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If the U Fits: Expert Advice on Finding the Right College and Getting Accepted.



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How to Make Your Common Application a Lot Less Common



Is there a Future Doctor in the House? A Guide for Choosing a College and Preparing for Life as a Premed



Story Finders: How Counselors and Teachers Can Help Students Write Better College Essays (without Helping Too Much)

April 17, 2014

Changes coming to my blog

I always find it jarring when a blog or website I visit regularly gets a dramatic overnight makeover. So I wanted to give readers a heads up that while the writing and the writer (me) will be staying the same, over the next few days, the look of my blog will be changing.

The current blog layout has stayed pretty much the same since 2007. Collegewise has a new logo now.  We have new colors.  And it’s not “College admissions advice from the counselors at Collegewise” anymore.  It’s been nearly five years of college admissions advice from one person—me—the original counselor at Collegewise.  It’s my blog, but I write it as an extension of Collegewise. It needs to more accurately reflect both of us.

At Collegewise, we’re always telling our students that they should be their authentic selves in their college applications.  These changes are just my way of following our advice. Thanks, as always, for reading.

April 16, 2014

If the U Fits coming in Ebook form

The Ebook version of If the U Fits will be released on April 29. You can pre-order at:

Barnes and Noble
Google Play

Paperback versions are available here:



Barnes and Noble


Book Passage





Random House

The Tattered Cover


April 15, 2014

You can only control your effort

One of the surest ways to inject stress and uncertainty into the college admissions process is to fixate too much on things you can’t control, like outcomes.  Will your dream college say yes?  Will you break 2000 on the SAT?  Will you be named MVP, lead in the school play or shift manager at your part-time job? 

You can and should do everything you can to influence those outcomes. But control is a different story.  And one of the most powerful tools of influence you have, and one which is entirely in your control, is your effort.

In his book, Mark Cuban, self-made billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, describes the role of effort in his own success:

“In sports, the only thing a player can truly control is effort. The same applies to business. The only thing any entrepreneur, salesperson or anyone in any position can control is their effort… And finally, I had to make sure I wasn’t lying to myself about how hard I was working. It would have been easy to judge effort by how many hours a day passed while I was at work. That’s the worst way to measure effort.”

That’s good advice for any age, no matter what your definition of success is.

If you want to have a more successful, less stressful college admissions journey, relentlessly focus on those things that are in your control, like effort. And parents, reinforce this by acknowledging your student’s effort rather than the outcomes alone. 

April 14, 2014

For counselors: set the agenda up front

Few counselors have the luxury of unlimited time to meet with students. So it’s important to make every meeting count.  One way to make sure you address the most important issues for a student is to just ask:

“Before we start, what are the three most important things you’d like to discuss today?”

Now, the counselor can decide the order of operations.  Which issue needs to be addressed first?  Which needs the most time?  Is one issue solved by addressing a different one first?

A teenager may not order the agenda in the way that allots the right time to each topic.  But a counselor has the ability and the training to do it. 

Rather than allowing the student to dive into the first item, set the agenda first.  It takes less than one minute to do it, but just might help make the rest of the meeting that much more valuable for both parties. 

April 13, 2014

Express remorse when the infraction is fresh

Many college applications ask if you’ve ever been subject to a disciplinary action while in high school.  And as I’ve written before, the strongest responses to those questions come when a student takes responsibility for the infraction, expresses remorse, and describes what he or she has learned from the experience.

But those expressions of remorse will carry a lot more weight if you’ve taken responsibility and apologized long before you had to describe the incident on a college application. 

If you’ve been disciplined at school, express your remorse now—to your teacher, counselor, principal, or whoever else had to do the disciplining. It will give more weight to your promise to the college that you feel badly about what you did and that you’ve learned something from the experience.

April 12, 2014

Interested in science, technology, engineering or mathematics?

Many students interested in studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics don’t have a clear grasp of just what those programs entail, what the differences are between them, and how to decide which (if any) is the right program for them.  Today, I’m sharing something that can help.

One of our Collegewise counselors, Meredith Graham, has written the definitive guide to understanding and applying to STEM programs.  Whether you’re a student who’s considering them or a counselor trying to guide interested students, this guide can help you make sense of the different programs and make the right choices. 

