When you shouldn’t do whatever it takes

Doing whatever it takes sounds like a good idea.  But it can hurt your chances of getting into college.

You miss an "A" by two points in your Spanish class.  You argue with your teacher.  You try to make a case why you deserve an "A."  You get your parents involved and have them put pressure on your teacher and counselor.  Eventually, your Spanish teacher relents and gives you an "A-" just so he can be done with it. 

Yes, now you've got your "A-." But at what price?  Your Spanish teacher and your counselor think you're a whiny grade grubber.  They'll think twice before going out of their way to help you in the future.  And you can pretty much forget about getting a positive letter of recommendation from either of them.

When parents harangue a counselor because their daughter wasn't accepted into AP English, or when they pull strings with an influential alumni to get their son an interview with the dean of admission, there's a cost to those actions, and it's almost always the student who pays it.

The fact that the goal is to get into college doesn't always justify the action.  Think about the resulting cost before you do whatever it takes.

Tips to make the next semester your best one yet

Successful peole like to set goals.  So why not set yours to make your next semester the best–most successful, happiest, most productive–one yet?  Here are five ways to do it.

1.  Use spring break to catch up on all the sleep, mystery novels, guitar, bad reality TV, surfing, or anything else you regularly sacrifice for school, activities or the SATS.  Your goal should be to start the second semester happy and well-rested.

2.  Identify your favorite class and turn in a great performance.

3.  If an activity isn't fulfilling, or if you're just doing it to put on your college applications, quit.  Then redistribute that time to something more enjoyable and productive.  Trust me, it will be a good trade off in terms of both happiness and college admissions success. 

4.  Put high school in perspective.  In the not-too-distant future, the negative parts of high school like the back-biting, social climbing, and other negative drama will be a distant memory, one that nobody, including you, will care about anymore.

5.  Put college in perspective.  Stop obsessing about where you're going to get in and start obsessing about what you're going to do once you're in college.  I think you'll find that most of the things that excite you about college are not limited to just a handful of highly selective schools.

Taking these five steps will help you enjoy your life, make a bigger impact in activities you enjoy, stress less, and sleep better–all of which will lead to better performance on exams, higher grades, and more success in college admissions.   

High school counselors vs. private counselors

Whenever I go to conferences, I meet some high school counselors and some private counselors who feel the two groups are somehow pitted against each other.  Most of them have legitimate gripes about isolated members of the opposing party who've made them look bad with disparaging comments to kids, or somehow made it harder for them to do a good job for the families they serve.  Then they take those frustrations and apply them to the entire "opposing" profession.   

If you're a high school counselor who tells your students that all private counselors are snake oil salesmen out to make a quick buck off kids, guess what?  You're wrong.  And you're part of the problem.

And if you're a private counselor who tells families that high school counselors aren't qualified, that kids need you to get into college, that school counselors don't know enough or are just too busy to do a good job for kids, you're wrong, too.  And you're not part of the problem.  You are the source of the problem. 

Every great high school counselor I've ever met openly acknowledges that there are some wonderful private counselors out there who do a great job.  And there are also some far-from-wonderful ones who just aren't worth the money they charge. 

And every great private counselor I've ever met tells kids they don't need to hire someone to get into college, even a highly-selective one.  They advise families to avail themselves of everything their high school counseling office offers to them before they even consider hiring outside help.  And they'd never do anything to undermine a high school counselor's work with a student.

If we're in this to help the kids, our goal should be to emulate the greats on our sides.

A reminder for juniors to hang in there

Finals week begins soon at many high schools, and this is about the time of year when we start to see the first signs of the stress getting to our juniors.  With the courses, SAT classes, activities and college planning, it's important for juniors to remember two things. 

1.  Most college students would tell you that while the academic material is more difficult in college, the sheer demands on your time are much, much more rigorous in 11th grade.  This is as difficult as school is likely to get for you.

2.  You're just 18 months away from starting college, where you'll take classes you want to take, live in a dorm, meet new people, go to football games, take road trips and have plenty of time to catch up on all the sleep you gave up to get there.  It's going to be an amazing four years where your most important jobs will be to learn and have fun.

11th grade isn't easy, but most college students would tell you it's all worth it to do what they're doing now. 

