Should you really visit colleges?

Most families who are college searching have heard the advice about visiting schools. It makes sense. It’s hard for students to commit to spending four years someplace they’ve never even seen in person. But much of the advice surrounding college visits is difficult to follow, especially if students don’t have the resources to spend on substantial travel.

For example:

You should visit colleges. There’s just no substitute for actually being there.

Fair enough. But easier said than done, especially if the student is applying to schools that require significant travel to get there. That time and expense adds up fast. And what if a student is applying to 8 or 10 or 12 colleges? Do you really need to book that many trips to be a responsible college searcher?

Don’t visit during the summer—nobody will be on campus. Visit when school is in session so you can fully experience it.

Good advice in theory. Hard to pull off in practice. “Get good grades in challenging courses” is college prep 101 advice. Now students are supposed to take time off from their own schooling to visit colleges?

Demonstrating interest is important to getting in. That’s why you have to visit!

True for some schools, but even for those, it really only applies to students who live close by and can visit at little to no expense. I’ve never heard of a college that would penalize an applicant for electing not to incur expensive travel expenses to visit a school they haven’t even been admitted to yet.

Take the tour, sit in on a class, talk to students, tour the local area, meet with an admissions officer, tour the dorms, etc., etc., etc.

I’ve worked with plenty of engaged students at Collegewise. But I’ve never met one who wanted to turn a college visit into a combination of a homework assignment and boot camp. And even a seasoned adult can only hear so many spiels about school history and how many volumes are in the library before their eyes glaze over.

So, what’s the smart, responsible approach to college visits that won’t necessarily break the bank? There’s no one right way, but here are a few resources.

Here are two past posts, this one with a basic tip, this one with five.

Here’s a recent New York Times article arguing for skipping the visit. Each family should make their own decisions, but I’m including it for any readers who may be feeling like the visits just aren’t worth it.

And if you want to do a deeper college visit dive, here’s our Collegewise College Visit Guide. It includes frequent planning mistakes and how to avoid them, advice on how to spend your time on (and off) campus, and suggested questions to ask admissions counselors and current students. Best of all, it’s free.

Smiling is contagious

I once brainstormed a college essay with a particularly cheerful student who wrote about her practice of consciously smiling at people. She would walk through the hallways at school and smile at anyone who looked like they needed a pick-me-up—the student who looked stressed or unhappy, the new kid in school who appeared unsure, the easy target who was accustomed to hurtful barbs rather than warm grins. She said they almost always smiled back. She was naturally positive, it came easily to her, and sharing the smile felt like an easy way to give even a small lift to someone’s day.

That might sound idealistic or naïve, but it turns out she was onto something. Here’s a short article by Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and author, demonstrating why smiles really are contagious. And the linked study within the article demonstrated that when an overtly positive person entered a room full of people:

“…his jovial mood was picked up by the rest of the group almost instantly. Incredibly, the performance of each individual increased, and the group’s ability to achieve its goal improved.”

You can actually improve the performance of both individuals and groups, and help them reach their goals, just by bringing some positivity to the table. It turns out smiling really is contagious.

By the way, that smiley student went on to her first-choice college, UC Santa Barbara. Today, she’s a merchandiser for a children’s clothing company. And she’s yet to share a single smile-free photo on social media.

Email vs. face-to-face

According to the research cited in this Harvard Business Review article, if you need to persuade someone, asking face-to-face is 34 times more successful than asking over email.

Given that the sample group (who was asking people to complete a survey) approached strangers, I don’t find it particularly surprising that face-to-face contact was more effective. You can easily delete an email without even reading it, but you can’t delete a person sitting in front of you. And we’ve all been cautioned that clicking links in emails from unidentified senders could infect our computers with the electronic version of the Ebola virus.

Still, when you’re making a request of someone, it’s worth considering whether or not you might have better results asking face-to-face. Even the best writers can struggle to communicate the intended tone over email. And there are visual cues that a face-to-face meeting allows, the kind you can’t send through cyberspace.

And if you just have to ask over email, remember that the order matters.

Disagree and commit

When two parties can’t come to an agreement over a particular decision, here’s a way to help make the call and move forward with everyone (including those who disagree) on board: disagree and commit.

