Make it about your audience

Whether you’re selling, giving a presentation, or applying to college, if you want to hold your audience’s attention, make your presentation less about you and more about them. 

I signed up for a new service through my bank that required me to attend a one-hour training session delivered over the phone today.  Although I was the only attendee, the instructor just plodded through every section of his presentation exactly as planned.  At least a half dozen times, he said, “Now, Kevin, I realize you’re not signed up for this next part of the service, but let me just go over a few details about it.”  Much of the presentation had absolutely nothing to do with me or how I’ll use the service.  The instructor was focused on just giving his presentation, instead of focusing on what I wanted to learn.    

Private counselors, when you’re meeting with a potential client, don’t start with a long description of your services.  Find out more about them, what they’re looking for, and what kind of help they think they need.  Then share whatever parts of your service might pertain to them.

Admissions officers, if you’re doing a presentation at a high school and you only have a few attendees, take advantage of the chance to personalize the talk. Ask your audience members a few questions about themselves and what made them come to see you today.  Make the presentation less about plodding through what you had planned and more about helping them make good decisions.    

Students, when your college interviewer asks you a question, give an honest answer, not one that just wedges in a list of your most impressive accomplishments.  

There's nothing wrong with planning what you'd like to communicate.  But if your default is to forge ahead with whatever’s on your brochure, PowerPoint slides, or resume no matter who's in the audience, you’re making it more about you and less about them.

Cloning is still for sheep

A couple pieces of great advice I came across on these colleges' websites today:

NewQuotation

When making curriculum choices, always seek out courses that will enrich and challenge you, rather than thinking about how they will look to a college application reader—every college reads applications differently, so it’s difficult to predict what will look “good” to every college.

University of Chicago


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Our hope is that your curriculum will inspire you to develop your intellectual passions, not suffer from unnecessary stress. The students who thrive at Stanford are those who are genuinely excited about learning, not necessarily those who take every single AP, Honors, or Accelerated class just because it has that name.

Stanford


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Some applicants struggle to turn themselves into clones of the "ideal" MIT student – you know, the one who gets triple 800s on the SAT. Fortunately, cloning is still for sheep. What we really want to see on your application is you being you – pursuing the things you love, growing, changing, taking risks, learning from your mistakes, all in your own distinctive way. College is not a costume party; you're not supposed to come dressed as someone else. Instead, college is an intense, irreplaceable four-year opportunity to become more yourself than you've ever been. What you need to show us is that you're ready to try.

MIT


NewQuotation

This process of preparing for college can be equal parts fun and frustration.  Try to focus on the former.

Tufts

How to get into Stanford with Bs on your transcript

I can't believe I'd never found Cal Newport's blog until yesterday. 

He's a Phi Beta Kappa grad from Dartmouth who also got a PhD in electrical engineering from MIT in 2009.  And he's the author of a new book, How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out

But the real reason I was so happy to find his work is that he's all about showing students:

  • How to live a low-stress, under-scheduled, relaxed high school lives yet still do phenomenally well in college admissions. 
  • How you can get into great colleges and have a successful life by simply doing fewer things, doing them better, and knowing why you're doing them
  • Why it's more important in college admissions that you be interesting than it is for you to be impressive.

And even if you're one of those students who has your heart set on a
highly selective college, Cal's techniques can work for you, too. For starters, check out his post, How to Get Into Stanford with Bs on your transcript.

Safety vs. risk

A lot of the best ways to get into college today are counterintuitive.  What feels safe is risky.  And what feels risky is often the surest way to get in.

The riskiest way to write a college essay is to try and write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear.  You'll end up writing the same thing every other applicant writes.  It's safer to just relax and tell a story that sounds like you.

The riskiest way to have a college interview is to rehearse what you think are the right answers.  You'll end up sounding fake and rehearsed.  Far safer to be yourself and just enjoy the conversation.  

The riskiest way to spend your time outside of class is to do any activity because you believe it "looks good" to colleges.  You'll end up doing things you don't love, and when colleges look for evidence of your passion, you won't be able to show it to them.  It's far safer to follow your interests, whatever they are, whether it's community service, leadership, stamp collecting, karate, or your part time job at McDonald's.   

Picking the right colleges can be counterintuitive, too.

Marketing blogger Seth Godin recently wrote a post on his blog about peoples' reluctance to pay attention to data when it is counterintuitive. Here's one of the many examples he referenced:

"The data shows that famous colleges underperform many cheaper, friendlier, smaller colleges. How much is your neighbor's envy worth?" 

