Five paths to frustration

Some parents are so worried about their student receiving an offer of admission from a prestigious college that they’ll consider any course of action rumored to help.  Here are five common paths I’ve seen parents take that lead to frustration and disappointment almost every time.

1. “We have a connection…”
The reported value of connections in college admissions is grossly exaggerated.  The 24-year-old admissions officer reading your student's file doesn’t care that you have a close personal family friend who’s a graduate of the school.  Unless your connection is the person reading the file (or someone who will halt funding for the new science building if your student gets rejected), don’t count on the relationship leading to an offer of admission.

2. Repeated rounds of expensive test prep
Test scores make some families feel more control over their admissions destiny because they can compare a student’s scores to the published averages for each school’s admitted students.  And test preparation certainly has its place for some students.  But the law of diminishing returns applies to score improvements gained through test preparation, and I hate to see an otherwise accomplished kid sacrifice time preparing for a third or fourth try at the SAT that’s not likely to pay off.

3. Searching for a back-door to admission, like applying under an odd major
Yes, some majors are more open than others. But if everyone who applied as a forestry or soil science major got into a particular college, word would have gotten out by now, and everybody would be doing it.   And just because a student is admitted into a less popular major doesn’t mean he can necessarily change his mind at will once he enrolls.  Unless your student is ready to study trees or dirt for four years, don’t go the route of applying to get into a less popular major.

4.  Expressing interest for the sake of appearing interested
A student who is sincerely interested in a college wants to chat with the rep at the college fair, attend the information session at the high school, and even visit the campus if scheduling and geography allow.  But a student who’s advised to do these things by a parent in the hopes it will influence the admissions decision never seems legitimately happy to be there.  Genuine expressions of interest are good.  Expressions of interest as a strategy are not.

5. Filling out the applications, writing the essays, or otherwise hijacking the process from your student
Most parents who do this are well-meaning.  But when a parent has gotten too involved in the process, it’s almost always apparent to an admissions officer.  The more students do for themselves, the more successful they tend to be at getting into the colleges that fit them.

If you came down with senioritis…

Raymond Brown, Texas Christian University’s Dean of Admissions, just sent a letter to about 100 incoming freshmen whose final high school transcripts showed a drop in their academic performance.  Known informally as the “Fear of God” letter, he asks each student to submit to him as soon as possible “a written statement detailing the reasons surrounding your senior year performance.”  And Brown makes it clear—the admission is in jeopardy.

Whether or not you’ve received a letter like this from your college, if your academic performance took a serious vacation last semester, do what TCU is asking those students to do—send the admissions office a written statement explaining the drop.  Crossing your fingers and hoping the college won’t notice isn’t a good strategy.  It’s standard practice for colleges to review final high school transcripts and to rescind offers of admission if your academic performance takes an early vacation.  They’re going to notice.  Why not start controlling the story now?

If you really do have a legitimate reason, share it.  But don’t make weak excuses and tell the college that the pressure of being a yearbook section editor caused you to get Ds in calculus and government.  If you have absolutely no excuse for the drop, admit you simply did something stupid and lost your focus.  Colleges need to know that you’re going to arrive on campus in the fall ready to throw yourself into your academic work.  Make it clear that you are, and you’ll lessen the likelihood that they’ll take your admission away.

For the family archivists

When families arrive at Collegewise for their first meeting, some parents reveal themselves as their applicant’s archivist.  They endearingly present us with a binder containing every award, certificate, newspaper clipping, etc. that their kid has garnered throughout high school.  If you’ve designated yourself as your applicant’s archivist, please know two things as you approach college application season:

1. What you’re doing will be very helpful. 
2. You’ll need to leave a lot of it out.

Effective college applications use the space provided to highlight a student’s most important activities and accomplishments.  They don’t include exhaustive lists of everything done and won.  Like all human beings, admissions officers can only process and recall a limited amount of information.  Every item you list chips away at their attention, so make that space count.  Don't attach a resume just so you can squeeze every last item out of that binder and into the application. 

