Join us for the next episode of College Admissions Live tonight

Arun and I will be hosting our next episode of College Admissions Live, our free online show, tonight.

How to Make a Great Last Impression:
Improving your Chances of Admission After You Apply

With Kevin McMullin of Collegewise and Arun Ponnusamy of Open Road Education

Tuesday, December 7 at 6 p.m. PST.

On our free online channel

We'll talk for about 30 minutes and take questions for 15 minutes.  We hope you'll join us.

For colleges: What if you showed instead of told?

Colleges spend a lot of time and money marketing to kids.  They all promise wonderful educations and experiences.  But when schools all make the same promises, colleges all start to sound the same.  So here's an idea for those in charge of college marketing efforts.

Why not prove it to your prospective students by showing–not telling–them?

All colleges claim to have great professors.  What if your best math professor did a ten-minute video once a week for a semester to show high school kids just how easy trigonometry can be?  What if your most popular writing instructor gave weekly tips to help high school students write better papers?

Your Nobel Prize-winning faculty member could help 11th graders make sense of chemistry.  Your most published history professor could help kids be more prepared for the AP exams. Spanish, French and German professors could make basic language instruction more memorable by sharing subtleties of the vernacular that are common knowledge in the respective countries not normally taught in the high school classroom.  A drama or music professor could share tips on how to nail on audition. 

If your school claims to have great services to LD kids, why not have that office produce a monthly newsletter sharing ways kids can overcome test anxiety, or advocate for themselves, or better manage their disabilities?  Would the students (or their parents) who became reguarly viewers be much more likely to apply later?

Even admissions officers could get in on the act and teach kids instead of marketing to them.  You could show students what goes on behind the scenes of an admissions office.  Let them hear your version of why "Soccer taught me to commit to me goals" is a cliche topic, or why you ask kids to write an essay about how they would contribute to the campus community, or ways kids could better choose their teachers to write letters of recommendation.

Any college who did this would build a willing audience of students who come back week to week to learn from you.  Show them you can teach them now, and you'll spend less time and money telling them why you should be the college that teaches them later. 

Take a class at Harvard, Stanford or MIT for free

Not many people in the world have ever experienced calculus at MIT.  No surprise there since you had to, well, get into MIT, which almost nobody does.  But now you don't have to get in.  You don't even have to apply.  All you need a computer to experience calculus…MIT style.  Here it is.  35 lectures, all free.  No grades.  No pressure.  Just watch and learn for the fun of it (if calculus is your idea of fun).

Even if you don't like math, c'mon–that's pretty damn cool. 

Academicearth.org features online lectures and full courses from colleges and universities.  There are so many lectures available from the Stanford Business School that there's a good chance I won't get any work done for the next three-and-a-half weeks.

Look at some of the great classes you could take: 

One of the most popular courses at Harvard is a philosophy course called "Justice: What's the right thing to do?"  The professor examines difficult moral dilemmas and then challenges your opinion with new information, tackling subjects like affirmative action and-same sex marriage.  Interested?  Here it is.  12 lectures.  You're taking one of the most popular classes at Harvard.  Free.   

Organic chemistry has dashed the pre-med hopes of countless students who just couldn't survive it.  Why not test drive it at UC Berkeley?  Here it is.  26 lectures, all free.  

Are you a Civil War buff?  Want to take a class at Yale that examines the causes and consequences of the American Civil War?  Here they are.  27 lectures, all free.  

Two things worth noticing here:

1. Now more than ever, you don't need a high GPA, perfect SAT scores or a lot of money to learn about subjects that interest you.  Access to quality education is increasing all the time.   Real learners don't have to go far, or pay a lot, to feed their minds.

2. Who's really more intellectual?  The kid whose parents pay thousands of dollars to send him to a summer school session on an Ivy League campus?  Or the kid who takes history classes at his local community college over the summer, checks out every book on the Civil War from the library, and watches free history lectures like the ones at academicearth.org?

Few qualities are more appealing to colleges than a genuine curiosity and interest in learning.  There are more opportunities to demonstrate that trait now than there ever have been before.

On Veteran’s Day…

College applicants, Veterans Day is a good day to remember that you are lucky to be living in a country that has the strongest and most accessible system of higher education in the world, a country that encourages anyone who wants to do so to go to college, a country where you get to decide for yourself what direction you want your life to take when you become a legal adult. 

If your biggest worry is that you might not get into your first choice college, you're very, very fortunate.  We all are.

Is it still worth it to go to college?

In many ways, today's economy actually makes having a college degree less important.

It used to be that just having a college degree was special.  If you applied for a job and you'd been to college, you instantly stood out.  That's not true anymore.  Lots of people have college degrees.  Just about any job for which a recent college grad might apply, there will be at least a dozen other candidates with college degrees who look virtually identical on paper.  

