Juking the stats


You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America, school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, arrest stats, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on. And as soon as you invent that statistical category, 50 people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is.”

David Simon, Gaming The System, Juking The Stats

Not surprisingly, we were all reminded again this week that college rankings inspire the same behavior. 

If you look to US News rankings to pick your colleges, you're relying on an algorithm that rewards measures like test scores, how many kids apply, how many get rejected, and how many of the accepted kids decide to attend.  That's some pretty flimsy data to use to evaluate where you should go to college for four years.  And there's no way to tell if or how much those stats are juked.  You can and should evaluate colleges.  But you can't measure the quality of an institution–how well it educates, inspires and transforms–with an algorithm.

By the way, Simon created and wrote The Wire, regarded as one of the finest dramatic series in the history of television.  And he didn't need to go to a "Top Ten Ranked" university to be successful.  He went to the University of Maryland. 

My old college buddy—writer and editor Adam Kleiner—is plugging away editing my next book.  When each round of his feedback arrives, it’s loaded with criticism.   

“This section needs tightening.”
“Fact check—support with a real example.”
“This feels entirely speculative to me.”   
“Too many references to soccer and trigonometry.  Mix it up.”

it’s not exactly a cheerleading squad.  But he’s doing exactly what I want him to do.

Adam knows a lot more than I do about how to publish a book people will love reading.  He understands what I’m trying to do with the book but isn’t afraid to tell me the truth about what’s missing or just isn’t good enough.  I don’t need a cheerleader any more than I need a cranky hack who’s predisposed not to like anything I write.  That’s why I chose him to be my critic.   

There’s a lot of uninvited and counterproductive criticism lobbed around in high school, but you can invite helpful criticism from people you trust who know what they’re talking about, and you can give them permission to be honest. 

Tell your drama instructor how much you want to nail the role and ask her what you could do to improve.  Show your articles to your journalism teacher and ask what would make them even better.  Ask your football coach what you would really have to do to be a starter next year.

Imagine how much better your work could be if you invited the right criticism (and how liberating it would be to ignore the critics you didn’t pick).


Rejection just means redirecting

Last year, I wrote about an idea Arun and I had to present our college essay workshop at the big annual NACAC conference with two particular admissions officers we really like and respect.  We got them on board and polished every word of our session proposal before we submitted it to the conference planning committee.  And then we got rejected. 

Like a “No” letter from a college, the email that we got told us that there were just too many good sessions proposed from qualified presenters.  It turned out to be a good reminder to walk our own Collegewise talk.

College rejections can feel bitterly personal, but they’re not.  We tell students (and their parents) to maintain their perspective and not to treat a rejection like a tragedy or a miscarriage of justice.  That advice turns out to be much easier to give than it is to follow.   But still, we followed it.  We were miffed for a day and wondered how they could have possibly rejected us (“Who could do this better than us??”).   Then we moved on and even laughed about it.  One of the admissions officers we recruited ribbed us for “failing to get him a gig.”  

We also tell kids that one dream school doesn’t get to decide whether or not you have four years of amazing professors, interesting students, phenomenal personal growth and plenty of college fun (Harvard only gets to decide whether or not you do those things at Harvard.)  If we really wanted to share our workshop with counselors, we didn’t need one particular organization to say yes.  We just had to redirect and find another way. 

So I proposed the session myself—and it was accepted—at nine different NACAC affiliate conferences.  Arun and I both did workshops for English teachers at local high schools.  I published a book about how high school teachers and counselors can help their students with college essays.  And Arun ended up speaking at NACAC in a different session about Asian American students and college admissions. 

Most rejections don’t stop you from doing anything—they just make you redirect.  You can still go to the prom with somebody else, get a job someplace else, go to a different college or do a presentation at a different conference.  Don’t give one person, boss, committee or panel all the power.  If they say no, accept it, redirect, and move on.

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.