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Summer Activities to Build a Better College Plan

Like Michigan’s streets, the road to college has never been bumpier for Michigan students and parents.  In April, a record number of college applications led the media to wonder, “Can anyone get into college?”  In May, disappointing financial aid packages changed the question to, “Is college worth it?” It’s now June, and members of the Class of 2014 are off to put their plans into action, while other students and their families are left wondering, “What do I do now?”

Summer gives everyone a chance to stand back and look at the big picture of life after high school.  If you have questions that just won’t wait for answers in August, take these steps to build a solid summer foundation in postsecondary planning:

Understand that more learning is a must.  In this economy, a chance at a reasonable living depends on more school after high school.  This doesn’t have to include a degree from a four-year college, but a Bachelor’s degree has the best record of financial security, since four-year college graduates have the lowest unemployment, and make upwards of $500,000 more in their lifetime than high school graduates.  Certificates and two-year degrees offer their own benefits, so the message is clear; twelfth grade is not the end of the road for formal learning.

Spend two hours building a career map. The best part about learning after high school is that you have more choices in what you can learn, where you can learn, and how you can learn. The best first step in understanding some of your options is to complete a career exploration search.  These computer-based searches give you a list of possible (that’s possible) careers based on your answers to questions about what you like to do.  Once you get your list, you can find out more about each career, including wages, job prospects, and required training, including classes you should take in high school.

Many high schools have a career search program you can use for free; so do most community colleges.  Do some looking around, and be sure to talk with a counselor about your results.

Visit tech centers and college campuses.  It’s one thing to learn about training options online, but nothing compares to seeing a school in action.  Visiting a local college campus or tech center gives you a feel for what’s possible for you.  It’s best to see these programs when they’re in full swing in the fall, but if summer is the only time you can go, call the institution, and make your plans.  Be sure to prepare a list of questions in advance—a good list of tips can be found at http://www.petersons.com/college-search/ask-experts-college-visit.aspx

Check your high school schedule.  How well you learn after high school depends on how well you learn in high school, and that means taking the most challenging classes you can handle.  Scheduling won’t start again until mid-August, but make a note to contact your high school, and make sure your classes will best prepare you for your goals.  Again, this is where your high school counselor can help.

Build your plan for paying now.  There are all kinds of ways to meet your postsecondary learning goals, and most have a wide array of price tags, including public universities, community colleges with strong certificate and transfer programs, private colleges that offer significant merit scholarships.  Learn how to maximize your options by visiting https://studentaid.ed.gov/  and http://www.fastweb.com/financial-aid .

Check your high school counseling office’s Web site.  Your local school counselors have helped hundreds of students make strong choices about life after high school.  Most high schools have a Web site with resources they’ve discovered that help their students build strong plans.  Take a look at those options, and stay in touch with your counselor. They may be busy, but they’re never too busy to help a student committed to building a better tomorrow.

Help get the best college advice to everyone.  Students and parents are often surprised to discover that many school counselors are never trained in college counseling.  Most counselors know how to give career advice, but many have had little or no training in helping students find the 1, 2, and 4-year colleges that will help meet their personal and career goals. Counselors themselves say they don’t have enough training in college advising, but progress in this crucial area has been slow in coming.

A bill in the Michigan Senate is trying to change that.  Michigan Senate Bill 902 would make sure all new school counselors are proficient in college counseling , so they can help students make strong decisions about life after high school.  The counselors I’ve trained know this kind of proficiency makes a huge difference in working with Michigan families.  After taking a course in college counseling, they’ve gone back to their schools and helped more students make better college plans in less time than they needed before they took the course.

Contacting your state senator about Senate Bill 902 makes sure no Michigan family has to make important college decisions alone, including yours.  You can find your senator here.  Better yet, stop by their local office this summer, and let them know what’s at stake.

Four Key Summer Activities for College-Bound Juniors

Today was May 1, the day most seniors headed to college were required to declare where they were heading. In counseling offices across America, students came in to announce their choice with pride, thank their counselors for all they’d done, and hope their senior prank doesn’t go as badly as the one in New Jersey where 60 seniors are both in doubt of graduating, and in the computer system of the New Jersey State Police

With the seniors taken care of, all college attention now turns to the Class of 2015.  You’ll want to make the most of your 365 days to your College Decision Day; here’s some advice on how to spend the first 120 or so.

Finish Strong  Seniors heard this advice last month because they could lose their admission offer if their grades get bad.  Juniors need to heed this advice because they could get fewer offers in the first place without a robust junior year.  This is the last full year of grades colleges will see, and that’s important.  Prom is too, but keep everything in perspective, and study, study, study.

Check the CTCL Web Site  You should spend part of your senior summer making sure you have a complete college list, and a unique college fair can help you achieve that goal.  The Colleges That Change Lives Information Sessions and College Fairs showcase 44 of the most student-centered colleges in the country.  Most are small, and some don’t have football teams—but a conversation with each one will help you clarify the qualities you’re looking for in your next school.  The Fairs are held in the summer—go to www.ctcl.org/events/programs to find the one nearest you.

Jump on Your Essays  Many seniors say the biggest challenge of applying to college was finding the time to write the essays.  The homework load of a demanding senior schedule (make sure you have one) makes it hard to find the blocks of free time needed for good writing; that’s why they’ll tell you to start your essays in July.

I don’t follow that advice—instead, I say, start in August.  August essays give you plenty of time to write well, and they can help get your brain back into school mode, making it easier to do well on that demanding senior schedule.  Your goal is to have the one big Common Application essay done by the start of school.  You can find the essay topics at http://tinyurl.com/o2flnzl 

Jump Into Summer  There are two reasons you don’t start college essays in July.  First, the essays are likely to get stale. If you work on an essay a little at a time for three months, you come to like it less and less over three months.  Your essay needs to be fresh and energetic, and, like soda, it’s hard to find the fizz when the can is open too long.

The second reason the essays wait is because this is your last summer in high school.  Yes, it’s important to work hard and study, and some of you are heading to summer programs or test prep activities in July.  Those all matter, but so does having time to hit the beach, read a book for pleasure, or invent the next app that will revolutionize technology.  You’ll do a great job with your essays in August, but in order to write about life, you have to have one; spend July remembering what yours is all about, and you’ll be college ready come August. 
One Word That Can Make All the Difference in a College Application

The lesson we’ve learned from this year’s college decisions couldn’t be clearer.  More students are applying to more colleges, so colleges can be more selective about the students they admit.  That’s just as true at the Top 25 colleges (whatever those are) as it is for the colleges in your neighborhood.  More choice means more opportunity for colleges to be more choosy.

So how do you prepare?  In a word, study.

It’s absolutely true that grades alone don’t lead to a yes from any college, but studies show grades and strength of schedule are the two biggest factors in nearly every college decision, not counting art schools.  Since good grades are based on knowing what you’re talking about, good study habits become more important than ever.

The good news is that most students are studying—it’s just that they aren’t studying enough.  Your Geometry teacher assigns you problems 5-15, and you do them all.  The English assignment is 20 pages of The Great Gatsby, so you knock them out.  Tomorrow’s Bio quiz on the parts of a frog?  Memorized and good to go.

Or are you?

Your study habits may be getting you through the next test or paper—but are they enough to help understand the big picture, and see how this unit will apply to the next unit?  If it’s time to boost your study skills, consider these simple exercises.  Do one of these every time your study, and that extra 30 minutes can make a huge difference in your learning, and your college plans.

Math  It’s great that you knocked out those 10 problems when your teacher assigned questions 5-15 for homework, but what about problem 20—the one that asks you to explain your answer—or problem 24, where you have to apply what you’ve learned in a question about building design?  Once you’ve done those two, flip back 20 pages, and try question 17 from the homework three weeks ago—and once that’s done, try and figure out why doing questions 5-15 tonight meant you had to complete 11 problems, not 10.

English  Too many students read those 20 pages by opening the book and plowing straight through—since the words hit your eyes, you were reading, right?  But what did each part mean,  and how did it relate to the 20 pages you read last night?  Spend a dollar on a drug-store notebook, and stop every 2 pages to write down a summary of what you just read, then read those notes before you complete your next reading assignment.  It makes the ideas pop out more, and stick together—and they may even remind you of some ideas you read last month in The Scarlet Letter.

Science  Chances are you have those frog parts memorized by where they appear on the diagram in the book.  That’s good, but it’s better to also know how they relate to each other.  Which are muscle?  Which ones are organs?  Which ones do frogs have that toads don’t?  Regrouping ideas means you see them in different ways, and that will get you hopping down the path of amphibian wisdom.

Social Studies  This group of classes isn’t called the Social Sciences by accident.  Frog parts relate in different ways, and so do sequences of historic events.  Look for the economic, ethical, and philosophical similarities and differences in the topics you study, and the relationship between the Boston Tea Party and the Montgomery Bus Boycott could be stronger than you think—and both could relate to the Ukrainian crisis in a way only you can see.

Look at you.  Scholar.

Six Words of Advice for Parents of College-Bound Juniors

One group is more anxious about this year's college admissions decisions than the parents of this year's seniors -- and that's the parents of next year's seniors. Junior parents love their children, and they would welcome any advice colleges could offer that would give their child's application an inside edge.

To support that effort, here's what a college admissions officer told me when I asked for advice I could give to junior parents:

"Let your child drive the bus."

The explanation she offered for this counsel, combined with long-standing conventional wisdom, gets to the heart of the college application process, and shows what admissions officers are looking for in a successful applicant beyond the numbers:

Initiative From start to finish, a college application has to send the message that applying to this school was the student's idea, and the student is excited enough to do something to bring that idea to life. This is why so many colleges want students to visit campus or meet the admissions representative at a local college fair; it shows the student is serious about their application.


That seriousness is questioned when the application is completed in what is clearly the handwriting of an adult, or when parents call the admissions office to ask questions. This is particularly true if the parent starts the call by saying "We're applying to your college next year." If the student wants to start building a meaningful relationship with the college, they make the calls, and speak in first person.

Synthesis Well-meaning parents insist they only help their child complete a college application because it is too complicated. Colleges certainly don't want the process to discourage students; at the same time, applicants show they possess the traits needed to be successful students at selective colleges by demonstrating the flexibility, organization and persistence needed to create an application crafted exclusively by the student. That's why it's best for students to schedule an hour or two each weekend in the fall to focus on college applications -- it gives them the best chance to create an application that is rich with their voice, and their voice alone.


Originality Everyone has a unique view of the world, and a good college application gives the admissions office a glimpse into a student's ability to share their particular vantage point. Colleges understand that view may not be fully developed at age 17 -- in fact, most hope it isn't -- but they also understand that unique view should be consistent across all parts of the application. A 20-minute weekly college meeting between parents and applicant gives the student the right mix of structure and encouragement to shape their own answers, and assure their ownership of the application process.


Authenticity Students have different reasons for attending college, but each reason has a common purpose -- students want to get something out of the experience. A strong college application shows the admissions office what that purpose is, and taking the time to wrestle with each part of a college application not only gives the application more clarity and confidence; it also gives the applicant more clarity and confidence.


It may be hard for parents to watch students struggle at first with this important task, just as it wasn't easy to watch them strike out at the plate, listen to their first violin solo, or feel them let the clutch out too soon. Great hitters and virtuosos are made with time, effort, and the opportunity to get better, and so are good drivers. The best way to help them reach their college destination is to give them the keys.

What This Year's Admissions Decisions Mean to Next Year's Seniors

The smoke is still clearing after the last college notifications were sent to the Class of 2014, but it isn’t too early to use this year’s results to offer advice to next year’s seniors.  Here are the major trends that emerged or grew this year that are likely to impact the application process next year:

Widen your view  When the average admit rate of the Ivy League colleges is less than 9%, one thing becomes clear—highly selective colleges are running out of room long before they run out of great applicants.  Along with this increase comes news from long-time college counselors and admissions officers that most models used to predict admission patterns are no longer viable.  The increased applicant pool has too many new, changing, and random factors to create any admissions model recognizable to the human eye, the seasoned counselor, or IBM’s Watson computer.

This growing trend means juniors have to apply to at least two colleges that admit 20% or more of their applicants.  Finding these colleges isn’t hard, if you look for schools that have the same qualities, majors, or campus feel as the highly selective colleges you love—and why wouldn’t you fall in love with a school that meets your needs and offers you admission?

Visit way more campuses.  Way more.  Many seniors were surprised when they were waitlisted at their “back-up colleges”.  As the year went on, a pattern emerged; students with high grades and test scores were waitlisted at a “sure thing” college because they never visited campus, didn’t attend the information program offered at a local hotel, or didn't talk to the admissions representative who visited the student’s high school.

Demonstrated interest is a bigger factor that ever before at many colleges, especially schools with more reasonable admit rates in the 20-25% range.  Many of these colleges are likely to have lower admit rates next year, so if you really want to keep a college open as a place you’d love to attend, it’s time to show them that.  If campus is within a five hour drive, go visit; if the rep comes to your high school, go to the presentation and introduce yourself; if they’ll be at the local college fair, stop by and say hello.  This will make you a more memorable applicant—more important, it will give you a closer look at the school, so you can make a more confident choice come spring.

Go beyond grades.  Colleges and high school counselors have always said that straight As alone won’t get you into a highly selective college, even if they’re paired with amazing test scores.  95 percent of all Ivy applicants have those credentials; for most, the difference in being admitted lies in what else you’ve done with your life, how you’ve challenged your assumptions, and how you’ve interacted with the larger world.  Studying is still the most important thing, but it has never—ever--- been the only thing.  That’s even more true now.

Consider applying early.  More colleges are taking more students through early application programs.  Since fewer students apply early, that means a strong applicant’s chances of admission are better if their application and test scores are ready to go in October, not January.

Early decision deadlines make students promise to come if they’re admitted, so think about ED programs carefully.  Most other early programs just want your completed application sooner, and advanced planning can get you there.  Take your tests this spring, ask teachers in June to write letters for the fall, and work on your essays in August.  The rest will fall together naturally.  

How to Read a College Admission Decision

Many seniors will be hearing back from their colleges in the next couple of weeks.  Once the decisions come, it’s important to have a plan for receiving the news and responding to it.  Here’s what to do before—and after—you hear from your colleges:

Open college mail and texts at home, alone  You have it all pictured in your head.  The bell rings, you calmly open the e-mail from the college of your dreams, and—you’re admitted!  You receive the accolades of your teacher and your classmates, including those who applied to the same highly competitive college.  They just found out they didn’t get in, but they’re still happy for you.

But remember—that’s what happens in your head, not in your school. Most of this time, it isn’t you; it’s often one of the quietest or hippest students in class who simply can’t handle good or bad news well—even if it’s about you.  The same is true at home; your parents love you, but do you really want your dad making a video of you reading your college decisions?  (Oh yes, it has happened.)

It’s understandable you want to share a big moment with others. The best way to make sure that happens in a way that’s best for everyone is for you to know what the news is for at least ten minutes before someone else finds out—and that’s at home.

