Where can the things you do today take you?

One of our Collegewise students from the class of 2005 wrote her essay about how certain she'd been that being a lifeguard on the beach would be the best summer job she could get…but that she couldn't have been more wrong.  Turns out that the beach she was assigned to had no waves or currents, so nobody ever needed to be rescued.  I remember her telling me how boring it was, that all she did for 8 hours a day was stare at the water and respond to the 30 people who'd come by her tower just ask where the bathrooms were.  But she did enjoy learning all the first aid during her training, and was even able to use it when her friend cut her leg badly at a school dance.  

I found out today that she was just accepted to medical school.  You never where the things you're doing today might take you in the future.

You’ll win if you love it

I just finished reading a great book about the best distance runners on the planet–the Tarahumara Indians in the Sierra Madre mountain range in Mexico.  The Tarahumara routinely run 100-200 miles in rugged terrain wearing homemade sandals.  And the best part is how much they love doing it. They smile and enjoy themselves while they're running.  Even when they were brought to the US and began competing in (and winning) 100-mile ultra marathons, they're just laughing and having fun while they do it.  The author says that while we run to win races or to punish ourselves for eating a big slice of cheesecake last night, the Tarahumara run for one reason–because they love to do it.  And nobody can do it better. 

Now, you know there's a college admissions lesson coming here…

The most successful college applicants I've ever met didn't take hard classes because they wanted to get into famous colleges; they took hard classes because they wanted to be challenged and learn something.  They didn't do community service because they wanted to put it on a college application; they did it because they really wanted to help someone.  Their excitement about college has nothing to do with getting into an Ivy League school.  They might be happy to go to one but that's not why they do what they do.  They're happier, more interesting, more confident and just plain cooler than kids who make all their decisions based on what they think Stanford will appreciate.

Like the Tarahumara, they do it because they love it.  It's not about winning a competition for them.  And yet they beat out the other applicants who spend four years of high school trying to make themselves competitive without enjoying most of the experience.

It's your choice.  Which kid do you want to be?


College essay lessons from Warren Buffett

An interesting piece, “Start-up Lessons Learned from Warren Buffett” that analyzes why Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders is an example of masterful communication.  Turns out these are great pieces of advice for writing college essays, too.

Here are the points the article raises, along with my college essay version of the advice.

1.  Converse like a real human being.

Buffett doesn’t hide behind business-speak–he just writes clearly, as if he were talking to you over lunch.  He could sound like one of the world’s foremost authorities on investment (he is), but instead just goes for a conversational tone.  That’s exactly how you should write your college essays.  No kid in the history of kid-dom has ever said to a friend, “Participating in the ASB has taught me valuable lessons about working well with others.”  Don’t hide behind college-essay-speak.  Just say it.

2. Admit mistakes and move on.

Buffett’s been wrong before. But when he makes mistakes, even big ones, he doesn’t make excuses.  He accepts responsibility and then moves on.  A lot really successful people today made dopey mistakes when they were teenagers.  If you’ve done the same, you’re in good company.  But don’t blame other people or try to explain away your failures.  Accept responsibility, learn what you can, and then move on to bigger and better things.

3.  The power of humor in business.

Buffett knows how to entertain a reader with lines like,

Charlie and I enjoy issuing Berkshire stock about as much as we relish prepping for a colonoscopy.”

You don’t necessarily have to be funny in your college essays.  But you do have to entertain your reader.  Admissions officers are tired and bored during admissions season.  You have to do your part to hold their attention.  Good writers know how to do that with lines like these, courtesy of some of our Collegewise kids.

“Even with all its problems, my car has never stalled or failed to get me where I want to go.  When I went to crash a sorority beach party with some friends, the car (thank god) made the whole trip”

“I was the only girl on the cross country team who had a 12 year-old brother at my races yelling, ‘Run faster!  You’re fat!'”

“I had a knack for business at age 10.  That’s when the snow cone empire first took off. “

Take the advice or leave it.  But remember that Buffett is worth 47 billion dollars.


Should you appeal a college’s rejection?

Students occasionally ask us about appealing admissions decisions from colleges.  An appeal is really just a  formal request, in writing, that a college reconsider your application for admission.  Some colleges also invite you to include extra material that wasn’t in your original application, such as another teacher recommendation or a report card from the first semester of the senior year.

