For retiring readers

Every year, the number of readers subscribed to my blog drops sharply after May 1. That’s exactly how it should be. When seniors decide where they’re going to college, there’s not much left to talk about with your counselor or to read about on a blog like mine. Even the college counselors understand that every year, a portion of our constituency retires and moves on.

For the last two years, I’ve posted the same goodbye to graduates after the May 1 deadline by which seniors must commit to their chosen colleges. And it’s always one of my most read and shared posts. So I’ve copied it again below. For those of you who will soon be off to college (or parents who will soon be sending your college freshman), I hope you’ll take the time to read it so I can say goodbye, good luck, and thank you.

Goodbye to graduates
Reposted from May 2015

Today is graduation day for a lot of my blog readers. Not the official high school graduation, but, May 1, the final day for seniors to decide where they’ll be attending college next fall. When a student has made that decision or a parent finally knows the college fate of their last one to leave the nest, there’s no need to come back tomorrow for my advice about how to pick colleges or write the essay or maintain your sanity in what’s become an unnecessarily stressful process.

So, for those of you who will be moving on, here are my parting words.

To students:

First, congratulations. Whether or not you’re attending your first-choice school, you should celebrate today. You’re going to college. This is a big deal, one that many of you worked incredibly hard for. Take a second to enjoy it before you rush to think about what’s next. The stress, the applications, the waiting and wondering—it’s all over. Put the college sweatshirt on. This is the good stuff now.

Second, remember that you won’t get to do a first draft of college. This is it. You get four years. So really lean into them. Learn as much as you can. Grow as much as you can. Have as much fun as you can. Don’t be that person who looks back on college and wishes you’d done more to enjoy and benefit from it. Your college can offer all the opportunities and benefits you’d hoped for, but you’ll need to take advantage of them.

Take the time to thank your parents. If they’ve been driving you crazy and you can’t wait to get out of the house, thank them anyway. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs there is. I didn’t get that until I became a parent myself, and you probably won’t, either. For now, just remember that while you may be a maturing adult now who’s ready to be out on your own, for most of your life you literally and figuratively could not have survived without your parents. Thank them now and you’ll be really proud of your maturity when you look back on this act years later. Really, trust me on this.

To parents:

Parents, congratulations to you, too. You’re officially sending your kid to college. One of the worst symptoms of college stress is that too few parents feel compelled to celebrate that milestone the way your parents did (or would have). But this is as big a deal today as it was in my day, your day, and every day before that. Do a parental high-five and soak this in.

Also, if your kids aren’t being all that nice and appreciative now, remember how little you knew at 18. They haven’t been on the planet that long. College and life will go a long way to mending this.

Remember that you get to demand a certain level of collegiate performance from your student, especially if you’re paying the bill. But consider demanding it in ways that aren’t measured just in GPAs and impressive accomplishments. You might consider bookmarking these past posts and emailing them to your kids after their first week of college.

How do you make the most of college?
How to build a remarkable college career
Turn college into career prep

And for everyone, I have a favor to ask.

I started writing this blog every day in 2009 because I wanted families to enjoy the process that you’ve just finished. If you’ve read and benefitted from what I share here, please pass it along to the next crop of college-goers. Tell a younger friend about it. Share it with a parent who’s about to go through this with their own son or daughter. Or just forward a particular post that really helped you. Those of us who are trying to change college admissions have to stick together, so when you move on, I need to add new members to the band.

And finally, thank you for reading. It’s a privilege for me to be able to do this, and I hope it helped you enjoy your ride to college a little more.

Good luck, and have a great time in college.

Bounce back with three P’s

According to Martin Seligman, author and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, our ability to deal with setbacks has a lot to do with three P’s: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.

Personalization: Is the failure or setback a fundamental problem with you? Snapping at a good friend one day doesn’t make you a bad friend or a bad person—it just means you weren’t as patient as you could have been in one instance, and you can try to do better next time. The denial from a college, the low grade on a test, the election loss or less-than-stellar play performance or absence from the list of those who made varsity—none of those things mean that you are a failure. Just because something happens to you doesn’t mean it happened because of you. Take a good, honest look at your role in the setback. Own and learn from the parts that actually have something to do with you. Then try to let everything else go.

Pervasiveness: Will this event affect all areas of your life? Or just specific parts? For example, a bad haircut might make you shudder at the thought of showing up to school tomorrow. And it might make you a lot less confident at the formal dance coming up. Those are real feelings. But your health, your grades, your family, your spot on the baseball team—most parts of your life will still be intact. The same can be said about most college-planning disappointments. Lament the portions that are affected (temporarily), but remember just how bad things would really need to be for the phrase “My life is ruined” to be accurate.

Permanence: Will this last forever, or will it go away in due time? Most non-tragic setbacks and the effects associated with them do not last forever. Yes, a denial from your dream college will remain. But the sense of loss you might be feeling will not. Almost nobody sulks through their freshman year of college lamenting a different school that said no. There will be too much learning and fun happening for that. It’s OK to be disappointed by a setback. But try to be realistic about just how long the effects will last.

