If it were all just a lottery

Students, here’s a three-step process to add a little more joy to—and remove some stress from—your college admissions process.

1. Consider this question: If college admissions were nothing more than a lottery—no application or evaluation at all, just buy a ticket (limit one per applicant) to enter the lottery at any college that interests you, cross your fingers, and hope the luck-of-the-draw swings your way—what would you do differently? Really think about it. If the entire process were nothing more than just a random game of chance, what specific changes would you make in your life?

2. Make a list of the changes you identified in response to the question above.

3. Now, take a good hard look at each item on the list and ask yourself, “What is stopping me from making this change right now?” Answer as specifically as you can.

Sure, for many, you’ll probably have legit answers about what’s stopping you. You couldn’t make long-term resolutions to sleep until noon, refuse to do your homework, or play video games from dawn to dusk all day every day because those changes would probably prevent you from graduating high school, much less attending college.

But I’d wager you’ll have a hard time coming up will real, evidence-based answers preventing you from making every proposed change.

You have more control, more agency, more power to decide what you do and don’t do than you might think.

And even if only one item were legitimately doable, wouldn’t it be worth doing?

They ask for what they need

You don’t have to apply to the University of Virginia to benefit from this advice on their recent blog entry (bold emphasis theirs).

We ask for the things we know we need to make our decisions. If someone is telling you that UVA needs things that aren’t listed in our application instructions, they are mistaken.”

As the entry explains, unless you are applying to an arts program that specifically requests a portfolio, UVA does not want resumes, abstracts, writing portfolios, etc.

Seniors, as you prepare your college applications, don’t fall prey to the impulse to send more stuff. Instead, repeat this mantra for each college: “They ask for the things they know they need to make their decisions.”

Some will ask for more than others. But they’ll all be clear about what they need.

Collegewise advice on resumes for college apps

Resumes are tricky business when applying to college. Do you need one? If so, what should it look like? And if you do draft one, what’s the best way to use it? We’ve got answers to all these questions in an upcoming free webinar:

So Much Room for Activities: Putting Together Your Resume for College
Wednesday, September 26, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT
No cost to attendees

You can register or get more information here. I hope you’ll join us.

Celebrate the certainties

If I could pick one practice that most robs the joy from what should be the exciting time of applying to college for a family, it’s conditional celebration. Celebrating if the SAT score breaks a certain (arbitrary) barrier. Celebrating if the semester grades reach a certain numerical GPA. Celebrating if the dream school says yes. Conditional celebration turns the entire process into a competition defined by winning and losing.

The fix? Celebrate the certain.

A student is certain to submit their first college application. Celebrate it.

A student is certain to submit their final college application. Celebrate it.

A student is certain to be admitted to at least one college (provided that student applies to at least one counselor-approved safety school). Celebrate it.

Just because something is certain to occur doesn’t make it any less deserving of a celebration. If it did, nobody would celebrate birthdays, Thanksgiving, or the arrival of summer break.

In some communities of students without the right resources and support, those outcomes may not be so certain. What a great reminder for everyone that successfully preparing for, applying to, and getting into any college is worthy of celebration, no matter what your dream school says.

Celebrating certainties along the path to college isn’t arbitrarily injecting faux merriment into the process. It’s acknowledging that a teenager is getting closer to a life-impacting four years along the path to adulthood, an outcome they’ve worked to earn.

High stakes, judgment, and uncertainty don’t exactly make for happy times. It’s no wonder so many families look back on the admissions process as one filled with anxiety and dread. The fastest way to turn those feelings around is to identify the certain but still important eventualities for each student and to inject some well-deserved celebration.

Reject the conditional, embrace the certain, and let your celebrations begin.

How to Raise an Adult: fall book tour

I’ve referred to few experts more frequently in the last 18 months than I have Julie-Lythcott Haims, former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford and author of How to Raise an Adult. She recently launched a fall book tour, and if you’re interested, here’s the full schedule of dates and locations. Note that some dates are dedicated to her other book, Real American, which is about an entirely different topic (I have heard wonderful things about that book, too, but have not read it).

If she isn’t speaking near you and you’d like to get better acquainted with her message, I highly recommend How to Raise an Adult and her popular TED Talk.

Prepare now to file your FAFSA

For students applying to college for the fall of 2019 term, the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) becomes available on October 1st. And while students have until the following spring to submit the form, according to the experts at savingforcollege.com, those who submit the application within the first three months after it becomes available are awarded twice as much grant money—that’s free money that does not need to be paid back—on average as those who submit the application later.

There are some helpful steps you can take now to get prepared for the October 1 opening, and  trusted guru Mark Kantrowitz offers an excellent guide to them here.

Grade yourself

At the end of every week, month, semester—your choice—give yourself an honest grade based on these metrics.

  • Did you bring your best effort to class?
  • Did you bring your best self to class?
  • Did you try to learn the material (that’s not necessarily the same thing as trying to get an “A”)?
  • Did you participate?
  • Did you present as if you were genuinely happy to be there?
  • Did you ask good questions?
  • Did you find ways to contribute that made the class better for the teacher and/or your fellow students?
  • And the most important one, are you proud of the grades you gave yourself?