So, should you appeal?

As unfair as the admissions process may seem, most colleges are very thorough in their evaluation of candidates. That’s why the few appeals that are successful usually bring to light new information that was not available to the college when they were reviewing your application. For example, if your 7th semester grades were a dramatic improvement over your previous grades, or your club that you started raised a large amount of money for a charity event you planned, or the new internship you just secured happens to be in the field you plan on majoring in, these are things that can be taken into account when reconsidering your application.

What not to do

Some students want to appeal a decision because they simply believe they are stronger applicants than other students from their school who were admitted. But colleges won't consider this a valid reason to overturn their original decision. Don't point out the reasons you think you deserve the admission more
than they did.  That just makes you look bitter, and you didn't have access to those applications.  You don't know what their essays were about, or what their letters of rec said, or what their individual circumstances might have been.  Keep your tone positive and focus on what you have accomplished since you applied.

How to appeal

If you decide you want to appeal, carefully read the decision letter the college sent you, and research the admissions section of the college’s website to see if any information about appealing decisions is provided. Some colleges will come right out and tell you that they do not accept appeal requests. Other colleges will not only tell you that they accept appeals, but will also tell you exactly what to do in order to appeal the decision. Follow all instructions the college provides. And if any of their instructions seem to contradict what you read in this guideline, do whatever the college tells you to do.

Write a letter as soon as possible explaining why you want the admissions committee to reconsider your application for admission. Be polite and respectful, and make sure to present new information; don’t just rehash what was in your application. If the college indicates that extra letters of recommendation will be accepted in appeals cases, consider asking a teacher to write a letter of recommendation (a different teacher than you used before). However, you should only do this if you feel this teacher will be able to present new and compelling information.

Final appeal thoughts

I know it’s disappointing not to be accepted to a school you really wanted to attend, but the very best thing you could do while you’re waiting for your appeal decision is to start falling in love with one of your other colleges that said, “Yes.” Visit those schools again. Buy a sweatshirt. Start imagining yourself there. You’ll feel much more positive and encouraged by focusing on a great school that admitted you, rather than lamenting the decision of one who said, “No.”

And remember that the vast majority of college freshmen report that they are happy with their college experience, even those students who were not admitted to schools that were their first choice at the time. Whether or not your appeal is granted, you’re going to go to college with a bunch of 18-22 year-olds and all you have a lot to look forward to.

Introducing our new college counselor: Stefanie Potts

Both parties have kept the news under wraps until it was appropriate to reveal it, but today we can finally announce our newest college counselor.  She's Stefanie Potts.

Who's Stefanie?

First off, Stefanie's someone we like.  She's smart.  She's a great writer and communicator.  And most importantly, she's a good cultural fit here–she's serious about work without taking herself too seriously.   

Since October 2007, Stefanie's been an assistant director of undergraduate admissions at USC.  She's evaluated over 4,000 applications, interviewed over 400 applicants, and each year conducted over 75 presentations.  She also worked in the admissions office at Wash U as an undergrad.  In fact, we really got the sense that Stefanie has been working in college admissions since she was about 18.  That beats all of us. 

Why did we pick Stefanie?

First off, we didn't find Stefanie; Stefanie found us.  A year ago, she sent us a cover letter, a great cover letter that she'd obviously sat down and written just for us.  It was clear she'd taken the time to read our website and get a sense of what we were all about. 

Then she showed up at my college essay workshop for counselors at an annual conference we attend.  No assistant director of admissions at a selective college needs to be taught anything about college essays.  I think she was sizing us up.  I think she wanted to see if we really had the goods and if we seemed like the kind of people she wanted to work with.  I have to admit, I was kind of impressed by that.

But when we finally had her come visit us for an afternoon, it was clear just how perfect she is for this job.  To be a great college counselor here, you've got to be someone that kids will like and parents will trust.  She's got that.  Stefanie knows a lot about college admissions.  She wants to use that knowledge to help kids navigate the process better.  And she wants to do it here.  We liked all those things.

We're really excited

Stefanie will be starting in our Irvine, CA office in June.  She'll be helping seniors with college applications this summer and fall, conducting seminars for our Collegewise families, and fielding our questions about what really went down with Pete Carroll. 

So, everyone say hi to Stefanie Potts!

