How parents can help

A worried mother at a local high school's college night last week told me,

"My daughter has worked so hard.  She'll be just devastated if she doesn't get into one of her reach schools."

It was clear that she, too, was going to be devastated if those schools didn't admit her daughter.  And while she is undoubtedly a good mother who only wants to see her daughter happy and fulfilled, that question she asked is exactly what's wrong with the way too many students and parents approach college admissions today. 

Why is an admissions decision from a particular college the only award that will validate her daughter's hard work?

Why are the colleges who are most likely to say "No" the only schools that she finds desirable?

Is devastation an appropriate emotional response to an admissions decision from any college?

The belief that the most competitive schools are the best, achievement in high school driven solely by a desire to gain admission to a college who rejects almost all of their applicants, and the implication that a rejection from one of those schools is a tragic event–that's what's wrong.  That approach takes what should be an exciting time for a family and turns it into a grim process where your chances of success are roughly 7-20%. 

But parents can do a lot to fix what's wrong here. 

As much as many teenagers may appear to dismiss the opinions and advice of Mom and Dad, the truth is that every kid wants to please his or her parent. 

So parents, when you see your teens working hard, applaud their efforts.  Tell them how proud you are of their work ethic and their accomplishments.  Let them know how many wonderful opportunities will be waiting for them wherever they go to college.  Encourage them to work hard for the right reasons, not to gain admission to a small group of selective colleges, but because they'll be better educated and more fulfilled and prepared to handle the intellectual rigor of college life. 

And most importantly, remind them that none of that will change if Berkeley or Duke or Notre Dame says, "No."  Remind them that you won't be "devastated"–they shouldn't be, either.

Expert opinions?

If I want to get stronger, I ask a trainer at the gym for advice.  But when my arm hurts more than it should after working out, I don't ask the personal trainer to take a look at it.  That's a job for a doctor.  And what kind of shoes should I wear when I run?  That's a question I reserve for one of those sprinters at the running shoe store who weighs 95 pounds and has a body fat percentage of negative 12%. 

The fact that training and injury and running occur as part of the same fitness regimen doesn't mean they aren't three very different things.  College admissions works in much the same way.  

One of our Collegewise parents attended a free seminar over the weekend given by a test prep company.  In addition to discussing SAT test-taking strategies (which were great), the presenter also shared a variety of information about how colleges use test scores.  And virtually all of it was incorrect.

College admissions, standardized testing and financial aid for college are three entirely different fields.  Expertise in one does not translate to expertise in another.  I'm not saying people can't be knowledgeable about all three.  But most people aren't (I claim an admissions expertise but am an admitted dabbler in testing and financial aid).

The widespread availability of college admissions, testing and financial aid information means that families have to be a little bit discerning about who you listen to.  Seek out trusted sources, and don't be surprised if you turn to more than one expert.

If you need a little direction, here's where I'd start for admissions, testing, and financial aid advice.

It’s school first

With all the talk about what colleges look for in applicants, it helps to remember that college is school first. 

Yes, colleges care about your extra-curricular activities.  They care about how you're going to make contributions to the campus.  They like it when your interviewer finds you personable, and when you show interest in the campus, and when you tell engaging stories in your college essays. 

But none of that is as important as how you demonstrate your likelihood of being an engaged and successful student in college.  And you do that with a rigorous high school curriculum, good grades, and a demonstrated interest in learning. 

An admissions officer is far less likely to be impressed by reports of your pitching arm if your academic work is substandard.  They'll find another applicant who can throw a good fastball but also has rigorous classes and good grades.

"My grades dropped because I was so committed to my extracurricular activities" is not a phrase that's going to move most admissions officers. 

A good audition, a letter from an influential alumni, a hundred hours of community service–those things are fine, but they won't make up for academic shortcomings.  

I'm not suggesting that you bury your head in the books and refuse to come up for air for four years.  Enjoy your activities.  See your friends.  Have fun.  Get enough sleep.  Commit yourself to things you enjoy.  Occasionally do things that have nothing to do with college admissions or improving yourself.  Goof off every now and then.  Be a nice person to teachers and to other students.  Fill your high school years with emotional growth and good memories.

But while you're doing those things, challenge yourself academically and work hard to meet those challenges.  And feed your intellect by learning more about the subjects that interest you most.

Your academics are the first place an admissions officer will look to assess your academic readiness for what college is first–school.

