Wednesday, August 29, 2012

“Second Choice” College? It Really Can be an Epic Win!

The leaves aren’t turning yet, but with dorm supplies in stores and packed-up cars on the highways, it’s clear that it’s time to go (back to) college. While that should put joy on the faces of many students and parents, at times it raises skepticism and doubt. What happens when students are headed off to a college that wasn’t their top choice – maybe not even their second or third choice?

It happens all the time. The key for a student is turning it into a success story.

I’ve long subscribed to the theory that things work out for the best. But students aren’t as wise as adults, and they need to find this out “on the job.” I recently had a call from the mother of a rising sophomore. Her son, my former student, had been accepted to his first-choice college – all he ever talked about – but was not guaranteed a slot in the academic program he really wanted. In the end, he opted for another school and had a wonderful freshman year in a far more intimate setting. Meanwhile, he’s already been guaranteed a spot in the graduate program of his choice. During my son’s freshman year at his runner-up college, he met President Obama, volunteered to help others with their course assignments, got a top GPA, and explored nearly every inch of a major metropolitan area he otherwise would not have lived in (and he’s a prospective urban planner). This city offered him access to a life-changing internship at 19 which would not have happened at those other colleges. Again, the benefits of going to a “second choice” school are many.

Students and parents should not approach the freshman year as the be all and end all of experiences. That creates far too much pressure than it’s worth. Over time, students realize that they may have fixated on a school more because of reputation or location than actual benefits. Moreover, if a situation does not work out, there are numerous transfer opportunities. The son of a dear friend just transferred after two years at his second-choice school to a college at which he had originally been waitlisted. He is now more mature and enters his junior year fresh off a summer internship. He knows what he wants to study and looks at the transfer as a fresh start. As many his age say, this is an epic win!

I remember attending a session at my own freshman orientation where I was told the next four years would be “the best of my life.” They were very good – I appreciate them now more than ever – but can I really say that they were the best? I loved working in New York after graduation, making friends as a young adult, transitioning to a second care, and sharing my own knowledge with teenagers even more!

In a year or two, don’t be surprised if you find yourself saying, “Had ______ gone to ______, this (good thing) never would have happened!”

travel bags blue

Friday, July 27, 2012

Maximizing College Visit Effectiveness

As I meet with high school students and their parents this summer, the subject of college visits inevitably comes up. I tell them what a close friend told me when my son was a rising sophomore: there will always be one school visit that won’t materialize because the student refuses to get out of the car!

Less than a year after hearing that, I found out what my friend meant firsthand. As we drove back home from New England, I just happened to turn off the interstate. My son thought I was making a pit stop but soon realized that Mom had something else in mind: another college visit! He looked at the town as we navigated the city, next saw the outskirts of the campus, and then absolutely refused to get out of the car. So, it was true! A year later, as we drove through bucolic Vermont and Massachusetts, we made another “drive by.” This time, he told me, the college looked like an office park! Again, he would not get out of the car.

I tell these stories to my wonderful families so that they are prepared for the unexpected during the college visit. Indeed, it is usually the case that no amount of market research can prepare a student for the vibe he or she gets when pulling up to a campus – or walking inside of it.

Here are some pointers for those who visit:
• Take notes during the information session (or appoint a designated note-taker).
• Pay close attention to tour guides and matriculated students, and ask them questions. I had one student last year who crossed a college off her list after the feedback she received from matriculated students she stopped at random.
• Take steps to avoid tension; if necessary reduce the number of family members permitted on the visit.
• If building interiors are not part of your tour, sneak into lecture halls and dorms.
• By all means, if your student is familiar with a professor or wants to sit through a class, contact the admissions office in advance of your trip.
• Try to see the campus while school is in session. (This is understandably difficult with our packed schedules and break times.)
• Check to see if on-campus interviews are available before you visit; just be sure your student is prepared and practiced for that interview.
• Jot down reactions while they are fresh in your mind. You’ll be glad you did.

A note to parents: Do not hesitate to use incentives if starting the process early. When my son was a sophomore, I would link a pleasure trip to a college visit. Wasn’t the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour a worthy prize for seeing an elite Vermont college? How about Busch Gardens as an ample reward for a trip to Charlottesville?

Remember, you will grow increasingly confident and knowledgeable with each college visit. When we became veterans of the process, my son and I actually looked forward to our trips. We found out that visits could be full of pleasant surprises (like the tour guide who explained that students could take finals in bed at midnight), bad first impressions (such as the admissions officer who forgot about his information session) or natural occurrences (like snow in late April). We learned to break away from the tour if necessary and explore on our own, sometimes stopping for a light meal or snack on campus or in the college town – yet another way to assess fit.

