Please don’t play the multiple deposit game

Seniors who've been admitted to several desirable colleges need to make some difficult decisions next month, as colleges require admitted students to declare their intention to enroll by May 1.  It can be a stressful time especially for a student who is really struggling with the decision. But whatever you do, don't try to cheat your way to more time by placing multiple deposits.

Some families plunk down deposits at multiple colleges in an attempt to buy a little more time for their kids to choose which college to attend.  The thinking is that you can hold your spot at a few schools and then back out of the additional schools when you eventually name the chosen one.

This is bad idea for a number of reasons. 

I know that this is your search process and you shouldn't make decisions based on other people.  But when you place multiple deposits, you're taking spots that other kids desperately want.  That's not a nice thing to do. 

Also, deadlines are real.  And sometimes, we have to make difficult decisions under time pressure because of those deadlines.  Successful people accept this and find a way to get things done when they need to be done.  The truth is that you're unlikely to gain any additional clarity surrounding your college
choices by (literally) buying another week or two to think about it.  Take the allotted time to consider your options, but make your decision by May 1. 

And most importantly, if you place a deposit at more than one college and any of your schools find out that you're doing this, they can revoke your offer of admission (even if they're the school you eventually did choose).  College admissions officers take violations like this very seriously.  Imagine how a boss would react if she extended a job offer to someone and found out that he'd been dishonest with her during the interview process.  What if she found out he'd misled other companies with whom he'd interviewed.  Wouldn't that taint his reputation and cause the boss to take back his job offer, even if all of his credentials were still legitimate?  That's how colleges feel when they find out an accepted student was dishonest.

If they catch you lying (and that's what you're doing when you place multiple deposits), no college will care about your GPA or SAT scores or your certificate proclaiming that it was, in fact, you who discovered what really killed the dinosaurs.  You'll be out.   

I know what some of you are thinking. "How will a college possibly know if I place multiple deposits?"

Whatever the likelihood is that a college could discover it, is the risk worth the potential reward?  I don't think it is.

Lunch “brakes”

No one in the history of my hometown could drive from my high school’s parking lot to my family’s house faster than I could.  It wasn’t easy, safe or completely legal, but for three months during the spring of my senior year, I drove home every day at lunch to check the mailbox hoping to find the universal sign of college acceptance (pre-email of course)—the fat envelope—inside.

I would spend my first four periods of AP classes biting my nails, wondering if the postman was delivering news about where I would be spending the next four years in college.  But at 12:20, this anxious college applicant would jump behind the wheel.  And everybody on the road knew to get the hell out of the way.

I am no longer a fearless teenager willing to drive like a card-carrying member of the NASCAR circuit just to get to the mailbox and back before the start of fifth period AP Physics.   But high school kids (and parents) still anxiously wait out the months of March and April, checking the mail and email just to see if the suspense will end. 

College admissions is a lot more complicated than it used to be.  Kids today work harder, longer and under more pressure than I ever did.  But even during my racing period, my parents kept reminding me that I was going to college.  Whether it would be Michigan, Georgetown or UC Santa Cruz, I was still going to have a wonderful four years. 

That was good advice, and it still holds true for kids today.       

Good kids who work hard will always have a place in a college that’s right for them.  It's easy to lose sight of that with all the pressure of college admissions, especially when the decisions start to arrive and some of your favorite colleges say "No."

But when a high school senior signs on the dotted line and commits to attend a college in the fall, the feeling of relief, anticipation and success is just as great as it has always been.

For you seniors, all the wondering and worrying about where you might go to college will soon be replaced by the planning and packing
for where are going to college.  And the streets will officially be safer at lunchtime.  

So senior students and parents, hang in there.  The process might feel unbearable at times but even those of us who applied way back before the internet managed to get through it.  You will, too. 

A fundraising idea for high schools sports teams

If you're a high school athlete (or the parent of one) and your team needs funds for uniforms, travel, or new equipment, you might consider re-evaluating your usual fundraising and trying something a little different. 

Instead of selling candy bars or getting businesses to purchase ads in a team directory, I think there's a huge opportunity for athletes to show a little more initiative, for the teams to generate even bigger funds, and for the sponsors to reap the rewards of supporting the team.  Here it is.

