SAT Subject Tests Tips from Noodle Pros

The first SAT Subject Test date is less than a month away. The Subject Tests — sometimes referred to as “SAT 2s” — are often required for admission to top-tier universities, but they are much less discussed in education circles and online. Because of this, we get lots of questions about what’s on them, how are they used, and how to prepare for them.

Noodle Pro, Nick Bacarella, has developed an SAT Subject Test series exclusively for the Noodle Pros blog.  In this series, students will learn everything they need to know about these subject-specific cousins of the regular SAT.  Within the series, Nick tackles each subject test individually to familiarize students with the content and test structure.

SAT Subject Test Literature

SAT Subject Test Physics

SAT Subject Test History

 

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The Right Way To Choose a College

Dr. Pope is a co-founder of Challenge Success and a senior lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. She is the author of “Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students.” This essay is adapted from “A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More than Selectivity,” a report published by Challenge Success in October.

Please read her important article!

Does the brand name of the college you attend actually matter? The best research on the question suggests that, for most students, it doesn’t.

Challenge Success, the research and advocacy group that I co-founded at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, conducted an extensive review of the academic literature on the subject. We found that a school’s selectivity (as typically measured by students’ SAT or ACT scores, high school GPA and class rank, and the school’s acceptance rate) is not a reliable predictor of outcomes, particularly when it comes to learning. As common sense would suggest, the students who study hard at college are the ones that end up learning the most, regardless of whether they attend an Ivy League school or a local community college. Similarly, the 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index, a study of over 30,000 graduates, found no correlation between college selectivity and future job satisfaction or well-being. The study showed that graduates were just as likely to score high (or low) on a scale measuring their “thriving” whether they attended community colleges, regional colleges or highly selective private and public universities.

Research does suggest that there is a modest financial gain from attending a highly selective school if students are the first in their families to attend college or come from underserved communities. But the difference in financial outcomes between the low-earning and high-earning graduates of top-ranked schools is greater than the difference between students from such highly selective schools and graduates of non-selective schools, including community colleges. As Greg Ip noted in The Wall Street Journal earlier this week, “The fact that smart, ambitious children who attend elite colleges also do well in life doesn’t mean the first caused the second.”

A study of over 30,000 graduates found no correlation between college selectivity and future job satisfaction or well-being. Would such findings have mattered to the parents involved in the college admissions scandal that has unfolded over the past two weeks? Probably not. In a society that is hyperfocused on achievement, credentials and status, it isn’t surprising that some parents are willing to sacrifice just about anything, including their integrity, to get their child into a top-ranked school. Unfortunately, many high school students also have a “cheat or be cheated” mentality when it comes to getting the grades and test scores that they believe they need for future success. More than 80% of students at high-achieving schools cheat in one way or another, according to surveys of over 145,000 students conducted in recent years by Challenge Success.

Today’s admissions scandal should serve as a wake-up call. As a society, we need to reexamine the purpose of college and the underlying issues that lead families to be so obsessed with status or brand that they jeopardize their own children’s healthy development and well-being. In surveys conducted by my group, three-quarters of high school juniors and seniors list planning for college as a top source of stress or worry in their life, well above relationships and family issues. More and more students are reporting severe sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide as they struggle to meet the unrealistically high expectations foisted upon them. The ultimate irony is that, even when these students do end up in selective colleges, many of them continue to struggle with mental and physical health issues, and often lack the independence, resilience and sense of purpose they need to graduate and enter the workforce.

What would a better approach look like? If the name of the school they attend doesn’t make a difference for most students in the long run, what does? It turns out that what students do at college seems to matter much more than where they go. The students who benefit most from college, including first-generation and traditionally underserved students, are those who are most engaged in academic life and their campus communities, taking full advantage of the college’s opportunities and resources. Numerous studies attest to the benefits of engaged learning, including better course grades and higher levels of subject-matter competence, curiosity and initiative.

Studies conducted in recent years by Gallup-Purdue also show a strong connection between certain forms of engagement in college and future job satisfaction and well-being. In particular, they found six key college experiences that correlated with how fulfilled employees feel at work and whether they thrive in life after college:

  • Taking a course with a professor who makes learning exciting
  • Working with professors who care about students personally
  • Finding a mentor who encourages students to pursue personal goals
  • Working on a project across several semesters
  • Participating in an internship that applies classroom learning
  • Being active in extracurricular activities

And yet, as important as these various forms of engagement seem to be, relatively few college graduates say that they experienced them. While more than 60% of graduates strongly agreed that at least one professor made them excited about learning, only 27% strongly felt that they were supported by professors who cared about them, and only 22% said the same about having a specific mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams. Just under a third strongly agreed that they had a meaningful internship or job or worked on a long-term project, while just a fifth were actively involved in extracurricular activities.

Given the research on what matters in college, the best advice for choosing the right one would seem to be finding a place where the student will be engaged, in class and out, by all that the college has to offer. The good news is that engaging experiences of this sort can happen at a wide variety of colleges, regardless of selectivity, size or location. And with over 4,500 accredited degree-granting colleges in the United States, students have plenty of options from which to choose.

Evaluate Colleges by their attributes
Parents can play an important role in the college search process, but they should always let the student—the one who will actually attend the school—lead the way. Here are some practical tips and conversation starters for students as they navigate the college admissions process.

Keep the ultimate purpose of college in mind.

The college years are short relative to the rest of your life. How do you want to spend your time while you are there? Are you hoping to learn new skills in a particular area? Meet role models, mentors and new friends? Be exposed to ideas, people and places you otherwise would not have access to? What kind of “return” do you want on your investment, in terms not only of future finances and career options but also of personal growth and future well-being and satisfaction?

