Reasons to work hard in high school

  1. To get into a prestigious college
  2. To challenge yourself and learn as much as you can
  3. To get more out of activities you enjoy
  4. To discover what you’re good at
  5. To learn from things you’re not so good at
  6. To work with smart, motivated people
  7. To prepare yourself for life during and after college
  8. To enjoy and benefit from the four years you spend in high school

Too many high school students focus only on the first, and it’s the only one that may not pay off.  The rest are guaranteed to give you something back, something with staying power that will keep paying off long after your dream college sends you a decision letter.


High school students who want to go to college have plenty to be thankful for. 

  • The United States has the best, most coveted, and most accessible system of higher education in the world.
  • There are over 2,000 four-year colleges here, and only about a hundred of them actually reject significant portions of their applicants.
  • Except for about 50 schools where the competition is staggering, colleges have more space available and more need for students than ever before.
  • There are billions of dollars in financial aid available.
  • If you want to go to college, you almost certainly can go.  The only question is where.
  • Any college you attend will have virtually unlimited opportunities for you to learn, grow, discover your talents, find mentors, meet people, make memories and have more fun than you’ve ever had. 
  • What you do in college matters much more than the name or prestige of the college you attend does.

I’m thankful to live in a country where I can start a business I want to start, write whatever I want to write on this blog every day, work with people who want to do work that matters, and help good kids find and get accepted to the right colleges. 

Thanks for reading my blog and for all your support of Collegewise.

Will this all be worth it?

Seth Godin blogged today about "worth it."  It's like he wrote it for nervous high school kids who want to go to highly selective colleges.

Some students who want to go to competitive colleges only want to do things in high school if they’re going to be “worth it.”  And to them, “worth it” is an acceptance letter from their dream college. 

If they didn’t attach a specific outcome to their effort, they’d see that just about everything they’re doing is worth it.

Is it worth it to take challenging classes?  Is it worth it to study and try your best to get good grades?  Is it worth it to pull the occasional late night to study for trig, to volunteer at the hospital, to run the fundraiser for the French club, to take karate classes, to work a part time job at the mall, to be the secretary of the student body, to take pictures for the school newspaper, to run with the cross country team during the summer, to raise your hand and ask good questions in class, to take on responsibility in your club or be the bench warmer with a great attitude or help out the kid struggling in biology?

Of course it’s worth it.  You’re smarter and happier.  You’ve learned more about yourself and what you’re good at.  You’re more confident and self-aware.   You’ve proven that you can work hard, make a difference, and leave a legacy long after you’re gone from high school.

Once you look at why it’s really worth it, it doesn’t matter whether Duke says yes.

There’s nothing wrong with setting goals and even having a dream college or two.  But don’t let a college tell you whether it was all worth it.  It is.  And you’ll see so for yourself once you get to a college that has the foresight to say yes.

Let’s all cut each other some slack

Students, parents and counselors are in the throes of college admissions season right now.  And as the stress ratchets up and the deadlines start closing in, this is a good time for us all to cut each other a little slack.

Parents, remember that while kids are juggling school assignments, practices and rehearsals, they’re also trying to summarize their lives and accomplishments in college applications, with deadlines approaching, knowing all the while that they’re going to be judged on that information.  It’s a lot for them to take on right now.  Give them a little leeway when they forget to take out the trash or when they give you the teenage cold shoulder.

Students, remember that while your parents so badly want everything to go well for you in your college process, they’re also dealing with the impending reality that you’re going to be leaving home for good soon.  It’s a lot for them to take on, too.  Be nice to them even when you’re sure they’re nagging you about your college essays and doing things that seem like they’re trying to make your life harder.  It comes from a good place.

Counselors, remember how much pressure so many students, and by connection, their parents are under.  It doesn’t excuse them asking you to write a letter at the last minute or forgetting to say, “Thank you,” but stress can breed irrationality and make people do things they aren’t proud of when things calm down later.

Students and parents, remember that your counselors are in crazy season right now. They’re handling questions and transcript requests and letters of rec.  They’re trying to manage the college-related neuroses of their students and parents.  They’re doing what they can to help the kid who may not graduate, the student whose parents are in the middle of a bitter divorce and the spitball maker who got kicked out of math class today.  They’re doing it all for kids and don’t get nearly enough thanks for it.  It is a lot to take on, more than most of us will ever know.

College admissions is important and there’s no excuse for ignoring our responsibilities or treating people badly.  But for the next few months, we can all do a better job if we just cut each other a little slack.

Applying because of the name won’t get you in

The best way to answer an essay question about why you want to go to a particular college is to apply to the right colleges in the first place.

Students suffering from “name-brand-itis” might apply to both Georgetown and Brown just because they’re prestigious.  But most students wouldn’t be a good fit at both those schools simultaneously. 

Georgetown is a great place for students who are already envisioning what they want to do with their education after they graduate from college.  That’s why Georgetown has such strong majors in business, government, international politics, political economy, foreign service, and even nursing.   The “About” section of their website comes right out and says in the first sentence that a Georgetown education “prepares the next generation of global citizens to lead and make a difference in the world.” 

A student who’s applying to Georgetown for the right reasons won’t struggle with their essay questions.

Applicants to Georgetown College
Please relate your interest in studying at Georgetown University to your goals. How do
these thoughts relate to your chosen course of study? (If you are applying to major in the FLL or in a Science, please specifically address those interests.)