1.  Nominate 2 teammates to serve as fundraising chairpersons.

Parents can serve as advisors for this project, but don't take it over from the kids.  If the team really needs money that badly, the teammates should care enough to take on this project themselves.  Let the team nominate the most motivated, organized teammates to head the project.

2.  Have the team pick the 20-25 local business they patronize most often.

Hold a team meeting and ask each member to write down the five local business that they visit (and spend money) most often.  Where do you and your friends eat pizza?  Where do you buy gas?  Where do you see movies?  What clothing stores do you frequent the most?  Compare everybody's lists and pick the 20-25 businesses that appear most often.

3.  Write letters (not emails!) to the businesses asking for sponsorships. 

Write each business a letter (you can re-use parts of the letter but each one should be personalized to each particular business).  Make sure it's a letter–email is too quick, too easy, and much more likely to be deleted.

Here's what should be in the letter.

  • An introduction.  Tell them where you go to high school and what team you play for.
  • Explain that you are approaching local businesses looking for sponsorships.  Tell them why do you need the money, what you are you going to use it for, and what is your goal is
  • Explain that the team met and picked the businesses they frequent most often.  Then tell this business specifically why they made the list.  "We like your pizza much better than Pizza Hut's, and we have all our team dinners with you, too" or "Every member of our team buys a smoothie at your store at least once a week–my favorite flavor is banana raspberry, by the way."  
  • Offer to do something for them in return to help them promote their business.  Suggest things you can do, like have a parent hand out coupons for 1/2 off smoothies at each one of your games for a sponsorship of $500.  Or have the whole team where t-shirts promoting the business on game days for a sponsorship of $1000.  

Here's a big one. For a sponsorship of $5,000, make a promise to the business that every team member and her parents will buy all of your gas or smoothies or pizza from the sponsoring business for a period of 1 year (you could make up little cards with the team name to give the manager every time you buy, so he or she knows how much business you're giving them).  

I'm a small business owner, and I can tell you that a smart business will see that this math works in their favor.  15 players on a team means about 40 potential customers if you include parents.  If each of those 40 customers bought just 6 large pizzas in a year, the pizza joint would make its $5000 back. And those customers will inevitably bring in more business in the form of friends who aren't even on the team.  For the right business, it's both a profitable decision and a chance to do right by kids in the community.

You could also allow a business to suggest an idea for a particular sponsorship (you don't necessarily have to do what they suggest, for the amount the suggest, but they can at least suggest it).

  • Have a reply form where they can choose their option, and make one of the options "Please contact me to discuss."  Include a stamped reply envelope and hand-write a return address where they can send the form and a check. 
  • Once you get your funds, assign 5 different team members (not the fundraising chair persons–they're doing enough) to be in charge of contacting the businesses, thanking them, and coordinating the promotion of their business.
  • Throughout the season, take pictures of your team promoting the business.  Get a group shot of all of you in front of your lockers at school wearing the local deli's t-shirts.  Snap a photo of the fans holding up their coupons for half priced smoothies.  Take a picture of the starting center eating two slices of the sponsoring pizza place's pizza at the same time.  Have some fun with it.  Once every couple weeks, email a few of the photos to the store managers so they can see you in action.
  • At the end of the season, pick the 2 or 3 most artistic members of the team (OK, or the most artistic parents if no member of the team is artistic) to make a nice collage with a photo of the team signed by the players, a big thank-you for sponsoring them, and a collection of the photos you took of the promotion.  This shows the partnership–they helped you and you helped them.  And it's something that a local business can put up on their wall proudly. 

I know what some of you are thinking.  It's too hard.  It will take too long.  It's not worth the effort.  I get that.  But if it's not worth the effort for you, then why should the local business sponsor you?  What's in it for them, really?  I think businesses should support the communities that support them, but why not set it up so both parties benefit? 

If you do this and it works for both parties, you haven't just secured a one-time small donation.  You've created a partner in the community, a business who will follow and support your team, and one who won't need to be convinced to sponsor you again next year.

You'll make more money for your team, you'll gain a long-term team supporter in the community, and you'll have a great story to tell colleges. 

Looks can be deceiving

My accountant is the most responsible and successful people I’ve ever met.  But he used to spend spring breaks with his fraternity in Rosarito, Mexico sleeping in tents on the beach. 

