Advice for submitting application videos to colleges

Many colleges now invite students to submit optional short videos as part of their applications as a way to inject a little more of their personal voice into the process. Here’s University of Chicago’s invitation:

If you would like to add your voice to your application, you have the option to submit a two-minute video introduction in lieu of the traditional college interview, which is not part of our application process. Your recording does not need to be extensively rehearsed or polished, and the video does not need to be edited. You may record your video introduction using the platform of your choice, and then upload either a file of or link to the introduction into your UChicago Account. If there is any important information relevant to your candidacy you were unable to address elsewhere in the application, please share that information here.

It’s hard to give universally applicable advice about videos like this (other than obvious ones, like follow the directions and don’t record anything that would embarrass you if your parents or teachers saw it). Don’t be funny? Don’t overproduce your video? Don’t make anything so out-there that it’s inaccessible to viewers? The truth is that some applicants can pull those videos off, and others can’t.

But at the risk of being a one-trick advising pony, I think our Collegewise advice around college essays applies perfectly here.

1. Don’t try to impress—just tell the truth.
You don’t want the viewer to feel like they’re watching a sales pitch, and much as with college essays, that happens in videos when applicants just try too hard to guess what admissions officers want. So if you’re a musically expressive person who loves writing catchy jingles and you want to sing a personal song while playing the ukulele, that sounds like a pretty honest portrayal of who you are. But if you’re forcing yourself to do it because you are trying to stand out and you think showing off your uke chops will get the job done, that’s trying too hard to be something you’re not. Your goal should be to capture something, no matter how simple or complex, that makes the people who know you best say, “That is so you!”

2. Own your stories/footage.
If it would be possible for 1000 other applicants to shoot the same video, there’s a good chance there will be plenty of others just like yours in the figurative stack when you apply. The way to counter that is to use details. Example: If you’re a basketball player, you could include highlights of hitting jump shots, but there are plenty of other varsity basketball players who could and probably will provide the same footage. Instead, you could begin a video on the neighborhood court where you first began playing basketball when you were 8, explain how you tagged along with your older brothers and how you’ll never forget the day they finally invited you to join, tell the viewers how you spent your entire summer before 10th grade working out here by yourself because you knew that the ability to drive to the hoop with your left hand as well as your right would be a key to your game, and film the spot under the hoop where you tore ligaments in your ankle and had to sit out for your junior season. Another basketball player might have their own similar experiences. But these particular memories on that particular course are yours alone. Details make all the difference.

3. Don’t repeat information from the rest of your application.
If the viewer finishes the video and thinks, “That was nice, but I already knew this information,” you’ve just missed a big opportunity. Playing your favorite violin piece is nice, but if you’ve been in the orchestra for three years, that skill is not exactly new information. So either share something that hasn’t been mentioned at all on the application, or use the video to shed visual light on a new aspect of something already mentioned. Example: if you worked at a deli in high school, you don’t need to provide video evidence in the form of, “Here’s the deli where I work.” But if the job gave you a real appreciation for the art of making a proper pastrami on rye—and you haven’t explained that in any of your essays—that is brand new information to the viewer.

4. Sound like you.
If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re quirky, be quirky. If you’re a nerd, let the nerdiness fly. This video is meant to capture you, not to make a commercial featuring a performer playing a part. So don’t say or do anything that feels like acting. Your video should not require a script or intensive rehearsal. Sure, don’t ramble with no end in sight—you should know what you want to talk about when the camera rolls. But the more rehearsed, polished, or otherwise unnatural you appear, the less effective your video will be. And if you’re really not comfortable with the idea of being on a video at all, don’t make one! Colleges mean it when they say that something is optional, and there is no hidden penalty for opting out, especially if you’re uncomfortable with the medium altogether.

5. A bonus tip: Relax.
As long as your video isn’t blatantly offensive or cause for concern over your safety (or the safety of your future college peers), it’s not likely the video alone will torpedo your admissions chances. It’s also equally unlikely that a video alone will shift the admissions tide if the readers were already leaning towards a denial. So let yourself off the hook. Don’t let the video be yet another source of stress where you feel like you’re under the application microscope. If you like the idea of recording something, go record the video that makes you happy and proud to share. Colleges are in the business of evaluating, understanding, and getting to know 17-year-olds. A video that works for you is one that will probably work for them, too.

