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!

How pizza at Harvard led to a billion dollar company

We're always reminding families that many benefits of a college
experience can't be predicted.  You can't read about them in a college
guidebook or measure them with college rankings.  But you can find them
at any college.  Here's a good example.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is a Harvard grad.  He's interviewed in
the "Alumni Q & A" section of Harvard's website, and I thought this
was interesting.

What did Harvard bring out in you that you
might not have had when you arrived on day one?

"For me, most of
what I got out of Harvard was outside the classroom, including people
that I met and running the pizza business."

But that's only part
of the story.

During his junior year, Tony started that pizza
business on the ground floor of his dorm.  Here's the story, as Tony
described it in his new book

Quotation

It was through the pizza business that I met Alfred.  Alfred was our
number one customer, and he stopped by every night to order a large
pepperoni pizza from me.

We had two nicknames for
Alfred while in college: "Human Trash Compactor" and "Monster." He
earned these nicknames because every time a group of us would go out to a
restaurant (usually it was a group of ten of us at a late-night greasy
Chinese place called The Kong), he would literally finish everyone's
leftovers from their plates.  I was just thankful that I wasn't one of
the roommates he shared his bathroom with.

So
to me, it really wasn't that weird that Alfred would stop by every
night to order an entire pepperoni pizza from me.  But sometimes, he
would stop by a few hours later and order another large pepperoni
pizza.  At the time, I remember thinking to myself, Wow, this boy can
eat
.

I found out several years later that Alfred was taking
the pizza upstairs to his roommates, and then selling them off by the
slice…We ended up doing the math a few years ago and figured out that,
while I made more money from the pizza business than Alfred, he made
about ten times more money per hour than me by arbitraging pizza.

I
didn't know it at the time, but our pizza relationship was the seed
that would lead to many million-dollar business opportunities together
down the road.

And here's what Alfred ended up doing after college.

Coming soon for counselors–notes from our conference

We spent last week at a conference and I missed a few of my regular blogging days.  I'm making up for them with some extra posts to fill in the gaps, but I also wanted high school counselors who read our blog to know that we'll by typing up the notes from the sessions we attended and bundling them together in a PDF file so you can share them with any members of your counseling staff who weren't able to attend.  Many of the sessions were specific to California (like UC and Cal State updates), but there were lots that could apply to any counselor, like changes to the Common App and guidance to share with students about standardized tests. We did this last year and had great feedback from counselors. 

It will probably take us a week to put the packet together, but if you're interested, just keep checking our blog–this is the first place we'll share it.   

Look for fun, not facts, on your campus visits

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post (and the author of Harvard Schmarvard, one of our favorites) has a great take on visiting college campuses.  I've shared it before, but since he's bringing the topic back up, I'll go ahead and share it again.  Here's his latest post

His idea that you can just see what you want to see on college campuses, that you can have a little fun without toting a clipboard and taking notes, also works for counselors

“Will my admissions chances improve if I pick an odd major?”

Occasionally, a family will ask us if a student's chances of admission will improve if she selects an odd major.  The thinking here is that there are so many "business" and "psychology" and "engineering" majors applying to college, you might have a better chance in a lot less popular major, like "forestry" or "food science" or "viticulture" (it's wine making, and don't laugh–it's a real major).

And yes, this can improve your chances…if you've walked your talk. 

A student who's shown a real interest in forestry, who's taken AP Bio and AP chemistry, who's volunteered for the parks service over the summer, who gives tours of the local wilderness park on the weekend, and who has a great answer to the "Why are you applying to this college?" question that includes a good knowledge of the forestry program, that student has an advantage.  She's a good fit for a program that's not a popular one, and the standards of admission for her might be less rigorous then they would for someone applying as a more popular major.

I'm sure there are cases where a less qualified student applied under an odd major with no intention of ever actually studying "soil science" and managed to slip in.  But is it worth the risk to do that?  Do you want to go to any school badly enough to fake your way in?  That's like pretending to love The Beatles just because a girl you desperately want to date is a huge fan of them.  Sure, it might work, but it's also kind of pathetic.  And just like she might expect you to listen to A Hard Days Night non stop once you're together, what if you have to spend a year or two as a "soil science" major before the college will let you switch.  Is it worth it?  I don't think it is. 

Think a lot about what you want to study in college.  Be a mature college shopper who understands that what you learn in college is important.  Pick colleges that match your interests. And don't try to fake your way in by pretending to be something you're not.  

Is it OK to apply as an “Undecided” major?

Some students who aren't sure what they want to study in college worry that colleges might hold that uncertainty against them.  They wonder if applying as an "undecided/undeclared" major makes them less appealing than an applicant who's declaring what she wants to study.

Thankfully, as long as you're applying to the right colleges, you won't have to worry.

Colleges that offer the undecided/undeclared option are perfectly OK with students choosing it.  It's a college's way of telling you that they don't expect every seventeen year-old to know what you want to do with your life.  They'll probably have you take general education requirements, the classes that everyone has to take regardless of their major, so you can try different things.  And as long as you select a major by the end of your sophomore year, you'll be fine.

Not all colleges offer the undecided option.  Lots of schools see their mission as one to help you reach a career that you've identified (Northeastern, Drexel and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are good examples of colleges that do this).  When schools like those ask you what you want to study, you need to have an answer.  

But for colleges that offer an "undecided" option, be confident that you're uncertainty is OK.  If they ask you to describe your academic interests, tell them what you're considering studying and why you'd like to keep your options open.  You should be thinking about those things, but the right colleges won't hold it against you if you don't have an answer yet. 

Can the major you pick affect your chances of getting into a college?

In my next few posts I'm going to tackle some common questions about if and how the major you select impacts your chances of admission.  I'll start with, "Can the major you pick affect your chances of getting into a college?"

The answer is, "At some colleges, yes."

At some colleges, certain popular majors are "impacted."  "Impacted" majors have more interested students than they can accommodate.  It's like arriving at a party that can hold 50 people, but 100 people are already in line to get in.  It would be much easier to get into one of the other, less popular parties.

Not all colleges have impacted majors.  But those who do usually don't try to keep it a secret.  If you want to know if a major is impacted, a quick call to the admissions office will get you your answer.  

So here's the follow up question.  "If the major I want is impacted, should I apply with a less competitive major and then change once I get there?"

It's important to remember that an impacted major isn't just impacted for high school students who are applying; it's also impacted for students who are already enrolled at the college and hope to get into that major. That means you could spend four years at the college and still not get into your chosen major.

If you're going to college because you want to be a journalist, and you've picked your colleges based on the strength of their journalism programs, it wouldn't make sense for you to apply under a different major to any school just so you can get in.

But if you're just considering a particular major and aren't necessarily sure whether or not you'll like it, you might pick a less popular major at some of your schools so you don't unnecessarily weaken your chances of admission. 

Tomorrow: "Is it OK to apply as an 'undecided' major?"