Does applying early decision improve your chances of admission?

Asking if you have a better chance of getting into a highly-selective college by applying early decision is like asking if you have a better chance of hitting a home run if you're hitting at Coors Field in Denver.  Yes, but only if you’re already a legitimate major league home run hitter.   

Early decision is an admission option offered by a small number of colleges in which high school seniors apply to one (and only one) early decision school by early November.  In return, the college gives you a decision by mid December.  The catch is that if you get in, you have to go.  You actually have to withdraw all your applications from your other colleges.  It’s like an arranged marriage, college admissions style.  A little research will show you that the admissions rates for early decision applicants are often significantly higher than those of students in the regular pool (University of Pennsylvania admits more than 30% of its early decision applicants but about 10% of its regular applicants.)  It’s some compelling data. 

But the data won’t help if you’re not quite in the right league.  Coors Field has a reputation as the most hitter-friendly park in Major League Baseball (something about the elevation combined with the dry air resulting in less wind resistance on the ball).  If you’re Alex Rodriguez and you’ve hit over 600 home runs in your career, you’re going to do very well at Coors field.  But if you’re me and you’re happy to get a solid base hit in the annual softball friendly, Coors field isn’t going to help.

A student who is a great match for an early decision college, who would be competitive even in the regular pool, and most importantly, who is absolutely certain that she’s found her collegiate soul mate might enjoy a small admissions advantage applying early decision.  If you fit those three criteria, talk it over with your high school counselor and strongly consider the option. 

But don’t apply to an early decision school because you think it might be your back door entry into a highly selective college.  Attempts to game the system almost always backfire in college admissions.  Reapply your energies to finding appropriate colleges who will appreciate you just the way you are. 

And here’s where I’ll resist the urge to end with a painful strikeout/home run analogy.  

Welcoming five new additions to our Irvine, CA office

You know you've made a great hiring decision when you're excited to tell people about it.  And we're really excited to tell you about five new additions who've joined our Irvine, CA office.  So here they are, complete with our usual folksy bios. 

Breanne Boyle 
College counselor & essay specialistBreanneBorder

Back in high school, Breanne worked at Baskin Robbins where she could scoop ice cream with both arms simultaneously, a feat that earned her much acclaim in her hometown of Upland, California.  Upon graduation, she turned down lucrative full-time job offers from several nationally-ranked ice cream establishments who were eager to capitalize on her scooping stardom, choosing instead to enroll in college, more specifically, Miami University, not to be confused with the University of Miami, which is why the school officials refer to their institution as either “Miami University of Ohio” or “Not the University of Miami!”  After winning a collegiate national championship in Mock Trial, Breanne graduated with degrees in English and creative writing, enrolled in UC San Diego’s college counseling certification program and went to work as a recruiter for Miami where she visited high schools, spoke with interested students and often said things like, “NO—we are NOT the University of Miami!  What is WRONG with you people!?”  Today, she is both an essay specialist and a full-time college counselor at Collegewise, a closeted World of Warcraft gamer, and not-so-closeted fan of the Real Housewives franchise (with strong opinions as to the relative merits of each cast and storyline).  She also has a horse named “Sassy” who is, apparently, aptly named.

Neekta Khorsand
College essay specialistNeektaBorder

Neekta taught herself to read when she was five, which is pretty impressive.  She also loved biting into raw onions like they were apples, which is pretty unusual.  When her second grade teacher asked her to help her fellow classmates with their reading, aforementioned fellow classmates would often say, “Thank you so much for helping me learn to read!,” “You’re very impressive!,” and “Your breath smells like onions!”  After continuing her reading and (thankfully) discontinuing her raw onion eating, Neekta went on to double-major in English literature and American studies at San Francisco State University which, as she puts it, kept her “swimming in a sea of writing.”  Not literally, of course, as to our knowledge there are no bodies of water filled with writing.  But she did write.  A lot.  She’s also worked as a writing tutor in San Francisco State’s English Tutoring Center, and, more recently, as a volunteer with 826LA, a non-profit writing and tutoring center, where she offered personalized college essay assistance to high school students throughout Los Angeles.  When she’s not reading, writing or helping students with college essays, Neekta enjoys eating Thai food, singing the occasional karaoke tune, and quoting virtually every line from the movie “Wayne’s World.” 