Most people don't believe that. They believe that highly selective
colleges offer better educations, produce more successful graduates,
and provide a path to upward mobility that less selective colleges
simply can't match.  Nobody's been able to produce data to prove those
things, but people believe them anyway.  And they believe them because to pick colleges any other way feels risky.

Colleges don't come with any guarantees.  No college promises that
you'll be smarter, happier, richer or more successful when you
graduate.   And yet you're going to spend four years and a lot of money
(up to $150,000 at some schools) at a four-year college that you
can't really test drive ahead of time.  That's scary.  It's scary for a
student to imagine that she might not like her college.  It's scary for
a parent to imagine that a college might fail to give her son every
advantage as he starts his post-college adult life.

So families turn to things like college rankings and name-brand cachet.  They look to the most selective schools based on the belief that if they're hard to get into, they must be good schools.  It's virtually impossible to measure the quality of a college, but the fact that a school is famous brings some sense of security to a lot of families.  "If
it's not going to come with a guarantee, at least my kid will have a
degree from an Ivy League school."   

But the truth is that colleges–even the famous ones–don't make students successful; students have to do that for themselves.

What you do in college is much, much more important than the name of the college you attend is.  You–your work ethic, curiosity, skills, self-confidence, initiative and desire to learn, are what will make you successful.

Do you want to be happy and successful after college?  Do you want your kids to look back on four years of college as the most fulfilling, maturing and outright joyous times in their lives?  If you do, you've got to do something counterintuitive–stop obsessing over how you're going to get into the most selective colleges, and start obsessing on finding the schools that are right for you.  Reject the idea that name brand is important and embrace the idea that you don't have to go to a famous college.  Be who you want to be in high school, not some contrived version of what you think colleges want you to be. 

It's not easy.  It feels risky.  But it's absolutely the safest thing you could do.

Tips for Stanford University applicants: you need a little panache

Today, I'm offering up advice for our 30th and final college of "30 Colleges, 30 Collegewise Guides to Getting In."  And I want to end strong.  I want to go out with some flair.   A little verve, if you will.  So let me ask you this.

Have you ever seen the Stanford band perform? 

If you have, you remember them.  It's hard to forget a band that sometimes performs with their collective pants down.  I wouldn't go as far as to suggest that they are representative of the entire student body at Stanford University, but they are an extreme example of something on which Stanford prides itself–it's a school filled with a lot of really smart people who are anything but boring.  They've got some panache.

Stanford's supplement to the Common Application is evidence of this.  You've got the opportunity to talk about what you find intellectually exciting.  That's for your smart side. But you've also got the chance to be playful and have a little fun.  That's where your personality comes in.  Here are some tips to help you do both.

Profile Questions

Please respond to the following questions so we can get to know you better. Respond in two lines or less, and do not feel compelled to answer using complete sentences.

The more you agonize over what's going to sound good, the more likely you are to write something that sounds like you're trying too hard, something that sounds the same as everybody else.  And that's not going to get you anywhere in an applicant pool like Stanford sees.

Here's an example of an applicant who's trying too hard:

Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or musical artists.

Brave New World, Tale of Two Cities, Shakespeare, the dictionary, The Godfather

What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy?

The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek, various literary magazines, cnn.com.

What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?

Ending world hunger

How did you spend your last two summers?

I enrolled in a calculus course at my local community college and volunteered for over 150 hours at my local hospital. 

What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?

The signing of the Declaration of Independence

What five words best describe you?

Diligent, determined, focused, compassionate, trustworthy

I need to be clear here.  There is nothing inherently wrong with these answers.  But he doesn't have one single example of anything from his life that isn't educational and serious.  Do you know anyone who's like that about everything?  These answers have no personality at all.  No panache.  

What if this same applicant loosened up just a little bit and told the truth.  Notice how not all the responses change, but now he just seems more likeable and real.

Name your favorite books, authors, films, and/or musical artists.

Brave New World, Freakonomics, Superbad, Jay-Z, the occasional country music artist, and I've been known to read the dictionary from time to time. 

What newspapers, magazines, and/or websites do you enjoy?

New York Times, Newsweek, Facebook, perezhilton.com, textsfromlastnight.com

What is the most significant challenge that society faces today?

Closing the widening gap between those with money and those who are impoverished.

How did you spend your last two summers?

Took calculus 2C at my local community college, volunteered at the local hospital, worked at In-N-Out Burger, tanned/burned, read while tanning/burning

What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?

The Beatles' last concert on the rooftop of Abby Road

What five words best describe you?

