April 17, 2015

The High School Superstar Effect in College Admissions

Back in 2009, Cal Newport interviewed me for his book, How to be a High School Superstar

It started when he posted a call for interviewees on his great Study Hacks blog:
I’m looking for students who did well in the college admissions process by focusing on a very small number of things during high school. The idea I’m trying to support is that doing very well at one thing can be more impressive than doing lots of things kind of well. If this descriptions fits you (or someone you know), send me an e-mail — I’d love to hear your story.

I emailed him:
I fit that category.
 I got into Columbia University as an early decision applicant mainly due to my extracurricular involvement with SustainUS, an NGO composed of U.S. youth advocating for sustainable development. I was mainly involved in the group's efforts to lobby government delegates at United Nations conferences.
 The highlight of my experience with SustainUS was attending a UN conference in South Africa the summer before my senior year of high school. I wrote my college essay about the conference.

Here's the text of our initial interview as he conducted research for his book:

Can you give me some sense of the path that began with you knowing nothing about the NGO to traveling to South Africa?

While emailing various humanitarian organizations for a summer internship to take place between sophomore and junior years of high school, I came across Physicians for Human Rights.

Although they had no summer internships for high school students available, they invited me to attend the Third Preparatory Committee meeting to the UN Special Session on Children because they were allowed to take a young person. I jumped at the opportunity. This was May 2001.

I attended the actual Special Session on Children the following year in June 2002 and spoke on a panel with executives from MTV.

As I was writing my speech for that panel during some downtime at a Model Congress convention in April 2002, I was approached by a girl who asked what I was doing. I explained the UN conference and panel.

After hearing me mention a UN conference, she told me about SustainUS and how it was organizing around the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa (which took place August-September 2002).

I became very involved in SustainUS over the next few months as one of its few high school members (most were in college). I participated in its email listserves, became part of the national Steering Committee, and I helped to plan its "Bet" Campaign encouraging politicians to reduce their CO2 emissions. As a liberal NGO, SustainUS is a consensus-based "do-ocracy," and the Internet allowed me to get involved as much as I wanted.

When the call for applications to represent SustainUS at the conference went out in June, I submitted one and was accepted as one of 8 SustainUS delegates. I was the only high schooler in the organization to go to World Summit in South Africa. The conference continued right through the beginning of senior year.

How did your schedule and stress levels compare to the students you knew who were doing the "do as many activities as possible" strategy to get into schools like Columbia?

Aside from SustainUS (which was obviously an extracurricular activity - and it was my primary extracurricular), I was heavily involved in a select few activities in high school, rather than several.

My schedule wasn't light, but it wasn't packed either. I attribute this to efficient use of time and delegating responsibility.

My in-school positions during senior year were:

Co-editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, President of the Environmental Club, and Co-Founder of Political Awareness Club.

School newspaper: only came out 4x a year, and the co-editor and section editors handled a lot of the work. Work for this mainly involved an intense week prior to publishing each issue.

A lot of Environmental Club activities were simply hiking trips, which teachers helped coordinate. The rest of the work for Environmental Club was SustainUS-related.

Political Awareness Club - just discussions on various political issues every now and then. Minimal week-to-week responsibilities.

They're impressive-sounding positions, but they didn't involve nearly as much time each week (or month!) as one might think.

I dropped a few of the clubs and extracurriculars I'd been part of junior year so that I'd have time to focus on clubs I was "in charge" of.

My stress level throughout high school was pretty low. I didn't worry about every little quiz or test in each class, as many of my peers did. I didn't pursue intensive out-of-school activities like All-County or All-State orchestra.

I ran track and cross country freshman through junior year, but dropped it senior year to focus on college apps and my in-school leadership. Even when I was in it, I did it more to stay in shape and socialize than to seriously compete, so it didn't stress me out, and I felt comfortable skipping a meet every now and then due to schoolwork or other obligations.

Paying attention in class, keeping up with homework, and developing good relationships with teachers ensured that I did well when it came to grades. I didn't watch TV throughout high school (except at friends' houses), and I "quit" AIM, which probably saved me a lot of time.