 

20 things I wish I’d known back in high school

I'd like to think we all get a little wiser every year.  At 18, I looked back on myself at 16 and couldn't believe how little I knew.  I'm sure I'll feel the same way two years from now about how little I know today at age 39. 

Still, if I knew back in high school what I know today, man, I really
could have owned that place (or at least have enjoyed a smoother, less stressful four years).  So here are 20 things I wish my 39-year-old self could have told my high school self back in the late 80's.  Some are college related, some or not.  Maybe a high school reader can benefit from one (the rest, feel free to discard as the ramblings of a college counselor who went to high school before email and cell phones were in use).

1.  Give your parents a break.  Recognize that parenting a teenager is stressful and difficult.  There's no manual issued when you take responsibility for a child.  You won't do everything right either when you have kids of your own.

2. Get a job in high school.  I'm glad I did this one, but I probably would have appreciated it more at the time knowing what I know now.  I learned a lot working at that limousine company.

3. Guys, when you pick a girl up for a date, the first thing you should do is notice how nice she looks.  The second thing you should do is compliment her–out loud–on how nice she looks.  Seriously, do this one.

4. Appreciate what other kids are committed to, even if their activities are different from yours.  You don't have to participate in the school musical to appreciate the kid who spends his time doing that while you're on the football field.  You can ask him how the opening night went.  And if you actually went to watch the musical to cheer them on, imagine how appreciative those kids would be.  Wish I’d done that one.

5. Ask for help when you need it.  A lot of the highest achieving students get there in part by asking for help when they don't understand the material.  If I'd known that, I would have been asking for help a lot.

6. Don't eat out with a group of people unless you're willing and able to pay for more than your fair share.  Everybody gets frustrated with the guy who you have to choke to get him to chip in enough money.   

7. Anyone who says terrible things to you about people they supposedly care about is not to be trusted.  They're doing the same thing to you when you're not around.  Run away.

8. If you especially enjoy a class, tell the teacher.  Write him or her an email, or just mention it after class.  My mom was a high school teacher for 30 years and keeps a shoebox of notes she received from students.  I can see how much it means to her to pull them out and read them today.

9. Be excited about the opportunity to go to college.  While you're at it, be thankful for it.  There are a lot of students in the world who would give anything to be able to attend college.  If your biggest concern is whether or not you get to go to a school that makes the top ten on the US News list, you've got a pretty good life. 

10. Try to learn as much as you can about the things that interest you.  I don’t care what it is.  People–and colleges–love a kid who feeds her mind.

11. Be nice to the kid that nobody else is nice to.  Two years after my graduation, that kid everyone made fun of was killed in a plane crash.  A lot of other people have to live with the fact that they went out of their way to make his high school years as unhappy as possible.  I got this one right in high school and am especially thankful I did.

12. It's hard to overstate the value of working hard and being nice to people.

13. If you obsessively pay attention in class, you’ll cut your study time dramatically and get better grades with half the effort.  Really wish I’d figured that out earlier than, well, now.

14. Try not to worry too much about the bullsh*t that goes on in high school. Who's popular and who's not, who gets invited to the right party and who gets left home, who looks right (or wrong), and all the backbiting and that is so rampant in high school–nobody will care about any of it once you get to college.  Until then, just try to stay out of it as much as you can.  Don't participate in or contribute to it.

15. Don’t waste your worry on things that don't matter.  It's not for me to say what you should or shouldn't worry about, but it’s a big world with plenty of other people and causes that deserve your worry.  I could have been a lot better about this in high school.  

16. A good standardized test-taker eliminates wrong answers and guesses.  A great standardized test-taker does that without feeling any less confident on the next question. Eliminate, guess, move on and feel good about it.  That's the difference between high scores and average scores. 

17. Remember that eventually there will be no such thing as summer vacation.  So take advantage of summers.  I mean really take advantage of them.  I've even got suggestions if you need them.

18. Don't put a senior quote in the yearbook that will make you look stupid when you read it 20 years later.  I didn’t make this mistake, but if I knew the lesson, I could have saved some friends some embarrassment.  One wrote, “I’ll love you FOREVER _____!”  and they broke up two months later.  Ooof. 

19. There’s honor in driving the worst car at school.  We once had a kid at Collegewise who drove the most beat up Volvo station wagon I’ve ever seen.  He had a bumper sticker that said, “Respect the wagon.”  That kid had style.   

