Five fruitless college admissions tactics

After helping more than 10,000 students navigate the college admissions process, our counselors have an informed sense of what works and what doesn’t work when helping students get where they want to go. And we’ve noticed that some families spend a disproportionate amount of time focusing on strategies that almost never work. Here are five of the most common.

1. Over-strategizing.
I define “over-strategizing” as spending too much time and energy looking for a way in than actually doing the work it takes to get in. Seeking the one major to apply under that will turn a dream college into a sure thing, relentlessly emailing admissions officers or faculty in the hopes that it will prove you’re interested, submitting lots of additional materials the college didn’t request with your application—all of these actions deflect your efforts away from the very things colleges actually care about. And those are almost always spelled out in the “Admissions” sections of colleges’ websites.

2. Angling to leverage connections.
This is a more specific version of #1, but is so rampant that it deserves its own mention. These families claim that they know someone who ostensibly “has a lot of pull” or is “on the board” (we’ve never seen this mythical board or just exactly who sits on it). But those purported connections often turn out to be an alumnus who is nowhere near influential enough to make a difference. For a connection to be an advantage usually requires that the school’s vital interests would be at stake were the student to be denied admission. If your parents just funded the new film school on campus or your dad just coached the football team to a national championship, your chances of getting in will probably increase substantially. But the fact that your parent’s coworker once went to school there and has offered to write you a letter of recommendation? We’ve never seen a connection like that make an admissions difference.

3. Focusing too much on other students.
The student you complain didn’t deserve to be let into the AP class you were shut out of? The catcher on the softball team you swear gets to start because her family knows the coach? The activity you don’t enjoy but joined because all the other high achievers seem to be doing it? Those are all examples of spending way too much time worrying about what other students are doing. You can’t control what they do, you can only control what you do. And one of my core tenets of college admissions planning is to relentlessly focus on the parts of the process you can control. I know that curved grades, class ranking, tryouts, and auditions all impose a metric that compares you to other students. But driving all your personal decisions in the same manner is a lousy way to direct your high school life, and an ineffective strategy for getting into college.

4. Considering too much information and advice from uninformed sources.
Lots of people who know little or nothing about how to get into college seem to have no problem doling out advice and purported insider information about how to do just that. If you repeatedly indulge those people, if you take their unsolicited information as admissions gospel, you’ll end up with a lot of conflicting recommendations, most or all of which will do nothing to help you get where you want to go. Admissions officers, high school counselors, and qualified private counselors are reliable, informed college admissions sources. Your friends and neighbors usually are not (unless they also fall into one of those aforementioned groups). It’s hard to ignore the often enticing tidbits, but you’ve got better—and more effective—things to do than base your college planning decisions on sources who aren’t actually sharing responsibility for the outcome.

5. Exclusively aiming to please one dream school.
There’s a fine line between aligning your college planning with your goals and obsessing over how to please one school. It’s smart planning to visit the websites of the schools that interest you so you can learn about their course planning recommendations, testing requirements, and elements of a complete application. But if you start asking questions like, “Would Princeton rather that I keep playing the clarinet, or join the volleyball team?” you’ve moved from smart college planning to obsessive efforts to please. There is no one, prescribed, correct path of admission to most colleges. In fact, all but the most specialized schools come right out and tell you that they are looking for a freshman class comprised of a variety of backgrounds, interests, and experiences. So don’t search for that one way into your dream school. Planning without a singular obsession on one school won’t just give you even more college options—it will likely improve your chances of admission at the school you resisted the urge to obsess over.

Five steps to easing college stress in your house

The stress surrounding the college admissions process can worm its way into areas of your life where it has no business. That’s one reason I’ve heard so many families comment that college talk has ruined their dinner table conversations.

Parents, here are five deceptively simple things you can start doing this week that will ease the college stress in your house. None of these encourage families to disengage from their kids’ futures. They’re simply meant to put college stress in the proper perspective–and place.

1. Make a point of recognizing and verbally acknowledging something about them you’re proud of that has absolutely nothing to do with getting into college.

2. Own up to at least one mistake or failure of your own.
It’s good for kids to know that Mom and Dad are human and that even you don’t get everything right all the time.

3. Move one conversation a day away from tests, grades, or other college admissions-related factors and talk about something else instead, like current events, family vacation plans, news from relatives, etc.

4. Replace the temptation to intervene, fix, or otherwise correct with the words, “I trust you, but let me know if I can help.”

5. Openly appreciate what’s really important.
Family, health, and happiness are all more important than any grade, test score, or admissions decision.

Juniors, what do those emails from colleges mean?

