For AP teachers: What to do after AP tests

After AP exams are administered during the first few weeks of May, there’s often no further material for a teacher to cover.  The weeks leading up to the exams can take a lot out of both the students and the instructors, and diving into new material might feel a little overwhelming for everyone involved.  So here’s a suggestion—use the remaining weeks to do an exam autopsy and refine your course for the following year.

When I taught SAT classes in college, the instructors would take the exam, too, at the end of each course.  We did this so that we could see for ourselves exactly what was tested and refine our curriculum for the course.  An AP teacher obviously can’t take the test with her students.  But you could get feedback from your students and let them help you do an even better job the next term. 

Ask your students to give you honest feedback on how prepared they were for the exams.  Let them tell you what kinds of questions appeared, which portions of your course were particularly helpful, and where you might have spent even more time and attention.  Once you’ve done an exam autopsy and gotten a sense of what was tested, let your students help you revise your lesson plans and maybe even create updated study guides based on what they’ve just seen on the exam. 

Finally, if there was any material your students seem to have struggled with, you can use the remaining class time to cover it without the added stress of an impending test.  Yes, the exams will be over, but that doesn’t decrease the value of learning European History or Spanish or Biology (I know I don’t have to sell teachers on that concept, but I’m pointing it out for the students reading this).  And if your students will be taking the corresponding Subject Tests in June, they’ll be even better prepared. 

Multiple deposits?

It's not often I repeat a post.  But this one is important.  From March, 2010:

Seniors who've been admitted to several desirable colleges need to make some difficult decisions soon, as colleges require admitted students to declare their intention to enroll by May 1.  It can be a stressful time, especially for a student who is really struggling with the decision. But whatever you do, don't try to cheat your way to more time by placing multiple deposits.

Some families plunk down deposits at multiple colleges in an attempt to buy a little more time for their kids to choose which college to attend.  The thinking is that you can hold your spot at a few schools and then back out of the additional schools when you eventually name the chosen one.

This is a bad idea for a number of reasons.

I know that this is your search process, and you shouldn't make decisions based on other people.  But when you place multiple deposits, you're taking spots that other kids desperately want.  That's not a nice thing to do.  And parents who encourage that behavior are telling their kids that it's OK to break the rules as long as you stand to gain from it.

Also, deadlines are real.  Sometimes we have to make difficult decisions under time pressure because of those deadlines.  Successful people accept this and find a way to get things done when they need to be done.  The truth is that you're unlikely to gain any additional clarity surrounding your college choices by (literally) buying another week or two to think about it.  Take the allotted time to consider your options, but make your decision by May 1.

And most importantly, if you place a deposit at more than one college and any of your schools finds out that you're doing this, they can revoke your offer of admission (even if they're the school you eventually did choose).  College admissions officers take violations like this very seriously.  Imagine how a boss would react if she extended a job offer to someone and found out that he'd been dishonest with her during the interview process.  What if she found out he'd misled other companies with whom he'd interviewed.  Couldn't that taint his reputation and cause the boss to take back his job offer, even if all of his credentials were still legitimate?  That's how colleges feel when they find out an accepted student was dishonest.

If they catch you lying (and that's what you're doing when you place multiple deposits), no college will care about your GPA or SAT scores or your certificate proclaiming that it was, in fact, you who discovered what really killed the dinosaurs.  You'll be out.  

I know what some of you are thinking. "How will a college possibly know if I place multiple deposits?'"

My response: Does it matter?  Is the risk worth the potential reward?  I don't think it is.

When parents—and kids—know best

The Collegewise counselors have been collecting quotes from our former students and parents for inclusion in our next book.  Katie in our Bellevue office got this one back from one of her former parents.  Sometimes both parents and kids really do know best.


When our daughter began examining her college options, we thought she should apply to our alma mater and schools with highly recognizable names—it was the best assurance of employment upon graduation.  She shocked us when she told us her favorite school was one of which we had never heard.  It possessed a liberal arts emphasis and was clear across the country. We dismissed it, thinking there was no way she’d go there. Well, she is completing her sophomore year at that college and loves it.  She completed an internship in Spain last summer and is looking forward to a summer of classical studies in Greece this year, one typically attended by grad students (neither program was sponsored by her college).  She has grown in ways we would have never imagined. She is making an impact, following her own path, not ours, but a promising one just the same. Sometimes our kids do know best.  It’s their life and there’s a point at which you have to trust and support their decisions.