For those who Twitter…

We can't unleash our full college counseling potential in just 140 characters.  But we can post the links from our blog entries to Twitter for those readers who prefer, well, Tweeting.

Here's the link if you'd like to follow us: http://twitter.com/Collegewise

And if you were previously following us on Twitter and were wondering what happened to our account, that "Wiselikeus" wasn't us.  It was someone pretending to be us, which was a little weird. 

Right person, wrong time

I've written before that you should be careful taking college admissions advice from people who don't know what they're talking about.  But even when you've found the right person who can give you advice, there's a right time and a wrong time to ask for it.

Alex from our North White Plains office told me today that when he was being wheeled into surgery for an emergency appendectomy a few years ago, one of the nurses who'd found out he was a college counselor actually started asking him for free college counseling advice.  So just as the anesthesia is starting to take effect, she's saying,

"Oh, you're a college counselor?  My son has a 3.98 GPA and really wants to go to Cornell.  His SAT scores are. . .(anesthesia takes hold). . .should he take them again?  And he volunteers. . .(anesthesia coming on strong). . .should he apply early decision or would it be better to…(anesthesia wins)…."

Right person.  Wrong time.

10 things every future premed should know

We often see students at Collegewise who tell us that they want to be doctors someday.  If you're thinking about medicine as a career, here are few things to keep in mind as you pick your colleges (from our guide, Is there a Future Doctor in the House? The Collegewise Guide to Choosing a College and Preparing for Life as a Premed).

1. You probably won't be a "premed" major.

Not many colleges offer a major called "premed."  Premed just means that you intend on applying to medical school at the conclusion of your college career.  You can be an art major and still be "premed." 

2. You don't have to be a science major to go to medical school.

You have to take the sciences classes that are tested on the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test), but you can major in anything.  A music major can go to medical school if she takes the required science classes.  So you should major in something you enjoy.

3. You don't have to go to a famous college to go to medical school.

Just because you go to a famous college doesn't mean your chances of getting in to medical school improve.  You'll simply need to be successful wherever you attend college.   

4. It's important to evaluate the premed advising on campus.

Some colleges' premed advising "departments" are just one biology professor who holds advising hours once a week. Other colleges have robust programs, with dedicated advisors, peer mentors, workshops, and even application assistance when you eventually apply.  Tiny Juniata College has one of the highest acceptance rates to medical school of any four-year college because their advising is so good.  Look at what they offer as an example how good premed advising can be.

5.  You need to interact with people.

You won't get into medical school if you spend four years dividing your time between the library and the laboratory.  Medicine is a profession built on communicating and interacting with other people.  Get involved in activities that involve working in teams, teaching, mentoring or leading other students.  Start now.  Don't wait until you get to college.   

6. Readers and writers tend to make good premeds.

The more you read and write, the better communicator you'll be.  That's why successful medical school applicants take courses that involve substantial reading and writing.  They don't hide out in science courses all the time. 

7.  Have other interests besides the sciences.

It's great if you love science (most future doctors should).  But medical schools like students who have other non-science related interests, like playing the drums in the marching band, being on the swim team, or writing for the campus paper.  Be a real person with hobbies and interests that don't necessarily tie to the sciences, and continue developing those interests once you get to college. 

8. Practice the art of initiative.

Do you regularly participate in classroom discussions?  Do you visit your teacher after class to ask questions?  If you want to get involved in something, are you comfortable sending an email, or picking up the phone, or knocking on a door to pursue that interest?  You'll need to do these things to be a successful premed.  Practice the art of initiative while you're in high school so you can use it to be more successful once you get to college.

9.  Don't become a premed just because your parents want you to.

"He is interested in medicine," or, "She really wants to be a doctor" are phrases we sometimes hear from parents.  It's never a good thing to be a passive observer in your own education, especially for a path as demanding as medicine.  If you want to be a doctor, think about your reasons why, proudly declare what they are, and start taking steps to pursue that goal.  But if your parents are more interested in you being a doctor than you are, it's better to be honest with them then to reluctantly immerse yourself in the life as a premed.    

