Make it a little better

There’s a lot of wisdom in this pithy passage from one of my favorite management books:

“When you enter your place of work, you never leave it at zero. You either make it a little better or a little worse. Make it a little better.”

It also applies when you swap “place of work” with school, classroom, rehearsal, dinner with your family, etc.

Your place in their class

Cassia, one of our community organizers in Newton, Massachusetts, shared this Harvard Crimson Op-Ed, Flipping the Script on College Acceptance. Penned by Harrison Satcher, a Harvard sophomore, he sets out to argue in favor of affirmative action within college admissions. But in doing so, he also lays out why colleges’ efforts to put together the best class—the combination of achievements, backgrounds, and perspectives—is not designed or intended to validate or invalidate any one particular applicant.

“For those in the application process now, remember: It is understandably easy to confuse something that is competitive with it being selectively validating. When the stakes are high, it is easy to confuse ‘accepted’ with ‘worthy’. Yet, college admissions officers cannot validate your existence or your accomplishments. None claim to do so, either. Thankfully, this also means they cannot invalidate these things. Admissions officers are there to build communities, not to sanctify individuals. You are so much more than what you’ve placed on your applications, anyways. There is a place for you out there, and take pride in the fact that your presence there will be valuable in creating a community of diverse voices.”

The cynic might respond, “Well, it’s easy for him to say that. He already got into Harvard.”

But I think the fact that Satcher currently roams the Harvard hallways gives his argument even stronger legs. He appreciates the opportunities that are available to him. But he also recognizes that attending Harvard doesn’t necessarily make him smarter, better, or more likely to succeed than other hardworking, curious, interesting students, wherever they go to college.

So remember, while a no from your dream college can feel like a bitterly personal decision, colleges aren’t in the business of deciding whether one applicant is or isn’t worthy. They’re assembling a class, not validating or invalidating individual applicants.

As you make your way through the process, remember that whatever you have to contribute, there’s a college out there waiting for you to take your place in their class. You just have to look for and find it.


Trend upwards

Most students and parents have heard the message that the best way to improve your chances of admission to college is to get good grades in challenging courses. But if you’re a freshman, sophomore, or junior who feels like you haven’t necessarily shown colleges what you’re capable of, it’s not too late.

Your list of classes and accompanying GPA provides a nice summary of your academic career. But many colleges, especially private schools, will also look at your academic trends. Do you appear to be getting academically stronger with age? Are you progressively challenging yourself more, and performing better in those classes, than you have in the past? Colleges call this an upward trend, and it can sometimes prove to be just as important (if not more so) as the sum of your academic accomplishments.

This is particularly important for a student who may feel dejected about underperforming, one who is worried that her college fate has already been sealed and may not see the point of working harder. There’s still time. This semester, next semester, next year, etc. Colleges will even evaluate your course selection for your senior year, and many schools will also look at your seventh semester (the first semester of your senior year) grades before they make an admissions decision. That means even a junior still has several vital opportunities left to buckle down and trend upward.

There’s no way to erase what’s happened in the past. But it’s not too late to start a new trend.

Make them notice

When a student (or that student’s parent) believes that their grades and test scores aren’t a true reflection of who they are, they often express their frustration that the college admissions process doesn’t measure or value the areas where they do excel. That’s when they’ll tell our counselors things like:

I wish they could see how much I love art.

I wish they appreciated how good she is to her younger siblings.

I wish they cared more about what a good friend I am.

Here’s an option to consider—make them notice.

Do you really love art? Enough to pursue it and learn about it and hone your skills? If you take classes after school, if you submit paintings to art competitions, if you teach art classes to kids or find other ways to (figuratively) put your art where your mouth is, the right colleges will notice.

What if you went beyond normal sibling support? I worked with a student once who began her essay, “I’m happiest when I’m in aisle four of the grocery store with two kids and 20 coupons.” To help her working parents, she did regular grocery store runs with her brother and sister, ages 7 and 9. She made an adventure out of it for them, turning the search for ingredients and the coupon-to-item match into a treasure hunt, something they did together that also helped her family. And today, she’s a happy graduate of SMU.

How good are you to your friends? What are you doing to enrich their lives beyond just being there to hang out and talk with? One former Collegewise student learned to cut and style hair. And once she did, none of her friends ever paid a hair salon again. Instead, her friends would make an appointment at her in-home salon (she’d pull a chair from the dining room into the kitchen). And she’d spend the entire day before every formal dance doing hair prep with 10-12 of her friends. She was an average student whose SAT score never cracked 1000. But her essay about her hair history was one of the best we had that year. And she was admitted to 9 out of 12 colleges she applied to.

I’m not suggesting that you have to take any interest, talent, or meaningful piece of your life to a noticeable extreme just to help you get into college. But if you wish colleges would appreciate where you really stand out, make them notice it. Put another way, be so good they can’t ignore you.