Admitted  If the news is good, it’s time to do some close looking.  You have until May 1 to respond to any offer, but there may be information on an Admitted Student program in April, a scholarship competition, or how to maximize your housing options.  Read all of the information right away, then again an hour later, with your parents—you don’t want to miss an opportunity to learn all you can about the school you may be saying “yes” to.

Waitlisted  If the news is maybe, you have the opportunity to continue the conversation with a school that has shown interest in you.  Waitlisted letters need to be read three times, since they usually mention if you need to contact them to stay on the waitlist.  Most do require this, so if you want to keep your options open, respond right away.

Waitlist letters also mention if you can send additional materials for the college to review—things like additional essays, current grades, or another teacher letter. If the college has limits on what you can send, FOLLOW THEM-- you don’t want to be the waitlisted student who’s memorable in a bad way.  If there are no limits, send enough to tell them more about you, but not so much that you seem desperate.  Your counselor can help with this.

Denied  The main reason most colleges deny most students is because the college runs out of room. It isn’t something the student did, or didn’t do—and it has nothing to do with if the college “liked” you.  Taking more students than a college has room for makes that college less like college, and more like an assembly line—and you deserve more than that.

You may have the right to appeal your admission decision, and you always have the right to call the college and find out why you weren’t admitted.  Take some time to consider both options before acting on them, and talk to a counselor or parent before you call.  Either way, know you’re in good company; Einstein was turned down by his first choice college, and that decision made a world of difference to all of us. 

SAT Changes—Advice for Ninth Graders

There’s been a good deal of news about the changes to the SAT—so much news that it seems to be causing  confusion among students and their parents.  To help you keep things clear, we’ll begin with some of the basics:

  • First, these changes will take place in 2016, so they will only impact current ninth graders.  All other high school students can count on using the current format of the SAT; if you’re a tenth grader, you’ll want to make sure the information you discover is about the current format, since there will be more information on the new format as you move towards senior year.

This means anyone in a higher grade can stop reading now and get on with Spring Break.

  • The writing sample that is now required will be optional.  It’s likely most colleges will require you to take it, but we don’t know that just yet.
  • You’ll also have to back up your writing sample with facts.  The current test allows you to make claims like “Justin Bieber was born in Argentina”, but the new test won’t let you do that.
  • Students won’t be able to use calculators on all of the math questions anymore.  Some parts of the test will allow calculator use, but some won’t.
  • You’ll be seeing fewer of the famous “SAT” words that, according to College Board, aren’t used in everyday life—so you won’t have to memorize the meaning of words like “euphoric" (aren't you thrilled?)
  • The reading section will ask you to do more analysis, and at least one of the passages will focus on an historic document, like the Declaration of Independence.
  • The penalty for guessing is eliminated (now that's euphoric!)

Two other changes relate to before and after taking the test:

  • College Board (the maker of the SAT) is working with Khan Academy to develop free SAT tutoring for everyone.
  • Students who qualify for a fee waiver for the SAT will also receive four college application fee waivers.

It’s understandable if you have questions about the new SAT, and College Board will roll out the answers for you soon.  For now, there are three things you’ll want to count on:

  • Continue to improve your study skills. The new SAT will be designed to measure more of what you learn in the classroom, so the best way to prepare for the test now is to get all you can out of the classes you’re taking.  As a previous column pointed out, there’s a big difference between getting good grades and being a good student.  Make sure you are developing your study skills to make the most out of each learning opportunity; pushing yourself now will serve you well for the SAT, for college, and for life.

  • Plan on taking both the ACT and SAT in junior year.  The new SAT will be scored differently than the old one—after all, it’s a different test that measures different things. Since colleges will need to get used to that, it’s a good idea to also take the ACT, which isn’t changing.  This way, colleges can compare your ACT scores to past classes (that’s important to many colleges), while using your SAT scores if these scores turn out to be higher than your ACT scores.  Taking both tests gives you the benefit of the doubt, and that’s good.

  • Relax.  These tests are two years away, and you have a lot of learning and living to do before then that will help you with the exam, if you give these experiences everything you’ve got.  Do that, and all will be well. 

Getting Into College Isn't About Good Grades

High school freshmen are starting to feel pretty comfortable with school right about now.  They’ve made it through those harrowing first few weeks when every senior tried to sell them an elevator pass (and the school has just one floor), they’ve navigated the first round of Homecoming-Snow Ball- Sadie Hawkins dances, and with two or three sets of grades behind them, they’re starting to get a feel for how they measure up in the classroom. 

And if they’re getting straight As, it’s time to worry.

Every student will tell you ninth grade classes are a very different experience, with every teacher using a different mix of tests, quizzes, homework, participation, and attendance in calculating grades.  Sorting out each teacher’s strategy is a big part of what makes the first few weeks of high school exhausting and exhilarating. Once you crack Mrs. Hudson’s grading approach to The Great Gatsby, it will be much easier to sort out which parts of The Old Man and the Sea you actually have to read to get an A in English 9—if, in fact, you have to read the book at all.

You’d think this strategic approach to grading has a big payoff in college—after all, finding a pattern requires some heavy duty thinking, and that’s what college is all about.  The problem occurs when students start to think that getting good grades is the same as good learning—and that isn’t always the case.  If you get an A in English just by listening to the class discussion, you’ll never learn to read for meaning.  That may be OK in Mrs. Hudson’s 9th grade English class, but what happens in English 101 at State U, when the professor says “For tomorrow, read the first 100 pages, and bring in a 300 word essay on the uses of water as a metaphor”?

You didn’t learn how to learn—you learned how to get good grades—and now, you’re drowning in your first English college class.

The key is for freshmen to focus on learning, not grades.  When college admissions officers are asked what students need to get into college, they never—never—start with a discussion of grades and test scores.  Instead, they talk about the qualities of what makes a good student: “We look for students who are curious about the world, committed to learning more, creative problem solvers, good communicators—students who know how to ask for help, and create networks of support to give and receive that help.”

And while you might think it’s creative problem solving to get an A in English without reading the book, that’s not really what they’re talking about.

Transcripts with all As look the same, and don’t sort out the grade-centered students from the learning-centered students.  That’s why so many colleges ask for letters of recommendation—and why Mrs. Hudson’s approach to teaching shows she’s pretty smart.  Which would you rather have her say to your colleges:  “Joey got a lot out of class discussion”, or “Joey gave a lot to class discussion?” She’s giving you the choice of getting a good grade, or getting a good grade and being a good learner; what you do with that choice says everything about you, and nothing at all about her.

It’s easy to go through high school using the shortcuts to great grades, and if you do, the medal you get for making the National Honor Society will still be shiny; but what about the mettle you’ll be taking to college?  Choose to learn, and the grades will follow.  You’ll thank yourself in the end. 

What the First Round of College Admissions Decisions Told Us

High school seniors are finally turning their attention back to learning, after a winter of discontent in the world of college admissions that would have made Richard III stand up straight and take notice.  Between online application miscues and record applicants at many colleges, it’s understandable if high school juniors look wonder if perhaps admission by lottery number would be less stressful.

As the Class of 2015 begins to build their senior schedules, it’s time to offer some reminders and some reassurance about the college selection process at many (not all) schools, for many (not all) students.

Test Scores Matter  Colleges have come a long way to wean themselves from over reliance on test scores.  Careful reflection has shown some colleges that test scores are a huge predictor of student success, but many more colleges are finding less value in test scores, especially with so many students studying for the test in ways that don’t reflect a genuine understanding of the knowledge underlying the questions.

With all of that said, colleges that use test scores as part of the admissions process (and many don’t—see http://www.fairtest.org/university/optional for a great list of schools) are sending a clear message this year; test scores aren’t the only thing, but they are a big thing.  Record numbers of applicants submitting early applications give colleges plenty of opportunities to admit a class of student with a wide array of interests and talents, but the results of the early admissions season suggest admission will be harder if test taking isn’t one of those skills.  Counselors (including me) have often said there’s little difference in a point or two on the ACT or 20 or 30 points on the SAT.  If the next group of college decisions in April mirror what December brought us, I don’t know that I can say that for most selective schools anymore.

Test Scores Don’t Matter  Having said that, this round of admissions also reminded us that test scores alone aren’t going to be enough for admission.  High test scores may yield merit scholarships once a student is admitted, but getting the “Yes!” is going to take more than numbers.  Highly selective schools have regularly said they turn down students with perfect test scores whose essays are bland (essays were meh) and whose activities are empty.  This last round of admissions suggests that same standard is now being used at many schools where high test scores alone made admission a sure thing.

What Does it Mean?  Juniors looking for some kind of clear path would do well to follow much of the long-standing advice counselors have always offered:

  • At the beginning of senior year, you should have a list of 6-8 colleges you’re interested in.
  • Three of them should be schools where your GPA and test scores are at or above the college’s average. These should be colleges you would like to go to.
  • Two should be close to home, in case you need to be close to home after high school
  • Follow your passions in innovative ways in and out of your classes
  • Two should, if possible, require little financial assistance.
  • If your dream or reach schools have an average test score higher than your test score, take the test again.
  • Remember that, in most cases, a student will not get a higher test score after taking it twice, unless the student devotes significant time and energy to test preparation—and even then, the result may not change greatly.

It’s always good to dream, but as the saying goes, the wise dreamer has one foot on the clouds, and one foot on the ground—and for some, enough Number Two pencils for another shot at the SAT or ACT.

Ten Things Principals can do to Improve the College-Going Culture in Their Building

  1. Ask this question to your school counselors.  School counselors are the coordinators of the college-going curriculum in your building, so keeping in touch with them keeps you in touch with the successes and needs of your college-going climate.  Meet with them regularly.
  2. Support your school counselors.  Improvement in a college-going culture begins with support of those leading the creation of that culture.  There are five key ways administrators can show that support—understand all five, and be sure to ask your counselors what else you can do. See  http://hscw-counselorscorner.blogspot.com/2013/10/administrative-support-of-counseling.html
  3. Know the two parts of the college-going curriculum in your building.  College-going culture is far more than “getting in” to college.  The two parts—college awareness and college readiness-- are integral parts of every other curriculum in the building, and run the K-12 span.
  4. A college-going curriculum starts well before junior year.  You didn’t misread the last sentence in point 2.  Attitudes about college are shaped early, in both students and parents, so it’s crucial to have a college-going curriculum at every level of learning.
  5. Colleges want more than good grades and test scores.  These important data points reveal only part of the demonstrated qualities colleges want to see in applicants.  Extracurricular activities, service opportunities, essays, and recommendations address other qualities vital to a successful college application, including intelligence, creativity, critical thinking, persistence, reaction to setbacks, leadership, self-knowledge, innovation, synthesis, effective communication, empathy, curiosity, and analysis.
  6. A college-going curriculum doesn’t have to be built from the ground up.  A number of strong (and free) resources exist that are ready for your counselors to implement and tailor to the needs of your students and your community—for starters, see:
  7. College awareness is for every student.  Not every student needs to go to college to fulfill their personal or career goals, but every student needs to know what college offers before they can make that decision.  Make sure all students are involved in college awareness activities.
  8. All postsecondary plans have equal value.  Students who thoughtfully choose a path other than college are doing just as much for their families and communities as students who thoughtfully choose college.  Work with your school team to make sure the plans of all seniors are equally respected and celebrated.
  9. It takes a community to make students college-aware and college-ready.  A Counseling Advisory Committee consists of community leaders who come together for one goal—to support all counseling efforts in your building, including college-going.  This team leads to more scholarships, internships, and support with the logistics of applying to college.  This is an ASCA requirement—if you need help building one, See Cry for Help
  10. Your counselors need more and frequent training in the college selection process.  Only two counselor education programs  in the country require a college counseling course, and less than 30 offer one, so most counselors learn about college counseling on the job-- and with high caseloads, that can be difficult.  More training is usually needed throughout a counselor's career-- for one possible training option, see the class I teach by clicking here.

Top Ten Trends in College Admissions

  1. Competition for college admissions is up at many colleges.  More students are applying to college—and when they do apply, students are applying to more colleges than ever before.  Since most colleges aren’t admitting more students, this makes it harder to get admitted to selective and highly selective colleges.
  2. This is especially true in Michigan, where Michigan State University and The University of Michigan are on track to receive a record number of applications this year, making admission more challenging.  This means more students are likely to start at another four-year college or a community college to transfer to U-M or MSU, a process that requires them to work closely with the transfer advisors in Ann Arbor or East Lansing.
  3. More colleges are actively recruiting students from overseas. This is especially true among private colleges, making the applicant pool bigger and wider than ever before.
  4. Test scores seem to matter more now than ever before at highly selective colleges, but students need more than high test scores to gain admission.  See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-oconnor/what-the-first-round-of-c_b_4646207.html
  5. Colleges report that students are writing essays that don’t really tell the college all that much about the student, and that has a negative impact on the student’s application.  See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-oconnor/i-can-tell-you-nowtheir-e_b_3118268.html
  6. Students are looking past a small question asked by many colleges that is a key part of the application process.  Known as the “Why Us?” question, this essay is used to make sure the student has really looked into what a college has to offer—but many times, the student doesn’t do enough research to provide a strong answer.  See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-oconnor/the-college-application-mistake_b_3982839.html
  7. Students are borrowing more money to pay for college, making reliance on scholarships and merit scholarships more important than ever.  There are ways to cut the cost of attendance—look for colleges that offer merit scholarships (www.meritaid.com is a good place to begin), or think about other ways to earn college credit—see http://www.detroitnews.com/article/20090905/OPINION03/909050349
  8. Parents are asking for more information about paying for college.  Now is the time to make sure paying for college is discussed with parents well before 11th grade, using resources like www.studentaid.ed.gov and http://www.finaid.org/about/ Remember that financial aid officers from colleges are usually thrilled to come talk to high school parents about paying for college, and make great guest speakers.
  9. Many colleges have stopped requiring ACT or SAT scores as part of the admissions process.  Many colleges are realizing that these scores don't give much additional information about a student the college doesn't already know from grades and letters of recommendation.  For these schools, students can can send the scores in if they want to, but they don't have to take the tests at all for purposes of admission. See www.fairtest.org/university/optional.
  10. Many school districts are forming college-going partnerships with Local College Access Networks (LCANs) and the Michigan and Michigan State College Advising Corps.  These groups supplement the college-going efforts of school counselors in important ways, and create a larger sense of community support for college-going students.  For more information on LCANs, see http://www.micollegeaccess.org/grants . College Advising Corps information can be found at http://www.micollegeaccess.org/our-partners 

College Apps in By Christmas?  Ho, Ho Ho!

Well, you made it.

It's December 4th, and all of your applications with December 1st deadlines are in.

It wasn't easy. You had five applications to complete, and that technology glitch at 3am Saturday morning almost threw your submission plans off. You'd spent two hours writing that essay, so it's easy to understand why you were anxious when the Spinning Beach Ball of Death just kept going around and around and around, toying with your college ambitions like a fresh breeze plays with the real thing on a nice day at the beach.

Which reminds me. When was the last time you were at the beach? There was some pretty great weather around the country this weekend. Did you get out at all?

