For independent college counselors: be undeniably good

Steve Martin said it best on the Charlie Rose show:

“When people ask me how do you make it in show business or whatever, what I always tell them–and nobody ever takes note of it ‘cuz it’s not the answer they wanted to hear–what they want to hear is, ‘Here’s how you get an agent.  Here’s how you write a script.  Here’s how you do this…  But I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’  If somebody’s thinking, ‘How can I be really good?’, people are going to come to you. It’s much easier doing it that way than going to cocktail parties.”

That’s good advice for anyone trying to make it as an independent (private) college counselor, too.

I mention this because some independent counselors I meet at conferences lament that admissions officers won’t talk to them. They complain that high school counselors don’t want to work in tandem with them.  They want to know how we market ourselves, where we find potential clients, and how we get speaking engagements.  A lot of those particular counselors are looking for shortcuts where they’re aren’t any.

The independent counselors who are full every year, who love what they’re doing and have raving fans, who are liked and trusted and admired in the profession, they got that way by being undeniably good.  That’s the starting point.  Do a great job for your families.  Inhale college admissions information and share it with other counselors.  Attend conferences.  Do sessions at conferences.  Tour colleges.  Read all the books about admissions.  Read all the press about admissions.  Make families happy and keep your promises.  That’s how the best counselors–and there are lots of them–do it.

Stop looking for ways to get people to pay attention to you.  Instead, start being so good that they don’t have any choice but to notice.

Genuine beats polished

When something or someone is too polished, it's hard to trust them. 

When I hear a politician on the news evade the real question and give a polished, rehearsed answer, it doesn't encourage me to change my vote.   

I'm much more likely to buy a product that has open reviews online from customers, both positive and negative, than I am to buy one that has a glowing testimonial from one hand-picked fan. 

When I interview someone for a job at Collegewise, I like it when they give real answers, when they're confident enough to tell the truth even if they make a little fun of themselves.  When our former college softball pitcher who struck out all the batters admitted that she also went 0-16 at the plate during her freshman year (way to own it, Katie!), I knew I wanted her to work here. 

Colleges are the same way when they evaluate applicants.

When you apply to college, it's much more important to be genuine than it is to be polished.  Be proud of your accomplishments, sure.  But more importantly, just be proud of who you are.  Make your application and essay sound like you.  Admit what you like along with what you aren't good at.  Let your personality come out.  Your application is not a marketing piece–it's a reflection of you.  It needs to have some soul. 

That's why we don't over-edit essays–they sound like the 17 year-old who wrote them.  It's why we'll encourage a student to be honest rather than to try to guess what colleges want to hear.  We want students to be who they really are, not some manufactured-to-perfection version of themselves. 

It's easier for colleges to trust you when you're genuine than it is when you're just too polished.

Measuring college counseling success

"What's your success rate?"

Families ask us that sometimes in our introductory meetings.  It's a fair question, and our answer doesn't satisfy every family who asks.  Not everyone defines college counseling success the way we do.

If what the family really wants to know is how many of our students get into Ivy League schools, they're probably not going to like the answer–we don't know.  Some get in every year, but we don't keep a running tally.  That's not how we measure whether or not we (or our students) did a good job.

How you measure success in anything will define what you do and how you behave while you're doing it.  I don't want to turn away a "B" student just because he won't add to our Ivy League tally.  I don't want to feel pressure to tell the high achiever who loves Oberlin that she should really consider Princeton too, even though she has no interest in it.  And most importantly, I don't want to play a role in perpetuating the misguided belief that the best schools are the famous ones, and that a student's failure to gain admission to one means that he was somehow inadequate.

We measure our success by how happy our families are with their students' college choices.  We like that our kids have attended over 700 different colleges.  When a student emailed one of our counselors yesterday from the Millsaps College campus
and said, "As of today, I'm going to Millsaps!"–that's a success (for
him especially, but for us, too).  If a student has college options, if he's excited about where he gets to go, and his family is itching to get the parent version of the school's sweatshirts so they can attend orientation weekend in style, we think that's a good success for everyone involved.  

