Notable alums come from all colleges

A good tip courtesy of Arun:  Wikipedia’s write-ups about colleges usually list "notable alumni" for each school.  It’s a good reminder that graduates of the least famous of colleges can go on to be CEOs, coaches, politicians, professors, scientists, published authors, actors, inventors, professional athletes, astronauts, entrepreneurs, news anchors and presidents of other colleges.

Where did top CEOs go to college?

Here are the colleges and universities where the CEOs of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies for 2011 earned their bachelor’s degrees (compiled from their respective companies’ websites).  The full list of companies is here.


Five reasons to take SAT Subject Tests

If you’re applying to colleges that require SAT Subject Tests, you’ll obviously need to take the required exams.  But here are five other scenarios where I would recommend you take the relevant subject test. 

1. Have you excelled in a course, particuarly an honors or AP class, that has an associated subject test?
Subject tests are a good opportunity to show off an academic strength.  In fact, the AP tests are significantly more challenging than the subject tests are.  If you’re acing AP US History, get in there and take the associated subject test, too.

2. Is your class or teacher particularly difficult, so much so that your grade in the class is lower than the other grades on your transcript?
You might consider taking a subject test to help show how well you know the material.  For example, if you regularly get A’s, but are getting a B in a biology course with a reputation on campus as being particularly challenging, a good score on the biology subject test could demonstrate just how well you really do know biology.

3. Are you home-schooled?
Subject test scores help home-schooled students better demonstrate their mastery of the material.

4. Are you fluent in a foreign language?
The “Language with Listening” subject tests are given the first Saturday in November in French, Spanish, German, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.  You’ll need to be fluent to score well (completing three years of foreign language in high school won’t be enough).

5. Are you planning to major in engineering?
Students planning on majoring in engineering should take the Math Level II exam.  Many engineering programs require it from applicants, and for those that don’t, many of them will look favorably on an applicant who scores well.  You’ll need to have completed pre-calculus, trigonometry or both.  And you’ll need a relationship with mathematics that borders on the romantic.  But you’ll need that anyway if you plan on majoring in engineering.

Just stop it already

Please don’t email me to break the news that Harvard just had the lowest acceptance rate in its history at 5.95%, or that Yale dropped to 6.8% and put 1001 onto its wait list, or that Cornell got 37,800 applicants, took 16.2%, and put 3,000 on the waitlist.

1. I'm aware.
2. Who really cares?

The press runs this story every year.  "Competitive schools got even more competitive."  Somehow, it’s treated as breaking news.  If I charged people to come to a seminar and then spent the entire time teaching them that it’s hard to get into prestigious colleges, they’d ask for their money back.  But like clockwork, here come the annual stories again.   

Here's a story worth talking about.  There are only 40 colleges in the country that admit fewer than 20% of their applicants.  There are 1600 colleges that admit more than half.  We all get to make a choice.  We can talk about all the bad news and focus on the fact that when Harvard takes 6 out of every 100, your chances of getting in are close to zero. 

Or we can talk about how many great colleges there are out there that will gladly take you just as you are and give you a transformative four-year experience.

I know which story I’d rather read.

Are college admissions random?

After helping more than 3,000 kids get accepted to college, our counselors are pretty good at predicting where our students will and won’t be admitted.  That skill helps us guide families to make balanced college lists where kids can take some educated, focused shots at a few reach schools, yet still have plenty of colleges that are both good fits and good odds of admission. 

But every season, a handful of admissions decisions arrive that just make us ask, what the hell happened?

Sometimes it’s a good surprise, a student who takes a wild swing at a college that was a huge reach and ends up accepted, even though the school denied lots of seemingly more qualified students.  And sometimes a top student, one who seems to have done everything right, gets a rejection from one school that admitted a lot of seemingly less qualified applicants.  That’s a frustrating surprise, especially when it’s a school the student really wanted to attend.    

The admissions surprises get a disproportionate amount of attention and discussion during the college admissions process.  Students and parents are a lot more likely to talk about the “B” student who got into Northwestern than they are the valedictorian’s predictable admission to Michigan State.  Focusing on the surprises makes college admissions seem unpredictable, almost random.

After watching so many kids go through this, I still think the majority of colleges’ decisions are fair and consistent.  The more admissions officers I’ve met and had the chance to work with at Collegewise, the more faith I have that applicants are evaluated by smart, compassionate people.  At the most competitive schools, they’ve got to turn away a lot of kids who were qualified, but they do their best to be fair and deliberate.  It’s not a perfect system and there will always be surprises.  But those surprises are the exception.