If possible, enjoy the college visits and the precious family time you have when away from your everyday routines. In a year or two, your student may be the one conducting the tours!


Friday, July 6, 2012

SAT and ACT Preparation: Making Sense of the Choices

Over the last few years, I have been increasingly called upon to provide SAT and ACT guidance to my students, even if those students did not originally come to me for that purpose. While I have mixed feelings about standardized testing – it surely adds to a student’s burden during the roughest times in high school – I believe it can also be a valuable learning tool and confidence builder. So given that the SAT and ACT are part of students’ lives, how can they best prepare for these tests?

First, I recommend starting with materials offered by the testing organization, that is, the College Board and the ACT, Inc. True, there are many choices on the (virtual) shelves, and some are very good. However, why use another vendor or publisher when the real deal is available? I always advise my students to get the College Board’s blue books, available for both the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests. Students who are taking the ACT should get the The Real ACT Prep Guide. Only when these resources have been exhausted would I advise students to supplement with books from various publishers. (The College Board’s thick SAT book unfortunately does not come with answer explanations, but the Subject Tests guides do.)

There are more great sources available. Students taking the PSAT get their original booklet back, so why not use it as a study tool? For those taking the SAT and ACT more than once, the College Board and ACT both allow students to get their test booklets from certain test administrations. Also, both organizations make some available free, so see those respective websites. (I am a huge fan of the SAT and ACT Questions of the Day.)

What about online resources and iPad apps? These can be very good as well. (I recently advised a 15-year-old creator of a vocab app whom I believe has a really solid chance of success.) They should rarely be used as a first resource, however, because the student does not get the “look and feel” of the actual test, especially since he or she cannot write all over the test. (I urge all my students, especially the brainy ones who tend to do so many math questions in their heads, to mark up their test booklet. I believe it gets them actively involved in the process. In Critical Reading, writing in the test booklet is important as well so that students can identify main and supporting ideas and make links between the text and questions.)

Depending on the student, some sections warrant more prep that others. In the case of ACT Science, for example, a student needs to run through at least one complete sample section to become comfortable with it and get a sense of the timing. The SAT and ACT essays are very doable, but I encourage students to have an inventory of leaders, favorite books, movies and TV shows before the test. Why struggle under the pressure of the clock?

Unlike the ACT, the SAT includes vocabulary in context (i.e., sentence completions) prior to the Reading Comprehension sections. I recommend that my students get Charles Gulotta’s 500 Words for the SAT and How to Remember Them Forever! Whether or not they like Gulotta’s methodology, he has a winning word list. To study, they should break the book into manageable components rather than trying to study it all at the same time. Experts tell us that is how we learn most effectively. (I often suggest to rising juniors and seniors that they take the book along on vacations and long flights.) If time permits, writing context sentences is better than memorizing the definition in a “one off” fashion. (That’s also the way they appear on the SAT.)

There is no student who will not benefit from preparing to some degree. Some need one-on-one help, while others can be very successful just by working on their own. Students shouldn’t cram, nor should they expect to master test taking at the busiest time of year (e.g., junior year). Rather, they should ease into the process, start early, and use summers wisely. The trick is not to make SAT and ACT prep feel like studying. In fact, I often use SAT questions in one-on-one sessions with younger students; they get experience and don’t fear the test when they are older.

Remember, SATs and ACTs are important but are just one component of the overall college admissions package, which means students and parents alike should keep the tests in perspective. Using some of these prep tips, students will begin to think like the test maker – rather than the test taker!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Enhancing Career Readiness through Summer Jobs

With the end of every school year, there are more graduating students to miss. Whether they’ve come just for college prep, or if they’ve been with me for some time, there’s a good chance we’ve established a very strong bond. I am a better teacher and mentor from having had the pleasure of working with and learning from them.

Fortunately, those same students are always part of my life, even when their high school days are over. Sometimes at the request of their parents, or perhaps when I come across an interesting opportunity, I help the students find internships that make their summers during college more meaningful. Increasingly, there is the chance that the right summer opportunity can have a dramatic impact on a student’s career readiness.

For College Students

To college students, my advice is to start a spreadsheet of future possibilities now. Many organizations require a student intern to be a rising junior, for example. But if a rising sophomore really likes the idea of working for ______, he or she should keep a record of the entity, contact information and prerequisites. This can serve not only as a motivator for selecting courses, but it also enhances the possibility of getting a jump start on applying in the future. (What if, for one day during a student’s 2012-13 winter break, he or she were to e-mail these contacts, anticipating that they may have summer 2013 openings not yet advertised?)