April 14, 2015

The New College Admissions Paradigm: Don't Worry

The New College Admissions Paradigm: Don't Worry

The New College Admissions Paradigm

I wrote It’s the Student, Not the College: The Secrets of Succeeding at Any School – Without Going Broke or Crazy to open the discussion on the relative value of selective schools and to try to break the stranglehold these colleges have on the collective minds and wallets of today’s families.

Working as an independent college advisor over the last decade, I’ve found that the mania and madness surrounding top college admissions seems to be getting worse every year, and it has spread to other parts of the country and the world. I have clients in China, Australia, and South America who are just as stressed about getting into elite American colleges as kids in the U.S.

To be sure, these schools do a great job of collecting intelligent, motivated teenagers; however research shows they don’t add much value in the production process. Studies by Kruger & Dale shows that high achieving students have the same average income whether or not they attended the elite college that admitted them. A 2014 Purdue / Gallup “Happiness” Study of 30,000 college graduates found no correlation between well-being (defined as sense of purpose, social well-being, financial well-being, physical health, and sense of community) and engagement (defined as liking what they do, feeling connected at work, and they do their work well), with attending a selective college.

Today’s students are unfortunately not gaining skills in writing, critical thinking, or complex problem-solving while in college -- skills employers are looking for, but find lacking in today's applicant pool. Students aren't studying much or preparing themselves for a competitive global economy. I wrote this book with the hope that students will spend less time and energy on "getting in" to college, and focus instead on the things that they can do during high school and college to better prepare themselves to be successful as a student and in their early careers.

The book also reminds parents that your kids have wonderful talents and abilities, and they will mature and grow those skills over the years. You don’t need to go deep in debt or mortgage your retirement to make sure your children all go to the most expensive schools. Our job as parents is to help them develop their passions and gain the confidence to help them be successful in the future. This has little to do with a particular college or SAT score range, so it's OK to worry less about that.

The book’s message to students is that you shouldn't worry about getting into a specific college. That doesn't mean that you can relax and surf the Internet or text friends all day. You need to take charge of your education and career preparedness. You also need to weigh the costs of each college and how you will finance it. But once students stop worrying about how they will look to college admissions deans, they will be able to take risks, focus more deeply in subject areas and maybe even find the fun in learning again.

Imagine if you will what these students will be like upon entering college if they concentrate more on developing themselves and their own skills and exploring interests and passions. They will have a different mindset, a stronger belief in their own abilities, and a more personal connection with the material they study. When they enter college, they may be more engaged, engrossed in their work and ready to take on challenges academically, and in internships and careers. They will be ready to reach their goals and excel in their careers, and it will have nothing to do with the name brand of the college they attended and everything to do with their own preparation and determination.

The biggest misconception in educational circles today is that students who don't get into what is perceived as a "good" college are doomed for mediocrity; and those who are admitted to elite colleges are destined for success no matter what they do. The reality is success is in a student's own hands, and not some admissions officer at Harvard or Amherst.


Kristin M. White is the author of "It's the Student, Not the College: The Secrets of Succeeding at Any School - Without Going Broke or Crazy" (also available on Amazon) and founder of Darien Academic Advisors, an educational consulting firm operating since 2005. She can be reached at kwhite@darienacademicadvisors.com.

April 13, 2015

Why NOT to Go to College: A Controversial Opinion

Today, we have a guest post from Oren Ellenbogen, a good friend of mine who never finished college. He's the author of Leading Snowflakes: An Engineering Manager's Handbook, the founder and curator of Software Lead Weekly, and the Head of Engineering at Forter, a company that helps online merchants prevent fraud.

He also co-founded and sold a startup called Commerce Sciences. You can follow him on Twitter.

Here's Oren on why he ended up doing fine without going to college:

Let me start with saying that I didn't complete my B.A degree. I should say degrees, as I started twice: once during my army service, and again, 7 years later, while working full-time job as a Director of Engineering. However, I can't say I did badly during that time.

I was just passionate about doing different things, that's all.

Failure is bad only if you don't learn anything from it - I started to get paid for building software at the age of 15, working from home every day after school. Over the years, I've worked for small companies and big ones. I even started my own startup and managed to fuck it up. I had my fair share of successes and failures. Each time I failed, I learned a few things about myself, such as answers to the following questions:

What am I really passionate about?