Applicants to the School of Nursing and Health Studies
Describe how your experiences or ideas shaped your decision to pursue a health profession and how these experiences or ideas may aid your future contribution to the field.

Applicants to the School of Foreign Service
Briefly discuss a current global issue, indicating why you consider it important and what you suggest should be done to deal with it.

Applicants to the McDonough School of Business
Briefly describe the factors that have influenced your interest in studying business.

Now, contrast Georgetown with Brown.

Brown is all about academic freedom.  If you love both physics and music, you’ll be able to create a major that combines both.  You can take courses on a wide variety of subjects that have nothing to do with each other if you want to.  And you can take pretty much every class on a pass/fail option so even a math major who wants to take a philosophy course won’t have to worry about taking a hit to the GPA.  The “Welcome to Brown” section of their website touts their offering of “…degrees in more than 70 concentrations, ranging from Egyptology to cognitive neuroscience.”  And they emphasize that you’ll need to be the architect of your own education.  You’ll work closely with academic advisors, but nobody will tell you what to take or when to take it at Brown.

Nobody who would really fit at Brown would ask a college counselor, “What should I say?” when faced with these essay questions.

1. Brown students choose a degree and concentration (major) by the end of their 2nd (sophomore) year. We are not asking you to make a final decision now, but take a look at Brown degrees and fields of concentration shown in the Guide for Applying to Brown, and tell us which two areas of study seem most attractive to you currently. (We know that with about a hundred choices it may be difficult to select just two, but give it a try.)

2. Why are you drawn to the area(s) of study you indicated? (50 words or fewer)

3. A distinctive feature of the Brown Curriculum is the opportunity to be the “architect of your education.” Why does this academic environment appeal to you? (100 words or fewer)

I’m not suggesting that everybody who goes to Georgetown has their life mapped out or that students at Brown aren’t career-oriented.  But those two schools exist to serve different types of students.  If you’re applying to either just because they’re famous, that’s not a good reason.  And your application will show it.

No matter where you’re applying to college, make sure you’ve picked that school for the right reasons.  Whatever your goals are (even if what you really want to do is figure out what you like, what you’re good at, and what you want to do after college), there are colleges out there that are made for you.  The key is to find them. 

Applying just because of the name isn’t a good strategy for getting in.  And it’s a terrible strategy for finding the right college for you.

People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint

I admit that I have a bias against PowerPoint.  I've sat through too many presentations at conferences where a potentially interesting presenter just read bullet points to the audience from PowerPoint slides.  It drives me crazy, which is why I try to do all my presentations equipment free

So it's not surprising this is my favorite passage from Walter Isaacson's biography on Steve Jobs.


One of the first things (Steve) Jobs did during the product review process was ban PowerPoints.  ‘I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking,’ Jobs later recalled.  ‘People would confront a problem by creating a presentation.  I wanted them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides.  People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.’”

The best way to show interest in a college

A parent at a seminar last weekend asked me how students should best show interest in a college.  She knew that colleges appreciated and often reward students who show a genuine interest in the school because those kids are more likely to accept an offer of admission.

The truth is that no expression of interest—including attending a college fair, making a personal connection to an admissions officer, visiting the school, etc.—is as effective as just applying to the right schools in the first place is.  A student who does some thoughtful college soul searching, who deliberately and thoughtfully searches for and finds the right colleges for her– her interest will be apparent because it’s real.  She’ll have good answers to the “Why this college?” question.  She’ll just fit the school. She’s more likely to attend if admitted, and her application will show it.

Here are a few more Collegewise tips to show interest in a college.  But even they only work if you’ve looked for and found the right schools.

Grandma and Grandpa know best


Whether grandparents get involved in the college process or not, their primary role is to remind the student that college doesn’t represent life’s pinnacle (even as the college guide section of the bookstore continues to grow). Yes, the college years are a big investment. They are an exceptional privilege. And life on a college campus may very well be the last time when students will live in an intentional community of their peers. But when compared to a fully lived life, four years spent on a college campus is just that: four years. A grandparent’s wisdom and perspective can help make that clear.'"

Peter Jennings
Director of College Counseling, Concord Academy
The full text is available here

How PSAT scores are like a Facebook profile

If you’re a junior who recently took the PSAT and you checked the box indicating that you were interested in receiving information from colleges based on your scores, get ready.  Over the next 6-8 months, you’re likely to receive a mailbox full of glowing letters of interest encouraging you to apply.

For PSAT takers who opt in to this communication, colleges purchase the names and addresses based on your scores and a variety of other factors like your classes and grades as you indicated them in the questionnaire, your intended major, where you live, your ethnicity, etc.

Frustratingly, some schools that routinely reject the vast majority of their applicants send out warm and fuzzy letters like these encouraging students to apply.  It’s important to remember that these “search letters” as they are called, no matter how glowing and complimentary, are based on this limited information and don’t necessarily mean you will be admitted.  It’s like reaching out to somebody over Facebook that you’ve never actually met based solely on their profile.  You have some basic information, but you don’t necessarily know for sure that you want to hang out with this person. 

It’s never a bad thing to get information from colleges who tell you they’re interested in you.  But it’s still important to talk to your high school counselor and get a real sense of your chances of admission before you actually apply.