A good lesson from a senior parent

From the parent of a Collegewise senior who's deciding between five different colleges–University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Washington, University of Oregon and Loyola Marymount University.

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We visited them all and bought five t-shirts from five different colleges.  We'll all get sweatshirts once she picks her school."

This kid can't possibly have any doubts about whether or not her parents are excited for–and proud of–her.

More on AP vs. IB

When families ask us which program is the better choice, AP (Advanced Placement) vs. IB (International Baccalaureate), I usually give them my answer based on how they impact a student's chances of admission.  Both programs do a good job of showing colleges that a student has the intellect and the work ethic to succeed in college.  But it's important to consider the question of college credit, too.

The AP program was originally introduced to allow students to earn college credit while still in high school.  And as Jay Mathews points out in his column today, that's where there's still a big difference between AP and IB.

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Check the Web sites or rule books of most American universities…and you will discover that they offer college credit to students who get good grades on Advanced Placement exams in high school but that they refuse to give the same credit to students who do well on similar International Baccalaureate Standard Level exams. They offer credit to students who get good grades on exams taken after two-year Higher Level IB courses, but those are different. Tests for one-year IB courses don’t get credit; tests for similar one-year AP courses do.  This has produced one of the most nonsensical testing traditions I have encountered in American education, already famous for exam madness. The hardworking students who take a one-year IB course, do well on the exam and want to get the college credit they deserve have to spend another three hours, at one of the busiest times of the school year, taking the AP exam in that subject, which costs $87."

A lot of students take on AP or IB programs with the intention of improving their chances of admission to selective colleges, which both programs do.  But if you're concerned about whether or not you'll eventually get college credit for those choices when you arrive to college, you'll need to research the policies of your chosen colleges.  And at least for now, it's likely that AP will lead to college credit more often than IB will.

Seniors can learn from mixed emotions

It's normal for seniors to have mixed emotions about this time of year.  You're picking your colleges.  You're about to finish high school.  You're looking forward to becoming a college freshman and launching the next four years of your life.  It's an exciting time.

But you might also be sad to think about saying goodbye to your high school friends.  A lot of you may have grown up together.  You traded lunch items in elementary school and played AYSO soccer together.  You survived junior high intact and went on to get your drivers' licenses.  You sung in the school musicals, joined clubs and enjoyed your summer breaks together.  You've been to dances, football games and parties together.  These are the people you spent your high school years with.  And as excited as you may be to leave and start college, it's normal to have mixed emotions and have a hard time imagining what it will be like to say goodbye to the friends who've been such an important part of your high school lives.

So, if you're feeling those mixed emotions when you think about leaving your friends, how do you think your parents feel about you leaving them?

Seniors, be nice to your parents these next few months.  They're going through a lot of mixed emotions, too.

Two things you should know about your high school counselor

I wish that students and parents could see what I see high school counselors doing at the conferences I've been attending lately.  Since you can't be there, I'll tell you two things you should know.

First, your counselors aren't there for themselves–they are at those conferences for you.  Sure, there's socializing and some fun weaved in for them (high-school-counselor-style fun, like College Trivial Pursuit).  But they spend the bulk of their time attending sessions about upcoming changes to admissions policies and learning new ways to help students who need it most.  I'm sure they'd all rather be at home with their families, but they are there.  For you.  And believe me, they're not required to be.  In fact, a lot of them pay their own way because their schools can't afford to send them. 

Second, if you want to see high school counselors get all riled up and defensive, propose something that could hurt their students.  Like state budget cuts that eliminate scholarships.  Or confusing application policies kids might not understand.  Or just about anything that could take away college opportunities from you.  Counselors are generally a mild and affable bunch.  But they turn ferocious and rise up when people and policies get in the way of their students' path to college.

I'm not saying every counselor is perfect (no profession can claim all of its members are perfect).  But keep my two observations in mind before you say, "Our counselors don't know anything," or "They don't do anything for us."  They know and do more than you might think.

Can a senior pick a college by flipping a coin?

Seth Godin says that when you're making a decision based on little or no information, like picking between four or five great colleges who've accepted you, flipping a coin is the only way to make sure you don't waste time and money trying to find certainty where there won't be any.

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Or consider the dilemma of the lucky high school student with five colleges to choose from. UVM or Oberlin or Bowdoin or Wesleyan or who knows what famous schools. Once you’ve narrowed it down and all you’re left with is a hunch, once there are no data points to give you a rational way to pick, stop worrying. Stop analyzing. Don’t waste $4,000 and a month of anxiety visiting the schools again. The data you’ll collect (one lucky meeting, one good day of weather) is just not relevant to making an intelligent decision. Any non-fact based research is designed to help you feel better about your decision, not to help you make a more effective decision…When there isn’t enough data, when there can’t be enough data, insist on the flip…By refusing to lie to yourself, by not telling yourself a fable to make the decision easier, you'll understand quite clearly when you're winging it…Once you embrace this idea, it’s a lot easier not to second guess your decisions–and if you're applying to college, you’ll free up enough time to write a novel before you even matriculate."

I'm not sure that I'd pick a college based on a coin flip (or that the choices need to be famous schools).  But I do know that making spreadsheets of data, or constructing lists of pros and cons, rarely gets a senior closer to feeling certain about the college you're picking to attend.  It's important for seniors to understand that big decisions in life always come with some uncertainty.  No college is perfect, and it will be up to you to make your college experience what you want it to be. 