Of course, there were all of those Thanksgiving activities that may have kept you from getting outside. Dinner, the parade, the touch football game. Those were memorable, right?

And speaking of football -- what a weekend for colleges! Michigan going for two against Ohio State, Mizzou holding off A&M, and Auburn coming up with the Best. Finish. Ever. for a second straight week? Man, that was something, wasn't it?


Listen, I give you all the credit in the world for sticking with the applications and seeing them through. You could have packed it in and lost yourself with family and friends, and it isn't easy to keep the long view in mind, sticking to the computer while everyone else is having a great time -- so it's great you reached the finish line for this round of apps.

But now that this is behind you, you might want to try something different for the next college application deadline. January 1st is the next big one, just four weekends away -- and while there's lots to do with family and friends over Thanksgiving, there's even more fun and family and football once school is out.

Here's what I'm thinking. The next three weekends probably don't have a lot going on. High school sports play at night in the winter, and most school clubs are taking it easy between the holidays. Why not set aside two hours every Saturday and Sunday for the next three weekends, and knock out your January 1 applications early?

I know, I know -- you'll have to get up early on a weekend, and seniors don't do that. Except for that Saturday you got up at 6am to finish the homecoming float, or at 7am to run your last cross country meet, or at 7:30am to take the ACT one last time.

Besides, I'm not talking crazy early. Stay in bed until 8am, eat breakfast, then hit the computer at 9am. The Thanksgiving rush fine-tuned your essay skills, and there's a good chance you can take some of the key ideas from those applications and tweak them for the ones that are left. That means two hours Saturday, two hours Sunday, three weekends in a row -- and your last six apps are done by the 22nd. If you think you might miss the rush you get being part of the last minute rush, save your apps for now, then submit them on the 28th -- since you're supposed to read essays twice before sending them, this would be the right thing to do anyway.

There's a lot to be said for being the Student in the Clutch -- just ask Chris Davis -- but it's important to remember what Chris Davis did to be ready to make history last Saturday.

He practiced -- a lot -- when the pressure was off.

Saturday morning, then?

Time to Check on Your College Applications

The first college application deadline has come and gone, and seniors are breathing a huge sigh of relief.  Most of the August challenges with College Application are long gone, and with more colleges asking for senior year grades, students are turning their attention back to the classroom—and rightly so.

It’s important to take a break when one comes your way, but you also want to make sure the work you’ve done is getting the consideration it deserves. Enjoy your time off, but pull yourself away from PlayStation 6 often enough to take these important actions:

Check your e-mail, especially your spam filter  Many colleges (not all) will send you a confirmation e-mail to let you know they have received your application.  This same e-mail might also list the parts of your application they haven’t received—this list can include your transcript, a letter of recommendation, or other information they need from you.

If a college says they are missing something, don’t panic.  A few documents get lost every year, and colleges understand this—that’s why they’re contacting you to ask for the information. There’s a very good chance you will still be considered for early admission if the documents are sent right away—but you only know that if you read your e-mail.  And while you’re there, be sure to check your spam filter; colleges often send e-mails in bulk, and that can signal your computer that the message is spam.  This can include e-mails letting you know you’ve been admitted—so check.

Something missing?  Call the college  If the college says your file is incomplete, the first thing to do is call the college. This may not make sense—after all, if they just e-mailed you, they just checked, right? 

Truth is, this electronic check may have occurred a few days before the e-mail was sent, and since bulk e-mails are sent overnight, the e-mail itself may be a day or two old.  That’s enough time for your missing items to have been found—so call the college, and know what you really need to re-send. If a teacher letter is missing, contact your teacher; if it’s your transcript, touch base with your counselor.  They know what to do.

Move to weekend writing  With your first few college apps done, now is the time to map out the rest of your college work.  Review the deadlines for the other colleges you’re applying to, then start work on the application with the earliest deadline.

Once that’s done, pull out a calendar, and see how many applications will get done if you complete one per weekend.  You really want to keep your weekdays focused on homework and school activities; this next seven weeks are important in your classes, and you want to make sure to have some fun, too.  A two hour block of time on Saturday should give you enough time to complete one app per weekend; if that’s not enough, add another two hour block Sunday.  Try not to schedule anything for Thanksgiving weekend—that’s family time, and a good chance to catch up if you’re behind—and avoid doing anything after Christmas, where online application centers are crazy busy, when access is tough to get.

Check the early deadlines  If you missed out on applying early to a dream school, double check their Web site.  Some colleges have moved their early deadlines to allow for students who had technological challenges getting things in on time.  If you have the desire, and your recommenders have the time, you may be able to apply early after all. 

More Mistakes to Avoid in Your College Application

The challenges facing Common Application may be making the headlines, but many students applying to college with or without Common App are hurting their chances of admission by failing to follow some pretty basic steps:

Send Your Test Scores—Now!  Students are already hearing back from colleges that have a rolling admissions plan, and the news is mixed—but not for the usual reasons.  Counselors report that some students are being admitted while others are being denied—but many are being told their application can’t be read because the applicant never submitted their ACT or SAT scores.

Students are so afraid a “low” set of test scores will lead to a rejection, they are waiting to see the scores before they send them to the colleges.  That strategy has been discussed here many times, but the key to its even questionable success is to make sure to send in at least one set of scores to colleges that require them.  Students who got off to a speedy start with their application now have to go to the end of the admissions decision line due to the lack of scores—and that’s no way to begin the application process.  Go to your college’s Web site and see if low scores will hurt you; if not, send all of your scores now.

Asking Teachers to Write Your Letters   Some students are also having trouble communicating with the teachers who have agreed to write the student’s letter of recommendation.  Most students had the good sense to ask for letters last spring, but some are thinking that one conversation in May is all that’s needed to keep your teacher in the college application loop.

If you haven’t talked to your letter writers this fall, you could have twice the trouble of the students who didn’t send scores.  Your first challenge is getting your teacher to write the letter in the first place; if you haven’t touched base since last year, there’s a good chance they’ve assumed you don’t need the letter after all.  This latency period leads to the second challenge, where reigniting their passion to write your letter could also understandably ignite their frustration with wanting to help you, but now being in a time crunch.  So go have that conversation with them, bring armloads of apologies and good chocolate, and be ready to understand why they may turn every color in the rainbow before saying OK—or saying no.

Requesting Transcripts  Many high schools now have an online transcript request program, where students log in to the site, enter the name of the college needing the transcript, and hit Send.  This process is so easy, many students forget to make their requests until the night before the application is due—but since it only involves hitting a computer button, how hard can it be?

It may not be hard on the student, but consider the poor secretary/counselor/registrar who comes to their high school office the day applications are due to find 300 requests for transcripts.  Each copy has to be prepared before it’s sent, and the student’s request does nothing to make the document ready to send.  That either means the person sending out the transcript will be ordering pizza for dinner, or some transcripts won’t make the deadline—and either option is avoidable.

Applying to college should be the good kind of exciting for everyone involved, and you’re driving the bus to your application destination.  Use these tips as your GPS to a safe journey—and don’t forget the chocolate. 

Applying to College?  Time to Triple Check Your College Web Site

There’s been ample coverage of the start of the college application season, and some of the news is shaky. The new version of the Common Application has brought technological challenges to some students who want to apply.  Many of their college-bound friends saw the frustrations others were having, and decided to hold off on applying until the Common App kinks were worked out of the new system—but some haven’t been back. (Full disclosure:  I am a member of the Common Application Outreach Advisory Board.)

This response is causing some understandable concern among the colleges, institutions that really only work well when they have, well, students.  With the first round of application deadlines coming up for some colleges, many admissions offices are concerned they may be throwing a party students want to attend, but can’t get there because of a busted GPS.

Seeking to ease everyone’s stress, the colleges you’ve applied to may have changed their application rules since you last looked at their Web site.  It’s time for a review, paying close attention to these three key pieces of information:

Did they move their application deadline?  One of the simplest things colleges can do at this point is to give students a little more time to submit their applications. This gives students time to smooth out their Common App wrinkles, and it inspires students on the sidelines to get in the game, which now goes into overtime.

When you check this information, read it meticulously. Some colleges are extending the application deadline for everyone, but some are only giving more time for counselors and teachers to send in transcripts and letters of recommendation.  This kind of makes sense, since the grown-ups have to send information out for many applications to the same college, but a student only has one application to get in on time at that college.  Different deadlines are changing to different dates, and those announcements are coming out at different times.  Check early and often.

Did they move their response date?  Many colleges guarantee students a quick response if they apply early—for example, a college may encourage you to apply by November 1st by promising to give you an admissions decision by December 15th.

It’s easy to see why it would be harder for colleges to stick to that commitment if they are giving students more time to apply.  Some admissions offices may work weekends to catch up, but others just may be too far behind—especially if they have some of the same challenges getting Common Apps out of the system that gave students challenges to students putting the apps in.  Pay close attention to this change.  If you’re going to hear later rather than sooner, it could have a big impact on when you apply to other colleges.

Check Out the Web Site, Not Your Phone Dialing Skills  Seniors who have submitted applications may have many questions  for the college, and colleges want to answer them to ease your stress--without raising their stress in the process.  That’s why you check the Web site before you call.  This important information will be easy to find on the college’s admissions page, and there may even be an online help desk where you can submit questions.

This approach gives the admissions office a chance to focus on reading applications and sending out decisions, something everyone wants them to do.  If the Web can’t help you, there will be time to call—but put that thought on hold for now, and take a walk on the Web.  

Four Things College Juniors Need to Do Now

Advanced Placement season is upon us, which means many juniors are spending every free minute with their nose in a book, reviewing notes, or trying to connect to a Web site while shouting “Can’t you go any faster?

Given this frenetic level of activity, this probably isn’t the time to be talking about fall—but there are a few autumnal things to put on the smart phone, personal planner, or family fridge.  This can easily be done when you’re taking a food break from your AP studies—you are eating regularly, right?—and once August comes, you’ll be glad you planned ahead.

Check Your Senior Schedule  The first step towards college is to graduate from high school, and that won’t happen unless you’re taking the classes needed for your diploma.  Schedules will be finalized over the summer, and computers make big mistakes sometimes—so it’s time to double check.  Look for your schedule when it comes in the mail in August, and think twice about making any last-minute class changes.  Senior year is supposed to be challenging.

Testing, Testing  The SAT and ACT are both given in May and June, but some juniors just aren’t ready to take on these tests while prepping for AP exams and wrapping up their demanding classes.  If you’d like a little space between your tests, you’re in good shape; ACT offers a test in mid-September, and SAT has an early October date. 

The challenge here is that you’ll have to register in August for these tests, unless you want to pay big bucks in late registration fees.  Make a note to check the SAT and ACT Web sites around August 1.

College Application Deadlines seem to be moving up every year, including many public universities where thousands of students apply. This isn’t a good trend—most students write better essays when they’re in school, not on vacation—but if your top college picks want your application in September, now is the time to know.

The best way to plan out your applications is to make a list, or develop a spreadsheet.  Around August 1, check the application deadlines on each college’s Web site, and list your colleges by deadline, earliest first.  If your first application isn’t due until October 1, you have all of August to hit the beach; if anything is due in September, mark your calendar for August 20th as the day to start that application, then go back to the pool.

Letters of Recommendation No matter when your applications are due, now is the time to ask your teachers for letters of recommendation.  This may not seem like a big deal to you—after all, they can use the same letter for every college you’re applying to—but there’s a good chance you aren’t the only student who wants a letter from this teacher, and teachers get very busy when school starts, doing things like, well, teaching.

It’s true that you’re crazy busy now, but this deserves your time and attention. As soon as mid-May rolls around, talk to the teacher in person and ask if they would be willing to write you a good letter of recommendation.  If they agree, thank them, and follow up with an e-mail or note, letting them know when you need it.  This is NOT the kind of thing to ask for by phone, e-mail, or text; if you want them to give up their time for you, you need to give up some of your time for them.

Got it?  OK, back to Tolstoy, then on to summer.

             How Many Detroit Graduates Can Go to College for Free?  All of Them

Being a cheerleader for Detroit is often an uphill battle. The city is being run by an emergency manager, the school district is being run by an emergency manager, and the Tigers give up five runs in extra innings, suggesting their relief staff is in need of an emergency manager. With this flurry of hurry, it'd be nice to report a Detroit story that talks about business as usual, where something expected happens -- like, say, kids graduating from high school, then going on to college.

It seems the Detroit Chamber of Commerce feels the same way. Two weeks ago, the Chamber announced The Detroit Scholarship Fund, a program designed to make college accessible with an approach to paying for college that is comprehensive, yet easy to follow.

Here's how to qualify for the scholarship:

  • Graduate from a Detroit high school after attending there for at least two years. Any Detroit high school; the high schools run by Detroit Public Schools, those that are part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority school, private, charter, parochial, whatever. If you live in Detroit, go to a high school that's in Detroit, and you graduate this June, you qualify.
  • Apply for federal financial aid at www.studentaid.ed.gov  Applying for federal aid is free, and now that your taxes are done, it's easy; you need about 10 financial figures and 30 minutes on a computer.
  • Sign up for the Chamber scholarship by June 30 at http://tinyurl.com/ckdn722
  • Enroll at one of the five participating community colleges.
  • Get ready to go to college.

This isn't about high grades, great test scores, where your parents went to school, or if you're a left-handed tuba player. If you want to go to college, you have to get out of high school, make sure Uncle Sam can't pay for your schooling, and be ready to participate in orientation and student success activities that will help you earn a college degree, and a brighter future.

This is one of the most amazing wake-up calls ever for every Detroiter's college dreams. Students looking for technical training for a good job can find it in the high tech labs and workshops of some of the finest colleges in the nation. For those looking to get a Bachelor's degree, this program gives you two free full years to build a strong GPA that could qualify you for one of the many transfer scholarships four-year colleges offer to community college graduates. If you're hoping for a nice college campus with lots of green space and big trees, that's in here, too -- especially if you get to the Oakland Community College campuses in Auburn Hills, Highland Lakes, or Orchard Ridge (I should know -- I teach at OCC).

For the "what if" thinkers in the audience, it's true that the scholarship doesn't include the cost of books and transportation. However, FAFSA-eligible students may qualify for a book voucher, and many colleges have a book rental options that drop textbook prices dramatically. It's true that students will have to find a way to school, but if you can find a ride to something as important as prom, you can find a ride to something as important as college.

We often hear inspiring stories of the citizens of a small town who pool their resources together to send one promising student to college. That's a true testimony to the power of the human heart -- and so is this, times six thousand, in a city whose future just got a lot brighter.

Free college for every single one of Detroit's high school graduates. The beginning of business as usual.

 I Can Tell You Now—Their Essays Were Meh

With the last of the college admission letters sent, this is the time juniors ask a pretty great question—“What happened to this year’s college applicants that can help me get ready to apply to college next year?” 

In years past, I haven’t been able to provide much of answer, other than “it depends.” The only time an applicant knows where they stand compared to other applicants is after the admissions deadline has passed—and they can’t do anything to change their status by then. 

