The definitive guide to STEM programs

In 2014, Collegewise counselor Meredith Graham penned a free Collegewise guide, “STEM’s Many Branches: College Planning for Students Considering Majors in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.” A definitive guide to understanding and applying to STEM programs, it has become one of our most popular downloaded resources.

Now, Meredith and co-author/fellow Collegewise counselor Abby Van Geldern have worked their collective magic and released a totally revised, updated, and somehow improved version. The depth of knowledge, the pedagogy employed in breaking down complex subjects, and the generous willingness to share on display here are some of the many reasons I’m so proud to work with colleagues like them.

You can get your free copy here. Enjoy, and please share.

Special specifics

For seniors still debating which college’s offer of admission to accept, here’s something that might make it easier. Four years from now, when you’re approaching your graduation and considering your college experience in retrospect, the most impactful, positive parts of the journey will likely be those that you could have never envisioned ahead of time.

Yes, you might already know that you’re drawn to football games, or small classes, or a particular geographic region. But you haven’t yet created the specifics around those experiences. You haven’t formed those specific Game Day memories with your college friends. You haven’t participated in that small class with the professor who will introduce you to a new intellectual interest you won’t want to put back down after the final exam. You haven’t taken advantage of all the big city or the open country or the place that’s nothing like home will have to offer. Those specifics are where the impact and the memories will be made.

Even with the experiences you can’t begin to imagine today, it will be the specifics that make them special. The major you found by accident after enrolling in a class on a recommendation from your advisor. The new friend who later stood at your wedding. The impromptu road trip you took with your roommate and still recall fondly years later. Some experiences can be forecasted with generality ahead of time. Others will be pleasant surprises. But what makes them special will be the specifics. And those specifics haven’t presented themselves yet.

Like most big life decisions, choosing a college is always a leap of faith. The size of the leap can vary from student to student, but the truth is that while you should be thoughtful and deliberate when making the decision where to attend college, you can’t possibly know all the forthcoming details (good or bad) that will add up to create what the experience will ultimately be. You do your research, talk to your family and to other people you trust, and listen to your gut—then it’s time to leap.

The beauty of the forthcoming specifics is that while you can’t see them ahead of time, you have enormous influence over the quality and quantity that present themselves in college. You find those experiences by searching for them, by committing to subjects and activities that matter to you, by eagerly exposing yourself to new ideas and people and interests. As busy as you may have been in high school, much of your life in and out of the classroom was decided for you, with required classes, fixed schedules, and often limited influence over your time or task. That’s all going to change when you get to college. “What did you do today?” is a high school question. “What did you decide to do today?” is the college version.

So if you’re feeling uncertain, if all the thinking and comparing and talking doesn’t seem to have brought you closer to an obvious selection, don’t worry. Yes, you’ll need to make that choice by May 1. But as long as you’re not being rash, you’ll have the opportunity to chase and to discover those special specifics at whichever college you choose.

Yes to their yes

Seniors, as you wrestle with the wait to receive decisions from your colleges, it’s natural to assign a lot of gravity to these impending notifications. Other people are seemingly deciding your next four years for you. It’s natural to think about the tidal shift that a yes or no from any college will carry with it, with all the options that are either presented or taken away with one piece of admissions news.

But I promise you that at some point in your life, a point not all that long from now, the day that news arrived will feel like just another day.

You’ll almost certainly be in college at this time next year. And I’ve never met a college freshman who was still in the denial dumps about a college that said no way back when. Big news feels appropriately big when it arrives. But the changes that come with it eventually just become normal life.

Good news or bad news, that day will pass. And whatever the news, you’ll have a lot of days left to fill at a college where you say yes to their yes.

The psychology of choosing gifts, and colleges

“How Psychology Can Help You Choose a Great Gift,” published by UC Berkeley’s Great Good Science Center, offers four tips to better gift giving:

1. Choose practicality over expense or quality.
Usable beats fancy in the long run.

2. Go for long-term satisfaction, not initial enthusiasm.
Parents have all seen a child react with joy to a new toy they abandon by the end of the day. Choose gifts that will bring happiness over time, regardless of the initial reaction they inspire.

3. Give people what they’ve asked for.
Surprises might feel more thoughtful than just handing the receiver what they asked for. But the research shows it’s better to just honor the initial requests.

4. Pick experiences over things.
Science has shown that people are happier with gifts of experiences than with material things.

I could bend this to apply to selecting colleges, but that might be a stretch.

Here’s what’s not a stretch: “I’ll go to the most prestigious college I get into, whichever one it is” violates all of them.

Your education is a gift, no matter where you go to college. But it’s worth considering the psychology before you choose which gift of admission to accept.

Three paths

Most students are somewhere on one of three paths when they choose their colleges.