Reasonable expectations

Richard Thaler is a professor of behavioral economics who won the Nobel Prize in 2017 for his work to prove that people are predictably irrational and make choices counter to economic sense. On the latest episode of the Freakonomics podcast, he spoke about whether winning the Nobel has made him noticeably happier.

“… I absolutely don’t want to sound like a sore winner or an ungrateful winner. I’m saying that most of the people who win were already pretty successful people with pretty good lives. And there’s what psychologists call a ceiling effect. So I had a pretty happy life, as you know, I have a nice wife and I have kids I love. And yes, this made me happy. And it was very gratifying. But you have this image that you’re going to be on cloud nine. And then there is life, you still get flat tires even if you have a Nobel Prize. You still have leaks at home that nobody seems to be able to fix. So they need to fix that and say that if you get a Nobel Prize, nothing can leak in your house.”

Does the Nobel Prize change your life? Sure. But your life is still your life, and the Nobel isn’t going to make it perfect.

I think that’s analogous to the process of attending highly selective colleges.

Too many applicants think that if they can just get into Georgetown or Stanford or Penn their lives will be complete and that each day will be better than the one before it. College can absolutely be a life-changing experience at the right school, selective or not. But no college is perfect just as no life is perfect.

Even if you are lucky and deserving enough to get accepted to your dream school, you’ll have good days and bad days, successes and failures. There will be periods when you feel you’ve found home and periods when you may wish you could return to what used to be home. You’ll make friends that will be in your life forever and friends who let you down. You’ll go on good dates and bad dates, take classes you can’t wait to attend each day and others you can’t wait to end. College is representative of life that way. Ups and downs, highs and lows. The right college just stacks the deck a bit to give you what should be a lot more good days than bad.

So don’t put so much pressure on yourself or on whatever you believe is your dream college. Instead, work hard and commit to things you enjoy. Find colleges that appreciate you for exactly who you are. And if you believe some highly selective colleges fit you, put your very best application foot forward and take your shot. But keep your expectations of the outcomes—of both applying and potentially attending—reasonable.

Good intentions + earnest effort

I love the juxtaposition of mistakes and reassurance in Brennan Barnard’s latest piece, “Parenting The College Applicant As An Admission Dean.” First, we learn the variety of mistakes that even deans of admission have made with their own children during their families’ college processes. Had the article stopped there (and I’ve seen others like this in the past that did just that), I could see this being a demoralizing message for parents. If the deans of admission can’t even get it right when their own kids are applying to college, how the heck are the rest of us supposed to have any shot at emerging unscathed?

But then the article shifts to the advice portion, which includes such reassuring messages as:

“Chill, it’s going to be fine.”

“It can be a wonderful experience and some of my best conversations with my boys were on road trips to colleges.”

“Let your child pick for themselves and make them do the process on their own.”

“You will survive, your child will be admitted to a fine institution, and if you and your kids keep the appropriate mindset throughout the year, you all will come away from this experience a little wiser, with a few more miles on your odometer, a few more grey hairs, but also with new found respect for your sons’ and daughters’ skills for navigating these waters—with maturity, with sensibility, with thoughtfulness, with perspective and hopefully a wee bit of laughter.”

The overarching message? The college admissions process is like so many other elements of parenting—there is no manual, no single prescribed method that works for every family. But we’d all do well to balance appropriate engagement with enough perspective to remember that life is about more than grades, test scores, and which colleges say yes.

As all parents learn watching their kids growing up, good intentions and earnest effort are everything, for them and for us.

Student jobs and financial aid eligibility

Families who become savvy about the college financial aid process will sometimes ask how their high school student’s summer job will affect their financial aid eligibly. The FAFSA, the form colleges use to determine how much a family can afford to pay for one year of college, measures the income and assets of both the parent and the student. A student who’s diligently worked and earned money will have that income figured into the FAFSA’s calculations. A particularly earnest student who saved any of that money has now created an asset on hand. When crunched through the financial aid formulas, that income and assets can reduce the family’s demonstrated need for financial aid. So a student who’s never had a job could technically qualify for more aid than the student who spent the last three summers bagging groceries.

But there’s good news for good workers. The FAFSA has protections in place for student earnings—a student can currently earn up to $6,570 in one year before any of it is counted as income on the FAFSA. So that summer job lifeguarding isn’t likely to sink your financial aid ship.

