Start a college visit club

Katie and I have visited 18 colleges between the two of us in the last week–Stevens, Sarah Lawrence, Fordham, Villanova, Princeton, Penn, Duke, Elon, University of Puget Sound and UNC Chapel Hill (for Katie); University of Minnesota, Macalester, Carleton, St. Olaf, Grinnell, Cornell College (the one in Iowa), UW Madison and Marquette (for me).  We didn't travel just to see the schools; she was training counselors in our New York office and I was speaking at conferences.  But whenever the Collegewise counselors find ourselves someplace with colleges nearby, we make a quick visit, take a few photos and share our impressions with the rest of the group when we get back. 

No one counselor could ever visit all of the over 2000 colleges.  But when we collaborate like this, it helps us learn more about schools from each other.  I can learn a little bit about a college I've never seen or had a student apply to just by calling one of our counselors who visited it while taking a vacation, or celebrating Thanksgiving with her family, or attending a conference. 

I think students should do the same thing.  Enter the “College Visit” club.

Imagine 20 members at your school joined a club and agreed that for the next year, each member would commit to visiting five colleges.  Each could plan trips to colleges they like, or see schools when they travel for other reasons (like visiting relatives for Thanksgiving), or do a combination of both. The visits don’t necessarily need to be long and involved.  You can take the tour, or you can just walk around, smell the air, soak in the atmosphere and take a few photos.  Maybe do a quick write up on each school to record your first impressions so you don’t forget. 

Then once or twice a quarter, the group could meet to share your college feedback, trade photos and write ups, and maybe answer questions about each of your visits.  If 20 members each visited five schools in a year, think how many first-hand reports about colleges you could share between students you know and trust. 

Sure, hearing about a college from a friend is not the same as visiting it yourself. But there are far too many colleges to see all of them.  And I'd rather hear a friend's impressions than rely on a college's website (which is designed to sell me) or a write-up in a college guidebook (written by someone who doesn’t know me at all). 

Bonus tip #1:  Share all your write-ups and photos in a blog and tell everyone at school about them.  Use the blog to grow the club.  Can you imagine how impressed a college would be if you told them that you started the college visit club and oversaw its growth into the largest club at school, a club that’s now posted write-ups and photos of over 100 colleges to a blog that now gets over 5,000 unique visitors a month (not just from your school, but from all over the world)?  It wouldn't be that hard. It would help a lot of students.  And I'll bet people would really enjoy it.  Somebody should do it.

Bonus tip #2—parents, if your kids won't start the club, start the parent version with 4-5 other like-minded parents.  Then bring your kids along for the visits.

Have to vs. want to

Arun is spending this weekend at a training in Miami with College Summit, a non-profit organization that helps under-resourced students get in to college.  He’s been volunteering there for seven years, not because he has to, but because he loves the work. 

Katie just finished training new counselors in our New York office. Then she hit the road to tour colleges like Princeton, Penn, Villanova, Duke and Sarah Lawrence (where she called us breathless because she was witnessing a student performing an interpretive dance on the lawn—gotta love Sarah Lawrence).  She doesn’t have to do it, but she’s a college geek of the highest order.  She loves learning about schools and seeing them first hand. 

And today, I’m doing a workshop for teachers at Malibu High School about how to help kids with college essays.  It’s not a paid workshop—I’m just sharing our college essay seminar that’s worked so well for us.  I don’t have to be there.  But I enjoy sharing it with teachers who can take it back to their classrooms.    

We’re far from the only professionals who do things outside of our normal work responsibilities not because we have to, but because we want to.  The doctor who’s been practicing for twenty years and still reads every issue of her monthly medical journals, the teacher who refines his lesson plans every year just to see how he can do a better job, and the lawyer who volunteers at a free legal aid center every other Saturday—they don’t do it because they have to.  They do it because they like to learn, contribute, and get even better at what they love to do.

