May Action Plan – By Grade

With AP exams, the SAT/ACT prep, and finals coming up, May is a busy month so the action plan is light. Juniors should be gearing up for essays in addition to finishing up testing!

Juniors:

  • Consider this process as you would a class from here on out! You’ll need to carve out time for it every week.  Starting early means you can be flexible—but this won’t be the case later this summer and once school starts.
  • Have you pinpointed two teachers to ask for letters of recommendation? Now is an excellent time to decide who to ask.
  • Some colleges have opened up their on-campus interviews. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative. And optional should not be considered optional!
  • Open a Common App account. Accounts rollover year-to-year, so there’s no better time than now to open an account and familiarize yourself with the system.

Sophomores & Freshmen:

  • Firm up summer plans and a tutoring schedule if you plan to start prep for the SAT, ACT or Subject Tests.
  • Work on your resume!

Recommendation of the Month:

Someone recently reminded me of the power of Ted Talks. I was sent this list a while back. I can’t recommend highly enough taking some time to do a quick search on TED for talks in your areas of interests. They are fascinating, and, great fodder for essays.

 

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How to Really Get to Know the Colleges on Your List

Over the years, I have found that students who take “extra steps” consistently get into their top schools…and many more.

The students we work with who engage in extended research and outreach do extremely well in the college admissions process. Maybe it is because they know the schools they are applying to in ways other students do not; maybe it is because knowing schools well helps them craft smaller, more targeted college lists; or maybe it helps that they have gone above and beyond to get to know a school and see if that school is the best fit for them and vice versa.

Since I am no longer working in admissions, I can’t say for sure. But I can say with confidence that engaging in extended research and outreach can make a substantial difference, both in your applications and outcomes. It also has one other major benefit: it means you can walk away from this process knowing you did everything you could, you pulled out all of the stops, you did not rush the process. And when you walk away feeling proud of the process, in our experience, it makes it easier to accept the outcome, whatever it may be.

Consider the following for the schools on your list. Why? Because all of the above, and, many colleges use demonstrated interest as a factor in their admissions process. When two files are side-by-side, the applicant that has the most touch points with the school will likely be deemed more interested, and that might give them an advantage during file evaluation.

Ways to engage in extended research and outreach (aka network with colleges and get to know them really well):

– Don’t forget your regional reps! They usually read your file, so keep them in the loop throughout your admissions process, from the time you visit through while you are waiting for your decision. Send them an update after campus visits, or to say “nice to meet you” after those visits or college fairs. Keep them posted on new accomplishments or awards after you submit your application. They should be your go-to person in admissions throughput the application process.

– When you receive email from colleges, open it and click through. Many schools track whether you open their emails or not and if you click through. Open them!

– Reach out to faculty in your department of interest. Faculty members are busy and so not always the most accessible, but it can’t hurt to try. Your #1 reason for applying to any school should be academics. Reaching out to individuals in your intended major is a great way to learn more about what your academic life at school X might entail. You might also want to try reaching out to a specific research center or institute of interest. If you email faculty, copy their department or program coordinator. The emails of the individuals in these roles are often available online. If you are planning a trip to campus and it is a bit short notice, reaching out to the department or program coordinator will be your best bet for an on-campus meeting. Again, these interactions and the information gained from them could be helpful when it comes time to write your essays or interest letters (see below) and will certainly serve you well as a talking point in an interview. A quick email sample (but please, make it your own!):

Dear [name],

My name is [enter name] and I’m a [year] at [high school full name]. I will be visiting [college] on [date] and I want to learn more about the [enter program or major name] while on my visit. Would it be possible to meet with you or someone else within the department (or even a current student) while I am on campus that day? If not, anyone you can connect me with via email would be excellent.

Thank you so much,

[name]
[phone #]

*Don’t forget to send thank you emails to everyone that you speak with—even if by email only.

– Make peer and local connections. Do you have friends at the schools on your list? Talk to them about their experiences, meet up with them on your visit to campus (if possible), and use them as a resource to get to know more about the school (especially about aspects you can’t glean from the website or official tours).

You can also check (via an easy Google search) to see if the college/university has a local alumni group; if so, reach out to them and ask to be connected with someone for an informal informational interview—a great option if you do not know anyone at the school that is a current student. Use this meeting as an opportunity to learn more about the school, and to demonstrate your interest in attending. Some regional groups host events and attending one that interests you (for example, a talk by a professor), if you can get an invitation, could be a great learning experience—and an excellent addition to a supplemental essay or interest letter.