That’s nothing compared to the college shenanigans of my lawyer and my liability insurance agent.  Sure, they’re buttoned-down, successful family men today.  But I know some college stories about them that aren’t so responsible.  In fact, I have first hand knowledge of their exploits. 

I went to college at UC-Irvine with all of these guys. 

Long before we ever scheduled official lunch meetings to discuss tax implications, copyright law or workers compensation insurance, we spent our college years living together, playing intramural basketball, cramming for finals, playing video games, cooking spaghetti ten different ways, embarrassing each other in front of our girlfriends and, yes, going to our share of (good) college parties.

Don’t get me wrong.  All of us had goals to make successful post-college lives for ourselves.  So we made sure to get our work done.  But that was no reason to pass up late night basketball games once we learned how to slip (read "trespass") into the gym unnoticed after hours.  We’d play until midnight, cap off the evening with cold “refreshments” at our apartment, and then get up and go to class the next day.

None of us left college with an Ivy League degree to flaunt to future employers.  UC-Irvine doen’t have Harvard name-brand prestige.  But we spent four years at the right college.  And look where we are today.   

The accountant and the lawyer are both partners in their respective firms.  The insurance agent owns his own insurance company.  And one of us started Collegewise (and is writing this blog entry).  The old basketball team seems to be doing just fine.   

Colleges don’t make kids successful—kids have to do that themselves.  But the right college can be the catalyst to turn youthful potential into grown-up success. 

We didn't need a school at the top of the US News college rankings to make us successful.  Nobody does.  Wherever you go to college, use that time to find your academic interests, to discover your talents.  And for goodness sake, have some fun while you're there, too.  We're happy with our lives but I'd be lying if I told you we didn't miss our late night basketball games every now and then.  They were an important part of our college experience    

Anyone who looked at how my buddies and I spent our days in college might think we weren’t learning, but we were.  In college, looks can be deceiving.  

Information seeking

Have you visited the websites of the colleges that interest you (or that interest your kids)?  I'm often surprised by how few families have. 

It's good to be an information seeker when it comes to colleges.  You can't sit back and wait for people to hand you the information you need to find, apply and pay for college today.  That's why the colleges' own websites are your best friends. 

Most of colleges' sites do a very good job of detailing everything from what curriculum they recommend to prepare for admission, to what standardized tests to take, to what forms to fill out for admission and financial aid.

If you want to know what a college requires, their website is the first place you should go.

Your high school counselor can give you good information, too.  So can an admissions representative at a college fair, or a professional private counselor with the right experience.  But the most important information will be available any time, for free, by just visiting the colleges' websites.

If you feel like you need more guidance about what colleges are looking for, a little information-seeking via their websites will clear up a lot of your confusion. 

Advice from students who have been through it

Parents often lament to us that their kids won't listen to them about college.  I always remind those parents that in just a few years, your kids will realize just how right you were about almost everything. 

Until that time, kids might be more likely to listen to advice from seniors, as written about in The Choice Blog

Here's an excerpt:

On a general level, the seniors had these valuable words of wisdom to share with the younger students:

    * Remember that there is a school for everyone.
    * Start the process early.
    * Do not to stress about the SAT.
    * Put yourself in your application and essays.
    * Do not wait until Dec. 31 to file your applications.
    * Don’t waste high school just trying to get into college.

Lastly, it seemed that in retrospect, with the process either complete or winding down, the seniors advised the students in the audience to listen to — and be tolerant — of their parents.

Those seniors really seem to know what they're talking about.

Burgers and shakes for the parent’s soul

To really experience college, I think you need to pull at least one all-nighter.

I look back at my college life and marvel at the things I could do back then, like play intramural basketball at midnight, live on pasta and canned sauce, and stay up all night writing my six-page paper for “English 201: Modernism.”

I’d known about the modernism paper for weeks.  But two weeks became one week, and five days became one day, and the next thing I knew, my paper was due in nine hours.  It was time to get serious.

Thankfully, I wasn’t alone.  My roommate was an electrical engineering major and was facing a final exam at 8 o’clock the next morning.  By midnight, I was starting up my computer and he was cracking the books.

We were giving it the old college try in our tiny living room, not all that concerned about the impending academic deadlines, when he sounded an alarm at 1:45 a.m. that brought panic to us both.