If you get a good admissions surprise, be thankful and don’t second guess yourself.  Nobody just slips in—you presented something that made the admissions committee vote to admit.  And if you get the bad surprise, just remember that what feels like a terrible injustice today won’t matter at all in six months when you’re loving your life at a college someplace else.  I know it might feel like that’s never going to happen, but you’d have a hard time finding any freshman in a dorm still lamenting a rejection from a college.   You’ll move on, too.

Where to get straight answers to your college questions

Here’s a fast way to get straight answers from your chosen colleges to questions like:

  1. What classes do you recommend I take in high school?
  2. How competitive is admissions (how many applicants apply, and how many actually get in)?
  3. What’s the average GPA of admits?
  4. What are the average SAT/ACT scores of admits?
  5. How much does each factor—grades, test scores, activities, etc.—count during admissions?

Type the college name into Google followed by the term “Common Data Set.”

The Common Data Set is a standardized questionnaire to which many colleges have posted responses.  I tried this with Boston University, Whitman College, University of Arizona, Colorado College and Haverford College—and found the responses for all five within the first 4-5 Google search results.

Two questions to ask college tour guides

Most college tour guides are students hired to give visitors a scripted presentation about the school.  I’ve never met a high school student who cared how many volumes were housed inside a college library or what year the oldest building on a campus was built, but still, good guide or bad guide, those are the kinds of factoids you get on the tour. 

You might have better luck getting a little honest feedback from your guide with these two questions.

1. What’s surprised you about this school?

This is code for, “What’s something you’re not telling us, something we can’t learn from the website or the college guidebook?”  Don’t let the tour guide get away with an answer like, “I was surprised how easy it was to get involved.”  Really?  You just told us there were 180 clubs and organizations.  You were surprised it was easy to join one?  You’re looking for the guide to get a little personal and hopefully share something that’s not obvious, like, “I’m an engineering major and I was surprised I don’t have to study as much as I thought I would.”

2. What’s something students here complain about but find a way to deal with?

No college is perfect.  There’s always something that’s a common source of student complaints, and it’s almost always something people deal with and find a way to love their college anyway.  That’s why the “…but find a way to deal with” is important—it lets the guides off the hook.  They can be honest about the common complaint, but also acknowledge that this imperfection isn’t a deal breaker.  They can tell you, “A lot of students go home on the weekends, but those of us who stay are never bored here.”       

Your results may vary, but it might be worth a try.

How do colleges encourage you to spend your summer?


While unusual activities may add a great deal to a student’s experience and have a profound effect on their world view, for some it just comes across as decorative, not substantive…I confess I often wonder why some students who live in areas that have many social service needs unaddressed will ignore the local situation but move to another country to perform a similar social service. Is it really a service trip or is it a summer vacation built for college admission purposes? It may be both and that’s not a penalty point, but it isn’t a bonus consideration either. Is the student whose family connections provided an internship at a high-profile organization more worthy than a student who delivered pizza or tended to family farm commitments? The rest of the application will give us the answer."  

Bruce Poch
Former dean of admissions at Pomona College
From The Choice blog

If you get waitlisted

Offering you a spot on a waitlist is a college’s way of saying that you were good enough to be admitted, but there just wasn’t enough room for everyone who was qualified.  If too few of the accepted students decide to enroll, the college will go to the waitlist and offer a limited number of those students a spot in the class. 

According to NACAC’s annual survey of colleges, nearly half (48%) of colleges used waitlists for the fall 2010 admissions cycle, up from 35% in Fall 2008.  And 42% of those colleges reported an increase in the number of students placed on the waitlist.  More colleges are placing more qualified students on waitlists than ever before, so it's important for waitlisted students not to second guess your application and wonder what you could have done differently. 

If you decide to accept a spot on the waitlist, make sure you use the time between now and May 1 to fall in love with a college that's admitted you.  I know it’s hard not to hold out hope for a school that’s making you wait.  But in fall 2010, colleges admitted an average of 28% of students who chose to take a place on a waitlist, and the most selective colleges admitted only 11%.  It’s hard to predict the outcome for a waitlisted student, and you deserve to celebrate the news from schools who said yes.  

MIT can help you study for APs…for free

I’ve written before about MIT’s free online courses as a great way to pursue an academic interest.  The featured course is currently Videogame Theory and Analysis, which is pretty cool. Don’t just tell a potential college you’re interested in video game design.  Actually start learning how to do it.

What I didn’t know until today was that the Highlights for High School section includes free AP exam prep for biology, calculus, chemistry and physics.  The website says the material is appropriate for students who are preparing for the exams, or for teachers who need additional material.