How is college life going?

It’s that time of year when our Collegewise counselors email their former students who are now in college to find out how things are going.  We ask them to tell us about their college lives, what they’re up to, and to send us a picture showing us how they’re spending their time.  It’s not just good college research for us (college kids are better than any website or guidebook if you want to know about their school).  Not all that long ago, these students were researching schools with us, filling out applications, writing essays, and worried about who might say yes.  That's all behind them now, and it's fun for our counselors to hear how their college lives are going.

The best thing about reaching out to our former students is the near universal reminder that college kids are happy kids no matter where they go.  Not all of those students are attending the college that was their first choice back in high school.  But like romantic rejection, college rejection eventually goes away.  There’s too much to do, too much to be excited about on a college campus to dwell on who said no. 

If you’re starting the college search process right now, I know it might seem like USC or Duke or Brown is the only college where you could ever be happy.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing to fall in love with a dream school, especially if it keeps you engaged and excited about your college process.  

But try to remember that no matter what happens, this is all going someplace good.  You’re going to get into college.  You’re going to move into a dorm and meet new friends and take classes you actually want to take.  You’re bound to have a good report for anyone who checks in to see how your college life is going, whether or not your school is a famous one.  

For counselors: How to get students and parents to read what you email

I send a monthly “Collegewise Parent Email Newsletter” to families in our program who ask to receive it.  And our counselors occasionally send group emails to all of their students with important reminders, especially when it wouldn’t make sense to email each student individually to say exactly the same thing.   I thought I’d share a couple things we’ve learned through trial and error about how to get more of our families to actually read what we send.  I’m hoping it might be useful to high school counselors or other private counselors who are taking the time to send good information and would like even more of your students and parents to take the time to read it.

1. Send emails worth reading.

The best way to train people to read your emails is to send them emails worth reading.  I’ve made the mistake of sending out a monthly newsletter just because it was time to send it out, not because I had something particularly profound to say.   That’s always a mistake.  Every email you send trains people to either look forward to or ignore future emails from you.  So never send an email just so you can say you sent something—send it when you have something important or timely to share.  Nobody’s going to complain that you aren’t emailing them often enough.  And if they do complain, you must be doing something right—your emails are so good that people miss them when they don’t arrive.

2. Get permission.

You can send out something with great information your families can’t get anywhere else—but emails that people didn’t ask to get always have a faint whiff of spam no matter how great the content is.  So I only send our parent newsletter to families who specifically ask to receive it.  We let them register for it on our enrollment form.  And whenever I reference “Those of you who get my newsletters may remember…” during seminars, I always get a few more families who ask to be put on the list.   Making people ask means you’re always sending to people who want to hear from you.  And if they don’t read or like what you send, then you know it’s time to come up with a different strategy.    

3. Write for selfish readers.

Email is a selfish business—we all read messages from the angle of “What’s in it for me?”  If you send your freshmen the same email you send seniors with advice about writing college essays, your freshmen will delete it.  And worse, they’ll be less likely to open your next message.  So you really have two options.  One is to segment your audience so different groups get specific emails meant only for them.  If you can do that, great.  But that’s not an easy thing for a counselor with a large caseload to do.  The other option is to organize your content by group.  Write a short paragraph for each grade level (and let parents have their own paragraph) so people can skip what doesn’t apply to them.  If it’s a newsletter, write the short summary paragraphs and then insert a link that will take interested readers to a more thorough write up.  The key is to let people find the information that matters to them fast.  If they can’t, they’re going to delete it.  

4. Be brief.

If we send our students a two-page email with all of our best advice about how to start the Common Application, most of them won’t read it.  It’s not our fault (or theirs).  Long emails or newsletters don’t get read because kids and parents are suffering from e-information overload.  The best way to fight through the clutter is to keep emails to one screen (no need to scroll through to read them) and share only what’s essential.  You don’t have to list all 30 of the new scholarships your office has applications for.  Just mention that you have applications for 30 scholarships totaling over $40,000 in potential free money for college—the interested students will notice that.  Get right to the point and make it forcefully. 

5. Find a good subject line.

We’ve all spent the time to write a great piece we then introduced with a subject line like, “October Newsletter.”  A generic subject line screams, “generic email.”  Your subject line should entice your audience to open the message.  So give them a taste of what’s to come, but leave some room for appropriate intrigue.  “7th semester transcript and midyear report reminder” isn’t going to make people stop, click, and read.  But, “Seniors, your college apps are incomplete without these final forms…” does a better job.