For more on the three P’s, and maybe more perspective on the difference between a disappointment or setback and an actual tragedy, read or watch Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s 2016 commencement address at UC Berkeley, delivered just one year after her husband died unexpectedly.

Should you really visit colleges?

Most families who are college searching have heard the advice about visiting schools. It makes sense. It’s hard for students to commit to spending four years someplace they’ve never even seen in person. But much of the advice surrounding college visits is difficult to follow, especially if students don’t have the resources to spend on substantial travel.

For example:

You should visit colleges. There’s just no substitute for actually being there.

Fair enough. But easier said than done, especially if the student is applying to schools that require significant travel to get there. That time and expense adds up fast. And what if a student is applying to 8 or 10 or 12 colleges? Do you really need to book that many trips to be a responsible college searcher?

Don’t visit during the summer—nobody will be on campus. Visit when school is in session so you can fully experience it.

Good advice in theory. Hard to pull off in practice. “Get good grades in challenging courses” is college prep 101 advice. Now students are supposed to take time off from their own schooling to visit colleges?

Demonstrating interest is important to getting in. That’s why you have to visit!

True for some schools, but even for those, it really only applies to students who live close by and can visit at little to no expense. I’ve never heard of a college that would penalize an applicant for electing not to incur expensive travel expenses to visit a school they haven’t even been admitted to yet.

Take the tour, sit in on a class, talk to students, tour the local area, meet with an admissions officer, tour the dorms, etc., etc., etc.

I’ve worked with plenty of engaged students at Collegewise. But I’ve never met one who wanted to turn a college visit into a combination of a homework assignment and boot camp. And even a seasoned adult can only hear so many spiels about school history and how many volumes are in the library before their eyes glaze over.

So, what’s the smart, responsible approach to college visits that won’t necessarily break the bank? There’s no one right way, but here are a few resources.

Here are two past posts, this one with a basic tip, this one with five.

Here’s a recent New York Times article arguing for skipping the visit. Each family should make their own decisions, but I’m including it for any readers who may be feeling like the visits just aren’t worth it.

And if you want to do a deeper college visit dive, here’s our Collegewise College Visit Guide. It includes frequent planning mistakes and how to avoid them, advice on how to spend your time on (and off) campus, and suggested questions to ask admissions counselors and current students. Best of all, it’s free.

Smiling is contagious

I once brainstormed a college essay with a particularly cheerful student who wrote about her practice of consciously smiling at people. She would walk through the hallways at school and smile at anyone who looked like they needed a pick-me-up—the student who looked stressed or unhappy, the new kid in school who appeared unsure, the easy target who was accustomed to hurtful barbs rather than warm grins. She said they almost always smiled back. She was naturally positive, it came easily to her, and sharing the smile felt like an easy way to give even a small lift to someone’s day.

That might sound idealistic or naïve, but it turns out she was onto something. Here’s a short article by Shawn Achor, Harvard researcher and author, demonstrating why smiles really are contagious. And the linked study within the article demonstrated that when an overtly positive person entered a room full of people:

“…his jovial mood was picked up by the rest of the group almost instantly. Incredibly, the performance of each individual increased, and the group’s ability to achieve its goal improved.”

You can actually improve the performance of both individuals and groups, and help them reach their goals, just by bringing some positivity to the table. It turns out smiling really is contagious.

By the way, that smiley student went on to her first-choice college, UC Santa Barbara. Today, she’s a merchandiser for a children’s clothing company. And she’s yet to share a single smile-free photo on social media.

Email vs. face-to-face

According to the research cited in this Harvard Business Review article, if you need to persuade someone, asking face-to-face is 34 times more successful than asking over email.

Given that the sample group (who was asking people to complete a survey) approached strangers, I don’t find it particularly surprising that face-to-face contact was more effective. You can easily delete an email without even reading it, but you can’t delete a person sitting in front of you. And we’ve all been cautioned that clicking links in emails from unidentified senders could infect our computers with the electronic version of the Ebola virus.

Still, when you’re making a request of someone, it’s worth considering whether or not you might have better results asking face-to-face. Even the best writers can struggle to communicate the intended tone over email. And there are visual cues that a face-to-face meeting allows, the kind you can’t send through cyberspace.

And if you just have to ask over email, remember that the order matters.

Disagree and commit

When two parties can’t come to an agreement over a particular decision, here’s a way to help make the call and move forward with everyone (including those who disagree) on board: disagree and commit.

According to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s recent letter to shareholders, one of the principles that keeps Amazon working like an innovative startup rather than a static behemoth slowed by size and bureaucracy is to make high-quality decisions quickly. Bezos wants people to vigorously debate ideas including his own. But Amazon’s leadership won’t allow the often fruitless pursuit of consensus to prevent smart, necessary decisions from being made. When they reach an impasse, one party will reiterate the reasons they disagree, then commit to doing whatever it takes to make the decision work. They disagree, then commit.

As Bezos describes it:

“I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with ‘I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.’ Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.”

Bezos didn’t keep arguing. He didn’t schedule another meeting to try to convince everyone he was right. And this time, he didn’t change his mind (he often does). But after disagreeing, he committed. He wants the project to be “the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” That’s a lot more supportive—and productive—than someone who says, “This will never work, and I can’t wait to say, ‘I told you so.’”

