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



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April 02, 2014

When in doubt, go back to basics

Colleges’ admissions decisions always inspire a lot of speculation about why certain kids did or did not get in to their schools of choice. He got in because he wrote a great essay.  She got denied because her test scores were too low.  Unless you’re hearing those statements from the admissions officers themselves, from your high school counselor, or a good private counselor, it’s all just speculation. And you certainly shouldn’t turn your college planning upside down because your friend or neighbor claims to know what Princeton or Providence or Purdue is looking for.

So freshmen, sophomores and juniors, if you’re having trouble separating college planning truth from fiction, get back to basics with these five reminders.  They are not secrets, nor are they trendy, but they all work. 

1. Have you met with your high school counselor to discuss your college goals?

2. Are you taking the most challenging courses you can reasonably handle, especially in the subjects that interest you most?

3. Are you doing your best work in your classes?  (If you need study skills advice, here’s a past post that might help).  

4. Have you planned which standardized tests you’ll take and when to take them

5. Are you participating in activities that you really enjoy, and working hard to make an impact?

Sure, there's more to college preparation. But very few admissions or application strategies work if you haven't gotten the basics right.  When in doubt, go back to basics. 

April 01, 2014

This pain will pass

New York Times correspondent and author Jodi Kantor posted this to her Facebook page today: 

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 4.58.47 PM

And while comments posted in public forums often range from illogical to completely insane, families currently stinging from an admissions denial might enjoy reading how many adults commented with some version of “I got rejected by a dream school, too, and my life has turned out just fine.” 

March 31, 2014

For senior families making college decisions

Here are two common questions we often hear from senior families making decisions between colleges that have accepted their student:

“Do I really have until May 1 to make up my mind? Some of these acceptance letters make it sound like I won’t get housing if I wait that long.”

Yes. Unless you applied to a program (or via an application option) that specifically told you otherwise when you applied, colleges that pressure you to commit before May 1 are violating several principles of good practice. Here’s a past post with more information. 

“Can I put deposits down at more than one school so I can take more time?”

No. It’s a bad idea for many reasons, all of which are outlined in this past post.  

March 30, 2014

Survey says…it’s what you do, not where you go

Inside Higher Ed reported that according to a recent Gallup survey, only 9% of business leaders rank where an applicant went to college as “very important” during the hiring process. But 84% agreed that an applicant’s knowledge and applied skills in the field were “very important."

What you do in college is more important than where you do it. Here’s a past post on how to have a remarkable college career (regardless of where you have it).

March 29, 2014

Unforgiving math

It’s not easy to tell a student who’s at the top of her class, who’s earned high test scores, and who’s been very successful in her chosen activities that her dream school is a reach. That student is likely to wonder, “What else could I have possibly done?” But the problem isn’t that this student didn’t do enough.  Most colleges in this country would be slam dunks for that student.  But there is a very short list of schools—fewer than 50—that are reaches for everybody. It doesn’t matter what your grades, test scores and accomplishments are. If you apply to a college that only admits fewer than 10 out of every 100 applicants, the statistics are not in your favor.    

This recent entry on Duke’s blog explains this well. Here’s what the unforgiving math looks like:

“Most students who apply to Duke display the intellectual chops and commitment to succeed here. With over 32,000 students vying for just 1,700 spots in the class, even absurdly fine grained distinctions along a numeric metric wouldn’t get the selection job done. To look at just one example: more than twice as many valedictorians applied as we had spaces in the class, and that’s a count contextualized by the fact that only half of schools sending us applicants provided a class rank.”

My message here is not that students should give up their college dreams just because they want to attend a highly-selective school. But please don’t limit your entire college list to schools that say no to most of their applicants. Your hard work and achievement deserve better than that. Find 4-6 schools you like where your counselor agrees you have a good chance of admission.  Have faith that your effort and character will take you far regardless of which schools say yes. 

March 28, 2014

Embrace the uncertainty

My college connections show up in lots of places on the Collegewise timeline.

For the first ten years of our business, the CPA who kept our books balanced and our taxes in line was my college buddy that I met when we both got part-time jobs teaching SAT classes together.

Our liability, health and dental insurance?  They were all selected and managed by the same friend I’d met when we were 18 and placed in a freshman dorm room together. 

After I wrote the first draft of If the U Fits, I hired a professional editor to help me decide how to best turn my initial ramblings into something people would want to read.  That editor used to sit beside me in our classes when we were English majors together in college.

And whenever I needed to negotiate a contract (i.e., our rental lease, our services agreement with a high school, and the sale of my business to The Princeton Review), I had a good lawyer in my corner—a college fraternity brother and a friend I’d kept in touch with for 20 years. 

I mention this because all of these friends have made something of ourselves, yet none of us had it all figured out at age 18.  We went to a college that felt right, worked reasonably hard, had a lot of fun, and made the most of our opportunities.  That’s the formula. 

If you’re a senior trying to pick your colleges, don't worry if you’re uncertain.  That’s normal. The best things that will happen to you both during and after college can’t be predicted today.  So embrace the uncertainty. 

Sure, take a hard look at your schools of choice.  Get advice from people you trust.  Maybe visit the schools one more time just to make sure. 

But when the time comes to make your choice, listen to your gut and have enough confidence in yourself that your work ethic and character will take it from there. 

March 27, 2014

Auto-reply enthusiasm

I’ve written several times here about the power of enthusiasm.  When you legitimately enjoy what you’re doing and you put real energy into it, your passion is obvious.  And contagious.   A college admissions officer may not know or care at all about the tuba.  But there’s a good chance she’ll be engaged by the applicant who absolutely cannot get enough of playing his tuba in the marching band.    

