Things I say all the time

We’ve all got those words, phrases, and sentences that we use all the time. I over-use the word “apparently,” and some quick searches through this blog make me realize I apparently also over-use the phrase “all the time.” But behind the words and sentences that we repeat often are the ideas and worldviews that drive us. So this week I thought I’d explain the thoughts and motives behind some of the sentences I use most in my job as someone who writes about college admissions and advises students on their own admissions paths.

“The best way to prepare for college is to be a good high school student.” When people ask me “what do I need to do to get into a good college?” they usually hate my answer: be a good high school student. High school is like Basic Training for college, in all sorts of ways. If you’re being a good high school student, you’re doing well on assessments and making good grades. That part is obvious. But a good high school student is doing all sorts of other things as well. You’re learning to manage your time and keep track of short- and long-term assignments. You’re learning how to form and keep strong relationships, personal and professional. You’re learning to manage expectations: getting good grades doesn’t just depend on your knowledge, but also how you’re able to determine what each teacher wants and adjust how you perform, even when other teachers want other things. You’re learning that independence and responsibility don’t magically appear on a certain birthday or after a certain coming-of-age event, but they’re things that you build slowly and actively over time. You’re learning that there’s a certain balance to what you put into your community and what you get out of it. You’re learning that failure isn’t only inevitable, it’s necessary. If you’re learning all those things and doing a good job of them, then you’re ready for college and will find a good one for you.

There are no tips or tricks. There is no path to being a successful student, being a successful student is the path. Working to be a truly good high school student is a lot of work, and it’s enough work to get you into a good college.

“You don’t know what a college is going to cost you until after you apply and are accepted.” Universities will provide all sorts of data. They’ll tell you the list price for tuition and fees. They’ll tell you the average percentage of need they meet. They’ll tell you the value of the average first-year student financial aid package. They’ll tell you the name and amount of their major recurring scholarships. They’ll tell you what they estimate your net price may be. What they will not tell you is how much their school will cost you. That depends on many factors, both related to you and the other applicants they get in a given year, and there is no final financial aid statement until you apply and are accepted. Unless you know you can pay cash for the full sticker price, never assume a school is affordable. But until you get a package offer that is definitely too low for you, never assume a school is unaffordable. College is the Schrodinger’s Cat of affordability: until you observe the aid award, it is both too expensive and not too expensive. Is this frustrating? Yes. Is this just the way things work, and so you have to apply to a variety of schools at a variety of price points just in case? Yes.

“Most parents I talk to tell me that they’re in that bubble where they make too much money to qualify for financial aid, but they don’t make enough to actually afford to send their kid to college. Every one of them so far has sent their kid to college.” Make of that what you will.

“My target audience is high school students, so my site is called Apply with Sanity. If my target audience were parents it would be called Chill the F*** Out.” We know that a lot of the pressure high school students face to get into “elite” colleges doesn’t come from “society,” “the media,” or “the labor market.” It comes from parents. Take as a recent example John Vandmoer, the former Stanford sailing coach who was just sentenced for his role in the Varsity Blues scandal. Two of the three bribes he accepted (for what it’s worth, the money went to the sailing program, not himself) were from the parents of students who didn’t go to Stanford. The parents were so sure that Stanford was the right place that they illegally paid bribes to get their kids in. The kids had other ideas and ended up at other schools. For most of the parents involved in that scandal, not letting their kids know that there was cheating going on was really important to them. They had their own admissions process independent of their children’s. That’s not the way any of this is supposed to work. I’ve never been part of an illegal conspiracy, but I’ve seen the same thing happen on a much smaller (and legal) scale. The parents push for the big-name schools and high-profile majors. The students have other ideas. If you’re a parent who needs to chill the f*** out, I know it’s not easy. I’m a parent, too. Begin with Julie Lythcott-Haims’s book How to Raise and Adult.