That measurement means we can work with families who care more about fit than they do about prestige.  We can encourage students to be themselves in their applications and essays, to research colleges and find ones they love even if they haven't heard of them yet, and most importantly, to have some fun while they're doing it.

If you're a student, a parent or a counselor who's not enjoying the process as much as you'd like to, the fastest way to change that is to change how you measure your success. 

On school bullying

I'm deviating a little today.  This post isn't college admissions related.  But I'm going to forge ahead and write it anyway. 

The story of Phoebe Prince has been in the news a lot lately.  I don't think anyone needs me to chime in about how pointless and tragic her death was, or how unforgivable it will be if we learn that the school administrators really did sit by and do nothing to help her.  I think a lot of people are in agreement about that.  

But I do want to say this.  Every high school has at least one student who gets targeted, certainly not as mercilessly as in Phoebe's case, but I think you know what I mean.  There's always at least one kid who gets laughed at, harassed, and maybe even bullied.  The kid may not be that different from a lot of other kids, but once the laughing starts, it gains perpetual motion and doesn't stop.  High school is an awful place for that kid.

I'll bet there are students who want to help that student but worry about becoming targets themselves. If that's the case for you, if you'd like to do something to support that student, here's a suggestion. Pull that kid aside, or send him an email, or find some other way to discreetly say something to the effect of,

"Those kids are as*holes.  I'm sorry about what they're doing.  Keep your chin up."  

It won't end the bullying.  It probably won't dramatically change that kid's life at school.  It's not even the most you could do.  But it's something.  You'll be throwing a show of support his way when he might feel like nobody else wants to offer any. 

It's so easy to do, you risk nothing by doing it, and it will probably mean the world to a kid who needs it. 

Five tips for seniors to help you pick your colleges

May 1 is almost here, the official deadline when seniors must formally commit to the college at which they'll spend the next four years.  If you're in the enviable position of struggling with multiple college choices, here are five tips to help you make a good decision.   

1.  Stop and smell the letters.

I don't mean that you should literally sniff your acceptance letters (that would be ineffective and, well, strange).  But when faced with a number of college acceptances from schools they want to attend, a lot of students forget to celebrate how lucky they are, and some go as far as to lament how stressful it is to have too many choices.  Don't be one of those people.  If you have 2 or 4 or 10 colleges from which to choose, you should celebrate what you've accomplished.  You're going to college.  You get to pick which college you want to attend.  Life is good.   So embrace your options, feel proud that you worked hard enough to earn this, and enjoy the process of deciding where you're going to spend the next four years.

2.  Expect to be uncertain.

A lot of high school students expect that they should be certain of their choice when they decide where to go to college.  We can make this easier: don't expect to be certain.  In fact, expect to be uncertain. Selecting a college is a big decision.  And big life decisions almost always come with some uncertainty (why do you think so many people are nervous on their wedding days?).  You likely won't be sure that you've made the right college choice until you get there, eat some dorm food, and get lost trying to find a class (it happened to all of us).  So if you're feeling unsure about your choice, don't worry; it just means you're giving this big life decision the care and attention it deserves.   

3.  Visit the colleges that interest you most…again.
If you're really interested in attending a college, you've probably visited already.  Visit again.  We know–you only have a few weeks.  Do it anyway.  Take a day off school if you have to.  Unless it's too far (and too expensive) to see again, visiting a college campus after you've been accepted lets you walk on campus and say, "I can be here this fall if I want to be."   It gives you a chance to potentially experience that feeling that you've found your college home.  And if that happens, you're right there on campus and can buy a sweatshirt with your new college's name on it. 

4.  Trust your instincts.
A lot of students will try to weigh the positive and not-so-positive traits of their colleges choices.  They might even seek advice from people they trust.  You should do all of these things.  But in most cases, you can't pro-and-con your way to a college decision.   No matter what the pros and cons are, and no matter what anyone tells you, you are the one who will spend four years at the college you choose.   At some point, your gut instinct has to kick in.   So listen to it.  You'd be surprised how right it usually is.