Not surprisingly, disagree and commit could be really helpful to counselor teams, clubs, and organizations. But it might even be useful in college planning, too.

A student wants to apply to an expensive college that’s out of her family’s budget. The parent doesn’t see the point in expending the application energy and potentially getting the student’s hopes up. The parent could say, “I disagree, but take your best shot—I hope you get in with a generous financial aid package.” Disagree and commit.

A parent is considering hiring a private counselor for her student. The student doesn’t see the need and wants to handle the process on his own. The student could say, “Mom, I don’t think I need someone to help me. But I’ll go to the free introductory meeting. I actually have some questions for her, too. Who knows—maybe it will turn out to be something I want to do.”

The student isn’t committing to working with a counselor yet. But he’s committing to investigate the possibility with an open mind.

A student who struggles with standardized tests wants to take the SAT again. Her counselor thinks that twice is enough and recommends that the student adjust her college list to include schools that will admit her with her current scores. A counselor could say, “I worry that you’re spending too much time on standardized tests. (Disagree.) But it seems like you really feel strongly about this. And it’s your college process, not mine. So I’ll be cheering you on and hoping you get a score that you’ll feel great about. Do you need some recommendations on how to prepare?” (Commit.)

Sometimes we get entrenched in our arguments just so we don’t have to be connected to a decision that eventually proves to be wrong. We don’t want the other party to later say some version of, “Don’t complain—you agreed to do this, too!”

But disagreeing and committing doesn’t just free us from that worry. It also lets us feel more comfortable relenting, allowing the decision to take place, and actually being a productive part of making the decision successful.

The next time you can’t come to an agreement, do more than just agree to disagree. Agree to disagree and commit.

Catastrophe, or catastrophizing?

Catastrophizing is the irrational act of believing that something is a lot worse than it actually is. There are two kinds, and both show up regularly for anxious students and parents going through the college admissions process.

The first creates a catastrophe out of a current non-catastrophic situation.

You get a C on one test and think, “I’m not smart, and I’ll never get into a good college.”

One college says no and you think, “All my hard work was for nothing, and I’ll be miserable at any other college that I go to.”

Your student doesn’t get into an Ivy League school and you think, “She’ll never get over this. I should have paid for even more SAT tutoring. I’ve failed her as a parent.”

The second kind of catastrophizing looks into the future and imagines the worst that could happen.

If the SAT tutoring doesn’t work, I won’t get the score I need and I’ll be rejected from all my favorite colleges.

If she doesn’t get into that AP class, she won’t be ranked in the top 5%, she won’t be competitive for good schools, and she’ll need to transfer to a different college as a junior.

If I don’t get into Stanford, I’ll never get into a good law school, and I’ll let my parents down.

The best way to battle both? Start by asking yourself, “Is this actually a catastrophe, or am I just catastrophizing?”

When you consider that question, try to be objective. Take the emotion out of it and focus rationally on the actual facts.

I acknowledge that some college admissions catastrophizing comes from the complexity and uncertainty of the process. The facts might be that you don’t really know exactly how one C or one test score or one decision will or will not affect your admissions outcomes. In those cases, a quick conversation with your high school counselor will help.

But no calm, rational, non-catastrophizing person truly believes that long-term life damage will be done by one grade, test score, or admissions decision in high school. Short-term impact and even disappointment? In some cases, maybe. But if you’re constantly anxious about the ride to college and wish you could be enjoying it just a little more, remember that the better you can get at differentiating between catastrophes and catastrophizing, the more you’ll be able to focus on the right things.

Real people

Some high school students are so driven to get accepted to selective colleges that they actually morph into full-time applicants. They’re not actually applying to college 24/7. But they talk about their life in terms of GPAs, test scores, activities, accolades, etc. The college applicant displaces the real person.

You’re not a college applicant; you’re a real person who happens to be planning on applying to college. As involved as that process might be, you should still have plenty of areas in your life that have nothing to do with impressing admissions officers.

For example, do you have answers to these questions?

  • What do you do for fun?
  • What’s the best experience you’ve had with a friend in the last six months?
  • When’s the last time you laughed really hard?
  • What relaxes you?
  • Which of your activities means the most to you, the activity you would miss the most if it were taken away from you?
  • What’s the last thing you learned just because you wanted to learn it, not because you had to learn it?
  • If you could create your perfect Sunday, what would it look like?

If you don’t have answers, maybe it’s time to find some.

And if this all seems trivial because you just can’t turn off the applicant mindset, you might be interested to know that many colleges ask these kinds of questions on their applications and during interviews.

They’re not just admitting applicants—they’re admitting real people.

Decision time

Seniors have until May 1 to make up their minds about which of their offers of admission to accept. If any soon-to-be college freshmen (and their parents) are wondering…

Do I really have until May 1 to make up my mind? Some of these acceptance letters make it sound like I won’t get housing if I wait that long.


Can I put deposits down at more than one school so I can take more time to decide?

…then, please see this past post, which answers both questions.