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

Numbers don’t lie

It's nice when someone does a study to lend statistical evidence that happens to support my little blog posts.  The Center for Public Education just released a report called “Chasing the College Acceptance Letter: Is it harder to get into college?”

From the report:

"It may come as a shock, but the data shows that it is no more difficult
to get into college today than it was a decade ago. Beneath the
headlines and the urban legends lies the real story: If students are
well prepared in high school by earning the right credentials, they
will get into a good college."

"And 'right credentials' doesn’t have to mean straight A’s, transcripts full of Advanced Placement courses, a perfect score on a college entrance exam, or spending fifty hours a week on extracurricular activities. It just means students should earn decent grades, take college-preparatory courses, and perform well on their college entrance exams. All these factors are within the power of high schools to influence. Does this mean that all students will get into the college of their dreams? Not necessarily. But students who fulfill the above criteria should be able to get into a competitive, four-year college and increase their chances of realizing their dreams."

You can read the full report here.  And thanks to Katie for finding it. 

The one applicant

Here's my college admissions version of this blog entry I read about competition. 

Imagine you're a college admissions officer reading stacks of files
every day.  Lots of applicants look the same.  But every now and
then, one of them stands out.  Here are some examples.

Lots of the applicants volunteer at hospitals.  One of them is also
a trained EMT who volunteers at a free health clinic on the weekends
where people without health insurance can get medical care.

Lots of the applicants are student body presidents.  One of them
was previously the student body treasurer who learned how to use Quickbooks
accounting software, implemented it, and saved the school several
thousand dollars in accounting fees.     

Lots of the applicants are Eagle Scouts.  One of them also teaches
outdoor survival skills during the summers and writes an essay about
the time he and a Boy Scout buddy voluntarily lived in the woods for
five days and brought no food or drinking water with them just to
sharpen their survival skills.

Lots of applicants are involved in the National Charity League. 
One of them started volunteering at a literacy program when she was a
sophomore and has now taught 32 previously illiterate adults to read.

Lots of applicants are in the school plays.  One of them took also took a carpentry class, read books about set design, and now leads the group of students who builds all of the sets for the school's drama productions.

Lots of applicants play sports.  One of them also coaches a 10-12
years-old girls' softball team and is one of the most sought after private
softball pitching coaches in the area.

Lots of applicants play in the marching band.  One of them organized
a field trip for the band to drive four hours on a Saturday to watch
the Ohio State marching band practice just to see how it's really done.   

Lots of applicants are cheerleaders.  One of them approached local
businesses and got sponsorships to send the team to a special camp over
the summer so they could learn advanced stunts.

Lots of applicants have straight A's.  One applicant has mostly A's
with two C's in math, but excels in her English classes, won the
English department award, took poetry classes during the summer, writes
a column for the school newspaper that not everybody likes (but many
students love) and started an on-campus book club that meets at
Starbucks on the weekends to discuss everything from Harry Potter to

Lots of applicants have high test scores.  One applicant has high
math scores, but also takes college level math classes, worked with a
professor over the summer to help her prove a previously unproven theorem.

Lots of applicants tell the college they're applying
because, "It's a good school."  One applicant gives a detailed,
thoughtful account of her visit to the college and recalls the exact moment she knew "there was
chemistry between us."

In those pairings, which applicant is more memorable, more interesting, and more likely to get the nod from admissions?

It's a lot easier to be the applicant you can and want to be, to exert your own talents and be your own person, than to try to be just a little bit better than everyone else using the same old metrics. 

Don't try to be like lots of applicants.  Be the one applicant. 

Two questions college recruiting hopefuls should ask themselves

There are two important questions you have to ask yourself if you want athletics to help you gain admission to college.

1. How badly do you want to play your sport at the college level?

If your answer is, “Not that badly, but I’ll do it if it will help me get in,” then college athletics won’t likely be in your future.

Think of it this way.  If you were considering who to ask the to prom and you heard one of the people you were considering say this about you, “I don’t want to go prom with him, but I guess I would if nobody else asked me,” would you take that as a good sign?

Of course you wouldn’t.  She doesn’t want to go with you.  And it doesn’t sound like you’d be having a good time together anyways.

College coaches don’t want you if the only reason you’re expressing interest is to get admitted to the school.  That’s why coaches don’t just evaluate your talent; they make every effort to evaluate your desire to play at the college level.  Coaches have a limited number of spaces to fill on their teams.  They want to know that the people who agree to fill those spaces will be dedicated athletes, not people who will quit as soon as they move into the dorms.

2. “How good am I?” 

Are you recognized as being a good athlete at the county level, state level, or national level?  Have your coaches or opposing coaches suggested that you have the ability to compete at the collegiate level?  Does your success in my high school sports career seem similar that of the high school careers of athletes who are
currently playing your sport at the collegiate level?

To help you answer this last question, visit the websites of 7-10 schools that interest you.  Go to the athletic section, look up your sport, and read the biographies of all of the players.  Within these biographies, there will almost always be information on their high school careers.  This will help you gage your sports success against athletes that were recruited by this particular school.

If most of the players were all-league, captains, MVP etc. and you are achieving these same accolades, you might have found a good
athletic match at this school.  If, however, all of the athletes were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated while still in high school, and you surmise that you not at the same level,
you may want to investigate some different schools.

You have to ask yourself both–and you have to answer them honestly.

