Are bright, well-rounded kids boring?

We're training a new counselor in our Irvine, CA office.  Today we discussed highly selective college admissions–what it really takes to get into the most selective colleges. 

The problem with college admissions today is that all the highest achievers–from around the world–apply to the same 40 colleges.  So schools like Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Duke, Georgetown, Yale, Northwestern and the rest of the 40 most famous colleges have far, far more qualified applicants than they can ever possibly admit.  Some of them only admit 1 out of every 10 kids.  So most of the applicants, by comparison, don't stand out.  They feel inadequate because they haven't published a book or written a concerto or invented a way to travel back in time.        

Rachael Toor wrote Admissions Confidential about her time working as an undergraduate admissions officer at Duke.  Here's an excerpt from page 2:

"Most of the students I meet on my travels are BWRKs.  That's admissionese for 'bright well-rounded kids.'  You know, the ones who do everything right.  They take honors classes, study hard enough to be in the top 10% of their class, get solid 1350's on their SAT's (blogger's note:  That's like 2030 on the new scale), play sports, participate in student government, do community service (sometimes even when it's not required).  They're earnest, they're hardworking, they're determined.  They do everything right, and most of them don't have a chance of getting in.  We deny them.  In droves.  Another BWRK. Zip.  How boring."

That's a bleak outlook.  Unfortunately, the fact that these schools are so ridiculously hard to get into only feeds peoples' belief that famous schools offer better educations.  

It doesn't have to be that way.

If you're a BWRK, you are almost certainly not boring.  You're smart, you work hard, you commit yourself to activities, and you probably don't spend nearly enough time goofing off and just having fun.  In fact, you'd probably be even more interesting if you followed your real interests instead of just trying to please famous colleges.  But still, hundreds and hundreds of colleges are going to trip over themselves to accept you.  You just have to pick the right schools.

High school students (and their parents) have a choice.  You don't have to buy into the college admissions insanity.  You can reject the idea of desperately trying to stand out to Yale, and you can embrace the idea of working hard, being yourself, and finding the droves of colleges who absolutely love BWRKs. 

The benefits of two-year community colleges

I'm doing a seminar for foster youth today to discuss the potential advantages of attending a two-year community college and then transferring to a four-year school.  Here are a few reasons that path can be a good option for the right student:

1.  Cost

Community colleges are significantly cheaper than four-year colleges.  For example, in California, a full-time student pays about $625 for a year at a community college.  A student at one of the University of California campuses, however, pays about $9,000 per year not including room and board. 

2.    A fresh start

When you apply to a four-year college as a community college transfer student, your high school records are usually not taken into consideration.  So if you're not happy with your performance in high school, or if you just don't have the grades to attend the colleges you're interested in, community college lets you start over and show four-year schools what you're really capable of doing.

3.  Transfer agreements

Most community colleges make transfer agreements with a variety of four-year colleges (especially with public schools in the same state).  Most of those agreements stipulate that students who take the required classes and maintain the minimum required GPA will be given the highest admissions priority when they apply.  It takes the guesswork out of college admissions.  Take the classes and get the grades the agreement outlines, and your chances of admission are at the very least dramatically improved, and at the very most, guaranteed.   

I like the community college option for some students.  If you don't have the grades or the money to attend a four-year school, community colleges can help you get there in two years.  And some students just aren't ready for a four-year college yet, which I think is fine.

Remember, nobody will ever ask you where you started college.  They'll only ask you where you finished.   

So many colleges…

Excerpt from an email I received from one of our counselors yesterday:

I'm working with a kid who is looking at great colleges – Colorado College, Knox, Macalester – but can't narrow her list down to fewer than 20 schools.  She has researched all of them inside and out, and just loves something about each one.  I talked to her today about the importance of narrowing them down, both to limit the amount of work she'll have to do and because, ultimately, she'll have to choose one school anyway.  And then she said the best thing:

'"It kinda sucks that you only get to choose one, doesn't it?"

In one sentence, that kid just summed up how every student should approach college admissions. 

There are over 2,000 schools out there.  Don't fall for the scam that only the famous ones are worth attending.  Don't fall into the trap of believing that one college is your soul mate and the only place you could be happy.  Don't let the stress of college admissions ruin what should be a fun and exciting time.

Your biggest problem isn't getting in; it's choosing from all the available options.

Making college worth your time, money and memories

Interesting post from Seth Godin today that makes this argument–the notion that graduating from college is the key to future success has existed for hundreds of years, and it's about to be exposed as a scam for several reasons.

1. With some notable exceptions, the educations offered by most colleges aren't really all that different from one another.  

2. The price of colleges has risen much more than the pay increase you get from attending one has.

3. The public is about to realize that colleges can easily manipulate their rankings, so the rankings really don't mean anything.