Which semester is the most important?

Want to know which semester of high school is the most important?  This semester—that’s the most important one.

Whether you’re a freshman or a senior, in the fall or in the spring, the current semester is always the most important semester for college admissions.  Last semester is gone.  You can’t change what’s happened in the past.  And next semester isn't here yet.  The semester you're in today is what you should be focused on.  What you do this term, how hard you study this week, whether or not you participate and ask questions in class today—that’s where you can make a huge difference and change your potential college outcomes.  Now is what matters most.     

Make your current semester the best one yet, and only good things will happen.

How many cups of coffee a day can you sell?

There’s a 7 Eleven in Long Island that sells a company record of over 2500 cups of coffee a day.  Their secret is a cashier named Dolores who’s been there 18 years and greets all of her customers by name.  There are plenty of other places to get coffee, but Starbucks doesn’t have Dolores. 

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to be the star of the softball team, the lead in the school play, the president of the student council, the editor of the school newspaper or the first chair violinist in the orchestra to be important to the group and impressive to colleges.  Just bring a great work ethic and attitude with you.  Use whatever role you’re in as a chance to do your best work.  Don’t just go through the motions and do things so you can list them on your college applications.  Give a good show in whatever you’re doing. 

People around you will notice, and so will colleges. 

Fatherhood vs. the SAT

I learned today that a student I counseled through the college admissions process back in 2001 is now married—he and his wife are expecting their first child. 

Back in high school, he was one of those good students who worried a lot—about his GPA, his SAT scores and whether or not colleges would appreciate the community service he’d done.  He worried about the one B he’d gotten on his report card, whether or not his essays would be good enough, and if the colleges really would be able to decode the complex system of weighted grades his high school used.  He was a good kid who worked hard and wanted to go to a good college.   

How much do you think he’s worrying about those things now?

His grade in Spanish, his SAT score, and whether or not UC Berkeley said yes don’t matter anymore.  That’s all part of his high school past.  He's got bigger things on his mind now, like becoming a parent, navigating fatherhood, and saving for his child’s college education.

There’s nothing wrong with a student or parent worrying (a little) during the college admissions process.  Going to college is something that carries enough weight to deserve a little worry now and then.

But you can manage those worries a lot better if you remember just how insignificant most of them seem one day.

There’s a reason nobody’s ever said:

“My wife gave birth to our first son today.  I really wish I’d gotten a higher score on the math section of the SAT back in high school.”

If you want to make sure you get a job after college…

In today’s economy, a lot of families are understandably worried about students’ job prospects after college.  I constantly see articles online about the majors with the best job placement and highest starting salary (guess what—none of them seem to agree).  

If you really want to improve your odds of a successful job search after college, here are five things I’d start learning how to do in high school.  Pick a few (or try them all).  Then use the opportunities in your college years to get even better at them. 

1. Learn to sell.
A lot of people think selling is icky.  But if you’re really good at sales and your track record shows it, you’re always going to have a job.  The best sales people don’t cost money for a company—they make money for the company.  If you work on the school newspaper or on the yearbook staff, take on the job of securing advertising.  If your club needs donated goods for the annual fundraiser, make that your job.  And don’t you dare let your parents sell the programs for the lacrosse team or the candy bars for the student council for you.  Get out there and sell them yourself.  Selling isn't easy.  It’s hard work and it can be demoralizing.  That’s what makes the people who are good at it so valuable.

2. Learn to write really well.
Writing is now many peoples’ preferred method of communication.  You simply can’t afford not to be good at it.  Clear writing is evidence of clear thinking.  If you can write a persuasive cover letter to HR, you’ll stand out during the job search.  And you’ll always bring something of value to whatever company you work for when you can write a convincing email to a reporter or some punchy copy for a company newsletter.

3. Learn accounting.
Do you like numbers?  Take a business accounting class at your local community college, one that teaches you how to read a profit and loss statement.  As a bonus, try to find a course that teaches you how to make and manage a budget for a small business.  It's hard to envision a place of work that doesn't have to manage money, pay employees, and make sure their tax returns are accurate.  All of those things depend on good accounting.

4. Learn how to keep computers working.  
If you can diagnose and fix computers, servers, and even networks, that’s a great line to have on your resume even if you’re looking for a job at an art gallery.  Sure, large companies have dedicated IT staffs to keep things working.  But at smaller companies, the one worker who actually knows how to diagnose problems and fix them, even though it’s not her job, is bringing a lot of value to the workplace.  She's also saving the company potentially thousands of dollars in costs for outsourced IT support.  