According to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s recent letter to shareholders, one of the principles that keeps Amazon working like an innovative startup rather than a static behemoth slowed by size and bureaucracy is to make high-quality decisions quickly. Bezos wants people to vigorously debate ideas including his own. But Amazon’s leadership won’t allow the often fruitless pursuit of consensus to prevent smart, necessary decisions from being made. When they reach an impasse, one party will reiterate the reasons they disagree, then commit to doing whatever it takes to make the decision work. They disagree, then commit.

As Bezos describes it:

“I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with ‘I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.’ Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.”

Bezos didn’t keep arguing. He didn’t schedule another meeting to try to convince everyone he was right. And this time, he didn’t change his mind (he often does). But after disagreeing, he committed. He wants the project to be “the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” That’s a lot more supportive—and productive—than someone who says, “This will never work, and I can’t wait to say, ‘I told you so.’”

Not surprisingly, disagree and commit could be really helpful to counselor teams, clubs, and organizations. But it might even be useful in college planning, too.

A student wants to apply to an expensive college that’s out of her family’s budget. The parent doesn’t see the point in expending the application energy and potentially getting the student’s hopes up. The parent could say, “I disagree, but take your best shot—I hope you get in with a generous financial aid package.” Disagree and commit.

A parent is considering hiring a private counselor for her student. The student doesn’t see the need and wants to handle the process on his own. The student could say, “Mom, I don’t think I need someone to help me. But I’ll go to the free introductory meeting. I actually have some questions for her, too. Who knows—maybe it will turn out to be something I want to do.”

The student isn’t committing to working with a counselor yet. But he’s committing to investigate the possibility with an open mind.

A student who struggles with standardized tests wants to take the SAT again. Her counselor thinks that twice is enough and recommends that the student adjust her college list to include schools that will admit her with her current scores. A counselor could say, “I worry that you’re spending too much time on standardized tests. (Disagree.) But it seems like you really feel strongly about this. And it’s your college process, not mine. So I’ll be cheering you on and hoping you get a score that you’ll feel great about. Do you need some recommendations on how to prepare?” (Commit.)

Sometimes we get entrenched in our arguments just so we don’t have to be connected to a decision that eventually proves to be wrong. We don’t want the other party to later say some version of, “Don’t complain—you agreed to do this, too!”

But disagreeing and committing doesn’t just free us from that worry. It also lets us feel more comfortable relenting, allowing the decision to take place, and actually being a productive part of making the decision successful.

The next time you can’t come to an agreement, do more than just agree to disagree. Agree to disagree and commit.

Catastrophe, or catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing is the irrational act of believing that something is a lot worse than it actually is. There are two kinds, and both show up regularly for anxious students and parents going through the college admissions process.

The first creates a catastrophe out of a current non-catastrophic situation.

You get a C on one test and think, “I’m not smart, and I’ll never get into a good college.”

One college says no and you think, “All my hard work was for nothing, and I’ll be miserable at any other college that I go to.”

Your student doesn’t get into an Ivy League school and you think, “She’ll never get over this. I should have paid for even more SAT tutoring. I’ve failed her as a parent.”

The second kind of catastrophizing looks into the future and imagines the worst that could happen.

If the SAT tutoring doesn’t work, I won’t get the score I need and I’ll be rejected from all my favorite colleges.

If she doesn’t get into that AP class, she won’t be ranked in the top 5%, she won’t be competitive for good schools, and she’ll need to transfer to a different college as a junior.

If I don’t get into Stanford, I’ll never get into a good law school, and I’ll let my parents down.

The best way to battle both? Start by asking yourself, “Is this actually a catastrophe, or am I just catastrophizing?”

When you consider that question, try to be objective. Take the emotion out of it and focus rationally on the actual facts.

I acknowledge that some college admissions catastrophizing comes from the complexity and uncertainty of the process. The facts might be that you don’t really know exactly how one C or one test score or one decision will or will not affect your admissions outcomes. In those cases, a quick conversation with your high school counselor will help.

But no calm, rational, non-catastrophizing person truly believes that long-term life damage will be done by one grade, test score, or admissions decision in high school. Short-term impact and even disappointment? In some cases, maybe. But if you’re constantly anxious about the ride to college and wish you could be enjoying it just a little more, remember that the better you can get at differentiating between catastrophes and catastrophizing, the more you’ll be able to focus on the right things.

