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February 23, 2015

College Selection Tips | Picking the Right College

Many students just want to go to the best college possible. However, how should you define "best"? "Best" isn't simply what the rankings say. It's the school that fits your needs and preferences.

This post will help you figure out how to choose the right one.

Some of the most important factors to consider when choosing the right college for you:
1. How large is the student body? Do you want a large community with a ton of opportunities, or do you want a "small town feel" where everyone knows each other? This will affect the faculty/student ratio as well.

2. How prestigious is the college? The more respected it is, the more opportunities you'll have after graduation.

3. Where is the school located? How close is it to your family? Do you want an urban, suburban, or rural environment?

4. Will the college environment expose you to new experiences? Do you want to challenge yourself in an unfamiliar environment and learn to live independently?

How to find out the answers to these questions
1. Visit the college's website. Look at how the college presents itself.

2. Visit the college yourself. If you might spend four years there, it's worth taking the college for a test drive. Take a tour of the campus, and don't be afraid to speak with the tour guide one-on-one to answer your individual questions.

Of course, these are not unbiased sources. Any information you get from the website or tour guide is likely to present the college in the best possible light. Would a student who disliked the college be volunteering or working as a tour guide? Of course not.

For this reason:

3. Speak with current students besides the tour guide. Where do you find them? They're all over campus! Take some initiative and speak with random students you see outside or in the student center.

4. Speak with recent alumni of that college. They might be the older siblings of your friends, or they might be random people you contact through Facebook. Most likely, they'll be happy to help you. After all, they were in your position only a few years ago.

The above list of considerations is not complete by any means. Next week, I'll cover several more factors in choosing the right college.

February 20, 2015

College Interview Outfits And Clothing | What To Wear

or...Dress to Impress: Your Head-to-Toe Guide to College Interview Outfits

I know that you have a lot on your plate, that you have to worry about grades, extracurricular activities, SATs, and essays, to name a few things. I also know that picking out college interview outfits is not on the top of your list of concerns. Still, I know many students who let this slide, and then ended up freaking out the night before the interview. In the hope that this does not happen to you, I have put together a head-to-toe guide of how to present yourself in your interview.

1. Neck and Above

Girls, if you wear makeup, make sure that it is natural and minimal. Avoid heavy eye makeup and excessive bronzer.

Do not wear too much jewelry. No jewelry is necessary, but girls may wear a pair of stud earrings, such as pearls, and a simple necklace and watch. For boys, a watch is all you need. If you have any piercings besides in the ears, take out the earrings before the interview.

Make sure that your hair is combed and neat. If you are having a bad hair day, do not freak out. Girls, just put your hair in a neat bun, or half up and half down. Also, note to both boys and girls: avoid elaborate hairstyles, too much hair gel, or hair colors that do not appear in nature!

Boys should make sure that they are clean-shaven. While your friends might like your handlebar moustache, admissions officers probably will not.

2. Clothes

These are basic guidelines, which in some cases you can modify slightly. In general, you can be somewhat more casual in alumni or student interviews than you can be during interviews with admissions officers. Also, if you are interviewing for an alternative liberal arts college like Hampshire, you can be a little more lax than you would be for more traditional schools. For interviews with undergraduate business schools like Wharton, you should veer towards the more formal side. However, the following guidelines work for any interview, whether with a student, alumni, or admissions officer, at a hippy-dippy liberal arts school or a more stuffy business program.

In general, business casual is the name of the game. For girls, this means a blouse, twinset, or tailored sweater on top, and slacks or a tailored skirt that reaches the knees or below on bottom. For boys, this means a button down shirt and slacks. Boys may also add a sweater vest or nice sweater if they would like.

Black, white, navy, or neutral colors are the best. Make sure that everything is clean and ironed. The focus should be on you, not on your clothes! Also, make sure everything fits well. No saggy pants or anything too tight! Finally, not to state the obvious, but avoid showing too much skin. Boys, this means you too. (Girlsm while on Gossip Girl it might be okay to show tons of cleavage for a Yale interview. In real life, this does not fly.)

3. Feet

For girls, wear black or neutral colored, clean shoes. Loafers or small heels work well. Avoid shoes that make it hard to walk. You do not want to be remembered as the girl who stumbled and tripped!

For boys, dress shoes or loafers are perfect.

Now that dressing for your interviews is a no-brainer, it is time to start working on what you are going to say! Stay tuned for more on that next week.

February 11, 2015

College Selection: Private vs In-State Tuition

A college applicant (well, his father) recently asked me:

"Is it worth it to spend double for private college over going somewhere public (in-state), given the difference in tuition?"

My response:

This is a question that I can't really answer for you - it's a personal decision that only you can make. If you could predict with 100% certainty that you'll go on to graduate school, then it would likely make sense to save the money on undergrad. However, it's difficult to predict whether you'll actually go on to graduate school either directly after undergrad or in the not-so-near future. Things change.