That’s a lot like how happy, fulfilled and successful college applicants approach life in high school.  They take difficult classes because they want to learn alongside the hardest working students.  They volunteer at the soup kitchen because they enjoy spending time helping other people.  They play baseball, take photos for the yearbook, sing in the school musical, enroll in art classes on weekends, play the tuba in the marching band and bake authentic tamales for the Spanish Club meetings not because they have to (or just because they're hoping it will help them get into college), but because they love what they’re doing.

How could you spend more time doing things you want to, not because you have to?

What are you going to do this summer?

Which of the following summer activities would be most impressive to colleges?

A. Attending Harvard summer school
B. Working part time bagging groceries at the local grocery store
C. Taking a cooking class and learning how to make pasta from scratch
D. Attending a summer program in Costa Rica
E. Going to soccer camp

It's a trick question.  They're all equally impressive. 

You don't need to attend an expensive program to please colleges.  You don't have to do something that looks splashy on a resume.  Just keep being a motivated, interesting student.  Show them that you don't turn off your brain or your interests when school lets out.  And here are some suggestions of just how to do that this summer. 

Become more impressive by doing less

Some of the most impressive students become that way because they consciously chose to do less–to focus only on a few things at a time so they can really excel.

Cal Newport's post today tells the story Nicholas A. DiBerardino, a senior at Princeton who was just named a Rhodes Scholar.  According to his bio on the Rhodes Scholar website, Nick is Phi Beta Kappa, a campus leader in student government, and an accomplished composer with many awards for his compositions. He has been a composer in residence at the Brevard Music Center and the European American Musical Alliance in Paris. He founded the Undergraduate Composer Collective at Princeton. While in high school, Nick founded a program in Bridgeport. He plans to do the M.Phil. in music at Oxford.

No question about it–he's overwhelmingly impressive.  How does he do it?  Nick consciously tries to do less, focusing on just one important project at a time so he has as few distractions as possible.  As Cal describes it:


This pattern is common among elite students: they do very little, but do what they do very well."

How stories make your activities stand out

It's hard to make your activities stand out on a college application when you have to list them like this (the numbers are the grades in which the student participated):

Varsity soccer: 11, 12
Key Club: 10-12, President (12)
Spanish Club: 9-12, Treasurer (11)

This student should be proud of his involvement.  But it's not going to make him more noticeable than the hundreds of other students in the pile who have similar lists.  The problem isn't the activities–it's that the lists all start to look the same.

But what if that student used his short essay to talk about how he organized a fundraiser to bring the entire team to a soccer camp over the summer?

What if he mentioned in his interview that under his leadership, the Key Club raised $2,000 to put on a special prom for special ed students to attend?  What if he also pulled up a picture on his phone to show the interviewer the group photo taken at the event?

What if his long essay talked about how 60% of the students at his high school are recent immigrants from Mexico, and how he started a program in the Spanish Club that gave special campus orientations–in Spanish–to new Spanish-speaking students and their families?

He listed his activities just like the colleges asked him to.  But now it's clear that he is not like every other student.  He used the other parts of the application to share stories that showed exactly what kind of impact he makes on campus.  He's left the admissions officers with a snapshot of who he is.

Unless you're going to win an Olympic gold medal or invent a new element on the periodic table, it's hard to do an activity nobody else applying has done.  But you can do things in your activities that make you stand out.  And you can use the application to tell those stories. 

Community service and college admissions

Community service is a tricky subject when it comes to college admissions.  A lot of families are convinced that their student needs to have done it, and if they do, it's going to be a real boost to their student's chances of admission.  But neither of those things are necessarily true. 

Now, I’m not going to be the guy who says kids shouldn’t do community service (we should all be doing something).  But colleges don’t expect that every kid will be out ladling soup at a homeless shelter every weekend.  And there is no penalty imposed on a student who chooses to do other things.  Colleges just want kids to be productive and to pursue their interests.  For some students, that’s doing volunteer work.  For others, it’s soccer or jazz band or a part-time job at The Gap. 

