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.

For private counselors: You’re marketing all the time

EnvelopeThis is the envelope I got from AAA yesterday.  So, why are they yelling at me?  I've been a AAA customer for 20 years.  Have I not always paid on time? 

People often ask me how we do our marketing at Collegewise, and when they do, they usually want to know about ads, speaking engagements, mailings, and other traditional ways of getting your name out to people.

But it's important to remember that when you're a private counselor, you're marketing all the time.  The way you answer the phone is marketing.  Your outgoing voice mail is marketing.  The tone of your email, the directions to your office, the way you write a to-do list for a student, your out-of-office email reply when you're at a conference, the wording of your invoices, the way you use your materials, whether or not you seem genuinely happy to see people when they arrive for appointments, and yes, what the outside of your envelope says–it's all marketing.

How hard would it be for AAA to do something else?

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On colleges accepting YouTube videos with applications

Some colleges have begun inviting students to create optional videos they can post to YouTube so admissions officers can view them as part of the application.  Two of the most viral video creations from fall 2010 applicants were a flying elephant from a Tufts hopeful and a ukulele-playing student applying to George Mason.  

I got an email from a reporter doing a story about this who wanted to know:

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What do you make of this trend?  Fun? Not a good idea? Good way to showcase personality? Is this the college application of the future?  And does this concern you at all, either from a serious privacy level, or just the idea that these kids have their dorkiest moments that go viral, moments that they'll never really be able to escape later?

Here's the response I sent:

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I like the video option because it coaxes kids to relax and maybe even have a little fun.  Kids feel so much pressure when applying to college today that a lot of them are scared to death to just be themselves in their applications and essays.  Colleges are in the business of evaluating seventeen year-olds, so it’s OK to just be a real kid behind all the grades and test scores.  If a student sees the video option and gets excited to make and share something about himself, that’s probably a good sign.  Even the directions on the Tufts application section for the videos say, “Think outside the box when you answer the following questions. Take a risk and go somewhere unexpected. Be serious if the moment calls for it but feel comfortable being playful if that suits you, too.”  They’re inviting kids to stop worrying about being impressive and to just share what they want to share.

We’re not necessarily looking at the future of college applications here because I don’t think videos are ever going to be something that’s required or even encouraged by a majority of colleges.  It’s time consuming for admissions officers to view these, and the applicant pools are just too large at many colleges to make this an option.  There’s also a question of inequity–too many kids don’t have access to video equipment.  Does a get a student who’s got thousands of dollars worth of equipment to shoot, edit and produce a masterpiece deserve an admissions advantage over a kid without those resources?  That’s why colleges will never be able to place too much weight on videos.  They’ll be a fun option that some kids use, but never a significant factor in the admissions process.     

And something you brought up in your original email is what concerns me about the videos–their longevity.  How many people do you know who would feel comfortable with the college application essay they wrote back in high school being posted online for the world to see today?  Most people wouldn’t want that.  YouTube videos live on forever.  When you’re a seventeen year-old college applicant and you make a video showing how much you like to air guitar in your room, that might make for an endearing college application video.  But how is that kid going to feel after college when potential employers do a Google search and see a video of him rocking out to Journey’s Greatest Hits?  Not good.

That last point doesn’t concern me enough to say that colleges shouldn’t invite kids to do this.  Kids are putting stuff up online with or without the colleges’ invitation to make videos  But it is something that I think people will be talking about five years from now when those applicants come out of college. 

What behavior does your college admissions approach inspire?

John Katzman, the former CEO of The Princeton Review, has always said that he judges tests by the behavior they inspire.  The SAT is a bad test because it inspires kids to study test preparation–knowledge that is only useful on the SAT.  AP US History is a better test because it inspires kids to study US History, which is arguably more important than SAT questions like "What is the greatest number of regions into which the shaded region can be divided with exactly two straight lines?" 

The behavior that a goal inspires tells you a lot about the goal.  If you're so obsessed with cooking that you take three cooking classes over the summer, your goal is inspiring good behavior.  If you're so obsessed with hanging out with the popular kids that you try to become something you're not, well, that's not so good.