– Write an interest letter (email) after you apply. This letter should contain information you were not able to present in the required application materials (resume, essay, etc.). It is a beneficial way to show a school a little extra love and reiterate your interest. Citing the contacts you established above (if you haven’t already discussed them at length in previous materials), can work well in these letters. An interest letter should be sent after you apply, and can also include any relevant updates since the time you applied, such as awards, etc. Many schools allow you to upload additional information on your “portal page” after you apply, so this letter could be uploaded there; if not, you can email it to your regional rep and CC the general admissions email. Please note: some schools explicitly state they do not welcome additional materials. Do not send interest letters to these schools.

– Take advantage of virtual tours and local college fairs/college nights. Not everyone can get to campus, and even if you can, school’s virtual tours sometimes offer perspectives in-person tours do not. You can also tour colleges from the perspective of actual students by taking tours via CampusReel.org. If a school is attending a fair near you, and you know you won’t be able to get to campus in person, go meet your rep at the fair/college night.

 

 

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Starting the Common Application

You can now roll over your Common App account from year-to-year, so there’s no better time than now to open an account, get familiar with the system, and get some of your app work completed.

Create Your Account

There is no preparation required for this step, so you can create your account as early as you’d like. All you’ll need is some basic profile information—like your name, date of birth, address and phone number. And of course, you’ll need to provide a valid email address.

 Note: Your email address will become your username and the Common App’s primary method of sending you updates and reminders, so make sure that you provide an email address that you check on a regular basis (every day).

Gather Your General Application Information

While every school has a different list of college-specific requirements, the general application information (for the Common App) will remain constant for all schools on your list.

You’ll be asked to list your activities, entrance exam scores and exam dates, parent or legal guardian and sibling information, and for some schools your high school grades and courses. Get a head start and save yourself time by collecting this information before you fill out the application.

Specific Requirements

Just like every student is unique, so is every school. We know it sounds cliché, but it’s true. No two schools will have the exact same requirements—so work to understand these requirements early on.

How? The first thing you need to do is read the Application Instructions on each school’s website. Please take the time to read the application instructions in their entirety. On the Common App, you can also check out the Requirements Grid and download the Requirements Tracker worksheet.

Add Schools to Your Dashboard

The Common App presents you with the opportunity to search from more than 700 schools (private, public, large and small), find the ones that meet your needs, and then add them to your My Colleges list—a convenient place to track the work ahead of you.

Once you log in, simply click on the College Search tab to find schools based on their name, location, deadline, or distance from your home.

Note: If you add schools to your Dashboard before the Common App refreshes for the 2019-2020 application year, any data you fill out on the school-specific pages can and most likely will be erased. If you add schools to your Dashboard after the refresh takes place, your information will be saved for the duration of the 2019-2020 application season.

 

For Common App support, join our FB page, Conquer the Common App. Check out the files section to see what an app looks like filled out. Pay special attention to how you can maximize the impact of your Activities section—a section that many students don’t take too seriously!

 

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I might be a helicopter parent if…

  • I start a conversation with, “I am not one of those helicopter parents, but…”
  • I read my child’s emails and respond to them.
  • I fill out the visit form for my kid in the admission office lobby.
  • I unintentionally enter my email when I fill out my child’s application.
  • my question during the information session begins with, “My son would like to know if…”
  • my child is only considering universities at least 2000 miles away from me.
  • my child’s Common Application lists his birthdate as 10/21/1972.
  • I would like to see the residence hall I will be staying in.
  • I rub every statue on a college campus for “good luck,” even if it’s not a tradition to do so.
  • I have been banned from contributing to College Confidential.
  • I buy a sticker from every college tour “just in case!”
  • I consider changing my child’s name to something that sounds like the college’s founder.
  • I call colleges when my student is in sixth grade to ask advice on course schedules and extracurriculars.
  • I have accidentally signed my child’s name on a document at work because it’s become a habit.
  • I have any admission office’s phone number saved in my contacts.
  • I text my child a talking point during their interview.
  • I post on Facebook, “We submitted our college applications!”
  • my child’s college essay sounds like it was written by a 45-year-old.
  • I call the admission office pretending to be my child and get their login information for the portal to find out “my” decision.
  • I create a “more important title” for a volunteer group my daughter is on so it sounds better for college applications.
  • I hand out my business cards at the college fair on behalf of my son because he is too busy and couldn’t attend.
  • I am more concerned than my child is about that “dreaded” B-.
  • I hand-write thank you notes to admission officers in obvious dad language and sign it from my son even though no 17-year-old boy writes like that.
  • I ask for advance notice of the admission decisions to “mentally prepare” my child.
  • the phrase, “This is their decision!” is immediately followed by, “But I think they really want…”
  • my child receives an admission decision from a college he didn’t know he applied to.
  • the college counselor recognizes my number…on their cell phone…on Christmas morning.
  • colleges mistakenly address all mailing flyers to me, and not my child.
  • every sentence my child says in college counseling meetings starts with “well, my dad wants me to…”
  • I spend more time on Google Docs working on my child’s college essay than my child does.
  • I have an excel file listing all the people who might write recommendations on my child’s behalf.
  • I’ve directed my child into the extracurricular activities most preferred by elite colleges since they could walk.
  • I show up uninvited to meetings my student has scheduled with their college counselor.
  • I don’t allow my student to take any ownership of their college process.
  • I ask more questions on a campus tour than my student.
  • I compare college lists/decisions at cocktail parties with other parents.
  • I buy a college sweatshirt in my size.

Did you find yourself feeling a little uneasy as you read this list? Did some of these warning signs hit a bit too close to home?

Okay, so some of these are just for fun, but many aren’t a joke. Head to Forbes to read Brennan Barnard’s full article. In it, he provides some thoughtful commentary as well as an amazing reading list, which includes one of my favorites:

Give his article and Lythcott-Haim’s book a read if you have not already!

 

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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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April Action Plan – By Grade

Juniors:

  • If you are still planning to apply to a summer program and have not completed the application, please work on it now. Programs will fill up, so don’t wait to submit apps at the deadline.
  • Many colleges don’t proactively ask for online resources yet, but with a rise in the use of platforms like ZeeMee in college admissions, you may have an interest in creating a digital portfolio (LinkedIn, SoundCloud, personal website, and/or blog). You’ll also want a LinkedIn account up and running when you start college, so now is a good time to get it started.
  • Now is also a good time to do a social media audit. Connecting with colleges on social is a way to demonstrate interest, but only if your profile is squeaky clean. Before you tweet to any of your top schools or like them on FB, follow them on Instagram, etc., review all of your accounts.
  • If you plan to visit schools and interview, prepare. You should always prepare for interviews, even if a school states they are not evaluative.
  • Continue to prepare for standardized tests and think ahead to AP exams.
  • Update your resume.
Sophomores:
  • Have you thought about what major(s) you will mark on your application? You can only have a clearly defined “story” for your college apps once you know what major(s) you will be marking on them. This is a critical part of the process that should begin to think about now. Even if you don’t know an exact major right now, you should be able to articulate what excites you academically and be pursuing those interests through your coursework and outside of it via clubs and other activities. As you approach 11th grade (and through it), you want to begin to narrow your academic interests and hone in on one or two viable options for your apps.
    • Please note: marking undecided is always an option. However, you still need to talk about specific possible majors if undecided is what you choose. When you look at your resume, does a theme jump out at you?
  • Keeping working hard in your classes. Your academic transcript is the most important part of your college application. If you have room for improvement, colleges want to see you improve (upward trend!)!
  • Make a firm plan for preparing for standardized tests and think ahead to AP exams.
  • Also, firm up your summer plans. You should be doing something this summer, and, hopefully, something that helps you explore your academic interests.
  • Continue working on your resume.

Freshmen:

  • Keeping working hard in your classes. Your academic transcript is the most important part of your college application. If you have room for improvement, colleges want to see you improve (upward trend!).
  • Firm up your summer plans. You should be doing something this summer, and, hopefully, something that helps you explore your academic interests.
  • Think ahead to preparing for AP exams or subject tets if you plan to take them.
  • Continue working on your resume.

 

 

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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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5 Ways to Thoroughly Research Colleges

Subtitle: For when you can’t get to campus or want to go beyond what a traditional campus visit can provide!

The in-person campus tour is not the be-all-end-all of college research. Neither is that gigantic Fiske guide, College Confidential (that site is horribly stress-inducing please stay away from it, same with Reddit), or what your older sibling told you based on findings from their college search process. From my experience, most college research can take place from the comfort of your own home, but it takes time and effort. And planning, a little bit of starting early and planning!

College/University Websites

Read the websites of the schools on your list, and not just the admissions and financial aid pages. I would read those—but for the purpose of understanding how to apply, not why to apply. Unless it is one of the admissions office/officer’s blogs that I talk about here; those might help you see why you’d want to attend. If class visits are offered those can be very informative, but you’d need to get to campus to attend. I will talk more about how you can get a look at a college’s classrooms and student life later in this post.

I suggest starting with the pages of the department in which you hope to study (or think you might hope to study). What does the curriculum look like? How many and what type of classes are offered? Are there affiliated clubs, events, other special programs of interest? Find a faculty member who is undertaking research in your area of interest and reach out to them with three or four questions you have about the program or their research that you can’t find answers to online. If they are unable to speak to you, ask if they can suggest someone else who might be able to help. Can’t get through to any faculty members? Contact the department’s administrative assistant or department coordinator and see if they can help you make an initial connection. For example, here you can find the contact info for the program coordinator of Penn’s Department of Psychology. If not, ask your regional rep to help you get this information.

