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« September 2010 | Main | November 2010 »

October 31, 2010

You're not perfect, and neither is your future college

There's a great line in my favorite movie, Good Will Hunting, in which Will's psychologist says this about Will's new love interest:


You're not perfect, sport.  And let me save you the suspense--this girl you've met, she's not perfect either. But the question is whether or not you're perfect for each other. That's the whole deal.  That's what intimacy is all about. You can know everything in the world, sport. But the only way of finding out that one is by giving it a shot."

That's a lot like how finding your college match works.

I talk a lot about college matchmaking and finding schools that fit you.  But I don't believe in collegiate soul mates (at least not until you've officially dated one for awhile).

If you're applying to college, you might believe that you've found the one perfect college for you.  But trust me ("sport"), it's not perfect.  No college is.  And it's not the only one where you could be happy.  There are dozens of colleges who's characteristics are similar enough on paper that you couldn't possibly tell the difference between them. 

Wherever you end up at college, there are going to things you like and dislike about it.  But if you choose carefully and then commit to making that four-year relationship work, your chances of looking back on the experience as one spent at your collegiate version of a soul mate increase exponentially.

So don't worry about finding the perfect college.  That would be like evaluating potential dates based on whether or not you want to marry them--you couldn't possibly know for sure.  Instead, accept the uncertainty and concentrate on choosing your list of colleges carefully.  Just as you shouldn't necessarily date anyone who asks, you shouldn't apply to any college just because it looks nice or because other people seem to like it.  Think about what would really make you happy.  Do your research.  Visit colleges campuses.  Enjoy how many great potential matches there are.

October 30, 2010

A simple but crucial tip for college interviews

Stefanie in our Irvine office offers this college interview tip--make sure you listen to the question.

Don't scoff.  That might sound obvious, but a lot of students are so concerned about their answers that they forget to listen to--and consequently don't answer--the question. 

Stefanie interviewed over 400 students while she was an admissions officer at USC.  And the first question she asked most of them was,

"Tell me a little bit about your high school, maybe one thing you like about it, and one thing you wish was different."

She asked it as a general question to help students feel comfortable and ease into the interview.  But a lot of students would go right to detailed descriptions of their activities.  They were so anxious, they couldn't wait to start talking about what they'd accomplished.  But that wasn't the question they'd been asked.

None of those kids torpedoed their chances of admission with those answers alone, by the way.  No college interviewer is out to get you, to trip you up and find the reason to reject your application.  But it certainly would have been a stronger start if they'd carefully considered the question and given a thoughtful answer.  

So during your college interviews, just relax and listen carefully to the question.  If you don't have an answer right away, that's OK.  Stop for a second and think about it.  That's what thoughtful people do when posed with a good question.

But most importantly, remember that your college interview is a conversation.  Good conversationalists are just as good at listening as they are at talking.

You can find even more advice in our "College Interviews" video.  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.

October 29, 2010

Insight from a different kind of dean

Randy Nelson is the Dean of Pixar University, the education and training division of Pixar.  Pixar is the animation studio that created the Toy Story series, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, and Ratatouille.  Their CEO went to the University of Utah, by the way, not an Ivy League school.  But that's for another blog post.

Nelson had this to say about what they look for in a new hire.


Mastery in anything is a really good predictor of mastery in the thing you want done.  If you take a young person who’s the best skateboarder, or the best glassblower, or is really good at playing spoons, you’re going to find something about that personality—if they are truly a master—that has set their mind in a way that you can use in your enterprise whether you’re an educator, a business person or both.  That sense of, ‘I’m going to get to the top of that mountain’ separates them from all of the other applicants almost instantly.  There’s very little chance that someone’s going to achieve mastery on the job if they didn’t get there before coming to your workplace.”

College admissions officers tend to notice the same thing about applicants.

For example, you don't necessarily have to be the lead in the school play to impress a college.  You could become a master of stage lighting instead.  You could take a class over the summer to learn it.  You could study how the experts on Broadway do it.  You could read books, websites and blogs.  You could write your own blog about it.  You could talk at length about the best examples of stage lighting and the pros you've come to admire.  And you'd make your school's stage productions that much better. 

Even if you had no interest in studying drama or doing stage lighting at the college level, any admissions officer would be impressed by your desire to learn more and your drive to become a master.