If you ever needed an example of just how much colleges are driven to market themselves in the hopes of driving up their application volume, look no further than “search letters” (a term coined before colleges upgraded to email marketing). If you’re a junior who took the PSAT and you checked the box indicating that you’d like to receive communication from colleges that might fit you, you’re probably already seeing what I mean.

From schools that you may never have heard of to those that are at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it seems that colleges across the country are employing direct marketing experts to reach out and generate interest from students. And it’s almost impossible for even the most rational student not to take those communications as a sign that they have an admissions advantage, especially when some colleges come right out and say things akin to, “You’re exactly the type of student we’re looking for.” But that messaging, especially when it comes from schools that turn away more applicants than they admit, is often misleading.

Benjamin Shapiro, a junior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City who is living this reality right now, penned this piece in the NY Post, “How colleges spam high school students at the worst possible time,” which explains how it feels to receive these messages.

And Marilee Jones, the former dean of admission at MIT, explains the truth about search letters in this post on her blog.

Try moderation?

Most things considered good for you can be done in moderation, excess, or not at all.

Doctors will tell you that regular exercise will lengthen your life, while spending the majority of your time on the couch will shorten it. But most would also agree that running a marathon once a week is best reserved for elite athletes. Moderation is the healthy approach for the masses.

Eating plenty of vegetables and limiting your sugar intake is a much better diet than subsisting on cheeseburgers and soda alone. Yet all but the most stringently health-conscious can say yes to the occasional indulgence with no adverse long-term effects.

It seems that in many college-going communities, excess is the most commonly chosen path. Take every AP class. Get tutors for every subject. Raise your GPA. Mind your class rank. More test prep equals higher scores. Garner accolades. Add community service and leadership on your resume. Find a life-changing story that’s essay-worthy. Work your connections. Aim for the most prestigious colleges. Push, push, push. Do whatever it takes. Just. Get. In.

Some families openly acknowledge that they hate that approach, but feel compelled to adopt it anyway for fear their kids will be “left behind.” If everyone around them is playing the game for keeps, it feels reckless not to suit up and compete.

Do you feel like your college planning could use some moderation? If any of this sounds familiar or in some way resonates with your family, here are a few questions and considerations to think about as you navigate the college process.

1. There is no legislated mandate about how to approach the process, even if you may feel there’s an unstated one. Every family should decide for themselves not just how much emphasis they want to place on getting into a good college, but also just exactly what a “good” college is. And both of those decisions should be more about the student than the parents, social pressures, or college rankings.

2. What does “left behind” actually look like in practice? Most kids who apply to highly selective colleges don’t get in (that’s what makes those schools highly selective—they turn away almost everyone who applies). It’s hard to form a fact-based argument that those who did the work but got denied by their dream schools are now somehow behind those who did get the coveted offers of admission.

3. Have you seen evidence of B or even C students receiving a lifetime personal or professional demotion because of grades or test scores they earned when they were teenagers? Grave or catastrophic mistakes in high school can certainly be life-altering. But one C in biology just won’t be.

You have college planning options, and they aren’t limited to excess or not-at-all. In fact, moderation just might be the perfect prescription.

Take the most challenging courses in the subjects you love, and just do your best in the others. Prep a little for your standardized tests, take them once or twice, and move on. Choose activities you legitimately enjoy and will look forward to every day. Worry less about fixing your weaknesses and spend more time playing to your natural strengths. Learn things that interest you, treat people right, be a good person, and engage in your planning for your future.

Guess what? Most students who follow that plan will find that there are literally hundreds of colleges ready to accept them, schools that might not top the US News rankings, but hey, you were taking the moderate approach anyway.

Even better, more data than ever shows that if you lean into all the opportunities for learning and growth that college will provide you, you’ll be just as likely to forge a happy and successful life as those who took their college planning to excessive lengths, no matter what college’s name ends up on your diploma.

It’s not for me to decide what approach your family takes. But please remember that it is, in fact, a choice–one you make with your actions and your words as your kids progress through high school.

And if you feel the choice you’ve made doesn’t work, or maybe wasn’t actually your choice at all, maybe it’s time to give moderation a try?

Acting as your own manager

High school students may not be intrigued by the headline “Why People Really Quit Their Jobs.” But this article reveals that adults frequently quit their place of work when their jobs aren’t enjoyable, their strengths aren’t being used, or they just aren’t growing in the form of learning, mastery, career progress, etc. And it shares advice for managers to help rectify those ills. Students can use those findings not just to evaluate whether they’re getting enough back from their chosen activities, but also to craft the kind of school and activity life that will keep them happy, engaged, and excited about college. And best of all, students can act as their own managers and embrace just about all of the recommendations.

Friend, manager, or agent?

When someone shares a struggle, complaint, or frustration, we make the choice whether to respond like a friend, a manager, or an agent.

