Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Welcome, 2011!
The Year of the Realistic Resolution

Sometimes, we just have too much on our plates. It’s ironic to use that expression around the holidays, but it certainly can be appropriate. We’re torn between schoolwork and housework, friends and family, year-end tasks and New Year’s resolutions. That’s why I’m always glad to move past the holidays and begin a new year. Sure, it’s scary and unknown. But it’s also exciting, fresh and new. So clear that plate; it’s on to a new year!

Whether or not we make resolutions, we generally start the year with good intentions: setting objectives, eating healthy, exercising more, listening to others, or [you fill in the blank]. We’re filled with nervous energy, and we’re anxious to effect positive change. Some of us make the most of the situation. Others, however, fall back on old habits. This is especially true for parents of college applicants, and the students themselves.

Take the overanxious parent, for example. Who could argue that it’s not tempting to step in and help an overwhelmed junior by making phone calls to admissions offices and arranging college visits, even if they’re to parents’ top choices? Are parents acting at the request of their sons or daughters, on behalf of their children or for their own peace of mind? Students, grappling with quizzes, tests and papers, get bogged down in details, and when they need guidance and validation, they would just as soon e-mail a friend than go see a teacher. Others succumb to the tempting Internet rather than concentrating on the tasks at hand.

So it sounds like resolutions would be very welcome, but only if they’re realistic. Here are some suggestions:

Realistic New Year’s Resolutions – Parent
• Set realistic expectations for your child
• Don’t do your child’s work
• Check online grading systems regularly
• Step in if needed to avert a crisis
• Insist that your student see his or her teachers

Realistic New Year’s Resolutions – Student
• See your teachers regularly, even if you’re doing well
• Be choosy about your extracurriculars; don’t overbook!
• Work on vocabulary, critical reading and test-taking skills
• Post a list of target schools, and look at it regularly

Post these resolutions and look at them regularly.

Best wishes for a productive 2011!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

(Soon to be) Giving Thanks

Look at the background on my laptop or in my home office and you’ll see it: a shot of my son, Phil, engaged in conversation with President Obama. How did he do it? He found out online (of course) that, in conjunction with MTV, the President was hosting a youth town hall meeting in Washington, DC. Hot to make the most of his college experience – he’s a freshman at GW – my son applied, was interviewed and offered a spot in the audience. By a sheer act of randomness, Phil was seated directly in front of the President and adjacent to his water glass! Since they didn’t have time to meet during a break, the President approached Phil after the show and they talked. Needless to say, Phil was thrilled, as were his parents.

When I think back on where we were a year ago, I certainly didn’t think I’d be writing about Phil meeting the President. Instead, we were caught up in our own world of college admissions. How many schools should he apply to? (I had heard 12 was the going number.) Did his Personal Essay do enough to woo the readers in the many admissions offices? Why wasn’t he seeing his college counselor, that very person who was writing his recommendations? Would he withstand the pressures of his very competitive high school and come up with a better-than-respectable mid-year report? Who else was applying to his top choices?

If you are the parent of a senior, perhaps you are facing some of these challenges. You’re probably wondering, “Why didn’t they tell me that the first half of the senior year is actually worse than the junior year? What if [fill in the name] messes up and schools get a negative report in January? What if [fill in the name] doesn’t get in anywhere?” If you are the parent of a junior, you may have similar fears or questions. Knowing that your student is facing a sea of tests, quizzes, quests, SATs, ACTs and APs in the coming months doesn’t do anything to ease your nerves.

Here’s the good news: you will all make it! Parents: Your student will survive, and maybe even thrive. (You’ll probably settle for survive.) Next year he or she will be in a great school, and instead of worrying about applications, you will be talking about roommates, dining options and holiday break. Seniors: You need to divide what seem like insurmountable tasks into manageable pieces. For example, don’t attempt to apply to 12 schools at once, but plan to have all those applications in on time, breaking up your list by priority schools and priority dates. The more applications and essays you do, the more the experience will pay off. Have a set of trusted eyes handy to check key dates and help proofread applications. Juniors: Select the timing of your standardized tests with care. Curtail unproductive activities, but keep those about which you are passionate. See your teachers (please)!