Some people argue that the economy just makes it even more important to attend a prestigious college.  Not true.  There are lots of unemployed Ivy League grads right now.  There are lots of unemployed Ivy League grads who went back and got masters degrees, too.  It's rough out there.

So you could pay up to $150,000 to go to college and come out as just another recent college grad who can't get a job.  If you're going to college just to go, if you're going because you don't know what else to do after high school, that's an awful lot of time and money to invest in something whose rate of return isn't guaranteed at all. 

But I think there's a huge opportunity for future college freshmen here.  Recognize that college is a four-year opportunity to become remarkable–someone future employers won't be able to ignore.

You could coast through your college career, endure your classes and have some fun.  Or you could lean into it.  You could make it your mission to spend every single day of your college career discovering what you're good at, learning as much as you can, finding mentors who can guide you, pushing yourself in classes that scare you (and you could still have plenty of fun). 

Four years later, instead of being just another college grad looking for a first job, you could tell potential employers about…

  • The relief work you did in Haiti when you traveled there with an on-campus service organization.
  • The mistake you found during an accounting internship that saved the company a million dollars.
  • The $250,000 you raised for a non-profit where you volunteered over the summer.
  • The on-campus business you started that later had 20 employees.
  • The changes you made to the athletic department's intramural program during your three years of work that started as an unpaid internship.
  • The political campaign you worked on as an intern, and the on-campus speech for the candidate that happened because of you.
  • The drawings you completed in your art classes that are now featured in the school's largest performing theater. 
  • The 22 websites you built for free for every campus fraternity and sorority.
  • The teaching experience you gained when a professor asked you to TA for her and later to run her discussion group.
  • The speeches you gave to faculty and administrators as part of your work with the ombudsman's office.
  • The work you did with your physics professor to help her publish the latest textbook.
  • The computer program you wrote with a fellow student that you later sold to a software company for a ridiculously large sum of money. 
  • The campus coffee shop you managed during your senior year, and how you grew it 40%.
  • The marketing lessons you learned while working in your college's admissions office to help them recruit under-represented students.
  • The counseling skills you developed as a resident advisor, and how you put them to use when a student was considering committing suicide.
  • The campus photographs you took that the school later paid to have posted on the website.
  • The training program you created from scratch for the campus tour guides that was later adopted by the entire state university system. 
  • The speech the new chancellor asked you to help her write.
  • The meeting you had with the university's president to lobby for additional campus safety officers, and what you learned about beating bureaucracy. 
  • The music you wrote that was later commissioned to be an opera.

Every single one of those items has actually happened.  A few happened to me, others were my college friends, and lots of them are from our former Collegewise students. But they were all products of students who sought out the opportunities and made them happen during their brief four years of college.  

In today's economy, it's easy to ignore a kid with a college degree.  It's a lot harder to ignore one who pairs that degree with a remarkable college career.  It doesn't matter where you go.  Now more than ever, it matters what you do while you're there.

Five college admissions factors that don’t matter as much as people think they do

The stress of college admissions makes a lot of students and parents focus on the wrong things, things that don't matter nearly as much to colleges as we're often left to believe.  Here are five examples. 

1.  Connections.

Most people who think they have an influential connection later find out just how little influence those connections really had.  In the 11 years since starting Collegewise, I've known only two kids (out of several thousand) who were admitted because of connections.  Both had parents who donated several million dollars to particular schools that paid for a new building on campus.  So while I don't deny that there are cases where connections can have huge influence, the truth is that those are extraordinary, and rare, instances. 

2.  Standardized test scores.

Standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are not nearly as important as the college admissions frenzy makes them out to be.  There are very few legitimately intellectual, hard working kids who are shut out of colleges because of low test scores alone.  The tests play a role at lots of schools, and some kind of focused test preparation can be useful.  But if you ultimately spend a lot more time studying for the SAT than you do reading, studying for trig or playing soccer, you're focusing on something that just doesn't matter as much as the things you're ignoring to focus on it. 

3. Your GPA.

Your grades are a lot more important than your GPA is.  What's the difference?  Most colleges don't just take the GPA that's calculated on your transcript at face value.  They look at what classes where available at your high school, which ones you took, and recalculate your GPA while paying attention to the rigor of your courses.  A student who passes up a hard class just because it doesn't come with a weighted grade is focusing more on his GPA than he is on the opportunity to take a great class.  A student who takes an elective college course over the summer not because he's interested in it, but because he hopes it will increase his GPA, that kid is focusing on the wrong things.  Your GPA is not an endangered species that needs to be protected.  Focus more on what you're learning and how hard you're working.

4. Expensive summer programs.

You will not impress Harvard by paying thousands of dollars to attend their summer school.  Programs like that are "pay to play" and often measure a student's financial resources more than they do his interest in learning.  The same can be said for expensive travel programs where you dig ditches in Costa Rica or swim with dolphins off the coast of Fiji (don't laugh–I've met kids who've done it).  Get a job at the supermarket.  Take a cooking class.  Volunteer or intern at the community newspaper or coach a little league baseball team.  No need to shell out all that money to learn or to make an impact. 

