Does your counselor know you?

Every time I hear a student say, "My counselor at school doesn't even know me," I always say the same thing,

"Why don't you fix that?"

It's nobody's job to care about your college process more than you do.  If you don't know or have never met your high school counselor, take responsibility, show initiative, and fix that problem this fall.  Schedule an appointment with your counselor to talk about your college plans. 

Don't complain about something that you can fix.  Change this story to,

"I'm going to get to know my counselor."

Advice on choosing high school classes

When you have a question about whether to enroll in a particular class, like:

"I don't want to take both AP Government and AP Chem.  So which one should I take?"

"Should I take a fourth year of language?"

"Can I take AP Psych instead of AP Calculus?"

Here's a good place to start: ask yourself where your interest overlaps with the biggest challenge. 


Admissions officers are always impressed by a student who challenges herself, even if that student gets more B's than A's because of it.  College is school, and the more difficult your classes are, the better your academic training. 

But colleges also want to see flashes of your academic interests, the subjects that you want to learn more about and might consider pursuing in college.  When those interests overlap with challenging courses, that's the academic sweet spot.

If you don’t want to take both AP Government and AP Chem simultaneously, pick the one that looks more interesting to you, dive in, and learn as much as you can.

If you’re not sure whether to take a fourth year of language, ask yourself how much language really interests you.  If you’re a lot happier learning about math and science than you are about Spanish, consider trading Spanish and taking the hardest math and science classes available to you.

And if you want to take AP Psych instead of AP Calculus, be honest about why you want to do that.  If it’s because AP Psych just isn’t as hard as AP Calc and you still want the extra grade point from an AP class, you’re not exerting the effort or following an interest.  In fact, you’re actively ignoring both areas of our chart.

But if you’re actually interested in psychology, if you’ve volunteered with abused kids or done peer counseling or been inspired some other way to learn more about how and why our minds work the way they do, couple the interest with the effort and jump into AP Psych. 

I can’t imagine a scenario where a college would penalize a student for taking the hardest class you could find in something that really interests you.

Good writing trumps good bullet points

Jason Fried writes in Inc. Magazine


Resumés reduce people to bullet points, and most people look pretty good as bullet points… Cover letters say it all. They immediately tell you if someone wants this job or just any job. And cover letters make something else very clear: They tell you who can and who can't write. Spell checkers can spell, but they can't write. Wordsmiths rise to the top quickly. Another rule of thumb: When in doubt, always hire the better writer."

The process is more important than the outcome

The way you decide to approach any process—especially college admissions—is much more important than the final outcome is. 

Care enough about your grade in chemistry that you work as hard as you can.  But if you still don’t get the “A” you wanted, be happy with your effort.  You’re almost certainly smarter as a result of the work you put in, and the fact that you didn’t get an “A” shouldn’t diminish that. 

Care enough about your spot on the soccer team, your role in the school play, or your chair in the school orchestra that you practice hard and make every effort to improve.  But if you don’t get a starting spot, the lead, or the first chair, find a way to make a contribution in a different role.  And be OK with that.  The hard work and different experience will both teach you something.   

Care enough about your college future that you take challenging classes, study and approach the application process seriously.  But if you get an admissions rejection from your dream school, shake it off and recognize that another college that had the good sense to say “Yes!” can still give you a great college experience.  The process—all the hard work and learning you did to get there—will pay off no matter which colleges admit you.

The most successful college applicants I’ve met worked hard enough during their process that they could relax and accept any outcome.      

Five college planning tips for students with learning disabilities

At Collegewise, parents sometimes ask us if colleges will consider the fact that a student has a documented learning disability.  And while the degree of consideration depends on how personal each college’s evaluation of their applicants gets, there are a lot of things LD students can do to help their chances of admission to the right schools.

Here are five college planning tips for LD kids.

1. Don’t let your disability affect your effort. 

If you want colleges to look beyond your transcript and consider your disability, show them that you haven’t let it affect your effort to learn.  Challenge yourself as much as can.  Ask teachers for help.  Find creative ways to work around your learning disability.  Colleges know it’s those kids—the ones who work to overcome their challenges (even if they didn’t get “A’s”)–who will keep giving that effort and succeeding academically once they get to college.     