Be thankful that by next year at this time, you will have even more expertise as a parent, friend and adviser. Be thankful for the friends who support you. Who knows? Maybe a year from now, someone you know will be meeting the President!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Early Decision: A Trick or a Treat?

As temperatures drop and leaves fall, thousands of high school seniors decide whether or not to apply Early Decision. Ideally, the student has done his or her homework, completed the college visits, analyzed the curriculum and attended on-site sessions by the college representative prior to firming up this decision. However, we don’t live in an ideal world. Students have been known to apply early for reasons such as:

• The Guidance Department has established an early deadline so it can get all paperwork where it needs to be, and the student feels that he or she must also rush.
• The student can’t cope with the anxiety of waiting beyond December.
• The student believes that the slot in his or her school of choice would be unattainable, or he or she would rather not compete head-to-head with a friend or classmate, so that student is applying ED to his or her second-choice school.
• Applying early is part of a broader strategy to maximize the student’s chances.

I have heard all these reasons from my students. I have also heard college admissions staff deny that applying early improves a student’s chances of admission. But look at the statistics: Brown filled nearly 40 percent of its Class of 2014 with early applicants, and nearly 20 percent of those applying were admitted. The remainder of the class came from regular decision, yet only 9.3 percent of those applicants were admitted, a record low. Brown’s early pool last year, by the way, was up 21 percent.

Is ED for everyone? Absolutely not. Some students just can’t make up their minds and decide to wait it out until late March or early April. Others need to show colleges that they can earn top grades in challenging courses, particularly if they showed inconsistencies in junior year. Moreover, there are some students who need to wait because they are candidates for financial aid who need to compare offers. Many opponents of ED – or schools like Harvard and Princeton which eliminated the option – assert that ED puts well-off students at a competitive advantage.

Be sure to check policies on a school-by-school basis. Some colleges have non-binding Early Action options, but students should understand the differences between programs. For example, Stanford's program is non-binding but restrictive, meaning a candidate cannot apply to any other college's early programs. Some colleges use rolling admissions, allowing students to be able to say, “I’m in.” The University of Michigan engages both policies, allowing students to apply Early Action while evaluating students applying after the deadline on a rolling basis. Early Decision 2, available at some schools, can be a very attractive option should a student be deferred or rejected from an his or her Early Decision college. Again, ED 2 will not be a solution for a student wanting to compare financial offers, but it is a great option for students applying to the most competitive schools, as so many do here in the Northeast. Vassar College, for instance, requires ED 1 applicants to submit their information by November 15th. However, Vassar has an ED 2 option, the deadline for which is January 1st. The student will get a result in late January.

No student – no matter how well qualified – should bank on ED. A diligent student will draft or complete applications to several other schools. He or she should show up at information sessions and introduce himself or herself to touring reps. Some college counselors encourage applicants to keep in touch with applications officers via e-mail, though I would do so sparingly, either as follow-up to seeing a rep in person or accomplishing a feat after the application is filed.

Last year, my son told me, “I could never live with myself [if I didn’t apply ED to _____].” It was good enough for me. However, I also cautioned him to keep his decision to himself. Fueling friends or peers with information only raises questions and fuels expectations.

A few years ago, I heard a college admissions director say, “Early Decision should be just that – a decision – and not a strategy.” Many counselors and students know better.

Monday, August 30, 2010

September 2010: Back to School for Students

Do you dread the fall?
Too many students do. After all, fall means no more sun, surf, unlimited TV and Internet and hanging with friends. Some students, however, are anxious for school to begin. They delight in having a routine, regular interaction with friends, fun extracurriculars and perhaps new teachers and more inviting courses than the previous year.

For juniors and seniors, however, the start of school may be particularly unsettling. Will the course load be overbearing? Will the studying be unmanageable? Will the social pressures be too distracting? More importantly, will there ever be time for college visits, interviews or the Common App?

If those challenges seem insurmountable, listen up! You can take some important steps to take charge of your year:

Develop a good relationship with your guidance counselor
. Like it or not, this professional will be very important in the year ahead. After all, he or she will be writing your college recommendation. Do you want someone to write about you if he or she hardly knows you? So stop by and see your counselor. Make a point of telling him or her how you feel about your courses, what you did over the summer or where you’re thinking of applying.

Maximize your time on the road
. Group college visits geographically to avoid making extra trips. If you’re applying to schools that offer onsite interviews, take full advantage of the opportunity while you’re there. (Just be sure you have written down what you find attractive about that particular college community and what you’d like to ask the interviewer.) Bring along homework or reading for long rides or overnight stays.

Be proactive with your studying. Don’t just do your homework or study the night before a quiz or a test. Instead, do practice tests at the end of your chapters. If you’re in AP courses, go online and look at previous exams to understand the scope of your course. Get used to how you’ll be tested, for example with document-based questions (DBQs).

See your teachers! Going to see a teacher can be particularly anxiety laden for many students. However, it is a crucial behavior to develop now. Here are some situations that might warrant a teacher visit: clarifying a thesis statement for an essay or research paper; asking advice about what to study before a test; or showing the teacher writing in progress. As I always tell students, the visit to a teacher can make the difference in borderline situations.

Fall is new, fresh and crisp. Breathe deeply; positive change is in the air!

September 2010: For Parents

The Weather: Lovely, With Change in the Air

What time of year do you view as a fresh start? For some, it is the beginning of a calendar year. For others, it may be an anniversary or family celebration. For me, that time has always been early September which means back to school. I smell the air for signs of dropping temperatures. I look through stores, catalogs and websites to see the new sweaters, boots and slacks. But mostly, I wait to see children walking to school, lining up at the bus, and sharing their nervous energy with others.

This year, I have a special challenge: the transition not only from summer to fall, but from having one child at home to becoming an empty nester. So far, it’s been a mix of disbelief, excitement and anxiety. I watch young children at the pool or in town and want to “borrow” them. I wonder what their parents are doing in terms of their education. Are they making sure the teachers meet their needs? Are they finding out what teachers are doing to sharpen math and language arts skills? When I see teenagers, I wonder if what they are doing at home and school to be better and, yes, more marketable students. Are they selecting the appropriate extracurricular activities? Are they allotting the appropriate amount of time for studying, college visits and applications? Are they using technology productively?

This fall, I’m continuing my own studies by taking my third course with UCLA Extension. The topic is Financial Aid Fundamentals, my third in a series of courses that will enable me to have another certification. Online learning doesn’t always satisfy my cravings for desks, whiteboards and teachers, but it can be incredibly stimulating, not to mention wonderful for “meeting” other motivated professionals. I recommend it!

Fall. It’s exciting for some, dreaded by others. I can’t get enough of it. The challenge will be keeping the motivation high enough to accomplish so many objectives before the leaves are off the trees.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Making a Splash This Summer: Student Edition

What are your expectations for the summer? Maybe you want to hang with friends, go to the beach or lake, or have guiltless, late night iChats. Perhaps you are exhausted from school and want to do absolutely nothing.
True, everyone needs a break. But after a while, doing nothing gets old. Here’s what you can get done this summer . . .

Application Materials and Supporting Information. You may have some friends who intend to get their applications done before Labor Day; you might even be one of them. That is a very commendable objective, but be sure to note the following change: the Common Application site won’t go live until August 1, 2010. Nevertheless, there are very manageable activities that will go a long way toward beating deadlines. For starters, take a look at the Common Application preview page. You’ll quickly get an idea of what information is required, and you can start charting your hours, activities and achievements. You can read the questions under Personal Essay and brainstorm what you’ll write about. Go to a favorite summer spot and get creative! You’ll also need a carefully constructed resume (often referred to as the “brag sheet”) which allows counselors, admissions officers and recruiters to quickly see what you’re all about. (You may need a separate one for athletics.) Get yours drafted and formatted now to save time in the fall! There may be a template on your website. If you can’t find one, use the Common App chart as your guide.

College Visits. If you’re a rising junior or senior, summer is a good time to walk the campus, although it may lack the complete look and feel of a regular semester. Nevertheless it’s a good time to take a tour and attend an information session to get a sense of whether or not the school might be a place you could call home. In the information sessions, you’ll also hear firsthand how admissions officers assess applicants. Make sure you or a parent takes notes. While the visit is still fresh in your mind, prepare a chart matching your strengths with the characteristics of a target school.

If time permits, try to find an attraction in or near the area of your visit. It can be a water park, scenic overlook, factory tour or quaint downtown. This is a sure-fire way to involve siblings and take the focus away from college for a while.

. Attention! Your fall semester counts every bit as much as your junior year. For your fall classes, there is liable to be some reading. Keep a graphic organizer for any assigned novels, charting key characters, tone and theme, quotes and important page numbers. It might save you in September! What if you’re signed up for some challenging courses? Invest in a quality review book and reading though it. REA publishes some of the best prep books around. They will introduce important issues and serve as an invaluable reference source during the school year.

Other Ideas. Still worried about being bored? Not sure what schools are right for you? Here are some additional ideas:
• Take a personality test and see how your strengths align with an array of career choices. Start with the free typology test on Human Metrics. Alternatively, use the Myers-Briggs site to find career path associated with their respective types. To select a matching major, check with the College Board. Next, use the site to find matching colleges.
• Try an online course to supplement your schoolwork or enrich your background. Maximize those hours in front of the screen.
• Start a blog on the subject of your choice (provided it’s appropriate for all audiences). Blogging is a phenomenal way to structure your thoughts and practice those writing skills. Some people use blogging to turn a hobby into cash – a highly sought commodity among teens and college students.
• Volunteer at a camp, summer school program or community group.
• Do the (dreaded) standardized test practice if you need to.
• Use the Internet productively. Try looking at Unigo to get a student's perspective on colleges and universities.

True, the Summer of 2010 may not be the most exciting summer you’ve had. But considering your schedule for the fall, a summer well spent may prevent fall burnout. You will be pleased with yourself, and your parents, siblings and counselor will thank you!

Making a Splash This Summer: Parent Edition

Many of us associate summer with a carefree childhood. Others think back fondly on summer positions such as camp counselor or cashier. If your son or daughter is a rising junior or senior, you know that summers aren’t as easy as they used to be. You’re likely asking yourself some important questions about the summer of 2010: Is it too late to enroll my son or daughter in a summer program? Should I restrict privileges so he works on his college essay? Will it “look bad” if she works at a minimum-wage job? How much of a tyrant do I need to be to make sure my child focuses on college? Here are some reflections and suggestions . . .

Enrolling in Summer Programs. Many colleges and universities offer summer programs, but are they worth it? Summer programs taught on-site at so many colleges and universities can be quite costly. They play to students’ emotions with comments like, “Can you make it in the Ivy League?”
College admissions officers tell us that students should not have an unfair advantage because their families can afford a fancy summer program, especially one at an elite university. Moreover, it’s nearly June. We’re still in a recession. So don’t try to force-fit a program. If you can’t find the right one, you’re better off filing away the idea for next summer or for a sibling and instead have your student focus on other activities. If your child wants to supplement his or her learning, however, don’t overlook online programs from a credible institutions. Sometimes lower cost options are the best.
(That didn’t deter me from planning four busy summers for my own son, each one more demanding than the previous. I really think my son learned more about taking responsibility, such as commuting, than he did about product design and architecture.)

Starting College Applications. If you had intended to force your senior to work on his Common App, be warned that the site won’t go live until August 1, 2010 – one month later than last year. That doesn’t mean your son or daughter is off the hook, however. The Common App has posted a preview of the 2010-2011 application on its website. Encourage your rising senior to read this preview and brainstorm ideas for the Personal Essay. Consider a reward (iTunes gift card? A free pass on household chores?) for drafting the essay before school starts. If your child’s high school counselor has posted models for athletic and academic resumes (also known as “brag sheets”), ask your son or daughter to complete them and offer to proofread.

Remember, application process is not yours. Don’t make the mistake of writing your senior’s essay. Last summer, I gave my son a deadline: Labor Day. He submitted his last few applications on December 30, but when he did they were his essays in his voice (based on some guidance from Mom).