Earning good grades from yourself keeps you focused on the parts you can control. And it’s the secret weapon to earning good grades from the teachers who give them to you.

Too early, too late, and just right

When we brainstorm a college essay with a Collegewise student, we always set a deadline for that student to return their first draft to us. Depending on the student and the application deadlines themselves, the average time we give them is 1-2 weeks. But some students are so excited about their topic that they return their first draft in less than 24 hours. We’ve always admired these students for their pluck (finishing early is a lot better than finishing late). But we’ve also learned over the years that most of these early submissions are rarely the strongest of the first drafts we’ll see.

Like anything worth doing, great writing takes time. We don’t expect perfection in a first draft—that’s why it’s a first draft. But the best versions aren’t actually first drafts at all. A student may have rewritten their opening paragraph two or three or five times. They may have worked and reworked a story that just didn’t read well on first pass but tightened up nicely on the second effort. The conclusion that felt forced yesterday benefits from fresh eyes and a fresh start today. It’s a first draft to us because we’re seeing it for the first time. But it often bears little resemblance to the actual first pass.

The early submitters, on the other hand, usually haven’t spent nearly as much time revising and refreshing. They let their enthusiasm carry them from beginning to end, unchecked. What ends up on the screen the first time is what stays and gets submitted. It’s laudable that they don’t wait until the last minute. But what they first submit usually doesn’t represent what they’re really capable of.

College applicants, try to find a balance as you complete your essays and your applications. Procrastinating until the last minute is a terrible strategy—an impending deadline just coaxes your fastest, not your best, work. But there’s also no prize for finishing first. In fact, it often results in a quality penalty. Take your time. Sleep on it. One extra day or week makes little or no admissions difference. But it can make all the difference in the output.

We now remind our students that they should take their time on their first drafts and come back with something that shows us what they’re really capable of. Yes, it’s just the first draft, and the finished product will be the most important piece. But we’ve learned that the best route to that destination is the one that doesn’t get you there too early or too late, but just right.

School is a dress rehearsal for life

Braden Bell, a teacher and a writer, had been pondering what he’d do differently as his fifth (and final) child began middle school. He detailed his resolutions in a recent Washington Post piece, “To raise independent kids, treat middle school like a dress rehearsal for life.” Much of the insight, particularly this portion, is just as applicable for high school students.

“Middle school is a dress rehearsal. It’s almost always messy, and we worry that it foreshadows a disastrous future for our children. Meaning well, we jump in and initiate, fix and micromanage, telling ourselves we will stop when the child matures enough to take over. But middle school is supposed to be messy. It’s how kids mature. This means making lots of mistakes, then experiencing consequences just strong enough to be an incentive for correction, but not strong enough to damage a life.”

How to use our free Common App guide

CA guide coverOur Collegewise Guide to the 2018-19 Common Application is here, free to anyone who wants it. I have vivid memories of one full day in July 2011 when Arun and I went line by line through the Common App and considered all the advice we could give for every section. The result was a 64-page Microsoft Word document crafted on a desktop computer. I don’t think either of us ever imagined that Collegewise would still be producing updated annual versions of the guide seven years later or that so many of our colleagues would help us make it even better. And we certainly never imagined that we’d publish it one day with Michelle Obama’s education initiative, Reach Higher. But we’re so happy that our guide has proven to have staying power. You can get your copy here.

Borrowed from a past post, here are a few suggestions for how you might use our guide:

Students

  • If you haven’t started your Common App, complete each section with our help. We think your app will be stronger, and you’ll actually spend less time on the application by just getting it right the first time.
  • If you’ve already finished your Common App, use our guide to do a line-by-line review before you submit.
  • Struggling with just a particular section or two? Our guide can probably help.

Parents

If you are the official college application reviewer in the house, use our guide to review your student’s Common Application (kids should always complete their own college applications even if a parent will review them).

High school counselors

  • Looking to brush up on your Common App knowledge? Spend an hour with our guide and you’ll be a virtual expert.
  • Do your students come to you with questions about the Common App? Keep a copy of our guide on your desk (or bookmark the link to save a tree) and use it whenever you need a second opinion.
  • Share it with colleagues, teachers, and students.
  • Post the link on your website or in your student newsletters.

Private counselors

  • Our guide will teach you exactly what to look for when reviewing your students’ Common Applications.
  • Share the link with your students for them to use at home while they complete their applications.
  • Do you have partners, employees, or interns who work with students? Our guide makes a great training tool.

What we ask of you

If you know a family, counselor, PTA president, community-based organization, etc. who could use this guide or who could put it in the hands of those it might help, please share our download link.

I hope you enjoy—and share—it.

P.S.: If you haven’t already signed up, don’t miss our upcoming free webinar, “How to Make your Common App a Lot Less Common” on Wednesday, September 12, from 5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT. All the details are here.