Best of all, it’s free.  You can download it here.  Counselors, please feel free to share it with your students. 

April 11, 2014

On the risks of helicopter parenting

From an instructor at Michigan State University in his piece, College Students and Their Helicopter Parents: a Recipe for Stress

More and more university students are feeling anxious, depressed and dissatisfied than ever before and this is due, in no small part, to the message many of their parents have been pounding them with: They can't be trusted to govern their own lives. According to a study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies led by associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington, Holly Schiffrin, "Parents are sending an unintentional message to their children that they are not competent." Time notes that the study lists three elements that must be present in people's lives for them to be happy: feeling autonomous, competent and connected to other people. Clearly, helicopter parents are depriving their kids of the first two, and I don't think that being joined at the hip to one's parents qualifies as being "connected to other people," so nix the third one, too.

April 10, 2014

Fewer hours, more focus

Cal Newport revisits one of his best productivity tips here—it’s not about how many hours you work; it’s about the intensity of your focus during those hours. 

April 09, 2014

Back to the spot

Photo-8While back in Orange County, California this week training a new batch of Collegewise counselors, I returned to my alma mater, UC Irvine, and walked my old collegiate stomping grounds. This curbside near the dorms probably doesn’t seem significant to most people. But in September of 1989, this is the exact spot where I hugged my parents goodbye and started my life at college. I remember thinking that this was a significant moment that I wanted to remember. I didn’t know anyone at school. I had no idea what was going to happen that day, much less over the next four years. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life or how my college was going to help me figure it out, but I couldn’t wait to find out. It was scary and exciting all at the same time, and I made a point to take a mental snapshot so I would never forget it. This week, I took an actual snapshot to share here.

That moment when a student goes from a high school graduate to a college student is big for any family. And I’ll bet my parents’ recollection of my UC Irvine sendoff is no less special to them than that day three years later when they hugged my younger brother goodbye. At Harvard.

The pressure surrounding the college admissions process can ruin what should otherwise be an exciting, transformative journey for students and parents. With over 2,000 colleges to choose from, your moment is going to come at one of them—whatever your GPA and test scores are—as long as you work hard enough to earn it.  It might be at a prestigious college, and it might not. But I promise that when that day eventually comes, the name of the school will matter a lot less than the parental pride and student excitement. 

April 08, 2014

Decoding financial aid award letters

This article from Forbes shares some helpful tips for decoding financial aid award letters, including some of the usual helpful insight from financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz. Figuring out which college is offering the best deal may or may not be the deciding factor in your family’s final college decision, but it’s still very important to understand what each financial aid award really means, especially if you’re agreeing to take out student loans.

April 07, 2014

Welcoming five counselors to the Collegewise family

Today, we’re welcoming five new counselors to the Collegewise family. We’ll be spending a week together training in Orange County and Los Angeles before we get them launched in their respective locations to start helping families enjoy a smarter, saner college process.

ColleenBoucherBlogColleen Boucher
College Counselor – Berkeley/Walnut Creek, California
Colleen studied classical civilizations and English at Loyola University Chicago, and has a master’s degree in English language and literature from Boston University. If you were to name any classic work of literature, Colleen has almost certainly read, analyzed, discussed, and written about it. Before joining Collegewise, Colleen worked for The Princeton Review’s Berkeley, California office where her official job was to manage the tutoring programs, present seminars on standardized testing, and work closely with counselors at area high schools. Her unofficial job, however, was to serve as the office social chair, arranging such after-work gatherings as “Mac and Cheese Extravaganza” and “Sister Act Night,” both of which were far better attended than were “Come as Your Favorite Eighteenth Century Literary Giant” and “English Poet Murder Mystery Party.” (It’s not easy for someone with multiple degrees in literature to find co-workers with common interests).

Colleen describes herself as a “non-fanatical vegan,” meaning that while she eats a plant-based-diet, she will neither judge nor lecture anyone who chooses to subsist on steak and eggs alone. She will, however, express great reluctance to any invitation to dine at Applebee’s (it’s a long story). When she’s not eating her veggies, Colleen enjoys reading, cooking, and writing her blog about authentic—but non-fanatical—vegan living.