Five college-related activities for at-risk youth

I gave my annual "You Can Still Go to College" workshop yesterday at CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).  CASA pairs volunteer advocates with foster youth who've been removed from their homes because of abuse and neglect.  I shared five college-related activities advocates can do with their CASA kids free or almost free, and I thought they might be helpful for anyone who works with kids who are under-resourced, disadvantaged, or just in need of some extra care and attention to get college-bound.    

1.  Visit a college or community college and take the tour.

Most high school kids have never been to a college campus.  And it's so easy to do.  Just visit the website for a local college or community college and find the information about when tours are offered.  Then take one.  If tours aren't offered at a convenient time, just do a self-tour.  Walk around.  Smell the air.  Have lunch on campus.  Just treat it casually and browse around–no need to make a day out of it (unless the student really wants to).

2.  See a college sporting event.

Sure, football and basketball are popular college sports.  And they can be quite a spectacle to watch live, especially at Division I schools.  But if your student is interested in any sport–from tennis to water polo to volleyball–go see a game at a local college.  And best of all, a lot of those less famous sports are free to watch.       

3.  Attend a national college fair.

If you ever need a student to get a sense of just how many great colleges there are, go to a natoinal college fair.  They bring together hundreds of four-year colleges, community colleges, trade and technical schools for one afternoon.  And admission is always free.  If one of the fairs isn't happening in your area, find out if your student's high school or district might be putting on one for their students. 

4.  Take a class together at a college or community college.

I know, I know.  You're thinking that most students won't want to take a math class for fun, and you're right.  But look into continuing education or extension programs offered by colleges and community colleges.  These are open to the public and offer classes on everything from video game design, to yoga, to how to be a private investigator.  It doesn't matter what the class is as long as it's something that fits the student's interest.  The point is to get inside a college classroom and actually have it be an enjoyable experience for your student.

5.  Attend a "prospective student day" at a local college.

Some colleges throw day-long extravaganzas to show off their school for high school students and parents.  They'll offer tours, presentations, food, bands, panels of students, sample classes, etc.  And they're almost always free.   Check your local schools and see if they have any coming up.  They often take place in the spring as that's when seniors have received acceptances, and colleges particularly want to show off to those kids who've yet to decide where they'll spend the next four years.  

Five people you want to work with

Some talents are easier to spot than others.  In fact, some of the most valuable people may not score the most goals or win the elections or come up with the brilliant idea.  But their talents actually make everyone else better, happier and more effective.   
Here are five people you want to work with.

1. People who make things happen.

It's the person who says, "I'll do it."  She takes a stalled project and gets it going again. She offers up an idea and then backs it up by doing the work.  And she's not afraid to skip asking for permission if it has to happen right now.  When I worked at The Princeton Review, our entire office building burned to the ground overnight.  We had several hundred students starting classes the next day.  One of our teachers saw the fire on the news that morning, called his friend who worked at a local hotel, booked conference rooms for us to hold our classes, and THEN called the boss to tell him about the fire.  That's getting things done.

2.  People who are quick to offer praise.

Praise is a great motivator, especially when it's sincere.  And the people who do this well are really good at paying attention.  They'll notice when the usual second-stringer had a good game and say, "Hey, nice game today."  They'll thank the person who went out to get lunch for everyone during the fundraiser and tell them how much it helped.  When a project goes well, they make sure to tell the person who came up with it what a great idea it was.

3.  People who can laugh at themselves.

I've learned this lesson from other people but admittedly wish I were much better at it. People who will make fun of themselves are great to have on your team.  They keep things fun and lighthearted but never at the expense of anyone else.  Of course, it's only a valuable skill if they actually do good work, too.  But comic relief is important, and these folks tend to help others enjoy their work. 

4. People who genuinely like what they're doing. 

You can't fake enthusiasm.  And when someone seems genuinely happy to be at basketball practice or planning the junior prom or working behind the counter at his part-time job, he lifts everyone else up around him without actually trying to.

5. People who bring emotional energy to what they do.

"Emotional energy" sounds hokey but I can't think of a better way to describe it.  This is the person who knows every customer's name at the ice cream shop.  It's the ad manager who writes letters to all the businesses after they run ads to thank them.  If they staff the front desk at the homecoming dance, they greet arrivals and tell everyone how great they look.  No job is unimportant to them.  They never phone it in.  They see every job, no matter how big or small, as a chance to perform.

Those are the people you want to work with.  Which one are you? 