2. Ask for—and accept—help.

Part of managing a learning disability means asking for and accepting help when you need it.   So visit your teacher after class when you have questions. Ask your counselor for advice about classes you should take, colleges you should consider, and whether or not you qualify for extended testing time.  If you’re really struggling in a class, tell your parents that you’re having a hard time and ask if they can help you find a good tutor.  Don’t worry about seeming too dependent on other people.  There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it, especially if you’re appreciative and willing to work hard. 

3. Maximize your academic strengths.

Do you have a particular class or subject that you really enjoy, maybe where your learning disability seems to hold you back less than other times?  Maximize those opportunities by doing your best work.   If you struggle with reading and writing but have always loved math, take challenging math courses.  Be especially engaged in your math classes by raising your hand and asking questions.  Take an extra math class over the summer at a local community college.  Colleges are always looking for areas of academic spark, and this is particularly important for students who are working to overcome learning disabilities.    

4. Find the right colleges.

Some LD students want to select their schools based on name, location, or other factors and don’t want to look into special LD support services or programs.  That might be fine for some students, but remember that consideration of your learning disability goes both ways.  If you’re not willing to factor in your disability when choosing colleges, it’s not fair to expect those schools to consider it when they evaluate you.  Think—and be honest—about whether or not you need colleges with LD support.  Be specific about exactly what kind of services you need.  And look into colleges that are known to have strong programs for LD kids. The more challenging your learning disability has been for you, the more you should consider it when you pick your colleges.   

5.  Be willing to share your LD story.

If you want colleges to understand your particular challenges, share your story with them.  Not just by mentioning it in one line on an application, but by writing an essay, or talking about it in an interview, or asking your counselor to tell them about it in a letter of recommendation.  And what should you share?  Everything listed above.  Tell colleges about your efforts to overcome your disability, the people who’ve helped you along the way, and the areas where you’ve done your best academic work.  Explain your thought process in picking your particular schools, how your LD played into that decision, and what you plan to do to be academically successful once you get there.  Your counselor can give you good advice about the best way to share your story with each particular college.  But if you want them to consider it, you’ll need to share it some way. 

There are plenty of colleges out there that can give LD kids a great college experience.  But you can improve your chances of finding and getting accepted to the right one for you by following these tips. 

Don’t wait for someone to pick you

If you have a dream college, it’s not entirely up to you whether you get to go.  You have to hope they admit you.  But one of the nice changes in the world today is that for most things you want to do, you don’t have to wait for someone to pick you.

If you didn’t get into AP Calculus, nobody’s stopping you from learning it.  You can take it online at MIT.  For free.  It doesn’t matter what your GPA or SAT scores are.

If you want to write, you don’t have to hope your school newspaper picks you to write your own column.   You can write a blog.  You can write an email newsletter for your club.  Just start writing what you want to write.  Nobody's holding you back.

If you like photography, you don’t have to wait to get picked for people to see your photos.  You can take good pictures.  You can enroll in a class online. You can post your favorite photos to your blog.  And you don’t necessarily need to get picked by the yearbook or the school newspaper to take pictures of school events.  Do you really think the cast of the musical, the artists, the cross country team, the marching band, or any other group wouldn’t appreciate and thank an enthusiastic photographer who captured great photos of them doing what they love?  No need to get picked.  Just take good pictures. 

And you don’t have to get elected to a leadership position to lead people.  Find an issue or cause you care about, bring in other people who feel the same, and lead them.  If your volleyball team needs new uniforms, organize the fundraiser to pay for them, recruit the volunteers, and you’re officially a leader.

You can lament how hard it is to get picked by the most competitive colleges.  But the good news is that there’s never been a generation of high school students with fewer constraints to stop you from doing what you want to do.

The most successful students aren’t waiting for someone to pick them.  They’re learning, writing, photographing, and leading already.

Judging your admissions chances based on someone else’s results

It’s natural for students (and their parents) to judge their chances of admission at a particular college based on the results of people they know.  Students compare their classes, GPAs, test scores and activities and conclude,

“If I do what my friend who got in did, I should get in, too.” 