5.  Remember that there is no such thing as a perfect college.
Great college experiences happen everywhere, including at non-Ivy League schools and at colleges in Delaware.  But there is no college that will be perfect in every way for you.  It's going to be up to you to make your college experience perfect for you. So whatever you do, pick a college where you feel excited to spend four years, a place where you can't wait to go to class, to meet new friends, and to find what college life has in store for you.   If you accept that it will be your responsibility to make the most of your college experience, you'll be a lot more likely to find a school on which you'll look back after four years and feel you made the perfect choice.

And seniors, in case we don't see you back around our blog, congratulations, and have a great time in college…

The work you do along the way

A good blog post today from my favorite marketing author, Seth Godin, about the relentless pursuit of specific goals.  It got me thinking about students who relentlessly pursue a goal to gain admission to a highly selective college. 

It's risky to measure your success by whether or not Stanford says "Yes," because they reject most of their applicants.  That's giving too much power to someone else. 

What's broken in college admissions isn't necessarily the fact that
kids are working hard; what's broken is that too many kids (and a lot
of parents) only find value in the work if the chosen college offers
admission.  There's a reason why those who are rejected from their dream schools aren't relegated to substandard lives.  The work you do to be a competitive college applicant means you're smart, dedicated, and willing to work hard.  Those traits will make you successful no matter where you go to college.  Whether or not your dream school admits you, there's value in the work you do along the way.

How to help kids choose which college to attend

April is a great month here at Collegewise as we get to sit down with our seniors, discuss their college options, and help them decide where to spend the next four years.  If you’re a counselor, a teacher, a parent or anyone a senior trusts enough to ask your advice about which college to attend, here are few things we do that might be helpful.

1.    We let the kids do the talking.

A lot of seniors receive generous portions of unsolicited advice from too many sources about where they should go to college.  We think we do these students a favor by asking them what they think, being quiet, and really listening to their answers.

This also helps us uncover the real concerns kids have.

A lot of kids who are struggling with the final decision are actually struggling with things they haven’t revealed—or even acknowledged—yet, like a fear of leaving home, a fear of not measuring up to the other students, or a fear of being unhappy with their choice.  And since most kids won’t just come right out and tell us what they’re worried about, we have to ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening, like therapists.  A therapist doesn’t just tell someone five minutes into a session, “Your problem is that your sister makes you feel unworthy, so stop talking to her!”  She asks a lot of questions and guides the person to come to her own realizations. That’s how we approach these meetings.

2.    If a student asks a question for which we can’t give a straight answer, we reverse it. 

Students often ask questions about their choices to which there are no real answers, like “Isn’t Georgetown better for law school than Yale?”  Those kinds of questions are often not the real source of indecision for the kid.  So we reverse them.

“Wow, law school?  That’s great you’re thinking that far ahead.  Do you want to pick your college based on something you might do four years from now?”

Don’t be surprised if the student says something like, “Well, my dad’s a lawyer, and he really wants me to go to Georgetown.”  Turns out the original question had nothing to do with law school.  And if you’d gone into a lengthy explanation of how the assumption of Georgetown being better than Yale is flawed, you’d have been spinning your wheels and avoiding the real issue.

3. We think it’s more important to prevent a kid from making a bad decision than it is to convince him to make what we think is the right one. 

It’s not our responsibility (or our place) to tell any kid where he should to go to college.  Any student who is mature enough to go to college is mature enough to make the final decision.  Our responsibility is to be good listeners, to give kids any information they need, and of course, to speak up if our counseling instincts say that the kid’s about to make a terrible mistake.

I’m not saying we won’t share with a student which choice we think would be best and why—that’s our job.  In fact, I once had a student say, “What I really want you to do is just tell me where you think I should go to college.”  So I did.  But we think it’s more important to help students make informed choices (and avoid bad ones) than it is to make the decision for them.