5. Strategy, packaging yourself, and anything involving a "hook."

Getting into college isn't about strategy; it's about authenticity.  Intellectual students want to take summer classes.  Students with a sense of service want to volunteer at the soup kitchen.  Leaders want to run for club office.  If you're doing those things as a strategy for getting into what you think is a good college, you'd be far better served working hard doing something you really enjoy.  They are far too many great colleges out there for you to spend your high school years trying to mold yourself into what you think a few selective colleges want.

Good press doesn’t necessarily mean good advice

Which article about college interviews would you be more likely to read?

Option 1:  "College deans advise: Just relax and have a good conversation." 

Or

Option 2:  "College deans advise:  Girls, don't show your cleavage.  Boys, don't scratch yourselves." 

Today, The New York Times chose option 2.

Today's entry on The Choice, a blog I usually enjoy and often recommend, led with the entry, "Advice for the College Interview: Girls, Dress Discreetly; Boys, Mind Those Hands."  Turns out there's very little useful advice other than don't text during the interview, don't burst into song, and don't talk about how much you like to light things on fire.  Seriously.  They might as well have just entitled the article, "College deans advise: don't be rude, stupid or dangerous."

Sure, it's accurate advice.  But most teens don't need the New York Times to remind them not to scratch themselves during their college interviews.

The job of the press is to entice readers and sell papers.  That's why every spring, there will be another round of front page articles about the rising competition of Ivy League admissions.  There will be stories about seemingly perfect kids who were rejected from all their colleges.  There will stats about rising wait-list numbers, decreasing financial aid, and families who are spending tens of thousands of dollars for tutors and private admissions counselors.

It's important to remember that just because these stories end up on the front page doesn't mean they encapsulate the reality of college admissions.  It's just that "Nice kids who work hard always end up OK" will never sell as many papers as "Valedictorian with perfect SAT scores now living in parents' basement after receiving rejections from 12 out of 12 colleges." 

The press isn't being deceitful here–they're just doing their job.  But if you want college admissions reality, rely your high school counselor or a college admissions officer before you rely on the front page.   

PS: In the spirit of always talking about other people as though they were there in the room with you, I submitted this comment to "The Choice."

Our most popular blog posts from the past year

Here are our ten most popular posts from the last year based on the number of pageviews.  Our tips for specific colleges dominate the list, as a lot of students find our blog by typing the actual essay prompt into their search engine.  

1.  Tips for Stanford University applicants: you need a little panache

2. Essay advice for Villanova University applicants

3. Badgers to Be: Tips for University of Wisconsin-Madison applicants

4. For Boston University applicants: A little essay advice

5. Should you take the SAT/ACT again

6. How important are PSAT scores

7.  Don't fall for the sham

8. 10 things every future pre-med should know

9. The five most overused essay topics

10. Start spreadin' the NYU (tips)

You don’t need to be in AP classes to be challenged

Something happened recently that doesn't happen very often.  I disagreed with Jay Mathews.

His 9/26 column, "High School Barred Average Students from Taking AP" (the current link on the Washington Post doesn't work or I'd post it here), was about a high school that required students to have a 3.0 grade point average to take advanced placement courses.  Now, the fact that the school dropped the rule after Jay asked them about it is admittedly suspect.  But Jay's take seems to be that any kid who wants to challenge himself should be allowed into an AP course regardless of his GPA.  

And Jay's post today offers "two accounts from people who suffered because of the still widespread and wrongheaded view that only top students should be challenged."  

Here are my problems with that argument. 

1. I agree that access to education is important.  And any student who wants to be challenged should have a way to do it.  But a lot of high schools just can't accommodate every kid who wants to take an AP class.  If there's one AP US History course offered and 70 kids want to take it, you've got a problem.  Having a grade cut-off is a necessary evil in a lot of schools.

2.  Kids are under enough pressure to get into college today.  Opening up AP classes to more students will just encourage the kid who got a B or a C in trigonometry to take AP Calculus because "That's what colleges want."

3.  But most importantly, an AP class is absolutely not the only way for a kid to learn and challenge himself. 

A kid who wants to learn about US history can take a class at a local community college over the summer.

A kid who wants to learn calculus can learn from an MIT professor for free without ever leaving the house.  MIT's Opencourseware shares the actual MIT course materials, including lecture notes, problem sets, exams and occasionally video for almost all of their undergraduate courses.       

A kid who wants to read classic works of literature can buy them from a used bookstore on the cheap.  If you need help understanding them, hire a grad student to tutor you.  Or join a book club.  If you can't find a book club, you could join one online.

Of all the students I've known who were genuinely interested in a particular subject or idea, not one of them has ever abandoned the interest because he was shut out of an AP class.  There are plenty of other ways to learn and challenge yourself today.