4.  The data shows that the famous, most selective schools aren't necessarily better than the others. 

I'm not sure I'm ready to write off the value of attending college, but I am absolutely ready to say this. 

Just being a college graduate is not special; lots of people do it with varying levels of post-college success.  Just being there for four years doesn't guarantee you a better life.  And just managing to get accepted to a school that rejects most applicants isn't a guarantee that the world is going to throw jobs and money at you. 

It's what you do while you're in college that matters, not where you go.  It's up to you to make your college years worth your time, money, and memories.

Ten not-so-easy college search questions for juniors

Last weekend, I gave our "How to Find the Right Colleges for You" seminar for our Collegewise junior families.  Here are ten questions I recommended our juniors consider while searching for colleges.

1.    Why do you want to go to college?

2.    Do you think you’re ready to go to college?

3.    How do you like to learn?

Do you work best when the material is interesting?  When the teacher is great?  Or when you can sense the competition with other students? Do you enjoy classes with a lot of discussion?  Or do you prefer to do more studying on your own.

4.    What would you like to learn more about?

5.    How hard do want to work academically? 

6.    Do you have any idea what you want to do with your life?

7.    What would you like to be doing on a typical Tuesday night in college?  What about on typical Saturday night?

8.    How do you like the place where you live now?  Would you like to be someplace similar or different for college?

9.    Do you want to be with students who are like you, or different from you?

Ask yourself, “Am I more comfortable being around a lot of people who are
similar to me? Or Am I excited to meet new people who are very different
so I can learn from them?”  Differences can come in lots of forms, by the way, like ethnicity, sexual orientation, where they’re from, whether or not they drink, etc. 

10.    When you envision yourself in college, what parts of it are you most excited about?

Students who really think about these questions don't just find the right colleges–they get in, too.

How to help kids choose which college to attend

April is a great month here at Collegewise as we get to sit down with our seniors, discuss their college options, and help them decide where to spend the next four years.  If you’re a counselor, a teacher, a parent or anyone a senior trusts enough to ask your advice about which college to attend, here are few things we do that might be helpful.

1.    We let the kids do the talking.

A lot of seniors receive generous portions of unsolicited advice from too many sources about where they should go to college.  We think we do these students a favor by asking them what they think, being quiet, and really listening to their answers.

This also helps us uncover the real concerns kids have.

A lot of kids who are struggling with the final decision are actually struggling with things they haven’t revealed—or even acknowledged—yet, like a fear of leaving home, a fear of not measuring up to the other students, or a fear of being unhappy with their choice.  And since most kids won’t just come right out and tell us what they’re worried about, we have to ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening, like therapists.  A therapist doesn’t just tell someone five minutes into a session, “Your problem is that your sister makes you feel unworthy, so stop talking to her!”  She asks a lot of questions and guides the person to come to her own realizations. That’s how we approach these meetings.

2.    If a student asks a question for which we can’t give a straight answer, we reverse it. 

Students often ask questions about their choices to which there are no real answers, like “Isn’t Georgetown better for law school than Yale?”  Those kinds of questions are often not the real source of indecision for the kid.  So we reverse them.

“Wow, law school?  That’s great you’re thinking that far ahead.  Do you want to pick your college based on something you might do four years from now?”

Don’t be surprised if the student says something like, “Well, my dad’s a lawyer, and he really wants me to go to Georgetown.”  Turns out the original question had nothing to do with law school.  And if you’d gone into a lengthy explanation of how the assumption of Georgetown being better than Yale is flawed, you’d have been spinning your wheels and avoiding the real issue.

3. We think it’s more important to prevent a kid from making a bad decision than it is to convince him to make what we think is the right one. 

It’s not our responsibility (or our place) to tell any kid where he should to go to college.  Any student who is mature enough to go to college is mature enough to make the final decision.  Our responsibility is to be good listeners, to give kids any information they need, and of course, to speak up if our counseling instincts say that the kid’s about to make a terrible mistake.

I’m not saying we won’t share with a student which choice we think would be best and why—that’s our job.  In fact, I once had a student say, “What I really want you to do is just tell me where you think I should go to college.”  So I did.  But we think it’s more important to help students make informed choices (and avoid bad ones) than it is to make the decision for them.

4.   We don’t debate.

The more you argue with a teenager, the more a lot of them will dig their heals in.  When a student says, “UCLA students are a lot friendlier than students at NYU,” that’s obviously a huge generalization with little factual merit.  But we don’t debate the point. The kid doesn’t want to debate with us. So instead, we ask him what made the UCLA students seem so friendly.  We keep him talking.  The less we push, the more likely the student is to ask for (and listen to) whatever perspective we have to share.

5.  We don’t try to minimize concerns about the school, especially if they’re valid.

No college is perfect.  So we don’t try to minimize valid concerns about any school.  Instead, we face them head on and talk about how students on campus deal with them.

