Adding up…

When I was at the grocery store this afternoon, a group of four college guys were stocking up for what appeared to be a college roommate barbecue–hot dogs, buns, charcoal, chips, generic brand ketchup and mustard, and of course, (very) cheap beer.

When the elected accountant of the group did a rough calculation and told his friends they didn't have enough money for everything in the future feast, one of them–and I swear I'm not making this up–made a quick executive decision and said,

"Dude, that charcoal is nine bucks!  Put it back.  Let's just microwave the hot dogs." 

That, my friends, is college ingenuity at work.

If you're a high school student right now, you're probably worried about your GPA.   You're probably worried about your SAT scores and your AP tests and whether or not your dream school is going to say yes.  It's a lot of pressure and it can sometimes be easy to forget how much you have to look forward to.

But someday, none of those things are going to matter anymore because you'll be in college.  And even if you don't end up at the school that you're sure today is the only one for you, you'll still get to do things that you talk about 5 and 10 and 30 years later. 

Not too long from now, those college guys I saw at the store will be grown-ups with jobs and families and real responsibilities.  And they'll look back fondly at their time in college.  They'll laugh when they remember how they could get a whole weekend's worth of meals (and beer) for under 20 bucks and be completely happy.  Great college memories are created everywhere from Harvard to the tiny college you haven't even heard of yet.  

By the way, two of these guys had sweatshirts identifying them as attending the University of California — Irvine, one of those schools that rejects a lot of qualified applicants.  Don't assume that smart kids don't enjoy roommate barbecues and cheap beer in college.  

Don't worry.  Whether or not a barbecue like that is your idea of a great time, everything you're doing will eventually add up to a great college experience you'll remember. 

Your best academic experience?

The best academic experience I ever had was my eighth grade science class. It was better than any class I ever took in high school or college, and it was almost entirely due to the teacher, Mr. Schmidt. I’d never been a science guy, but I loved that he could make everything from introductory physics to aeronautics fascinating. I loved how he treated us like we were smart unless we made the mistake of proving otherwise. And I loved that on the very first day, when the resident class clown made one of his dopey comments, Mr. Schmidt told him, “You pick your ass up out of that chair and get out of my class. Now.”

I never worked harder to succeed or to earn a teacher’s approval then I did that year. I looked forward to third period science every single day. On the last day of class, I actually felt a little choked up when I walked out and said to him, “Keep teaching like you are, Mr. Schmidt.”

I never had another class like Mr. Schmidt’s. And that’s my fault. I could have had them, but I never sought out teachers or classes whose reputations sounded like they might duplicate that experience for me. I just assumed that how much you like a class or a teacher is all about the luck of the draw. What a mistake.

What has your best academic experience been, the one class that you actually looked forward to attending every single day. What made it so great?  Was it because of the subject matter? Because the teacher was so great?  Because you fed off the sense of competition, or the class discussion, or the opportunity to be pushed to work harder than you thought you could?

Maybe it was a combination of all of those things.  But whatever it was, I encourage you to think about it, identify what made it special, and then make it your personal academic mission to duplicate it as many times as possible throughout high school and college.

It may not feel like it now, but you’re in charge of your academic experience. You can pursue subjects that interest you. You can seek out teachers with great reputations. You’ll get to choose your college and your classes and your major. When you do, think about your best academic experiences and whether or not these choices will create more of them.

Why not try to create academic experiences that you look forward to every day, every semester, and every year?

Who deserves the credit?

According to the Boston Globe, Harvard received a record 29,112 applications for the Class of 2013.  

2,900 of them scored a perfect 800 on the SAT critical reading section.  3,500 got a perfect SAT math score. Nearly 3,700 were ranked first in their senior class. 

Still, 93% of those amazing, brilliant, accomplish students were rejected.  Why?  Because Harvard only has 1655 spaces in the freshman class. It's not a miscarriage of justice; it's just simple math (I was an English major, and let's just say that for me to call math simple is really saying something). 

So, when those 1655 lucky students who are currently freshmen at Harvard go on to do great things in their lives, who deserves the credit?  Does Harvard deserve it? 