20. Remember that you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.  You can endure almost any teen setback, angst or humiliation if you remember that.

Not a life-defining day

Admissions decisions from colleges aren’t life defining.

They can feel like it at the time.  A lot of hard-working students spend their high school years driven to gain admission to a particular (or to a particular type of) college.  So when the “Yes,” or “No” arrives, it can feel like your high school career has just been validated or invalidated, and that your future path is either clear or in shambles.

But successful adults don’t look back on the day that a college acceptance arrived as the pivotal moment that ignited their future success.  Nobody says, “Since that magical day I got into Cornell, my life has been an uninterrupted string of success and happiness.”   They might identify a pivotal experience that took place once they got to college.  But it’s never the moment the letter arrived.

Frankly, the same can be said of people who never achieved what they wanted to.

Nobody ever looks back and says, “From the day ‘college x’ said no, my life was in a downward spiral.  I knew from that day forward that life would never be the same.”

If your decision is whether to go or not to actually go to college at all, that will almost certainly be a life-defining event. But where you go to college is a lot less important than whether or not you go, and what you do while you’re there.  Wherever you go to college, it’s going to be one step in a process of education and growth that continues throughout your life.

So whatever news you receive from your colleges of choice, remember that while the arrival of this decision might feel like a life-defining day, it isn’t.  If you’re happy with the news, congratulations.  Celebrate it and look forward to making the most of the opportunity once you get there.

But if you’re not happy with your choices, remember that you’ve got four years of college, and a lifetime after you leave it, to define the life you want.  This day isn’t the beginning or the end of your story.

Rejected by your dream school? You’re in good company

From a great piece
in
yesterday's Wall Street Journal about college rejection letters and the people who've received them:

"Teenagers who face rejection will be joining good company, including
Nobel laureates, billionaire philanthropists, university presidents,
constitutional scholars, best-selling authors and other leaders of
business, media and the arts who once received college or
graduate-school rejection letters of their own."

According to the article, Warren Buffet had this to say about his college rejection from Harvard:

"The truth is, everything that has happened in my life[…] that I thought was a crushing event at the time, has turned out for the better," Mr. Buffett says. With the exception of health problems, he says, setbacks teach "lessons that carry you along. You learn that a temporary defeat is not a permanent one. In the end, it can be an opportunity."

And for the parents reading, Buffet remembers how his father responded to the rejection.

"As it turned out, his father responded with 'only this unconditional love…an unconditional belief in me…'"

Meant to be

Most kids feel like they're attending the college they were meant to attend.  Some just take a little longer to realize it than others.

Several years ago, I was invited back to my alma mater, UC-Irvine, as the keynote speaker at the freshman orientation program.  In the audience were several hundred new freshmen and their parents.  I wanted to grab their attention, so I decided to cut to the chase say,

“You know, I’ll bet a lot of you really wanted to go to UCLA.”

It got a good laugh, but a few months earlier when the rejection letters from UCLA arrived home, they probably wouldn't have found it that funny.

So I told them the truth. When I was eighteen, I sat in those very same seats and knew that I really wanted to be about 40 miles north in Westwood.  So did a lot of my fellow freshmen.  I told them that it had been that way at UCI for a long time and that, while every year, more and more freshman pick UCI as their first choice, an equal number really wanted to be Bruins.

Then I gave them the good news.

I told them that they just faced the largest and most competitive applicant pool in UCI’s history to get there and that they should feel proud to be sitting in that room.   I reminded them that after one quarter on UCI’s campus, none of the freshmen would be talking about UCLA anymore.  In fact, I made a promise that, at the end of the orientation weekend when they prepared to move into their new dorms, none of them were going to be thinking about UCLA anymore.  Most kids end up at the right schools, and whether they knew it not, they were meant to be at UC-Irvine.

I told them that it was time for them to start making the most of the next four years, and that their college careers started "today."

Nearly five hundred new freshmen and their parents smiled collectively, let out a deep breath and applauded (which is admittedly great for a public speaker like me with an ego the size of a small planet). 

There is no better feeling than seeing several hundred new college freshmen smiling, excited, and eager to embark on their four-year college adventure.  And that same look will be on the faces of most of the college freshmen at over 2,500 colleges across the country this fall. 