Carolyn Sam Rojo 
College essay specialistCarolynBorder

When Carolyn was a junior in high school, she showed up to the PSAT with seven perfectly sharpened pencils.  And her own pencil sharpener.   That fanatical attention to academic detail has served her well.  Today, Carolyn is a 2006 graduate of UC San Diego and a 2009 graduate of University of San Diego School of Law.  In college she was Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and a host of other Latin acknowledgements which, loosely translated, all mean, “I’ve had straight A’s since birth.”  She also played both flag-football and softball while in law school and is the only person we have ever met who writes rough drafts of thank-you notes.  So if you’re her competitor in a classroom, in a courtroom, or on the field, well, good luck—you’re going to need it.  And if you need help with your college essay (or if you’re just trying to come up with a nice thank-you note to Grandma), be assured that Carolyn can help you.  Before joining Collegewise as a college essay specialist, Carolyn spent a year with the AmeriCorps VISTA program helping refugee families learn English and adjust to life in the U.S.   She also still gets out on the ol’ softball field regularly and loves yoga where she resists the urge to bring seven perfectly-rolled mats to every class.

Rachael Ryan 
Assistant college counselorRachaelBorder

Rachael is rabbit phobic.  Seriously—she finds rabbits extremely creepy.  Not surprisingly, she is also not a fan of the Easter Bunny, magicians, or South Dakota State University (whose mascot is the Jackrabbit).  Rachael was a career advisor at FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising) where she counseled students on resumé writing, interviewing, the importance of balancing your own style with what’s trendy, and how to look current and sophisticated simultaneously (there is a reason the white button-front shirt is so popular—it’s professional and easy to dress up or down!).  She is a graduate of University of La Verne and has a master’s degree in college counseling and student development from Azusa Pacific University, schools whose mascots—the leopard and the cougar respectively—are, not coincidentally, natural rabbit predators.

Shelley Paget
Assistant college counselorShelleyBorder

Shelley is a country music fanatic, so much so that she has been known to belt out a mean karaoke version of “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks.  She also believes that Target–not Disneyland–is the happiest place on earth, especially when country music is playing over the store sound system.  Sure, Disneyland may occasionally play country music, but can you buy a reasonably-priced natural wood Adirondack outdoor patio collection there like you can at Target?  Nope.  Didn’t think so.  Shelley graduated from Cal State Fullerton, earned her master’s degree in educational counseling at Azusa Pacific University, and recently completed a college counseling internship at Brea Olinda High School.  When she’s not college counseling, listening to country music or shopping at Target, you can probably find Shelley at Angel Stadium.  Really, there’s a very good chance of that; she loves going to Angels baseball games so much that she moved right across the street.  Beat that, A’s and Red Sox fans!

Cultivating good writing

One of my friend’s (now former) bosses once sent the company a two page email that did something amazing—it said absolutely nothing.  Our group of friends has since read it dozens of times trying to find one cogent point (it’s possible we’ve even done dramatic readings).  But we can’t find one.  It’s just two pages of vague abstractions and generalities punctuated with phrases like, “The big duh is…” and “It’s here like a really loud knock at the door.”  It's hard to believe that the writer really expected anyone to appreciate or benefit from the message.  And if you're going to say nothing at all, you’d be better off sending just that—nothing at all.     

I’ve written before about the dangers of bad writing in business and college essays.  But for high school students, here are a few more writing thoughts, whether or not you consider yourself a writer.   

1. If you like to write, work hard to get great at it.
Writing is a strength worth maximizing.  Do rough drafts of your essays and get your teacher’s feedback before turning in your final version.  Enroll in a creative writing or business communication class at your local community college.  Take the extra five minutes to write a good email that’s properly punctuated.  Writing happens to be one of those strengths that gets regularly rewarded in both your personal and professional life.  So why not maximize that strength?   