Carol S.
Mother of Becca, Collegewise class of 2010, St. John's College (MD) class of 2014

Unassailable math

I overheard two mothers in line at the grocery store yesterday talking about the admissions results of their kids’ peer group.  Apparently, one of the students was shut out and didn’t get accepted anywhere.  As one of them described it:

“I don’t know what more she could have done.  Straight A’s, AP classes, great SATs, three years of varsity sports, and she got rejected from…”—then she recited a long list of schools all of which accept fewer than 15 of every 100 students who apply.

I thought two things:

  1. That’s terrible.
  2. It would have been so easy to avoid.

If that student is as strong as they said she was, there was likely nothing more she could have done to improve her chances.  It’s not a failure of qualifications on her part—it’s just math.  Harvard got 34,302 applications and admitted just 2,032 (a 5.9% acceptance rate).  Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton, Columbia and Yale each admitted fewer than 10%.  Those aren’t good odds for anyone no matter what your GPA and test scores are.  Even if you’re stubborn and insist on believing that the most selective colleges are the best, that math is unassailable.      

Applying to a short list of schools that reject almost everyone who applies is a terrible way for a high-achieving student to seek the reward for her work.  If you’ve worked hard in high school and have fallen in love with a few highly-selective colleges, take your admissions shot—you’ve earned that right.  But please don’t limit your list to those schools.  You deserve better than that.   All the bad news you hear about getting into college is true for just a tiny fraction of the over 2,000 four-year colleges.  Hundreds of great schools will welcome you with open arms and give you rewarding college experiences if you’re willing to find and apply to ones that are right for you. 

How one admissions committee discusses applicants

Here’s a 2007 entry from Vanderbilt University’s admissions blog describing how their committee discussions work.  It’s a thoughtful, revealing explanation of how they make decisions that really illustrates just how personal the process is.  If more schools were this open and honest, I think it would remove a lot of the mystery and anxiety from the process for a lot of applicants. 

Passive vs. active editing

I just sent my editor and old college buddy, Adam Kleiner, the revised second draft of my next book still tentatively titled “The Collegewise Way.”  Revising the work and incorporating his suggestions have reminded me just how valuable good editing really is. 

Good editing is active, not passive.  Passive editing is just pointing out the typos, which any competent editor can do.  Active editing is taking the time to make bigger suggestions about what will make the book more readable.  That takes more time and requires a deeper understanding of the writer, the work, and the audience.  Throughout the edits, he’s made recommendations about what should be rewritten, moved to a different section, or deleted entirely.  He also points out where a quote from an admissions officer or a Collegewise student would be helpful.  He suggests sidebar material.  He raises questions about whether or not additional detail or material might improve a chapter.  But he leaves the content generation up to me.  The process is actually similar to how we edit essays with our Collegewise students.     

Good editors don’t get paid to tell you how great your writing is any more than a personal trainer is paid to tell you that you’re in good enough shape.  Some of Adam’s editing borders on evisceration, but the truth is that in over 270 pages of comments, there hasn’t been one instance where I didn’t think the revision made the writing stronger, punchier, and far more readable.  That’s what good editing should do.

Here are a few samples of his work below.  We’re still on schedule for a July release of the book.  It’s currently 279 pages and covers everything from how to plan a course schedule to how to get off a waitlist.  If you’d like us to tell you when we release it, you can sign up to be notified here

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A calendar item for senior families

Senior families, if you’re in the fortunate position of receiving a need-based financial aid offer to help you attend your chosen college, here’s an item to put on your calendar right now:

December 1, 2012: Check your college’s website to see when financial aid paperwork is due for the 2013-2014 academic year.

You have to re-apply for need-based aid each year that you are in college. Colleges usually send reminders to students receiving aid, and I know you're not likely to forget that you need help paying for college.  But that would be a painful deadline to miss.  Don't risk it.  Put it on your calendar now and you’re guaranteed not to forget next year.

50 ways to spend your summer

If your family has the means to send you to shear sheep in Tibet this summer, knock yourself out.  But please don’t do it because you think you need a splashy or expensive summer experience to get into college. 