I also suggest pinpointing two or three clubs you might want to join. See if you can connect with a current student or faculty lead within each to learn more. Most clubs general admin contact info is posted online. Here is the contact info for Fordham’s Finance Society, as well as a zillion contacts for USC student clubs.

Lastly, you might want to get a sense of what the campus looks like, and can do so via a virtual tour if you can’t go in person. Many colleges provide virtual tour options now. For example, here is one created by Santa Clara University in California.

CampusReel

Speaking of tours, whether you can get to campus in person or not, you will want to check out CampusReel for an insider look at the colleges and universities on your list. Real college students submit their own video clips that take you through a day in the life, dorms, dining halls, classrooms, and so on. For example, I enjoyed this video from a UC Santa Barbara student on what she wished she knew before she started. You will also get a pretty good sense of what the campus looks like in reality as the guides are not employees of the admissions office, and what you see is probably closer to what you will get compared to the virtual tour created by the school.

Coursera and edX

If you can’t get to campus and glimpsing a school’s academics firsthand is important to you (it should be!), then head over to Coursera and edX and sign up for a class. They are free, informative, and you might learn something, not to mention they give you an extra talking point (or ten) for application materials and the interviews if you have them.  You will definitely get a sense of what college-level courses entail, and I also see it as a way to demonstrate interest. A few courses I like and have had students take include:

Case Studies in Personalized Medicine

Becoming an Entrepreneur

The Science of Wellbeing

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

A Law Student’s Toolkit

Local Alumni Groups

Don’t know anyone who went to your dream school? Look no further than your local alumni group. If you are not sure your area has an alumni group just ask Google. I entered “NYU alumni club NJ” and got the link to info on the NJ group right away. You will be sending a cold email but I don’t see anything wrong with that. You are showing interest in their alma mater. If someone is a member of their alumni group, they probably like to connect with people like you. You are demonstrating a desire above and beyond other prospective students to get to know the school, and they love their school! That is never a bad look. And if no one replies to you, at least you know you tried. If there is no local or even regional group where you live, try to one closest to you. Again, there is really no downside to trying to connect with alumni to learn more.

Social Media

Not the best way to get to know a school well, but some are not half bad. I follow quite a few schools on Instagram, and the “takeover” stories by admissions office staff and students can be insightful. I particularly like the UChicago and Barnard pages.

 

Everything above being said, if you have the opportunity to see a school in person or meet an admissions officer, regional representative, current student, faculty member, or alumni in person, take it! I wanted to present the suggestions here because not everyone can get to campus, and a standard campus visit alone is not a very good way to really get to know a school. If you believe in finding a school that is best matched with your goals for college (not just a school with a certain name, good sports team, etc.), the above outreach will help you figure out which school that might be—so time to get to work!

 

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Transparency in College Admissions: On Being Well-Rounded

Being well-rounded is beneficial in many ways, and might help you connect with people out in the real world, but colleges are looking for students with something unique—specific talents, skills, or developed interests to add to their next class. Students who drill down on their interests early on in high school will be better positioned to tell a clear, focused story in their college applications (and may speed up ‘time to graduation’ in college, too). By doing so, you hand the reader of your file precisely what they are looking for—you make it easy to see your value add.

Think about it this way: You may love all five clubs you joined, as well as the two bands you play in, and of course, enjoy the three sports you play, but how much can you meaningfully contribute to all of these activities?

Sometimes less is more.

In my experience, the answer tends to be not very meaningfully. I suggest that students try to narrow their interests and corresponding activities by the end of 10th grade. Think about how you can engage more meaningfully, and at a higher level, with the set of activities you love the most. Maybe it’s your Relay for Life work or the independent research you are doing with your science teachers, or maybe it is your job as a tutor for elementary school kids. It’s a bonus if the activities you decide to drill down on relate to your potential college major, or support it in some way!

Drilling down on your interests to develop a clear narrative for your college application goes a long way in the admissions process, and is one of the focuses of our college counseling work with high school students, especially in 9th and 10th grade. By 11th grade, you still have some time to narrow. However, as most things go, the earlier you start, the better.

Most importantly, the earlier you start to think about your interests and do the exploration and reflection needed to narrow your focus (or determine a few in the first place) the more likely you are to craft an authentic application that best highlights 1) the time you have spent “figuring” it out and 2) how that time has been meaningful to your personal and academic development. Sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination. Often, this is one of those times.

Also remember that colleges seek to build a well-rounded class comprised of students with unique talents and skills, not a class full of generalists. They are not looking for well-rounded students.

Want us to help you drill down on your interests, or figure out how to best develop them in the first place? Contact us for a free 30-minute consultation call. 

 

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