I don't think so.  Those students' future success will come from of qualities they developed long before they ever took up residence at Harvard, like their work ethic, interest in learning, character, persistence, and maybe even their personality and charm.  Schools like Harvard go out of their way to accept students with those qualities.  So it really should come as no surprise if the graduates go on to do great things. 

And what about the 27,000 amazingly brilliant and accomplished applicants who were rejected?  Are they doomed to substandard lives now that they won't have Harvard degrees?  I know–that sounds like a stupid question because it is.  Of course they're not doomed.  They're too amazingly brilliant and accomplished to be left behind. 

I'm not arguing that the Harvard experience isn't a special one; I'm sure most of those 1655 freshmen will have an amazing four years.  But so will the rest of those hard-workers who got rejected and ended up someplace else.  Smart, hard-working, passionate kids will almost certainly make something of themselves wherever they go. 

The notion that you have to go to a famous college to have a happy and successful life is a scam. If you had to go to one of those schools to have a good life, we'd never
have 2,000 colleges in this country that people would pay good money to
attend.  So don't fall for name-brand-itis.  It's not where you go to college; it's who you are and what you do while you're there that counts. 

The right college–famous or not–can certainly help you.  But you'll still deserve the credit for your own success.

Works in progress

I've noticed three things about our former Collegewise students when they describe their college experiences.  If you ask some current college students about their collegiate lives, you'll likely find the same three similarities.

1.  Almost all of them are happy in college.

Statistics show that most students like their colleges, even those who are attending schools that weren't their first choice.  You are, after all, with a bunch of 18-22 year-olds and your most important responsibilities are to learn and have fun.  College is a pretty good arrangement, no matter where you are.

2.  When pressed, most of them would admit that their colleges aren't necessarily perfect.  

Why do marriage vows include the phrase, "For better or for worse"?  Because life isn't easy and perfect every day, and college is no different.  Wherever you go to college, you have to work to make the experience great for you.  The same will be true of your jobs after college, your relationships, and anything else of value in your life.  You can't reasonably expect that your college will be perfect every day for four years.     

3.  Almost none of them perfectly articulated their current college existence back in high school when they were researching colleges.

Some seventeen year-olds can describe their ideal future college experience in perfect detail; most can't.  You likely won't know what you love most about college until you get there.  So unless your 21 year-old self has a time machine to come back and advise you during your high school years, you're going to have match your college research with some gut instinct to pick the right schools.  This can be difficult for parents to watch (especially for those parents who enjoy making spreadsheets to compare campus characteristics–we know who you are!).  But the nation's collegiate youth would have collapsed in despair long ago if great college experiences could only be born from a spreadsheet-based audit.

Yes, you can (and should) take your college search seriously.  You're
talking about a four-year expenditure of time and money, one that no
reasonable student should take lightly.  Don't apply to schools just
because your friends are choosing them or because they rank somewhere
on the US News list.  Think about yourself, how you like to learn and
what type of college environment might be good for you.  It's the way any mature student should approach such a big decision. 

But no matter how much you research, visit and evaluate colleges during your search, you won't find a perfect one that will guarantee you a flawless four years.  Wherever you go, your college experience will be a work in progress, one that you'll have to work to make work for you.  That might seem scary, but once you accept these truths, it takes some pressure off.  

If you like different colleges for very different reasons, that's
OK.  If you visit a college you thought you loved and leave thinking it
should come off your list, that's OK.  If you fall for a college your
friends have never heard of, that's OK. The process doesn't have to be
rational all the time. 

And if you don't get into your school that you were sure was meant to be your collegiate soul mate, that's OK, too. You'll find four-years of love (and a lifetime worth of college memories) somewhere else. 

Great college matches are always works in progress

Not all quitters are created equal

Quitters often get a bad rap.

You've probably heard this advice:  "Whatever you do, never give up.  Don't be a quitter." 

But you've probably also heard the advice, "Find what you love to do.  Pursue your passions."

How can anyone possibly do both of those things simultaneously? 

We're conditioned to think that the only way to succeed, the only way to get ahead and achieve is to refuse to quit no matter what happens.  We're taught that success will come if we just keep going.

But if you follow that advice all the time, how are you supposed to find what you love to do?  It doesn't work.  And that's why a lot of the happiest, most successful people have quitting in their history. 