“Dude, if we’re going to get to In-N-Out Burger before it closes, we need to leave RIGHT NOW!”

A six-page paper and a final exam in electrical engineering sparked no sense of urgency in us.  But the impending lights out at the local In-N-Out Burger made these two procrastinators spring right into action. 

I see the sun rise every day now, but it’s certainly not because I’ve stayed up all night.  Since I graduated college, my body has essentially switched time zones. 

Part of the college experience for kids means being a little irresponsible.  In fact, stories like this are the ones parents tend to share with us about their own college experiences.  I would never want kids to be unsafe, unhealthy or just plain reckless.  But, when a kid stays up all night to do a paper he’s known about for two weeks, it's not mature, but it is wonderfully collegiate.  I can't tell you one thing about that "English 201: Modernism" course today, but I remember that night fondly. 

When your kids get to college, they won’t be adults yet.  Experiences like the all-nighters are what will ultimately teach them the hard lessons about planning, preparation, and digging in to give something the old college try.  And they're probably the experiences they talk (and write) about 20 years later.     

On College Visits, Just See What You Want to See

Stadium_2 I visited Notre Dame once and I only wanted to see one thing–Notre Dame Stadium.  I didn't take a tour or hear the information session or sit in a class.  I just wanted to see "The House that Rockne Built."  Sure, it's possible that I had to squeeze through an opening in a locked gate just to get in and take a peek.  I don't advocate trespassing for teenagers, but it was worth it (for me).  It was one of the most memorable college visits I've ever made. 

Many families are planning to visit colleges this spring.  When you do, don't feel pressured to do anything but see what you want to see.  Tours and information sessions and class sit-ins are great for some people.  But there's no wrong way to visit a college, much like there's no wrong way to take a vacation.  So whether it's the football stadium at Notre Dame or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, see what you want to see.  Take in the scene.  And have fun.  Concentrate more on making it memorable than you do on making it productive.  Just enjoy the time with your family on a college campus. There's enough stress surrounding the process of getting in to college–the visits should be the fun part. 

Doing what works

What if I were to argue that football teams should do an onside kick every time they kick off?

If you watched the Super Bowl like I did on Sunday, you saw what happened when the Saints opened the second half with an onside kick.  It's being called arguably the smartest coaching call in Super Bowl history.  Sportswriters are referring to it as "the kick that won the Super Bowl.  It changed the tide of the game and, with one kick, gave all of the momentum–and the ball–to the Saints.

So if it worked so well for the Saints, why not do it every time? 

Because onside kicks almost never work.  They're a desperate long shot reserved for times when a team will lose if they don't get the ball back.  To try them every time would mean that you'd needlessly be giving the ball to your opponent in scoring position.  You'd probably lose every game.  Sunday's kicking call might have been a gutsy one, but Saints fans, coaches, and even the guy who kicked the ball will admit that the Saints were very, very lucky. 

A lot of students approach the college admissions process like recurring onside kickers.  Applying to ten reach schools in the hopes that one will admit you, sending a letter of recommendation from a congressman who's never actually met you, taking the SAT 6 times, these are long shots–wild attempts that almost certainly won't pay off.  They don't work.

Applying to a reasonable number of colleges that fit you well?  That works.  Seeking guidance from people who really know, like high school counselors and admissions officers?  That works.  Preparing and doing your best for standardized test and eventually moving on with your life?  That works. 

Risk isn't necessarily a bad thing.  I think students should dream big.  Work hard.  Go after what you want.  If you've got a dream college that's out of your reach, apply.  Take your best shot (or kick, as it were).  It's your life, and nobody ever became successful by refusing to risk failure.  

But there's a difference between taking smart risks and being desperate.  Desperation almost never works–football and college admissions are no exception (neither is dating, by the way).

The Saints got to the Super Bowl by going 13-3, and they won it in large part because Drew Brees had one of the most successful games for a quarterback in Super Bowl history. 

The occasional onside kick is a good thing in football and in life.  But you still have to do what works.    

Five college visit tips

For many high school students and parents I meet, the idea of visiting colleges feels more like a homework assignment than it does an adventure. They feel pressure to visit ALL the colleges they’re interested in, to turn every visit into an intense fact-finding mission, and to do all of it while the colleges are in session as opposed to over the summer. Those expectations can make college visits stressful and not nearly as fun as they should be. So here are some visit tips to help you enjoy what should be a positive part of the college search process.