One of the many ways the college admissions process has spun out of control is kids planning their summers based on what they think will be most impressive to colleges, often at great expense.  What colleges are really interested in is how you chose to spend your time, and a summer spent bagging groceries can have just as much meaning as one spent at Harvard Summer School.  In fact, one of the best essays I’ve ever read was a student who worked at a hamburger stand who began his essay, “I make a mean hamburger.  In fact, I’m a professional.”

In 2009, I started publishing this list of 50 ways to spend your summer, all of which are free or almost free, and none of which require that you forgo hanging out with your friends, sleeping in occasionally, or goofing off with regularity.  Pick one that looks interesting, or use it as motivation to think of your own way to carve out a great summer for yourself. 

50 Ways to Spend Your Summer

  1. Take an interesting class at your local community college.
  2. Get a part-time job at the mall. 
  3. See how many books you can read this summer.  
  4. Work in your family's business.  Consider doing so for free.
  5. Think of ten people–teachers, coaches, family members, relatives–who deserve your thanks.  Write them a hand-written letter of at least one page expressing your appreciation and detailing how they've impacted you.  Tell them what you're going to do to make them proud and spend the summer doing it.
  6. Take saxophone lessons.  
  7. Coach little league.  Or basketball.  Or soccer.
  8. Work at a summer camp.  
  9. Volunteer at the local mobile health clinic, or the animal shelter, or the public library.  
  10. Tutor kids.  
  11. Start a business with your friends.   
  12. Set a goal that you are 99% certain you won't be able to achieve this summer.  Then go all out and try to achieve it as though your life depended on it.  You'll either get there or get much, much closer than you were at the beginning of the summer. 
  13. Learn how to write computer programs.  
  14. Read to the blind.  
  15. Teach something.  
  16. Learn to paint.  
  17. Pick something that really interests you and see how far you can go with it.  
  18. Take classes to become an emergency medical technician.  
  19. Learn sign language.   
  20. Pick a cause in your community that you care about.  Find groups who care about it, too.  Organize people. 
  21. Offer to intern for free someplace where the work seems interesting, like the city councilman's office, or an advertising agency, or the local newspaper.  
  22. Play guitar at coffee shops and see how much money you can make this summer. 
  23. Learn CPR. 
  24. Cook dinner for your family once a week.  Each time, learn a new dish that you prepare.  Write your recipes down and make your own family cookbook. 
  25. Volunteer to lead tours of local state parks.   
  26. Buy a college guidebook and learn as much as you can about 20 colleges you know nothing about today.  
  27. Raise money for someone or something that needs it. 
  28. Learn something that is pure fun, like bongos or hip hop dance or how to make your own purses (check out your local community colleges' "community education" programs). 
  29. Pick something you love and figure out how to use it to make contributions to others, like playing piano in a jazz band, teaching residents at a retirement home how to use a computer, or helping run the lights for a play at the community theater.  
  30. Work full time and give all the money to a charity of your choice at the end of the summer.  
  31. Pick a subject that fascinates you and challenge yourself to learn as much as possible about it. 
  32. Learn karate. 
  33. Teach karate. 
  34. Join a book club. 
  35. Organize a book club. 
  36. Go to your school principal and ask what you could do, for free, to improve the school.  You could paint a classroom, clean lockers, or refurbish the lunch benches.  Better yet, enlist five friends to do it with you.  Don't just tell colleges you want to make an impact.  Make one.  
  37. Set a goal to learn as many new things as possible this summer–facts, skills, concepts, etc.  Write a blog detailing what you've learned so you can share it with cyberspace. 
  38. Build an iphone app. 
  39. Master one subject or skill you currently don't know anything about. 
  40. Hold informal soccer conditioning workouts, or barbecues for the new student council members so you can get to know each other better, or meetings at Starbucks with your co-editors to brainstorm story ideas for the paper this fall.  Show colleges you can organize people and lead them.    
  41. Have a neighborhood bake sale for the French Club in which all sales are conducted in French.  
  42. Get a group of kids from the drama club together and enroll in an improv class. 
  43. Pick a classic author and read all of his or her works. Find out what all the fuss is about Twain or Hemingway or Plath or Dickinson. 
  44. Take the hardest college class you can find and enroll in it "not-for-credit" so you can challenge yourself with impunity. 
  45. Visit as many colleges as you can in a 30 mile radius of your house.  Take your friends with you.  Write your own reviews of each school and share them with people. 
  46. Learn to cut and style hair.  You'll be a savior during prom season. 
  47. Vow not to watch any TV this summer.  Not one single second.  Pick something cool and fun and productive to do instead.    
  48. Find a class offered at a local college that looks fascinating.  Email the professor and ask if you can sit in on a session or two just to experience what the class is like.  
  49. Train to run a 10k, or a half-marathon, or a marathon, or to do a triathlon.  And get your friends to join and train with you.  Consider raising money with your efforts and donating to a worthy cause. 
  50. Pick the five most enticing things on this list and do them.  At the end of the summer, email me at kevinm (at) and tell me about your experiences.  I'd love to hear from you, and if you give me permission, I'll share your story here on our blog.