I went to Columbia for undergrad and thought I would go on to graduate school at various points (even filling out applications), but then didn't. 

The "brand" of an Ivy League or other first-tier school carries a great deal of weight in a variety of areas. Pursuing any type of graduate school is less worthwhile than it used to be, so you may not end up going to graduate school in the end. Having a brand-name school on the resume (and to name-drop in various settings) is a valuable signal of intelligence/skills/aptitude, etc.

February 9, 2015

College Recommendation Letters Advice

The letters of recommendation are one of the most important parts of your college application. Besides the college essay, it is the main window into the intangibles of who you are as a person in and out of the classroom.

It can seem like you have little control over how these letters turn out. After all, you can’t write them yourself (unless you have an exceptionally lazy/generous teacher.) Nevertheless, you do have more control over the quality of these letters than it might seem.

Choosing the right recommenders can make the difference between lackluster letters that don’t make an impression and convincing letters that make an impact. Here are the two most important things to consider (that most students overlook!) when choosing the people to write their letters of recommendation.

1. How much effort will the recommender put in?

Many students just choose teachers based on who gives the easiest grades, but this is often not the best choice. Admissions officers will get your transcript, and (for better or worse!) will read it quite carefully. The role of the letters of recommendation is not to reveal your objective ability as a student, but to give clues into your character, work ethic, integrity, and all those other qualities admissions officers love.

A short, vague letter from a teacher whose class you got a 101% in is a lot less helpful than a long, detailed letter detailing your personal strengths from a teacher whose class you had more trouble with. So, ask yourself: what type of letter would Recommender X write, for any student? Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure. You can’t ask recommenders to audition. Still, there are important clues.

Is the potential recommender a senile, grumpy old fart? Do they race out of class at the sound of the bell before the students do? Do they read out boring lectures in monotone taken directly from the textbook (or Wikipedia)? If so, don’t even think about asking them. It doesn’t matter if you were the #1 student in their class. They will most likely put the same level of effort and enthusiasm into writing your letter as they do into their other teacher duties.

On the other hand, if the potential recommender gives vibrant, thought-out presentations in the classroom, has students over for dinner, and is the faculty advisor for a billion clubs, they are likely to write a good letter. A recommender who loves, and puts a lot of effort into, teaching and students, will also do so in your letter.

2. How is your relationship with the recommender?

Admissions officers can sniff out a phony letter from a recommender who didn’t really know you all that well pretty easily. They see these letters all the time. A letter from a recommender that thinks you are a good student and likes you—enough—just won’t be enough.

Try to think of the teachers/advisers with whom you had the most contact and the best relationships. Maybe it’s the faculty adviser of the newspaper of which you were editor, or that science teacher you went to extra-credit lectures with, or just someone whose class you participated in a lot. The more personal contact you had, the more specific and believable the recommendation letter will be.

Also, since you can send several letters of recommendation, think about what each recommender can uniquely contribute in showing the overall picture of you. Ask your lacrosse coach, who can talk about your teamwork and sense of humor. Then ask that math teacher who saw how you struggled with derivatives, but worked hard to finally conquer them. Ask the English teacher/lit mag adviser, who can talk about your creative side. Choosing the right recommenders can show admissions officers the strengths not shown in the other parts of the application, and make a big difference. Choose carefully!

February 6, 2015

5 Reasons Not to Be Discouraged By a Low GPA

1. Colleges look at the complete application package.

There may be a lot of factors working in your favor besides your high school GPA. The college application brings together many different elements of your achievements and experience. It's common for students to dwell on the negative factors and to become pessimistic about their chances of being accepted to their top-choice colleges. Keep in mind that this is not the same perspective the admissions officers will take.

2. Applications let you emphasize your strengths.

In your essay and interview, you get a clean slate. Take advantage of this chance to play up the best parts of your application. Highlight some experiences outside the classroom that have been especially important to you. Write about things you've accomplished, decisions you've had to make, and values that guide your life. Convince the admissions committee that you have what it takes to be a leader on campus and an asset to the school.

3. You can show an upward trend.

If you still have a few semesters left of high school, make them your best. Admissions officers love to see signs of improvement on a student's transcript. Show that you take your work seriously and that you've learned how to be a great student. Some schools don't even include your marks from 9th grade in their own calculation of your GPA. If you can do well in your challenging junior and senior year classes, you'll be prepared for college-level work. Seek extra help from your teachers to master the course content, and show them that you're doing everything you can to perform at your best. If your parents are willing to invest in tutoring, this is the time when it can benefit you the most.

4. If personal or family factors affected your grades, you can point this out.

College life is not easy. If you've faced challenges and worked to overcome them, this is a valuable strength that will help you to make the most of your college experience. It's okay if your grades went down around the time of a death in the family, a divorce, an illness or injury, or other personal circumstance. Even if you simply had trouble adjusting to high school and it took you a year or two to get settled, that may be worth writing about. Tell the admissions committee about these events in your life and how they've affected you. Not only does this explain your low grades, it personalizes your application and gives the admissions officers some insight into your life.