Let’s say a student tells us, “I like Gonzaga, but I’m worried I’ll get bored in Spokane.”

That’s a valid concern.  Kids at Gonzaga love it there, but if they wanted exciting city life in college, they would have gone somewhere else.

So rather than try to convince that kid that Spokane is lively, we’ll just say,

“You’re right.  Kids at Gonzaga will tell you there’s not much to do in Spokane.  But they don’t care.  They didn’t go to Gonzaga for city life.   Do you think the city life is important to you?”

Now that kid gets to explore the real issue: does he love what other students love about Gonzaga enough to ignore that he won’t be in Chigaco or New York or Los Angeles for college?

Kids often say to us, “I worry about whether or not USC is going to be safe enough.”

USC seems to go out of its way to talk about how safe it is.  No, you’re not going to get kidnapped from your dorm.  But c’mon.  It’s in a big city, and not a particularly nice part of that city.  So we face that concern head on.

“Yeah, I get that.  The campus might be safe, but the surrounding area, like those near a lot of colleges, is not.  USC students understand that they have to be smart about their safety.  They know it’s not a good idea to walk alone late at night.  How do you feel about that?”

Face it head on.

If a student says, “I heard UCLA puts three kids in dorms that are made for two.  I wouldn’t have to deal with that at Pomona…”

We respond…

“You’re right.  UCLA packs them in.  Most kids at UCLA don’t seem to care about that.  They tell us that they hardly spend time in their dorm room because they’re too busy doing a hundred different things on campus and in Westwood.   Does that sound like you?”

The reason we do this is to show the student that no college is perfect.  The happiest students on college campuses love their schools in spite of the inherent flaws.  There is nothing anyone can do to make Spokane lively, USC 100% safe, or UCLA small and homey.  Don’t try to minimize the concern.  That’s just wasting time.

As long as you ask a lot of questions, listen, avoid debating and try to help a student uncover their real concerns about their college choices, you’ll be doing a good job for that kid.

Not a life-defining day

Admissions decisions from colleges aren’t life defining.

They can feel like it at the time.  A lot of hard-working students spend their high school years driven to gain admission to a particular (or to a particular type of) college.  So when the “Yes,” or “No” arrives, it can feel like your high school career has just been validated or invalidated, and that your future path is either clear or in shambles.

But successful adults don’t look back on the day that a college acceptance arrived as the pivotal moment that ignited their future success.  Nobody says, “Since that magical day I got into Cornell, my life has been an uninterrupted string of success and happiness.”   They might identify a pivotal experience that took place once they got to college.  But it’s never the moment the letter arrived.

Frankly, the same can be said of people who never achieved what they wanted to.

Nobody ever looks back and says, “From the day ‘college x’ said no, my life was in a downward spiral.  I knew from that day forward that life would never be the same.”

If your decision is whether to go or not to actually go to college at all, that will almost certainly be a life-defining event. But where you go to college is a lot less important than whether or not you go, and what you do while you’re there.  Wherever you go to college, it’s going to be one step in a process of education and growth that continues throughout your life.

So whatever news you receive from your colleges of choice, remember that while the arrival of this decision might feel like a life-defining day, it isn’t.  If you’re happy with the news, congratulations.  Celebrate it and look forward to making the most of the opportunity once you get there.

But if you’re not happy with your choices, remember that you’ve got four years of college, and a lifetime after you leave it, to define the life you want.  This day isn’t the beginning or the end of your story.

Moving the goalposts

Exclusivity breeds popularity. 

The more exclusive the
night club, the more we wish we could get inside (and the longer the
lines outside will grow). 

The popular kids in high school aren't necessarily the nicest or the smartest–it's
the air of exclusivity that makes them popular (an air that disappears
approximately two-and-a-half minutes after graduation, but still…). 

When celebrities were seen wearing ugg
boots, the prices and the demand soared to a
point that for a time, the boots were very difficult to get.  The harder they were to find (and pay for), the more people wanted to wear them.

The night clubs and the cool kids and the uggs aren't necessarily better than their counterparts.  They just benefit from the part of human nature that makes us desire something more if we can't get it. 

The most exclusive colleges, and their associated popularity, work the same way.

There are over 2,000 colleges to go around.  We are lucky to be living
in a country with the best, most accessible system higher education in
the world.  No matter what you read in the press about how hard it is
to get into college, just about any kid can go. 

But the same 50 schools keep getting more and more competitive, with greater numbers of highly qualified applicants vying to gain admission every year.   The more difficult it is to get in, the stronger our desire to go to those schools (or see our kids go to them).  We believe there must be something special about those places because so few people are invited to attend.  That's why when you hear people talk about the "best schools," they're almost certainly basing that analysis on one factor–how difficult it is to get in. 