For high school students who work enough hours out of desire or necessity to earn more than that amount, it would be silly to reduce your hours (or to quit your job) to earn less money and ostensibly protect your financial aid. Having cash on hand is never a bad situation. But there’s something you can do to mitigate the potential negative impact on your financial aid eligibility—save some of the money in a 529 plan.

A 529 college savings plan allows families to keep money in the student’s name, but to report that money as a parent asset on the FAFSA. That’s a crucial difference as while the FAFSA assesses student assets at around 20 percent, it assesses the parent assets at 5 percent. Saving $1,000 in your own name reduces your financial aid eligibility by $200. But saving that money in a 529 plan only reduces your eligibility by around $50.

There are a lot of benefits for high school students holding regular jobs—making money, earning work experience, and even impressing colleges. So don’t back off from your work opportunities just to protect your aid. But do be aware of how much you’re earning. And remember that no matter how much or how little you earn, saving some of that money in a 529 plan is a smart way to invest in yourself and to protect your eligibility for aid.

Stage your own revolution

I’ll never forget how my former class of 2004 student Chase answered our Collegewise “essay brainstorming” question about something he’d like to do but hadn’t done yet.

“I would really like to go on a date with Britney Spears. I haven’t done it yet because I don’t think she’d be interested in dating an average looking middle-class kid from Irvine, California.”

It was funny and self-deprecating and sounded just like him. In fact, the answer ended up being the perfect response to one application’s short-answer question. But there’s also something to learn here about the way admissions work at selective colleges.

The truth is that Chase was right. He and other guys like him probably had no shot at dating Britney Spears, not because she was inherently superior to him or anyone else, but because of her fame. To have any chance at all at forging a romance with an entertainment celebrity means running in their circles and probably becoming at least semi-rich-and-famous yourself. You don’t need to do those things to find love. But you’ll need to do them to find love with Britney Spears. The choice is yours to make if Britney is worth the effort or if a non-famous love connection will bring you just as much happiness.

That’s a good way to view the admissions process at the more selective colleges.

The more famous and selective the college, the more demands placed on you to have a shot at admission. Top grades in AP classes, high test scores, achievement outside of the classroom—fair or not, that’s what you need to get in. And if it’s all in pursuit of a short list of dream colleges, there’s likely no guarantee it will work.

But like the prospect of connecting with someone famous, you get to make the decision—is it worth it? Is that short list of dream colleges worth the time, work, and sacrifice to even have a chance at getting accepted? Or do you believe you can be just as happy and successful with a college (or a person) that doesn’t grace the covers of the famous magazines?

Brennan Bernard’s recent Forbes piece correctly points out the tyranny of “shoulds” that dominate the college admissions process, as in, “You should study more for standardized tests,” “You should take more AP courses,” “You should secure a formal leadership position,” etc., etc., etc. And he recommends students start their own revolution against the shoulds—boycott the ACT and SAT and put an end to high stakes testing, stage a sit-in against rankings at US News & World Report headquarters, refuse to play a single sport beyond its 12-week season, etc.

If you want to change the system, it’s hard to argue with that tactic. When a million college applicants refuse to take the SAT or ACT and to instead apply only to test-optional colleges, it would shake the testing companies to their core.

But you could also stage your own personal revolution in the most natural, risk-free way possible. It sounds like this:

“I’ll do my best in school without losing sleep or sanity. I’ll choose activities that I like. I’ll be a good person, friend, and citizen. I’ll enjoy being a kid but also be engaged in planning my future. I’ll apply to colleges that fit me, will accept me, and that I can afford without taking on unreasonable debt. And I’ll make the most of what’s available to me while I’m there.”

Even an average student who embraces that revolution will have dozens or even hundreds of realistic colleges from which to choose. You didn’t change the system. You just opted into a different one than most of your stressed friends are immersed in.

You and your family get to make the choice. Opt in to the admissions race and the various literal and figurative price to pay. Or opt out. Focus more on becoming the best version of yourself and have faith that the right colleges will welcome you.

You would not be settling for an inferior college any more than you would be eventually settling to find love with someone who wasn’t famous. If you’re tired of the shoulds, it might be time to stage your own revolution.