I'd like to propose that not all quitters are created equal.  There are good quitters and bad quitters. 

If you get one low grade on a math test and refuse to try anymore, you're a bad quitter.  You're giving up because something got difficult, and nobody who succeeds in life regularly gives up as soon as something gets challenging.  If you love being on the volleyball team but quit just because you didn't get picked as the starting setter, maybe you should have stayed and worked harder?  And if you quit your part time job just because you don't like the way your boss gets mad when you show up late, you really have some lessons to learn about the way the work world functions. 

But there are also good quitters.  

Good quitters quit the right things at the right times.  They can recognize when something they're involved in isn't bringing them any happiness or fulfillment.  They can sense when an activity, a job, a project, or a relationship isn't going anyplace successful or productive.  They'd rather spend their time on something with more potential.  So they quit and move on.  And they don't beat themselves up about it.

One of our former Collegewise students was a standout football player at his high school.  But he quit right before the start of his junior year.  Football wasn't making him happy.  In fact, it was making him miserable.  And he had been grinding through it just because he didn't want to be a quitter. 

But as he told us, he came to the realization that he simply longer wanted to do something in which he was regularly "congratulated for trying to take someone's head off."  He wanted to be doing other things that he thought would make him happier.  So he quit, joined a steel drum band at his high school, and started volunteering at his church.

He went on to attend and graduate from Notre Dame.  They didn't mind him being a (good) quitter.  

Here's the most important characteristic that distinguishes good quitters from bad quitters; bad quitters want to quit so just they can stop doing something.  Good quitters want the opportunity to do something else, something better for them, something they really want to throw themselves into, something that might even be harder.

For good quitters, it's not about getting more time to sleep or watch TV.  They quit because they've got bigger goals, not smaller ones. 

Quitters never win?  I don't buy that.  Bad quitters might never win.  Good quitters win all the time.

So don't be afraid to quit.  Be afraid of being a bad quitter.

What could your teachers say about you?

If every one of your teachers had to write a letter today to your future colleges telling them about you, what could they say?

  • Would they be able to say that you make contributions to class discussions?
  • Would they be able to say that you are nice and respectful to them and to the other students?
  • Would they be able to say that you seem to care as much or more about learning the material as you do in earning a good grade?
  • Would they be able to say that you ask intelligent questions?
  • Would they be able to say that you bring enthusiasm and cheer to the class, even if you're not the best student in the room?
  • Would they be able to say that they'd like ten more students just like you in the class?
  • Would they be able to say that you seem excited and well-suited for college?

What would you have to do to get all of your teachers to say these things about you?  What do you think would happen if you did it?

Authentic applicants

Every college looks for authentic applicants.  Authentic means, "Not false or copied; genuine; real."  They want to get to know the real you, not some contrived version of you that's been molded to try to impress colleges.   

Authentic is telling a college you want to work closely with a particular marine biology professor because you really do want to work with that professor.  Authentic is not secretly thinking: "I want to work with that professor…if it will help me get in." 

Working at a burger chain so you can earn extra money is authentic.  Working at a senator's office in a job your dad got for you, and getting a form letter of recommendation from the senator, is not.  

Playing in the marching band and loving every second of it, even in 90 degree heat when you're clad in your polyester band uniform, that's authentic.

Staying up late night after night to perfect a physics project, doing your own little celebratory dance at 4 a.m. when it finally worked, and telling that story in your college essay–that's authentic. 

Admitting that the reason you became so good at cross country is because you learned during your freshman year that people throw up in races, but that when you're in the lead, nobody can ever throw up on you–that's authentic (gross, but authentic).  

Authentic is the kid who admits that nobody can lose an election in a landslide like she can.

Authentic is the kid who quit the football team during his junior year so he could go home and take care of his mother during her chemotherapy.

Authentic is being the worst water polo player on the team, loving it anyway, and admitting it in your college essay.

Authentic is dreaming about being a journalist, working for the community newspaper and writing a story about the woman who grew the largest tomato in county history.

Authentic is playing in a 70's rock band.  With your dad.

I found it surprisingly difficult to locate authentic Mexican food in New York
City.  That doesn't necessarily apply to this article, but it's
something I felt compelled to express.  Hey, I'm authentic, too.