Five people you don’t want to work with

From the high school Spanish club to Fortune 500 companies, there are some people who make work less productive and less enjoyable for everyone else involved.  It's good to be able to spot those people so you can try to minimize the damage they can do.

Here are five people you don't want to work with:

1. The idea guy.

Ideas and vision are good.  But the idea guy never wants to do the work to make it happen.  He says, "I know what we should do," but never, "I'll do it."  He's just the idea guy.  The work part is somebody else's problem. 

2.  The permanent resident of Negativetown.

She criticizes everybody else's suggestions but never offers any of her own.  She complains, points out what she thinks other people are doing wrong and is quick to place blame.  She seems so unhappy being there that you wonder why she keeps coming to the meetings.

3.  Anyone who repeatedly says, "That's not my job."

"That's not my job" is almost always a cop out.  It's a reason not to pitch in and help.  It's the opposite of, "What else can I do?"  The next time someone says, "That's not my job," ask, "OK.  So what are you doing?"  And if they answer by naming their title, that doesn't technically count as doing something.   

4.  The excuse generator. 

He's always got an excuse when something he was supposed to do didn't go right.  He never thinks it's his fault.  If you offered an excuse generator $500, he still couldn't bring himself to say, "I screwed up, and I'm sorry."

5.The person who speaks negatively of whoever isn't in the room.

That person who's always tearing down whoever isn't in the room at that moment?  Not a good teammate.  He's creating animosity that wasn't there before.  He's turning people against each other who were previously getting along.  How does that help?  How is that improving anybody's experience?   

If you work with one of these people, how about trying to help him or her change?  Pull the person aside, point out just how much they have to offer, why the group needs them, and what's holding them back.  It might be enough to do the trick.

Tomorrow, five wonderful people you do want to work with…

We’re hiring our next college counselor

We're looking for our next college counselor to join us in our Irvine (Orange County), California office.

About Us
We do college private college counseling a little differently here.  Our goal isn’t to get every kid who works with us into a name-brand school.  Instead, we want to show families just how many great colleges are out there, help relieve their anxieties, and try to inject some much needed perspective into the college admissions process.  Since 1999, we’ve helped over 3000 students attend 700 different colleges. We encourage kids to be themselves, to do what they love, and to strongly reconsider writing a college essay about how volunteering on one blood drive taught them the importance of serving humanity.

What do our college counselors do?
Each counselor here works with a caseload of 40-70 students (most of whom are juniors and seniors) to help them find and apply to college.  We prepare students with good advice, organization and a little cheerleading to make sure everything happens smoothly and thoughtfully.

Who are we looking for?
We’d love to find someone with admissions experience at a selective college; several of our counselors were admissions officers before they arrived here and we certainly appreciate the perspective they bring to the job.  But fit is more important than experience.  We tour colleges while we’re on vacation.  We like to work hard and do a good job.  We look forward to our annual holiday party.  We say “good morning” to our colleagues at work and occasionally like to get a beer together at the end (but never during the middle) of the work day.  If that resonates with you, you might really enjoy working with us. 

What’s the next step?
If your interest is piqued, we invite you get to know us a little better by looking around our website.  Find out more about what we do, who you’d be working with and what we believe.  If you like what you read and think you could find a professional home here, please send a resume and cover letter to Allison Cummings, Director, at ocjobs@collegewise.com.  Like a great college essay, we think a great cover letter should help us get to know who you really are.  Don’t be afraid to be yourself—smart, thoughtful, maybe even funny.  Just don’t be generic.  We've also got five (totally unsolicited) tips for job seekers here if you'd like them.

We’re looking for someone to start in June 2011 but we'll select the exact start date to accommodate the right person. This position pays $38K-55K depending on experience.  If you have questions about the job, we'd prefer that you email us at the above address, rather than call us, but we promise to respond to you quickly. 

We hope to hear from you, but if we don’t, we hope you find a great professional fit someplace else.

Five tips for job seekers

Whenever we post an available job at Collegewise, it’s humbling how many smart, likeable people take the time to apply.  We never take it for granted how lucky we are in that way. But we also see a surprising number of applicants who make the same mistakes. Looking for a job is never easy or fun. You deserve to give yourself the best chance of getting hired.  So here are a few tips I hope will help, whether you’re looking for a job here at Collegewise or someplace else.