It turns out that what students do at college seems to matter much more than where they go. For some students, the desired return on investment may be strictly monetary. If that is the case, you may want to consider preprofessional schools such as maritime academies, pharmaceutical schools or other schools with specialized business and entrepreneurship programs. These colleges rank highest in lists that measure value added to expected income, and many of them accept all or nearly all of their applicants. If your goal in attending college is simply to maximize your income, attending one of these less expensive programs at a lesser-known school may be worth considering.

Ask the right questions.

What are you most excited about learning, doing and experiencing in college? Consider academic factors such as access to cutting-edge researchers, ways to apply your learning through long-term projects or opportunities to be involved in graduate-level work, and which subject areas interest you most. Make sure that the offerings and core requirements at the colleges you are considering match these interests. What types of places or settings do you imagine you will most and least enjoy? Consider both location and geography. Do you want to be close to home or far away? Do you want to be in a big city or rural area? Do you want to experience cold weather or a sunny locale? How about a big campus or small? Dorm life or off-campus housing? What interests outside of class do you want to cultivate? Since students seem to thrive when they are more involved in campus activities, consider the range of activities offered at the college and where you see yourself fitting in, whether it is sports, arts, service activities, student leadership opportunities or the myriad clubs offered on most campuses.

Are there specific resources, supports or types of classes that would help you to be fully engaged? Check out mental health services, the support system for students with learning differences and community supports for first-generation students and students of color. What kind of advising and career counseling systems are offered? And don’t forget to look closely at financial aid and other scholarship opportunities.

Who do you want to hang out with and get to know? What social scene do you want? An active Greek system? A rah-rah sports scene? A mellow coffeehouse vibe? International students and study-abroad programs? Students who share your religious affiliation or values?

Do your research.

The internet can be your friend as you peruse different college websites, take virtual tours or visit nearby campuses to learn about the type of school you want. Look for schools that match the answers to the questions above. Sit in on a class or two if you can. Talk to current students or recent alumni. Don’t necessarily base your decision on your parents’ experiences or misconceptions, especially because colleges change and evolve over the years.

Enter college with an engagement mindset.

This is critical. Consider how you might make the most out of your time in college by investing in relationships, trying new things, studying hard, reaching out to adults and peers, building empathy and taking appropriate risks. Be sure you know how to balance a checkbook, do your own laundry and handle the inevitable setbacks and stresses that will occur.

Is an Elite College Worth It? Maybe Not

Challenge Success works with K-12 schools across the country to increase student well-being and engagement with learning. Our survey results show that almost half of students are just “doing school,” that is, playing the game in order to get ahead. That’s no way to prepare for a satisfying life of learning and work.

The message that we try to impart is clear: Parents and students must work on a different attitude toward the classroom long before they start thinking about which college to attend. It’s never too early to foster the skills needed for a healthy and meaningful college experience.

After a talk I recently gave in New York, a father approached me to say that, a year earlier, his daughter was choosing between an Ivy League school and a well-known regional college that was ranked much lower. He took her to visit both schools, and on the way home from the Ivy, she told him that she was going to turn it down. She liked the people and programs at the other school and thought she would be happier there.

He was furious, he told me, and didn’t speak to her during the entire ride home and most of the following week. Who turns down the Ivy League? “But boy was I wrong,” he said. “She is now a freshman at [the regional school] and has never been happier. I thought I knew what was best for her, but she was the smart one who knew where she would thrive.”

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Course Rigor is Not a Number

Repost from Dean J at UVA, one of the best straight-from-the-admissions-office blogs out there. I’ve always said, aim for all the cores all four years—English, Math, Science, Social Science, and World Language. She agrees! It can be tempting to want to drop language senior year to double up on science if that is your intended major in interest. I think in some cases it is fine, but that might not be a good option in the eyes of all admissions officers. Read her post below (and here):

I often mention the cyclical nature of admission work. There are certain phases that happen every year and certain issues that come up when we talk to families. I want to address the questions we get about rigor in the high school curriculum.

1. All of your core classes are important.

A lot of people focus on the core areas that correspond to their current academic interest. I’ve even had parents wave off certain subjects because their student isn’t interested in them or they don’t come “naturally” to them. I wish they’d stop this. High school is the time to get a broad foundation in several areas and college is the time to specialize. We are most concerned with a student’s work in four core areas (in alpha order, not order of importance): English, Math, Science, Social Science, and World Language.
At UVA, students don’t even declare a major until the end of the second year in the College of Arts and Sciences or the end of the first year in Engineering and Architecture. The Nursing and Kinesiology students are the only ones admitted directly into a program.

2. The number of APs doesn’t drive a decision.

Plenty of people want to know how many AP courses a student should take to be competitive in our process. We don’t approach applications this way. First of all, not everyone goes to a school with APs as an option. Second, some schools limit how many AP courses a student may take. Third, with the number of AP courses offered these days, you can rack up a lot of APs in just one subject. There could be students with big AP numbers who also haven’t take an advanced course in other core areas.

3. Doubling up in one subject at the expense of the core doesn’t “look good.”

There are some students who are so excited about a certain subject that they want to double or even triple up on courses in that area. I don’t think it’s smart to drop core subjects to load up classes in one area. Cover the core and use your electives to explore your interests.
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For Families: Ethical Parenting in the College Admissions Process

Parents and other primary caregivers shape their children’s moral development in myriad ways. They also often influence every phase of the college preparation, search, and admissions process.

In the following seven guideposts, Making Caring Common explores specifically how parents can guide their teens ethically, reduce excessive achievement pressure, and promote key ethical, social, and emotional capacities in teens in the college admissions process.