Kids today are working harder, studying more, and sleeping less in an effort to get into what amounts to an exclusive collegiate nightclub whose very appeal is the fact they reject most of their applicants.  That's an academic arms race in which no amount of hard work and success can guarantee victory.

What if we moved the goalposts?  What if we encouraged kids to work hard with a different goal in mind, one that won't need the validation of an admission offer from an exclusive college.

A kid who works hard in challenging classes, who studies for his SATs, who makes an impact in his activities, who’s nice to his peers and respectful of his teachers will be better educated.  He will be more mature.  He'll probably have a better sense of his real intellectual interests and inherent talents. He will be more prepared to succeed during and after college.    That should be reason enough to do it.  That kid doesn't need an admission to an exclusive college to prove his worth (or his parents' worth).  

He will, of course, also be admitted to hundreds of colleges.  Most of the 2000 colleges will trip over themselves for this kid.  But if it's not UC Berkeley, or Yale, or Duke, or Stanford, or Pomona, he hasn't failed.  He'll still go to a college where he will use his talents and abilities to make a success of himself.  

I have nothing against the popular schools; I'm against kids and parents putting too much luster on them just because they're exclusive.  There are lots of valid reasons to work hard and improve yourself, but trying to get the popular colleges to like you shouldn't be one of them

It might be time for some different goals.

Life changers…

I've made a living doing public speaking almost since the day I graduated from college.  But I never knew I was any good at it until that one day in college when I ran for an office in my fraternity and we had to get up and give a speech.  I learned something about myself that day (I would also later learn that "Rush Chair" is a pretty thankless job in a fraternity, but that's not really the point). 

In “Making the Most of College,” a Harvard education professor interviewed more than 1600 undergraduates about what had been their deepest, most meaningful college experiences.  When he asked students to think of a specific experience that changed them profoundly, four-fifths of them chose something that happened outside of the classroom.

Yes, colleges are like academic supermarkets where you can study anything that interests you.  But don't forget about the opportunities for self-discovery that take place in college, too.  What you learn in your psychology class may not ultimately be as life-changing as that one day the professor told you that she saw great potential in your work.  The one internship you get over the summer, or the time you spend writing for the school paper, or the research you do with a professor, or the volunteer work you do at a local non-profit, your college experience will give you a lot of opportunities to discover your talents, likes, dislikes and potential life paths. 

At Collegewise, we tell our kids all the time that it's not where you go to college, it's what you do while you're there.  If you spend your college years putting yourself in the positions to have these kinds of self-discoveries, you'll find them.  I don't care where you go to school–the famous colleges do not dole out life-changing experiences with any more efficiency than the non-famous ones

That's an importing thing to keep in mind as you're searching for colleges.  Remember that the college rankings don't take these experiences into consideration.  The websites and literature and tour guides can't tell you what your discoveries will be.  But your chances to find them for yourself will be waiting for you wherever you go.

And if you're a senior who's starting to receive your college news, remember that if your dream school says "No," you'll still have these life-changing moments in college.  You'll just be doing it somewhere else.  It doesn't matter where you have them; lives change at lots of colleges.

Five college search tips for juniors and their parents

This is the time of year when a lot of juniors (and their parents) start getting serious about the college search.  That's a good thing; choosing where you apply to college is a big decision and it's not one that should be put off until the fall application season.  To help your family enjoy it a little more, here are five college search tips for juniors and their parents.  

1. Students need to take the lead.

I think any parent (especially one who's paying the tuition bill) deserves input on your kid's college choices.  But it's important to remember that it's the student's college experience that matters, not a parent's.  The more students do for themselves, including researching and selecting appropriate colleges, the better. 

2. Remember that where you apply is totally different from where you actually go.

I mention this because it’s OK to want both big schools and small schools.  It's OK for parents and students to disagree on some of the college choices. It's OK to not be completely sure you're ready to move 1500 miles away from home. You’re not going yet—you’re just researching schools and deciding where to apply.  Acknowledging that difference can take some pressure off students and parents during the search process.  

3. Remember that what you do in college will be much more important than where you go.

It will be up to you to extract the value your college has to offer, whether it's atop all the college news rankings, or some tiny school your friends have never heard of.  So it's much more important that you find the right fit than it is you find a college that's famous. 

4. Don’t expect to be certain about your college choices until you get there.  

Big life decisions always have some uncertainty.  It’s normal.  And almost none of our happy college students perfectly articulated their current college existence back in high school when they were researching colleges.  For now, you just need to be engaged and curious.

5. Relax.

Statistics show that most students like their colleges, even those who are attending schools that weren't their first choice.  You are, after all, with a bunch of 18-22 year-olds and your most important responsibilities are to learn and have fun.  College is a pretty good arrangement, no matter where you are.  So enjoy this.  Be engaged in the process, trust your instincts, and have a little fun while you're at it.  You're only going to get to go through the college search process once, and you'll enjoy it a lot more if you allow yourself to do so.