Authentic is paying your little brother 5 dollars a session (10 dollars when it's raining) to retrieve balls for you while you practice kicking field goals. 

Volunteering to help refurbish the shelter where your mother stayed when she left your abusive father, that's authentic.

Taking college level history classes over the summers, reading everything you can about the Civil War, and forcing your family to visit Gettysburg 3 times in four years, that's authentic. 

Anything you do out of genuine enjoyment, interest, necessity, or sense of personal commitment, without regard to the college admissions implications of the act, that's authentic. 

How authentic are you being right now?  What would need to change for you to be "not false or copied; genuine; real"?

Choosing test prep

It’s easy for students (and the parents paying the bill) to get paralyzed by the options available to them to prepare for the SAT or ACT. You have books, online courses, weekend seminars, long classes and private tutoring, to name a few. And the price tags range from free to more than the cost of many teens’ used cars. It amounts to a lot of pressure.

No matter what your testing goals, time or budget, here’s some advice about making your test prep choice.

1. Beware of prep peer pressure.
Like most things in high school, the fact that everybody else is doing something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, too.

About 25 percent of our Collegewise students don’t do any test preparation, and it’s not because they’re all great test takers. A B student who applies to colleges loaded with kids just like him will find that his average test scores are good enough. You’re not going to Berkeley, USC, NYU, Duke or Boston College without high test scores; but if you’ve found colleges you like and your scores are already higher than those of their admitted students, what’s the sense in doing test prep?

Before you decide to prepare for the SAT or ACT, research the colleges that you’re considering and find out what the average score is for students they accept. Take your list to your counselor and ask for her opinion about how your current scores (PSAT, PLAN or a practice test) stack up.

If you and your counselor decide you’ve found some appropriate colleges and you would benefit from higher test scores, do some test prep. But don’t do it just because everybody else is doing it.

2. You get out what you put in.
This is one of those times when a cliché is actually true— no matter how reputable and expensive the test preparation, you’ll get out of it what you put into it. That’s true for any kind of self-improvement you pay for. You could hire the best personal trainer in town who worked all your friends into Olympic shape, but if you don’t do the workouts (and eliminate regular servings of your beloved French fries), you’re not going to get the desired results. Like fitness, good test scores can’t just be purchased. The effort has to be there.

3. Spend wisely.
There are many low-cost preparation options, from shorter courses to books, that have all the same information taught in an expensive class. The biggest difference is if your parents buy 25 hours of private tutoring, you’ll be forced to spend 25 hours preparing for it. Books and shorter courses are far more lenient on the reluctant prepper. Some kids will study for standardized tests even when they aren’t forced to, but a lot won’t.

If you do decide to take a class or work with a tutor, ask for recommendations from friends who’ve already prepared.

4. Don’t go overboard.
The amount of time a lot of students spend studying for the SAT and ACT exams is often totally disproportionate to the tests’ importance. If you’re spending more time doing test prep than you are doing homework, running with the cross country team or spending time with your family—stop; it’s time to do less.

Test scores are important at lots of colleges. But they’re never important enough to sacrifice time that could be spent getting better grades, playing better basketball or painting better pictures.

Test preparation needs to fit into the rest of your schoolwork and your life. Choose your time of year to prep wisely and apply some good time management when you do. If you feel pressured to ignore other important areas of your life, sacrifice the test prep first.
Efforts to turn average test takers into great test takers usually don’t work and make those kids feel badly about themselves. Put in some appropriate time and work hard to improve your scores. Even if you’re not happy with your results, be happy with your effort. Then move on to other things you enjoy.

If there were one method that turned every kid into a standardized test-taking world champion, everyone would already be choosing that option. So pick the one that fits your schedule, budget and comfort zone.

Excerpted from my book: If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted

What students and parents need to know about search letters

Colleges do a lot more marketing today than they used to.

When juniors take the PSAT, most of them check the optional box that asks if you would like the College Board to share their contact information with colleges that might be interested in you.  And for most students, that guarantees that as you get closer to applying to college,your mailbox will fill with information from colleges, many if not all of which you will never heard of.  And yes, a lot of those schools sending will probably admit you if you apply.