When their success is also your success

Twenty-five-year-old Sam Kendricks is one of the world’s best pole vaulters, winning a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics and five consecutive national titles. But what really makes him stand out is that as much as he wants to win, he cares so much about his sport that he’ll frequently share tips and advice with his competition, even during a meet.

As related in this recent New York Times piece:

“Kendricks could be mistaken for a coach rather than competitor by the way he interacts with opponents. During a recent meet in the Czech Republic, he gave tips to Ivan Horvat of Croatia and Shawn Barber of Canada. He encouraged his American teammate Scott Houston and cheered on his friendly rival Wojciekowski as the duo battled for the highest bar.”

While writing this blog every day for almost nine years, I’ve noticed a few emerging trends in both college admissions and the world outside of it, and one of the most consistent is how frequently the success of one person is tied to their willingness and ability to help those around them be successful, too.

I don’t necessarily expect a basketball player to help an opponent with their free throw form in the middle of a tight game. But whether you like golf or graphic design, debate or drama, timpani or tae kwon do, one of the most effective ways to honor your craft and to make an impact is to help others who are interested share the same joy and success.

I can’t think of a college that wouldn’t be impressed by an applicant who revealed that while they didn’t win the league pole vaulting championship, they helped the competitor who did.

The success is still yours when you help others achieve it.

Are you leading from the bench?

As she entered her final World Cup run, US soccer legend Abby Wambach had scored more goals than any player—female or male–in soccer history. She was a perennial force who seemed to always come up with a goal when the team needed it most. But before the tournament began, Wambach, a soccer icon who’d captained the US National Team to two Olympic gold medals, learned that she would no longer be a starter. Wambach was in the twilight of her career, and Team USA had an emerging force of promising young stars who were ready for their place on the pitch. So Wambach assumed a role that only a true leader would embrace.

As she described in her 2018 commencement address at Barnard College:

“You’re allowed to be disappointed when it feels like life’s benched you. What you aren’t allowed to do is miss your opportunity to lead from the bench. During that last World Cup, my teammates told me that my presence, my support, my vocal and relentless belief in them from the bench, is what gave them the confidence they needed to win us that championship… If you’re not a leader on the bench, then don’t call yourself a leader on the field. You’re either a leader everywhere or nowhere.”

The most vital people in any team or organization don’t need a title to make an impact. They don’t withhold their best effort until the best opportunity is presented to them. They find a way to do great work no matter what role they’re asked to play.

If you want to show colleges real leadership ability, show them what you can do when you haven’t been given the perfect role. Prove that you can lead from the bench and they’ll know you can lead from just about anywhere.

Let them do and decide

In business, when the people doing the work are also making the decisions, good things happen. And the same is true for college admissions.

Parents, the more you can let your kids make the decisions and do the work in their own college process, the better the results will be.

Private counselors: Are you worth the wait?

Super chef David Chang runs Momofuku, a group of 13 worldwide restaurants, as well as a bakery and a bar. In the early stages of his first restaurant, he created a pork bun dish that was such a hit with diners, the word spread and people began lining up to get inside—just to get a taste. That’s when Chang found his personal yardstick for a dish—is it good enough to travel downtown and wait in line for? You can read the entire story here.

Chang admits that you can’t always predict which dish will be the hit. In fact, some dishes he’s spent months perfecting never generated a line at the restaurant. Others he whipped up in just fifteen minutes proved worth the necessary wait. The customer decides what’s line-worthy. But the chef decides what the goal is.

If you’re a private counselor wondering how to find more clients, instead of redesigning your website or buying ads or spamming lists in the hopes that people will find you, think about how you can be good enough to get people to drive across town to wait in line for. If you’re that good, you won’t have a marketing problem. Your next customer will be outside waiting in line.

Remember, you don’t have to be line-worthy to everyone in town (Chang’s pork buns weren’t worth waiting in line for if you didn’t eat pork). Maybe people drive across town to see you because you’re the person whose interactions make their C student excited about college? Maybe you get better essays out of kids than anyone else nearby? Maybe you know more about colleges where homeschooled kids can flourish than any local competitors do? The fastest way to become the best in the world is to make the world smaller.

Once you can offer what they’ll drive across town and stand in line to get, you can stop worrying about finding more clients and start proving to those already in line why you’re worth the wait.