2. If you don’t like to write, work to get better at it.
I think students should spend less time fixing their weaknesses and more time improving their strengths.  But writing is just too important to be bad at it.  You can’t get into college without writing an essay.  You can’t get a job without writing a cover letter.  You can’t communicate with anyone of importance without writing an email.  It's usually not fun to work at something you struggle doing.  But you have a choice.  You can spend time improving your writing or you can lament the opportunities you miss because your writing wasn’t up to par.  Here’s a recent post from Seth Godin with some simple rules for better writing, and one of mine on how to write a good email message. 

3. Make sure your organization has great writers on staff. 
When we hire anyone at Collegewise—from counselors to editors to assistants—we pay great attention to their cover letters (and we’re not the only company who does this).   I think great writing is a sign of clear thinking as well as clear communicating.  When we’re trying to decide between two potential hires at Collegewise, we always hire the better writer.   

There’s no reason leaders in high school activities couldn’t do the same thing.  Whether you’re in the student counsel, the Spanish Club or the National Honor Society, identify who the great writers are.  If you don’t have any, recruit some.  Run an announcement in the daily bulletin that the Spanish Club is looking for a good writer to join their ranks.  Then put those writers to use, which brings me to… 

4. Let your best writers handle your organization’s written communications.
If you’re going to send something out to your club, team, school yearbook staff, etc., have one of the designated writers handle it.  If the message really needs to come from a specific person who isn’t one of the writers, have that person write the message and let one of the writers edit it.  If you’re saying to yourself, “But that takes so much longer,” you’re right.   You can have speed, or you can have great writing.  But you can’t always have both.

If it wouldn’t work at Google, it won’t work in college admissions

Imagine you were interviewing candidates for a job as a programmer at Google and you asked each one why they wanted to work at Google (which is a standard question in a job interview).  Would you hire the applicant who gave you this answer?

“Well, it’s Google.  It’s a great company.  I really want to do computer programming, which you do here, and Google would really look good on my resume.  Plus, I love how you have so many perks here, like free lunches, a gym, and dry cleaning right here at work.  And your complex is really pretty.  I really like the buildings and the way it’s all laid out.  It’s just gorgeous.  That's why I've wanted to work here for a long time and why Google is my first choice of companies to work for."

There’s nothing wrong with that answer.  But all this applicant did was tell you things about Google that you (and pretty much everybody else) already know.  You didn’t learn anything about the candidate.  He could have given the exact same answer to any number of other companies.  Sure, there’s only one Google, but lots of companies have perks and pretty buildings.  You’d probably start to wonder if this person had bothered to really think about what kind of work environment he wanted to be in and if he really knew whether Google was a good fit for him.

That’s why telling a college you want to go there because they have, “…a great reputation, a strong (insert major here) program, and a beautiful campus is an ineffective answer, too.

Stand out by telling stories

Dan Heath is the co-author of "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die." In this 16-minute podcast, “Making You Stick,” he talks about how to stand out from the pack when the pack is crowded, including when writing college essays and applying to college.  You can download it here:


I disagree when he says that when you write a college essay, you need to convince them that you are the perfect applicant for that school.  Students who try to do that inevitably write clichéd essays about how being an Eagle Scout taught them to commit to their goals.  But yes, you do need to stand out, and his advice will help.

On last impressions

Every year in June, Collegewise families are invited to re-enroll in the next level of our program.  Most continue with us, but not all.  Some decide that they just don't need a college counselor or that their student should go to community college first.  Other times, we mutually decide that we're not a great fit together and we refer them to another counselor who we think may be right for them.  But no matter what the circumstance, we try to part ways on great terms. 

We want people to feel good about their experience with us even if they leave our program.  And what they'll remember most is their last interaction, the way we conducted ourselves once we knew it was over between us.  That's the last impression we leave, and we want to make it count.

Last week, I told one of our vendors that after eight years, I wouldn't need their services again this year.  I made it clear that there were no hard feelings and that I wasn't unhappy–I just didn't have a need for them any longer.  All I got in response was a brief–"OK, we'll cancel the invoice."