“Well no, they don’t just donate a library.” This is by far the most common response I’ve heard about the Varsity Blues scandal. “Why didn’t they just donate a library like other rich people do to bribe their way into college?” Despite what seems to be common knowledge, it doesn’t really work this way for many people. (“Why don’t they just donate a library?” always reminds me of Kramer’s “they just write it off.”) I won’t say it never happens—I’m not that naive. But it’s rare. Harvard University, for example, has 76 libraries. Harvard is also 382 years old. That’s approximately one library per five years. Assuming that all libraries are just bribes holding books, and assuming 2,000 new Harvard freshmen a year, that means that 0.01% of Harvard students are admitted because of a donated library.

Yale averages a library for every 21 years. Stanford averages one library every 6.65 years. You get my point. If it were common for people to “just donate a library,” there would be a lot more university libraries.

But the people who say this don’t just mean literal libraries. They mean large donations that help get children into hard-to-get-into colleges. But the thing is, that’s also more rare than we seem to believe. Universities don’t disclose too many details of their donations, so I don’t have exact numbers. But if you were to get exact numbers of what percentage of donations to colleges over $500,000 come from people who have a child or grandchild in high school, the percentage would be low. Not zero, but low. Wealth has a huge and troubling influence on who gets accepted to which colleges, but it’s rarely in the form of donation/bribes. So if we want to tackle the huge and troubling influence wealth has on admissions, we have to look past the idea of bribes.

“I’m not too interested in your major.” About a third of college students change their major. Ten percent of them change more than once. So it’s not a great idea to base too much of your decision on a major. You need to find a school that will help you in your intended major…and also help you if you don’t finish in your intended major. Also, the more specific you are about your intended major, the less confident I am that you will follow that plan. If you were to say “I’m really good at math, and I want to do something that uses mathematic problem solving,” I’d think you know yourself. If, however, you were to say “I’m going to double major in Applied Mathematics and Geophysics with a minor in Electrical Engineering so I can get an internship with the Jet Propulsion Lab and then work for RAND, but at their Boston location not the California headquarters” I’d think you have no idea what the future holds. Remember, you’re choosing your direction, not your destination.

“You can’t fake demonstrated interest.” You can probably tell when someone is just being nice to you because they want something. Most people can. And everyone who works in college admissions is a person. So they can tell. When you email the admissions department to ask a question you could have easily Googled, they can tell. When you leave their emails unopened for months, and then open them all on the same day, a week before the application is due, they can tell. When you call to schedule a tour and ask if there’s a sign-in—so you can get credit for being there—they can tell.

In fact, the far bigger problem I’ve had with students and clients is not demonstrating interest. You think this college is your top choice. Have you gone online to put your email address on their mailing list? No. Do you know who the admissions rep is for this area? No. Do you know what special programs they have that aren’t available elsewhere? No. Are you sure this is your top choice?

“I hate to safety school, but….” I really don’t like the idea of “safety school.” When you designate a school as a “safety,” you’re telling yourself that you’re probably a little too good for that place, but you’ll go there if you have to. That’s a horrible way to begin a relationship. On the other hand, you want to do your best not to end up having no fat envelopes. I end up saying, fairly often, “So I hate to say safety school, but let’s find at least a few places that fit your mission statement that we’re pretty sure you’re going to be accepted to. That will give you some options.” More and more, I’m saying very firmly: “everyone should apply to at least one in-state public university. If for no other reason, you want to be able to have a base line for cost comparisons, since they tend to the be the least expensive.”

“Nobody’s happy with their scores.” No client tells me about their SAT scores and is happy with them. 1230? “It’s okay, I guess.” 1330? “It’s okay, I guess.” 1430? “It’s okay, I guess.” 1530? “It’s okay, I guess.” All of my clients, so far, have been in at least the 80th percentile. None of them were proud. Nobody’s happy with their scores. Make of that what you will.

“Run before the bell.”

Thanks for reading! Please send this to someone who would like to read it, or share it on your social networks. I’m on my summer schedule, which means I’ll only have posts on Thursday for a while. I’ll be back next week.