Kids, for the most part, like where they go to college.   Sure, not everybody gets admitted to his first choice, but when you put a college freshman in a place with a bunch of fellow eighteen year-olds and tell him that all he has to do is learn and have fun for four years, it’s amazing how fast a kid forgets about whether or not he got into his first choice.  

That’s just the way that college was meant to be.

Have you got swagger?

I worked with a student once who had all the characteristics you need to get into the most selective colleges.  Perfect grades, perfect test scores, a voracious appetite for learning, an excitement about all the opportunities waiting for him in college, likeable, self-effacing, and most importantly, he had a little–just a little–swagger.

I say "a little" swagger because outright arrogance is never a good trait.  But a student who's actually smart enough, motivated enough and hungry enough for the challenges of attending a highly selective college has a sense of confidence about him or herself.

Getting into college is a lot like dating.  Nobody likes the meek person who pines away for someone from afar.  Confidence is contagious.  People want to be around it.

The kid who applies to all the Ivy League schools because they're "good schools" doesn't have any swagger.  He's pretending he does by applying to only reach schools, but he's really just hoping one of them says yes. That's like asking 10 beautiful women to the prom and acting confident while you do it.  Everybody knows you're just hoping for one to agree to go with you.  It's really more desperate than confident. 

The kid who worries that his life will be over if Princeton says "No"?  Guess what–no swagger there.

The kid who makes all his decisions in high school based on what he thinks Stanford wants?  Nope–no swagger there, either.

The kid who works like crazy because he wants to be successful at whatever he tries, the kid who gets A's but really just wants to be challenged and intellectually stimulated as much as possible, the kid who can't wait to go to college and knows that wherever he ends up, both he and the college will be equally lucky–Now, that kid's got some swagger.

My former student showed his swagger during one of our meetings when he said,

"I figure if I can leave college with a degree in electrical engineering and four years playing division I water polo, I'll be unstoppable."  It wasn't arrogant–he was right. 

He didn't say, "If I get into Stanford..."  He knew his future success wasn't predicated on him attending a highly selective college.  He knew he was going to do it.  That's swagger.

And like all of our students who've attended highly selective colleges, there was no doubt in my mind that this kid was going all the way.

He went to Stanford and today is thriving at a capital management firm.  I don't understand a single word of his job description, but I'm sure he does.  

If you want to get in and succeed at one of those 40 famous colleges that reject most of their applicants, you'll need a little swagger.  

A college admissions secret

Did you know that colleges love stamp-collectors?  They go just crazy for stamp collectors.  Can't get enough of 'em.     

OK, I'm kidding (a little).  Colleges don't have a special affinity for stamp-collectors any
more than they do any other activity.  What colleges love is passion. I
t
really doesn't matter what your passion is–dance, art, sports,
reading, rodeo, student government, working a part time job at a burger
joint, juggling, magic or, yes, stamp collecting.  A kid becomes much
more interesting to an
admissions officer when that student is genuinely passionate about her activities.

Colleges would, in fact, appreciate a student who was super-serious about stamps.  The more into it you were, the better. They'd like the kid who visits stamp shows on the weekends, who reads stamp-collector magazines, who belongs to stamp-collecting organizations, who takes classes and writes articles for stamp-collector newsletters.

So go after your passions.  Celebrate them.  Take them to a reasonable and productive extreme.  And don't worry whether the colleges will like them.  If it's important to you, and you inject your intellect, talent and energy into it to make something happen for yourself or others, the colleges will care about it, too (as long as it isn't illegal). 

And when you apply to college, share your passions–in the applications, in the essays, and during your interviews.  Help the colleges learn about them.  Don't keep them secret.  

What are you going to be when you grow up?

Some people think the only way to be a success is to go to a famous
college.  Some people think you have to know what you want to do before
you go to college so you can pick the right major.  I've never believed either
of those to be true.

Here's an example. 

One particular
student worked at Arby's in high school and took ballet lessons.  He won
a dance scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet but turned it down to attend
Sarah Lawrence College because of its strong dance program.  He
graduated with a degree in liberal arts. 

Today, that former
ballet dancer and Sarah Lawrence grad is the White House Chief of Staff,
Rahm
Emanuel

I'm not saying you should or shouldn't admire his
politics or how he goes about his job–this isn't a political post. 

But
I am saying that he's a good example of a successful person who never
knew what he wanted to be when he was 18, and how the right (and not
particularly famous) college played a role in helping him find his
future path.

Thanks to Katie
for the great college trivia.