1. Keep the focus on your teen

Why? The college admissions process, a key rite of passage in adolescence, can be a wonderful opportunity for parents to get to know their teen in a deeper way—to understand what they are drawn to, hope for, fret about, and value in others and themselves. It is also a vital opportunity for parents to express and model the empathy in their relationship with their teen that supports their teen’s authenticity and is so crucial for teens to develop in their relationships.

Yet our hopes, anxieties, and needs in this process can cause us to misunderstand or subordinate our teen’s needs. We may, for example, tacitly pressure our teen to attend a college to live out our dreams, compensate for our shortcomings, or reproduce our own college experience. When parents compete with other parents or view their teen’s college choice as a public marker of their success as parents, they can both sideline their teens’ needs and flood their teen with fears of shaming them if their college options don’t broadcast success. “The most helpful change that parents and colleges could make in the admissions process,” a high school student told interviewers at the Education Conservancy, is to send the message that “you’re a perfectly good person—maybe even a better person—if you don’t go to one of the top ten colleges.”

During the college admissions process, parents also face their teen’s impending separation from them. The admissions process is often a rite of passage for teens and for parents, a time when parents’ role and center of gravity shifts in ways that can shake loose feelings that can undermine parents’ ability to act in their teens’ best interests. Some parents may cling to their teens more tightly than they should, anxiously asserting what remains of their control of their teens’ life and hampering their teens’ ability to think independently—the infamous “helicopter,” “bulldozer,” or “lawnmower” parents. Other parents, eager for their teen to move on, may prematurely back away.

How? It’s important for parents to undertake the often subtle, difficult work of disentangling their wishes from their teen’s wishes. Because we all have our blind spots, parents can often benefit a great deal from talking to those they respect and trust about the places where their own and their child’s views about colleges conflict, and about how to handle these conflicts.

Parents, too, can be alert to moments when they may be conflating their interests with their teen’s. It should be a red flag for us as parents if we find ourselves peppering admissions staff on college tours while our teen stands idly by, constantly assessing what our teen’s course and activity choices mean for their college applications, find ourselves consumed with poring over commercial college rankings, or feel our self-esteem plummet if a child is rejected at a particular college.

At the outset of the process, parents might ask their teen questions that enable them to better engage in the complex choreography of following and guiding their teen. In the whipped-up, frenzied atmosphere of the college admissions process, parents often need to pause and listen. We might ask our teens whether they feel stress in this process and what is causing it. We might ask whether the process is causing them to compromise their values or making them feel less like themselves, and we might invite feedback on our role: “What role would you like me to play in this process?” “Will you tell me if I’m involved in ways that are making this process harder for you?”

2. Follow your ethical GPS

Why? The college admissions process often tests both parents’ and teens’ ethical character. A small fraction of parents engage in outright unethical practices to give their children advantages: getting psychiatrists to falsely diagnose their teen as having learning differences so their child is granted more time on standardized tests, threatening to sue guidance counselors who write poor recommendations, buying college essays online, or writing anonymous letters to admissions offices that seek to sabotage the admissions chances of other students at their teen’s school. Far more commonly, parents may slip into more subtle forms of dishonesty—allowing their own thinking or voice to intrude in college essays, for example, or looking the other way when hired tutors are over-involved in applications, a trend that appears to be growing (Jaschik, 2017). There’s good reason to believe that many teens lie or at least exaggerate on their college applications, and parents may also either condone or half-consciously overlook these violations. According to several studies, a whopping 80 – 95% of high school students report some form of cheating in the last year, and many of these students view cheating as trivial or don’t see it as a problem at all (Challenge Success, 2012; O’Rourke,  Barnes, Deaton, Fulks, Ryan & Rettinger, 2010; Wangaard & Stephens, 2011). In a survey by the Josephson Institute of Ethics (2012), 57% of high-schoolers agreed that, “in the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.” Some parents also give their children advantages without any consideration of equity or fairness in the college admissions process, such as paying private college counselors $40,000 a year (Berfield & Tergesen, 2007)—practices that also constantly fuel other parents’ anxiety that they are short-changing their own child. Some parents discourage their teen from sharing information and resources with their peers, fearing that their teens might end up competing with those peers for the same colleges.

There are many compelling reasons why parents shouldn’t let adults’ thinking and voices seep into college applications or allow teens to misrepresent themselves in other ways. Allowing these misrepresentations sends the message that ethical standards can be ignored if they’re inconvenient and that success doesn’t need to be earned. Adolescence is also a time when teens are both developing strong moral convictions and high ideals and are prone to deep cynicism. They can be razor-sharp alert to hypocrisy and often long for adults who are North Stars, who they can deeply respect and trust (Coles, 1986; Erikson,1968). When parents allow teens to misrepresent themselves, and especially when parents actively participate in that misrepresentation, they can stoke that cynicism and erode that trust. “I know kids,” says Denise Pope from Challenge Success at Stanford University, “who are absolutely mortified when their parents cheat the system. They’re embarrassed and ashamed” (Miller, 2013). Letting teens misrepresent themselves can also send the message to teens that there is something wrong with them: Why else, teens might ask themselves, would my parents write my essay or allow me to misrepresent myself? (Miller, 2013). Misrepresentations can be self-defeating in another sense: They can land teens in the wrong college. When parents or teens try to justify misrepresentations by claiming that “everyone is doing it” or “the system is corrupt,” they also create a very slippery ethical slope that can simply reinforce teens’ conformist tendencies and deprive them of a key lesson in moral leadership— that morality often means going against the herd.