1. No need to visit all your chosen schools before applying.
“Visit all your schools before you apply,” is great advice in theory. But it’s just not practical, especially if you’re applying to colleges far away (and in many different directions from your home). Remember that you can also visit colleges after you apply, and even after you get accepted.

You apply to most colleges in the fall of your senior year. You hear back around March, and you usually have until May 1 of your senior year to make a decision. That means there are five to seven months after you apply when you can still visit colleges.

Before you apply, gravitate toward schools near places you’re visiting anyway, like for a sports tournament, a band competition or even a Thanksgiving weekend at Uncle Frank’s house. That will get you the most bang for your visit buck.

Also, prioritize visiting schools you aren’t yet convinced of. This gives you the chance to fall in love or decide they’re not right for you. The rest, you can save until after you apply.

2. Don’t limit your visits to “reach” schools.
Many of the students I meet plan visits to only their top choices, which all too often are schools most likely to reject them. Instead of widening their college choices by visiting schools where their chances of admission are solid, they’re narrowing the pool by renewing vows to dream schools.

If you love Duke, if you’ve cheered on their basketball team since you were 12 years old and simply cannot envision a universe where you wouldn’t apply to Duke, you don’t need to fall any deeper in love with Duke by visiting the campus. Spend this time visiting other colleges, preferably some more likely to love you back. Baylor, Gonzaga, Syracuse and Michigan State have great basketball teams, rabid fans, and a lot less competition for spots in the freshman class. If your Duke admission comes through in the spring, then go see the home of the Blue Devils.

3. A summer visit is better than no visit.
Some students are told to only visit a college when it is in session; that visiting over the summer doesn’t give you the same feel as when the campus teems with students. There’s some truth to it—a lot of colleges are deserted over the summer and it’s absolutely not the same as if you were there in the fall. But it’s not easy to put your high school classes and activities on hold to go see colleges, so the visit-while-it’s-in-session logic doesn’t always hold up.

If you can visit a college during the school year, do it, especially if you want to sit in on a class, get a sense of whether a big school’s population is too much for you or do anything else that only is revealed when students are there. But if you just want to see the campus or find out just how small the college’s small town really is, a summer visit is probably fine, and certainly better than not visiting at all. Before you make the trek, just check the college’s website to make sure they’ll be offering tours while you’re there.

4. Don’t see more colleges in one trip than you can handle.
It’s possible to commit college-visit overkill by trying to see too many colleges in one trip. I remember one student only somewhat sarcastically recalling her family’s marathon college tour: “We saw four colleges the first day, another four the second day, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to go to college anymore—I just want to go home,’” she said.

I understand why this happens to families. If you’re going to take the time to travel someplace to see colleges, it makes sense that you should see as many as possible as long as you’re there. But the average person wouldn’t enjoy seeing nine amusement parks in three days, either. So be realistic about just how much college touring you can really handle.

I’m a college junkie who will see schools anywhere I happen to be visiting. But even I can’t see more than two or three in a day before I’m ready to do something else.

5. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Some of the advice about visiting colleges you read borders on the absurd. “Take the tour, listen to the admissions presentation, sit in on a class, eat in the cafeteria, interview a faculty member, stay overnight in a dorm, visit the athletic facilities, tour the library, visit the surrounding community…” The list goes on.

I can’t imagine my Collegewise students wanting to do all of those things, or finding the time to do them for every college on their list. It’s not realistic. I’ve never met a student who said, “That college visit wouldn’t have been nearly as valuable were it not for this two-page checklist I brought with me.”

Yes, it’s a good idea to contact the campus tour offices and make some formal arrangements for your campus visits. Once you’re admitted, there will likely be some schools that deserve more time to give a thorough evaluation, maybe even one that includes a visit to a class and an overnight stay. But until that time, most college visits don’t need to be so rigorously planned. Gut instincts are surprisingly accurate when visiting schools.

Have a little fun
Take the tour, look around, maybe have lunch on campus and try to imagine what it would be like to attend. Most importantly: enjoy yourself. Looking at colleges is like getting to shop for your own birthday present. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Excerpted from my book: If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted