Tips for soon-to-be seniors

When one of the education world’s most knowledgeable and respected college counselors shares tips for soon-to-be college seniors based on the most recent admissions trends, those students (and their parents) would be wise to heed the advice. And that’s exactly what you’ll find in Patrick O’Connor’s “College Advice for Next Year’s Seniors.” None of the steps he recommends are particularly difficult to execute. But all of them will contribute to a less stressful, more successful application process.

Advice on advice

When students want advice about their college admissions process, who should they ask? That’s not always an easy question to answer. “What are my chances of admission?” “What should I write my college essay about?” “Am I ready to go to a college far away from my home?” These are very different questions. And there’s a fine line between valuing advice from trustworthy professionals and dismissing advice from a student’s friends or family members. Clearly, the professionals have the training and experience. But they’ll never know a particular student or their needs like those who have a personal relationship with that teen. And imagine how difficult it must be for a 16- or 17-year-old to make the distinction when many, if not most, of those advice-givers are older, wiser, and more experienced than the high schooler is.

This recent entry from the Georgia Tech Admissions Blog walks that line effectively, reminding students that while there’s no substitute for professional knowledge and experience, there are plenty of areas within the college admissions process where someone who knows the student personally might lend some good perspective. Ultimately, the student needs to own their process, including the decisions about who will be welcomed to weigh in. But in this particular area, I’d heed the advice of the Georgia Tech professionals.

Three ways to encourage family time

The fastest way to realize how little you actually know about parenting is to have kids, a fact I’ve become acutely aware of since having two of my own in the last four years. But an advantage to working at Collegewise is that I’ve been able to absorb anecdotal learning from the thousands of families we’ve guided through the process. And I’ve noticed something about those teens who seem to genuinely enjoy and speak lovingly about their families: the family consciously planned time to spend together. Your mileage may vary, but here are three ways to encourage family time that, from conversations to college essays, many teens have expressed appreciation for within their own family dynamic.

1. Have family meals together.
Family meals are the perfect opportunity for quality time. Even just 30 minutes of uninterrupted, unscripted, and unplugged talk around the table, done regularly, will lead to interesting conversations and meaningful bonding. Modern day scheduling may preclude this from becoming an every-meal occurrence, and that’s OK. Commit to what you can sustain as a family and then honor the commitment together.

2. Embrace a tradition.
The beauty of a tradition is that you can make the decision once to embrace it. Family camping getaways, regular poker nights with Dad and the uncles, watching the Yankees or the Lakers or Bruins— kids look back fondly on these recurring events even if they rolled their eyes in the moment. One of my former students, Raquel (who was admitted to almost all of her colleges), wrote her college essay about her family’s predilection for throwing impromptu dinner parties featuring their traditional Mexican recipes. I still remember this line: “My 89-year-old grandmother is always the first to arrive with her brown chihuahua, Chiquita, in tow.” And if you don’t currently have a tradition of your own, what a perfect time to start one.

3. Let your teen take the lead.
Human beings of all ages enjoy some sense of autonomy–the ability to have some agency over the direction of our lives. What if you mandated the time but let your teen choose the specific activity? Let them decide how you’ll spend the Sunday afternoon together, or what dish to cook for the family meal, or what movie to stream for the newly minted Family Movie Night. If you want your student to willingly engage and join you in your family commitment, invite them to move from a passive participant to an active contributor or even initiator.

Is a free seminar/webinar worth attending?

One of the many factors that can exacerbate college admissions anxiety is for-profit companies that feed the confusion and fear rather than relieve it. You see this frequently with free seminars or webinars. You show up to learn about financial aid or admissions or test preparation, but what you learn is (1) there’s a complex, secretive, high-stakes process awaiting you, and (2) this company is ready to solve all your problems for a fee.

I don’t have a problem with companies offering free workshops that share their available products or services as part of the presentation. We’ve done the same thing since I founded Collegewise in 1999. But there’s a way to do so responsibly that leaves every attendee, not just those who decide to hire you, a little better off than they were before they showed up. It’s not helpful to bait audiences with the promise of good information and then switch to a pure sales presentation once you arrive.

There’s no foolproof formula for deciding if a free college-related workshop will be worth attending. But assuming the subject matter has relevance for your family, here are a few considerations.

1. Does the promotional material leave you intrigued, or just anxious?
In college admissions, you can tell a lot about a company’s values by how they choose to promote themselves. Does the event’s promotional material intrigue you, like an opportunity to access the right information at the right time to help you make good college-planning decisions? Or does it leave you worried that your family will be at a disadvantage if you don’t attend? Reputable companies don’t try to scare people into doing (or buying) something. And if they’re scaring you before you even show up, don’t expect it will get much better once you’re in the audience.

2. Is there history between the company and the high school?
Many high schools bring outside speakers to campus to share information with students and parents. And a company that has a history with your school has likely earned it. High school counselors and administrators are justifiably protective of their audiences. If they put you in front of their families and you don’t deliver, or you pressure the audience into buying, or you do anything that makes the school regret inviting you, you’ll never get invited back. But make those families rave about what they learned and you’ll earn repeat engagements. A frequent guest is likely a reputable guest.

3. Does the purported expertise pass the sniff test?
Expertise can take many forms—credentials, relevant experience, contributions to the college-going community, etc. Make sure your presenter has demonstrated one or more of them. There is no required certification to give free advice on admissions, testing, or financial aid, and you probably don’t want to take guidance from someone who’s doing this as a hobby. Take a few minutes to vet the speaker or the organization. Do they seem committed to the profession and engaged with the subject matter? Are their investments of time and energy in those areas apparent? Or does the expertise seem to begin and end with calling themselves an expert? There’s plenty of good information out there, and there are plenty of knowledgeable, good-hearted experts ready to share it. Those are the people worth giving up an hour or so to show up and listen to.

Here’s an example of a group that checks all those boxes.

Compass Education Group is offering a series of free webinars on standardized testing. Neither Collegewise nor I have any formal affiliation or financial arrangement with Compass. But we’ve known their leadership for over a decade, we’ve attended their presentations, and it’s clear to us why they are such frequent guests and even keynote speakers at high schools across the country. All the information is available here. You can also download their excellent guide to college admissions testing here.

Will your summer experience become your college essay?

I’ve often heard students (or their parents) declare their pre-selected essay topic before the experience has even taken place, especially when it comes to summer. It sounds like this:

“I’m going to a summer journalism program at Northwestern for two weeks. It’ll make a great essay topic for my applications.”

Maybe you’ve got your own impending summer plan you’re excited about. Travel. An on-campus program. A summer course or internship or deep dive into an existing interest. It’s entirely possible that one of those experiences could make a great essay topic. But here’s the thing: you can’t possibly know yet.

One of the most important Collegewise pieces of essay advice is “Don’t repeat information from the rest of your application.” Students can avoid that common mistake in two ways: (1) Write about something that isn’t mentioned elsewhere in the application, or (2) share new information about a previously referenced experience.

Your summer experience will almost certainly merit inclusion on your application, particularly in the “Activities” section. You should be proud of your productive summer efforts. And colleges will want to know about them.

But once you’ve referenced that experience on the application, what else will you be able to say about it that will be new and interesting? Remember, these admissions officers read thousands of applications. If other students have done it, chances are they’ve written about it in college essays. That’s why admissions officers don’t need to read a 600-word essay to understand what happens at Harvard Summer School. It’s been covered, repeatedly.

How will this experience affect you? Will you be changed because of it? Will you learn or do or experience something that, when shared in an essay, will help the admissions officer get to know you in a way that the rest of the application has not yet allowed?

If your answer is “I don’t know,” then you’re on the right track. An experience can be worthwhile and rewarding without necessarily lending itself to a read-worthy essay topic. That doesn’t invalidate the experience. It just means you should choose another topic.