How? Rather than dismissing misrepresentations as trivial or finding ways to overlook them, we as parents ought to be willing to ask ourselves hard, fundamental questions about who we want to be and what we want to model for our children. We can consider whether getting into a particular college is really more important than compromising our teen’s or our own integrity. We can consider with our teens the exceptional cases when dishonesty is warranted in the service of a higher principle—when it means, for example, protecting someone’s life or advancing a vital cause—and discuss whether misrepresenting oneself to get into a college one prefers really qualifies as one of these cases. We can remind ourselves and talk to teens about why authenticity and honesty are critical—especially in this era of “fake news”—and about the necessity of acting in ways that we want to be precedents for others. Just as important, we can explore with teens why they might feel pressured to cheat or misrepresent themselves—do they fear disappointing or shaming themselves or us?—and think through with teens what role we might play in alleviating that pressure.

3.  Use the admissions process as an opportunity for ethical education

Why? Far too often, the college admissions process is eye-opening for young people in all the wrong ways. It’s a powerful introduction to the values of adult society, and many young people are morally troubled, sometimes deeply so, by what they experience. Many students across a wide range of communities are acutely aware that the deck is stacked, that there are vast differences in students’ access to counselors, tutors, and other admissions resources, and that college is simply unaffordable for staggering numbers of families. Many students bridle at the unfairness of favoring certain students in admissions, such as donor and legacy students, full pay students, and athletes. Many also struggle with how much they can embellish their applications and “play the game” without compromising their own authenticity and integrity.

How? It’s clearly critical to create greater equity and fairness in the college admissions system. Talking about these ethical concerns is not a substitute for that. But these types of ethical questions and concerns provide powerful opportunities for helping students take multiple perspectives and develop more mature ethical understandings. Parents can engage their teens in thinking about why well-intentioned people create and participate in unfair systems and to consider the crucial question of how one participates ethically in systems that one may view as unethical in significant respects. Is it ever ok to cheat in a system that one views as cheating you? Parents and teens might explore the many inequities in this process. Why do they exist? What might be done to remedy them? How can one effect change? They might analyze from various vantage points—including from the perspective of college admissions staff or financial aid officers—the case for and against favoring athletes and children of donors and legacies. Students might be asked to imagine an admissions process that they view as fair and high-integrity and to consider who and what needs to change for this system to exist. All of these conversations, of course, need to be guided by key ethical principles, for example, honesty and fairness are important to strive for in all our interactions and honesty should only be compromised when it is outweighed by other ethical considerations, such as protecting others or oneself from serious harm. Parents might also speak directly with students about the reality that there is in, in fact, a certain “game to be played” in this process, but discuss with students both how to play this game—presenting themselves in ways that are likely to be attractive to college admissions offices—while also presenting themselves authentically. It’s a difficult skill that they are likely to need in various settings throughout life.

4. Be authentic

Why? Many parents fail to have authentic, honest conversations with their teens during the college admissions process, diminishing their role as trusted guides and mentors and eroding their capacity to support their teen in expressing themselves authentically. We have talked to many young people in middle- and upper-class communities who report that their parents, for example, say that getting into a highly selective college doesn’t matter in one sentence but then badger them about grades or SAT prep in the next. One parent we spoke to told us without a hint of irony: “My husband doesn’t care whether our daughter goes to a high-status college. It’s fine with him if she goes to Swarthmore (a highly competitive and high-status school).” Other students report that their parents play down high-status colleges only because at some level their parents know that they live in a neighborhood and attend schools that will do the muscling for them. “My parents don’t have to say anything about how important it is [that I go to a high-status college] and I’m still going to feel a lot of pressure in my community to go to one of those places,” a 17-year-old from a town outside Boston says. “The only reason they can tell themselves they’re not pressuring me is that there’s already huge pressure on me.” Still other students view their parents as showing their hand when they protest too loudly about other parents’ intense focus on selective colleges. As one high school student wrote in U.S. News and World Report: “My mom delights in anecdotes about the ridiculous activities of ‘psycho moms,’ her name for mothers who are overly anxious about where their children will attend college. This is how she assures herself that she is not as crackers as these women” (Karlin, 2005). Some parents themselves are aware of their hypocrisy: “We tell our children one day that we just want them to go to a college where they’ll be happy,” a Boston parent tells us, “and the next day we tell them they should go to the best college they can get in to.”

How? As parents, many of us need to reckon with these conflicting feelings and talk to others both about these feelings and about how to discuss them authentically with our teen. We also can try to understand what’s “in the water,” scanning the many school and community factors that may be influencing our teen’s college considerations so that we can talk to our teens in ways that acknowledge these realities. In addition, we can simply ask our teen to alert us if they think we’re sending mixed messages.

Finally, many parents may underestimate what a relief it would be to their teen and the extent to which it would support their teen’s maturity and secure their respect if they stopped dodging and spoke honestly, including at times sharing their own irrational feelings. For example, while it’s important for parents to try to manage their disappointment when their teen is rejected at a college, if parents are visibly disappointed in the presence of their teen, it might help teens a great deal if parents explained why. A parent might explain that they always wanted to attend that college or that they were too caught up in the status of that college and that they recognize that these are their issues to work out.

 

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Transparency in College Admissions: Optional Components of the College Application

I am going to keep this one short and sweet since a number of the posts in my “college transparency” series have been quite long. If you want to maximize your chances of acceptance, don’t consider any optional components of a college application optional. Here are some common optional components:

  • Essays
  • Interviews
  • Videos submissions
  • Letter of recommendation (any or extras)

Option to write an optional essay? Write it.

Option to Interview? Sign up (then prepare for it…more on that here and here).

