Keep an open-mind and be willing to go outside your normal routine. When opportunities present themselves, take them. Is your school putting on a fundraiser of some sort? Get involved. Even if the cause is not inspiring to you, you may find that volunteering/working with people, fund-raising, getting out into the community, and/or making a difference do inspire. Is someone looking for a tutor in a subject you know well? Volunteer. You may discover a passion for teaching, or working with young (or adult or elderly or language-learning) students.
Are you a problem-solver? You don’t have to love education or public service to see a problem in your school or community and figure out how to fix it. One student recognized that the crowded halls at her school were causing kids to be late to class, and the crowds were caused by people on their phones. So she proposed a “texting lane” in the hallways, where the texters could stand still and the walkers could get where they were going.
Think about the classes you have taken or are taking now. What was it about your favorite classes that intrigued you? Would you like to go deeper into a historical time period or scientific concept? Would you like to do more creative writing or perhaps take music lessons? There are competitions for historical research, science fairs, magazines and newspapers that might accept poetry, many performance opportunities you could pursue.
What do you do for fun? How could you expand that activity? One student I worked with loved playing video games, so he proposed a video game review column to his local newspaper (when he was 15, coincidentally). His eventual college was so impressed, they mentioned the column when they were bragging on their new freshman class at the first day welcome assembly. Another student was intrigued by 3-D printing, so he taught himself how to use the software to create his own 3-D printed designs.
There are lots of things you can find that interest you enough to spend a significant amount of time doing them, if you look. You don’t have to find one single thing that you “love.” Just get out there and get interested in things.
Let me tell you a story:
I decided in 9th grade that Northwestern was the only school I wanted to attend. I wanted to be an actress and someone told me NU was the best undergrad program for acting (that didn’t require an audition). So the stakes for writing that essay were really high.
I put off writing the essay so long that my mother actually had to ground me to my room for three days to get me to write it. It took three days because I was completely blocked. The college essay is so intimidating—they’re going to judge me on this piece of writing alone!—and because it was my first choice school, I had built it up that much more in my mind. Total performance anxiety.
I couldn’t think of any way to begin and, this being the era before word processors were affordable, I wasn’t about to type multiple drafts of this thing, so I had to begin at the beginning. Finally, I decided I had to borrow an opening. I sat at the typewriter and wrote three words: (Get ready; you’re going to laugh.)
“Call me Ishmael.”
Yes, that just happened. But wait. I followed it up with literary gold:
“No, don’t. Well, you can, but I might not answer. My name is Lessa S and I’m the daughter of a contralto and an Irish tenor.”
The rest was some stream of consciousness BS that I don’t even remember. I typed one draft, showed it to no one (because I hadn’t left myself enough time and it was too personal, anyway), sealed it in the envelope and dropped it in the mail.
Now that I’m a college counselor, I am both amused and embarrassed by this story. I have no way of knowing if my essay hurt or helped me. Why it could have helped:
Someone stood up in committee and fought for me, maybe in spite of my essay. I had the equivalent of a 33 on the ACT, I had three APs at a time when most people had zero, I was in the top 10% of my really academically challenging high school class, and I wanted to be an actress. Not the typical academic profile of most of the theatre department. I was also economically diverse: I was raised by a single mother and almost a first generation college student (both parents had some college but neither had graduated at that point). Also, while NU was “impossible to get into” back then as well, at the time that meant they accepted 43% of their applicants, not 11%.
The moral of this story is this: Tell a story and leave your voice/personality in. Don’t be afraid to be a little goofy. But also excel academically and extracurricularly so they can’t deny you outright.
Other ways to show you don’t care: submitting right at the deadline (or even late), accidentally naming the wrong school in your essay (i.e. telling Lehigh you’ve always wanted to go to Penn). It used to be that not listing the school first on your FAFSA signaled lesser interest but the FAFSA reporting form was recently changed so it no longer sends your complete list of schools to each school. Thank goodness.
Whether you decide to stay on the waitlist is up to you. If Penn is your first choice, I wouldn’t bother with the others. Even for students who are waitlisted at their first choice, I counsel them to find the best fit college that accepted them and move on. Sitting on the waitlist just drags out the process even longer (often through the summer) and very few students get off the list anyway. Here are some ideas for what you can do if you decide to stay on the waitlist.
