Some fun financial exercises

Everyone knows that college is expensive. There are plenty of universities whose full published price is higher than the median family income in America. The numbers can be so big that they're hard to imagine and even harder to make realistic decisions about. So here's an exercise I do with most of my consulting clients. You can do this at home with your family.

When you have a preliminary list of colleges you think you might apply to, look up their total cost. Ideally you'd use a net price calculator to get reasonable estimates of their actual costs for you, but the exercise works even if you use the "sticker prices" available online.

First, compare the difference in cost between the most expensive school and the least expensive school. Ask yourself if the difference is worth it to you. Understand that at this point either answer--yes or no--is perfectly acceptable. If you're doing this exercise with someone else, explain your reason for your answer. You may decide that the more expensive school is a much better fit for you, and is therefore worth the extra cost, especially if you can get extra financial aid to cover some or all of the difference. Or, you may decide that the more expensive school just isn't worth it, especially when you multiply the difference by four or five years.

Next, do the same thing comparing your top-choice school with your least-favorite of the schools. (If your top-choice school is the most expensive and the last-choice is the cheapest, then you've already done this.) Ask yourself if going to the school you most want to attend is worth the difference in cost. Again, there is no right or wrong answer. It helps to say it aloud. There's a big difference between looking at some large numbers on paper and figuring it's all going to be ok and saying aloud "I'm willing to pay an extra five thousand dollars a year to go to my preferred school."

Now, pick two of the schools that are most alike and compare them. Is the difference in cost, which probably won't be very large, a factor when deciding between two very similar schools? There's not a right answer, but it's good to know where you stand.

Got it? Excellent. Now go through the comparisons again, only this time you have to pay any difference in cost yourself. You can't rationalize away that there will somehow be more financial aid or your family will come up with the extra money. You say that the more expensive school is worth the extra $5,000 a year--is it worth it if you have to work an extra job or take out extra loans to cover that $20,000? Or maybe you recognize that, despite the better fit, there's just no way you could pay for the more expensive school? I've seen plenty of clients change their mind about how much better the more expensive school is once they contemplate paying the difference themselves.

Now go back to comparing your top-choice school to your least-favorite school on your list. Imagine you get a full scholarship to the less-desirable school. Now how do you feel?

Here's an example. Let's say I'm a high school senior interested in majoring in art history. I've been accepted to Brown University, Loyola University Chicago, and Iowa State University. Brown is an Ivy League school, many people's "dream school," and has a top-notch Art History program. It's published price for tuition, fees, and room & board is around $70,000 per year. Loyola Chicago is a less-famous university, but it's in a great city for art and is known for nurturing, student-centered programming. It will cost around $59,000 per year. Iowa State is a large state school with a solid Art History major, but few of the benefits of a large city or elite private university. It's going to cost me around $32,000 per year ($18,000 if I'm an Iowa resident). 

It's easy to say "I want to go to Brown, and as long as I can afford it I'll go there." If it's less easy to say "I want to go to Brown, and I'm willing to pay an extra eleven thousand dollars a year to go there instead of Loyola Chicago," then you have to do some major thinking. Saying the prices and the price differences aloud can really help you make a decision you're more sure about. 

Again, there's not necessarily a right or wrong answer. It depends on your family's financial situation. I've heard parents say things like "We're going to make sure you go to college, but we are also going to make sure your siblings go to college, so we cannot support you going to the more expensive school just because you like it better." But I've also heard parents say "we've been saving for years so you can get the best college possible for you, so don't accept less than the best for you just because you think it will save us some money--that's what this money is for." The more you talk to your family about money--and the sooner--the easier these discussion will be.

Anyone who gets accepted to more than one college has to go through this exercise--only it's not just an exercise when you're writing real checks for real money. In this really big and really important decision, like most really big things, it helps to practice first. When you apply to schools, go through this exercise using the published prices. Do it again for the schools you get accepted to. And then do it again when you get financial aid offers. If you practice a few times, then the May First decision will be more rational and less stressful for you and your family.

Related blog posts: What if you get a full ride? Asking for more money. Thinking about Return On Investment.

Thanks for reading! For the summer, I'll only be posting once a week. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn. Comments are welcomed. 