Pale, quirky, mathematical, self-effacing, sarcastic

Same applicant–and many of the same responses.  But doesn't he just seem more interesting and likeable now?  These responses aren't inherently better (or worse) than those in the first example.  But the fact that they just seem more honest makes this kid more likeable. 

Here's a good way to think about this.  For every answer you list that's less than 100% truthful, or anything you list that is technically true but not as true as something else that you're hesitant to list for fear it won't be as impressive, pretend that Stanford is going deduct 40 points from your SAT score (the horror!). 

Don't overthink these.  Just be yourself and tell the truth.

Short essays

Here are the directions for the short-answers, followed by some tips for each. 

In addition to your Common Application essay, please respond to the following three questions. Your responses must be at least 250 words but should not exceed the space provided.

Stanford students are widely known to possess a sense of intellectual vitality. Tell us about an idea or an experience you have had that you find intellectually engaging.

I'm going to be honest and tell you something that might not seem that nice; this question exposes the kids who don't have the intellectual depth to really succeed and be happy at a place like Stanford.  None of the students we've ever worked with who got into Stanford struggled with this question.  They didn't look at us and ask, "What should I say?"  They had an immediate answer about something that genuinely interested them, something that showed their intellectual curiosity and love of learning.  They didn't write, "I like math because there's always a right answer" or "history is so interesting, which is why I watch the History Channel."  I know that seems snarky to put it that way, but it's the truth. 

The truth is that every kid with perfect grades and test scores is obviously smart, but not all of them are necessarily intellectuals.  Intellectuals enjoy learning.  They're inherently curious.  They read, discuss and learn on their own, without concern for how or if those activities will help them get into a selective college.  They're motivated more by their curiosity and interest in learning, not by a sense of competition.  Those insatiable learners are what Stanford's looking for here.

So for this prompt, think about a subject that fascinates you, something you enjoy wrapping your mind around, something for which you'd be excited to meet and talk with other students who share this interest.  It doesn't have to be purely academic (like math or science).  It could be the engineering behind electric cars, or the newest technology used in electric guitars, or what you learned working on computers at your part time job, or how much more interesting your books in AP English were when you and your friends started a weekend book club to study together.  The common theme needs to be one of intellectual curiosity, followed by the desire and effort to satisfy it.  

Virtually all of Stanford's undergraduates live on campus. What would you want your future roommate to know about you? Tell us something about you that will help your future roommate — and us — know you better.

Honesty wins here.  If you were actually going to send this to your future roommate, would you really tell him how dedicated you are to your academics, or that you volunteer at the soup kitchen, or that you were very pleased to be named a National Merit Finalist (wow–please don't say that)?  Probably not. 

You'd probably talk about how much you love to play the drums, or how you're a Lakers fanatic, or how you won a karaoke contest last year, or about how much you love Tommy's Burgers even though you're fairly certain the chili has caused permanent damage to your internal organs.

So just be a real person and tell the truth here.

Tell us what makes Stanford a good place for you.

As is the case when any college asks you this question, the two very worst things you can do are to:

1)  Rattle off generalities that could be true for dozens of colleges, like "You have a strong reputation, a beautiful campus and top professors." Or…

2) To compose a list of factoids about Stanford that you obviously went and looked up on the website immediately before composing your answer to this question. 

Neither of those approaches addresses the prompt, which asks why Stanford is a good place for you.  To answer that, you're going to have to talk about yourself, not just Stanford.  To do this, you're going to have to give Stanford some insight into what was hopefully a thoughtful college search process. 

When you envision yourself in college, what do you see yourself doing?  What are your expectations for your college experience?  How are you hoping to change while you're there?  Are you excited for college?  Why?  What parts of college make you wish you were there right now?  Are all of these answers the same as they were when you started your college search, or have they changed along the way?

That's the "you" part of this response.

Then, tie your answers to Stanford.  What is it about Stanford that makes you think it's the right place to meet all of those expectations? 

And while you shouldn't compose a long list of facts about Stanford, you should be describing a connection that couldn't necessarily be found at lots of other schools.

So don't hide behind safe answers that are designed to impress.  Give Stanford what they want–the real you, with all your smarts, personality and a little panache thrown in.

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.

Essay advice for University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill applicants

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) is obviously trying to get to know their applicants.  With multiple essay questions on a variety of topics, students who thoughtfully consider the prompts will have plenty of opportunities to share some revealing stories about themselves.  Here are a few tips to help you do that.

Short-answer Questions

Complete each of the following sentences about yourself. Don’t think too long or too hard; just help us get to know you better. Your responses could be as short as one word or as long as about 20 words—no longer, please.