Apply with Sanity doesn’t have ads or annoying pop-ups. It doesn’t share user data, sell user data, or even track personal data. It doesn’t do anything to “monetize” you. You’re nothing but a reader to me, and that means everything to me.

Photo by Zoe Herring.

Apply with Sanity is a registered trademark of Apply with Sanity, LLC. All rights reserved.

Putting together a résumé

One of my Five Foundations of Applying with Sanity is to “be a person, not a résumé.” By that I mean to remember to think of yourself as an authentic person with complexity and contradictions, not just a list of achievements and statistics. That’s really important as a metaphor. But often you need a literal résumé. Scholarship applications may ask for a résumé. College applications sometimes (but not too often) ask for a résumé. Teachers and counselors may want a résumé to help them compose a recommendation letter. Potential employers very often ask for a résumé—that’s what résumés were created for. On top of that, it can be a useful exercise to go through and organize your thoughts about yourself and what you want to say about yourself. So with all that in mind, here are some things to consider when putting together, or revising, your résumé.

It’s strangely difficult to explain how to draft a résumé. The first thing I’d tell you to do is simply to do an image search for “resume samples” and notice the basic patterns. They’re just lists, but highly structured lists. The basic categories of things you would list are education, experience, and achievements. That’s where you begin your drafting, by listing the major facts of your education, like the high school(s) you’ve attended, your work experience, including volunteer work, and your awards and achievements. There are hundreds of guides and templates out there, but the best one I’ve come across recently is from the career center at Pomona College. It gives the basics, the reasoning for what goes there, and templates for different ways of organizing the résumé. Résumés are easier to revise than draft, so just get something written down, and then you can shape it from there.

There are also lots of fill-in-the-blank templates and résumé generators. Don’t use them. It’s important that you build your own from scratch, even if you’re looking at samples or templates as you do it. For one, you need to understand why you’re writing what you are, and why you’re placing it where you are. It’s easy to lose track of that when you’re just filling in information for a program to format for you. Revising and changing your résumé will be much easier and more intuitive if you make your own.

You’ll want to use a simple design. Keep it basic for your first résumé. Yes, there are some pretty good looking and clever templates out there to help you fit more information into the space or add photos or charts. But please understand that when most readers see this from a high school student, they’re not thinking “wow, this high school student made a really impressive design for their résumé!” They’re probably thinking “this kid expects me to believe they made this? They just used a fancy template. I wonder if they know how to write their own.”

Your résumé doesn’t need to have everything! It’s meant to begin a conversation, not be the conversation, so you want it to be concise and short. You’re trying to show off the things that speak to your finest abilities, and that’s different for everybody. Some students ask “should I have my GPA on my résumé?'“ If you’re proud of it, yes. Should you put your SAT or ACT scores on it? If you’re proud of them, sure. Should you list AP exams you’ve taken? If there’s more than one, absolutely. Should you list every class you’ve taken? No.

Similarly, you may decide not to list every tiny volunteer project you’ve ever done, especially if they were only a few hours total. If you house-sit for a number of families every year and it shows off your responsibility, then put it in the experience section. If you house-sat once for your aunt, there’s no need to put it on there. Everybody’s résumé will be different and list different things. There’s no precise formula. Make sure you’re listing, as concisely as possible, the broad outlines of your education, your experience in the world, and the achievements you’re proud of.

Two pages are fine if you need two pages. Many people will tell you that your résumé should never be more than a page, and they’re not completely wrong. Many readers—essentially the same ones who say a résumé should never be over a page—will not read past the first page. And if your résumé is over a page because you’ve failed to prioritize the important things or have weird formatting, then that’s a problem. But if you’ve got a reason to go onto the second page, it will be ok. Several studies have now shown that a second page doesn’t make you less likely to get hired. Watch out, though, for waste or sloppiness. If your résumé only goes a few lines into the second page, that looks odd. A second page should be at least half of the page. Otherwise, find ways to cut and condense.