Real people

Some high school students are so driven to get accepted to selective colleges that they actually morph into full-time applicants. They’re not actually applying to college 24/7. But they talk about their life in terms of GPAs, test scores, activities, accolades, etc. The college applicant displaces the real person.

You’re not a college applicant; you’re a real person who happens to be planning on applying to college. As involved as that process might be, you should still have plenty of areas in your life that have nothing to do with impressing admissions officers.

For example, do you have answers to these questions?

  • What do you do for fun?
  • What’s the best experience you’ve had with a friend in the last six months?
  • When’s the last time you laughed really hard?
  • What relaxes you?
  • Which of your activities means the most to you, the activity you would miss the most if it were taken away from you?
  • What’s the last thing you learned just because you wanted to learn it, not because you had to learn it?
  • If you could create your perfect Sunday, what would it look like?

If you don’t have answers, maybe it’s time to find some.

And if this all seems trivial because you just can’t turn off the applicant mindset, you might be interested to know that many colleges ask these kinds of questions on their applications and during interviews.

They’re not just admitting applicants—they’re admitting real people.

Decision time

Seniors have until May 1 to make up their minds about which of their offers of admission to accept. If any soon-to-be college freshmen (and their parents) are wondering…

Do I really have until May 1 to make up my mind? Some of these acceptance letters make it sound like I won’t get housing if I wait that long.


Can I put deposits down at more than one school so I can take more time to decide?

…then, please see this past post, which answers both questions.

If/then vs. now/then

Too many students make college-planning decisions using the if/then model.

If it will get me extra credit, I’ll participate in class.

If I get elected to a leadership position, I’ll take on more responsibility.

If it will help me get into an Ivy League school, I’ll perform some community service hours.

But the if/then approach leaves too many of your decisions to chance, circumstance, or the whims of other people. Wouldn’t you rather be in charge of yourself?

Instead of if/then, why not try now/then?

I’ll participate in class now; then the teacher will see how engaged I am.

I’ll take more responsibility now; then the club members will know that I’m someone who gets things done.

I’ll do community service and make a difference now; then I’ll be proud of my contributions when I apply to college.

When you take the “if” out and start now, you’re in charge. You get to create your own “then.”

It’s your time, after all. And while you should be deliberate about how you spend it, you’ll get a lot better results when you spend less time waiting for “if” and more time doing something now.

More on the class rank debate

The public school system in Spokane, Washington, recently announced that they will eliminate both class ranking and the valedictorian system from high schools. Walt Gardner, a 28-year veteran of the Los Angeles Unified School District and a lecturer at the UCLA Graduate School of Education, disagrees with the decision. And Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, disagrees with Walt.

Clearly, there are smart, informed people on both sides of the “Should high schools rank students?” debate. But that’s not the point of this entry.

Walt argues: “When students enter the workplace, they will be assessed in one way or another, whether they like it or not.”

Denise argues: “We [Challenge Success] have found that eliminating valedictorian status and class rankings has reduced stress at certain schools — especially those where achievement in the form of grades and test scores and college admission rates is valued above all other traits.”

But there is a way that students (and parents) can have the best of both the worlds that Walt and Denise describe. There is an approach that will allow you to learn from a system that assesses you whether you like it or not, but without causing undue stress. Here it is:

Accept your high school’s policy about class rank, whatever it is. Then get back to focusing on things that matter and that you can control, like your effort, goals, engagement, etc.

Decisions about school policies like class ranking should be made carefully. What works for one school or student population may not work for another, and there is certainly nothing wrong with communities of students and parents having their voices heard in those discussions.

But it’s important for students and parents to remember two things about class rank:

1. You almost certainly don’t get to control what your school decides to do with class ranks.
2. You will not meet an adult whose current levels of happiness and success are tied in any traceable way to whether or not their high school decided to assign them a numerical class ranking however many years ago.

I’ve written about the class rank debate before, and that past post includes a link to a good write-up on the University of Virginia’s blog. But the themes are always the same. The more time and energy you expend debating your school’s class ranking system, the more frustrated you’re likely to become. And the less time and energy you’ll have to invest in things that will make you both happy and successful.