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.

The wrong way for colleges to use new media

I just got back from St. Louis and the annual conference of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC).  More
than any other topic, the sessions offered for admissions officers were
about reaching out to students using new media, social networking, Iphone apps, etc.  And there were dozens of exhibitors in attendance selling their services to help colleges take advantage of those mediums. 

I think new technologies offer huge opportunities for colleges to communicate with students quickly and cheaply, but more importantly, honestly.  Some colleges are using the technology but missing the opportunity.  Here's an example. 

Visit the admissions section of the Boston University website and you'll find this video, "Write an Essay That Stands Out."  It's 2 minutes and 20 seconds of polished, over–produced video with quick
cuts, background music, and ultimately not that much advice. It's the exact opposite of what they want kids to do with their essays, which is to be themselves without trying too hard.  

How much easier, cheaper, and more effective would it have been to have 2 or 3 members of their admissions staff just speak openly and honestly to students in that video?  They could have talked about some of their favorite essays they've read, and which stories are over–used and worn out.  They could have given some practical, encouraging advice to students.  And they could have used it as an opportunity to connect with students and show the real people behind the normally faceless admissions committee.

It's clear that new media is going to be a part of the college search and application process whether colleges want it to be or not.  I hope more colleges use it as an opportunity to be more personal rather than more commercial.  

I wish more colleges would follow their own advice

If a family hired a $50,000 consultant to help craft their student’s application and essays to a particular college, to advise the student on everything from what activities to pursue to what to wear to his college interview, every admissions officer I’ve ever met would justifiably cry foul.  They’d almost certainly recommend that the student save his money and instead just be himself, secure in the knowledge that the right colleges would appreciate him.  It’s good advice.

I wish more colleges would follow it themselves.

lot of students and parents don’t realize just how much money colleges spend to market their schools to students.  Collegiate marketing is a huge industry in which colleges buy everything from lists of students based on PSAT scores to expensive marketing consultants to help them craft their messages and develop their brands for the college-bound audiences.   

Look at the exhibitors that will be in attendance at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling’s annual conference this fall, and note how many of them have descriptions like, “recruitment services,” “student leads,” and “lead generation.”

Sometimes those marketing experts just make colleges look silly, as Appalachian State and more recently Drake University learned the hard way.

I actually don’t fault the colleges entirely.  I’m always talking up the fact that there are over 2,000 colleges in this country and it makes sense that a lot of those schools are competing to fill their slots.

But to the colleges reading this, teenagers are a lot smarter and savvier than most of us give them credit for.  They’re not going to fall for carefully branded messages your marketing consultants create any more than you would fall for a strategically crafted essay the student didn’t actually write herself.

If you want to stand out to your intended audience and really generate interest from the kids who are most likely to appreciate what you offer, follow the same advice you’ve give kids–don’t try to sound like everybody else.  Be authentic.  Be specific.  Don’t worry about whether or not you sound impressive.  Like this…

“We’re a pre-professional school filled with students who’ve identified what they want to do with their lives and are looking to us to help them make those dreams realities.  Yes, you’ll go to class here.  But you’ll also learn by actually doing things outside of class.  If you want to be a teacher, we’ll put you in a classroom as a teacher’s aid during your first year.  If you want to be a journalist, you’ll see for yourself what life is like working at a newspaper or magazine during your first summer.  And if you want to be an engineer, we’ll have you designing your own buildings or machines or circuitry two years before you graduate.  Not everyone knows at age 18 what you want to do with your life, but if you do and you’re ready to start down that path, you might enjoy spending four years here.”

Or…

“We’re a place for thinkers.  Spend a day here and you’ll see students reading all day on our main lawn.  You’ll hear them discussing politics or Russian literature or Chinese history (seriously, you will).  Sit in one of our classes and you’ll see how engaged our students are in what’s being taught (it’s not surprising–students here interview their professors before picking their classes just like you’d test drive a car before you bought one).  We don’t have a football team, fraternities or a marching band.  But we do have a Civil War reenactment society, a club committed to a sustainable food project, and a gentlemen’s society dedicated to providing free homemade ice cream to the community.  Some of our students even have blue hair.  They’re a quirky, interesting, disarmingly intellectual bunch and we couldn’t be happier to have them all here.”    

The best way for a high school student to stand-out is to be authentic and proud of who he is.  I think more colleges should do the same.

Two thoughts about work

I know two great quotes about working, one from an author, one from my dad.

NewQuotation

The best advice I got from Eric should be on a bumper sticker on every car in America: 'If it feels like work, you're working too hard.'"

Christopher McDougal
Author of
Born To Run

And…

NewQuotation

It's called work for a reason.  If it wasn't work, they'd call it vacation."

Roger McMullin (my dad)

It might seem like those two ideas are in conflict, but here's how I think they work together. 