Find something that interests you, something you really enjoy.  It won't feel like work when you dive in and try to master it.  Whether it's being the goalie on the lacrosse team, speaking Italian, playing the violin, flipping burgers at a hamburger stand, stamp collecting, rodeo, fashion design or tap dancing, your path to mastery will teach you a lot.  And it will make you more interesting to everyone, including colleges. 

October 28, 2010

Try this college admissions test

Here's a test I gave my audience at a high school's "college night" last week (parents and students both got to play).

1.  Write down the names of the three people you most admire.  You don't necessarily have to know them personally.  They just have to be real people.

2.  Describe why you admire them in 3-4 sentences each.

Now answer these two questions:

Did any of the people on your list go to a prestigious college (Google 'em if you have to)?

Did you mention any prestigious colleges in your descriptions about why you admired these people?

There were 41 attendees in the audience. The number of people who answered "Yes" to at least one of those questions? 


What were your results?


October 27, 2010

Join us for "How to Revive Lifeless College Applications"

Arun and I had a lot of fun doing our first episode of "College Admissions Live" (our experiment with online TV--you can watch the first episode about college essays here).  And while we did prove that we knew more about admissions than we did about good video quality, we're working on the latter and are excited to announce our next episode.

How to Revive Lifeless College Applications
with hosts Kevin McMullin and Arun Ponnusamy
Wednesday, November 3
Live @ 6 p.m. PST 
For free, at our online channel

What we'll cover
Even the most accomplished student can look dull when reduced to a dry listing of grades, test scores and activities. How can your college applications tell a compelling story of you and your high school career?  Join us to learn:

•    Why sharing fewer activities and awards can tell a college even more about you.

•    How successful applicants inject personality to make their applications memorable (without resorting to gimmicks).

•    Why resumes, extra letters of recommendation, and samples of your art or music sometimes hurt your chances more than they help.

We’ll talk for about 30 minutes, then take questions from the audience for 15 minutes.

How to watch
Just visit our channel on Wednesday, November 3rd at 6 p.m. PST. (What time is that in my time zone?)

No reservations required. Just drop in at the start time.  And if you'd like us to send you an email reminder the day of the show, just register here.

We hope you'll tune in to join us!


October 26, 2010

Will a college know if you lie on your application?

There is in fact such a thing as a stupid question.  "How could a college really know if you lied on your application?" is a good example of one.

The problem with that question isn't that the answer should be obvious.  It's a stupid question because lying to your colleges is a stupid thing to do.  And most students aren't posing the question hypothetically.  They're asking because they're considering telling the lie.

Colleges know how to spot inconsistencies in your application.  They notice when things you say don't match with what your teachers or counselors say in the letters of recommendation.  And colleges won't hesitate to call your counselor to verify information that doesn't seem right.  They don't do it to catch you in a lie.  They do it to make sure they have accurate information. 

So sure, it's possible that you could claim to be a National Merit finalist and the college would never know.  You could claim to have played two years of varsity soccer when you only played one, that you did 50 hours of community service you didn't really do, or that you've never been suspended from school when, in fact, you were suspended once as a freshman.  A college might never find out. 

But the real question is, is it worth the risk?

If you lie on your college application and a college finds out--no matter what the lie is or how they find out--that's it.  You're not getting in.  And it wouldn't be unheard of for colleges to tell your other colleges what you did.  Colleges know that kids who are willing to take that risk are more likely to do things like cheat on a test or plagiarize a paper.  So the risk dramatically outweighs any potential reward.  And when you sign your college application, you're signing a formal document stating that all of the information is true to the best of your knowledge.  So if you get caught, forget it.  There will be no apologizing your way out of it.

Nice, confident kids who've worked hard don't ask us this question.  So don't let the pressure of college admissions influence you to lie on your college application.  Be better than that.  It's not worth it.  You don't need an admission to Princeton or NYU or UCLA badly enough to lie.  Just be honest.  Be proud of who you are and what you've done.  If you've made mistakes, be mature enough to own up to them.

It's hard not to like and respect people who have the guts to tell the truth. 

October 25, 2010

Good press doesn't necessarily mean good advice

Which article about college interviews would you be more likely to read?

Option 1:  "College deans advise: Just relax and have a good conversation." 


Option 2:  "College deans advise:  Girls, don't show your cleavage.  Boys, don't scratch yourselves." 

Today, The New York Times chose option 2.