Option to create and send a video introduction, for example, like U Chicago and Bowdoin offer? Do it.

Option to send an extra letter of recommendation, or to send one at all if optional (many schools require zero LORs, so if you can submit one as an option….)? Request one and have it sent.

Why submit optional materials? Because by doing so you are going above and beyond what other applicants will do to demonstrate who they are as well as their commitment to being accepted to the school to which you are applying. You are giving yourself the opportunity to let the admissions committee get to know more about you. And because there is more of “you” for them to evaluate, assuming the you that you present is in a good light, you increase your odds of winning over the admissions committee.

Also, for many AdComs, not submitting optional materials looks lazy. If I have applicant A and applicant B on the table, and all things are equal but A submits extra materials and B does not, there is a higher likelihood I am going with A. I like to see the extra hustle, and colleges do, too.

 

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College Rejection or Waitlist? Try Practicing Gratitude

It is already March—time flies when you are applying to college! Although an exciting time for many students and parents, others feel a significant amount of disappointment, anger, and confusion as admissions decisions roll out. Many of these feelings stem from rejections or waitlist responses from our country’s most selective schools, but it does not have to be this way.

I hope students who are at the end of their journey take some time in March to reflect and see the positives—personal growth, self-actualization, maybe even becoming a better writer—in light of waitlists, rejections, or other perceived failures. Just making it through this process—and high school today—is no joke, so I suggest starting there as a place to see how far you have come! The students I work with are so accomplished, every single one of them, and they have a lot to feel proud of daily. Sometimes it just takes a moment or ten of honest reflection to see and internalize all of the good. It also helps to remember that a college rejection is not personal. Your file and profile was rejected, not who you are as a person/human.

It is also critical to keep in mind that where you go to college does not determine your happiness, your success in life, or set your future path in stone. This has been true since before Frank Bruni told us so. What is more important is much more personal—like how hard you work and how you treat others. To me, that is what will take you far in life.

So try practicing gratitude during this time, even though it may feel hard. Lynn Goldberg at Tiny Buddha has some great tips for getting started:

1. Keep a gratitude journal.

Make gratitude a daily habit. Every day, jot down ten great things that happened to you or that you are grateful for. Keeping your focus on the positive will really make a difference.

2. Practice present moment awareness.

The habit of being fully present and not wishing for something in the future or the past—but just being grateful for what is—can really shift your perspective. Catch yourself when that moment escapes you, and gently remind yourself to come back.

3. Think bigger than yourself.

Become involved in a cause that is important to you. As you become aware of other people who are less fortunate than you, you will start to feel a deeper appreciation for what you do have. Many of us have so much.

4. Share the love with your family and friends.

Cultivate an appreciation for others and let them regularly know that you are grateful for them and for what they do for you—whether it be helping with homework or always inviting you out to do something fun. Focusing on the positive will make people want to keep doing it, and help you realize you should be doing the same.

5. Replace complaints with gratitude.

When you find yourself focusing on what you believe you’re lacking—I wish my car were nicer, I had more money, or I got into a “better” college—replace it with thoughts of what you are thankful for.

To all the college applicants out there who know where they are headed at the end of the summer, this advice applies to you, too. And to everyone else still waiting to hear, still waiting to decide, or who is going to tough it out on the waitlist this spring and into summer, stay positive and remember:

“Personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a checklist of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications are not your life.” (JK Rowling)

I will be posting more thoughts from Rowling about “failure” later this month, from one of my favorite tiny books, Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination.

 

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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective College Applicants

Stephen R. Covey’s self-improvement book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is based on his belief that the way we see the world has to do with our perceptions. So, to change any given situation, we must change ourselves. And to change ourselves, we must be able to change our perceptions.

One of my goals for my work as an IEC is to help both students and their parents see the college search and application process for what it is; to help families gain clarity and develop an approach that values transparency and less stress for all involved. Covey’s habits, at their core, translate nicely to how families can intentionally approach the college search and application process.

Covey’s seven habits focus on being proactive, creating end goals, taking things one step at a time, having a win-win attitude, seeking to understand others (schools in this case), valuing differences, and making time for reflection and relaxation. Below, I’ve translated them into my own language:

  1. Be Proactive = Get in the driver’s seat (and stay there!)
  2. Begin with the End in Mind = Set realistic and attainable goals
  3. Put First Things First = Take it one step at a time
  4. Think Win-Win = Create a ‘winning’ application strategy
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood = Understand colleges on a deeper level
  6. Synergize = Craft a synergistic college list
  7. Sharpen the Saw = Take a water break (it’s a marathon, not a sprint)

Let’s break down each habit:

Get in the driver’s seat (and stay there!). First thing is first: students need to be in the driver’s seat. Not mom, not dad. Parents: if you are spearheading all efforts you are doing your student a disservice. If they are not ready to get in the driver’s seat and own this process they might not be ready to go to college. It is that simple. Do not do this process for them. Students: it is understandable to need support as you research and apply to colleges. However, don’t take advantage of your parent’s anxiety around this important milestone. Once you get to college, you will need to go it on your own; think of this as the first step toward making that a positive reality.

Set realistic and attainable goals. Realistic: having or showing a sensible and practical idea of what can be achieved or expected. Attainable: can be attained, achieved. Parents and students need to set realistic (practical) and attainable (achievable) goals for the college search and application process. For example, most students don’t get into Harvard even if their profile makes them qualified. There is a huge difference between being qualified and being competitive. Attainable goals are realistic goals; please be realistic. Also, keep in mind that what might be realistic, or what might even be attainable, might not be ideal for you (financially) or your student (socially, culturally, academically). Try to keep the end game in mind and look beyond the name of a school or its rank or perceived prestige. So much more matters so much more.