A good friend is there to listen without judgment. A friend says, “That sounds really frustrating. I’m so sorry.”

A good manager is there to help find, but not necessarily produce, an appropriate solution. A manager says, “I understand. Let’s talk about how I might be able to help you work through or around this.”

And a good agent is there to make the problem go away so her star can just be a star. An agent says, “Don’t worry about a thing—I’ll take care of it.”

So parents, which role are you supposed to play when your teen comes to you with something they’re facing?

I don’t actually have a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. But I will say that both the friend and manager roles encourage progress. The friend lets the person get it all out and gives them a chance to look at their own situation with a calm perspective. A manager offers an opportunity to find a solution without actually serving up the solution itself. People come away from those interactions changed in some way. And they’ve added some learning or growth to their emotional and intellectual bank account they can use to inform them in the future.

But while an agent who makes the problem go away has certainly done her job, she’s also ensured that her star will come right back to her the next time a problem arises. No learning or growth, just increased dependence.

That’s great for the agent, but not so great for the parent. And it’s even worse for the teen.

Good parents inevitably end up playing all three roles at different stages and in different situations. But a good approach might be to do two things:

1. Acknowledge that there are three different roles to be played.
2. When in doubt, start as a friend, if for no other reason than to delay judgment and to invite further conversation.

If the conversation continues and your teen doesn’t make it clear what role they’re inviting you to play, don’t be afraid to just ask them if they’re looking for your help, the chance to just talk, or a little of both.

If nothing else, you’ll create a space where they’re more likely to come back to you the next time, no matter which role they’re seeking when it happens.

Progress reporting

I began writing today’s blog post about the article “When did being an average student become a bad thing?” “Average” is often a pejorative term in our culture, nowhere more so than for college-bound high school students. It was shaping up to be a reassuring reminder that we don’t need our kids relentlessly achieving in all areas, all the time. Plenty of successful people in a variety of disciplines report being “average” students in high school. Who they are at 16 isn’t who they’ll be for life. Grades and test scores don’t mean that much in the long run. Let’s all try to relax a little bit.

And then the email from my son’s school arrived with the subject line, “Winter Progress Report.”

I don’t usually keep email open while I write (this was a good reminder why). But as soon as I saw those words, “progress report,” I abandoned the blog writing and anxiously opened the email. There’s a strange sense of foreboding around a formal document describing your child’s “progress.” What if he isn’t progressing like he should be? What if he’s behind? How will we get him caught up?

My son is three. He’s in preschool.

That preemptive worry didn’t last long. Of course, the progress report contained lots of descriptions like, “He enjoys working with glue, tape, and rubber stamps as he plays at the art table,” and “He is proud of his physical accomplishments, such as sliding down the pole.” That’s appropriate for a preschooler. We don’t need him doing long division or preparing for the SAT (oh, the horror). But that fleeting moment of anxiety that came when opening a progress report, especially while encouraging other parents to resist over-focusing on their kids’ achievements relative to other kids, reminded me what this must be like as our kids get older.

Sure, there are some very real indicators a teacher or school could share with a parent that would in fact be cause for concern. Difficulties learning or socializing, emotional troubles, any real challenge for which the kid—not the parent or the report card—would benefit from addressing are worth taking seriously.

But most grades, test scores, and other metrics so common in school are imperfect, incomplete snapshots of our kids. Yes, as parents, we should pay attention to them. We should talk with our kids about them, especially as a way to celebrate and encourage strengths rather than polishing perceived weaknesses. But we must remember that most of those measurements, who’s ahead, who’s behind, and who’s average, are arbitrary in retrospect and carry little to no weight in the future.

I acknowledged the irony of my progress report email. Then I smiled, imagined my kid “playing fire fighters and construction” (yep—that’s in the progress report), and got back to work. I hope we can all do something similar the next time a progress report arrives.

Do less and obsess

Morten Hansen, management professor at UC Berkeley, just released his new book, Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve MoreThis clip of his interview with Dan Pink is just one minute long, but he shares one of the vital secrets he writes about in the book—top performers “do less and obsess.” They pick 2-3 things that matter most and hyper-focus on them. Interestingly, this is also one of the central hypotheses of study skills author Cal Newport’s book How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out).

Most high school students don’t have the luxury of picking just one thing to obsess about. But there’s a good chance you could do less. If you’ve got activities that aren’t paying you back with fun or learning, if you’re sprinting from commitment to commitment with no real time to dive in and make a real impact, if your description of your life begins and ends with “busy,” it’s probably time to make some room in your life to obsess about the things that matter most to you. And the first step towards this healthy obsession is to do less.

You can learn more on Hansen’s website about the book and about his work.