But if it’s only a page, that’s great! Don’t feel like you need two.

People tend to read résumés (and most things, on the page or on the screen) in an F pattern. They spend most of their time looking at the top, along the left margin, and at headings as they work down. Knowing this, make sure you put the most important section of your résumé at the top. Which section is going to be the most important for your audience? Put it first, even if your templates or examples don’t show it first.

Likewise, make sure the most important information in your lists is along the left. Say for example that you were on the swim team all four years of high school, and you were the team captain your senior year. If you write

2015-2019: high school swim team. 2019 team captain.

then you’ve got the least important information (dates) along the left margin and the most important part (captain, which demonstrates leadership and responsibility) all the way over to the right. Organize the section so that you can instead write

Captain, high school swim team, 2019. Team member 2015-2019.

There can be more than one version of your résumé. The information is going to be the same for all versions, but there are reasons to make changes. The most important thing for one audience may not be the most important thing for another audience. A résumé for a college may need to emphasize your academic credentials, so the education section will be at the top. But if you’re supplying a résumé to a teacher who is going to write a rec letter, then you may want to emphasize experiences that demonstrate your character. Besides, the teacher is already likely to know about your grades and obviously knows what school you attend. So for that version, the experience section will go higher and the education section will go lower.

I’d also advise using slightly different fonts for your résumé depending on whether or not you expect it to be read on a screen or on paper. Graphic designers and font nerds will debate these things for days and days, but for our purposes: san-serif fonts are generally more readable on a screen. However, even if they’re not less legible on paper, sans-serif fonts often look strange when printed, because we’re so used to seeing serif fonts used for printed materials. So make a sans-serif version for the screen and a serif version for printing. And please don’t use Times New Roman or Calibri—no matter how good they are, they’re associated with “default” and therefore “didn’t really bother.”

It has to be perfect. Not a single typo. As someone who is very successful told me recently: “If you can’t make even one page perfect, when you’ve had lots of time to work on it and it’s all about you, then I don’t want to see you for an interview. You’re done.” She’s right. This one needs to be perfect.

Don’t give or send someone a résumé unless they ask for it. Remember that the point of your résumé is to provide a concise summary of your past four years. It’s meant to start a conversation or get someone to notice you. But if they’ve already noticed you or already started a conversation, then to hand them a résumé can be very limiting. It signals that you want to talk about what’s on the paper, when you have much more interesting things to talk about. Like your complexity and contradictions.

Thanks for reading! Please send this to someone who would like to read it, or share it on your social networks. I’m on my summer schedule, which means I’ll only have posts on Thursday for a while. I’ll be back next week.

Apply with Sanity doesn’t have ads or annoying pop-ups. It doesn’t share user data, sell user data, or even track personal data. It doesn’t do anything to “monetize” you. You’re nothing but a reader to me, and that means everything to me.

Photo by Zoe Herring.

Apply with Sanity is a registered trademark of Apply with Sanity, LLC. All rights reserved.

Visiting colleges over the summer

It’s summer time, and for a lot of people—especially rising seniors—that means college campus visits. Some people take time to visit colleges near them. Some incorporate campus tours into their summer family vacations. Some make campus tours the whole point of the vacation. Some…never tour a campus and do just fine. So let’s talk about visiting campuses in the summer.

There are several major advantages to touring campuses in the summer, as opposed to waiting until fall. You’re not missing school. You get more time and flexibility, which usually means less stress or anxiety. You’re getting the visits done earlier, which gives you more time for reflection and follow-up. You can fold it into a vacation with your family and have fun while you’re at it. All these things are good things, and that’s why summer is such a popular time for campus tours.