This answer may be honest, but it doesn’t give juniors much to go on.  That’s why I’m delighted that I have a different answer for them this year:

Don’t write boring essays.

This is the second year in a row college admissions officers have told me that application essays, as a group, were pretty disappointing.  They use phrases like “they’re writing too safe” and “we appreciate the effort”, but what they mean is clear; they were given celery when they were looking for steak. Yes, there were  exceptions—like the rep who told one of my students his essay was so wonderful, it brought him to tears—but as a rule, there’s room for improvement for next year’s class.

And what can juniors do to write better essays?  Three things:

Write the way you talk.  Admissions officers ask for essays because they can’t speak with you in person.  They’d much rather do that, since it’s easier to get more out of a conversation, where you can hear inflection, evaluate body language, and watch the way your eyes light up whenever you talk about Voltaire.

That’s the kind of thing that gets a college’s attention, so that’s what you have to put in your essay.  Colleges say they want to hear your voice, so be you—your strongest, clearest, best, grammatically correct you, but you.  Third graders recite the Pledge of Allegiance with little enthusiasm or understanding; if the final draft of a college essay sounds like a nine year-old rotely advocating liberty and justice for all, it’s time to start over.

Don’t start too soon.  I was stunned when Common Application released next year’s essay topics this past February, benignly giving many juniors eleven months to work on draft after draft after draft—and slowly taking the life out of the words, somewhere in the middle of July.

Students certainly need to write drafts of all essays, but there is such a thing as overkill.  Think about your essay responses over the summer, but don’t put anything to paper until the Common App portal opens August 1st.  If you’re an athlete in training during August, remember that you’ll have to play your sport *and* go to class when you’re in college; this is a good chance to practice doing both at once.

Show it to only one editor.  Another way to have an essay lose your voice is to ask too many people for advice.  You may only get a couple of suggestions from each reader, but two fixes from six readers makes twelve changes, all coming from someone else, all in words that aren’t your own.

It’s important to work well in a group, but not when it comes to application essays.  Find one person who knows you and grammar, give them your essays ahead of time, and set up a time to discuss what you’ve written.  Editing by conversation increases the chances your essay will sound like a conversation, and that’s what colleges want.  Find something to say; say it in your own voice; don’t practice too much, and all will be well.

Making the Most out of a College Fair

More and more high schools are offering spring college fairs to help juniors and their families focus on the qualities they’re looking for in the right college match.  There’s nothing to replace a campus visit, but college visits cost time and money, and you’ll need to make the most of both junior year.  College fairs help you do that— held in fall and spring, a fair can have representatives from up to 400 colleges, all eager to talk to you about their college and your life.  Many fairs feature information on choosing and applying to college and financial aid, and most fairs are free.

With so many colleges at a fair, it’s easy to get intimidated—so plan ahead.  Take a pen, a highlighter, an unofficial copy of your transcript, and 5 questions committed to memory that will help you learn more about a college.  What you ask is up to you—majors, food, chances for research, cost, social life-- just make sure the answers will help you decide if this place is worth a closer look.

At the fair, get a map of where the booths of the colleges are located.  BEFORE you go onto the floor, highlight the colleges you’re interested in (this same list might be on a Web site—even better, since you can research colleges ahead of time.)  Once you’re at a booth, you might have to wait to ask questions—this is good!  Use this time to listen to what the representative is saying to other students-- since they will most likely be discussing general questions, you can use your time to ask more detailed stuff.

Once it’s your turn, get busy.  “Hi, my name is (NO student does this, but you should; it shows confidence, and gives the rep the chance to remember you) and I go to Captain Jack High School.”  From here, you want to ask your questions; make eye contact as they answer, and don’t rush them. 

If you feel you’re hitting a good vibe, pull out your transcript and say “Just one more question.  I’m putting my senior schedule together.  Here’s what I’ve taken so far; what other courses would your college like to see me take?”  ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY NOBODY does this at a college fair, which is why you should.  Most of the time, you’ll actually get some great advice (or even a scholarship offer), but don’t be surprised if they don’t know what to say—either way, you’ll be remembered by reps in a very positive way.  Thank them for their time, fill out a registration card (that’s important), tell them you hope they come by your school to visit, and move on. 

Make quick notes on this college *before* you visit the next booth.  You can use your “waiting time” at the next booth to do this, but write at least something down—you don’t want to confuse your colleges.

If you can do about 7-10 colleges and spend time at an information session of interest to you, call it a victory with an after-fair pizza (this is why you bring your parents along—to pay!)  You now have some solid information on which colleges are road trip worthy, and some solid information about yourself as well—truly a dynamic duo.

One of the many college fair options is a series of national college fairs operated by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.  To find a list of NACAC fairs, visit  http://www.nacacnet.org/college-fairs/students-parents/Pages/default.aspx

                                                  This Year’s Applicant Pool

This is a time of great excitement and anxiety for almost all of you, but it’s important to keep these three points in mind as you read your decisions.

1.   Applications appear to be at an all-time high at many colleges. This means that getting admitted to these colleges is more difficult than ever before, simply because of the number of students that have applied.  Of course, other factors enter into the admissions process--grades, letters of recommendation, test scores, etc.--but since most students who apply to these colleges academically qualify for admission, an increase in the number of applications makes admission that much harder.

2.    There is a common reason why colleges deny admission to students.  The number one reason selective colleges deny admission to students is simple--they run out of room.  If they had more dorm rooms, and more professors, and more classrooms, they would love to take more students--but they cannot do justice to the students they do admit by taking too many, since no one gets a quality education that way--and that’s not fair to anyone.

3.   With more applications, and limited space, colleges must create a learning community that is exciting, diverse, and rich with opportunities.  How colleges do that is a combination of art and science, a mixture of data (grades and test scores) and insight (personal statements, letters of recommendation, etc.  In deciding who gets admitted, these selective colleges will tell you that just about everyone who decides to apply to a selective college qualifies for admission--they would be a great student, benefit the college tremendously, and contribute to the college in many ways.  Since you applied to a selective college, those compliments would apply to you.

Given that, it’s impossible to think of any way a letter of denial or waitlist should be interpreted to mean “The college doesn’t like me”, or worse “I am not a good person”.  College admissions is about many things, but it is never a judgment about you as a person, or about everything you have accomplished.  Most colleges go to great pains to point this out when they send their denial letters; believe me when I tell you that they aren’t just being nice, but that they truly respect and honor everything you have done as a student and as a person, and they are grateful you applied to their college.  That might not mean much the minute you open the letter, it will over time--whether the college says yes, no, or maybe, your value and worth as a person is cast in stone, and can be shaken by absolutely no one, be it another person, or an admissions committee.

Now, About the Decisions

When you hear from a college this week, you’ll get one of four kinds of decisions.  Each decision has its own possibilities, so let’s go over them:


                An offer of admission is the news you’ve been hoping for--and more.  In addition to congratulating you, the offer of admissions includes information on housing, orientation, and financial aid.  Be sure to read all of it; this information will be of great value to you if you need to decide among several offers of admission.

Conditional Admission

               Colleges may offer you a seat in the freshman class with a requirement--that you participate in a tutoring or student supporAs is the case with other admission offers, offers of conditional admission may also include information on housing, financial aid, etc.  Be sure to read all of this information.  In addition, there may be a contract included that you’re required to sign, indicating you agree to adhere to the conditions of admission; suffice it to say, you’ll need to return that signed contract to the college by the indicated deadline.t program during your first semester, that your first semester grades are at a certain level, or that you come to campus sometime over the summer to participate in a college readiness program.  These offers of admission are becoming more common, and they are not an “either/or” proposition--in other words, if you want to go to that college, you must satisfy the requirements outlined in the offer of admission.


                A letter indicating you’ve been waitlisted usually comes all by itself.  The letter indicates that the college is still considering your application, but must hear from the admitted students first before they may--again, that’s may--offer you admission.

                Again, while it’s a little early to tell, there is a sense that the number of waitlisted letters is expected to be large this year--and that’s when things get tricky.  To begin with, every college has its own set of guidelines about waitlists; for example, if all of the admitted soccer players turn down College X, College X may go to the waitlist only for soccer players, whereas College Y may have already put their waitlist together, and will simply start offering admission to the students at the top of the list, whether those students play soccer or not.  In either case, your contacting the college doesn’t really move you up on the list that much--unless the college makes up its waitlist order only after they’ve heard from everyone, including the students on the waitlist.

Given the many different ways colleges approach waiting lists, I would suggest you do the following:

*  Re-read the letter from the college to see if it gives you any information about the wait-list-- how the order is determined, when it is determined, and what you need to do to stay on it.

*  If this information isn't in the letter (and often it isn't), call the college and ask them directly-- tell them you've been waitlisted, and ask them how and when the list is put together.  They may give you some suggestions on what to do; if they do, write these suggestions down, since they are basically telling you how to improve your chances of moving up on the list.

*  Next, it's decision time.  Given the college options you have, do you still feel it's worth pursuing this college as a possible option-- remember, it may only be a possibility.  As you think about this, it's *very* important to ask two questions--

         1.  If a slot doesn't open up at this college, what college will I select?

         2.  If a slot does open up at this college, what college will I select?

If the answer to these questions is the same, there's no point in pursuing the waitlist; you can either call the college and ask your name be removed from the waitlist, or you can wait and see what happens after May 1st.

*  If your decision about which college to attend depends in part on financial aid, remember that the amount of aid available to students who are admitted off of the waitlist is usually limited.  That’s not to say there won’t be any, but colleges offer all of their aid to admitted students first; as a result, the aid available to waitlisted students is limited to the amount of aid turned down by admitted students.  Since that can vary greatly from year to year, and from college to college, that’s another factor to keep in mind.

*  If you decide you want to pursue a slot at the college that's waitlisted you, this is no time to be shy. Contact the college to let them know your continued interest. "I want you to know I am still very interested in attending College X this fall" sends a clear statement of where you stand and if College X is your first choice, you can say that as well (but remember only one first choice.) Some students will collect progress reports to show how they're doing in their high school classes, and others will send in extra letters of recommendation. All of that may help, but it's not a bad idea to ask first before sending too much material in-- remember, you want to show interest, but you don't want to drive them crazy.

The idea here is that you want to show continued interest in the school that is strong, but not too persistent. A couple of contacts between April 1st and May 1st isn't going too far, and one every day really is--so use good judgment. 

*  Finally, keep in mind that most colleges will not review their waitlist until after May 1st, which is the day you are expected to  notify one--and only one--college that you’ll be going there in the fall.  If April 30 comes around, and you’re still waiting to hear from a waitlisted school, you’ll want to put in the required May 1st deposit and notification at the college you’ll go to if the waitlist doesn’t work out somewhere else.  If the college of your dreams pulls you off the waitlist later on, you’ll need to cancel your admission at the other college in writing--and there’s a good chance you won’t get your deposit back.

Not Offered Admission

News that a college cannot offer you admission also comes in a thin envelope.  As I said before, colleges mean it when they say they wish they could offer you admission, and they value your work as a student; it’s just that colleges simply run out of room.

I’m sometimes asked if an admissions decision can be appealed.  Just like every
college handles admissions decisions differently, every college handles admissions appeals differently--and remember, colleges do not have to offer any kind of appeal at all.  In general, there are some good guidelines to follow:

--Read your  letter closely.  These letters often explain both the procedures you need to follow to file an appeal, and the things colleges look for in reviewing an appeal.  If your letter gives you no indication, call the office of admission and ask what their appeal policy is--and remember that some colleges will not take appeals except in very rare circumstances.

--See if you can find out why you were denied admission in the first place. A conversation with an admissions officer may give the college enough additional information about you to form the basis of an appeal.  If the college needs more information, you can ask for specific information on what the college would like to see when you write your appeal--or, in some cases, you can find out if an appeal would not be the best use of your time.

--Generally speaking, colleges will look at an appeal closely if you can provide additional information above and beyond what you included in your original application that shows you are a strong and/or unique student. Seventh semester grades, progress reports from your current classes, additional letters of recommendation, a supporting paragraph or two from your counselor--these kinds of things can make a difference.

-- Remember that a successful appeal depends on a variety of factors--your strength as a student, your continued interest in the college, the number of spaces the college has available, etc.  In some cases, continued interest and strong grades may be enough to get you in on appeal--but in some cases, it won’t.  An appeal isn’t a sure thing, and the extra energy it requires to put an appeal together--not just yours, but the energy of your counselor, your teachers, and the college--can be high at this busy time of year.  Before you start an appeal, be sure to think about your chances of success, and your real interest in the college, and let your answers guide you accordingly.

A Few More Ideas to Consider

You can find additional information on checking your financial aid packages and making sure you finish your senior year with a flourish at


Worried About the College News?  Keep Calm and Study On

Juniors and seniors are shaking in their shoes—and it’s not because of the frigid February temperatures.  Early indications show a record number of college applications have been filed this year, and it’s expected to go up again next year.

It would be simple enough to say this is going to make getting into college harder--but before we start going all Russian novel about this, let’s get some perspective.

First, this isn’t a surprise.  More students are applying to college from the US, and colleges are actively seeking more applicants from overseas, so this isn’t a surprise to colleges…

…and they’re ready to deal with it. While most colleges can’t increase the number of students they admit, a number of colleges have increased the quality of their course offerings, majors, living arrangements, and food to make their institution more desirable.  The result?  There are more great colleges to choose from than ever before…

…and more competition for students makes you the winner. These great and newly-great schools have to bend over backwards to get you to attend.  As a result, more colleges are offering merit-based financial aid—money for college that’s based on your grades and test scores.  These two changes mean good students have more quality choices and more financial incentives than parents or siblings—or even last year’s seniors.

“Cool” you say to yourself, “but I’ve always wanted to go to Great Grandad U, and I hear they’re getting more applicants—how does this make it easier for me to get into a specific college that’s had a great rep for years?”

While this increase in applications generally means it will be tougher to get into the highly selective schools, there are still a couple of things to consider.  First, a couple of these colleges (like Harvard) have dramatically changed their financial aid policies in order to encourage more people to apply.  Early signs suggest the number of applications is way up—but did this change in price have an impact on the quality of the applicants who applied? Since we don’t know the answer to that question, we should wait and see—and not get discouraged.

Second, a new online version of the Common Application was used by U-M and a couple of other prominent schools this year.  Common App allows students to complete one basic college application (with occasional extra essays) and send it to hundreds of colleges, many of them highly selective colleges.  Because of Common App, it’s likely more students applied to more schools because it was easier—but we don’t know if that increase led to an increase in the number of strong candidates.  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, with more choices than ever before, you need to look more closely at colleges than ever before.  I’ve seen too many students get flattered by a merit scholarship, only to transfer after a semester because the glitter of the award didn’t let them really see what the college had to offer—and not offer—in terms of classes, activities, and atmosphere.  It’s cool to be wanted, but if December finds you looking for a new school because this one didn’t work out, that’s just not a bargain.