So go forth with your summer plans. Lean into them. It will be up to you to extract the maximum value from your summer experiences. And you won’t find it (or an essay topic) by passively participating and waiting for the magic to impose itself on you.

But don’t preemptively assign the experience to your college essay. It’s premature, and it closes off your mind to other potentially stronger topics. Wait until you see the prompts for your chosen schools, and then find the story—summer or otherwise—that fits best.

Don’t buy into rankings

I saw a clickbait article/ad recently entitled, “Disney Rides, Ranked from Worst to First.”

Really? According to whom? Based on what criteria?

How do the rankers know that their #1 will also be my #1?

At which Disney-attending audience do these rankings claim to be aimed? Thrill-seekers? Parents who are there with little kids? The little kids themselves?

It’s absurd to think that one list of ranked rides can possibly encapsulate the likes and dislikes of everyone who visits Disney. Now, readers here could justifiably say, “Kevin, it’s just a throwaway ad. Don’t let it upset you so much.” But I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.

There are a lot more variables within college educations and experiences than there are within Disney rides. Don’t buy or buy into any magazine that claims otherwise.

For more on the trouble with college rankings, here’s my Collegewise colleague Arun Ponnusamy (who attended and subsequently worked at several perpetually highly ranked schools).

The perfect time to observe

For most high school students, the school year is winding down. AP exams are behind you. Final exams are impending. The sweet release of summer is imminent. And the college-bound will soon walk the stage at graduation, say goodbye to high school, and prepare to assume their place on campus this fall as college freshmen.

For current juniors who will soon follow that path, this is the perfect time to observe those in your senior class.

The college admissions process encourages an intense focus on the completion of applications and the admissions decisions that follow. That focus applies disproportionate weight to comparatively temporary time and emotion.

You sensed the pressure the seniors were feeling. You heard their stories of the application process. You witnessed the high drama and intense emotion when the decisions started arriving. Highs and lows. Ups and downs. At some schools it would be easy to surmise that you have an arduous rite of passage awaiting you that will be almost as difficult and stress-inducing as Navy SEAL training.

But how do most of those seniors seem today?

Do most of them seem upbeat? Do they seem excited about what’s next? Do they seem to feel positively about where they’re heading to college?

Don’t look for the anomalies. Yes, some seniors are still stuck in the purgatory of the waitlist. Some might still be having a hard time getting over the breakup with the college that said no. Just because they’re all in the same graduating class doesn’t mean those seniors are all the same.

But en masse, how would you describe the current mental and emotional state of the senior class? Chances are that it’s not at all reflective of the turmoil and angst they experienced during the throes of the admissions process. And even more importantly, you’ll probably see that the vast majority of them feel pretty good about where their lives are headed next.

Now the more important question: what will you do with that observation?

Will you choose to notice that as anxious as they may have been at one time, as crushing as those college denials may have felt when they arrived, most of your college-bound classmates are in a pretty good place today? When your own college application process begins, will you choose to remember how most of their stories ended?

Or will you forget this observation and choose instead to remember those admissions-related experiences that soaked up disproportionate focus for everyone involved?

I’ve always said that families should choose how they approach the college admissions process. That choice—what you consciously decide to notice—will influence your own college admissions experience. So make that choice intentionally. Decide how you’d like to feel during your own journey to this moment one year from now and what you’d like to remember about it when you look back.

If you want to learn from the experiences of the college-bound, this is the perfect time to observe them.

Where the time is best spent

Collegewise’s leadership has a saying we’ve come to rely on when we are tempted to rush forward with an idea or initiative before we’ve considered if and how our colleagues might be affected by it: you’re going to spend the time either way.

No matter how anxious for action we might be, if we try to save time by just imposing a change on people that they never saw coming, without giving them an opportunity to influence or even adjust to the impending change, we should expect that the other side of that decision will leave a lot of people uncomfortable. And the effort required to relieve that discomfort will take even more time, and be far less pleasant, than if we’d taken the time beforehand.

In scenarios like that, we’ve learned that we’re going to spend the time either way. Might as well spend it in the place that gives the people and the decision the best chance of success on the other side.

