Purported recognition

On Friday, my business partner Arun Ponnusamy forwarded all of our counselors a spam email he received from the National Society of High School Scholars. This was the entirety of Arun’s message (if you sense his contempt, it’s for the company sending the email, not for the families who are asking the question):

“At least once a year, a parent will reach out to me about a letter their kid received in the mail about being selected for a very prestigious honor society that just happens to cost a chunk of change. ‘Is it legit?’ No, it’s not. It’s a marketing database under the guise of some academic entity. Don’t let your students join NSHSS. And please don’t ever let them put it on their apps either.”

Considering that in his life before Collegewise, Arun read applications at the University of Chicago, Caltech, and UCLA, and that he’s now helped hundreds of students through the college admissions process as a counselor, applicants would be smart to follow his advice.

And here’s a collection of my past posts cautioning families against paying for purported recognition.

Taking advantage

Some college admissions advantages are bestowed on select groups. Naturally great test-takers, highly recruited athletes, students with the economic means to avail themselves of test prep and tutoring—while they may have worked to gain (rather than just have been gifted) those advantages, the advantages themselves are just not available to every high school student.

But here’s one potential advantage most seniors can grab. It’s free, it doesn’t discriminate based on your GPA, test scores or résumé, and it doesn’t care where you go to high school or whether or not you intend on applying to highly selective colleges.

You use the summer to start your college application process.

Finalize your college list. Complete your Common Application. Write any essays that your chosen colleges make available. Just get started. I’m not in favor of pushing college prep earlier than necessary. But that application work will need to get done. The only question is whether you do any of it during the summer months or wait until school begins when your days, your schedule, and your plate are already full.

Yes, some students are busier during the summer than others. You may be studying, working, traveling, etc. But chances are that you aren’t as busy or as stressed as you’ll be when the fall schedule of school and classes and activities hits. This fall, you’ll have fewer slots of free time to give to college applications. That’s one of the reasons so many students work on them right up until the deadlines. It’s hard to find the combination of inspiration and relaxation that leads to great college applications when you’re squeezing it in between homework and studying and softball practice.

So give yourself an advantage. Spend just 1-2 hours a week this summer moving through your college application to-dos. Imagine how good you’ll feel, and how much you will have done, if you start your senior year having already logged 10-25 hours of college application work.

You can’t have every advantage. But this one is here for the taking.

For counselors: What’s new with the Common App?

The folks at the Common App held a free webinar for counselors yesterday: “What’s New With The Common App: Enhancements.” If you didn’t get a chance to attend, our counselor Tom Barry shared the following summary for our Collegewise counselors.

You won’t need to find your way around a brand new Common App with your students this year. In fact, the key changes are mostly minor and will not affect all applicants.

1. Students can now self-report courses and grades within the Common App tab.
There aren’t many colleges on the Common App that ask students to self-report their courses and grades, but for those that do, the Common App now offers them a place to do so.

2. Students can upload Google Drive text files directly into the “Essay” boxes. 
This won’t replace the option to copy and paste. But one potential benefit is that uploading a document could help a student avoid those pesky formatting challenges that seemed to pop up so often.

3. The “Activities” dropdown menu will now include “Internship” and “Social Justice” categories. 

4. Students can select up to three advisors who will be granted access to their account in order to evaluate progress. 
This number is in addition to the formal school counselor and the teacher(s) submitting letters of recommendation.

We’ll also be releasing our updated annual Collegewise Common App guide around July 15. When it’s ready, I’ll share it here.

Counselors: Upcoming changes to the Common App

Counselors, if you’d like to get a peek at the changes to the Common App, they’ll be hosting a free webinar, What’s New With The Common App: Enhancements, on June 12 from 10 a.m. – 11 a.m. EST. All the details are here. And thanks to Collegewise counselor Tom Barry for alerting us.

We’re also planning to release our updated annual Common App guide around July 15. We’re waiting until then because the Common App folks plan to continue tweaking the app through July 1st. Once our new guide is ready, I’ll share it here.

