help them on their ride to college.

Got a question?  Send it to us at blog@collegewise.com.  If we choose your question, we’ll answer it here.

No more meetings?

Students, how many hours did you spend sitting in meetings last year for your French Club, student body government, yearbook or newspaper staff?  Probably a lot.  But were all those meetings really necessary? 

What would happen if your school instituted a "No more meetings" rule for clubs and organizations?  Would your club be mortally wounded?  Would the yearbook staff or the school newspaper stop functioning?  Probably not.  And that's got to make you wonder why you're bothering to have as many meetings as you're having.

Here's an excerpt from a chapter in Rework entitled "Meetings are toxic."  

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When you think about it, the true cost of meetings is staggering.  Let's say you're going to schedule a meeting that lasts one hour, and you invite ten people to attend.  That's actually a ten-hour meeting, not a one-hour meeting.  You're trading ten hours of productivity for one hour of meeting time…Is it ever OK to trade ten or fifteen hours of productivity for one hour of meeting?  Sometimes, maybe.  But that's a pretty hefty price tag to pay. 

So, what if your French Club, newspaper or yearbook staff cut your yearly number of meetings in half?  What if the leadership of those organizations did a better job of communicating, delegating and managing without necessarily requiring everyone to get together?  How much more productive would everyone be if they spent what would have been meeting time writing, planning, and working?

I'm not sure how well it would work, but it might be worth trying.  Involved students have busier schedules than ever before.  And the easiest way to find more hours in the day to relax, have fun, or sleep might be to lighten your meeting load.

The best news about college essays

Great college essays are equal opportunity employers.  They don’t discriminate on the basis of grades and test scores.  The “C” student has the same opportunity to write great essays as the kid who’s had straight “A’s” since birth does.  Everybody has a story to tell.  You just have to find yours and tell it in an engaging way. 

By the time you get ready to apply to college, most of your high school career will be in place.  You’re not going to substantially raise your cumulative GPA or find a way to replenish fossil fuels.  So the essays might be the one area where you can make a substantial difference in the quality of your application. Don’t miss the opportunity by writing something safe and unrevealing.  Start early, find a story you care about, and write it in an engaging way.     

You don’t get a second chance to make a last impression

People worry a lot about first impressions, which makes sense.  They set the tone of the relationship.  If you show up to the first day of soccer try-outs and have the practice of your life, your coach already believes you can contribute to the team.  If you have a great first day of Spanish class, your Spanish teacher already believes you're a valuable addition to the class.   Smiling and confidently shaking your college interviewer's hand, writing a good introductory email message, or showing up on time for a first date, you're off to a good start.  You won't need to make up ground.   

But good or bad, first impressions are temporary.  Last impressions, on the other hand, are permanent.

If you're the treasurer of the student body and you do a masterful job managing the finances for the entire year, but leave no accurate records for your successor when she takes over, you've made a bad last impression.  You won't be remembered as the treasurer who did a great job.  You'll be remembered as the treasurer who didn't care enough to set the next treasurer up for success.

If you have a great basketball season but lash out at your teammates during a tough loss in the playoffs, you won't be remembered as a good player, leader, or teammate.  

And if you do so well in your Calculus class that you're virtually assured an "A," so you slack off and disrupt the class for finals week, your teacher isn't going to remember you as a committed and engaged student.

It's easy to let your last impression slide when you feel you've got nothing left to prove or gain from the experience.  But remember, what you do last is what people will remember first. 

What's the last impression you're leaving with your teachers at the end of the school year?  What's the last impression you're leaving with your coaches at the end of the season?  Or your boss when you decide to leave your job?  Or your college interviewer at the end of the interview?  Or your school when you finish your tenure as the editor of the yearbook or columnist for the newspaper or the president of the junior class?

Finish strong and leave a good last impression, too.

What to do if your student isn’t ready for college

Yesterday, I wrote a post for parents about signs that your student might not be ready for college. Today, I want to give some advice about what parents can do if you’ve made the difficult assessment that college just isn’t right for your student at this time.

1.  Don’t give up too early.

Let’s say a junior in high school is really struggling academically.  It would be entirely reasonable for her parents to make the assessment that she’s not ready for college and that she will instead attend a community college.  But while the college timeline dictates that kids apply to four-year colleges early in their senior year, students don’t decide where–or if–they’ll go until 6 months later at the end of the senior year. For some teenagers, that six months can bring them the maturity and perspective they didn’t have before.

For some families, it might make better sense to just take the college option off the table earlier.  But for others, you might consider moving forward with the application process and seeing if anything changes during the six months you’re waiting for decisions from schools.   Just because a student applies to college doesn’t mean you’re committed to sending her. But if a student doesn’t apply, that decision, at least for the coming academic year, is made.