There are five huge changes to college admissions for the Class of 2017.
1. Standardized testing--as you probably already know, the SAT has completely revised their test, not just the questions but the whole format. For example, students no longer lose 1/4 point for wrong answers (often call the guessing penalty). So guess away! The ACT has changed significantly in the last year as well, but they did it kind of undercover. You now will have a "paired passage" as one of the four reading passages, where you not only have to demonstrate comprehension, but also the ability to compare and contrast the passages and their perspectives. The ACT writing test has been completely revamped. Instead of a five-paragraph persuasive essay, students are now asked to evaluate three different perspectives on an issue, determine their own perspective on the issue and then write a persuasive essay comparing and contrasting all of them. It sounds more difficult, but actually the new essay is considerably more formulaic, so I think it's easier.
2. Test prep--Free or almost free test prep is now available for both the ACT (in partnership with Kaplan) and SAT (in partnership with Khan Academy) to anyone who is willing to put in the work. This is huge.
3. Applications--There's a new application on the scene: the Coalition App. This application complements the Common App and the Universal App. Most of the Coalition members will continue to accept the Common App and Universal App and, since this application is new, there are bound to be some bugs in it this year. Learn more about it at Coalition for Access & Affordability.
4. Common Application--The Common App has changed their policy to allow students not in their senior year of high school to begin working on their applications at any time. They used to purge all data on August 1. Now, if you've registered as something other than a graduating senior, your data will stay in your account. This is pretty great because it means that you can begin your applications before August 1, when you may have more time to work at it little-by-little.
5. Financial Aid--The federal government is changing their process for determining financial aid eligibility. For the Class of 2016, students had to apply to colleges in the fall, then wait until February or March for their parents to complete their prior year (2015) taxes before they could file the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Schools provide net price calculators to help applicants see how much they are likely to have to pay for each individual school, but filling them out is a tedious process. Now the government has moved to a prior-prior year standard. That means that the 2015 taxes can be used to determine federal student aid eligibility starting in October of 2016 for the 2017-2018 school year. This change effects all students who have to fill out the FAFSA, but benefits the Class of 2017 the most, because they will be the first class in history to know what their expected family contribution will be BEFORE they choose which schools to apply to. No more shooting for the moon and then finding out later that you can't afford it.
Keep your eyes and ears open as these changes are implemented over the summer. It's going to be a great application cycle!
This answer was originally published on Quora on May 7, 2016. Follow me on Quora for more great content!
Nearly every student who comes to me for test prep is battling one thing: text anxiety. Even if you have a weak grasp of pronoun rules or have forgotten most of your pre-algebra, even if you’ve never had test anxiety in any other testing situation, the anxiety is there.
It makes sense: No one likes to be judged. Some students struggle with perfectionism. Others believe that the ACT/SAT is crucial to getting into the right college and therefore having a happy life. (Nothing could be further from the truth.) So here are some ways you can manage test anxiety.
In terms of standardized tests, if your score isn’t what you want, then go back and practice some more. But I would also suggest that you think long and hard about why you want an astronomical score. Just to see if you can do it? Then there should be no stress; you’re only competing against yourself. To get into your dream school? If your score is in the ballpark and the rest of your application is strong, a point here or there won’t make or break you. Focus your energies on the other parts of your application. If you’re nowhere near, we need to talk about refocusing your application strategy. Everyone can get into their best fit school, one where they will thrive academically, socially and financially. Probably you haven’t even met your best fit yet.
1. Make sure the school is worth visiting for you
In the early stages, when you’re not sure whether you want a public or private, urban, suburban or rural school, this is less important. You really need understand your preferences about location and size before you start narrowing down your college list. So your first few tours, in junior year or even earlier, give you important information about the schools you will eventually choose. For example, I had a student who decided during the walk from the car to the Admissions Office that the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities was not for him because it was too big and there wasn’t a recognizable campus. So he knew to think more critically about large, urban schools.
However, once you’ve got a feel for these basic things, be more selective. Check out the campus website: do they have the major you want? Do they offer the sports or activities you want? Do they match you in terms of size, location, gpa/test scores, and financial aid? Ideally every college on your final list should be a match in all of these areas. That student who didn’t like Minnesota had the University of Nevada-Las Vegas on his final list: a large, urban public school, but with a well-defined campus and the specific program he really wanted.