Apply with Sanity is looking for more Meet the Class seniors

Last year, from September to May, I checked in once a month with two high school seniors about their college admissions ups and downs. You can read all their interviews here.

Now I'm looking for this year's class! I've got a rising senior in Massachusetts who is ready to participate, and I'd love a few more. Meet the Class interviews were by far the most talked-about of Apply with Sanity's blog posts last year. People really learn a lot from hearing about the experience straight from the students. 

All it requires is answering a round of questions over email once a month. I won't use any identifying information other than your first name, so it's relatively anonymous. 

If you're interested, just fill out the Contact form.


SAT scores should look a lot more like AP scores

SAT scores are weird. You get a number, ending in a zero, on a scale of 200 to 800, twice: one for reading & writing, one for math. You get a total score between 400 and 1600...except, of course, for those years when the writing was separate and you got somewhere between 600 and 2400. You're allowed to take the test multiple times and combine your highest reading & writing score with your highest math score, giving you a "superscore" that's higher than the total scores you got any of the individual times you took the test.

And then what? What does that number even mean? What do your SAT scores say about you? Nobody really knows what they mean. Try it. Ask 10 people "Is 1250 a good SAT score?" and see the range of responses you get. You can compare your scores to other people's scores, either individuals or groups. People do this all the time when they look for average SAT scores (or mid-ranges) for certain schools. But is that useful? How do colleges use the scores? There's no narrative attached to your score, no indicator of significance. 

AP scores, however, are nice and neat. There are only five scores you can get: 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. There's only one score, a composite of the different sections. What's really great about AP scores, though, is that we know exactly what they mean. There's a descriptor to go along with it. 1 means they don't recommend you should get anything for that test. 2 means you "may be qualified" to say you learned the material. It doesn't mean you aren't qualified, and you showed some promise. But the test that day didn't go well. 3 means "qualified," 4 means "well qualified," and 5 means "extremely well qualified." So if someone tells me they got a 4 on their AP Physics exam, then I know that they are well qualified to take and pass a college introductory course in physics. Not guaranteed, but well qualified. Each individual college can do whatever they want with that score: they may give the student college credit, they may let the student skip introductory Physics and go on to an upper-level class, they may do nothing. But we all know what the score means, and comparing scores is pretty simple and reliable. 

That's what SAT scores should look like. Students should get a score from one to five, and the score should correspond to an actual assessment of their readiness for college work. As with AP scores, universities should be able to do what they choose with scores, but the statistics on their brochures and website would be easy to read. For example, instead of a box with the mid-range scores for last year's class, it could say in a narrative form "78% of our incoming first-year students were rated as well qualified or extremely well qualified on their SAT." 

A new, simplified scoring system could be really good for the College Board, who administers both the SAT and AP exams. For one, it might help the test regain some of the relevance it's lost over the years. The list of test-optional colleges grows every year, and there's a sense that maybe the test just isn't so useful. A simplified scoring system may not reverse the trend of colleges making it optional, but the SAT could get a boost in relevance if people could quickly and intuitively know what the scores mean. An AP-like score for the SAT might also help them keep up with their main competitor, the ACT. The ACT already uses a simple composite score between 1 and 36, though without any descriptor.

Simplified scores could make life easier for colleges, too. Schools may be moving toward test-optional, but it's going to be a long time before they can completely move away from 3rd-party, (supposedly) objective ways to measure the quality of their graduates and the quality of their applicants. Everyone knows many universities need faster, more efficient ways to look through applications and compare candidates, and having five clear categories instead of a range of dozens of different scores would make things easier without sacrificing quality. Frankly, it could make it less contentious to decide whether to hold onto a candidate or let them go. It's a lot easier to say "we need at least 30% of our acceptances to be 5s on the SAT" than it is to say "we need to find ways to raise our median score from 1320 to 1370 while still being open to some 1080s." It would also let schools more clearly broadcast their expectations and flaunt their successes if scores are easy to explain.

What's in it for you? What advantage would a five-score system have for students? You'd still need to prepare for the test, and--depending on the colleges you apply to--the score could still be a pretty big factor in your applications. So what does it matter? 