Take it one step at a time. The college search and application process is best approached like a marathon, not a sprint. Treat it as such, take your time. Break it down into manageable parts. I like to break the year down into three chunks: summer, fall, winter/spring. Plan for one chunk at a time and tackle what is needed within that period. Slow and steady tends to win this race.

Create a ‘winning’ application strategy. There are plenty of colleges out there for everyone. You can create a winning search and application strategy by first setting realistic and attainable goals, and then by developing a winning mindset. To me, a winning mindset sees this process as more than just a process but as a journey. It also means knowing that if you put in max effort, and your best foot forward, things will work out just as they should. You will go to college! Will it be the college you had your heart set on? Maybe not. But you will go, and I have found that even the students that do not get into their first choice end up very very happy wherever they land. Things just work out this way in most cases! When you see this process for what it is—a means to an end and then something that you quickly forget about—you can approach it with less stress, less fear, and more positivity. That is a winning strategy.

Understand colleges on a deeper level. The most attractive applicants know the schools they are applying to well, and they convey this understanding through multiple parts of the application (essays, interviews, additional correspondence with the school before and after applying). The student who applies to 20 schools? They don’t know many or maybe even any of those schools well in most cases. The students I work with 1:1 (at least the ones who take my advice in its entirety) understand schools deeply by talking with current students, connecting with faculty, meeting with alumni, sitting in on classes, taking classes virtually, touring colleges virtually, creating a meaningful history of correspondence with their regional reps, and so much more. You can do all of these things if you plan for the long game.

Craft a synergistic college list. Part of creating a winning application strategy, beyond realistic and attainable goals and a positive mindset, is a list that reflects this understanding and that takes into account more than just grades, test scores, and preferences. Families need to hash out the college list together and make it work beyond base metrics. Students: you need to include your parents because they often provide support and insights that are highly beneficial. Considerations like early decision have financial implications; you need clarity on these and other considerations before applying ED. Parents: this does not mean you get to dictate the entire list. You (most likely) already went to college, so remember to use your influence with caution and try to not live vicariously through your student.

Take a water break (it’s a marathon, not a sprint). My husband runs marathons so I know there are people out there who can run very very far without stopping (cheers to you all!). But thankfully, this is just an analogy, and you can take water breaks along the way and still finish in record time (you know what I mean). Please take breaks along the way because this is a long journey! Taking a break does not mean stopping the process completely, it just means you are taking the time necessary to recharge and reset; this applies to both students and parents.

 

 

Transparency in College Admissions: Disciplinary Records

Defenders of the use of disciplinary records in college admission believe they are an important way for schools to keep students with behavioral or character ‘issues’ off their campuses, while most opponents feel high school disciplinary records have little predictive value and stigmatize students for minor infractions. One thing that remains constant is that many colleges still collect disciplinary information, and most students who report an infraction are very worried about the outcome of their application.

However, what I want to point out in this post is that reporting a disciplinary infraction is not a total application killer! Admissions officers understand that people make mistakes; they were high school students once, too. Most infractions are minor, and colleges are sympathetic if the student is forthright, the incident is thoughtfully explained, and they can meaningfully reflect on their growth from it.

Here is how disciplinary information is currently collected on the Common Application:

Once you check yes, the space to write a short essay appears, as well as one other question:

I have worked with and read the applications of many students with disciplinary records, ranging from academic dishonesty and getting caught drinking to being arrested for a felony—and I have found that not all disciplinary infractions are treated equally. Some infractions are seen as very minor while others are taken quite seriously and could make admission to a top-top school hard. Let’s break down some different types of offenses (of course there are others, but these are a few I have experience with and hear about most frequently from other counselors):

  • Minor incident (common): minor school-based disciplinary matters; drinking
  • Moderate incident (slightly less common): suspension from school; marijuana
  • Severe incident (not that common): expulsion from school; other drugs, academic dishonesty, arrest (misdemeanor/felony), other character-based offenses such as stealing, bullying, sexual assault, etc.

One caveat: how the infraction is viewed will also depend somewhat on the school you are applying to. School’s with strong honor codes (UVA, Davidson, William, and Mary) might view offenses more seriously than other schools, so keep that in mind.

I know students who reported infractions across all three categories, and all of them still got into college. No application process was completely ruined. A few examples: one who reported both a moderate and minor infraction now attends an Ivy League school. One who reported what I consider a severe incident (academic dishonesty) is graduating from a top fifteen school (and was competitive for but denied from all Ivies). I believe each applicant’s disciplinary essay is where they were able to turn a mistake into a positive point of self-reflection that allowed the admissions committee to see their personal growth and commitment to it since the incident. Here’s how I typically have students outline this short, 400-word essay:

  • Explain what happened as concisely as possible (~100 words)
  • Present what was going on at the time, if anything, that might have lead to a lapse in judgment (~100 words)
  • Discuss how you remedied the situation and began to work on yourself to ensure it or something like it will never happen again (~100 words)
  • Reflect on the journey, walk the reader through what you learned (and how you are applying these learnings if applicable), and then close touch on how you have grown from navigated it (~100 words)

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I closely follow the Georgia Tech admissions blog, and often re-post or link to their posts because of the light they so often shed on this complicated process. As I write this, Rick Clark posted about this very topic. I hope his words will also help you see that this does not have to be an application killer:

Ownership.  Answer the questions honestly and thoroughly on your application or reach out personally and immediately to a school who has admitted you, if you have some type of infraction post-admit. Every year we receive emails and calls from other students, principals, counselors, “friends,” or others in the community informing us of discipline/behavior/criminal matters involving an applicant or admitted student. It is much, much better to be honest and proactive than to have an admission counselor receive information from another source and have to contact you to provide an explanation of circumstances.