1. Get the details right. 

It doesn’t matter how qualified you are—if your resume has typos, or you misspell the name of the company, or you forget to switch out the company name from the last cover letter you sent, you just look careless. Details matter, especially when people are sizing you up. Kevin Costner explains this well to his pitcher played by Tim Robbins in Bull Durham:

Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press will think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob.”

It’s OK to be funny, to be irreverent, and maybe even to take some liberties with your language (at least for us). But you’ve got to get the basics right. Proofread everything. Make sure you spell the company name right. Grammar and punctuation are important even if you personally couldn’t care less whether someone uses “your” or “you’re.”  And read aloud what you’ve written to make sure it makes sense.

2. Follow instructions. 

Good companies want people who show initiative. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore instructions, especially when looking for a job. This is one of the basic attention-to-detail things you’ve got to get right. Read the instructions before you fire off your resume, call, or just show up unannounced to inquire. What are they asking you to do? What materials are they requesting? Don’t decide that you’ve got a better or more impressive way to take the first step. Show them first that you can follow instructions. There are other places you can dazzle them with initiative.  Which brings me to #3…

3.  Don’t play the numbers—play matchmaker.

I understand why applying for jobs can feel like a numbers game where the more resumes you send out, the better your chances of getting hired. But that’s like going on match.com and sending an identical email to 100 different people hoping to find your soul mate. Sure, you might get a great match that way if you’re lucky. But your odds improve if you narrow the field and become more personal.

Instead of sending the same generic cover letter and resume to 50 companies, why not be a matchmaker? Pick the 5 or 10 jobs or organizations that you’re most interested in and focus your efforts there. Take the initiative to learn everything you can about the organization and the position. Learn about their mission, products and what they do.  Learn about the people who work there. Make your cover letter personal, one that the company knows you wrote just for them. Spend your time communicating the match, not just playing the numbers. Sure, it might take more time. But applying generically will get you a generic job. You deserve better than that.

4. Get rid of “resume-speak.”

Too many resumes are loaded with resume-speak like “Initiated and cultivated relationships with various product teams.” Resume-speak tries to make something sound impressive.  But it doesn’t say anything. It takes what might have been interesting and hides it behind jargon and buzzwords. So don’t use it.  Instead, be clear and direct. Tell them what you did, how you did it and what impact you made by doing it (here’s some advice on how to do just that). I don’t care if the job doesn’t sound classically impressive. There are no insignificant roles. If you worked hard and did a good job, be proud of what you did and don’t hide behind resume-speak.

5. Don’t ignore the cover letter.

This is an extension of the matchmaking tip, but it’s important enough to mention here. Cover letters are important.  Don’t relegate yours to a bland introduction you re-use over and over. Nobody in the history of job-searching stood out by writing, “I seek a challenging position such as this one where I can utilize my various talents” in their cover letter. A great cover has a voice. It’s got some oomph. So put some personality behind your writing. Don’t write the same bland lines everybody else is writing. Make yours stand out.  I’m not saying you should necessarily write a haiku or anything.  But there’s no reason an interesting person should submit a boring cover letter.

Don’t try to learn about admissions this month

This month, the majority of seniors will hear their admissions news. For freshmen, sophomores and juniors, this is when you'll hear people making bold declarations about how and why students did or didn't get in.  It will sound like this:

"He got in because he wrote a great essay."

"He got rejected because he didn't take AP Calculus."

"She got in because of her SAT Verbal score."

"She got rejected because she got a 'C' freshman year."

"He got in because he picked 'forestry' as his major."

"He got rejected because he didn't do full IB."

"She got in because her dad is an alum."

"She got rejected because too many kids from our school applied." 

When you hear those statements, remember that most of the people making them have absolutely no idea what they're talking about. 

The only people who really know why a student did or did not get in are the admissions officers who read the file and ultimately made the decision.  A high school counselor is sometimes privy to that information, too.  But most other people didn't see the file.  They didn't read the essays.  They didn't see the letters of rec, or sit in on the interview, or hear the conversation between the admissions officers who decided.  

So don't try to learn about admissions this month.  Or, at least don't try to learn about it from the wrong people.  Even admissions officers themselves can't always point to one factor that got a student in or kept him out.  This is a complicated process, one that sometimes defies explanation to outside observers. 

If you learn anything this month, notice that just about all of those kids got in somewhere.  And while you're at it, learn from all the college freshmen who come home for spring break just how much they love college, even those who didn't get into their first choice.