Every successful person, from an Olympic marathoner, to the owner of a successful business, to an "A" student in high school accepts that to be successful, sometimes you have to do things you'd rather not do.  Some mornings, the marathoner gets up and runs when he'd rather sleep in.  The successful business owner sometimes stays late when she'd rather be at home relaxing.  And there are probably lots of nights where the "A" student studies when he'd much rather watch TV or go out with his friends.  It is, after all, called "work" for a reason.  

But the most successful people still love what they do.

Elite runners will tell you that there's no better feeling than finishing a good, hard run.  Successful entrepreneurs love being in charge of their own professional destinies and making their businesses successful.  And "A" students like challenging themselves, learning and mastering material.  The success feels good, and once someone has a taste of it, the work it takes to get there is part of the enjoyment.

So yes, work hard.  And accept that to be successful, you're going to need to do things that you might not always want to do.

But work shouldn't make you miserable.  It shouldn't be a gut wrenching, soul crushing experience.  If it feels that way for too long, you're working too hard. 

An easier way to find what you’re looking for on our blog

We've just added "Categories" at the left below the "Search" box.  So whether you're looking for advice for parents, tips for counselors, test prep advice, essay guidance, Collegewise news or all of our entries about why famous colleges aren't necessarily "better" colleges, you won't have to search through hundreds of entries to find them.

Thank you, Rosie, for the suggestion (and for reading this blog every single day).

My productivity project

First, a disclosure: This entry's going to get a little personal.

For the last year, I've been frustrated by what I felt was a decrease in my productivity at work.  It wasn't from lack of effort.  I was still working about ten hours a day during the week.  I was busy all day.  I wasn't shirking my responsibilities.  But I'd still go home too often feeling like I hadn't accomplished anything really important or meaningful.  There were too many cool projects that were unfinished or not even started.  And in an effort to reclaim the personal life I gave up for much of the first ten years of Collegewise, I didn't want to start coming in earlier, staying later, or working for long stretches on the weekends.  That just wasn't the answer.   

But in the last month, I've gotten more done than I have in the six months before it. And this is in spite of the fact that I took a 7-day vacation during which I didn't do one second of work.  I'm feeling better about what I'm accomplishing every day, and it's showing in the quality and quantity of what I've been producing here. 

I am far from an expert on productivity especially since I've only recently started reclaiming mine.  But I thought I'd share a few discoveries I've made in the hopes that if anyone is feeling the same frustrations, maybe some of this will help. 

1.  Don't try to remember it–just write it down.

I've always been proud of my ability to keep everything in my head without writing things down.    I've never missed a deadline or an important appointment.  Remembering without writing it down has always worked for me.  Secretly, I thought it made me smarter than people who spent all day checking off to-do lists.  

But remembering everything was taking up an awful lot of my mind's space.  My IQ doesn't break the bank, and spending that mental energy recalling all the things I had to do meant there wasn't a lot of brainpower left to figure out the best ways to actually do them.  Writing things down has freed my average, over-worked brain from the responsibility of actually remembering.  Now I'm thinking about how to best attack the to-do lists, finding new approaches to the challenges at work, and dreaming up exciting projects I want to add to the list.  That–not the remembering–is the fun stuff.  And when it's all written down, I never feel overwhelmed, no matter how long the list is.  I can relax knowing that each item will be there waiting for me until I'm ready to deal with it.  I don't have to work at all to remember it.

2.  I've started recording voice memos.

Part of my "Don't try to remember it–just write it down" change is that now when I think of something I need to do and I'm not at work, I record a quick voice memo on my Iphone.  It takes two seconds to do it.  And then each morning, I listen to my voice memos and add them to my list.  Just like #1, it's a relaxing exercise to record it and not have to remember it. I feel a release of responsibility every time I record one.

3.  I close my email and turn off my web browser for 2-3 hour stretches while I'm working. 

Email wreaks havoc on my productivity.  I just can't resist reading a message the second it arrives, even if it's just some dopey reply to a Facebook thread I don't even care about.  I can't stop myself from responding to an interesting email right away.  I can't help but check my favorite blogs several times a day to see if there are any new posts (and yes, I visit Facebook more than I need to).  So the day becomes a constant stream of interruptions that kill my productivity, interruptions that I'm actually inviting into my life.

Now, I just eliminate the interruptions.  I shut off my email and my web browser for 2-3 hour stretches. It felt irresponsible to do that at first.  But then I realized something; I'm not a heart surgeon.  Nobody is going to die if an email to me goes unanswered for a few hours.  My favorite blogs (and Facebook) will still be there.  With all that shut off, I can do 2-3 hours of focused, door closed, get-after-it-like-I-mean-it kind of work.  Then when I feel my focus starting to wane, I'll take a 10-15 minute break and satisfy my email, blog and ever-present Facebook curiosity.   It's like a reward for myself before I get back to the work.