Today's entry on The Choice, a blog I usually enjoy and often recommend, led with the entry, "Advice for the College Interview: Girls, Dress Discreetly; Boys, Mind Those Hands."  Turns out there's very little useful advice other than don't text during the interview, don't burst into song, and don't talk about how much you like to light things on fire.  Seriously.  They might as well have just entitled the article, "College deans advise: don't be rude, stupid or dangerous."

Sure, it's accurate advice.  But most teens don't need the New York Times to remind them not to scratch themselves during their college interviews.

The job of the press is to entice readers and sell papers.  That's why every spring, there will be another round of front page articles about the rising competition of Ivy League admissions.  There will be stories about seemingly perfect kids who were rejected from all their colleges.  There will stats about rising wait-list numbers, decreasing financial aid, and families who are spending tens of thousands of dollars for tutors and private admissions counselors.

It's important to remember that just because these stories end up on the front page doesn't mean they encapsulate the reality of college admissions.  It's just that "Nice kids who work hard always end up OK" will never sell as many papers as "Valedictorian with perfect SAT scores now living in parents' basement after receiving rejections from 12 out of 12 colleges." 

The press isn't being deceitful here--they're just doing their job.  But if you want college admissions reality, rely your high school counselor or a college admissions officer before you rely on the front page.   

PS: In the spirit of always talking about other people as though they were there in the room with you, I submitted this comment to "The Choice."

October 24, 2010

How one graduate from a not-so-famous college made it big

Jon Favreau was just a twenty six year-old kid when he wrote President Obama’s inauguration address (he did it on his laptop at Starbucks).  Today, he’s not even thirty and he’s the Chief White House speechwriter.  Time Magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.  I don’t care what your politics are—most people would agree that this guy is pretty successful.   When asked how he got here, Favreau once told an interviewer,

“It all started because of Holy Cross.”

College of the Holy Cross isn’t on my list of the 40 colleges in the country where all the bad admissions news is true.  About 65% of their students were ranked in the top 10% of their high school classes; 95% of Princeton’s students can make that claim.  Holy Cross admits almost half of the students who apply; Stanford admits 9 out of every 100. 

But if there’s ever been someone who’s proven that it’s not where you go to college, it’s what you do while you’re there, John Favreau’s your guy.

Back in college, “Favs” as his friends call him studied political science. He volunteered at the local welfare office and started a project defending the rights of welfare recipients.  He was the editor of the opinion section of the school newspaper.  Then he took advantage of Holy Cross’s “Washington Semester” where he moved to Washington DC and interned for Senator John Kerry.  His junior year, he was named a Harry S. Truman Scholar, winning a $30,000 scholarship awarded to 75 students nationwide each year who have extensive records of public and community service and are committed to careers in public service.  He was named valedictorian of his graduating class and showed everyone in attendance that he had speechwriting chops in his address that closed with:


There seems to be one last bulletin here that Career Planning forgot to drop in our mailboxes.  Now, I realize that most of us already have jobs, but all of these positions are part time, and I’m sure all of us have the necessary qualifications. The employers are our communities, and while each position is already being filled by millions all over the world, there is a desperate need for more help. And here’s some of what we need:

Soccer coaches, Den Mothers, PTA members, Neighbors who help you move in and promise to keep in touch when they move you out, Friends who come early and stay late, Shoulders to cry on, Big Brothers and Sisters, Family comedians, Tee Ball Umpires, Letter-to-the-Editor authors, Voters who care about any issue from Traffic Lights and Tax Reform to Potholes and Peace on Earth, Organizers and Activists, Critics and Supporters, Voices for those who are having trouble getting theirs heard, Summertime Porch-Sitters with special degrees in talking about everything and nothing until the mosquitoes bite, Mentors, Philanthropists, Signature collectors, Boo-boo fixers, Grocers to the hungry, Roofers to the homeless, and Believers—especially believers.”

A few years later when then-Senator Barack Obama interviewed Favreau to join his office as a speechwriter, Obama asked him how he got started in politics and what originally got him interested.

Favreau told him about the welfare office where he volunteered back in college.  At the end of the interview, Obama hired him on the spot. 

Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to go to a famous college to be successful.  It’s what you do while you’re there, not where you go, that matters. 

October 23, 2010

A word of advice for early decision applicants

Imagine you meet your boyfriend or girlfriend for a dinner date on Friday night and instead of sitting down to eat, you're met with the words, "I'm sorry, but I want to break up."  Ooof.