There's nothing wrong with what they did.  But how hard would it have been to send me a nice email and thank me for doing business with them for almost a decade?  I've probably spent over $5,000 during that time.  How much would it have taken to do just a little extra to part good friends rather than mutual acquaintances.

Had they done just a little more to make my last impression a better one, I would be singing their praises.  I'd go out of my way to refer potential business to them because of how I remembered that last interaction. It wouldn't have been that hard.  Wouldn't it have been worth it?

We can talk about making a great first impression.  But maybe the last one is more important?

This wouldn’t have been the same without (your name here)

One of the easiest ways to identify a person who really makes a difference is to ask, "Who would this not have been the same without?"

Which players on your baseball team had so much talent that the season just would not have been the same without them?

Which performers in the school play were so good that the production would never have been the same if they weren't in it?

Which writers for the school paper are such good reporters and editors that the paper just wouldn't be as professional without them on the staff?

That's the talent portion of what you'll find when you ask the question. It reveals the people who were so good at what they did that the team, production or paper just wouldn't been as good without their talent. 

But that's not all you'll find.

Is there a player on water polo team has such a great attitude that she inspires other players even if she isn't a starter?

Is there a solid but not exceptional tuba player who jokes around and keeps people laughing even when the sun is beating down on your polyester uniforms during the third hour of practice with the marching band?

Is there a junior member of the student government who always seems to find mutual ground to curb disagreements during your meetings?

The water polo team, marching band and student government wouldn't be the same without those people even though they didn't have the most talent or the most important positions.

So here's your challenge–what could you do that would make people name you when asked, "Who would this not have been the same without?"


What to do–and not to do–in college

It's not where you go to college; it's what you do while you're there.  And Seth Godin offers some good insight about exactly what to do (and what not to do).


As I drove through the amazingly beautiful (Yale) campus, I passed the center for Asian Studies. It reminded me of my days as an undergrad (at a lesser school, natch), browsing through the catalog, realizing I could learn whatever I wanted. That not only could I take classes but I could start a business, organize a protest movement, live in a garret off campus, whatever. It was a tremendous gift, this ability to choose.  Yet most of my classmates refused to choose. Instead, they treated college like an extension of high school. They took the most mainstream courses, did the minimum amount they needed to get an A, tried not to get into "trouble" with the professor or face the uncertainty of the unknowable. They were the ones who spent six hours a day in the library, reading their textbooks.  The best part of college is that you could become whatever you wanted to become, but most people just do what they think they must."

The entire post is here.

How one kid from a not-so-prestigious college became a heart surgeon

During our four years at UC Irvine, I don’t think my college buddy Shane ever once missed a party.  And whenever our fraternity would head to the annual spring break trip to Mexico with the Tri-Delts, Shane was the first one there with a bottle of Coppertone and a hideous bathing suit.

Shane was also a premed who decided that one major—biology—wasn’t enough.  So he added a second major in chemistry…and a minor in global peace and conflict studies just because he found it fascinating.  During midterms and finals, Shane would bury himself in the basement of the library and never pick his head up from the books.  He worked as a tutor through our school’s “tutorial assistant program,” volunteered for the summer orientation program for new students and was a resident advisor in the dorms.  He played guitar in a band, volunteered in a hospital, did science research with a professor, was a teacher’s assistant for a social science course, and eventually graduated with high honors.  He was and still is the best example I’ve ever seen of someone making the most of college on all fronts.  He worked harder—and had more fun—than anyone else I knew.

Shane went on to medical school, graduated at the top of his class, and spent the next decade of his life becoming a cardiologist.  He is now one of only a handful of doctors in the world who can do a catheter ablation for complex arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia. I have absolutely no idea what that means.  But Shane does.

UC Irvine is a good school.  But it’s not world-famous like Ivy League schools are.  From a selectivity standpoint, UCI is middle of the road for our UC system, with Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego being far more selective and famous. 

But I’ve said it on this blog before, and I’ll keep saying it.  Where you go to college matters much less than what you do while you’re there. 

If ever there were proof of that, it’s Shane.