Passion projects

My mother-in-law’s 70th birthday party this year was an outdoor affair that featured a jazz quartet. All four musicians were high school students from two different schools. They’d found each other when two members posted an ad online looking for high school musicians interested in playing gigs and earning extra money. They were fantastic. And they looked like there was no place they’d rather be on a Friday night than playing their favorite jazz tunes to a crowd whose average age hovered around 60.

That small quartet encapsulated a lot of what colleges want to see from students, and what it takes to be successful.

Initiative: two students had an idea and did the work to make it happen.

Passion: they obviously love to play jazz.

Responsibility: they routinely make and keep their promises to each other and to the people who hire them.

Impact: they’re great musicians, and the party would not have been the same without them there. And I’m sure they make the same impact wherever they’re invited to play.

Individuality: I know a lot of students who play in high school jazz bands (these four girls play in theirs, too). But not many have taken that interest and channeled it into an entrepreneurial part-time job.

Likeability: they were likeable in person, and by demonstrating the traits above, they’ll be likeable on paper during the college admissions process.

I would be shocked if I learned that they were doing any of this just to put it on their college applications. But if I were their college counselor, I’d make sure they featured this passion project prominently.

Last call for our highly selective admissions webinar

There are still some virtual seats left to attend our webinar, The Inside Scoop on Highly Selective College Admissions, taking place Tuesday, November 15 from 6 p.m. – 7:15 p.m. PST. The four Collegewise counselors presenting have worked at Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, and the University of Chicago. Tickets are $10, and all the information is here.

Busy on that day and time?
If you’re interested in the webinar but can’t view it on the scheduled day and time, we’ve got you covered—all registered attendees will have access to the recording for one week following the conclusion of the webinar.

Five underutilized ways to impress colleges

Standing out. It’s the challenge so many college applicants face. How can you help colleges see what you have to offer when so many other students are equally high-achieving, high-scoring, and high-reaching? Here are five underutilized ways to impress colleges. Done correctly, your chosen option should be something that makes you happy, not something that you dread but accept as part of your college preparation.

1. Act locally.
Lots of people, places, and things need help, time, or attention. Pick up trash in a local park that needs a facelift. Coach a pee wee baseball team. Offer to teach senior citizens how to start a blog or use Instagram. You don’t have to do something splashy like start a non-profit to get into college. In fact, most admissions officers would be even more impressed with a student who just rolls her sleeves up and gets to work acting—and making a difference—locally.

2. Connect a tribe.
People at your school, in your community, or out there in the internet universe are interested in the same things you are. What if you brought them together? Start a regular book club for people who like the same type of literature. Organize outings to watch your local professional sports franchise. Start a website for fellow poets to share each other’s writing, DJs to swap successful playlists, or vegetarians to post their dishes that even meat eaters happily scarf down. This might sound trivial on the surface. But if you keep it up, you just might end up connecting dozens or hundreds or thousands of people who look to you as their linchpin. And that will get a college’s attention.

3. Learn (a lot) about something.
Colleges love a student with curiosity and the drive to satisfy it. And your interest doesn’t necessarily need to be academic. Learn how to play the bass parts for every one of your favorite band’s songs. Use online resources to achieve near-expert level cooking for your favorite cuisine. Learn to fix your own car, computer, or kitchen sink. It’s never been easier or cheaper to learn something. A teacher is often just one blog post or YouTube video away. And while you won’t get much extra credit just for dabbling in something, if you can share a legitimate talent or interest that you worked hard to learn on your own, you’ll be demonstrating that love of learning that never goes out of admissions style.

4. Hold a regular job.
I define a regular job as one that you had to apply for and that requires you to show up at regular days and times (as opposed to the occasional babysitting gig). Flip burgers. Bag groceries. Pour coffee or wait tables or scoop snack bar popcorn. Even at the nation’s most selective colleges, there is something irresistibly admissions-likeable about a teenager who earns an honest dollar, especially one who stays on for more than just one summer and maybe even rises up the work ranks.

5. Take a hobby to a productive extreme.
One challenge with standing out is that so many of the available activities exist at virtually every high school. But a hobby is yours, one that you can take in any direction you’d like. Play the trumpet in a local jazz, funk, or mariachi band. Write movie reviews online. One former Collegewise student learned to throw clay and make pots, which he eventually sold at local flea markets twice a month. He’d earned several thousand dollars by the time he applied to college (and today, he’s a graduate of Columbia University).

Here’s the common thread with all of these—they’re driven only by your own concern, interest, or curiosity, not concocted as a strategy to impress colleges. Colleges see plenty of students who start non-profits or intern at law firms or enroll at expensive programs at prestigious colleges. But many (certainly not all, but many) of those same students also cut bait and abandon those supposed interests or commitments as soon as they’ve done enough to list them on their college applications. Admissions officers are savvy enough to see through that. That’s why it’s so refreshing to come across the student who coached youth hockey or painted the local senior center or tossed pizza dough just because she wanted to.

Successful someplace

I just came across this past post on the venerable MIT admissions blog. It answers the question, “How do I get into MIT?” with a simple concept: apply sideways.