4.   We don’t debate.

The more you argue with a teenager, the more a lot of them will dig their heals in.  When a student says, “UCLA students are a lot friendlier than students at NYU,” that’s obviously a huge generalization with little factual merit.  But we don’t debate the point. The kid doesn’t want to debate with us. So instead, we ask him what made the UCLA students seem so friendly.  We keep him talking.  The less we push, the more likely the student is to ask for (and listen to) whatever perspective we have to share.

5.  We don’t try to minimize concerns about the school, especially if they’re valid.

No college is perfect.  So we don’t try to minimize valid concerns about any school.  Instead, we face them head on and talk about how students on campus deal with them.

Let’s say a student tells us, “I like Gonzaga, but I’m worried I’ll get bored in Spokane.”

That’s a valid concern.  Kids at Gonzaga love it there, but if they wanted exciting city life in college, they would have gone somewhere else.

So rather than try to convince that kid that Spokane is lively, we’ll just say,

“You’re right.  Kids at Gonzaga will tell you there’s not much to do in Spokane.  But they don’t care.  They didn’t go to Gonzaga for city life.   Do you think the city life is important to you?”

Now that kid gets to explore the real issue: does he love what other students love about Gonzaga enough to ignore that he won’t be in Chigaco or New York or Los Angeles for college?

Kids often say to us, “I worry about whether or not USC is going to be safe enough.”

USC seems to go out of its way to talk about how safe it is.  No, you’re not going to get kidnapped from your dorm.  But c’mon.  It’s in a big city, and not a particularly nice part of that city.  So we face that concern head on.

“Yeah, I get that.  The campus might be safe, but the surrounding area, like those near a lot of colleges, is not.  USC students understand that they have to be smart about their safety.  They know it’s not a good idea to walk alone late at night.  How do you feel about that?”

Face it head on.

If a student says, “I heard UCLA puts three kids in dorms that are made for two.  I wouldn’t have to deal with that at Pomona…”

We respond…

“You’re right.  UCLA packs them in.  Most kids at UCLA don’t seem to care about that.  They tell us that they hardly spend time in their dorm room because they’re too busy doing a hundred different things on campus and in Westwood.   Does that sound like you?”

The reason we do this is to show the student that no college is perfect.  The happiest students on college campuses love their schools in spite of the inherent flaws.  There is nothing anyone can do to make Spokane lively, USC 100% safe, or UCLA small and homey.  Don’t try to minimize the concern.  That’s just wasting time.

As long as you ask a lot of questions, listen, avoid debating and try to help a student uncover their real concerns about their college choices, you’ll be doing a good job for that kid.

What you can learn about college essays from Matt Damon

Bad college essays tell stories that the writer hopes will sound impressive, not stories that the student actually cares about.  They usually include sentences the writer would never say to a friend. 

What football player would ever tell a teammate, "Football has taught me important lessons about hard work and commitment"?

What kid who volunteers at a soup kitchen would ever say, "As I handed the bowl of soup to the elderly woman, I had an epiphany about the value of helping people"?

What student comes back from a trip to Europe and tells her friends, "I expanded my cultural horizons by learning to appreciate the subtle yet important differences between the French and Americans"?

Bad college essays just try too hard, not unlike how Matt Damon (who went to Harvard, by the way) describes bad acting in the first 50 seconds of this clip.

Recommended Reading for High School Counselors

When our counselors go through the Collegewise training program, we read and discuss a number of books about college admissions.  Here are a few of our favorites.

Admissions ConfAdmissions Confidential: An Insider’s Account of the Elite College Selection Process
by Rachel Toor

Toor  takes you along with her during her three-year stint as an admissions officer at Duke University.  I include this book in our training because it shows that admissions officers are just regular people, not stuffy educators.  Toor took a job in admissions because she thought it would be more fun than her editing job. She admits to having a soft spot for artsy kids and reveals that she argued most forcefully for those students she felt like she could hang out with.  It's not a book about how to get into Duke; it's more of a revealing account of what it's like to work in a highly selective college's admissions office.