The obvious disadvantage to summer visits is that it’s also summer break for a lot of college students. There will still be students, professors, and administrators on campus. But there will probably be a lot fewer of them, so the general feeling or “vibe” of the school may be completely different than what you’d actually experience most of the time as a student. If the campus feeling and vibe are really important factors for you, be aware of that. The colleges are certainly aware of this drawback, and most do their best to show you as much of the college culture as they can.

There are also some less-obvious differences in the summer. One is that, while there may be a lot fewer students and professors on campus, the campus may not actually be empty. Lots of colleges rent out their facilities for other organizations. I remember one summer when I was in grad school and the school was hosting cheerleading camps. The sidewalks were filled every day with 8- to 14-year-old girls, which is not how the campus looks during the school year. I remember going as a teacher to AP Summer Institutes to prepare for the AP classes I taught. I saw hundreds of high school teachers on campus, but very few college students. These different and temporary populations obviously don’t affect things during the school year, but for someone visiting campus it very well might affect their perception of the school and its environment.

Often the school environment is literally different in the summer. I live in Houston, which has mild, pleasant weather from October to April. It’s not a bad place to be a college student. But in the summers, the heat often reaches above 100 degrees. And hurricane season is very real. I would ask anyone to think twice before traveling to Houston in July to get a feel for things—it doesn’t feel very good in July. Most of Texas and the South have a similar problem. Chicago has the opposite problem: visiting in the summer gives you no clue how long and brutal the winter can be. I don’t need to belabor this—you know how weather and seasons work. But do remind yourself during a summer campus visit that you’re getting a feel for a place when it feels different than most the other times you might be on that campus.

Remember that you’ll probably have chances to tour after applications are turned in. Many universities have “accepted student weekends” where they offer tours and programming for people who’ve been accepted. Many even offer to pay for your transportation to get there for the weekend. So if you apply somewhere sight unseen and are accepted, you’ll get more chances to check things out.

The other thing that comes up a lot when talking about campus tours is demonstrated interest. I have three rules for demonstrated interest, and they apply to campus visits.

1. If you really are interested in a school, show it. Even if that school doesn't consider demonstrated interest in their admissions. If you think a school is a good fit for you, then definitely try to visit. But visit because you want to know more, not so you can check off the “campus visit” box for demonstrated interest. And if you’re really interested but don’t have to opportunity to visit, let them know. Show up to their booth at a college fair in your area, ask good questions, and let them know that you hoped to visit but couldn’t make it happen.

2. If you're not really interested in a school, then don't waste their time or yours by trying to rack up demonstrated interest points. This sounds like common sense, but lots of people get so caught up in trying to demonstrate interest for “top ranked” schools that they forget that they’re not actually all that interested in the school beyond its ranking. You don’t have time for this.

3. If you may be interested in a school, but you're not sure how much, then ask more questions and learn more. This is actually the best reason to go on a visit, and what campus tours are designed for. You should visit a campus because you want to learn something, not prove something.

Thanks for reading! Please send this to someone who would like to read it, or share it on your social networks. I’m on my summer schedule, which means I’ll only have posts on Thursday for a while. I’ll be back next week.

Apply with Sanity doesn’t have ads or annoying pop-ups. It doesn’t share user data, sell user data, or even track personal data. It doesn’t do anything to “monetize” you. You’re nothing but a reader to me, and that means everything to me.

Photo by Zoe Herring.

Apply with Sanity is a registered trademark of Apply with Sanity, LLC. All rights reserved.

You're not trying to impress anyone

You're not trying to impress anyone

If you’re hoping to get into college by impressing the admissions office, I want you to let go of that idea right now. You’re not going to impress them. Your SAT or ACT scores—even if perfect—are not going to impress them. Your GPA is not going to impress them. Your list of activities and awards is not going to impress them. Your letters of recommendation are not going to impress them. If your college admissions strategy is to impress, rethink your strategy.

I know this sounds gloomy, but it’s not. Stay with me.