Instead, use what you’ve archived to help your student remember the details.  Your applicant knows which activities and awards defined her high school experience.  But the specific details—what she accomplished and when—will be much easier for her to recall if she’s got your trusty binder.  

Why juniors and seniors should save fall testing dates now

The SAT and ACT folks just announced their fall testing dates.  These fall administrations will be the first given under new security measures that include SAT testers no longer being offered the option to test on a standby basis (for those who forget to sign up by the deadline and show up hoping to grab an empty seat).

If you’re even considering taking the SAT, Subject Tests, or ACT this fall, mark the registration deadline dates in your calendars now. SAT info is here; ACT info is here.  There’s enough stress surrounding these tests without forgetting to register and having to scramble at the last minute, in addition to adapting to what could be a less-than-smooth implementation of all the new security measures.

If you’ve already taken the exam(s) and are trying to decide whether to re-test, here’s a past post that might help.

An answer parents never like

When a parent at a college admissions seminar asks me which local high schools are the best, they never like the answer—high schools don’t get kids into college; kids who make the most of what their high school offers get themselves in. 

I understand their disappointment.  Every good parent wants to make the right decisions about their kids’ futures, and it would be a lot easier if I could point them to one high school that does the best job of sending kids on to selective colleges.  But education and college admissions don’t work that way. 

You can send your student to an expensive private school with an extensive offering of AP/IB classes, full-time college counselors, and bevy of extracurricular activities for kids.  But a student who doesn’t take advantage of all those benefits won’t be in a better college admissions position four years from now than the motivated, intellectually curious kid who went to his assigned public school, worked hard and contributed in class, made a positive impression on his teachers and counselor, and spent four happy years playing on the tennis team.  Hard-working, intellectual, nice kids stand out no matter where they go. 

Are all high schools created equal?  Of course not.  But we have seen no difference in the college admission success of our public school kids vs. those at private schools.  Find the school that you think fits your student’s strengths.  Here’s a past post with some criteria to consider.  

And if you aren’t in a position to choose a high school, don’t worry.  Encourage your student to work hard, engage in his classes, and find activities he enjoys.  As long as he applies for admission to the right colleges, you’re bound to like many of the answers.   

The quickest way to get things done and make change

Seth Godin wrote on his blog last month that the quickest—not the easiest—way to get things done and make change is (1) Don't demand authority, (2) Eagerly take responsibility, and (3) Relentlessly give credit.  Students can apply that advice to just about any activity you’re involved in.

You don’t need to be the editor of the school newspaper to take a journalism class over the summer and share your newfound knowledge with the rest of the staff.  You can eagerly take on the task of organizing the bake sale for the French club or running the fundraising drive for the lacrosse team.  And the lead in the school play can take the time to praise the entire cast, the orchestra, and the tech gurus who made sure the lights and sound were perfect every night. 

Sure, it’s not easy.  But it’s quick.  You can start today.  

How to avoid college regrets

According to a recent survey done in April and May of this year, two out of three college graduates of the classes of 2006-2011 said they would have done something differently if they could do it all over again.   That’s not surprising considering the data about the difficult job market for recent college grads and the ever-growing student debt in this country. 

Two particular findings worth noting:

1. Thirty-seven percent (37%) of respondents said they wished they’d chosen a different major (only one in five grads said they had thought about job opportunities when they declared their majors).

2. Twenty-nine percent (29%) regretted not having done more internships or worked part-time in college (the poll found that average starting salaries for people who had interned in college were about $30,000 compared to $26,000 for those who did not).

Here’s what I’d do with that information if I were about to enter college:

1.  Don’t force the connection between your choice of major and your future career.

If you’re already certain that you want to be an engineer, an accountant, or a computer scientist, picking a major based on your future career makes sense.  But lots of students aren’t so sure yet what they want to do with their lives.  Forcing that focus now based on a vague idea of what you want to do in the future doesn’t necessarily prevent you from being one of those grads who later regrets your choice of major. 

If your future is unclear, base that choice on what you know now.  Find a major that will make you excited to get up early for class and throw yourself into your studies.  If that major has a career focus, great.  But if it doesn’t, don’t force it.    