College admissions simplified

My friend Paul Kanarek at The Princeton Review speaks weekly at local high schools on the college admissions and testing process.  Lately, he's been pointing out that admissions officers really just want to know three things about applicants. 

1. Are you smart enough to succeed here?

2. Do we like you?

3. Do other people like you?

If you look at every element of your application that admissions officers evaluate, from the classes you take, to the impact you make in your activities, to the subject on which you choose to write your college essays, every one of them can be traced back to one of these questions.

Two ways sports can help you get into college

There are two ways that a successful high school athletic career can help you get admitted to college.

One is to be so good that a college coach says, “I want this kid on my team so badly that I will my forfeit my salary and donate blood to get him here.”  When a college coach makes a firm decision that he wants you on his team, athletics can be a huge advantage to you.

But we can’t forget the second way that athletics can help you.

Athletics can help you get into college even if the coach has no idea who you are.  Just because you aren’t being recruited doesn’t mean that an admissions committee won’t be impressed with your accomplishments.
Athletics are an extracurricular activity, just like drama, music, clubs, or student government.  If you dedicated significant time and showed your passion for the sport, an admissions committee will be impressed, just like they’d be impressed if you were the editor of the paper or if you acted in your school play.

Don’t assume that only the recruited athletes get the admissions benefits.

Why are you going to college?

Seriously, why do you even want to go to college?

I'm not suggesting that you shouldn’t go.  But most people never stop to ask themselves
this basic question.  And it’s an
important one, especially if you want to find–and get in to–the right school.

For example, look at these different responses to the
question, “Why college?”

  1. Because I have to know more about physics.
  2. Because I want to be a journalist, and I have to go to college to do that.
  3. Because I want to be able to study exactly what interests
  4. Because I want to meet new people and have new experiences.
  5. Because if I don’t go, my parents will give my room to my
    brother and make me live in the attic.  I don't want to live in the attic.  It's scary up there.   

These are very different answers, and you probably have your
own.  Or maybe you’ve never really
thought of it before and you’ll need some time to consider it.

That’s what makes the college search difficult.  For most high school students, picking a
college is like entering into an arranged marriage without dating.  You can’t be expected to know everything you
want from a college experience, because a lot of what you’ll inevitably take
away from college will be the things you never expected to find.

Nevertheless, your reasoning for wanting to go to college is
central to picking a school.  If you want
to meet a variety of different people, you probably shouldn’t go to a commuter
school near your home.  If you have no
idea what you want to study or what you want to do with your life, don’t go to
a school with exclusively pre-professional programs.

I don’t expect that you will read this entry and have a perfectly defined answer to the question, “Why college?”  It’s part of the continuous college
soul-searching process that you need to do. 
So, as you go through your college search, keep asking yourself why you
are going in the first place.  This will
help you stay focused on the big picture. 

And when the colleges you eventually choose ask you to explain how they ended up on your list, you'll have a much more thoughtful, revealing answer than the standard, "Um, it's a good school."  

So you want to play sports in college

If you are a four-time All-American quarterback who can no longer open the door to your bedroom because it is so full of recruiting letters, you don’t need to read this blog post.  All you have to do is avoid felonies and interceptions and you’ll probably get into a college with a football team.   

But there are a lot of students out there who have had more modest, but still admirable, athletic success in high school and they’d like to try and parlay it into an admission to college—maybe even to a school to which they would otherwise not stand a good chance of gaining admission.  

If you want to explore college athletics, here's the most important thing you can do.

Don't stand still.

Standing still seems to be a bad thing in almost every sport.  Coaches are always telling you to “move to the open space,” “move to the ball,” “move to the bench until you learn not to shoot at the wrong goal,” etc. 

Standing still and waiting for college coaches to find you is the worst thing you can do if you want to get recruited to play sports in college.  You are going to need to find them, to contact them, to initiate the first, second, and third moves.

Here are some important steps to take:

1. Learn the rules governing eligibility and recruiting.

You can find them on the NCAA’s website.

2. Find out which schools offer your sport

Go here on the NCAA's website. 

3. Get your coaches on board.

If your coaches don't know that you are interested in playing in college, this would be a good time to tell them.  Make sure they know where you are interested in attending, too.  You don’t want a college to call your coach and say, “We understand that David is interested in playing soccer for us,” and have your coach respond,

        “What?  David who?  Oh, THAT kid?  He is?  Is he CRAZY?” 

That would be bad. 

College coaches like to communicate with their own kind.  You, your parents, and anyone who knows you will sing your praises about how wonderful you are.  But your coaches can tell college coaches exactly what they want to know, in exactly the right language. 

4. Ask your coach's advice

Your coach can tell you what else you can do to help your recruiting cause, what other schools you might want to consider, and of course, what you can do to improve your game even more.

5. Initiate and maintain contact with college coaches

Send an email to college coaches at your schools of interest, or fill out the online recruiting form, and do so early in your junior year.  Let them know that you are interested in their program.  Provide them with a resume that summarizes your achievements.  If a coach is impressed with what you have accomplished, she may ask you to fill out additional forms for prospective athletes, to continue to update her, or to send her a game schedule.  Make sure to keep in mind that these kinds of responses do not necessarily mean you are being recruited.  But it does mean that the coach would like to learn more and to keep informed of your athletic progress.

Start with these five–just don't stand still.