I’ll let the writer, Chris (who is also an assistant director of admissions), explain what he means. But it involves working hard, pursuing passions, and being nice, recommendations that regular readers of this blog have heard before. I’m sharing Chris’s version as further evidence that this simple approach works.

No matter where you hope to go to college, just insert the name of your dream school and follow the advice contained within Chris’s post. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get in. But it guarantees that you’ll be successful someplace.

The one question not to ask colleges

If I could pick one question not to ask a college admissions rep at any fair, presentation, or tour, here it is:

How many hours of community service are enough/look good/should I do, etc.?

I understand why kids ask. But this question, which comes up all the time, highlights everything that’s wrong with college admissions. No admissions officer will ever quote you a number. And one of the few things that will annoy them more than the question is the student or parent who won’t take “There is no magic number” for an answer and instead keeps pushing for an exact figure.

Do it because you want to help people, because it’s the right thing to do, and because it makes you feel good. Your motivation—and the resulting impact—matter much more than the total number of hours does.

Those who do

Chris, a Collegewise counselor and former MIT admissions counselor, shares this recent post from MIT Dean of Admissions, Stu Schmill, about what they look for—and don’t look for—in prospective students.

In simple terms, we want students to pursue the things that interest them with energy and enthusiasm. We want students to make decisions that are educationally sound for them to best prepare them to succeed in college and beyond. We want students to challenge themselves appropriately in the areas that are most interesting to them. We want students to engage with their community in their pursuits. And, we want students who demonstrate strong ethical character. In short, we want young people to be students and community members first, and applicants second…We don’t want students to do things just because they think they have to. We don’t want students to take advanced classes out of a sense of competition, rather than the joy of learning. We don’t want a laundry list of a million activities. And we don’t want students sacrificing quality for quantity – something that is happening far too often.

I think Schmill’s sentiments are honest and forthright. I also think that the admissions officers at most highly selective colleges would concur. But to really understand and appreciate what he’s sharing, you’ll need to read the entire thing, and you’ll need to read between the lines.

It’s true—MIT doesn’t want students who take every AP class out of a sense of competition. They don’t want students who do things because they think they have to. They don’t want students who focus more on their quantity of work than they do on the quality. They want genuinely curious, engaged human beings who will make valuable contributions in and out of class when they get to college.

But this year, MIT received applications from 20,000 of the very best students in the world, and they only needed to admit about 1500 of them to fill the class.

Those students who were admitted may not have diligently plodded through all of their schools’ AP classes driven only by a sense of competition. But most of them probably took the most challenging courses offered, and voraciously pursued their intellectual interests outside of class driven only by their curiosity and desire to learn. There aren’t very many teenagers who learn that much, that well, driven only by their own intense intellectualism. But those who do all apply to schools like MIT.

Those students who were admitted may not have done things because they thought they had to. But they probably did commit themselves passionately to things they really cared about. And they almost certainly achieved impressive success within those activities, whether it was community service, drama, baseball, the math club, Kung Fu, playing the cello, or training guide dogs for the blind. There aren’t very many students who can make that kind of an impact in high school, and do it all driven only by an innate sense of passion and drive unrelated to college admission. But those who do all apply to schools like MIT.

Those students who were admitted probably didn’t care about quantity. They never asked how many AP classes, activities, hours of community service, awards, etc. were enough. They cared more about what they were learning, doing, and contributing than they did about whether or not it would be sufficient to earn an admission to their dream college. But their applications almost certainly revealed that they did more, achieved more success, and made a greater impact than most of the applicants applying to college. There aren’t very many students who can do that much, that well, and legitimately claim that they did it because they wanted to, not because they were trying to impress colleges. But those who do all apply to schools like MIT.

Is it a perfect process? Is it even fair? No, it’s not. There are lots of kids who worked, achieved, and cared enough to prove that they deserved to be admitted. But it’s a numbers game, and the reality is that schools like MIT just can’t admit every qualified student who applies. That’s the rub at just about every highly selective college. Too many stellar applicants, too few spaces to offer.

If you want to attend a highly selective college like MIT, please understand that there is no magic formula, no hard-and-fast list of necessary achievements that will guarantee your admission.

So what should you do?

Take the most challenging classes you can reasonably handle without sacrificing sleep or sanity. Work hard to get the best grades you can. Commit yourself to, and make an impact within, activities you care about. Be a class participator. Make efforts to learn about things that interest you, academic or not. Be a good person who cares about your family, your friends, and your community. Celebrate your successes and learn from your failures. Have faith that your work ethic and character will always be more important than any grade, test score, or admission decision from a particular college.

And most importantly, find colleges that fit, regardless of their prestige. Your list may include some schools like MIT where statistically, nobody stands a good chance. But balance those choices by including schools where your counselor agrees that you have a strong chance of admission.

Taking this route still won’t guarantee that you’ll get into a highly selective college. But it guarantees there will be plenty of great colleges where you’ll be one of those who do.