GenipherBrownBlogGenipher Brown
College Counselor – Mission Viejo, California
Genipher graduated from RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) where she attended on a partial scholarship and studied management information systems for engineering applications. The scholarship was hardly a surprise given her unprecedented performance at the local, regional and state of Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science competitions where she not only swept the first place medals, but also bested her academic nemesis, Wendy L., who’d spent the last two semesters relentlessly touting her stupid chicken experiment. Never let it be said that scientists lack fierce competitive instincts.

After spending over a decade working for two engineering giants, Genipher decided her true passion was helping students be successful in school. Since that time she has worked closely with high schools in Southern California to provide students and teachers with the tools and programs they need to be successful in the classroom. In 2013, she received the Honorary Service Award from the PTA at her local school for ten years of continuous outstanding service to youth and children. A fanatical fan of NFL football who sets aside entire Sundays for game viewing during the season, Genipher admits that she has absolutely no hand eye coordination and cannot recall ever successfully catching anything that was thrown at her. This explains why Genipher’s husband and kids delight in yelling, “Heads up!” and watching Mom dive for cover.

LizMarxBlogLiz Marx
College Counselor – Pasadena, California
To parents concerned that your student will never be employable with an art history degree, meet Liz Marx. After graduating from Wesleyan University—with an art history degree—Liz became one of the top casting directors in Hollywood. She spent over twenty years not only placing actors in everything from Broadway musicals to film and television projects for studios the likes of Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox, but also validating the potential career worth for liberal arts majors everywhere. Casting, however, was only Liz’s first career. After taking some time off to become a mom, Liz wanted a career change and earned her college counseling certification from UCLA, eventually building a successful independent counseling business before bringing her skills to Collegewise in April 2014.

Liz was a cheerleader in high school and swears she can still do the splits if (literally) pushed. What she will not do, however, is name drop celebrities. Believe us, we’ve tried—and pushed—to get her to do it. No dice. When she’s not reading everything from great literature to Entertainment Weekly, Liz enjoys hiking, biking and exploring Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.

ChrisTokuhamaBlogChris Tokuhama
College Counselor – West Los Angeles, California
Chris’s career in education began within days of earning a degree in biological sciences from USC when he began what would become a four-year stint as a senior assistant director of admission and scholarship coordinator for his alma mater. He later went on to become the associate director of USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences where he coordinated the 8-year BA/MD program before taking a break from admission work to pursue a PhD in Communications at USC, later joining Collegewise in April 2014. As you might have guessed by now, Chris drinks quite a bit of (over-priced) coffee.

While Chris does not consider himself an intellectual (he swears that the PhD program was a way to get paid to watch TV and think about it a little), the rest of us marvel at his ability to ponder transhumanism and cyborgs—that’s where a background in biology can get you—alongside media, religion, gender, horror, and biopolitics. Chris can also talk pop culture with the best of them. Want to discuss how consumption and romance intersect in The Bachelor? Chat about themes of technology and society in The Good Wife? Predict if Frankenstein’s Monster will overtake zombies as a popular horror trope? Chris is your man. When he’s not pondering mind-bending questions that leave the rest of us gasping for breath, Chris spends his free time being horrible at video games, playing beach volleyball, and reminding himself not to tweet out pictures of food.

NicoleTwohigBlogNicole Twohig
College Counselor – Calabasas/Westlake Village, California
Nicole realized early on that she wanted to spend her life helping people. She also realized shortly thereafter that volunteering alone doesn't pay the bills, but she thankfully found her calling (and a steady paycheck) counseling students. After graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and earning her masters in counseling at St. Mary’s College of California, Nicole worked as a high school counselor in Seattle’s Lake Washington School District where she not only managed a caseload of 400 students, but also coached the cheerleading team. After additional stints advising student athletes at the University of Washington and working as a private college counselor, Nicole brought her knowledge, sense of purpose and cheerleading skills to Collegewise in April 2014.

In her spare time, odds are that you’ll find Nicole at a baseball game. This comes with the territory when your husband is a college baseball coach (who can still hit the snot out of the ball, by the way). If you’re ever at a baseball game and Nicole happens to be in attendance, you’ll know it—she has a voice that projects louder than most stadium loudspeakers. Nicole may no longer be able to execute a proper toe-touch basket toss or running table top stunt, but she’s still got the vocal chords from her high school cheerleading days.