You'd be hurt, probably surprised, and would likely head home for a weekend of mourning. 

Now imagine that when you got home, you remembered that you have a huge research project due on Monday and you haven't even started.  What would that feel like, having to throw yourself into an important project immediately after your breakup?  Could you do a good job when your head and heart just aren't in it?  Would it make your post-break up pain even worse? 

That's how a lot of students who are applying early decision to colleges are going to feel in December.

Early decision deadlines (the binding admissions program in which you promise to attend a college if they accept you), are quickly approaching.   In return for applying early, you'll hear back from those colleges in early December.  A lot of students apply to one of those schools and then wait with their fingers crossed, leaving all of their other college applications to wait until they get the news back from their dream school.  That's a fantastic system if you get an acceptance from that one school.  But if you don't...

1.  You now have to start all of your other college applications.

2.  You'll only have a few weeks to do them, and you'll be working all through your holiday break.

3.  You'll have to muster the enthusiasm to put all the necessary love and attention into these remaining college applications, all while nursing the emotional hangover from the dream school that rejected you.

Don't do it to yourself.  Plan for the worst.  Work on and complete all of your college applications. If your dream school says "No," you'll be able to take some solace in the fact that at least your other applications have already been submitted.  It will be like having a date with a new person already lined up before your significant other breaks up with you.  OK, maybe that's not good relationship advice, but with your college applications, it's just good planning.

Yes, if your dream school admits you, you'll have completely wasted your time on those other applications.  But which problem would you rather have?

October 22, 2010

What should parents' expectations be for their high school students?

The stress of college admissions leaves a lot of parents rewarding or punishing kids for all the wrong reasons.

Two days ago, I shared the link to "A Father’s Acceptance: His Son Won’t Be Following His Ivy Footsteps," an entry on the New York Times "The Choice" blog from a father who'd realized his son didn't have to go to an Ivy League school to make him proud. 

Today, that blog ran a selection of readers' comments, many from parents, they've received in response to the entry.  A lot of them were positive affirmations from parents who'd learned that their kids' GPAs and test scores didn't measure their worth as kids (or their parents' success at raising them).  But a few were like this one:


Ugh. Attitudes like this are part of the problem. Your kid can be a unique snowflake and still get good grades. Kids are failing in school and at life because parents are lowering their expectations.  This P.C. acceptance … is tiresome & fake. There is nothing wrong with expecting your kid to get all As, take honors and AP courses, top scores on SAT, and get into a top school. There is nothing wrong with being disappointed if your kid fails to accomplish these goals. It is your failure as a parent, too.  Stop pretending you need to just accept your kid as is when s/he fails. Your kid can be an individual & still get top marks in school.

Parents, that is not someone you want at your next dinner party.

First, it's important to acknowledge that there are some kids who could do nothing but study and still not get straight A's in AP classes.  There are some kids on whom you could spend a fortune for SAT tutors and they'd still never come close to the average score of the Stanford admits.  Hard work can influence those things, but not every kid gets the genetic hand of cards to achieve those admissions-related results.

But more importantly, when did it become reasonable to expect kids to be great at everything?  Do you know any adults who are great at everything?  Why should we expect kids to be great at math, chemistry, English, Spanish, athletics, music, public speaking and leadership?  The admissions process at highly selective colleges rewards the tiny percentage of students who somehow found the natural ability and work-ethic to achieve exceptional results.  If any kid could do it based on hard work and high expectations alone, every high school senior class would have 75 valedictorians.  

I'm not suggesting you should lavish praise on your student in every situation.  If your student gets a D on his chemistry midterm because he blew off studying and just played video games until 2 a.m., I think a parent has a right to be disappointed. I think it would be appropriate to take away his video game privileges and tell him you weren't happy with his effort.  It's OK to expect more than that from your student.  

But if that same student tried his best and still didn't do well on the exam, praise the effort.  Tell him you're proud of how hard he worked, and ask if there's anything you can do to help.  High expectations for your kid are absolutely a good thing.  But the expectations should be tied to the effort rather than the outcome.

Let your kids know that you expect them to put in a real effort to learn not because that's what it takes to get into Yale, but because education is important.  Encourage their interests not because you heard Georgetown likes students who've shown leadership, but so you can help them find their natural talents and passions.  Focus on the bigger picture. 

There are only eight Ivy League schools, but there are hundreds and hundreds of different paths someone can take to be happy and successful.