Pre-college questions for juniors

When some students apply to college, they’ve done all the work to be qualified, but aren’t prepared for some of the most basic common questions like why they’re applying to a particular school or which activity has meant the most to them.  So here are four pre-college questions for juniors to think about.  These aren't necessarily the exact questions colleges will ask you, but they get to the heart of what colleges want to know (beyond numbers like your GPA and test scores).  If you want to get the most out of these, imagine that someone is asking you to answer them in detail in an interview.  That will force you to really think about your answers.

1. What’s your favorite subject/class/teacher and why?

You don’t have to love every subject equally, but college is school.  And if you’re going to spend four years learning someplace else, it’s good to think about your favorite subjects, classes and teachers.  What made those learning experiences so rewarding?  How did those situations bring out the best in you as a student?

2. What’s a subject you’d like to learn more about but haven’t had the chance to yet?

You don’t necessarily have to know what you want to major in when you apply to college, but if a college interviewer asks you what you plan on studying and all you can do is shrug your shoulders, that will paint a portrait of a student who has not thought about the learning part of college.  Colleges are academic supermarkets where you can learn virtually anything you want to learn.  Even if you aren’t ready to commit to a major, where would your current curiosity take you?  Are you doing anything to satisfy that curiosity today?

3. To which extracurricular activity are you giving the most time, and why?

Many colleges will look beyond your list of activities and ask you to discuss what made them so rewarding, to share stories of your involvement and give them a sense of why you chose to spend your time the way you did.  Asking yourself this question doesn’t just prepare you to discuss your activities when you apply to college.  It also lets you do a little activity audit and make sure you’re spending your time the way you really want to spend it, not just plodding through something because you hope it will help you get into college.

4. What is one club, team, group or other organization you’re involved with that would miss your contributions if you stopped showing up?

I’ve noticed a lot of colleges have started requiring essays about how applicants plan to contribute to the campus community.  “Contributing” in that sense means making an impact—a noticeable difference because of your effort and contributions.  And one of the best ways to answer it is to point to a situation in high school where you’ve made that kind of impact.  You don’t have to be the fastest kid on the track team to have a great attitude and be a great teammate.  You don’t have to be the editor of the paper to write solid articles and stay up late to help with layout when necessary.  You don’t need to be the manager of the store where you have a part time job to show new employees the ropes and make their first day a little easier.  Think about the involvements where you do more than just show up, where you’re really making an impact, and you’ll have some evidence to show colleges just how valuable your contributions really are.  

5. What parts of college are you most excited about?  (Hint: pick at least one academic and one non-academic).

The stress around college admissions and the corresponding journey to get there makes some students forget just how wonderful college will be.  It’s good to daydream about what your life will be like once you get there.  Thinking about that now will make the work you’re doing now have more meaning, and it will probably remind you just how many places could give you those things, even if they aren’t highly competitive colleges.

For our email blog subscribers

If you’ve been receiving my daily posts via email, you’ll notice a change starting today.  Now you’ll get the full text of each entry in your email, rather than just the “teaser” opening lines.  You’ll no longer have to click into the blog to read the rest of the entry. 

I selected the original settings thinking it would be good to let people choose whether or not they wanted to read each entry in its entirety.  But all that did was force people to open their browsers to read the rest of each post.  In retrospect, it’s not a good idea to make it harder for subscribers to read the content they’ve asked to receive. 

Thanks to Shane for pointing that out. 

You can subscribe to receive the daily posts by email here.