But the problem with that method is that you don’t necessarily have all the facts. 

Do you know for sure what your friend’s GPA and test scores were?  I’m not suggesting this is all a big conspiracy, but that’s personal information and not everybody tells the truth when pressured to reveal it.

More importantly, you didn’t have access to the admission file.  You didn’t get to see the application, the description of the activities, the letters of recommendation or the essays.  And you probably weren’t sitting in the interview with your friend. 

You don’t have all the information.  And the information you do have might not be entirely correct.  

If you want to judge your chances of admission at a particular college, start by talking to your high school counselor.  He or she will know who got in from your school last year, and more importantly, they’ll have access to more good information than you will.

If you’re worried you won’t get in anywhere…

If you're not sure whether or not you'll be accepted to any college at all, here's something that might encourage you.  Go to the College Board's website and use their "College MatchMaker" function.  Select "Four Year" colleges and then, under "Admissions" select "More than 75% accepted."

You'll find over 400 colleges (roughly 20% of the total number of four-year colleges in the United States) that take nearly everyone who applies.

From there, you can limit the search to particular states, number of students that attend, or what majors are offered.  But start with the broad list and then start eliminating.  

And you might be interested in one of my old posts about how B and C students can still show their potential to colleges. 

There's probably a college out there for you if you want to go.

Does applying early decision improve your chances of admission?

Asking if you have a better chance of getting into a highly-selective college by applying early decision is like asking if you have a better chance of hitting a home run if you're hitting at Coors Field in Denver.  Yes, but only if you’re already a legitimate major league home run hitter.   

Early decision is an admission option offered by a small number of colleges in which high school seniors apply to one (and only one) early decision school by early November.  In return, the college gives you a decision by mid December.  The catch is that if you get in, you have to go.  You actually have to withdraw all your applications from your other colleges.  It’s like an arranged marriage, college admissions style.  A little research will show you that the admissions rates for early decision applicants are often significantly higher than those of students in the regular pool (University of Pennsylvania admits more than 30% of its early decision applicants but about 10% of its regular applicants.)  It’s some compelling data. 

But the data won’t help if you’re not quite in the right league.  Coors Field has a reputation as the most hitter-friendly park in Major League Baseball (something about the elevation combined with the dry air resulting in less wind resistance on the ball).  If you’re Alex Rodriguez and you’ve hit over 600 home runs in your career, you’re going to do very well at Coors field.  But if you’re me and you’re happy to get a solid base hit in the annual softball friendly, Coors field isn’t going to help.

A student who is a great match for an early decision college, who would be competitive even in the regular pool, and most importantly, who is absolutely certain that she’s found her collegiate soul mate might enjoy a small admissions advantage applying early decision.  If you fit those three criteria, talk it over with your high school counselor and strongly consider the option. 

But don’t apply to an early decision school because you think it might be your back door entry into a highly selective college.  Attempts to game the system almost always backfire in college admissions.  Reapply your energies to finding appropriate colleges who will appreciate you just the way you are. 

And here’s where I’ll resist the urge to end with a painful strikeout/home run analogy.  

Welcoming five new additions to our Irvine, CA office

You know you've made a great hiring decision when you're excited to tell people about it.  And we're really excited to tell you about five new additions who've joined our Irvine, CA office.  So here they are, complete with our usual folksy bios. 

Breanne Boyle 
College counselor & essay specialistBreanneBorder

Back in high school, Breanne worked at Baskin Robbins where she could scoop ice cream with both arms simultaneously, a feat that earned her much acclaim in her hometown of Upland, California.  Upon graduation, she turned down lucrative full-time job offers from several nationally-ranked ice cream establishments who were eager to capitalize on her scooping stardom, choosing instead to enroll in college, more specifically, Miami University, not to be confused with the University of Miami, which is why the school officials refer to their institution as either “Miami University of Ohio” or “Not the University of Miami!”  After winning a collegiate national championship in Mock Trial, Breanne graduated with degrees in English and creative writing, enrolled in UC San Diego’s college counseling certification program and went to work as a recruiter for Miami where she visited high schools, spoke with interested students and often said things like, “NO—we are NOT the University of Miami!  What is WRONG with you people!?”  Today, she is both an essay specialist and a full-time college counselor at Collegewise, a closeted World of Warcraft gamer, and not-so-closeted fan of the Real Housewives franchise (with strong opinions as to the relative merits of each cast and storyline).  She also has a horse named “Sassy” who is, apparently, aptly named.