What could I have done to learn faster that I wasn't on the right track?

Who could I bring to the team to help me succeed?

Failure is hard, but it's also the safest way to make us versatile and open to change. Learning something new about ourselves is extremely important. After all, how many of us really know what we want to be "when we grow up"?

In college, people are measured by their grades, not their effort. In the real world, this is a dangerous approach. I consistently improve because I allow myself to fail and learn from the experience.

Determine your strengths. They don't have to be what you do in your everyday work – I used to work with "old people" (this is what a 15 y/o calls someone who's 28) a lot. I've seen them write code that blew my mind, while mine was horrible. So I worked hard, reading books alongside my regular high-school work to practice my engineering skills, and I got better. Still, looking back, I knew there were better engineers out there.

Many years later, I figured out I'm pretty good at inspiring others, and helping them become better at what they do. I also found out I'm pretty good at evaluating people, not only for their technical skills, but also for their personalities. I recruited great people and managed to build talented teams at various companies. I found my true passion – it was people, culture and leadership. These days, I'm fortunate enough to lecture and write about it. It took me many years to figure it out.

My advice to you is to experiment until you find your passion. Try to apply your education to real world problems. Use the Internet to teach others as you learn something new. Offer your services for free until you've got 2 or 3 people who can vouch for you. Work crazy hours if you can work for someone who's amazingly talented and willing to teach you.

Go out there and learn about yourself. Have faith in your abilities and don't be afraid to find your own path. Take others' advice with a grain of salt. As long as you're trying new things and learning from your mistakes, you'll figure it out.

April 10, 2015

How to Choose a College Essay Topic

The most valuable piece of information about the college essay I can give is that you should focus on yourself. It may seem cute to write a story about your friend or your goldfish, but admissions committees are considering you for admission. You can talk about how someone else affected you, but make sure that the topic describes how that someone has affected you. 

Discuss a specific experience, activity or aspect of your life that is important to you. Concentrate on details that draw a picture of your experience - they make an essay memorable. The college essay is a precious opportunity to promote yourself to the admissions committee of the colleges to which you are applying: make it count.

However, this does not mean that you should list every club that you have ever joined. There is space available for such lists elsewhere on the application. If you want to write about extracurriculars (which I often recommend doing), pick one that was meaningful to you and explain how it impacted you. What will impress admissions committees more than simply listing a fancy title is an explanation of why you were involved in the club and the contributions that you made.

A great way to choose a topic for your college essay is to simply think about the subject that interests you most. Some questions to get the creative juices flowing:

    * What extracurriculars and hobbies have you enjoyed the most, and why?
    * What events have happened in your life that relate to your potential major(s) in college?
    * Have you overcome any obstacles to achieve your current position in life?
    * Have you witnessed or been part of any life-changing event that changed your perspective?

These questions might not always seem useful if you find yourself faced with a bland topic. However, a bland topic is no excuse to write a bland essay in response. Treat each essay topic as a jumping-off point for what you really want to discuss. This will be the topic that most appeals to you and allows you to promote yourself to the fullest extent.

You can begin the process of choosing an essay topic by taking a moment to write down some ideas in a freestyle brainstorming session. After you choose a topic, make sure it's personal. If the admissions committee sees that your experience is important to you, it will help to define your application in a positive way. In college admissions, as in life, most people face rejection because they fail to distinguish themselves enough, not because they stand out too much.

When you sit down to write the first line of your essay, think about how you will engage the admissions committee. The best way to do this is to start off "in the moment." Ideally, you want to show the reader where you are and how you got there.

After you've written a draft and corrected the grammar, diction, and punctuation to the best of your ability, you're not done yet. It's essential to have other people read it because they'll spot mistakes and opportunities to improve your writing that you wouldn't have seen on your own. Teachers, parents, friends and college counselors can help you to plan and to review your college essays and personal statements as you embark on the college admissions process.

Keep this article by your side as you plan your college essay. Following these tips will provide the admissions committees with a snapshot of your personality and the lasting impression that you are a focused, responsible, and well-rounded individual who will be a valuable part of their community.