Last chance for Common App help

For seniors putting the finishing touches on your Common Application to submit for January deadlines, don’t miss out on our free Guide to the 2016/17 Common Application. From the essay prompts, to the activity listing, to the additional information section, you can use it for everything from an assist with that one section you’re struggling with to a line-by-line review of the application. Get your free copy here.

Unfinished apps? Time to get to work

If you’re a senior who’s procrastinated on your college applicants, you already know that you’re running out of time to complete them. You might also be filled with a combination of regret for what got you here with a fear that you’ll never finish on time. If you’re in that camp, here’s a tool that will help—embrace the Stockdale Paradox.

The Stockdale Paradox is a willingness to confront the brutal facts of your reality while remaining faithful that you’ll ultimately prevail. Named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranking United States military officer to be imprisoned in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner of war camp during the height of the Vietnam War, the term was coined by Jim Collins, a former Stanford Business School professor who studied the secrets of the greatest companies and the leaders behind them for his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. I would normally never compare enduring life as a prisoner of war with completing college applications. But Stockdale willingly shared his story with Collins for inclusion in a book about how to be successful in business. So I’ll take some liberties to apply it here.

Stockdale spent eight years in captivity, was routinely tortured, and lived in solitary confinement with no idea if he would ever be released or see his family again. He didn’t just survive, but also forged elaborate strategies to help his fellow prisoners survive. As he described it, he found it imperative to confront the most brutal facts of their reality head-on. If a fellow prisoner conjured up a hopeful vision like, “Maybe we’ll be out by Christmas,” Stockdale would respond, “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”

But the paradox Collins points out is that in spite of the unimaginable circumstances Stockdale endured, he also had an unwavering belief that he would eventually be released and turn the experience into the defining event of his life.
That combination, the willingness to confront the reality of his situation while simultaneously remaining certain that he would prevail, gave Stockdale the discipline to direct his energies into the few areas that he could control. That gave him and his fellow prisoners some sense of daily purpose, something to buoy their resolve and their chances of eventually making it out alive.

When he was finally released eight years later, Stockdale was reunited with his family, hailed as a national hero, and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

As Stockdale is quoted in the book:

“This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

So, what does that mean to a senior with a formidable stack of application work ahead of you?

Confront your brutal facts. All that time you had months ago? It’s gone. Those impending deadlines? They’re getting closer with every second that passes. Will completing them be more difficult and stressful than if you’d worked on them months ago? Probably, depending on how much you have left to do. Those are your brutal facts. You can’t deny them. You can’t ignore them. You can’t change them. So it’s time to confront them. Head-on.

But you should also never lose faith that you’ll finish, you’ll come out the other side, and you’ll eventually be a happy freshman in college who’s long since moved on from the application process.

Lots (and lots) of students have been in this situation before you. It happens every year. And just about all of them not only finish their applications, but also get into plenty of schools.

You can’t join that successful group with unreasonable pessimism like, “It doesn’t matter anymore—I’m out of time anyway” or with false optimism like, “I’ll get them done eventually—I work well under pressure.” Neither of those attitudes gets you any closer to completing your applications or to attending a college you want to go to.

The best way to prevail? Face your brutal facts. Don’t ever lose faith. And most importantly, channel your energy into the one thing you can control. It’s time to get to work.

Their relief, and yours

Seniors, if your family just can’t quite put a Thanksgiving moratorium on college application talk, high school counselor Patrick O’Connor offers up some of his typically sage advice in Applying to College? Here’s How to Survive Thanksgiving. Here’s his suggested method for handling questions like, “Do you think this afternoon might be a good time to work on your essays?”

“This requires preparation. Put together a spreadsheet ahead of time with the name of every college you’re applying to, the date each application is due and the date you will work on that application. Print out a copy and keep it in your back pocket, saving it for this moment, when you open it with a modest flourish, hand it to your parents, and say, ‘I’ve got it covered. Have a great lunch.’”

Not a spreadsheet person? No problem. The particular method you use isn’t important. What’s important is to be prepared to provide more than, “I’ve got this—stop asking me!” Make a list, a schedule, or some other tangible proof that you’re holding yourself accountable. Your parents’ relief will bring you some relief, too.