Their directions really say it all.  Don't over-think these.  The very worst strategy here is to try to impress them.  You'll just end up sounding like every other kid. 

Instead, tell the truth, whatever it is.  And where appropriate, inject some personality into your answer. Here are some examples of what that sounds like:

The last book I read outside of class was…

 "Paris Hilton: Life on the Edge"  Please don't throw my application away.

It would surprise my friends to know that I…

"..feel a little hurt when they make fun of my hair.  I do have bad hair but it's hard to laugh along with them."

If I could travel anywhere in time or space, either real or imagined, I’d go…

"…back in time to my parents' wedding.  They looked so happy and it would be fun to see them at 24 and newly in love."

The form of communication that I’d most like to ban from existence is

"Any sentence where people use the word 'like' too often, as in, 'We should, like, hang out.'  Ugh."

The question I would most like to have answered is

"Is Jason Siegal going to ever grow a spine and ask me to the prom?  Seriously. Embarrassing, but true."       

My favorite random fact is 

"There are fourteen punctuation marks in standard English grammar."

My most treasured possession is

"My necklace that my mom gave me for my 16th birthday.  She got it from her mother when she was 16."         

This applicant did a good job.  There's no secret strategy at work here–she just told the truth, even when it was embarrassing.  She injected her personality into the answers, sometimes being funny, sometimes being serious.  And most importantly, she didn't try to serve up responses that were designed to impress.

The message here isn't that everyone should try to be funny; the message is that everyone should be themselves, whether you're funny, self-deprecating, introspective, intellectual, etc.  Just relax and tell the truth.  And have a little fun while you're doing it.

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Badgers to Be: Tips for University of Wisconsin-Madison applicants

At some large universities, the highest numbers win the admissions game.  They'll plug your grades and test scores into a formula and let the computer decide who gets in. But University of Wisconsin-Madison comes right out and tells you on their website that they don't use formulas and that they read every application.  That means they're going to read the two essays you're required to write, and those essays can absolutely impact your chances of admission. 

Here are some tips to help you think about some good responses. 

Submit your responses to both questions 50 and 51 on separate sheet(s) of paper.

50) The University of Wisconsin values an educational environment that provides all members of the campus community with opportunities to grow and develop intellectually, personally, culturally and socially. In order to give us a more complete picture of you as an individual, please tell us about the particular life experiences, perspectives, talents, commitments and/or interests you will bring to our campus. In other words, how will your presence enrich our community?

This seems to be the popular question this year for colleges–how will you contribute to our campus?  It makes sense that while colleges care about what you do in high school, they do so mostly because that can give them indicators of what type of person you're likely to be once you get to college.

I've written a lot entries about this question (see my guidelines for Michigan, Boston University and Villanova, to name a few), but the most important thing you have to do is understand what "contributing" means on a college campus. 

A college is a community.  If every member of that community sat passively through classes, spent the rest of their time watching TV, and just dutifully plodded through four years of college, it wouldn't be a very interesting place to live and learn for four years.  As much as colleges provide to students, it is the students who ultimately make the campus experience memorable for each other by becoming members of that community and finding ways to contribute.

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A tip for Skidmore College applicants–get pithy

I've written several articles as part of this series describing how to handle essays that ask why you're applying to the school, or how you believe you will contribute once you get there.  The most important advice I've given is to be specific and personal.  Inject enough detail so nobody else can write the same essay you're writing. 

But Skidmore College throws a little a wrinkle into that question–their supplemental essay questions only give you 700 characters to play with.  

700 characters is about a paragraph of text, maybe 100 words.  So you can go two directions here.  You can give them generic responses that will spend 100 words saying the same things that everyone else says, or you can get pithy.

Pithy means brief, forceful and meaningful in expression.  You have to say a lot in a short space.  That means you have to do away with everything that isn't absolutely necessary, and make your points forcefully and clearly.  

Here's an example (unrelated to college admissions).  Let's say you want to express that you think the best way to eat a steak is to let the natural flavors come through, without adding any steak sauce to it (you'd be right, by the way).  This is not pithy:

"There are many different ways to prepare and serve steak.  But whether you broil, grill or fry it, it's important that you retain good flavoring.  Flavoring, after all, is what makes the steak enjoyable.  Many people like to put sauces on their steak, such as A1.  Other people prefer to use rubs composed of various herbs and spices which they rub into the meat before cooking it.  They believe that additional sauce or seasoning improves the taste and enhances a steak's natural flavors.  In fact, some people actually like the flavor of the sauce more than they like the steak.  I, however, believe that a perfectly cooked…"

OK, seriously, at what point did I lose you?  I'm sure you hung in there as long as you could, but wouldn't it have been better if I had just said…"

"I think people who pour cheap steak sauce on an expensive steak should be prosecuted in the court of law.  How could any sane person do that and still sleep at night?"