Katie Konrad Moore in our Bellevue office is a huge college nerd—a term of endearment within the Collegewise walls. She never, ever gets tired of learning about or discussing colleges.  I sent her an email today and got the following out-of-office-reply, shared here with her permission:   

Hi, and thanks for emailing!

I'll be out of the office Wednesday and Thursday visiting beautiful Whitman College.  Fun facts about Whitman:

1. Whitman sends a box of Walla Walla sweet onions to every first year student.  Seriously!

2. I've sent two students to Whitman, one of which is featured in the style column here.  (He wore shorts and t-shirts every day in high school, too, and was the author of one of my all-time favorite college essays.)

3. Whitman is known for its exceptional Outdoor Program.

4. Ducks are big at Whitman.  There's a duck pond called "Lakum Dukum" and they celebrate "Duck Fest," where students produce duck artwork.  I don't really get it, but maybe I will after my visit.

5. Whitman is the 116th college I will have visited.

Anyway - I won't have access to email while I'm gone, but I will be sure to respond to your email when I'm back in the office on Friday.



A person receiving this reply may not share Katie’s insatiable appetite for college knowledge.  That’s OK.  She’s not trying to appeal to anyone else.  She’s just being her authentic self.  And the people who are likely to respond to that level of college enthusiasm will know they’ve found the right counselor.  

Students, if you’re spending your time doing something that could inspire you to write an auto-reply like this, you’re definitely on the right track to being a productive, happy and successful college applicant.   

March 26, 2014

Unannounced visitors

The pressure of the admissions process sometimes makes students and parents do things they wouldn’t normally do.  One common mistake is for a student who was denied or waitlisted to show up unannounced at the admissions office hoping to meet with someone who read the file.    

I understand where that inclination comes from.  But it’s almost never a good idea to show up unannounced.  And several of my colleagues at Collegewise who worked in admissions relayed that it was not only ineffective, but also a little frustrating, especially when multiple students a day would try it.  Frustrating your admissions officer is not a good strategy. 

The in-person visit is not likely to change your admissions status.  But if you want to know that you gave it your best shot, you could certainly call the admissions office (a parent should never, ever make this call for your student), reiterate your genuine interest in the school, and ask if they encourage or even allow students in your situation to meet personally with an admissions officer.  They might say no, but at least you made the call, you were polite, and you asked.  If there were any chance to make some admissions headway, that’s a much better route than just showing up unannounced. 

March 25, 2014

Backing off the parenting arms race

There were a lot of conversations in our offices yesterday about one parent’s crusade to move parents away from an achieve-at-all-costs attitude for their children.  As Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of The Prince of Privilege mentions in the article, “It’s not about lowering the bar. It’s lowering the expectation that they be terrific at everything.”

The article has some sobering information about the toll that an over-emphasis on achievement and perfection can take on kids.  While I’ve met many parents at various points on the spectrum of how much importance they place on their kids’ level of achievement and hopes of attending a prestigious college, I don’t recall ever meeting one who didn’t want their student to be happy and healthy.  It’s worth a read even if you don’t necessarily subscribe to the recommendations. 

March 24, 2014

Five college planning tips for homeschooled students

Homeschooling is a great educational choice for some students. But with all the potential advantages, here are a few tips to help mitigate some potential college planning challenges:

1. Take occasional outside courses.

A college admissions challenge for many homeschoolers is the need to substantiate your academic strength in ways that colleges can clearly understand. One of the best ways to do that is to take occasional outside courses—at a college, community college, or even high school summer school. Even if you’re following a formal homeschooling curriculum, colleges need to know that you can succeed in a traditional classroom setting, too. Soak up the homeschooling advantages, yes. But put those strengths to work occasionally in the classroom as even more proof that you’re college ready.

2. Take (and prepare for) standardized tests.

Standardized tests have a lot of limitations about what they measure. But you’re not taking the same educational route as most students, and standardized tests are the same for everyone. When you do well and submit a score, it’s easier for colleges to compare your achievement with that of other students someplace else.

Take the SAT or ACT. Consider taking subject tests and even AP tests.  And do some focused preparation to give yourself the best score you can. 

3. Get involved in group activities. 

Colleges are communities of students. They want to know how prospective freshmen will interact with and impact that community.  That’s why it’s important for homeschooled students to get involved in formal or informal activities, especially those that include other teenagers. Play club soccer, join a youth group, get a part-time job, volunteer at a soup kitchen.  Show that you can participate with and even lead groups of students without necessarily sitting in class with them every day.

4. Walk your (positive) homeschooled talk.

Why did you decide to homeschool? Why was that better for you than attending traditional school? Those are natural questions for a college to ask. Whatever your answer is, make sure you’re actually doing those things.  For example, if you tell colleges that you were homeschooled because you didn’t want to be confined to a standard high school curriculum, you need to show that you took full advantage of the opportunity to chart your own academic path. Bonus tip: when asked, move away from negative answers that critique high schools, teachers and counselors. Focus on the positive about why homeschooling was better for you, not why high school somehow wasn’t good enough.

5. Think hard about why—and where—you want to go to college.   

Every student preparing for college should consider why they’re going so they can pick the right schools. You’ve chosen a different learning path. Why do you think college is the right choice to continue that learning?  What kind of school do you think will be right for you?  What are you looking to continue from your homeschooling days, and what are you excited to experience that’s new? The more you think about the questions and find schools that satisfy those answers, the more appealing you become to those schools.