Whatever the activity, focus more on whether or not you're enjoying it than you do on the total number of hours.  If you're going to do community service, do it because you really want to help, not because you're trying to please colleges. 

And never, ever ask a college admissions officer how many community service hours are "enough."  That's a quick way to make a not-so-good impression. 

If an activity isn’t important to you…

…why would it be important to any college?

Don't do any activity just because it "looks good to colleges."  Colleges don't care what you do.  They're more interested in how much you care about what you're doing. 

The value of an activity/accomplishment journal

We see some students (and often their parents) who meticulously record every hour of community service, every award and every academic achievement.  There's value to that, especially given how many college applications will ask you to describe how you've spent your time, and to estimate the number of hours per week and weeks per year that you participated in each activity. 

But even those carefully updated resumes leave out something that lots of colleges want to know about.  How did those activities and accomplishments make you feel?  That's why I think students should keep an activity/accomplishment journal. 

Lots of colleges have essay questions that ask you to describe the activity that had the most meaning for you, or an accomplishment that makes you proud, or a mistake/failure you've experienced and what you've learned from it.  Colleges don't want just factual recitations of the events.  They want to hear how these experiences affected you.  And you'll never be better able to describe those moments than right after they actually happen.

You're never going to be more in touch with the pain of losing a city basketball championship, or the thrill of winning your first student council election, or the pride you felt when your first issue as editor of the school paper was published, than on the days those events took place.  Why not capture how you feel by writing a short paragraph, something just for yourself that you don't have to share with anyone? 

Here's an example of how this could really help you later. 

When you're a senior and a college asks you to describe an achievement that made you proud, you could try to think back three years ago and remember how it felt when you raised your grade in geometry from a D to B+.  You could try to describe how much you struggled in math and why it made you proud that you never gave up.  But it will be hard to recall the details of what it really felt like.     

Or you could look back at a short journal entry you wrote three years ago that read,

"Today I got my geometry test back, and it was the first time in my life that I got an 'A' on a math test.  As soon as I saw that big red "A" with a smiley face next to it that Mrs. Ashlock drew, I actually welled up with tears.  I was seriously worried my football teammates were going to see me cry, but I pulled it together.  It was a good day."

Bam.  You now have a powerful, specific example to include in your essay.

Yet another way to stand out

One of the more popular essay topics colleges now require is some version of, "How will you contribute to our campus community?" The best responses to that question come from students who've already become contributors to their high school campus communities.  Here's one way to do that, and it's a different way to stand out in college admissions.

Use your talent, skill or energy to benefit a campus group that you aren't even a part of.

Sure, it's good to lend your time and resources to the Red Cross club when you're a member, or the basketball team when you're the point guard, or the orchestra when you're the first chair violin.

But what if you made it your goal to get more people to come out and support the cross country team if you weren't actually a member of the team yourself?  Imagine how much the team would appreciate your efforts.  Even better, what if you started an organization whose mission was to support the school events that don't traditionally draw big crowds?  You'd be supporting members of the campus community.  And let's be honest.  Everyone who benefitted would love you for doing it.   

What if, after running a successful fundraiser for your own soccer team, you volunteered to help the football team, or the school newspaper, or the French club do the same thing, even if you weren't a member?  You'd be taking a skill you've learned and using it to make a broader impact on your campus community.  You'd be a selfless hero.

What if you love to write and offered to write an email newsletter for the student counsel, or to write the text for the football team's programs they sell, or snappy bios for the section editors of the school newspaper? 

What's something you can do that other people or organizations could benefit from?  Where could you make a contribution that would be needed and appreciated? 

One of the best ways to show a college how you'll contribute to their campus community is to contribute to your own.  And one of the best ways to contribute to your own is to use your talents and skills with no expectation of anything in return other than the grateful appreciation of the recipients.