Most parents, and understandably so, really see the summer as a time to earn money. This raises a sticky question: what about unpaid internships? I can address this concern from personal experience. When my son came home after his freshman year at GW, he did not yet have firm summer plans. Each of us looked diligently on the Internet (he welcomed my help, unlike during the high school years) and one day, I came across an ad from a boutique real estate company which was offering an unpaid internship. My son, always interested in urban planning, followed up, got an interview and, fortunately, an offer. This internship had countless benefits, allowing my son to see how his skills could be used on the job and how people in the “real world” lived. He loved it! He continued writing for the firm from his college dorm in the fall – this time for pay – and by the winter of 2012, he discovered and landed a salaried internship in Washington, DC, in part because of the skills and experience he picked up the previous summer! In addition to a paycheck, he earned college credit. What he learned in that internship laid the seeds for a paying summer job this summer and helped him gain the confidence needed to deal in the world outside the college campus.

For High School Students

It is not easy to be employed during the summer between years of high school. There is fierce competition for jobs with peers and college students. Often, the position goes to the most ambitious or the most willing to show initiative in caring for others (for example, house sitting, pet sitting, teaching peers your favorite subject). So what if other high school students used their talents to find summer opportunities? For example, I have a student who draws Manga characters and has taught herself sign language. I’m hoping she tries to get some of her Manga work published, offers sign workshops, or volunteers in some way. This is career readiness, communication skills development, job experience, and college “brag sheet” material all wrapped together!

For All Students

I do have advice for all my students, high school or college, which is to keep up their skills in social media. They should blog about subjects they like and get a company or an association to pick up their work. It will be helpful to learn about search engine optimization (SEO) and Internet commerce, which will so much be a part of their lives. (This is especially true for individuals who are aspiring entrepreneurs, academics or journalists.) If an individual is an athlete, he or she should consider volunteering at a sports camp and keeping up with listings for jobs in sports (maybe even signing up at Students should set up the skeleton of a resume on their computers and, before going back to school in the fall, stop by a prospective employer and inquire about next summer. All students should jump on any opportunities to interview; this is a life skill in the making.

Certainly, nothing about the job search process is entirely fair, especially when it comes to prospective workers who lack experience. Corporations cut staff and farm out projects to business school students. Internships that may have come with a salary attached no longer do. People with connections grab positions before a company can post a job. Yet those who overcome the odds and take risks have a chance to thrive. In a sense, that’s what career readiness is all about.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Sorting through Options for College

If you’re the parent of a high school senior, getting through March may be somewhat like stepping on eggshells. Soon enough, the fate of your son or daughter will be sealed with a click of the mouse – to be followed by feelings of elation, relief, despair or uncertainty.

Many students, especially those here in the competitive Northeast, learn in a heartbeat that their master plan for college won’t be happening after all. That, of course, is how the world sometimes works. Your student may have to make a choice between two options that weren’t at the top of the list. Barring financial issues, what will help your student make the big decision?

Take advantage of visitation days. These give your student the opportunity to mix with other accepted students while picking up the latest vibe on campus. When my son was weighing his options a few years ago, we ventured to see the only school he hadn’t visited, a last-minute addition to his target list. The journey through endless Upstate New York farms, along with the panel discussions on campus, convinced him to go with his gut and to attend a city school instead. These quick visits to campuses have similarly helped many of my students; in fact, they have eliminated options based on conversations with matriculated students and the “look and feel” of the dorms and campus buildings.

Encourage your student to join social networking groups for prospective students. In this case, be glad he or she can harness the power of the Internet to meet and greet. It’s the next best thing to a visit (and for some students, less nerve wracking).

Reassess access to internships at each college. Often internships are invaluable resume credentials; in some cases they are a source of inspiration and stimulation that classes may not able to provide. Some colleges, by virtue of their reputation or location, have greater reach into the marketplace than others (even though student accomplishments and initiatives help seal the deal).

(Re)consider the location. This is huge! Remember you get to pull away in August or September, leaving your student in a new environment. Before sending in a deposit, he or she may once again wish to weigh the need for a city, community or downtown. During my Upstate New York visit, my son and I sampled local pizza and a movie. While we felt safe and comfortable, we realized that the downtown had only a few streets – far fewer than he needed in a college town. (Snowflakes in April didn’t help either.) I recall a similar story from a neighborhood student who had been admitted to an Ivy college. He called his mother from the visit and said, “Send that deposit to _____. There’s nothing to do here!”