April 06, 2014

Einstein had it right

I've written both here and in my book that teaching a concept is the best way to make sure you understand it. Whether you're studying history, chemistry or Spanish, if you can stand up in your room and explain the concept to an imaginary class, odds are that you understand what you're talking about.  Teaching it makes it an active process rather than just passively reviewing the material.   

Then I recently read this quote attributed to Albert Einstein:

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

That's a concept to keep in mind if you take this advice about teaching something to help you learn it.  If you can make something complicated a lot less complicated, and teach other people to understand it, then you've really mastered whatever you're trying to learn.  

April 05, 2014

What motivates you to work?

Dan Ariely’s TED Talk, What makes us feel good about our work?, shares a pretty compelling message: Most of us thrive by making constant progress and feeling a sense of purpose, not because of money or because we necessarily find joy in our jobs.

That message doesn’t just apply to us working stiffs out here making a living. It also applies to high school students.

It’s easy to let the pressure of college admissions ruin what could otherwise be an enjoyable high school career.

It’s more important that you work hard and keep learning than it is for you to get straight A’s all the time.

It’s more important that you make contributions to your club, team or organization than it is for you to be the president, the team captain, or some other official position of authority. 

And it’s much more important that you make consistent efforts to become a smarter, nicer, better all-around human being than it is for you to get an acceptance letter from one dream school.

Set high goals for yourself, sure.  But focus on making day-to-day progress. And know that working hard will always pay off in some way.

April 04, 2014

“It worked for him” is not a strategy for you

This kid Kwasi Enin is killing me.

For years, I’ve told audiences that when I hear a kid say, “I want to go to an Ivy League school,” I know that student isn’t going to get in. He’s got namebranditis. He’s in love with prestige rather than with any of those particular schools. He’ll likely want to apply to all of them in the hopes of getting into one. And it will never work. Nobody has ever once disagreed with me out loud.

Then Kwasi Enin went and got into all the Ivy League schools.

I’ve never met Kwasi Enin, but I can’t even imagine how impressive he must be in person. He should be proud of what he’s accomplished. 

But I’m also cursing him just a little bit. Because from now on, every time I use my “Applying to all the Ivy League schools is a terrible idea,” somebody is going to point out that Kwasi did it and it turned out just fine for him. 

In every sense of the word, Kwasi Enin is remarkable. Nobody gets into all the Ivy League schools. Fewer than eight of every 100 applicants got in this year, and less than 1% of kids who go to college do so at an Ivy League school. That’s why Kwasi is front page news. 

The fact that it worked for Kwasi doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to you. You’re twice as likely to be killed by a vending machine than you are by a shark. But no sane person is going to refrain from getting a Pepsi because they’re afraid of the machine, and nobody should take Kwasi’s results as a reasonable expectation of what can happen to them.

I’m not anti Ivy League and I’ve got nothing against kids wanting to apply to schools that reject most of their applicants.  But when you decide that the only acceptable outcome for your hard work is to get a yes from a school that rejects most of its applicants, especially if that interest is based on the fact that the school is part of a particular athletic conference (that’s what the Ivy League is, by the way), you’re going down a path that gives too much power to the schools and too little credit for your hard work.  

April 03, 2014

Leave a legacy after you move on

In 1993 when I was a senior in college, I was one of five students hired to run the summer orientation program, a series of three overnight stay programs for incoming students and their parents hosted by 100 volunteer student staffers that we’d hired and trained. I’d just finished reading Principle Centered Leadership where I’d learned about mission statements, and I had proposed that we make one for summer orientation. My four 21-year-old colleagues and I spent weeks hammering something out, finalized one we liked, and preached it all summer long as the mission of summer orientation. 

Today, I visited the program’s website. Right there on the homepage—over 20 years later—is our mission statement.

My mission statement proposal was just one contribution—and far from the most important one—made by student leaders in that program’s long history. But the mission statement idea was mine. It’s my tiny legacy even if I’m the only one who remembers when and how it started.

As you participate in activities, do more than just show up to the meetings, practices or rehearsals. High school life is too short to spend it going through the motions just to put something on your college application. Instead,  find activities you’re excited about, then work to make an impact. Contribute ideas, time and energy. Don’t settle for “That’s how we’ve always done it.” 

Leave a legacy that will stick around long after you’ve moved on.