But there’s one scenario where you don’t necessarily have to spend the time either way—when you’re spending time putting off something unpleasant that needs to happen.

We’ve all done it. You have a task to do, a conversation to have, a piece of news to share that you’re just not looking forward to. So you put it off and fill the time with some combination of worry and dread. What we have to do doesn’t change. It’s looming on the horizon just waiting for us. And in the worst cases, the time allotted runs out. That’s when the gumption we were lacking is replaced by a mandatory urgency (seniors who were submitting applications at 11:59 p.m. on the last day before the deadline have some experience with this practice).

In those cases, all that worrying and dreading and avoiding is just wasted time. It doesn’t increase the chances of success on the other side. It doesn’t help us do better work. And it just makes us feel a lot worse for a lot longer than we needed to.

If an outcome can be improved with more time spent planning beforehand, spend it. But if there’s nothing to be gained by waiting, and if you’re filling that time with anxiety or other unpleasant emotions that will disappear once you’ve completed what’s in front of you, spend less time waiting and more time actually working towards “done.”

Spend the time where the time is best spent.

What’s in a report card, and what’s not?

As we reach the end of the academic year, author and University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth shares this timely piece, “Grading Report Cards: What’s in an A—and what’s not.” My favorite snippet is below, but the article is short and worth the entire read.

“Don’t let your kids misinterpret report cards. A bad grade doesn’t mean they’re stupid, bad people, or failures.

Do celebrate the effort that goes into getting a good grade. With at least as much enthusiasm, smile when your child brings home a good friend for a sleepover or gets lost in a novel that wasn’t assigned for class. Send the message that not everything that counts is accounted for in their GPA.”

Better vs. revolutionary

Since 1999, 44 classes of new Collegewise counselors have completed our college counselor training. And from former admissions officers from highly selective colleges, to former high school counselors, to working professionals switching careers and even recent college grads starting their very first job, we’ve graduated them all as fully fledged counselors capable of expertly guiding our students the Collegewise way. It’s a remarkable transformation to take place in just about 40 hours total. But that’s the magic of our counselor training. We prioritize it, we constantly improve it, and for 20 years, training has been one of the things Collegewise does best.

And starting this week, we’re blowing it up, starting over, and rebuilding our training program from scratch.

It’s not that we’ve been resting on our training laurels. Over the years, we’ve introduced new approaches, multiple trainers, and on-demand webinars, all in an effort to get better. But success has a funny way of constraining you over time. After building and iterating on our training for so long, we’ve gotten used to doing things a certain way. Too many elements are now so ingrained that it’s hard to imagine changing or doing away with them entirely. What worked so well yesterday has actually made it harder for us to innovate today. And we’re at the point where starting over actually feels pretty liberating.

Our company, our service, and the world have evolved a lot in the last 20 years. We’re a much larger company today, hiring and deploying counselors both domestically and internationally. There are more counseling subjects, scenarios, and challenges to cover. We have new technologies, in-house subject experts, and even a full-time filmmaker at our disposal now. To weave them into our existing model feels forced, like layering upgrade after upgrade on a product that was designed to do one thing and is now being asked to do another. Every product has a natural lifespan. And the best way to breathe new life into this product is to build a new one.

We’ve never seen any college counselor training that even comes close to the depth and breadth of ours. But we’ve finally reached a point where our training ideas, needs, and assets are bigger than incremental change can accommodate. Better is great. But we’re ready for revolutionary.

This week, I’ll be holing up in a conference room with Allison, Arun, and Frank—the same team that built our College Counseling Master Class together. We’ll ask and try to answer big questions. What is this training for? Who is it for? What is crucial to our success? How will we know if it works? We’ll fill blank whiteboards. We’ll discuss and debate. And if history and this team are any indication, we’ll eventually emerge with a plan to build something innovative, exciting, and worthy of becoming part of Collegewise. We’re eager to get started, and I’ll share updates on our progress as we make it.