It's ok to relax about the new "adversity score"

It's ok to relax about the new "adversity score"

There’s been a lot of talk this week about the College Board’s new Environmental Context Dashboard and “Adversity Score.” And a lot of people don’t like the new program. Some want it to do more, some want it to do less. Some don’t want it to exist at all. And here’s my take on the program:

We can all just relax about the “adversity score.” I don’t think this will be a big deal, nor do I think it should be. Let’s look at some key ideas.

A reminder about social media

A reminder about social media

I don't think you need me to repeat the standard advice: un-tag yourself from photos you don't want colleges to see, make sure you have your school-friendly photos and résumé-building awards on public settings for the world to see, avoid anything that hints at academic imperfection.

The problem with this sort of advice, practical and accurate as it is, is that the overall message and tone of the advice is to consider yourself always watched and always performing. Never say or do anything that colleges don't like, as if all colleges "like" the same things. I advise against doing anything, no matter how productive or good on the surface, simply because colleges want to see you do it.

What should current 10th and 9th graders do this summer?

What should current 10th and 9th graders do this summer?

What should sophomores do this summer to be better prepared for college?

Train. You're like a professional athlete during the off-season. You get a lot more flexibility with your schedule and a lot fewer people watching you as you work, but you've got to spend this time productively. Does this mean to fill up your day with summer school classes and be a constant student? No. Like pro athletes, find another way to enhance the skills you have.

Four things juniors should do before the end of the school year

Four things juniors should do before the end of the school year

It’s been a week since most college-bound seniors made their final decision and commitment about where they will be next year. That means the clock is really ticking for current juniors, who have another 51 weeks to complete their own admissions process. An entire year from now may seem like a long time to get it all done. It may seem like a really short time. Both are true: it’s still plenty of time, but it will go by really quick.

The college you're going to has what you want

The college you're going to has what you want

Everything may have gone exactly as you hoped, and you’re getting ready to go to your dream school. If so, congratulations! But there’s a really good chance it didn’t work that way, and you’re not going to a dream school. That's very normal; it has a lot more to do with the economics and logistics of admissions than you as a person. If you find an unhappy or unproductive adult and ask them what caused their problems, I guarantee they won’t say “I didn’t get into Stanford and my life has been miserable since that day. I only got a normal college degree, and my life is a waste.” It just doesn’t work that way. You’re going to be fine.

The two things you need for success in college and beyond

The two things you need for success in college and beyond

Today’s post is about two things you need for success in high school, college, and beyond: a meditation routine and a time management system. Maybe need is a strong word. You can get by without either of these things—many people do. But I promise that a meditation routine and time management system will never be a waste of your time or effort.

Still making a last-minute decision?

Still making a last-minute decision?

You may have already made that decision a while ago. If so, congratulations! But if you're still struggling to choose between two schools, or three schools, or seven schools or however many, then you may be looking for some help. 

At this point, I'm assuming that money probably isn't the issue. If you're stuck choosing between a school you can afford and a school you can’t afford, then you're not really struggling to decide...you're just procrastinating.  I'm also guessing that if you're still struggling to decide, then a simple "make a list of pros and cons for each school" is something you've already thought of and found unhelpful. Still, if you haven't checked a school's vital stats lately--graduation rate, rate of sophomore return, student-faculty ratio--then go back and look those over.

The Glossary: the basics

The Glossary: the basics

I want to go over the basic terminology necessary to understand college applications. So many of us—college consultants, high school counselors, teachers, parents, university admissions departments—take it for granted that our students are completely aware of all the terms and lingo, even though the terms are rarely actually taught. If you’re trying to be a first-generation college student, came to this country recently and are new to the system, and/or go to a high school that doesn’t emphasize college preparedness, then some (or a lot) if this may be understandably new.

Grace is getting close

Grace is getting close

Now is the part of admissions season when we really get into horse racing analogies. Grace is in the final stretch before making a college decision before May 1st. Hofstra and Fordham are neck and neck, and it’s going to go down to the wire. Or will a dark horse longshot suddenly get her attention? Read the full interview below.