So if you've got good choices, celebrate your situation.  Use whatever real information you have on hand, like who gave you more financial aid or whether or not a school has the major you want.  Get advice from your counselor, parents and other people you trust.  Then listen to your gut and pick.  Don't necessarily expect to be certain.

Now is the time to offer up congratulations to seniors

We're always reminding our senior families to celebrate every college acceptance, no matter what the college might be.  But this month, that's actually a good reminder for anyone who's in a senior's life, too. 

Getting into college has gotten so stressful that a lot of people only celebrate it when the student's first choice says yes.  Any other outcome brings sympathy for supposedly dashed dreams.  That's the wrong way to treat what should be an exciting, celebratory time. 

Going to college, any college, is a big deal.  So if you know seniors this month who decide where they're going to college (as they all have to do by May 2), congratulate them.  Tell them how excited you are for them and acknowledge how much they have to look forward to.  They'll appreciate and benefit from it.

And if you're a senior yourself, go out to dinner with your fellow future college freshmen on May 2 and celebrate, no matter where you're all going to college.  Congratulate each other on what you've accomplished.  You deserve it.

How to give a presentation worth talking about

I've given hundreds of presentations at Collegewise and sat through at least a hundred others at conferences.  If you're a counselor or a college representative who gives talks to crowds, here are five tips to make your presentation more memorable and effective. 

1.  No long introductions; get right to the point.

Too many speakers spend 10 or 15 minutes introducing themselves and giving a long overview of the topic.  That's just wasting time you could have spent making your points.  Cut the introduction down and jump right in to your presentation.  People have presumably made the choice to show up to your talk.  At the very least, they're already convinced what you have to say might be interesting.  Spend your time convincing them that they made the right choice. 

2.  Decide what your main points are and focus on them.

If you have ten main points in a presentation, your audience won't remember any of them.  Decide what's most important, the information that you absolutely must get across to them.  Then spend the bulk of your presentation on those main points.  This might seem like a huge sacrifice to make cuts to your information.  But it's worth it if it will help you get your most important points across more effectively.

3. Use specific stories and examples.

Stories, not facts and figures, are what people remember.  So use them to make your points for you.  I've noticed when I give presentations that people seem the most tuned in when I support a point with a story of a real student.  And when I hand out evaluations at the end of my talks, the most consistent positive feedback I get is "Good examples" (which is humbling given that the examples are the one part of the talk that I didn't create myself).  Real life examples will always get and hold peoples' attention as long as they can relate to them in some way.   Use that to your advantage.  

4.  Ditch the PowerPoint.

How many times have you sat through a presentation where a speaker reads bullet points off a PowerPoint screen?  It's excruciating.  And yet a lot of speakers are convinced that they need those bullet points to present effectively.  You don't.  Bullet points just guarantee that the audience will focus on the screen instead of on you.  And worse, each time you go to a new screen, they'll immediately read the bullet points and then wait for your talk to catch up to what they've already read.  That's not a good way to hold an audience's attention.  Pretend that PowerPoint hasn't yet been invented and build your talk without it.  I promise your presentation will improve. 

5.  At the end, tell your audience what you want them to do.

I'm going to assume that you wouldn't be giving a presentation unless you wanted people to actually do something with the information.  So tell them what you want them to do.  Be specific.  Give them an action you want them to take, whether that's scheduling a meeting or starting their college research or visiting your college.  Identifying what you want them to do at the end will also help you build a more convincing presentation in the first place.

Why do so many colleges sound like cliche college essays?

A lot of college websites, tours, and presentations sound just like the cliched college essays they're so tired of reading.

If a college's pitch to prospective students touts "small classes," "dedicated faculty," and "a world class library with over 1 million volumes," that's just the college marketing version of the brutally bland and predictable essays like "Volunteering on the blood drive taught me to appreciate helping others" and "I learned about hard work and commitment from sports."

Colleges, if you want students to appreciate what you have to offer, follow the same guidelines you want kids to follow with their essays.  Don't worry about what will "sound good."  Be yourself.  Rely on specifics, not vague abstractions.  And most importantly, don't try to sell yourself.  Just help the audience get to know who you really are.

Good listening makes good understanding

My friend and former boss, Paul, from The Princeton Review has a great habit.  Whenever someone shares an idea or opinion, he asks a follow up question or two to make sure he understands it.  Then he restates it in his own words just to make sure he's got it right.  It doesn't matter if he totally disagrees with your statement the first time he hears it.  He'll first make sure he understands it completely before he offers his opinion or retort.

The upshot of this is that while everyone else in a meeting is busy thinking of what they want to say, Paul is busy understanding what's already been said.  He's always the first person to get it.  It makes him seem even smarter than he is (which is already very smart).  What he eventually says in return is always insightful.  And everybody listens to him as a result of it.

It's not difficult, but most people don't do it.  I'm going to try to do it myself a lot more often. 

Be thankful for what you received

If you're a senior (or the parent of one) who recently found out you:

1) Got wait listed…

2) Were offered admission, but in the spring….

3) Received financial aid, but not as much as you would like…

…it's easy to get angry.  You might be inclined to write or call the college and cry foul, to point out what you think is an injustice. 

But please remember something before you call a college to ask them to reconsider their decision.  All of those students who were rejected or who received no financial aid would desperately love to trade places with you.  So first, be thankful for what you've received.  Then consider whether or not you want to take steps to change your situation.  

If you're in one of those three scenarios and you decide to contact a college, start with,

"First I just want to say thank you.  I know I got something that a lot of people didn't get, and I really want to be mindful of that."

That kind of attitude might change the outcome.