Neekta Khorsand
College essay specialistNeektaBorder

Neekta taught herself to read when she was five, which is pretty impressive.  She also loved biting into raw onions like they were apples, which is pretty unusual.  When her second grade teacher asked her to help her fellow classmates with their reading, aforementioned fellow classmates would often say, “Thank you so much for helping me learn to read!,” “You’re very impressive!,” and “Your breath smells like onions!”  After continuing her reading and (thankfully) discontinuing her raw onion eating, Neekta went on to double-major in English literature and American studies at San Francisco State University which, as she puts it, kept her “swimming in a sea of writing.”  Not literally, of course, as to our knowledge there are no bodies of water filled with writing.  But she did write.  A lot.  She’s also worked as a writing tutor in San Francisco State’s English Tutoring Center, and, more recently, as a volunteer with 826LA, a non-profit writing and tutoring center, where she offered personalized college essay assistance to high school students throughout Los Angeles.  When she’s not reading, writing or helping students with college essays, Neekta enjoys eating Thai food, singing the occasional karaoke tune, and quoting virtually every line from the movie “Wayne’s World.” 

Carolyn Sam Rojo 
College essay specialistCarolynBorder

When Carolyn was a junior in high school, she showed up to the PSAT with seven perfectly sharpened pencils.  And her own pencil sharpener.   That fanatical attention to academic detail has served her well.  Today, Carolyn is a 2006 graduate of UC San Diego and a 2009 graduate of University of San Diego School of Law.  In college she was Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and a host of other Latin acknowledgements which, loosely translated, all mean, “I’ve had straight A’s since birth.”  She also played both flag-football and softball while in law school and is the only person we have ever met who writes rough drafts of thank-you notes.  So if you’re her competitor in a classroom, in a courtroom, or on the field, well, good luck—you’re going to need it.  And if you need help with your college essay (or if you’re just trying to come up with a nice thank-you note to Grandma), be assured that Carolyn can help you.  Before joining Collegewise as a college essay specialist, Carolyn spent a year with the AmeriCorps VISTA program helping refugee families learn English and adjust to life in the U.S.   She also still gets out on the ol’ softball field regularly and loves yoga where she resists the urge to bring seven perfectly-rolled mats to every class.

Rachael Ryan 
Assistant college counselorRachaelBorder

Rachael is rabbit phobic.  Seriously—she finds rabbits extremely creepy.  Not surprisingly, she is also not a fan of the Easter Bunny, magicians, or South Dakota State University (whose mascot is the Jackrabbit).  Rachael was a career advisor at FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) where she counseled students on resumé writing, interviewing, the importance of balancing your own style with what’s trendy, and how to look current and sophisticated simultaneously (there is a reason the white button-front shirt is so popular—it’s professional and easy to dress up or down!).  She is a graduate of University of La Verne and has a master’s degree in college counseling and student development from Azusa Pacific University, schools whose mascots—the leopard and the cougar respectively—are, not coincidentally, natural rabbit predators.

Shelley Paget
Assistant college counselorShelleyBorder

Shelley is a country music fanatic, so much so that she has been known to belt out a mean karaoke version of “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks.  She also believes that Target–not Disneyland–is the happiest place on earth, especially when country music is playing over the store sound system.  Sure, Disneyland may occasionally play country music, but can you buy a reasonably-priced natural wood Adirondack outdoor patio collection there like you can at Target?  Nope.  Didn’t think so.  Shelley graduated from Cal State Fullerton, earned her master’s degree in educational counseling at Azusa Pacific University, and recently completed a college counseling internship at Brea Olinda High School.  When she’s not college counseling, listening to country music or shopping at Target, you can probably find Shelley at Angel Stadium.  Really, there’s a very good chance of that; she loves going to Angels baseball games so much that she moved right across the street.  Beat that, A’s and Red Sox fans!