College admissions works the same way.  A lot of kids make their educational goal to get into a "good college."  So they obsess about their GPAs and forget to find the joy in learning.  They spend way too much time and money on test prep instead of reading or playing the tuba or spending time with family and friends.  They grade grub, count their community service hours, and pick their activities based on what they think colleges will like.  They're stressed, sleepy, and maybe even a little scared by the whole process.

That goal isn't inspiring good behavior.

Some kids make their goal to find the right college where they can learn, have fun and make discoveries about themselves.  They work hard in high school but are also quick to tell you what their favorite class or teacher is.  They commit themselves to activities they care about and love what they're doing.  They want to learn as much as they can about different colleges because they know there are far too many choices to believe that only the famous ones could be right for them.  And most importantly, they're happy, optimistic, well-rested and eager to see what waits for them on the other side of high school. 

So, what kind of behavior is your college admissions goal inspiring?  And if you're a parent, what behavior is your goal inspiring in your student?  If you don't like the behavior, it might be time to choose a different goal.  

Things your teachers notice about you in class

I’m not a high school teacher, but I do a lot of our seminars at Collegewise. And it’s hard not to make judgments about a student by how he acts during a class. Whether you’re an “A” student or “C” student, I imagine that your teachers notice these things, too.

1. Are you writing things down?

When I say, “Here’s the most important piece of advice I can give you about college essays,” I notice which 3 of the 20 students in the room don’t bother to write down the advice that follows. And I know the 17 who do take notes are engaged enough to want to make the most of our time together. It tells me who’s serious about getting into college. Imagine if I were a chemistry teacher and one of those non-note-takers got a “C” and came to me to ask for extra credit so he could improve his grade. Not gonna happen, kid.

2. Do you seen genuinely happy to be there?  

I’m sure my trigonometry teacher in high school knew how bored I was by math because I spent a lot of time yawning in his class. Now that I’m up in front of the classroom, I realize how bad the sleepers look. Students who pay attention, who have pleasant expressions, who even acknowledge you with a nod of the head or a courtesy laugh at one of my stupid jokes, they come off like engaged learners. Imagine if you were on a date and the person was yawning during dinner, doodling on the tablecloth and generally looking bored. Wouldn’t you be a little insulted?  Doing those things in class is like saying to your teacher, “I don’t want to listen to you, and I don’t want to be here.”

3. Do you ask good questions? 

“Do we have to do this?” is a stupid question. “What’s an example of a college with strange essay prompts?” is a good question. Whether or not you ask, and the questions you raise, they both say a lot about you as a student. Questions that seek to help you better understand the material, or that just show you’re interested and want to more, are good ways to show your teacher that you are an engaged learner.

4. Do you participate?

At a seminar yesterday, I asked, “Who remembers from our essay seminar how you take ownership of a story?”  I could have predicted which kids were going to put their hands up–those that had been writing things down and were engaged in the discussion (see questions 1, 2 and 3).

5. Are you nice to other students?

If a student is having trouble understanding, or if he asks a question that seems silly to you, or if he’s just not as smooth and socially successful as the rest of the class, do you roll your eyes, snicker at him, or whisper a comment to one of your friends and then giggle?  If you do, trust me, your teacher notices. And I’ll tell you something–the kid who does those things is never one of the nice kids. The nice kid who leans over and offers to help the struggling one, who whispers, “Hey, want me to show you how to do it?”  I like that kid. Extra credit for you.

Ask Collegewise

We get a lot of emails from people with questions about our take on admissions issues, how we run our business, or why we approach parts of admissions process the way we do.  We thought that instead of trying to answer those on a one-on-one basis, we'd answer some right here in case any of our readers might benefit, too.

So, we're looking for some interesting questions to answer here on our blog.  If you've got one, email it to us at blog@collegewise.com.  And make sure the subject line reads "Ask Collegewise."  We'll pick some of the most interesting ones and answer them here.  Send 'em on!