Don’t forget the elite factor, which often goes hand in hand with size. I can’t overemphasize the importance of this to many of my students who thrive at being around smart students. Does your student want to be one of many intellectuals, or does he or she want to be the star?

Consider the prevalence of Greek Life. The significance of fraternities and sororities is another deal breaker. Do they dominate the campus and weekend activities, or are they off to the side? I currently have a student evaluating this factor at a good school in a rural setting. If he’s not a frat man, will he be happy?

For Those Thinking About Waiting Lists and Future Transfers . . .
For my College Counseling practicum with UCLA, I researched elite-school transfers. I learned that in most cases, the chances of gaining admission as a transfer are even lower than those of freshman applicants (with a few notable exceptions). So be cautious when advising a disappointed student that he or she “can always transfer” to that sought after elite university. (The same is true of getting off wait lists, even though I have had students be successful in that regard.)

If you think you may have a prospective transfer applicant on your hands, note that colleges look at GPA first, so students who are thinking of transferring need to be proactive and upbeat with their academics. That means studying far in advance of exams, creating original and insightful written work, and really impressing professors (even if the school was not their first or second choice.)

Most importantly, remember that barring financial issues, the choice of colleges should be the student’s – not the parent’s. Most likely, your student will emerge from his or her freshman year more responsible and mature than even you thought possible.

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Friday, February 3, 2012

When Choosing Courses, Do You Take the Road Less Traveled By?

It’s that time of year. Football season is almost over. It’s too cold to plant, but not too early to think about it. But there is one event that’s in season: course selection.

No matter where my families live and students go to school, I see many of the same issues relating to selecting next year’s courses. If you’re the parent of an underclassman – or someone who advises one – here are some tips that you might put to use when choosing courses for 2012-2013.

Should my student pick the regular, honors or AP course? This is a function of the student’s ability, workload and target college list. Of course, when asked if it’s better to get an A in an easy course or a B in a harder one, admissions officers from most competitive colleges will say they want to see As in honors and AP courses. However, I have seen students hurt and overwhelmed by a hard course or a demanding teacher. The student starts to fall increasingly behind, and the parent spends time and resources to help that student recover. The student’s confidence is blown. Believe me; I have had this experience as a parent, and it’s not worth it. Consider the difficulty factor when signing off on your student’s choice of courses, and be understanding if he or she wants to “drop down” next year.

How many AP courses do I need for college? There is no right answer to this question. College admissions officers trace courses from semester to semester and, when evaluating that all-important transcript, they want to see a natural progression in courses. Students should be aware of the nature of the AP course work and the teacher’s style when deciding whether to go the AP route. (By the way, it is possible to take AP exams even when a course isn’t offered, so that’s another option.) The College Board makes sample questions from past exams available, and that is a very good way for a prospective student to determine whether or not a particular course would be appropriate.

How much should my student challenge himself or herself? A student should always be challenged. If all things were equal, I would advise having the most positive and most academic role models around your student. However, some of the same advice given above applies here. In addition, if your student is passionate about a nonacademic activity, he or she will sacrifice valuable study hours. Some of today’s courses are really difficult – far more than they were back when we went to high school. Moreover, colleges don’t want nerdy kids; they want kids who love what they do and use their hours productively.

Does my student need more than three years of the same language? Language is cumulative, and knack for language is to a large extent innate. So some students will have an easier time than others. In today’s global marketplace, competitive colleges and universities expect applicants to have at least three years of the same language, and many prefer four. It would seem strange to see a candidate drop a language after two years and start a new one. At the same time, if a student had room in the schedule, it would be impressive to add a new language.

How demanding a senior year does my student need? The (unfortunate) answer is that applicants to competitive colleges need to sport a very demanding senior year course load. College admissions officers scrutinize the first half of the senior year, looking both at course difficulty and grades. If a college applicant is deferred or rejected in an Early Decision round in the fall, that first semester will be huge. So the message to seniors: Choose your courses wisely, and don’t slack off!

What courses are hot? I’ve noticed that AP Psychology is a very hot course selection among my rising juniors and seniors. There are a number of reasons why: some schools accept AP Psych as a history course; students like the idea of analyzing themselves and their friends; and AP Psych may provide placement credit so that a student doesn’t need to sit through Psych 101 in college. AP Psych requires extensive knowledge of theories and theorists, so if you’re student doesn’t find that appealing, he or she may opt for a different AP. Get a preview on the College Board website:

Contact me with questions. I’ll look forward to hearing what path your student decides to follow.

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