Monday, May 27, 2013

What's the Best College?

I frequently have parents and students ask some version of, "What's the best college?" Just yesterday a mom in my office stated that her philosophy is that her son should go to "the best college that he can get into." The problem is that we would have to define "best".  "Best" according to what standards or whose opinion?

I was fascinated by this recent analysis by the Portland Business Journal which rated the colleges in Oregon according to the Return On Investment (ROI) of tuition versus salary. While this is not a criteria that I have often seen, in today's economy it is certainly not an unreasonable metric. In this ranking system, Oregon Institute of Technology came out #1. Now I know a lot of Oregonians who would argue strongly that OIT is not the best college in our state, and therefore, this analysis must be flawed.

My point is simply that the answer to, "What's the best college?" is "It depends." By my standards, the best college for any individual student is a place that is an academic, social, emotional. spiritual, cultural and financial match; a place where the student can thrive, develop ways of thinking and skills that will be useful no matter what route her life takes, and graduate with a minimum amount of debt.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Be In, Be Real, Be Bold: YouSendIt's Corporate Values Applied to Writing College Admission Essays

In a New York Times interview with Brad Garlinghouse, chief executive of YouSendIt, he talked about the company's values: be in, be real and be bold. These values align perfectly with my advice about writing a great college admission essay.

Be In: Brad explains, "Be in is all about passion." Your essay will interest the reader when you write about a topic for which you have great passion. You can't fake that.

Be Real: Brad says, "Be real is really about being authentic in our communication." Your essay should sound like you--no big vocabulary you wouldn't normally use, no forced attempts to be impressive. Be yourself and let your voice ring true on paper. (Telling your story into recording/transcribing software can be a great was to start a first draft.)

Be Bold: Per Brad, "Great cultures encourage risk and are tolerant of failure." So do great colleges, and admissions officers admire students who take a writing risk. Don't pen a predictable essay. Use dialogue, or humor, or unexpected metaphors. Most importantly, write a story that only you can tell.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Teacher Recommendation Requests

Only school counselors are required as part of their job description to write you a recommendation letter for college. Everyone else who agrees to write one is doing you a favor. Make it easy for your teacher recommenders!

Compose a letter to each teacher you are asking (two is the norm) that contains the following components:
  • A request for a college admission (and scholarships) letter of recommendation. Make sure it is worded in a way that allows her/him to gracefully decline.
  • Three specific examples or stories that you remember from your time in that teacher's classes. For example, you might describe the carton you built for your physics egg drop, the Lincoln/Douglas debate in which you came in costume and argued against slavery, or the math class talk you gave explaining that some infinities were larger than others.
  • Tell the recommender what characteristics you are hoping to highlight in your essays. These are the three words or phrases have decided really represent who you are beyond your grades and test scores such as "creative problem-solver, analytical and reliable."
  • Ask the teacher to save the completed letter electronically in case you have addition places (such as scholarship opportunities) that come up later.
  • Thank the person for his/her time and effort.

In addition to the request letter, it is a good idea to give the teacher your academic resume. If you don't know how to create one, see the samples at

Current juniors should consider giving out these requests before school ends. Some teacher don't like to do any school work over the summer, but other teachers love the chance to get a head start on the fall recommendation rush. By asking early you give the teacher the option to write a letter whenever it is best for him/her.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Be Like Captain Kirk

My son, Vic, and I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness the other night and he commented that the theme of making decisions and constantly re-examining them was the centerpiece of the film. At what point do you decide for yourself and how much should you take into account other opinions? What if you pick a contrarian option? How wholeheartedly should you embrace your choice and move forward with certainty?

Kirk and Spock each made some flawed choices in the film, but they played them out with gusto rather than timidity. So if you are a senior who has sent in your deposit and are starting to have those nagging, "what-if-I-had-chosen-one-of-my-other-options" moments, please let it go. Move towards your college with full commitment. Boldly go where you have never gone before and make the most of your adventure!

Friday, May 17, 2013

College Admission and Prom Pranks

Dear soon-to-be high school grads,

You must be super excited about your upcoming graduation and all that lies ahead. You have worked hard and deserve to celebrate!

I know prom is this weekend, and I have had some experience with smart students making dumb choices related to prom. Please remember that colleges can (and often do) revoke your offer of admission if you are caught in a disciplinary or legal infraction. It's not my role to give you a lecture about vandalism, drugs, alcohol, etc. so I certainly won't, but I do advise you to think twice about questionable behaviors. If you would be embarrassed if your mom or grandma saw your actions, then you probably should reconsider.

Have fun, and feel free to email me a prom picture.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Independent College Coaching Metrics

This weekend I have the joy of attending my daughter's college graduation from Olin College of Engineering. She has had an amazing four years there, it was the perfect match school for her, and she is ready for her next adventure.