5. Learn how to do good work.
The best way to get a good job is to be really good at your last job.  And it’s surprising how many college grads have never worked before and think that a college degree alone will make them stand out.  I think every high school kid should get a part-time job at some point before you graduate.  Not a fancy job filing at your mom’s law firm, but a regular teenage-kid-job like bagging groceries or flipping burgers or selling clothes at the mall.  You learn a lot about what you’re good (and not good) at, and what it takes to be successful.  Thrive at one job and you’ll have an advantage when you look to move on to your next one.  Have a string of successes by the time you graduate from college and you’ll be ahead of the competition.  

Now, before you write off any of those as not being applicable to your field of interest, I’d just remind you that people who make yoga mats for a living still need to sell them.  Computer engineers still need to write emails and even proposals.  The head of a non-profit agency needs to know how to read a financial statement and balance a budget.  Anyone who uses a computer would benefit from knowing how to keep it working properly.  And since everyone leaves college hoping to get a job, previous work experience benefits every college grad.

Which tests to take and when to take them

My friend Paul Kanarek at The Princeton Review just wrote a piece to help students decide which standardized tests to take and when to take them.  As is typically the case with anything Paul writes:

1) It's excellent.

2) I had to look up at least one word to find out what it meant.

He gave me permission to share it, and you can download your copy here.  

How to train people to listen to you

When I was a freshman in college at my first official fraternity meeting, one of the older guys (who’s now a pediatrician), said to me:

“Kevin, I want you to notice something.  There are some guys here who always have to say something about every issue we talk about.  Watch what happens whenever they talk.”

The lesson became obvious pretty fast.  Whenever the talkers spoke, everyone just tuned out.  The talkers had trained the group not to listen to them. 

The guys people paid attention to were those who listened more than they talked, who weren’t afraid to contribute but did it when they really had something to say that was different from what had already been said.  Whenever they talked, everyone tuned in and the room got quiet fast.  And almost without exception, what they had to say was more insightful. 

It's fine to answer a question in class and be wrong.  It's fine to suggest something in a meeting that gets shot down.  Never be afraid to contribute.

But don't become one of those people who talks so much that you train people not to listen to you.  The more you listen, the more they'll listen back.  I still forget that sometimes, and it’s one of the best lessons I took from college. (Thank you, Dr. Mike).

Don’t hide

It’s scary to risk suffering the pain and embarrassment that can come with failing.    You might:

…try your best in AP chemistry and not do well.
…run for junior class president and lose.
…suggest an idea for a French Club fundraiser that raises almost no money.
…try out for varsity basketball and not get picked.
…apply for a part-time job and not get hired.
…put your hand up and give the wrong answer in your math class.
…fail the AP Euro test even though you studied really hard.
…share an idea with your club that the president shoots down.
…not quite hit the high note in your sax solo.

All pretty rough, I admit it.  So you have two choices. Take the risk, or hide and play it safe.  But before you decide, remember:

1. Nobody ever died from failures like these (motorcycle daredevlis and bullfighters are a different story and beyond the scope of this blog).

2. You’ll never stand out by hiding.

Colleges will always be more impressed with kids who have the guts to try and the maturity to learn from it when they fail.  Don’t hide.  Put yourself out there and go for it.  You’ll either be successful or you’ll learn and move on.  Either way, you’ll be smarter and braver.

Change your college planning mantra

Too many students (and by extension, their parents) plan for college with the mantra,

“If I get into my dream school, everything I’m doing will be worth it.” 

That’s a terrible mantra.  You’re putting all the power in the hands of the colleges and totally ignoring all the long-term benefits of pretty much everything you’re doing. 

Here’s the mantra I’d repeat over and over again:

“If I work like I want to go to my dream school, it will be worth it no matter who admits me.”

That mantra lets you care a lot about what you’re doing without letting prestigious colleges alone decide whether your time, work, energy, passion and personality are impressive enough to be admitted.  It lets you be pleased with your effort when you study like crazy for a trig midterm even if you get a “B-.”  It lets parents praise and appreciate their kid for being a good kid who works hard and is nice to other people, whether or not he has high SAT scores. 

And most importantly, it keeps you focused on developing your work ethic, curiosity, interest in learning, and character, all of which will play much bigger roles in your future success than whether or not the college you attend is a famous one.