Taking Stress-free College Trips. Not all campuses are in full swing during the summer months. However, the summer might be the only time you have to visit colleges. Of course, you’re bound to have less stress associated with this activity if your son or daughter is a rising sophomore or junior rather than a senior, since you’re still primarily shopping around and eliminating choices.
Consider integrating some summer fun along with the trip. Stop and see a local attraction, explore a downtown, or see a historic site. One summer, my son followed a visit to a school in Vermont with a trip to the Ben & Jerry’s factory! Depending on family dynamics, you’ll know which to schedule first: the college or the area attraction.**

For those who absolutely cannot get away, check out CampusTours, Inc., http://www.campustours.com/default.aspx, which showcases the power of the Internet by bringing select campuses to your laptop. Look for CampusTours to make its mark in the not-so-distant future!

**Warning: Everyone who has gone through the college process can tell you: there is guaranteed to be one time the student will not get out of the car! During the spring of 2009, my son and I spent a delightful day at my alma mater in New England. While we were on our way home, I signaled and took a right off the Interstate. My son figured I had to make a rest stop. Then it dawned on him: I was driving toward another school – a school that wasn’t one of his choices! We got there and drove through the campus. He wouldn’t get out.

Using the Time Productively. If your household is like many others, there may be school year restrictions on Internet or television that are lifted during the summer. That doesn’t mean you should stop keeping watch over your child’s activities. If your son or daughter isn’t successful at finding a job in the tough economy, perhaps he or she can learn website design or polish other software skills. A blog is another possibility. There are bound to be volunteer activities in the community. Students can be very enterprising when motivated.

Enjoy the summer. The fall semester isn't far away!

Monday, May 3, 2010

May I Have Your Attention?

Who doesn’t want your attention this month? Prospective colleges, parents, teachers, classmates, teammates, study partners, girlfriends and boyfriends all seem to want you at your best. Yes, it is a lot of pressure. But as I often tell my students, you will survive! In fact, you can thrive. Here’s how:

If you’re a sophomore . . . You want to build momentum to soar in your junior year! Don’t hesitate to meet with your teachers to be sure you’re on track for a strong finish. During your study time, try to anticipate the questions on your finals. Be diligent about any research papers. Go for the big score! Also, consider taking SAT Subject Tests such as Math Level 1 or the science in which you are currently enrolled: biology, chemistry or physics. The best results on these tests come while the course material is fresh in your mind, and that’s now rather than your junior year. (Be sure to check in with the appropriate teacher first to make sure the curriculum he or she teaches is consistent with the material on the College Board Subject Test.)

If you’re a junior . . . This is the time to perform in the clutch. If you have AP tests, be prepared. Look on the College Board site for some excellent practice questions; they have all subjects! Get quality review books. REA is a wonderful publishing company with titles such as AP US History: Are You Serious About Getting a 5? and AP U.S. Government and Politics Crash Course. AP students report that REA publications are indeed worthwhile investments. Remember this: colleges will examine not only your grades but also your AP scores. Go for that 4 or 5 to eclipse any disappointing report card grades. A score of 4 or more is usually good for placement credit.

Plan to take SAT Subject Tests in June. Many colleges are looking increasingly at your performance on these tests rather than traditional “aptitude tests” like the SAT. NYU, for example, has just announced changes to its standardized test requirements. Whereas past applicants had to submit the SAT or ACT along with Subject Tests, in 2010-2011, they can opt to submit three SAT Subject Tests or three AP Tests instead of the SAT or ACT. For more details, check NYU’s admission site.

If you’re a senior . . . The party isn’t necessarily over! Finish your courses on an up note. Go for 4s and 5s on your APs. If you’re taking finals, end with As and Bs. Remember, colleges have every right to see your grades through the end of the year. Moreover, you may be on a wait list now or you may decide to transfer at some point. That means you want to have a transcript that shows no signs of slacking off. Also, remember to show exemplary behavior and keep your Facebook page respectable!

June will be here soon!


Question of the Day

A parent asks you to stop by the bookstore and pick up a book on college admissions. There are so many on the shelves. How do you decide which to buy? What aspects of college do you feel a good book should cover? Send your feedback to nberler@comcast.net and become eligible for a complimentary consult on the essay of your choice.