Three or four years of living and learning in high school should give you some strong clues about who you are and what you want from a school.  Apply those core values –and some common sense-- to the college hunt, and you’ll find a perfect match, no matter what the numbers say.

College Essay Topics Debut Uncommonly Early

Juniors got a huge head start with their college applications when Common Application announced their 2013-14 essay topics last week.  All of the topics can be seen at https://www.commonapp.org/CommonApp/Docs/DownloadForms/2013/EssayAnnouncementFinal.pdf,and are part of a number of changes in Common App’s essay section:

·         Common App has done away with the short essay that was required for all applicants.

·         These essay topics are for the first part of the Common Application.  If an individual college wants students to write additional essays, those will be found in the Supplement section of Common App.

·         The word limit for the new essays has been raised to 650 words, and the essay instructions make it clear that students don’t have to write 650 words—if fine if their essay is complete in less than 650 words, as long as it’s at least 250 words long.

·         At the same time, the new maximum of 650 words will be strictly enforced.  In the past, some students have written well past the maximum; that won’t be allowed next year.

The new offerings leave out what’s been the most popular topic among students—“Write an essay on the topic of your choice.” Students were extremely unhappy when this omission was announced in the fall, but the Common Application committee charged with developing the new essay topics made sure the choices would be very broad, allowing students ample opportunity to tell their individual stories. (Full disclosure:  I was on the selection committee.)

Common Application decided to release the new topics at this time to make sure everyone understood a change was coming—one change of many, as Common App prepares to roll out a new version of the entire application, CA4, on August 1
The essay topics now give students something to think about when it comes time to start writing college essays…

..and that time is not now.  Knowing some juniors may decide this is the time to start applying, Common Application posted this notice on their Facebook page:

JUNIORS: Just because you know what our colleges will ask you to write about doesn't mean you should start writing. It's February 6. You have more pressing things to do. You'll have plenty of time to be a college applicant. For now, just be a student.

Truer words were never spoken.  The essays and assignments teachers give juniors are designed to develop the skills colleges want to see in college essays—skills like analysis, critical thinking, and evaluation.  If students can hone those skills now with a lab report, a History paper, or an English essay, they will surely apply them later with a Common App prompt like “describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”

You want to make sure your essays are engaging, and nothing kills inviting writing like too many rewrites. Several college admissions officers say students are writing essays that are “safe”, writing that has good structure, but doesn’t really tell the reader much about the student.  This lack of color will only go up if you agonize over a small essay for up to ten months—make sure you tell your parents that when they suggest you spend Presidents Day cranking out a first draft.  

College essays are part of an exciting process, but the glory of the Super Bowl comes only to those who master the nuances of training camp.  Common Application has shown you the goal line, but now it’s time for more training; hit the books, write for your classes, and put the college essays on hold. 

Three Ways to Keep Your Counselor Sane, and Why They Matter to You

You probably don’t know next week is National School Counselor Week, but it is.  There are many reasons you should appreciate your counselor (see www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-oconnor/national-school-counseling-week_b_1242341.html ) ...

…but since “appreciate” is a verb as much as it is an adjective, it’s time to show that appreciation by doing three simple things that will add years to a counselor’s life, keep them from banging their head against the wall when they go home—and, coincidentally, help you grow as a person and as a student.

Make a senior year schedule and stick to it.
School days in January that could be spent talking to students about plans, challenges, and ideas (in other words, counseling) are taken up looking at myriad computer screens finding a World History class that doesn’t conflict with your new-found interest in Advanced Weightlifting—a passion you have mystically just discovered at the start of your last term in high school.

You’ll soon be talking with your counselor about your senior schedule, so if you want to factor in some fluff, now is the time—it’s usually a bad idea, but if it’s going to happen, it should happen now.  Mid-year schedule changes take counselors away from the flow of the school year; they also require you to call your colleges and tell them why you’ve abandoned AP Calculus for History of Pizza.  You’ll both have better things to do with your time; build in the right level of rigor now, and unless a course is a genuine calamity, stick with it.

Send your test scores to your colleges when you take them. 
Most colleges requiring ACT or SAT test scores ask for official copies of your results—in other words, the scores must come directly from the testing companies. The only person who can request those scores is you, and more and more students are waiting to send their scores to colleges until the student has had a chance to see the results.

This approach doesn’t make sense to most counselors; sending scores later costs more money, and no college I know of penalizes you for low scores, as long they have higher scores to review.  But the real counseling frustration occurs when a student runs into the office and says “State U needs an official copy of my scores today, or my application won’t get read. Why didn’t you send them?”

Counselors can send a second transcript or another copy of a recommendation, but we can’t –can’t—send official test scores; that’s your job.  If you want to wait to do that until you see your scores, that’s fine, but you may want to tattoo a reminder on your hand, before an application deadline deals you a bad hand.  Either way, it’s out of your counselor’s hands.

Let us know what happens. 
Rocky relationships, bad grades, career decisions, crazy parents—counselors have heard all of it. Actually, counselors only hear half of it; you tell us about the problem and we work together on solutions, but counselors rarely hear how things end up.

Letting them know the resolution of the conflict is more than polite; it helps you put the past in perspective, deepens your appreciation for everyone who helps you, and moves you forward to take on bigger challenges.  Closing the loop with them is a step towards becoming more of the person you are—and that’s the real goal of counseling.  Since gratitude and communication make a great foundation for growth, thank your counselor next week, but always share the end of the story.

Even if it leads to a schedule change. 

Testing, Testing—Some Ground Rules About the ACT and SAT

Counseling offices around the country are gearing up to send out current grades of seniors, the last large task on the Application Support checklist for the Class of 2013—so can the next class be far behind?  As juniors put together and review their college lists, it makes sense to talk about one of the most misunderstood parts of the college application process—testing.  Here’s a quick Q and A on the basics—follow this advice, and all the details that drive other students crazy will fall into place for you.

Which test should I take—ACT or SAT?
You want to take the test that will best show your academic ability, and the only way to do that is to take each test once, review the scores, and think about the amount of stress you felt when taking each test. In most cases, the test you felt most comfortable with is the one where you had the highest score; take that one a second time before junior year is over, and you’ll be in great shape.

That’s a lot of money to spend on tests.  Can my PSAT and PLAN scores help me decide which test to take?
They can help some, yes.  PLAN is patterned after the ACT, and students usually take it in 10th grade, which was a year ago—so you may know more now that you did then, which impacts your test scores (we hope!) Still, if your 10th grade PLAN scores are much stronger than your 11th grade PSAT scores, that suggests ACT is the test for you.  If your PSAT scores beat your PLAN scores, it’s still worth it to take both tests.

Should I send all of my test scores to a college?
The short answer here is yes.  You can send your scores to up to 4 colleges when you sign up to take the SAT or ACT—that’s part of the testing fee.  If you wait until after you see your results to send your results, it costs about $10 per college to order them—and every college I know swears that low test scores don’t hurt your chances of admission if you send in a higher set of test scores.

Is that really true?
I can only go by what the colleges tell me.  Some say they have a computer sort through your scores, so the admissions committee only sees your highest scores.  Other counselors tell me of colleges that do look at low scores—these colleges may say things like “your complete test history gives us a clearer picture of your true abilities.”  A vast majority of colleges want to help you get admitted, not hold you back; but if you wonder about test scores, ask about their policy before you send them in.

What’s the worst thing I can do when it comes to test scores—send too few, or send too many?
Not send any at all.  A growing number of students don’t send test scores to colleges until the student sees them—but that takes extra time, extra money, and extra discipline.  More students have their applications deferred, delayed, or simply not read because they don’t remember to send the scores in until it’s too late—and counselors can’t send in official test scores for students.  If you want to wait, fine—but don’t forget to send them.

Do all colleges require the SAT or ACT?
No—in fact, almost 850 don’t require them for most of their students.  Check the list at www.fairtest.org/university/optional , then call the college to confirm the policy.

              What This Year’s Admissions Are Telling High School Juniors

It’s been ten days since seniors shipped off the bulk of their college applications, and it looks like we’re in for another record year.  The college app Web site Common Application was processing 4.4 college application forms
per second on New Year’s Eve—and this is after more students applied in November through Early Action and Early Decision programs.

High school juniors may not be paying much attention to these numbers, but the wise members of the Class of 2014 would do well to put the “me” in measurements, and think about what this year’s statistics mean to next year’s applicants:

Rigor  Early admissions decisions indicate colleges are looking more closely than ever at the amount of challenge students are taking on in their high school schedules.  Gone are the days where hard-working students can load up their final semester (or year) with History of Pizza and AP Gangnam; advanced and honors classes in grades 9 through 12 are more an expectation than an extra.

If you’re a junior, put together a strong schedule when you pick your senior classes in the next month or so.  This reliance on rigor isn’t likely to go away; in fact, you may want to talk to your counselor about beefing up your schedule for this year if you can.  Yes, it is that serious.

Interest  More colleges are giving preference to applicants who show a serious interest in the school. Some colleges evaluate this demonstrated interest in the number of times you visited campus, your attendance at the program the college hosted in your town, and the conversation you had with their admissions representative at the local college night.

If you’re a junior, think about ways to show a college how much the school means to you.  Colleges don’t want you to go into debt to visit their campus 12 times, and they certainly don’t want you flooding their e-mails with updates on what you ate for breakfast.  Still, a campus visit or two, combined with attendance at events they hold in your city and state, are a good start.

Selectivity  Record application numbers are leading to the creation of a new category of colleges.  These super competitive schools admit a very small percentage of students (less than 10 percent), making the selective colleges that admit 25 percent of their applicants seem downright easy to get into—and somehow less desirable. (Yeah—that is crazy.)

If you’re a junior, build a list of colleges that includes a mix of selectivity.  Applying to 20 colleges that each admits 6 percent of their students doesn’t give you a 120 percent chance of being admitted by one of them.  Make sure you have 3 or 4 colleges on your list that will have the room and good sense to admit you; chances are these same schools will offer you a merit scholarship as well, and that’s never a bad thing.

Timeliness  Once upon a time, all colleges contacted a student if the college needed the student’s test scores or teacher recommendation.  With so many applicants (especially early applicants), colleges don’t always have the time to send these reminders—and with so many other complete applications to choose from, they don’t have to, either.

If you’re a junior, make sure your materials are submitted at least a week before the deadline, and check e-mail every day (including the junk folder) in case a college needs something.  This is especially true for test scores, which is the single biggest hold-up in reviewing an application; send them when you take them, and you’ll know they are there for sure.

A College Denial Could Be the End of the World

“Dr. O’Connor?”

“Angela, how are you?”

“I know you’re busy, but I wanted to thank you for your help with my applications, and give you these.”

“Your grandmother’s jelly cookies!  I remember these exquisite morsels from when your brother was a senior.”

“Yeah.  My brother, who got in at Northeast Michigan State.”

“Still thinking about your deferral?”

“I took every hard class we offer, aced the ACT, was named all-state libero, and made twelve dozen jelly cookies for the senior center.  My grades and scores are higher than my brother’s, I did more in the community, I’m smarter, and I’m a better person.”

“And humble, too.”

“Yeah, well, most days.”

“And Northeast Michigan State knows that.”

“I know, and I really appreciate you calling them this week.  I just wish I would have known how tough it would be to get admitted this year.”

“That’s the hard part with college admissions.  You never know what the quality of the applications looks like until everyone applies—but once you know that, you can’t really do anything to set yourself apart from the crowd.  By that point, you are who you are.”

“Try telling that to Jimmy McDowell.”

“The concert band’s bassoon player?”

“His mother made him start bassoon at 4—she read some article about how colleges can never find enough bassoon players.”

“But if that advice is in a popular magazine…”

“Right.  Turns out Jimmy was one of 75 bassoon players applying to Northeast.  Now that he’s deferred, he’s learning to play the piccolo.”


“I told him I was in the same boat, that we’d both get accepted after our applications are reviewed again in February—but he wouldn’t buy it.  He said he hopes the Mayans are right.”

“About the end of the world?”

“Yeah.  But then he said, he knew the Mayans were wrong, since his world ended when NMS deferred him.”

“That’s a pretty strong statement.”

“I know.  He’s seen his counselor, and he’ll be fine—but I wish I could say something to bring him out of his funk.”

“Why don’t you tell him he can have his wish?”

“To play the bassoon at NMS?”

“No—to have the world end.”

“Dr. O, you’re creeping me out here.”

“’Maybe when we wake up tomorrow the old world will have ended, and a new one will have begun. Maybe in this new world a child's life will be more precious than an adult's liberty. Maybe we will value love more than money, harmony more than vanity, peace more than domination. Maybe the freedom to win an argument won't be as important to us as the person we might argue with. Maybe we will learn how to care before we learn how to take. Maybe our honesty and integrity will elevate us higher than our intelligence and cunning. Maybe we will be measured by what we have given, and not what we have amassed. Maybe mirrors will show us the people who have stood behind us in life, who have loved and forgiven the person who stands before us. Maybe we will learn to love and forgive too.

“’Maybe the world will have ended. I kind of hope so.’”

“Wow.  Did you write that?”

“Nope.  Someone named Mike D'Emilio.”

“So it’s only a thought away—a new world, a new year…”

“…a new way to look at college decisions.”

“This is just the thing Jimmy needs—and just what I needed, too.” 

“Cookie for the road?”

“Are you kidding?  If I eat one more jelly cookie, I’ll gag.”

“Nice visual, Angela.”

“Merry Christmas.”

Decisions on Early Applications:  What to do when a College Says Maybe

The word among college admissions offices and high school counselors is that more early applications have been submitted than ever before.  Many students applied to these early programs in the hope they would have an early answer, but because there are so many applicants, the answer they receive in the next few weeks might be “maybe.”  Some colleges with early application programs will defer a final decision on a student, asking for the latest grades in their current classes, additional essays, or more information about the student’s interest in the college.

It’s easy to understand how students will be disappointed if a college says “we’ll see” rather than “yes”—but it’s important not to dwell on that disappointment.  Students should view a deferral as an opportunity to tell the college more about themselves and their college plans; in many cases, students who provide the appropriate amount of additional material will be viewed as more interested in attending the college, a factor that can make a difference when a college makes a final decision.

So what does the appropriate amount of new information look like?  Follow these steps:

Read the admissions decision carefully.  Once you know you’ve been deferred, go back and read the letter a second time; it may include instructions on how to submit additional material.  Many colleges will ask you to e-mail them or return an enclosed postcard to indicate you’re still interested in the college; make sure to do that right away.  Other colleges will ask for specific information, like your first semester or trimester grades; if that’s the case, tell your high school immediately, so they can send the grades and other materials the minute they’re available. 

Bring the college up to date.  Unless the letter tells you not to send anything else (and a few colleges say that), the time to contact the college is now.  Send them a short note or e-mail that:

  • Expresses your disappointment in not being admitted
  • Outlines the achievements, events, and activities you’ve been involved in since you’ve applied
  • Communicates your strong interest in attending the college

It’s been about two months since you submitted your application, and you’ve been doing more than just checking your e-mail for college notices.  Writing the college shows them you are still actively engaged in learning and living; it also shows them you still feel their college is a good match for you, even after having eight more weeks to think about it.  This may seem pretty basic, but very few students do this—and that’s all the more reason for you to get busy.