2. Sign up for a tour
Always check the website to find out when the tours and info sessions are and whether they have space for you before you show up on campus. Schools can usually squeeze someone in, but its better and more professional to let them know ahead of time to expect you. One of the ways you demonstrate your interest is by visiting campus, thus it’s important to always let Admissions know when you are visiting. Many of the Raise.Me schools will even give you microscholarships for visiting! Some schools, like UC-Boulder, want you to create an account on their student portal before you can sign up for a tour, but most just want some basic information. They base the number of free lunch tickets, admissions info folders and swag on the number of people they’re expecting, and you wouldn’t want to miss out on swag, would you?
3. Be prepared
You will be walking the campus for at least an hour—wear comfortable shoes, dress in layers, bring a hat, a water bottle and an umbrella, if necessary. Colorado College, in Colorado Springs, has 300 days of sun a year, but I happened to tour on one of the few rainy days. I was not prepared, but they were, with both bottles of water for people who aren’t used to how quickly you dehydrate at altitude and with an umbrella stand full of golf umbrellas we could borrow for the tour. ;-)
Also have a way to take notes and pictures of the campus. This will help you remember the tour later, when you’re narrowing down your college list. If you take notes on your phone, like I do, it’s good policy to tell the guide or information session presenter that you are taking notes. If they see you appearing to mess with your phone instead of listen, that might give them a bad impression of you.
4. Ask the right questions
There’s always going to be some mom at the front chatting with the guide (it’s probably me!) but take this time to ask your tour guide those weird questions you’ve been wondering about. Here’s a list of questions that will help you learn about the school’s culture—what it’s really like to go there:
5. Assess the climate
I’m not talking about the weather but rather the social climate. Look at the students walking around campus: are they smiling? Do they make eye contact? Do they look relaxed or very focused? If you ask for directions, will they answer or ignore you? Does your guide have a sense of humor, if that's important to you? Some schools have a very intense campus climate. This isn’t necessarily bad, especially for a student who is looking for a lot of academic rigor, but make sure that climate matches you and your expectations.
6. Check out the bulletin boards
7. Go off the beaten path
The guided tour will take you to all the hotspots, but don’t leave campus as soon as the tour is over. Wander around the student center a little bit—what kinds of students are there? What are they doing? Eat lunch in the cafeteria, or at the campus hangout your guide mentioned. Is the food good? Read the campus newspaper—what is the campus focused on? How expensive are the books in the bookstore? Does the area around the campus look safe?
8. Make connections
Unless you are sure you won’t want to apply, or if the school is close enough that you can get there whenever you want, take advantage of your time on campus to make some connections. This means sitting in on a class, staying overnight with a student, interviewing with admissions, and/or visiting the department of your potential major to ask some questions about what it’s like to major in X at this school. If you can connect with a professor in the department and chat a bit about his or her work, so much the better. These opportunities will need to be set up in advance, so be sure to plan ahead.
Interviewing with Admissions is a good idea even if you’re not sure you want to apply; it’s excellent practice for interviewing at your top choice schools. And be sure to send a short thank you note to everyone who spends time with you one-on-one. It can only reflect well on you and your future application to show yourself to be polite and professional.
In conclusion, a half-day visit will not tell you everything you need to know about campus. Doing your research, connecting with current students online or making multiple visits (if possible) will help you prepare for your visit, and help you refine your experience as you narrow your college list. You’ll be spending the next 4-6 years on the campus you choose to attend—doing this legwork ahead of time means you are much less likely to have a bad campus match and need a transfer.
These are dark days. Not only because we just passed the shortest day of the year, but also for our seniors applying to college. Finals are approaching, or just finished. The holidays are over, but it inexplicably continues to snow. Many early and rolling admissions decisions have come in. The kids may have received the results they wanted, or may not have. If not, we could have some struggling seniors on our hands.
Rejection is a college application process fact of life and yet it’s hard not to take a denial of admission personally. After all, they’ve put their whole self into the application. They’ve talked about their passions, shown the schools what a great asset they will be in class discussions, what a great roommate they will be. And the school says, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Or the school says yes and the major, program or Honors College says no. That’s hard to hear as students, and as a parent it’s hard to hear that your child will not get something they’ve worked so long and hard to achieve.