  1. I know what I want to do with my life, and college is the path that will help me get there.
  2. I have some idea of what I want to do with my life, and I’d like to use my time in college to explore that path before I commit to it.
  3. I have no idea what I want to do with my life, and I’m going to college to discover more about myself, my talents, and my future path.

Some colleges are much better suited to one path than they are another. If you’re sure you want to be an engineer, it doesn’t make sense to go to a college that doesn’t offer an engineering major. But you don’t necessarily need to attend a highly selective engineering school to start down that path. You have options.

You can pick your colleges and then try to force yourself onto the path(s) they’re best suited to offer. Or you can pick the colleges that are suited to the path you already have to offer them. The former approach requires that you change your path. The latter allows you to embrace it.

Many–if not most–teens can’t draw a line to their future career today with 100% certainty. If you can, then please do. But if you can’t, don’t force it. Whichever path you’re on, there’s a college out there that will help you discover, test, or follow it.

Identify the path you’re on today. And choose a college that will help you take the right path to your tomorrow.

Define your own “early”

A high school counselor shared a Tweet from one of his students today that addressed the “100 colleges” that had emailed her on August 1 to let her know the Common App was live. Her message to them: “I know it’s live. Please just let me be.”

I’ve definitely pounded the drum here about starting college applications early. Summer tends to be a much more relaxing time to do this work when compared to the fall when seniors are balancing classes, standardized tests, activities, etc. And our Collegewise offices are always abuzz in August with seniors getting an application leg up. In fact, many of them will enter their senior year with an acceptance (usually from a college with rolling admissions) in hand.

But there’s such a thing as too much early encouragement, especially when it just pushes the pressure earlier in the process.

For just about everything worth doing right, starting early tends to be better than starting too late. But we’re not talking about starting an Ironman triathlon here, where getting off to a slow start could doom you for the rest of the race. This isn’t urgent. Nothing bad is going to happen if you wait a little longer. Other students aren’t gaining an advantage that will be unrecoverable for you. Everything is going to be fine.

It’s still summer. There’s plenty of time left to enjoy yourself before the busy fall school season begins. Don’t treat this last month of summer like a sprint where you’re either ahead or behind of everyone else. Yes, I recommend you do some college application work before you head back to school. But what’s most important is that you don’t delay this work so long that the pressure of deadlines increases your anxiety and decreases the quality of the finished work.

So don’t let all this early encouragement leave you feeling like your house is on fire, as if every second you wait will leave you with more destruction and wreckage. College applications are important. But they are never urgent unless you procrastinate to the point where you have no choice but to hurry.

Don’t put it off. Start early. But you can define your own “early.”

Free webinar: Creating your college list

While in the throes of their efforts to improve their chances of admission to college, many students actually neglect one of the most important choices they make on that journey—deciding where to apply. While many families can readily identify at least a few colleges they’d love to see their student attend, they might be less sure about how to find other schools that fit, deciding how many schools to apply to, and making sure they have a balanced college list that maximizes their chances of admissions success. If you’d like some help, I hope you’ll join us for an upcoming free webinar:

Where Should I Apply?: Creating the Right College List for You
Tuesday, June 12, 2018
5 p.m. – 6 p.m. PDT

The webinar will feature Collegewise counselor Nicole Pilar who, in a company that prides itself on college knowledge, has gained internal Collegewise fame as a college research guru. Nicole can tell you which school allows students to water ski for free using the school’s boats, and the college you’ve probably never heard of that offers one of the country’s best pre-med advising programs. And her students always benefit from the intellectual and organizational rigor she lends around creating their own college lists together. You can register or get more information here.

“A place where I can…”

Ask many students what they’re looking for in a college, or many applicants why they’ve decided to apply to a particular school, and they’ll recite a list of features and benefits. A strong journalism program, small classes, located in a city, etc. But those expressions miss the importance of connecting your college wish list with your plans to make the most of those opportunities.

So here’s a subtle change that can make you think critically about what you’re looking for and how you plan to take advantage of it: Start those descriptions with, “A place where I can…”

A place where I can take my first steps towards a career as a journalist…

A place where I can interact with my professors easily and regularly…

A place where I can experience living in a city rather than just visiting one…

What you do in college will be more important than where you do it. But that will mean finding schools that pair the right opportunities with your willingness and ability to take advantage of them. Instead of focusing on just what the college will offer, focus on what you’ll do to make the most of those offerings. “A place where I can” is a good place to start.

Tips for seniors picking colleges

If you’re a senior in the enviable position of deciding between multiple college acceptances, here are a few tips to help you make the right decision for you.

1. Remember that some uncertainty is normal.
Some students are sure about their final choice and are ready to sign on the dotted line as soon as the acceptance letter arrives. But many more are not. Some degree of uncertainty is normal for big decisions. So don’t be alarmed if you don’t feel as certain about your choice as your friends do. That uncertainty typically disappears as soon as you commit.