“My friends made me…” “I didn’t want to but…” “I tried to tell them it was wrong…” and the list goes on. Please. I am begging you, PLEASE be sure none of these phrases are in your application. Whether at home, at school, or at work, disciplinary action is serious. If you have something to report, own it. Drunk at prom? Arrested at 2 a.m. for re-distributing neighbors’ leaves back across their yards after they’d lined and bagged them at the street? “Borrow” the car in the middle of the night by putting it in neutral and coasting out of the driveway with the lights off? We’re listening.

Application evaluation, individualized discipline review, life in general… it’s nuanced, complicated, and grey. Why did you choose to do that? What did you learn from it? How has it changed you as a person, a student, a friend, a family member? Those are the questions at the core of our review. You made a decision and now we have one to make. Help us by not waffling or watering down your explanation.

Everyone makes mistakes. Some are worse than others and might be an issue if you are targeting top tier schools, but most won’t prevent you from attending college. If you would like help navigating a disciplinary issue or want help writing your disciplinary essay, contact us!

 

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Dear Therapist: I’m Worried the College-Admissions Process Is Rigged Against My Son

Repost! It is a bit long, but Lori Gottlieb’s message is so important for families who are in or approaching the college search and application process. I encourage both parents and students to take 10 minutes to read the entire piece, but if you don’t have time for the full read, here are the main takeaways: Parents, how you handle the application process sets the tone for how your child will respond to it. You have the potential to turn a situation that your child would otherwise handle just fine into one that’s not fine. The messages that you send have the potential to either prepare them for adulthood or hold them back much more than not being at an Ivy League school would.
 
Here is the full article:
 
Dear Therapist,  
 
My son is in the middle of the college application process. He has very good grades and very good SAT and ACT scores; he is an Eagle Scout and a captain of the cross-country team. He is also white, male, and upper-middle-class—and that is the problem. According to all of the statistics and reports, he should be accepted at Ivy League schools, but he has not been. He will eventually get into a “good” school, but it is my guess (based on what we are seeing with his peer group) that he will be overqualified for the school he ends up at. He is very frustrated and very upset. How do you explain to a bright, eager boy that the system is rigged against him? For example, his twin brother, who has similar grades and an almost identical resume, is going to the U.S. Naval Academy, and his application process, though difficult, was smooth and straightforward — Lisa, Mendham, NJ
 

Dear Lisa,

The college-admissions process has become so brutally intense in recent years that it can make anyone lose perspective, and I think that’s what’s happened here. Of course, you’re not the only parent who sees her hardworking and accomplished child do everything “right,” imagines him or her thriving at a particular school, and is frustrated when the child does not gain admission. But if you don’t step back and look at the bigger picture, you’ll be depriving your son of an education that will be far more valuable to him in the long run. So let’s back up.

From the moment kids are born, they take their cues from the adults around them about how to respond to experiences in the world. For instance, when a toddler stumbles in the sandbox, the first thing she does is look at her parent for a signal. If the parent calmly says, “Whoops, you fell down,” and then smiles reassuringly, the child will likely get the message that the fall was no big deal and get right back up. But if the adult looks alarmed, yells, “Oh, no! Are you okay?,” and rushes over to check for injuries, the child may, in turn, become alarmed: Wait, am I okay? I thought I was okay, but maybe I’m not! Later, if the child doesn’t get the lead in the school play—despite how talented this child may be—she’ll also take her cue about what this means from the adults around her. If her parents say, “That’s so unfair! Jane only got the part because the drama teacher is friends with her mom,” or “Jane’s parents are on the board,” the girl might think, Yeah, this is so unfair. Jane’s not nearly as talented as I am. The world is rigged. Why even try?
 
If, on the other hand, the parents say, “We know you really wanted the lead and we hear how disappointed you are. You worked so hard preparing for the audition. Maybe you’ll get the lead the next time around, but meanwhile, the part you did get will be fun, too,” their daughter may still be disappointed, but she’ll be learning about resilience. She’ll take in the message that sometimes we don’t get what we want, even when we’re qualified to have it. She’ll learn that sometimes we might be really good at something, but someone else is even better. She’ll learn that there’s not just one thing that can be enjoyable or fulfilling, but many things—like acting in a play she loves, even if she’s not the lead this time around. She’ll learn that the world is not an all-or-nothing place, where you either succeed or fail. She’ll learn that if she really wants something badly enough, she can try again another time and figure out what would increase her chances. She’ll learn that even if Jane got the role mostly because of her talent but partly because the teacher (consciously or not) favored her, there will come a time when she, too, will get something—an award, a job—not only because of her talent, but also because of, say, the boss’s strong relationship with the colleague who referred her, or the fact that they both grew up in the same town, and an equally qualified candidate will be rejected. 
 
The kid who learns these lessons early on will probably still be upset if, despite her stellar application, she doesn’t get admitted to her top-choice school. But she won’t walk through the world feeling as though there’s a conspiracy going on, nor will she walk onto campus the first day of freshman year believing that she won’t be challenged and that her peers are either similarly overqualified or simply beneath her. And if she does find that she’s not getting what she wants at her very good but not Ivy League school, she will know she can talk to an adviser to see what opportunities might be available that she’s not yet aware of, or even apply to transfer elsewhere. Either way, she won’t spend her senior year of high school anticipating how unfulfilling her college experience will be, thereby creating a very unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy.
 