April 7, 2015

Writing Optional College Application Essays

Check whether each school asks a question along the lines of "Why do you want to go to our school in particular?" (aka "Why X?") If they ask this question, be sure to answer it. To gather the specifics necessary to answer this question, visit the school's website. Visit the school in-person, if possible. Talk to current students and alumni, and be as specific as possible in your reasons for wanting to attend the school.

Schools will typically allow you to write an optional essay or addendum on any topic (including weaknesses). If there's a topic you weren't able to cover in the other essays, consider doing so here. (If a school doesn't ask a "Why X?" question, you can provide your answer to such a question here.)

All of these essays should be reviewed by trusted family/friends, as well as your guidance counselor.

Enter all the essays and other parts of the application that you’ve written into each college application. Make sure everything is formatted correctly and that you haven’t mentioned the wrong school in a particular essay or application (it happens).

Put the finishing touches on your college essay, diversity statement, optional essays, etc. Give them another read and make any changes you think might be appropriate.

Before submitting your applications, look at this year's applications (which should now be available) and make sure there haven't been any significant changes from last year's versions if you were using those.

Enter all the essays and other parts of the application that you’ve written into each college application. Make sure everything is formatted correctly and that you haven’t mentioned the wrong school in a particular essay or application (it happens).

Triple-check everything before hitting "send."

Congratulations - you're finished! Pat yourself on the back, and thank everyone who helped you.

April 6, 2015

Brainstorming College Essay Topics

Open a Common Application account. Fill out all the simple stuff you can complete now, like your personal details (address, etc.). Look at the full applications for the colleges to which you're planning to apply. Even though the applications for this admission cycle may not yet be available, those from the previous cycle are. Applications change relatively little from year to year. Besides, the college essay topics are generally open-ended anyway.

Start to brainstorm at least a few college essay topics. Write a 300-word paragraph on each and determine which ones flow most naturally and feel the strongest. Get feedback from trusted friends and family, as well as your guidance counselor, on which topic is best.

Write an initial draft of 1300-1500 words, wait a few days, then aggressively reduce its length so that it will be concise, yet full of substantive content. Print draft after draft. It's often easier to make revisions on paper than on the computer screen. Show your college essay to trusted friends, family, and your guidance counselor on your rough drafts, and, ultimately, your final draft.

Next, look at the applications for the colleges to which you're planning to apply, and determine whether you might be able to write a diversity statement. Of course, most people who write them consider themselves underrepresented minorities (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation). However, even if you don't fall within one of these categories, you might be able to write one if you've had an unusual life experience or can bring diversity to the table in another way.

April 2, 2015

5 Steps to Successful College Recommendation Letters

1. Think about who you might ask to write your recommendation letters (professors, employers, etc.). Anywhere from 2-4 people is fine, but you want to have at least 2 letters from professors. If you haven't been cultivating those relationships, start doing so.

2. Meet up with your potential recommenders (or speak with them via phone) about your college plans. Otherwise, email them. After they agree to write a recommendation letter, email them with a bulleted list of topics they might mention in the recommendation letter (and/or provide them with a printed copy). Give your résumé (list of extracurriculars) a brief look (more if you have the time) and make sure that it's current, then give it to your recommenders as well (either email or hard copy).

3. Be sure to also provide your recommenders with a printed copy of the college’s recommendation letter form, since they'll have to submit this along with the letter itself. The easier you make this for them, the sooner they're likely to finish and submit it. (If you're applying early, tell your recommenders that you'll need the recommendation letter by August, as some schools will allow you to submit your application on September 1. The earlier you apply, the better).

4. In a few weeks/months (depending on when you requested them), check your application account(s) to determine whether your recommenders have submitted their recommendation letters for you yet. Also, check whether your high school transcript. It should only take a couple of weeks for this to be processed. If the appropriate documents aren't designated as "received" in your account, follow up with the appropriate people. Email, call, or even visit their offices in person - whatever you have to do. They're often overwhelmed with requests and need reminders.

5. Don't forget to thank your recommenders (and those who helped with your college essay). A box of chocolates and thank you card go a long way.