5. Many schools offer a conditional acceptance.

If you're an outstanding applicant except for some lower-than-ideal grades, you may be offered a conditional acceptance. You go to your dream school and, as long as you maintain a certain GPA during your first year (or two years), you're there to stay. This gives you a chance to prove that you can be successful in the new and exciting campus environment. Once you're in just do your best, seek help when you need it, and everything should work out just fine.

February 2, 2015

The Ivy League Guide to Extracurricular Activities

Colleges want to accept students who will excel not only in academics but also in real life. Academics are important, but what you do outside of the classroom will show the admissions officer that you can make a meaningful contribution to campus life and to the world as a proud college sweatshirt-wearing alum.

If you're ambitious enough to be reading this blog as a high school freshman or sophomore, the following tips will help you to make choices now that will put you on the path to success. If you're reading this as a junior or senior (as I expect most of you are), these tips will help you to present yourself in the best way possible on your applications.

1. Think accomplishments, not titles.

The most competitive colleges receive thousands of applications from eager students who were President or Vice President of 5 (or more!) clubs in their high school. Admissions officers will wonder if you actually had to do anything in these roles. Elected positions are vehicles by which you can accomplish things, but they are not the ends unto themselves. Show that you did more than just win a popularity contest among your peers. Use your resume to describe what you've done. It's great to be Editor-in-Chief of your school newspaper, but how do you stand out amongst the many Editors-in-Chief who apply to your dream school? Did you start a new section? Improve the quality of the staff editorials? Double advertising revenue? Let the admissions officer see how this role has shaped you and helped you to develop skills that you can bring to campus.

2. Identify a need and start something new.

A good sign that you're ready for a competitive college is that you've outgrown what your high school has to offer. A good sign that you have something to offer your future campus is that you've left a mark on your high school and done something to make it a better place. As you read through your school's list of clubs and activities, what's missing? Is there an issue or cause that matters to you? Get others involved. Start a club, organize a fundraiser, invite a speaker to your school, or put together a conference.

3. Branch out.

Extracurricular activities aren't limited to the walls of your high school. Be an active member of your community. Volunteer for a political campaign, start a non-profit organization, run a business. Show your dream school that you can work with others and get things done.

4. Remember the big picture.

It's easy to get so caught up in the day-to-day life of a high school student that you may not often stop to reflect on what it is you're doing and why it matters. Try to be mindful of this. If you can understand how the roles you play in your school and community fit into larger issues, and if you've thought about the challenges you've faced and how you've worked to overcome them, you'll be well on your way to presenting yourself as a top-notch applicant.

January 30, 2015

Extracurricular Activities | How to Demonstrate Commitment

Extracurricular activities are one of the biggest parts of your college application. This means it's in your best interest to get the most bang for your buck on the clubs and sports you join.

However, most students don't do much in in their first 2 years of high school and then suddenly join a whole bunch of clubs in their last two. They're trying to cram in their extracurriculars (as well as properly preparing for a significant exam). Unfortunately, it's easy to see why this strategy is not optimal. The person reading your application has seen this sort of thing before and will see through the charade (see: College Admissions | Who is Reading Your Application). Here's a better way to participate in extracurriculars:

This philosophy is inspired by Carl Friedrich Gauss (a mathematician), and it signals exactly what you want to show college admissions officers. (Don’t worry, you won't have to be familiar with anything Gauss actually did to follow this strategy.) Gauss was arguably the greatest mathematician of all time. In his published mathematical works, he used this very simple phrase as a preface, “pauca sed matura,” which translates to “few but ripe.”

Gauss, while a prolific mathematician, was not a prolific writer. He refused to publish anything he considered to be incomplete. He would find one strand of research and follow it all the way to the end. Then, he'd only publish what he learned if he reached the end. (Someone following this advice for *academics* would easily fail high school for failing to turn in assignments, but that's beside the point.)

Learn from Gauss, and make this your guide to extra-curricular activities. Your objective is not to join a large number of clubs and sports. You don't want to be a jack of all trades and master of none. Instead, join fewer clubs and and remain in those clubs for at least 3 years. Get super-involved and rise to a leadership position within those clubs.

Admissions officers aren't stupid. If they see that you did nothing in your first few years of high school and then that you suddenly became a member of many clubs in the last, they'll know why. They hate these people.

The best solution? Do what our friend Gauss did: signal commitment, passion, and leadership by sticking with fewer things and doing them better as a result.

By sticking with 2 or 3 activities for 4 years rather than 6 or 7 for only one, you demonstrate that you have a lasting passion for an activity and are motivated enough to pursue it even when there is no immediate payoff. (Boost in college admissions chances) You also show that you're willing to make a commitment and pursue the things you enjoy. If you manage to rise to a leadership position within the club (and honestly, this is not difficult), then you can make this a big talking point in your application. So when joining clubs, keep in mind the Gaussian philosophy; “Few, but ripe.”