Colleges call these “search letters.”  They’re a marketing tool, as most of the over 2,000 colleges in this country actually do need to work to ensure they receive enough applications from qualified students.  It’s proof that it’s not as hard to get into college as a lot of people think it might be.

But I think some of them are misleading.

For students who get particularly high PSAT scores, many of the nation’s most selective colleges, the same schools who reject most of their applicants, will send out their own search letters.  And they’re just as positive and inviting, often saying things like:

“We congratulate you on your impressive academic record and encourage you to consider us,”


“We are looking for exceptional students who will flourish in our classrooms and make positive contributions to our campus community.  Based on your PSAT scores, I think our university might be the place for you.”

Some of these search letters come with invitations to attend local events the college will be hosting.  Some include college paraphernalia like decals (although I can’t imagine the flack a high school kid would catch if he put a decal from Yale or Princeton or Duke on his car before he was actually admitted?)

How could a student not take a letter like that as a good sign?  The college is encouraging you to apply, and telling you you’re the type of student they’re looking for.

But as Jay Mathews wrote in Harvard Schmarvard (a book every high school student and parent should read, by the way),

“The marketing executives for some of our nation’s finest institutions of higher learning seem to be making promises that their admissions offices can’t keep.”

Highly selective schools admit only 10-20 of every 100 students who apply, and you can imagine how impressive their applicant pools are.  They’re not sending out search letters because they have a shortage of applicants.  They’re sending them out because they want to have an even bigger pool of highly qualified students from which to compose a freshman class.  It’s not dirty pool to have that goal, but it can be misleading for kids who receive those letters, and many are left to believe they now have a much stronger chance of admission than they really do.

For those kids who apply and are later rejected, it’s hard not to feel a little misled.  It’s like a person at school saying to you,

“I know we don’t know each other that well, but based on the little time we’ve spent together, I really like you.  You’re smart and easy on the eyes.  And I’d love to go to the prom with you.”

So you ask this person to the prom feeling pretty good about your chances of acceptance.  Then you get rejected.  Ouch, right?

If you get a search letter from a highly-selective college, it means that based on limited information, the college thinks you might be the kind of person they’d like to see apply.  Most of the people who will apply are accomplished students, and you’ve shown early signs you might be like them.  That’s the good news.

But it doesn’t mean your chances of admission are better than those of other qualified students, or that you’re somehow on an admissions fast track.  And it doesn’t change the fact that most of the students who apply to those schools get rejected.  It’s nice when you’re Harvard and get 30,000 applications for 1600 spots in the freshman class.

Here’s what I tell Collegewise students who get search letters from ridiculously competitive colleges.

“The bad news is that (insert school here) is still a big reach, just like it is for everybody.  It’s not that you’re not good enough–they just get way too many applications from qualified students.  If you decide to apply, we’ll help you take your best shot because you’ve worked hard enough to earn your right to try.  But this search letter is documented proof that if you keep doing what you are doing, there will be hundreds of other colleges who will trip over themselves to admit you.  Let’s make sure to find some of those for you, too.”

I’m all for more positivity and encouragement in the college admissions process.  And I think it’s great to remind kids with strong academic records just how proud they should be of their accomplishments.  But
it’s important for students and parents to know what search letters really mean.

Meant to be?

Parents, imagine your son came to you one day and said this:

"Someday, I want to marry a blond lawyer who's really good looking.  So for now, I need to work hard in school so she'll think I'm smart.  I'll play soccer because I think women like athletes, do community service so I can show her I'm a humanitarian, and I'll keep thinking about things blond lawyers like so I can try to do them.  I know it won't be easy, but I'm sure that this future blond lawyer is my soul mate.  That's the goal I've set for myself."

After you got over the shock that your teenager is already planning a marriage to someone he hasn't met, you'd probably ask him why it has to be a good-looking blond lawyer (and why he's so sure that all good-looking, blond female lawyers want the same thing in a husband).  You'd probably tell him that it doesn't make sense to do all those things just to try to win someone over.  You'd tell him not to make decisions based on what he thinks a supposed future wife would want, that he should just be himself and wait to find someone he loves who will love him back for who he really is. 

Now, substitute "I want to marry a blond lawyer" with "I want to go to an Ivy League school."

Why should a parent's response be any different?