2. Know your cost before you sign.
Make sure you’ve carefully evaluated your financial aid award so you know the amounts of scholarships, loans, and work study you qualify for. Not all financial aid is free money, and it’s important not to get preemptively swept up in the total figure listed for the award.

3. Check your assumptions.
It’s common for families to make evaluative statements about colleges based on assumptions. Some examples:

College X is better for premed than College Y.

I should choose this school because it will offer great connections when I graduate.

This college will help me get into a good law school.

Are you able to substantiate those statements with facts, rather than opinions or hearsay? If not, then you’re working with assumptions that might be flawed. And that’s not a good way to choose a college.

4. Evaluate yourself, too.
Too many families make the final college decision based on the purported features and benefits of the college without considering if the student will actually take full advantage of them. Choosing a college is a little bit like choosing a gym. The offerings are only as valuable as the frequency and vigor with which you take advantage of them.

5. Don’t look for perfection.
Much like jobs, relationships, and families, there is no such thing as a perfect college. Every college campus has characteristics that could feasibly be improved, changed, fixed, etc. But the benefit of choosing a college that fits is that you’ll be more likely to take advantage of its strengths and less likely to be affected by or to even notice its weaknesses. Comparing supposed pros and cons between your options might help you organize your thinking, but it probably won’t guide you to a clear decision. Instead, consider the purported strengths and weaknesses. Then evaluate your ability and likelihood of leaning into the former and working around the latter.

Is your college list realistic?

If you’re a junior, one of the best college planning steps you can take in the next few months is to schedule a meeting with your counselor and ask, “Are the colleges I’m considering realistic?”

Maybe you don’t have a well-researched list of schools you know you’ll apply to this fall—that’s fine. But almost every college-bound junior has ideas about where they might want to apply. Even if those ideas are loosely formed or based entirely on how lively the football stadium appears on television, take your list in whatever form it currently exists and get your counselor’s feedback on your chances of admission based on your current qualifications. Assumptions frequently work against families in this area. No matter what you’ve heard, witnessed, or gleaned from your research, this decision of what colleges to apply to is just too important to leave to chance.

When you have this meeting, there are three possible outcomes:

1. Your counselor gives her enthusiastic endorsement of these schools and believes you have a strong chance of being admitted to most or all of them. Fantastic! Yes, your list might evolve over time as you research and learn and refine what you’re looking for in a college. But you’re off to a strong, realistic, and encouraging start.

2. You get a mixed review. Some of your schools are likely to admit you, but a roughly equal number of choices are out of your reach and not likely to say yes. This can be discouraging, but now you have the opportunity to take steps to address it. Ask your counselor if there are things you could do to improve your candidacy. And get her recommendations for similar schools that are more likely to admit you. Better to find out now and make adjustments than to apply with your fingers crossed and find out later you overshot with the majority of schools on your list.

3. You get the news no college-bound student wants to hear—most or all of your schools are out of your reach. Ask your counselor if she believes you can still make yourself competitive enough to take a realistic shot. If not, it’s time to face facts and go back to the college selection drawing board.

If you find yourself in category three, it’s understandable why you’d be disappointed. Nobody likes to hear that their goals are unrealistic. But here are a few things you can do to stay engaged and to craft a list you can be excited about.

First, as difficult as it is to do, please accept the news. Don’t look for reasons your counselor must have been wrong (“So and so got in, and his grades and test scores aren’t that much better than mine!”). Don’t spend the next six months repeatedly taking standardized tests or frantically adding activities or learning an instrument because someone told you the marching band at your dream school is losing their bassoonist to graduation this year. If you still want to apply to one or two of those schools just to take your shot, that’s reasonable. But refusing to accept reality is the college search equivalent of finding 19 different ways to convince someone to go to the prom with you when they’ve already made it clear they’re just not interested. It’s fruitless, it’s demoralizing, and it cuts into your chances of finding another perfectly good match who’d happily accept the invitation.

Second, consider this question: Why were you interested in those schools?

Be honest with yourself. Did you really know much about them? Had you researched and thoughtfully decided that they were good matches based on what you were looking for in a college experience? If so, it’s unlikely that those characteristics are limited to just a short list of colleges. Tell your counselor what appealed to you about those schools, and ask for recommendations of others with similar offerings that are more likely to admit you.

But if the real answer is that you don’t know why you were interested, or that your interest was driven largely by the name and prestige, I understand that can still be disappointing. But it’s not reasonable to take it as crushing news either. The most selective schools are reaches for everybody (math dictates that). And with over 2,000 colleges to choose from, most of which admit the majority of their applicants, there’s a bountiful harvest of other options available to you no matter why your current list is deemed out of reach. The sooner you get to finding those matches, the sooner you’ll be having a very different—and more enjoyable—conversation with your counselor.