10.  Don't just say that you "…really want to help people."  Do it. 

When asked why they want to be doctors, a lot of premeds answer, "I want to help people."  If you really have a passion for helping people, you won't wait until you're a doctor to do it.  In fact, you'll go out of your way to help those most in need.  You won't just volunteer at a hospital. You'll volunteer at a mobile health clinic that goes to the poorest part of your city to give free medical care, or find another way to serve others out of a sense of mission.  If you really want to help people, start now and show medical schools later how important that mission is to you.

And if you'd like more advice about how to choose a college and prepare for life as a premed, we wrote a guide called "Is there a Future Doctor in the House?" where we discuss:

  • What can you do in high school right now to prepare for life as a premed? (It’s not just volunteering at a hospital—lots of people do that.)
  • What are the right colleges for you to have a successful premed career? (Just because a college is prestigious doesn’t mean it’s the right school for a premed.)
  • Once you get to college, how can you make sure you’re not one of the 60% of premeds who are rejected every year from medical school?

It's 44 pages, sold as a downloadable PDF.  You can get your copy here.

Music to my ears

I met with a student last week who's trying to decide which college he should attend.  He's a smart kid who's worked hard in high school and was torn between two good options.  His parents sat there quietly, listening, not even interjecting while we chatted.  So towards the end of the meeting, I asked them where they thought he should go.  And his reserved mother who hadn't yet said a word just said,

"This is his decision, and we support him.  He can go wherever he wants as long as it makes him happy.  That's all we care about." 

You should have seen how happy that kid looked knowing that he'd already made his parents proud no matter what college he was about to choose. 

I think she should teach classes on parenting during the college process.    

P.S.: He chose UC Davis, by the way.  Go Aggies.

For parents: how to pick your student’s high school

A lot of families with 8th grade students come to us looking for advice in choosing high schools (public vs. private and which private to attend).  Here are a few things we talk about with those families. 

1.  Where does your student want to go?

That's not a trivial question.  Just because an eighth grader doesn't want to compare the features and benefits of particular high schools doesn't mean you shouldn't ask him where he wants to go.  The first step in being successful in high school is getting happy and comfortable in your surroundings as quickly as possible.  Where he wants to go, even if his only reason is that his friends will be there, should be the first thing you consider. 

2.  Remember that high schools don't get kids into college; kids have to do that themselves.

Some families want us to tell them which high school will do the best job of getting their students into selective colleges.  It's important to remember that no high school gets a student into college.  A high school can provide rigorous course offerings, a dedicated college counseling staff and a student body full of high-achieving students, but it's still up to the student to work hard and take advantage of those opportunities.  Smart, hard-working students get into college no matter where they go to high school.

3.  Private schools aren't inherently better than public schools.

Sure, not all high schools are created equal.  But we've worked with hundreds of successful students from both public and private high schools, and we've seen no inherent advantage in enrolling a student at a private high school.  That doesn't mean that some kids won't flourish at a private school much better than they would at a public one.  But that's dependent on the student more than it is the school.  Not everyone needs an expensive gym with a personal trainer to get in shape, but some people swear by them.  The same can be said about private schools and educating a student. Make the decision based on what is best for your student, not by which school claims to be the best.

4. Don't avoid competitive environments for the wrong reasons. 

The smartest kids never have to say to us, "If I'd gone to a less competitive high school, I would have been at the top of my class."  The best students rise to the top of whatever environment they're in.  The fact that your student doesn't respond well to competitive
environments, or that he lacks academic confidence, or that he needs a
more nurturing environment might be good reasons to pick a school that's
known to be a little less competitive.  But don't pick a less demanding school if the only reason is that you hope it will be easier for him to stand out.   

5.  Focus on the next four years, not the four after that (yet).

Most high schools have little control over where your student will be accepted to college four years from now; they can only control how your student is educated until then.  And you have no idea what your student will be interested in four years from now, either.  So don't try to predict the future.  Instead, make decisions based on what you know about your student today.  A student who loves music today should be at a high school where he can have fun in a strong music program.  A student who works best when he has frequent interactions with teachers needs to be at a school that will give him that.  The student who thrives on competition and has soaring academic confidence needs to surround herself with the best and brightest over-achievers.

And most importantly, remember that you're not going to ruin your kid's future by choosing the wrong high school.  I'm not saying it's not an important decision, but lots and lots of happy and successful students come out of whatever public school they were directed towards.  It's hard to make a life-defining mistake with this choice.