A while ago the dad of a prospective students asked me what metrics I use for evaluating the success of my college coaching with a student. My answer surprised him because he expected me to say that it was the list of schools the student is admitted to. My response was the following:
  • Was the parent/child relationship preserved or enhanced throughout the application process?
  • Can your child answer with a fair amount of certainty why he is going to college and what he hopes to get out of the experience?
  • Is she truly excited about her chosen school and committed to making the most of her college experience?
  • Are his writing skills better than they were when we met?
 Of course the most important metrics are known much later:
  • Did she have a satisfying college experience, learn something of value, make friends, graduate in four years (unless otherwise planned in advance), and feel prepared for her next step in life (whether that be work, grad school or a volunteer experience like the Peace Corps)?
  • Did he mature into an adult that you would like even if he wasn't your son?
 Those are the metrics I'd like to evaluated against.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Wait List Shenanigans

I am not a fan of college wait lists. Usually, when a student asks me if he/she should stay on a wait list my response is "no". I think wait lists often prevent students from feeling really committed to and getting excited about college. Being in limbo is unsettling for anyone.

Once in while, I do have a student who opts to be on a wait list and try to convince a school to move her into the accepted group. This NY Times article made me smile. Is it a surprise that sending cookies to the admissions officer probably won't do the trick? Remember, college is primarily an academic pursuit. I suspect that carrying on an email conversation with a professor studying something that fascinates you, creating a list of courses you hope to take next fall or letting the college know about the research internship you have for the summer after high school would be more compelling than having a parent call and offer to send the admissions officer two pizzas a week for the entire school year.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Listening to My Own Advice

This week I was trying to make a tough decision and I realized that the advice I posted earlier about making a college choice was equally applicable in my situation--choosing a car.

I knew three months ago that my car was dying and I needed to find an alternative. I tried to convince my husband that we were ready to be a one-car rather than a two-car family, but he was not quite ready for that level of coordination and sharing.

I encourage my students to be careful researchers and use a variety of resources when selecting colleges for their list, and I was similarly thorough in my car hunt. I set a budget, and used impartial data sources to learn about reliability, safety, performance and customer satisfaction (the car equivalents of collegedata and collegenavigator). Then I went on chat websites and read more anecdotal evidence (the car equivalents of collegeconfidential and collegeprowler). Then I took my list of seven potential makes/models and went for test drives (the car equivalent of college campus visits).

The above steps narrowed my list to two options: a used Toyota Camry or a new Honda Fit. Both had pros and cons, and because I was trying to make a rational decision I got stuck in analysis paralysis. It was the first time in many years that I could actually feel the stress my students go through when trying to choose by that May 1 decision deadline.

In the end I needed to follow my own advice. The intellectual-decision making was done at the time I narrowed my list to seven good-fit cars. Now I needed to trust my gut instinct, imagine myself happily driving my two final choices for the next ten years, and pick the car that felt right. See the photo below to discover what I chose.

Jodi and her Honda Fit

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Paper Dilemma

I love college viewbooks. The pictures of happy students and sylvan settings make me smile even though I know they are part of a marketing machine.

So here's my dilemma. When I visit colleges (which I do a lot) I bring home literature. It's not a very "green" practice, as I know that trees were sacrificed and some of the ink used in the printing process is environmentally toxic. Then I have to file it, which takes time and space in my office.

Most students are perfectly happy to troll a school website for info and pictures. I doubt any of them will feel sad if I stop collecting viewbooks, college literary magazines and aerial view posters of schools. Yet, I think of the times I pulled something magic out of my cabinet and a student was convinced to add a great fit school she never heard of onto her college list.

Got an opinion? I haven't stuffed my recycling bin yet, so share your thoughts!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Farewell to Arms v47

When I work with students on college application essays I insist on an easy versioning system. Whatever the student names the initial draft is followed by v1 (which stands for version 1). When I make comments I change it to v2. As we dialogue back and forth the student has the odd numbered versions and I have the even numbered versions.

Last year Simon & Schuster published a new version of "A Farewell to Arms" that contains all 47 alternate endings written by Ernest Hemingway. This caused some controversy, as many people thought that Hemingway had made a reasoned decision about which ending to use and therefore the others should remain private. Other people (like me) were thrilled, as it seemed like a peek into the mind of a brilliant author.

The main reason this stuck with me is because most students I work with are not used to doing a lot of rewrites for school papers--maybe 2 or 3--but certainly not 47. The care Hemingway used to communicate character and content is a great example for college personal statements. How can the student tell a story no one else could tell, in an authentic voice? It may take several revisions.

By the way, students who work with me do usually opt to rewrite their personal statement 47 times.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Judge a Book by its Cover

I smiled when I read The NY Times article about the increase in book sales of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" now that an edition with a Hollywood cover has been released. As an ex-marketing executive I love to see how stunning visuals can impact purchasing decisions. Although we tell people, "Don't judge a book by it's cover" they obviously do!

One of the rules in our household when my kids were growing up was that if they wanted to see a movie that was based on a book, they had to read the book first. Although this generated some pre-teen grumbling, it helped turn our kids into avid readers. It also led to great post-film discussions about the differences between any given film and the literature.

There's plenty of research that shows that enthusiastic readers do better in school (and on standardized tests). If it takes a sexy cover shot of Leonardo DiCaprio to entice a teenager to read, I am all for it!