2. Recognize that the college dream is never really gone.

Today’s students and parents have been conditioned to believe kids get one chance to apply to college–during their senior year in high school.  But that’s not the case.  A motivated student who’s ready can always apply to college.  And a student who isn’t interested in or ready for college at age 18 may feel very differently at age 21.    Yes, there are some life realities in play here (it gets harder to go to college as you get older and your life gets more complicated).  But lot of successful people waited to start college (or had to go back to finish).  The college dream doesn’t necessarily end immediately after high school.

3.  Investigate community colleges.

Community colleges allow students to do remedial work to make up classes they didn’t pass in high school.  And more importantly, most community colleges make transfer agreements with selected four-year schools.  Those agreements spell out which classes a student needs to take, and what grades she needs to earn, in order to guarantee (or virtually guarantee) admission to the four-year college as a junior transfer student.  And best of all, most four-year colleges won’t look at the high school work of a junior transfer.  So a student who’s ready to get serious about attending a four-year school can get a fresh academic start at a community college. 

4. Require that your high school graduate get a job.

If your student isn’t attending college or community college after high school, I would require him or her to get a full time job.   A student who wasn’t motivated to take the college process seriously isn’t likely to find that motivation if he can still live with Mom and Dad and not have to worry about paying rent.  A student who gets a full time job will at least be getting some job experience (never a bad thing).   And sometimes, life as a full-time worker can make college life look a lot more appealing.

We once worked with a transfer student who didn’t want to apply to college while he was in high school.  He spent the next two years after graduation working at Jiffy Lube, had gone back to community college and was now trying to transfer to UC Berkeley.  I remember the best line from his college essay:

I’ve swept floors.  I’ve cleaned bathrooms.  I’ve burned my hands on exhaust manifolds, worked 12-hour days, and still not had enough money to get my own car fixed.  I didn’t know in high school what life without a college degree looked like.  But I do now.

5.  Encourage your student to pursue an existing interest.

A student who isn’t going to college needs to get serious about finding something that interests him or her.  This is not the time to dawdle around the house or hang out with their friends all day.  If your daughter loves sports, encourage her to get a job at a sporting goods store, or to coach a club volleyball team, or to take sports managements classes at a community college.  If your son likes to travel.  Encourage him to live and work in another country for six months.  If she likes nature, have her volunteer to give tours in a national park.  If he likes drawing, get a job in an art shop, or an unpaid internship at graphic design studio.

Even if the motivation for college isn’t there, encourage your student to follow whatever motivation she does have.  Pursue the interest and it will eventually lead somewhere.

Bonus tip:  Recognize that kids today don’t necessarily have to go to college to be happy and successful.

We’re in the college business here, and I believe that a college education provides students with four years of growth, learning and fun that just can’t be measured or duplicated.  But the world has changed a lot in the last 30 years (and even more in the last ten).  Today, everyone has access to information.  A motivated person can learn whatever you want to learn, from how to fix cars to how to interpret classic works of literature.  College graduates don’t enjoy the same automatic benefits of preferred jobs and social status that they used to.  The world is slowly realizing that talent and intellect aren’t reserved for those with college degrees.  So, if college just doesn’t appear to be in your student’s future, don’t focus on what might have been.  Focus on what could still be, with or without a college degree.

For parents: is your student ready for college?

Every year at Collegewise, we work with some “C” students who go on to flourish in college (especially when they’re at the right colleges).  But while there are literally hundreds of schools that will happily
admit an average student, that doesn’t mean that every average student is ready for college.   It can be a hard fact for some parents to face, but assessing college readiness is an important step in deciding not just where, but also if, your student should attend college.

When we’re working with a student who might not be ready for college, here are five questions we ask parents to help them make their own assessment.

1.  Does your student want to go to college?

If you’re wondering if a student is ready to go to college, the first step is toask him if he wants to go.  A lot of students grow up with the expectation that they will go to college but are never actually asked if that’s something they want for themselves.  If your student tells you he doesn’t want to go, at least you know that the issue you’re facing is bigger than his unwillingness to research colleges or fill out
applications.  And with the real issue in the open, you can discuss his reluctance to attend.   

2. Are you doing everything college-related for your student?

It’s normal for some parents to feel like you care more about researching colleges or planning college visits than your student does.  But if your student is so disengaged in the process that you have to take over everything college-related, including filling out college applications, that’s a sign that you care much more about this than your student does.

I understand why a parent would take on that responsibility; you worry that your student will wake up 2-3 years from now and wish she’d chosen to be more serious about her college plans.  But college students need to be responsible for themselves–from waking up on time, to turning in assignments by the deadline, to reaching out and asking for help when they need it.  If you’re student isn’t willing to take on or at least share the responsibility associated with applying to college, that’s a sign that she might not be ready for the responsibility required to manage her life as a college student.

3.  Has your student needed to repeat core classes in order to graduate from high school?

One D in calculus (I came close, too) just means your student probably shouldn’t be a math major. But if a student isn’t able to pass (and needs to repeat) multiple core classes in high school in order to
graduate on time, you should consider whether that student is ready for the demands of college academics.  Yes, the right college can give a formerly average student the chance to succeed academically.  But when we see a student who’s had to repeat courses like English, lower level math, or introductory language courses, it’s time to asses whether those deficiencies are due to a lack of effort, or real academic deficiencies that need to be addressed before college.