A is for A is for Admission:  The Insider's Guide to Getting Into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges by Michele A. Hernandez

Michelle Hernandez is not universally loved in the college admissions world (If you'd like to know why, here's an interview on NPR), but I still appreciate that she comes right out and describes exactly how she and her colleagues at Dartmouth actually evaluated students.  It's also refreshing to hear someone else say that a student could scoop ice cream during the summer and still get into a selective college.  Her section on letters of recommendation is especially good.  Though unless you  majored in statistics, you might want to just skip over the section on the "academic  index."  It's complicated and not terribly interesting (to me, at least).

CollegeUnranked College Uranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy, edited by Lloyd Thacker
I love this book’s mission—to help students re-take control of a college admissions process that seems to have spun out of control.  The advice comes in the form of short essays from admissions officers themselves.  Some are better pieces than others, but it's a good reminder of something we've learned after doing this for over 10 years–admissions officers are mostly good people who want to do the right thing by kids even if they can't admit all of them.   

 

 TheGatekeepers The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premiere College by Jacques Steinberg

Steinberg (who now writes the admissions blog "The Choice,") observed the admissions process at Wesleyan University and wove it into what I think is an entertaining read.  You'll learn a lot about admissions, and don't be surprised if you get sucked into the story.  Waiting to find out who gets in is like waiting to find out who the killer is at the end of a taut suspense novel.  And one of the applicants profiled went on to found Unigo.com.

 

HarvardSchmarvardHarvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That’s Best for You by Jay Mathews

The title pretty much says it all.  Jay Mathews offers a good dose of perspective and common sense to the process, and even gives readers a list of 100 great colleges worth considering.  I love his honesty about everything from the realities of the waitlist to the search letter scam where kids get warm and inviting letters from selective colleges based on nothing but PSAT scores (which aren't even used during the admissions process).  Jay's also a parent of two kids who've gone on to college and has especially good perspective for moms and dads of the college  bound.  

OnWriting On Writing the College Application Essay by Harry Bauld

It was written nearly twenty years ago, but the chapter about overused essays entitled, "Danger: Sleepy Prose Ahead" is worth the price of the book.  I'll put it this way.  #8 on his list is "Pet Death" of which he says,

"Maudlin descriptions of animal demise, always written by the fluffball.  'As I watched Button's life ebb away, I came to value the important things in the world.'"

C'mon.  You've got to get this one. 

Should you take a risk in a college essay?

Students and parents ask us all the time if it's advisable to take a risk in a college essay.  Should you write about something controversial, or take on a subject that may offend the reader, or admit a mistake you made?

I usually tell students that if you're taking a risk in a college essay just to get noticed, that's probably not a good strategy.  But if you're taking a risk by telling the truth, standing up for what you believe in, or just admitting who you really are, even if it may paint you in a less than positive light, those tend to be admirable traits that colleges will appreciate.  Here's an example. 

We worked with a student last fall who had a clear, first-choice school that was a reach for him.  The school's essay question asked applicants to describe a situation in which you integrated critical thinking, intelligence, and character.  He had a great story to tell about a job interview in which he was asked if he were elected president, what would he do first to improve the economy.  He gave a thoughtful, informed answer about legalizing marijuana, and he got the job.  The interviewer even complimented him on how knowledgeable and honest he was.  

But would it be a good idea to actually admit that in his college essay?

When we talked with him about it, it was clear he was knowledgeable about the issue.  He'd read about it and even discussed it with several of his teachers.  And he wasn't even a drug user.  In fact, he also believed that as long as marijuana was illegal, people shouldn't use it.  But he had the guts to tell the truth in a job interview and it worked.  Why should he hide behind a safe answer when the truth would make for a much more interesting and compelling story?  And besides, do you have any idea how many "I chose not to cheat even though other
students did it" essays that admissions office has to read? 

So we told him to go for it.  Swing for the fences.  And today, he got his acceptance letter.

The point here is not that risky essays always win.  If you write an essay about how much you like to do drugs, that would be a stupid thing to do.

But you should still be yourself.  Have the guts to tell the truth. Don't be immature, but don't hide behind a safe answer that you don't really believe, either.