Bam.  That's pithy.  My point is made.  And it's got oomph. 

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Advice for Gettysburg College applicants

We're always telling our Collegewise students that every essay question on a college application is there for a reason.  And for applicants to Gettysburg College, this essay question is no exception.

"Gettysburg College students are engaged learners and 'make a difference' both on and off campus through their academic and extracurricular activities. Describe a situation in which you have made a difference in your school or community and what you learned from that experience."

 

The key to to this question is "…in which you have made a difference."  Colleges like Gettysburg are looking for students who will make an impact on their student communities, students who have passion and initiative to make things happen.  Making a difference in high school is a good sign that you're one of these students.

Think about the word "different."  What is something you did in high school where something or someone was actually different when you were finished?  Show them an experience for which you can honestly say something is fundamentally different today than it was before you got involved.

 

Here's an example.  If you volunteered for three hours one day at a homeless shelter, you should absolutely be proud of that.  But if you were also on the soccer team, and you initiated a fundraiser that paid for new uniforms for the entire team, uniforms that will be worn for years to come by members of the varsity soccer team at your school, you arguably made a pretty substantial difference on your soccer team.

 

I'm not arguing that raising money for uniforms is more important than feeding hungry people (it's not).  But the question is asking for an example of a time when you made a difference, not an example of a time where you did something important.  Do you see the distinction? 

Think of an example where you made a lasting impact, where you left behind a legacy, even a small one.  Those tend to be the places where you made a difference.

And don't forget about the second part of the prompt that asks about what you learned.  Don't hide behind a contrived answer like, "I learned it's important to help people."  That makes you sound like you didn't realize that helping people was a good thing before this experience. 

One thing to consider might be how you are different today as a result of this experience.  If you really learned something, chances are that your thoughts or actions are different today than they were before this experience.  Share those things honestly with the reader. 

Gettysburg asks the question for a reason–to get a sense of whether or not you'll make a difference once you get to their campus.  So think about where you've made a real difference, share that experience proudly in your answer, and don't forget to consider what you learned. 

Note:  Before you follow our tips, we recommend you read our "How to" guide here: Download HowToUse30Guides

And if you have other questions about essays, applications, interviews or financial aid, visit our online store.  We’ve got books, videos and downloadable guides to help you.  Or you could speak with one of our online college counselors.

For Boston University applicants: A little essay advice

You only have two essays to write, one short and one long, on the Boston University application.  In fact, the short essay is only 5-6 sentences (which really qualifies more as a paragraph than it does a short essay).  It's important to make the most of that limited opportunity to help the BU admissions committee get to know you better.  So here are some tips to help you do that.

Short answer

In five or six sentences, tell us how you first became interested in BU and what steps you have taken to learn more about us.

I'm not sure I can adequately describe just how many responses the BU admissions committee is likely to read that are some version of,

"I first became interested in Boston University when I read about it in a college guidebook.  The combination of great academics in large city seemed like the perfect combination for me.  The more I researched the school, the more I liked it.  I also visited the campus last summer."

At Collegewise, we teach our students a concept we call "Own your story."  To own your story means that you've written something that nobody else applying to college could have written (or at the very least, that thousands of other kids would absolutely not have written).

The person who wrote the response above doesn't own that story.  Any kid applying to Boston University could have written it.  Believe me, a lot of them will.  And they'll torture the admissions committee because of it. 

But compare that response to this one:

"In April of my junior year, my high school counselor told me, "Kevin, you're an interesting kid.  Why are you applying to such uninteresting colleges?  I asked her what she thought would be a good choice for me, and the first school she named was Boston University.  I've visited your website obsessively, probably once a day at least for the last six months.  I've read about all the classes I would take as a communications major.  And last summer, I took a three-hour road trip with my friend in my '93 Corolla just so we could take a tour of BU." 

The chances that another student will write an identical response are zero.  This student owns his story.  So the most important thing you need to do in this response, even though it's only 5-6 sentences long, is to own your story.  Be very specific.  Whether you read a guidebook or talked to your friends or visited the school or went to a college fair, share the details about how you learned and followed up with BU, and do so in a way that no other applicant will be able to do. 

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