Go college application-free this holiday

Last year at this time, I shared this piece from the Common App’s Scott Anderson, Make Thanksgiving a College-Free Zone. I’m reposting it again this year, as I can’t think of a better piece of advice to help families with a college applicant in the house enjoy their Thanksgiving together.

“This week, as you gather with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving, be mindful of the high school seniors seated at the table. Odds are they don’t want to talk about their college applications any more than you want to talk about work.”

It’s entirely possible that some students may need to work on their applications over the break. But working on them and talking about them are two different things. The former might be a necessity, but the latter certainly isn’t, especially at the Thanksgiving table.

Who’s got ownership?

To have any chance of being completed successfully, every task or job, whether it’s a homework assignment or a huge goal for an entire organization, needs an owner, someone who takes responsibility for actually making it happen. It doesn’t mean that this person does it all alone. But if there’s no owner, it’s too easy for people to get distracted and lose their focus. And too many unspoken owners (as in, “We’re all responsible”) makes it too easy to point fingers when things go wrong and say, “That part wasn’t my job.”

Every student’s college admissions process needs an owner. And that ownership assignment comes at a tricky time for many families. Some students are trying to wrestle ownership away from parents who’ve previously made all the decisions. Other students actively resist the ownership and wait for other people to handle things for them. And that confusion often just contributes to the anxiety, especially when all involved parties feel like someone else should be in charge.

Like so many important projects, there are a number of people with responsibilities in the college admissions process. But the outcomes are almost always best when the right people take the reins.

Here’s my recommended ownership hierarchy, from most to least responsibility.

1. The student
Bottom line: the student is the one going to college, and the more responsibility he or she takes for their own college admissions process, the more successful they’re going to be. Don’t sit back and wait for your counselor or your parents to handle everything. You can and should seek input and advice from people you trust. But every time you let someone else choose the colleges or complete an application or wedge their words into your essays, you’re losing ownership. And your applications will inevitably show it.

2. The parent
This can be a delicate dance to be second in command while simultaneously being discouraged from actually doing anything yourself. But while it’s your student’s college application process, this is your kid. And nobody is more invested in their happiness and success than you are. Here’s a past post with five important tips to help you identify what you can and should be doing.

3. Your high school counselor, and your private counselor if you have one
It might surprise some people to see counselors listed third here. You might think, “Isn’t this their job?” Yes, it is, but only to a point. For example, if your counselor gives three reminders in three different formats that it’s time for families to complete their FAFSAs, and you ignore those reminders, it’s pretty unfair to say that your counselor didn’t do her job. She’s not the one going to college, she’s not the one raising that future college applicant, and she’s certainly not the one who will be paying the bill. So why should she care more about applying for financial aid than your family does? Expect your counselor to offer you guidance, to answer your questions, and to take responsibility for any other parts of the process that she promised to take care of (this can vary depending on the counselor, their caseload, your school, or the program you’ve selected if the counselor is one you hired). But your counselor doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have more ownership than a parent or student does.

4. Any other professionals or volunteers charged with assisting you in your college quest
As we move down the list, we get to those people who might have responsibility for one isolated part of the process. Your SAT tutor. The person who offered the financial aid workshop. Your English teacher who reviewed your essays. If it’s someone you trust and from whom you sought this help, you should listen to their advice regarding their particular area. But be careful when your SAT tutor tells you to change your essay or your English teacher swears that you’ll get admitted if you apply under a strange major (my high school English teacher told me that I could “practically walk into Berkeley” if I applied as a journalism major—even at that time I knew it was bad information). It’s important to take advice, and allow ownership, from the right sources.

5. Everybody else
College admissions is one area where plenty of people are oddly willing to dish out advice, often while knowing little or nothing about the topic. But the bigger problem with taking advice from friends, neighbors, and other people who aren’t charged with assisting you on the road to college is that they just don’t have enough skin in the game, something I’ve written about before. Your neighbor might tell you where to apply or what to write your essay about, but unless she’s assuming some ownership and willing to accept partial responsibility for the outcome (something few people in this category are ever willing to do), go higher up the ownership chain for your guidance.

Pride + humility

During the college admissions process, be clear about how much you’ve learned and done, but also about how much more you still have to learn and do once you get to college. That combination of pride and humility is hard to resist.