4.  Has your student had disciplinary problems during high school?

Even good kids occasionally come home a little past curfew.  But for a student who has multiple suspensions from school, or a continuing problem with drugs or alcohol, or repeated infractions at home or at school, a parent needs to consider what’s going to happen to that student when he’s on a college campus with nobody to watch over him.  I’m not suggesting that any kid who’s had a rough patch should be penalized and prevented from attending college.  But as a parent paying for your kid’s college education, you’re making an investment in your son or daughter. Students who are college ready have demonstrated the appropriate maturity and a readiness for the independence of college life.  If your student hasn’t shown you those signs, you might consider delaying your investment.

5. Does it just not feel right to you?

Sometimes a parent just knows that college isn’t the right choice for their student at this time. That feeling might come from a combination of the above four factors, or it might just be parental gut instinct. If you have that gut feeling, refer back to #1.  Ask your student if he wants to go.  If he says, “Yes,” ask him to tell you more.  Make sure he’s not just giving you the answer he thinks you want to hear.  Parents know their own kids better than anyone, and it’s important for you to listen to your instincts before you send your kids to college.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll share some steps parents can take if you decide your student just isn’t ready for college.

Should parents talk with your kids about college costs?

When I did one of our "Financial Aid and Scholarships" seminars for our Collegewise parents last weekend, I asked them to leave the kids at home.  I want parents to feel comfortable asking questions about financing their kids' educations without the added pressure of having the students in the room.  But that doesn't mean parents shouldn't talk with their kids about college costs.  

A lot of parents believe that they should shield their kids from the economic realities of attending college, that it's a student's job to get accepted and a parent's job to pay for it.  But I think that parents should have honest, open discussions with their kids about college costs.  High school kids should know what their family can afford to pay for college, and what colleges will be off the table if financial aid doesn't cover the rest.  Kids should know the efforts parents have made to save for college and the continued sacrifices you'll be making during the four years you have to write tuition checks.  Having that conversation now, however unpleasant it might be, is much better than having it later when a student has an offer of admission in hand but a family doesn't have the money to pay for it.   

High school students who understand the realities of college costs for their families are more likely to appreciate that a college education is a gift, no matter what school they end up attending.  And once those kids get to college, they'll understand the financial and emotional investment their parents are making.  They'll be more likely to drag themselves out of bed for that 8 a.m. psychology class.  They're more likely to appreciate all the opportunities for learning, growth and fun that are available to them during their college careers. 

So parents, consider having the college financing talk with your kids.  Invite them to participate in the discussion.  A student who's mature enough to attend college is mature enough to know what it's going to take for her family to pay for it. 

Ask Collegewise: Controversial college essays?

Sarah asks:

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I have a student who wants to write an essay about his experience when he was caught dealing pot in high school. Should negative experiences like this be avoided in college admissions essays, even if the student has learned from his mistakes? I'd really appreciate any insight you could share. Thanks.

It's difficult to give good essay advice when we've never met the student and don't necessarily know the whole story. But I'll give it a try.

First, was the student suspended or expelled from school because of this?  Does he now have a criminal record?  If so, chances are he'll be asked about those things on his college applications.  And as soon as he checks the "Yes" box, he's going to need to explain it. That will pretty much end any debate about whether or not to share it because he won't have a choice. 

Assuming he won't be required to disclose it, should he?  There are no firm rules here, but I can tell you that college admissions officers are reluctant to admit anyone who has the potential to put himself or other students at risk.  That's why violence and serious criminal offenses are usually big red flags for admissions officers (so is academic dishonesty, for different reasons).  There are too many other applicants in the pool who don't come with evidence of those risks. 

In the case of the above student, I really can't imagine an essay that's thoughtful enough to make an admissions officer feel good about admitting a student who's dealt drugs.  Maybe if the kid was formally reprimanded (so a punishment has already been handed down), and has since turned that experience into something that positively impacts other students, like teaching drug awareness classes to teens, or working at a drug rehab center.  Maybe.  But the problem is that this kid didn't just do something that was harmful to him–he did something that was harmful to other students.  That's going to be a tough sell. 

Sometimes a student wants to write about a potentially risky topic in which she hasn't necessarily done nothing wrong, like a struggle with mental or emotional problems, or a suicide attempt.  Those topics can be risky because the admissions officer has to be concerned about the applicant's well-being in college.  College can be a difficult transition under the best of circumstances, and no school wants to put a student in an environment that could be detrimental to your mental or physical health.  If you feel compelled to share a story like this, make sure you show them how you've come out on the other side.  Talk about how well you're doing today, what steps you're taking to maintain your health, and if you're doing anything to help others who may be experiencing the same troubles.  And if you're still not sure, it's probably best to get some admissions advice from your high school counselor with whom you can share the entire story.

Every situation is different, obviously.  But I hope these guidelines help a little bit.