Look ahead.  Once you’ve sent this information, you’ll want to plan on sending a second update in February, once your next grades are available; if you have another teacher who can write a strong letter of recommendation, this is a good time to send that as well (don’t ask right now—the holidays are coming!) One last note around March 10th should very briefly restate your interest in the school—after that, it’s up to them.

Review your college listIf you were counting on being admitted to your Early college, now is the time to double-check your college list, and make sure you’re applying to at least two or three other colleges where your grades and test scores are at or higher than the college’s averages.  It’s hard to get a deferral from a college now, but it will be much harder to get accepted into any college later; keep your options open by seeing the good in what other colleges have to offer. 

Some Last Minute Details After December 1

Now that the December 1 application deadline is history, it’s time to remind seniors, juniors, parents, and counselors about some important details they may have overlooked. 

Testing, Testing  December is the last month most colleges will let seniors take the SAT or ACT and send those scores as part of their application.  Some seniors may not realize that ACT now requires all test-takers to download a picture of themselves when they register for the test; they still have to produce photo ID at the test site, but they also have to submit a picture to ACT as part of the sign-up process.  The deadline for submission of the photos is December 4th—if nothing is loaded by then, the student can’t take the ACT in December.

There’s a good chance some December ACT seniors last took the ACT in June, when they didn’t have to download a picture—so now is the time to let them know.  It’s probably a good idea to tell all juniors as well; some juniors take the December ACT so they can get an item analysis of their test (this is also available with the April and June tests), so make sure they’ve sent in a picture…

…and if you’re a December SAT test-taker, relax; SAT will require downloaded pictures beginning with the March 2013 test administration, so you just have to take photo ID to your December test site.

Money for College 
While students are hurrying  up to make one deadline,  parents have to slow down to make a different deadline.  The FAFSA is the primary financial aid form nearly every family has to complete as they begin their quest for college cash, but it can’t be submitted until January 1.  For now, parents can go to the FAFSA Web site to get the PIN they need; they should do this with their senior, since the student has a different PIN. 

After writing their PINs down in a safe place, the whole family should take a look at the updated US Government financial aid Web site, www.studentaid.gov  The Department of Education reduced about 15 financial aid Web sites into this new streamlined presentation, and it’s great; the introduction to financial aid is a must-read, as are the articles about managing student loans and scholarship scams.  There’s plenty of December reading to prepare you to file the FAFSA on New Year’s Day.

You’ve Made the List, Now Check it Twice  This is also the right time for counselors to find that 25th hour in the day and review the college plans of every one of their seniors.  Many counselors are reporting students have put together very aggressive college lists this year; while it’s great to boldly apply where others many not attend, it’s also possible students have no “sure fire” schools on their list.

The time to fix this problem is before it becomes a problem.  Counselors, close the office door, review every senior’s list, and make sure they have a “go to” school they’re happy with.  Students, it’s time to print out a copy of your college list, then write these words in big letters at the bottom:  “Safe enough?  Yes or No?”  Hand that to your counselor while they’re on the phone; If they turn green, it’s time for a quick call, text, e-mail, or meeting, to develop a Plan B.  It isn’t easy to find the time for all this, but it’s easier than finding a college in April that has lots of openings and financial aid.



Making it Through the Holidays

Completing college applications can be hard work, work that often runs through the holiday season.  Since everyone else is taking some time off, this would seem to be the perfect opportunity to hang out with your family, especially since this could be your last Thanksgiving/New Year/Kwanzmasakah as a full-time occupant of your parents’ home.  How could this possibly be a bad idea?

 “Hombre”, says you, “you clearly don’t know my parents, or my Uncle Bob.”

Amgios and amigas, it’s time for a siesta.  Here are the three keys to thriving (not just surviving) this holiday season:

Treat Uncle Bob Like You, and He, Are Adults  If you’re smart enough to go to college, you’re smart enough to sort out how Uncle Bob operates—and that’s the key to success.  Once he’s through updating you on his thriving business and gloating about the political party of his choice, he’s going to put a large piece of turkey on his fork, and ask “So, how’s the college hunt going?”

You’re now thinking this is the end.  You haven’t heard from the college that was supposed to decide in October, and your other colleges are small schools Uncle Bob hasn’t heard of—heck, you hadn’t even heard of them until last year.

And this, my friend, makes for a wonderful foundation for your response.

“Well, Uncle Bob, I applied to Eastnorthern State U, and thought of you when I answered the essays, since you’ve told me how much you love the school.  I guess everybody’s uncle feels that way, because the college is weeks behind in admissions decisions, but I should hear by Super Bowl.

“I know Mom has told you about my other schools, where some of the students major in the History of Haiku and take classes like Fruit Leather in a Modern Society.  I won’t hear from them until spring, but if I decide to attend one of them, I’ll be sure to bring a flare gun with me to campus, in case they try to force feed me tofu.”

At this point, Uncle Bob will look at you, chuckle a little, and then go back to talking about the glory, or evils, of Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Welcome to adulthood.

Your Applications and Black Saturday The next holiday hurdle is the Saturday after Thanksgiving (or Christmas or…) when even the adults are ready for a break from each other.  This is typically the time when your parents—who love you—will say, “Honey, Uncle Bob is going out to lunch with us.  Don’t you think this would be a good time to work on your college essays?”

This requires preparation.  You put together a spreadsheet ahead of time with the name of every college you’re applying to, the date each application is due, and the date you will work on that application.  Print out a copy and keep it in your back pocket, saving it for this moment, when you open it with a modest flourish, hand it to your parents, and say;

“I’ve got it covered.  Have a great lunch.”

And as you put your earphones back on to fall under the spell of Justin Gaga, you will see your parents weep with amazement and joy.  Their widdle baby is all growed up.

Remember the Reason for the Season  You have parents who love you, an Uncle Bob who is the loveable kind of crazy, and a world of possibilities awaiting you in college.  If ever there was a time for gratitude, it is now.



I don't know why students freak about essays-- they're all about YOU.  This is the part where the show is all yours, where it's focused on Numero Uno, the Big Enchalada, the person you like so much, you put their reflection in the mirror every time you look into one.

That last one made ya think, didn't it?

That may sound selfish, but it’s actually the key to writing an effective essay—be you.  Most colleges give you a very general topic to write on, where you get to steer the ship; if the questions are specific, you answer them in a way that shows them who you are.  Some ground rules:

  • Answer the question.  It’s great to write a broad answer with lots of background, but if they want to know a person who inspired you, tell them.  If you read your answer, and it’s not clear to you who inspired you, the college will have no clue either —time to start over.
  • Answer the question honestly.  Don’t say your father because you think it will move them, and don’t say Sponge Bob just to be cute.  The essay is a guided tour of your mind, life, vision, and soul—what you are, not what you think you’re supposed to be.  Show them the real deal.
  • Watch the humor.  An Ivy League rep once said if you could get him to laugh out loud while reading your application, you were in.  Trouble is, lots of students try, and fail.  What’s funny to you may be dull, trite, pathetic, or strange to the committee.  Try for warm and spirited—let Jane Lynch do shtick.
  • Watch the content.  Trite (an essay on deciding what the essay should be about) pathetic (“I’m not worthy—but take me anyway”) or strange (“I’m really a vampire”) are out.  Your writing should be an honest look at you, but this is an introduction, not the tenth week of therapy.  Be focused and balanced, and you’ll do fine.
  • Show it to an English teacher.  You know at least one English teacher who loves to slash essays with red pen—grammar, spelling, the whole tour.  This is your new best friend; bring them your rough draft and chocolate, and let the games begin.
  • Write the essay yourself.  The essay is a guided tour of your life—as written by you.  Having someone else do “significant editing” is your first act of college-level plagiarism, and it may be your last.  Don’t.
  • Repeat yourself.  You can use the same essay for different colleges, as long as the essay answers the question, and shows something about you.  You’ll need to take the names of other colleges out (Don’t tell Brown “I’ve always wanted to go to Dartmouth”), and you want to put specifics in about the new college (“It’s great that Chicago requires its students to swim.  When I was six…”), but other than that, cut and copy away. 
  • Write only on the weekends.  Weekdays are school, studying, and many extracurriculars; besides, essays written at 10 pm after three hours of homework are usually pretty bad.  Aim to complete one set of essays each weekend, and you’ll be in great shape.

Colleges would love to put you up for two weeks to really get to know every applicant—but if they did that, you’d be 45 before they admitted you.  The essay takes the place of that two weeks—write it so that when they read it, they feel like you just left the room, and your chair is still warm.

                                  Finding Some College Calm After the Storm

College-bound seniors in the Eastern US saw more than their college plans take a bump this week, as Hurricane Sandy hit land three days before the November 1st early application deadline for many colleges.  Recognizing most of these students had other things to think about—and realizing they may not have power to receive college applications anyway—many colleges have extended the deadline.  Students need to check individual college Web sites for the details; Common Application can’t post new deadlines without causing havoc to the entire system, and some colleges are extending the deadline only to those students who were impacted by the storm—so the details matter.

This thoughtful response to a most difficult time is cause to be grateful, but it should also inspire some reflection.  Counselors and students are reporting a record frenzy of early applications this year, as students are more eager than ever to hear back from colleges, and colleges are anxious to rein in early applicants to build solid classes, improve their percentage of admitted students who end up attending, or—I’m sorry to say—move up in the college rankings.  While part of this rush is based on thoughtful engagement, there is a sense among counselors that more of it is based on fear; students afraid they will have no college choices if they wait; colleges offering “snap” applications that waive essays because they are afraid students will pass them by; parents who worry students will see their grades drop if they keep applying to college, so it’s just best to get it over with now.

It certainly makes sense to seek shelter from real storms, but it’s best to take a different approach to depressions that are created by man-made hot air.  Some colleges admit a large number of students who apply early, but that’s assuming the student presents a well-produced application in time for a November review.  Many colleges don’t offer early deadlines, and no college will offer admission to an applicant who sends in a final application that’s really a second draft.  Sandy reminds us that speed can kick up all kind of unwanted results; find your pace, and stay with it.

Speed is also the culprit when students respond to “special” applications where a college only wants your signature—because what most really want is your name. It’s a small number of colleges that offer these easy apps for the benefit of the student; far too many want more students to apply simply so they can deny more students, and raise their status as a “selective” college.  Unless you have the time to investigate this college app the way you would investigate a new smartphone app, the best option to select with a snap app is Delete.  College costs time, money, and energy, and it’s best to use all three wisely, even if you are going to live forever.

Parents who want the process “over” have a point—students can’t always do well in school when they want to do well with college applications.  That’s why it’s best for students to set aside two hours each day of the weekend to work on their remaining apps, and spend the rest of their time focusing on school, work, and life in general.  Rushed essays written at 10 on Tuesday night don’t sound inspired; they sound as tense and as tired as their authors are after a full day of school.  Applying to college deserves your best effort, and you deserve a break; the weekend writing rule gives you a chance to do both, while your application fears are left blowing in the wind. 

                        Have You Cleaned Up Your Facebook Page Yet?

There are three key technology rules when it comes to applying to college:

1. If at all possible, use the college’s online application, and ask their tech support for help the minute you run into a problem.
2. Create a new e-mail account just for the messages that will be went to and from colleges.

3. Clean up any and all social media pages you have.

Students understand the first two with no problem. College applications need to be clear, clean, and thorough, so it’s important to make sure you’re uploading your college essays, not your prom pictures.

Ditto for a new e-mail account.  E-mail be old school to you, but this is how most colleges contact you, even once you enroll. This makes it easy to keep track of college contacts, and it’s probably  all for the best colleges not know your personal e-mail address is ladiesgoforme@mymail.com  

But try and talk the plusses of Web site maintenance, and students are convinced their counselor roamed the Earth with dinosaurs. The insist colleges don’t care about social media accounts, and are too busy to check them—to prove it, students wil ask colleges if they look, and the colleges will say no.

Fair enough—except when I asked a college if they looked, their answer was “Do you really think I’d tell you if we did?”

Play it safe.  Rough language, risky pictures—even having an account under another name—can hurt you and anyone else who’s in those questionable photos with you.  Once you’ve tidied up yours, ask your friends to take anything off their pages that makes you look iffy.  After that, search for yourself on the Web, and see what’s there.  You might not need to address it or be able to do anything about it, but it’s better for you to know before the colleges do.

And even if the colleges don’t look, they sometimes find out in very remote ways that can do serious damage…

(Based on a true story that happened somewhere else.)

Joanna thought she was all that

She knew she was a winner

A 3.9, a 32

The gal was no beginner.

Took five APs and tutored, too

Her homework was a snap

Spent most nights on the Facebook page

Just dishin’ out some smack

She posted pix of homecoming

Her folks would see as knockouts

But dog, they’d never seen them, since

Her FB page was blocked out

You can’t imagine her surprise

When her counselor said “Yo lady”

I got a call from East Coast U

The news will make you crazy!

The U was ready to admit

When in arrive their intern

‘The buzz is all on Facebook, man

These pics will make your hands burn.’

The intern loaded up the page

Of some homecoming hijinx

And in the photo, there was you—

Which made our rep do eye blinks.

“They saw your picture once or twice

And thought they’d overlook it

But then they read your FB smack

And that’s what really cooked it.

Your essays were all erudite

And very nicely tailored

But then they saw the real you

Has language like a sailor.

They read your app and loved you, girl,

It’s you they were admittin’

But now they said they just can’t take

A profane party kitten.”

So dudes and dudettes, hear me out

Few colleges go lookin’

But if FB vibes come their way

That just can’t be mistooken

Your full ride dough, your dream admit

Are goin’ down the tank, sir

And all because you tried to be

A bad-selfed Facebook gangsta.

I Heard it Through the Grapevine Your College Apps Aren’t Going Well

Since I’m from Detroit, it’s only natural for Motown songs to come to mind on big occasions. On my daughter’s birthday, “Isn’t She Lovely” comes to mind. When a heavy snow closes school, the whole family joins in a chorus of “How Sweet It Is”.

And when my students start filling out college applications, it’s tough to get “Ball of Confusion” out of my head.

You might think the room should start spinning in September, when every magazine publishes its version of “Colleges So Great, No One Gets Admitted To Them”—but it’s easy to talk parents and students through this message, because they bring their concerns to my office and we talk about them.

The real challenge for a college counselor is how to help students whose first sense of application panic comes on a fall Saturday morning, when they bring a pen or laptop to the breakfast table, throw a last handful of Cocoa Doodles in their mouth, decide it’s time to take on that first application—and they freeze on the line that says “Name.”

In other words, they are coming out of the “College is Crazy” hype, and thinking about what they really want out of college for the first time in a long time, or for the first time ever.

I’m sorry I can’t be at the breakfast tables of each of my students when there’s nowhere to run to—if I could be there, I would tell them to go to their room.