So how do you explain to your son that the system is rigged against him? You say, “Son, the world is an unfair place and the system is rigged against you.” And then you watch him grow into an angry, unfulfilled adult with a chip on his shoulder who will probably have grossly misguided ideas about women and people of color and his own value and worth and abilities. But if you’d like a better future for him, let me suggest the following. Start by getting more accurate information, such as the fact that it’s extremely challenging to get into an elite college, and that the vast majority of applicants to these colleges have very high test scores, along with a stunning array of extracurricular activities and prestigious awards or honors. Dig deeper than anecdotal information and you’ll discover that there isn’t a reliable statistic or report out there that says that an applicant with very good grades and very good SAT and ACT scores who is also an Eagle Scout and a captain of the cross-country team “should” be admitted to a particular Ivy League school—regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. Ask professionals in the admissions field, such as an experienced college-guidance counselor, whether a student with your son’s resume who happens to be a woman of color might still be rejected from the school of her choice. You may be surprised by the answer.
 
Having this information might help you separate the reality from the reaction you’re having, and this, in turn, will help you talk to your son in a more productive way about what is, for most families applying to top-tier schools, a grueling and anxiety-provoking process. Remember, he’s taking his cues from you, so if you can view this from a more balanced perspective, so will he. Instead of coming from a place of outrage on his behalf, approach him from a place of curiosity and ask, “How are you doing with this college-application process?” Then listen to what his frustration is about. Is he getting the message (from you? his school? his friends?) that the name of his college defines his worth or is a statement about his intelligence? Does he believe that going to an Ivy League college leads to a better job or a better life or some kind of happiness he won’t find at another very good school? 
 
Help to disabuse him of these faulty notions and explain to him that college is about the right fit, not the most prestigious name, and that no matter where he goes—including an Ivy League school—there will be students just like him, as well as students who are both more and less accomplished on paper, because colleges try to put together a group of outstanding people who will mesh well. Tell him that you have every confidence that he will choose, and be accepted into, a school where he meshes well and maybe even makes the friends he’ll have for the rest of his life.
 
In other words, how you handle the application process sets the tone for how your son will respond to it. It’s true that sometimes there isn’t enough to go around—there are only so many leads in the school production, so many spots at a given college, and so many openings for a job someone really wants. At the same time, parents have the potential to turn a situation that their kids would otherwise handle just fine into one that’s miserable. At that point, it’s the parent creating the child’s misery, not the situation. The messages parents send their kids have the potential to either prepare them for adulthood or hold them back much more than not being at an Ivy League school would ever do. You have a great opportunity right now to teach your son well.

Transparency in College Admissions: Playing Sports in High School

I was an athlete growing up. I played a sport every season, but I eventually decided to play just one at a very high level. I never thought about whether it would help me get into college until I was in high school and was winding down competing nationally and internationally. Given the very little that my high school counselor knew about recruiting and the fact that the sport I played was not one that many students were recruited to play (in 2001), it ended up being something that differentiated me but not something that got me into college.

Fast forward almost 20 years, and I want to save all of the athletes out there a little bit of trouble; I want to dispel some myths around playing sports in high school. And this is not based on my experience alone, but the experience of many students I have worked with and the experiences of my colleagues.

Before I get into it, please note: I love sports! I hike, I bike, I snowboard, and I know how amazing they are for the mind, body, and soul—but this post is not about that. It is about whether or not sports help students who are not getting recruited get into college.

Let me outline a few common examples.

Example 1: I was trying to get recruited, but I ultimately was not. The coach knows me and says she will put a good word in with admissions, so this means I am getting in, right?

No. If you are not recruited, you are not recruited. Will coach put in a good word for you? Maybe. But you won’t ever know and should not bank on it because in many cases it either does not happen or does not move the needle.

On the positive side….after going through the recruiting process you likely have been to campus a few times, and, hopefully, have gotten to know the school’s offerings and culture better than other applicants. You can use this to your advantage in the admissions process as you write your essays as well when you interview (if an interview is offered).

Example 2: My son loves sports and 90% of his extracurricular time is spent playing sports. He is a devoted player, coach, and even the captain of a team at his high school. He is not getting recruited, but his commitment to sports will be a differentiator as will his leadership, right?

No. Colleges give preferential treatment to recruited athletes only. High school student-athletes who are not getting recruited get no significant bonus points for playing a sport or even captaining a team.

On the positive side….you have shown commitment to an activity or a set of activities over time and have some leadership to highlight. You can and should highlight leadership skills wherever applicable, and even try to translate the skills you gained in a sports leadership role to different activities (academic if possible) in which you hope to participate in college. You can do this is via your essays. This is just one way to spin the experience to be highly received by college admissions officers. Focus not on the playing of the actual sport but what you gained from it and how that is transferable to other activities in college, or how it helped you grow as a person.

Example 3: My parents told me that colleges want well-rounded applicants and that playing a sport is one way to appear more well-rounded. I have to play even if I hate sports, right?

No. Sports are super time-consuming and tend to detract from academics for many students. They do not help much unless you are getting recruited (see above!). Also, and most importantly, if you do not like sports do not play sports! Do what you love, please do not waste time on activities that do not really interest you.

On the positive side….your parents care a lot about you and are just looking out for your college admissions related wellbeing! Give them a pass on this one, share this post, and explain to them that you will have more time for homework (or something else they will like to hear), and exploring your other curiosities and the extracurricular activities that are meaningful to you—a win-win!

The bottom line is sports only significantly help students get into college if they are recruited or have high potential as a walk on. If you are going to possibly be recruited, you will know fairly early on in high school if you are on that path.

 

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