I can't understate what a difference this has made for me.  I'm not even popular enough to receive that much email, but even 2-3 messages an hour means 2-3 interruptions when the work and the focus just grinds to a halt.  I can't turn focus on and off like that.  I have to get into a zone and stay there.  And the best way for me to do it is to eliminate the things I know will distract me.

4.  For big projects, I'm using Cal Newport's Ice Bath Method.

When a project was so big and scary that I didn't even know where to start, I would inevitably leave it behind and divert my focus to more immediate things, like paying our bills, writing this blog, or ordering more coffee for the office (OK, that one really is critically important).  But the Ice Bath Method is working for me.  Here's the gist: 

  • Start with a half-hour brainstorming session where you think about the big ideas for your project.  Do it in an interesting place like a coffee shop (I use my office, but I close the door and open the blinds so I can look out the window).  Use only a pad of paper and a pen (read his post–there are good reasons not to use a computer).  For me, coffee is a big plus here, which is why I do this brainstorming in the morning.
  • Later that day, give one hour of hard focus to the results from your brainstorming session.  Make some short-term to-dos that need to happen first. 
  • Then leave it alone for at least a day before you come back to it and start attacking the list.

What happens is that instead of staring at an overwhelming project that you can't even imagine finishing, you build in time to actually think about the best way to approach it.  Then you can break it into little pieces and focus on what you have to do to move it forward, rather than being overwhelmed by how much you have to do to actually finish it.  Even a little momentum feels good.  Your results may vary, but it's working for me.  I have four big and progressing projects underway that I hadn't even started six months ago.    

5.  I'm figuring out how I work best.

Some people love to be busy all the time.  I'm not one of them.  Busy is great, but if I'm going to do good work, I also need some quiet time when I can think without distractions and focus hard on what I'm excited to do.  So if I need quiet time now, I take it.  I'll work from home some days when I know I need to make more progress on a project.  I'll take the 1-2 hours necessary to just think about a challenge at work and figure out how to best approach it.  Not everybody needs to do this, but it works for me, so I might as well capitalize on it. 

I'm not going to let myself off the hook by saying that I work ten-hours a day.  The number of hours you work doesn't mean anything.  I've worked at other companies where totally ineffective employees spent all their time talking about how many hours they were putting in, while the effective workers were getting a lot more done in a lot less time.  The hours don't matter; what
matters is how much I'm actually getting done, and how good the actual
work is.  So it's up to me to do whatever it takes to produce the best work I can.

I think most successful people can articulate how they work best.  Late at night, early in the morning, under pressure, without pressure, in teams, solo–the key is to find how you work best.  I've been thinking about that a lot lately and trying to spend as much of my work time as possible working in the ways I've found I can do it best. 

My productivity project is still a work in progress.  But I'm getting a handle on it now.  If you're experiencing similar challenges, this book and this blog were good starting points for me. 

What behavior does your college admissions approach inspire?

John Katzman, the former CEO of The Princeton Review, has always said that he judges tests by the behavior they inspire.  The SAT is a bad test because it inspires kids to study test preparation–knowledge that is only useful on the SAT.  AP US History is a better test because it inspires kids to study US History, which is arguably more important than SAT questions like "What is the greatest number of regions into which the shaded region can be divided with exactly two straight lines?" 

The behavior that a goal inspires tells you a lot about the goal.  If you're so obsessed with cooking that you take three cooking classes over the summer, your goal is inspiring good behavior.  If you're so obsessed with hanging out with the popular kids that you try to become something you're not, well, that's not so good.

College admissions works the same way.  A lot of kids make their educational goal to get into a "good college."  So they obsess about their GPAs and forget to find the joy in learning.  They spend way too much time and money on test prep instead of reading or playing the tuba or spending time with family and friends.  They grade grub, count their community service hours, and pick their activities based on what they think colleges will like.  They're stressed, sleepy, and maybe even a little scared by the whole process.

That goal isn't inspiring good behavior.

Some kids make their goal to find the right college where they can learn, have fun and make discoveries about themselves.  They work hard in high school but are also quick to tell you what their favorite class or teacher is.  They commit themselves to activities they care about and love what they're doing.  They want to learn as much as they can about different colleges because they know there are far too many choices to believe that only the famous ones could be right for them.  And most importantly, they're happy, optimistic, well-rested and eager to see what waits for them on the other side of high school. 

So, what kind of behavior is your college admissions goal inspiring?  And if you're a parent, what behavior is your goal inspiring in your student?  If you don't like the behavior, it might be time to choose a different goal.  

Ask Collegewise

We get a lot of emails from people with questions about our take on admissions issues, how we run our business, or why we approach parts of admissions process the way we do.  We thought that instead of trying to answer those on a one-on-one basis, we'd answer some right here in case any of our readers might benefit, too.

So, we're looking for some interesting questions to answer here on our blog.  If you've got one, email it to us at blog@collegewise.com.  And make sure the subject line reads "Ask Collegewise."  We'll pick some of the most interesting ones and answer them here.  Send 'em on!