Most students balk at filling out college applications because they view it as the first step towards leaving home. That’s easy to see; this is the place where you listen to your music, text message long after your parents have gone to bed, do a little homework, and think about your life. The world outside has changed and challenged you, sometimes in ways you didn’t like or didn’t completely master—but at the end of the day, you came home to sort out what it all meant, and looked forward to what came next. Giving this place up won’t be easy.

The good news is the colleges that are right for you will feel just like home. It may be in the dorm rooms, it may be at the library (hey, it happens), it may be the whole campus—but somewhere at those colleges, there is a spot waiting for you to reflect on the challenges of life, wonder about the possible, and text your BFFs til dawn. Once you think about college as your next home, completing the applications will be as easy as taking the written exam for your driver’s license, because both are just the paperwork that leads to a greater sense of freedom. In the end, going to college isn’t about leaving home—it’s about taking home with you.

The second thing I would do is replace students’ earbuds with soundproof headphones. Some students hit the brakes because of outside opinions about their college choices. The application to a college a student loves often heads to the shredder when a well-meaning neighbor asks “Where is that college?”, or Uncle Bob reports the college is nowhere to be found in the recently published rankings. If it turns out no other student at the local high school is applying to this college, this can become a trifecta for trauma.

When this happens, I encourage students to make the mature choice and be selfish. By fall, college-bound students know who they are and what they want in a college—with all the research they’ve done and the campuses they’ve visited, if college selection were a term paper, they’d have about 25 sources to quote and 3000 file cards to synthesize by now. Knowing what you know about college and yourself, it’s important to keep the well-meaning insights of others in perspective—some may know you, some may know colleges, but very few (except your parents) will know both as well as you do. Everyone on your first grade soccer team got a trophy for participating, and choosing colleges works the same way—with self-knowledge and college knowledge, everyone gets a best college, even if what’s best for you is different than what’s best for everyone else.

At this time of year, it’s easy for seniors to think it’s gonna take a miracle to get into college. You’ve worked too hard to believe in things that you don’t understand—instead, remember what home means to you, stay focused on what you’ve learned about college and yourself, and your college applications will go flying out the door so quickly, you’ll realize the miracle is you.

So pick up the pen, and pass the Cocoa Doodles. You can do this.

                    July is Latin for “Don’t Think About College”—Really!

Now that report cards are out, it’s time for high school students to make the most of the Fourth of July and make their own declaration of independence from anything that has to do with applying to college.  Summer vacation may have been designed to help out with the crops, but now it offers most of us a chance to recharge, do something different, and remember there’s more to the world than the next bell, the next text, or the next test prep class.

Since July is coming fast, I’ll squeeze in this list of summer reminders for you to share today or tomorrow—but once Sunday comes, all college bets are off:

Common App is on Break, Too  You aren’t the only ones who need to rest, which is why the Common Application online application is closing for all of July, and all accounts created last year will be deleted.  Members of the Class of 2013 probably don’t have Common App accounts now, but if you do, it’s gone as of today, so plan a little time to start again come August.  In case your parents want to know, yes, the essay prompts for the Common App essay are the same next year—but if you want to find them in July, you’re on your own, dude—I’m serious about resting.

Summer Classes are for Learning  Many of you will spend part of July in a classroom, participating in classes or programs that offer you learning opportunities you didn’t have during the regular school year.  While many colleges applications place some value on these extra school experiences, the key to getting the most out of these activities is to focus on what you can learn. It’s one thing to list a summer class on a college application; it’s another thing to be able to write about how that experience changed your life in a college essay; it’s something more to know that experience changed the way you live your life in the way you approach college once you’re admitted.  Life is more than a list, and colleges know that—jump into the summer learning pond you’ve built for yourself and swim for the center of the experience.

Ditto for Summer Volunteering  The hours you put in at the local soup kitchen will look the same no matter what you do when you’re there, so  the last time you should think about yourself is when you make sure your apron is tied on tightly at the start of your shift.  The economy is getting better, but the waiting list of the needy extends for years; use your hours to knock months off that list, and the world will take notice, including the world of colleges.

Summer College Visits?  Maybe  If you’re travelling this summer, your parents may have plans to visit the college near Aunt Midge’s cottage.  Summer isn’t the best time to visit a college, but you can still get a feel for the place by taking the tour and walking around.  Go in July if you must, but plan on coming back for another visit when the campus is in high gear—and that can be after you’re admitted.

Relax, but Don’t Release  July really should be a time to see new things and think new thoughts, but some of the school rules about focus, caution, and responsibility apply.  Since going to college requires you to be in one piece once you get there, I offer this link for your consideration, with my wishes for a safe, calm summer:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjc_0JBlRgE&feature=relmfu

                                                 More on Letters

As you consider who you should ask to write your letters, you might want to keep these general rules in mind:

  • You don’t have to know what colleges you’re applying to before you ask for letters of recommendation.  What you want to do is be prepared to apply to college, and letters of recommendation support your application.  You might not know where you’re applying, but you do know who knows you best—so don’t worry for now about who will be reading the letters, and focus instead on who’s writing them.  (Engineers, take note— it’s highly likely at least one letter has to come from a math or science teacher, and perhaps two.)
  • Most colleges that ask for letters of recommendation would like to have two.   In general, these letters should come from teachers of academic subjects who have taught you recently (junior year is preferred, 10th grade is OK). In a perfect world, you’ll get one letter from a Social Studies or English teacher, and one letter from a Math or Science teacher; it is a very good idea to make sure at least one of your letters comes from a teacher who can speak with great authority to your writing abilities.  In addition, if you have a specific major, it’s very strongly encouraged to get a letter from the teacher in that subject, even if it isn’t an academic subject.
  • What if the teacher who knows you best doesn’t teach an academic subject (like music, art, yearbook, journalism)? If a college asks for two letters, you can send three, as long as the third letter comes from a teacher who has something different to say about you-sine this one would, sending a third letter in this case is a must..  A third letter that simply reiterates what the other two letters said can actually hurt you a little—so choose with care.
  • This third letter can also come from someone outside of school—a coach, a boss, the director of your place of worship, etc.  The idea here is the same—you want someone who will be able to speak about you as a person in a way that is different from the other two writers.
  • This can be tricky, cause you do not get to read the letters of recommendation.  In asking for a letter, you are requesting a teacher write about you, not to you—the letter is addressed to a college, so there’s no opportunity to read a “rough draft.” As a result, think about which two letter writers will provide the best view of your life, your brain, and your soul. Also, remember you do not send the letters in- that’s the teacher’s job, and you don’t have to worry about that until fall.
  • Don’t take it too hard if you ask a teacher and they say no.  If a teacher honestly feels they cannot write a good, supportive letter for you, they know that letter won’t help your chances of admission, and may in fact hurt your chances for admission—so they will thank you for the honor of being asked, gently decline, and perhaps even guide you to someone who can write a solid letter for you.  This is kind of like getting a C on a rough draft—the news isn’t great, but it helps you in the end.

There will be some other logistics to work out in the fall about envelopes, forms, and online applications, but that’s later—right now, ask away!



                                  Juniors, It's Time to Ask for Letters

If you are a regular reader of College is Yours 2.0— and you should be by now—you’d know juniors are encouraged to ask teachers for letters of recommendation in spring of the junior year.

See those flowers?  Hear those birds?  See all of those seniors trying to decide if they can sneak six chickens into school next week?  Welcome to spring!

Now is indeed the time to ask your teachers of choice if they would be willing to write you a good letter of recommendation.  There are two key words here, and the first one is “good.”  Any teacher can write you a basic letter of recommendation, but basic isn’t the approach you want for letters. You’re looking for at least good, someone who knows you beyond your promptness with homework and past the legibility (or otherwise) of your handwriting. 

What you really want is someone who can tell their version of your life—what inspires you, what challenges you, what you think about, what breakthroughs you’ve had, and what all of that will mean to a college if they admit you.  If this sounds like more than a recitation of grades and extra curriculars, you’re right—those things are important, but those get listed in other parts of your college application. 

The letter of recommendation is like your teacher having lunch with the admissions committee, and all they’re going to talk about is you; a few of your achievements and extra curriculars may get mentioned in passing, but what the admissions committee really wants to hear is the stories about what it means to learn and live with you.  The goal is simple-- when everyone gets up from the table, you want the teachers’ stories about you to linger and inspire.  So which teachers know you so well that they can do that for you?

The second key word here is “willing.”  Teachers are busy folks who see teaching as a commitment to you— that’s why they write not just good letters, but great letters.  At the same time, they need a few additional resources to write a great letter—and one of the key resources is time. 

By asking your teachers now to prepare letters for your fall application, you are giving them the time they need to organize their thoughts and their schedules to write the best letters they possibly can. Even if teachers tell you they don’t start writing letters until the fall, it’s good to ask now; this way, they can tell other students “sorry, I’m full” if they get more requests for letters than they can reasonably handle.

Of course, there’s the other side to this—and it has to do with timeliness.  You may not need the letters now, but when teachers see you asking this soon, they may just need to take a nap to recover.  Very, very few students are considerate or organized enough to ask at this stage of the game; the fact that you can do both is a sign to your teachers that you mean business and are ready to do business, and that can get you in the right frame of mind to meet application deadlines in the fall.  This is big step for them, but it is for you too—so do your best Neil Armstrong, and take the giaant leap.




                        What Does This Year Mean?  Business as Usual

Panicked parents of rising high school seniors are anticipating a rough ride when it comes to applying to colleges in the fall, and when you ask them why, they point to what happened in college admissions this past year.

Record high applications led to record low acceptance rates at colleges throughout the country, and strong students who expected a bushel basket of acceptance letters often ended up with a peck of yeses and a pound of wait-list offers, or maybes.

The first college application deadline is months away for the Class of 2013, but after seeing what happened to this year’s applicants, two big questions loom large for the parents of next year’s college hopefuls. What does it all mean, and why is college admissions such a mystery?

The answer to the second question is easy. It isn’t a mystery.

I know, I know—college admissions officials say they aren’t looking for a minimum test score or grade point average, not everyone has to do community service, and essays and interviews may or may not strengthen a student’s application file.

But just because that answer doesn’t produce a formula predicting a student’s chances for admission, it doesn’t mean the process a mystery. In fact, it is a process very familiar to anyone in the business world.

Consider this. An executive picks up a ringing phone and hears someone sobbing on the line. “I don’t understand” the voice says, choking back tears, “I had superb scores, my letters were impeccable, and you yourself said my interview was great. What went wrong?”

This certainly is the conversation hundreds of college admissions executives recently had with students who didn’t get admitted to college, but it’s also the conversation thousands of business executives have had with applicants who didn’t get the administrative assistant’s job at their company.

An applicant had wonderful reference letters, did stellar work on the typing test, and showed great timing with the joke they made in the interview, but they still didn’t get the job.

Anyone on a hiring committee knows how awkward these calls can be, because nothing you say is all that comforting--even the truth. “We were very impressed by your energy and your skills, and it was really a tough decision. But we were flooded with more applicants than ever before, and while you would have been very successful here, we simply didn’t have room to accommodate every strong candidate.”

Read that to the nearest high school senior, and see if it rings a bell.

Comparisons between the business world and college admissions have their limits, especially when it comes to measuring success.

Still, anyone who’s ever had to look a bright young face in the eye and say “What would you bring to this company?” should be able to relate to the messy mix of college admissions decisions in a heartbeat and respect it for what it is; an effort to make the best decision for an applicant, using qualities that can and can’t be measured, while meeting the ever-changing needs of the institution itself.

Champions of the campaign to make schools more like businesses, take note. The college admissions office long ago took a page from your human resources playbook—and unlike HR, they get calls from parents of unsuccessful applicants. That alone deserves some recognition.

Finally, it’s interesting to note most of the prolonged head scratching and chest-thumping that happened this year came from the parents of high school seniors, and not the students themselves. The students who received the bad news have already fallen in love with another college they wisely applied to last fall, and they are looking forward to building a bright future there come this September.

That right there should tell you what it all really means for next year’s aspiring applicants.

Choosing a College?  Now is the Time


It’s getting down to the wire for choosing a college.  This Tuesday is the day you have to tell one college you’ll be coming in the fall—but like all ideas that are simple (“just hold on to the football and run that way”), the road to writing “I’m coming” in an e-mail can have many twists and turns:



May 1 means May 1  With a record number of applicants, there are plenty of students who will be happy to be called off the waitlist Wednesday morning, so there’s really no wiggle room here. Since most colleges also want a deposit along with your e-mail/postcard/letter, there is a very slight chance they’ll give you an extension if you don’t have the cash—but then again, you’ve had at least a month to work that out.  Call the admissions office if money is an issue, but start searching your couch for spare change--  most likely, Tuesday really is the end.



One deposit means one deposit  Colleges patiently wait until May 1 to make all kinds of plans to make their students happy—and if you’ve told them “yes”, that includes you.  But if this is one of two colleges you’ve told “yes” to; if you later decide “yes” really means “no”, and if 20 students decide to do this to the college you really end up attending, both colleges can be out millions of dollars, leading them to cancel classes, lay off teachers, and cancel the gourmet food service contract, making their students rather un-happy.  I’m betting you don’t want to pay $40,000 for a college where the class size is 100 and lunch consists of variations of Mystery Meat.  Neither does anyone else—make one deposit, and start looking at swatches for your prom colors (note to guys—at least pretend to be interested).



Waitlisted? It’s OK to deposit somewhere else  If a college has told you “maybe”,  you need to treat May 1st as if you weren’t going to be called off a waitlist-- use the options you currently have, and decide what to do.  If that means depositing at another college, they will understand if you call them in two weeks to tell them you’ve been liberated from collegiate limbo by the school of your dreams.  If that means you’re not going to go to college, see your school counselor now.  This is a great choice if you have a plan, but if you’re only doing this to punish the school that put you on hold, they will not be feeling your pain—only you will.  Choose carefully.



Not going to a college that said yes?  Tell them  Before you head off to Burgers Is Us to celebrate your college choice, be sure to contact the other colleges that offered you admission to let them know you won’t be coming. Your note/e-mail doesn’t have to be elaborate—“Thank you for your offer of admission, but I plan on attending another college”—but these fourteen words could give life to a waitlisted student hoping to have their own college celebration.  Do something nice for someone you’ll never meet—move the process along by telling the colleges your space is available.



Live the lesson  In following these four pieces of advice, you will show the ability to meet deadlines, tell the truth when no one is watching, walk away from disappointment with a better sense of self, and help out someone when there’s nothing in it for you.



And you thought college was just about Frisbees and staying out late on a school night.


                                 Understanding Financial Aid Awards

Award letters can be a little dense, and no two are structured the same way, so comparing apples to apples can be challenging.  Since paying for a college education is like buying a new car every year for four consecutive years, understanding what you’re getting into is a must.  Here’s how:




  • Read the financial aid award letter five times.  You heart is racing because you’re going to follow your parent’s footsteps to East Coast College, you (or your parents) have skimmed the award letter twice, and you think you can afford to pay most of what you believe the letter says you’ll have to pay.  Not good enough.
  • Skimming is great, but put the letter away, do the Steve Martin dance for five hours, then pick up the letter again that night, and read it again—then again the next morning, and again over the weekend.  If the letter tells you different things at different times, you do not fully understand it.  That’s pretty typical, but it still isn’t good.