2. Work or intern while you’re in college.

College grads without any work experience are at a huge disadvantage in today’s job market.  But unlike picking a major, taking a job or an internship isn’t permanent.  If you intern at a law firm and decide you don’t want to be a lawyer, finish the internship and move on.  You’ll have learned something important and still have something to list on your resume.  Then find another job or internship closer to what interests you and make a big impact there.  Do that for a few years in college and you’ll be way ahead of those grads with blank resumes.    

And here’s the kicker.  In spite of the fact that more than half of recent college grads wished they’d done something differently, the survey also showed that only 3 percent regretted having gone to college in the first place.  Going to college has always been important.  But what you do while you’re there is more important than ever before.   

Here’s the article: Regrets about College

How to get better customer support

A customer purchased one of our college downloadable videos (“How to Write Great College Essays”) from our online store recently and was unable to log in to her account to watch it. That’s only happened one time before in the past year, and it took me and our tech support guy most of the day to figure out how to get her back in the system.

While we were diagnosing the problem, we had to ask her to work with us and keep trying her username and password. This went on for several hours. But she never once vented any frustration, never yelled at me over email, and never said, “Forget it—this hassle isn’t worth the $12.99,” all of which she had reason to do. She was just patient and polite until we solved the problem.

Sure, I would have worked just as hard to fix it even if she hadn’t been so nice. But her behavior got me thinking about just how much a customer can do to get good customer support from a small business. Even when you’re frustrated, remember that there is a human on the other end. It doesn’t matter if that person is down the street or at a call center in India, they’re still human. Don’t yell, insult, threaten or otherwise scar on the first cut. Human nature dictates that the better you treat them, the better they’re likely to treat you.

Customers can do a lot to get great customer support. For counselors and small businesses, here’s a past post on how to give it.

What can you actually DO?

When you graduate from college, most employers will care more about your answer to one question than just about any other, including:

  • Where did you go to college?
  • Was it a prestigious school?
  • What was your major?

The question:  What can you actually do?

I’ve met business majors from prestigious colleges who couldn’t interpret a profit and loss statement, deliver a sales presentation, or write a compelling proposal.  I’m not indicting prestigious colleges or business majors.  But whether you study accounting or philosophy, if you want to get a job after graduation in this economy, you’ll need to demonstrate what you can actually do.

A finance major who spent two summers in college interning at an accounting firm, who learned how to write a budget, how to minimize operating costs, and how to negotiate a contract–she’s got valuable skills employers can use today

A literature major who worked for three years in her college’s department of public affairs, who rewrote all the copy for the department’s website, contributed 40 articles to the school’s blog, and co-created a marketing plan that helped increase student attendance at football games by 20%–he can do a lot more than quote Shakespeare.  He can improve and even help grow an organization. 

A music major from a division III school that had no marching band, who organized her own group of jazz musicians to play at the basketball team’s halftime shows, who arranged the music and directed the band herself–she hasn’t just earned a degree—she’s got skills that would benefit any school or community that wants to incorporate music.  And she’ll leave a legacy behind when she leaves college.

To be successful today, you need more than just a college degree in the right major.  You need to know how to actually do something with those credentials.  Plenty of colleges—not just the prestigious ones—will give you opportunities not just to learn whatever interests you, but also to manage, lead, write, number-crunch, counsel, or do just about anything else you enjoy and could use to start a successful career. 

There will likely never be a time in your life after college when you're presented with so many opportunities to choose.  It’s just going to be up to you to make the most of them wherever you go.

Show a teacher your appreciation

For a teacher who:

  1. …taught the class that became your favorite
  2. made you realize how interested you are in US History
  3. stayed after school to help you conquer chemistry
  4. encouraged you when you needed it
  5. applauded your effort when you raised your grade
  6. advised your club or organization
  7. gave you advice or guidance that had nothing to do with the class
  8. came to watch your championship football game
  9. never gave up on you
  10. you’ll miss in class next year…

Take the time to offer your sincere thanks before the school year ends.  Just a quick note, email, or conversation after class is all it takes.