There are lots of reasons one student may be offered admission over another. Given that all students who apply are capable of doing the work, the decision has to come down to other factors. We have no control over how our students fit into the institutional goals of the colleges to which they are applying. So we wait on pins and needles, while they wait on beds of nails, to find out if that school “likes me likes me” or just wants to be friends.
Seniors need to know it’s not personal, and that they are not the only ones feeling this way. Every 12th grader in the country is in agony right now. It’s normal. Tell your student how you felt when you were applying to college. Admit that you spent your entire senior year feeling like you wanted to go out into the backyard and scream, how scared you were that you’d never find a place, how your mother had to lock you in your room until you wrote your application essay. (That can’t have been just me, right? Right?)
They should know they’ll stress plenty in college, so there’s no need to get a head start ~Sam, Winona State, Class of 2018
Tell them that application decisions are mysterious things, because it ultimately comes down to “fit,” and no one can define what “fit” is. This is especially true at those highly-selective colleges, where there’s often no way to know, even in hindsight, why a decision came down the way it did. Remind them that if they are accepted to more than one college--and most will be—they will be in the same position the admissions committees are in now. They’ll have to decide which invitation they’ll accept and it will probably be a number of factors that help them make the decision, not the least of which was “It just felt right.”
So while you may feel it’s unfair that your student didn’t get their first choice school, trust the process. Surveys have shown repeatedly that most college freshman are happy where they end up, even at their third, fourth or fifth choice school. Show your child that you’re disappointed with them and for them, but not in them, because it’s not the end of the world. As Frank Bruni puts it in his column "How to Survive the College Admissions Madness," “Rejection is fleeting, … and survivable.”
That’s our job as parents now: teach them how to survive. Teach them how to take the punch, get up and pivot. How to make a backup plan even though you hope you won’t need it. How to believe in yourself because this, too, shall pass. This is where their intelligence turns into wisdom.
Five years from now, on graduation day, the child sobbing on your shoulder will be unrecognizable: an adult who has faced darkness and prevailed, who has blossomed in ways neither of you can predict. And that is true no matter which college they choose.
I was speaking with a parent today who was concerned about her children getting into a “good” college. Turns out by good, she meant Ivy. Obviously, the Ivy League schools (plus Stanford) are the Trump Towers of higher education—the biggest brand names—but like Trump Towers, they’re very expensive, difficult to get into and not the best fit for everyone.
This idea was really brought home for me in a couple of fascinating books: Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz and Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be by Frank Bruni. Both books attempt to calm the mania surrounding the top-ranked schools in the country, but they come at it from different directions.
Hampshire is unique is that their students do not receive traditional letter grades. Instead students receive detailed narrative assessments from their professors (like students at Reed College, St, John's College and Evergreen State College). Instead of choosing a traditional major, Hampshire students design their own rigorous, personalized course of study, culminating in a year-long senior project. In light of this commitment to "authentic assessment," it's not so surprising that Hampshire has been test-optional since the college was founded. Since 1970, their Admissions officers will look at standardized test scores if students choose to submit them, but do not require such scores.
of civic engagement, their letters of recommendation from mentors, and their ability to represent themselves through their essays trump anything the SAT could tell us."
Hampshire took a big risk in deciding to go test-blind. U.S. News and World Report, publisher of the most influential college rankings, refused to include Hampshire in its rankings, because they use standardized test scores as part of their methodology. As I've mentioned in my parent presentations, the college rankings are big business to colleges; moving up in the rankings means an increase in applications in the following year as well as an increase in alumni donations. Sarah Lawrence College was test-blind for many years, but returned to being test-optional in 2012 so they could continue to be ranked. After dropping out of the rankings, Hampshire could well have seen a drastic reduction in both for the 2014-2015 school year.
But they didn't. Inside Higher Ed reports that although they did see a dramatic drop in the number of applications, they admitted the most diverse class in the school's history, including:
Lessa Scherrer is an college admissions consultant who has worked with college-bound students for many years. She is a member of NACAC and WACAC and also teaches ACT Prep, speed-reading, college study skills and college-level writing.
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