  • Use the tools.  Colleges often send along worksheets with the letter; some have more information on the Web, and others simply say “Call us.”  This is no time not to ask for directions; use the financial GPS accessories to learn where you are, and where you think your bank account is heading.



  • Call anyway.  Even if you SWEAR you know what the letter says, use the expertise of the financial aid office to your advantage.  If you don’t know what to say, try this: “We received my (my child’s) acceptance letter, and we’re so thrilled about their getting in, I’m not sure I can completely focus on the award letter.  As I read it, they’ll receive five thousand in grant we don’t have to pay back, they’ll work 8 hours a week at an on-campus job, and there’s twelve hundred dollars in student loans.  Is that right?”



  • As Elmer Fudd would say, be vewwy vewwy quiet.  Once you tell the financial aid office what you see, let them talk.  It’s not uncommon for aid officers to bring up your child’s file and find a better way to package the aid, or discover new money that’s just become available.  They are good at their job, and they want to help you—listen, and let them.
  • Update them.  Your financial picture may have changed dramatically since you filled out the forms two months ago-- it happens all the time.  Be sure the college knows this, and be ready to send documentation to support your claims.  Nothing many change, but the only way something good might happen is if you tell them. 

                                       What to do if you Still Can't Decide

If you’re in need of some guidelines as you think your way to May 1st, try these:


  • Think college qualities, not college names.  There are reasons why you loved the colleges you applied to—the small class size, the classes they offer, the feel on campus.  Write those qualities down, and see how each of your schools matches up to those qualities.


  • Visit the campuses—one way or another.  The last time you visited your colleges, you were thinking ‘I guess this could work.’ This isn’t a time to guess—head back to campus with Mom and Dad, bring your list of qualities, and take a much closer look—including sitting in on classes if at all possible. If you can’t get there (hey, time and money is tight), take the virtual tour on the college’s Web site and see if the school is in The Yale Insider’s Guide—that may bring back some memories, or show you some new things to consider.

  • De-brief at the end.  Once you’re through remembering what you liked and didn’t like, talk with your parents about what you saw.  What qualities were on campus that you liked?  What new questions do you have?  Can you see yourself at this college?

  • Seek parental input.  It’s great to show some independence, but your parents are the two people who know you best.  Invite their expertise—“Mom, Dad, do you see me being happy here?”

  • Compare the colleges you have, not the ones you wanted.  Once you’ve toured the campuses, compare their strengths and weaknesses—but leave the dream school that denied you out of the picture.  You might not find a perfect campus, but you’ll most likely find a best one—focus on that goal, and you’ll be fine. 


  • Don’t forget your heart...  You might not able to describe why a college is best for you, but that’s OK.  You’ve done a lot of research and thinking—at this point, you can trust your heart to lead you. Your head will remember why this college was best for you when you come to campus in the fall.

  • Think about what makes sense now.  When you applied to all of these places last Fall, you may have said “If School X lets me in, I’m going there for sure.”  There’s no doubt you felt that way last fall—but that was seven months ago, and your interests, passions, and way of looking at the world may be different now than they were then.  How you felt then could be a factor, but it’s a small one compared to how you feel now—keep that in mind.

  • Check finances one last time.  You still can’t get two colleges in a bidding war over you, but if you have a college you love and it’s a little out of reach, call the admissions and financial aid offices—that’s usually two calls—and tell them so.  A sincere call shows them you’re interested; not calling at all doesn’t give any impression, and may leave you short in the wallet for no reason at all.

Start the hunt again.  If your choices really don’t thrill you, wait until May 5th.  That’s when colleges discover they have unexpected openings—and of course they’ll want to fill them.  Getting financial aid might be a challenge, but you never know—call the admissions office, or look at the Space Availability Report at www.nacacnet.org – but remember, that may mean you risk having no school at all next fall.


                Three College Admission Trends That Seem Here to Stay

Hollywood might think The Hunger Games is being released this Friday, but college-bound families know the craving for meaty college messages has been on for three months. Early returns suggest applicants will be seeing an increase in three trends that could make April fools out of student and counselor alike, unless we plan ahead. Here's what to expect when decisions come out next week:

Another Year of Increased "No's" The U.S. birth rate may suggest a decline in the number of high school graduates, but colleges are still receiving record numbers of applications. Two years ago, the University of Michigan received 32,000 applications, and that number jumped to 40,000 last year when U-M joined the easier-to-complete Common Application. Predictions of a flat 2011-2012 may fall flat themselves, if the reports of increased applications at other Common App colleges are any indication.

Since colleges aren't getting any bigger, more applications mean more rejection notices, including no's to students who would have been sure bet admits two years ago. There's a good chance one or two seniors you know will get caught in the surprise; to support them, be ready to talk about the number of applicants again this year, confident you can say it was a record-breaking year.

Waitlists Are Something More and Something Less Increased applications also means more students will be hearing "maybe" on a day when they had hoped to hear "yes." More than one student has told me that being on the waitlist of a college is actually worse than being denied, since you have no idea if your name is going to be taken off the list, *and* you still have to make plans as if you weren't going to be admitted. It's a good thing senior prom doesn't work this way; imagine how a student would feel on the dance floor when their partner points to someone across the room and says "There's my first choice."

Waitlists may not be new, but their function took a big turn a couple of years ago, when more Duke applicants were waitlisted than admitted. Now most colleges use the waitlist as both an economic necessity and a kind of beauty prize for applicants who would have been admitted just a couple of years ago.

Students know this, but still hope against hope they'll be called off one of the six waitlists they may be on. Make sure they come back from their journey to the World of What If long enough to put a deposit in at a school they will love, just in case all six "could be" schools turn in to "could have been" schools.

July-Applying Juniors  If you think all of next week's action will involve only seniors, think again. Hundreds of juniors will see the solemn faces and quiet tears of their role models and decide they know how to make sure this doesn't happen to them -- they'll just apply earlier. Even the most morose senior would tell them this logic is faulty, if they were asked. But it's likely juniors won't be asking anyone about this "discovery;" they'll just act on it on their own.

The college application process is certainly starting sooner, but there are very few reasons to apply to a college in the summer, and many good reasons not to. Mayan predictions aside, make sure the temptation to apply in July doesn't lead to the end of a junior's college world; steer them to a counselor, who can explain why it's better to wait.

   March 19                     The Best Advice When a College Says No

Many of the spring college decisions are already in bloom through e-mail, texting, and even snail mail.  Since senior anxiety can be high at this time of year, I have one word of advice.  OK, it's actually a number.


To begin with, calm down.  This is not the high score on some new version of the SAT, and while it may indeed be the number of robocalls you received for presidential candidates in the last week, that (happily) has nothing to do with college. 

850 is the number of valedictorians rejected in 2010 from one of America's most prestigious colleges, according to an anonymous source.  These students represented the best in their high schools; they did everything they were "supposed" to do--and yet, they didn't even get to the wait list.

At this point, you're probably thinking one of two things:

1. "Wow, they put in all of that work for nothing."
2. "Geez, if *they* can't get in, I don't stand a chance."

First things first.  It had to be hard to be turned down by a school they loved--but did all of that preparation really lead to nothing?  Given everything these students had learned, the many ways they had grown, and how they overcame adversity and embraced creativity in making Plans B, C, and Q, did they really get nothing out of it?

If so, they have every right to be unhappy, but not with the college. They should be unhappy for letting the sun rise and set 1307 times from the first day of 9th grade to the day the college said no, never once appreciating all that each of those days had to offer in and of themselves.  
They should hang their heads a little to realize, just now, the difference they've made to their classmates, their teammates, and the people they served in the soup kitchen. 
And if they look back with a little regret on the many times they blew off a compliment from a parent or a teacher because the goal of college wasn't realized just yet, that's more than OK.  They now know it was at that moment that the goal of fully living each day was conquered with a flourish--and understanding that will make each day all the richer at the wonderful college that had the good sense (and room) to take them. 
What about the colleges you've applied to?  They're looking for great students who have done wonderful things with their lives, and will work nicely with the other students that are coming to campus.  That blend goes beyond test scores and class rank--it goes to who you are, what you care about, and how you see the world.  

The thing to focus on then, is not who told you no, but who told you yes.  If a college wants you but runs out of room, that's their fault; if they don't see you for who you really are, well, maybe that's not the place for you after all. Either way, your contributions will be greatly admired, and badly needed, by the college that has the good sense to tell you yes--which means any no, from any college, simply cannot touch you. 

March 8                           So How's Your College Knowledge?

Last week's column invited you to test your college knowledge.  The eight questions may seem to be pretty obscure, but the answers-- and the ideas behind the answers—give high school students something to consider as they build their college lists, and think about the purpose of college in the first place….



…and here they are:



1.  What one skill must every graduate of the University of Chicago possess?  Like many colleges, Chicago requires all students to pass a swim test.  Some say this requirement makes sure alumni are more likely to give money to their alma mater than drown; others incorrectly assume this mandate is based on a gift given by the parents of a deceased student who drowned while pledging to a fraternity.  Chicago says it’s just a long standing requirement for graduation.



What you should consider Some colleges have graduation requirements, including specific core academic courses all students must take, while others have no core requirements at all.  Make sure you know the expectations of every college on your list, and think about how much flexibility you want or need in your college experience—and remember, less structure isn’t always a good thing for everyone.



2.  Colorado College and Cornell College offer something few other colleges can.  What is this special quality?  Students at these two colleges take only one class at a time. Each class lasts a little over three weeks; after a day or two to rest and reflect on what that class offered, students begin the next class.



What you should consider This “one at a time” approach can be a huge help to students who want to focus their energies on one subject, and it certainly keeps homework plans organized.  This is one reason why some colleges offer a “4-1-4” calendar, where you can focus on one class in an intense January term, while taking 15-week classes in the fall and spring.



On the other hand, some students need more time to let ideas sink in; if that’s you, you’ll probably want to look at colleges that have a traditional 15 or 16-week calendar, rather than an intense study period, or perhaps even a 10-week quarter system.  Give this some thought as you build your college options.



3.  Berea College and Cooper Union are attractive to students for the same reason.  What is it?  Berea and Cooper Union are both tuition free.  While there are other costs to consider (room and board, which may be covered for students showing financial need), the idea of a private college being tuition free for all students makes everyone stop and think twice about what they might be able to afford.



What you should consider Be careful not to let the sticker price be the deal breaker for any college.   Private colleges often have additional sources of income that can make them as affordable as public colleges, and since every college now has a net price calculator, it’s easier than ever to get some idea how much a college will really cost you.  Additional information can be found at College Navigator, and by calling the financial aid office of any college.  Like everything else in education, the only bad question is the one that goes unasked—if you don’t know, make the call.



4.  The One O’clock Lab Band is one of the most prestigious college jazz bands in the nation.  Where is it located?  Hepcats on either coast will be amazed to know The University of North Texas hosts this elite musical group, which has been nominated for six Grammys.  This is just one of a number of jazz bands at UNT, which has a music program most people look right past, since it’s not a conservatory or housed at a large university.



What you should consider Make sure you ask around about college options.  I’ve been a college counselor for 26 years, but I found out about UNT from the owner of a local music store.  There can be a wealth of college information from artists, musicians, teachers, business professionals and more—again, all you have to do is ask, or check on the web sites of various professional associations.  Your counselor can help you make sure you aren’t just getting the personal advice of an alumna/ae who is crazy about their college, but it’s still better to find out and learn how to sort out strong advice from weak.

5. Name the one attribute Agnes Scott College, Hope College, and Goucher College have in common. These are three colleges listed in the excellent guide Colleges That Change Lives by Lauren Pope. A distinguished education journalist, Pope spent a long and productive retirement telling students and parents what to really look for in a college. He wrote a book praising the exceptional work of a few dozen colleges where student learning clearly came first.



What you should consider CTCL colleges are smaller and focused on the liberal arts -- but read the book even if this isn't what you think you're looking for in a college. You'll develop an outlook on the real purpose of college that will let you see qualities -- both good and bad -- in any college you wouldn't be able to see without the book. CTCL is the key to personalizing a college search -- well, after reading College is Yours 2.0 as well. (You can get a taste of this perspective by viewing the CTCL website.)



6. Many colleges offer a study abroad program, but only two colleges had every 2010 graduate participate in study abroad. Name them. Goucher College and Soka University of America get the nod for full study abroad participation, but the entire list of colleges with high rates is worth a close look.



What you should consider No matter where you head to college, ask ahead about study abroad opportunities. Many colleges offer study abroad as an option, but may be part of a college consortium that offers joint programs. This could expand the number of places to visit, but limit the number of students from your college that can attend. Also, ask if study abroad is covered in the tuition costs, and if participating will put you behind schedule for graduating in four years. The travel may be worth the extra time and money, but the time to know that is now.



7. National Merit Scholars need to know about The University of Alabama and Wayne State University. Why? These two schools offer full tuition scholarships to all National Merit finalists. Other schools have similar offers -- check here.



What you should consider You don't have to be a National Merit finalist to earn great college scholarships -- many colleges will offer big financial incentives to students based solely on grades and/or test scores. Merit Aid is a great place to begin this search -- just double check with each college to make sure the offers will apply after next year.



8. Bates College, Lawrence University, and Wake Forest University are only three of hundreds of colleges that offer an important option few students know about. What is it?  These are three of the growing number of colleges that don't require any test scores at all (SAT or ACT) for admission for all or most of their applicants.



What you should consider Most students don't know test optional colleges even exist, while others think these colleges must be only so-so at best. The FairTest list not only proves they're real, but they're also really good -- and Lawrence is still taking applications for next fall! It's probably still wise to take the tests, but a look at the list should easy any test stress -- no matter how you score, great colleges want to hear from you.

  February 22                So you Think you Know Your Colleges? 

This is the time of year most juniors begin their college search, the quest to find the next school experience that will help them realize their career goals, expand their understanding of what the world is all about, and make sure they have something to do on Friday nights.



This is a pretty big step, and there are many factors to take into consideration when putting a college list together—location, quality of academic programs, cost, size, distance from home, and more.  Students can get a good start on their college search by using an online college tool like the ones on College Board to create a list of colleges based on personal interests…



…but before you create the list, this little quiz can help expand your understanding of all of the possibilities that are out there.  Some of the answers are well-known, and others are harder to find, but all of them point out new ways to look at what college is all about, and offer approaches to the college hunt that can help you personalize your search.



A college search can help you make sense of the menu, but the answers to these questions can help you decide what you’re hungry for.  See how many you can do without research, and post your answers to my blog on Huffington Post—on Monday, I’ll come back with the answers, and why they could be important to your college choice.



1.  What one skill must every graduate of the University of Chicago possess?



2.  Colorado College and Cornell College offer something few other colleges can.  What is this special quality?



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