I think most the difference would be psychological. Imagine getting your SAT scores, and knowing immediately if you're happy with them or not. Lots of high school students get scores and then ask themselves "Is that a good score?" And then they take them home, where their family asks "Is that a good score?" And the best answer any of them can get is "maybe. It depends on a lot of things." That's frustrating. But getting a score and immediately seeing "may be qualified" tells you that you need to make some changes and retake it. Getting a score and immediately seeing "well qualified" tells you that you're as good as you think you are. Even if the number is lower than you want it to be, knowing immediately what the number means takes away some of the anxiety and more quickly leads to action, whether it's to re-take the test, be satisfied, or be very satisfied.

My hunch is that AP-like scores would cut way down on re-testing, too. No one, or at least almost no one, would be tempted to re-take the exam hoping for a tiny marginal improvement. I've seen too many students take multiple SATs trying to get past some arbitrary number, usually a round number. There's no real difference between a 1390 and 1400, but people think that round number looks so much better that they're willing to waste their time with re-takes. When you think about how short the shelf-life of SAT scores are--they're meaningless once you begin college--then a system that discourages this could be a really good thing.

Let's put it this way: In 17 years in the classroom, I taught SAT takers every year. I often saw people happy with their scores. I also saw people confused about their scores, and many took the test more than once. Between English Language, English Lit., and Art History, I taught 19 batches of AP test-taking students. Nobody ever asked me what a good score is or if they were able to re-take the test. In fact, AP scores have the opposite problem. Even though there's no such thing as "passing" and AP exam, and even though many universities don't give any reward for AP scores below 4 or even 5, there's still a common perception that 3 is a "passing" score. The scoring system is so simple that people may have internalized it too well.

I wish things were the same with the SAT.

One cool thing is that the College Board may already be moving toward this change. For all I know, it's their long-term plan, though I couldn't find any reference to that. For a while now, The College Board has been taking surveys of some students' grades in college to look for connections between SAT scores and actual college preparedness. From that, they have their College and Career Readiness Benchmarks, in which they claim that a student who makes a 530 on the Math section has a "75% likelihood" of earning at least a C in a first-semester college-level math course. The score for 75% likelihood of getting at least a C in a first-semester college course in history, literature, social science, or writing. Things got tricky in 2016 when they released the re-designed test, so they're still monitoring. But it looks like they've just about figured out where to draw the line for a 3. They also have scores associated with the red, yellow, and green sections in the new color-coded score report. Once they feel confident in how well their benchmark scores relate to actual college grades, surely they'll simplify the scores to make that more clear? Right? Please?!? (You can read a full report on the benchmark scores here.)  

So to summarize: making SAT scores more like AP scores can be good for the College Board, for colleges, and for students. There's already a great precedent for how those scores would look and how they'll be interpreted and used, because AP scores have been around since the 1950s and widespread since the '70s. Through their benchmarking research, the College Board already has a pretty good idea of how to shift SAT scores from the old model to a newer, intuitive one.

So come on, College Board, change the scores!

Thanks for reading! For the summer, I'll only be posting once a week. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn. Comments are welcomed. 

College Board, AP, and SAT are trademarks owned by The College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this site.

Apply with Sanity is a trademark owned by Apply with Sanity, LLC. It is associated with this site, and endorses it completely. 

Thinking about morning routines

The middle of the summer is the absolute worst time to think about productive morning routines. It's a time meant for staying up late and sleeping even later. Which means, of course, that now is the absolute best time to begin thinking about morning routines! You need to start planning the routine before you need it.

What's got me thinking about morning routines is that I actually read an entire book about morning routines this week: Benjamin Spall and Michael Xander's My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired. I wanted something fairly light and easy to read while on a plane for vacation. I'm also interested in learning how to structure a day. When I was a high school teacher, I didn't need to know how to structure my time. I clocked in every morning, and bells rang every 45 minutes to tell us where to go. At one point we even got a screen at the back of the classroom with a timer ticking down how much time was left each period. But now that I work for myself at home, I'm learning how to make my own productive routines--and how not to make them. After so many years telling students that good time management is the key to success in college and beyond, it's been pretty humbling to have to re-learn time management. I thought the book might help. It didn't.

And honestly, I don't really recommend the book. It's cool to see the variety of ways that successful people spend their mornings to prepare for the day, but it gets kind of boring fast. And I wish I had known before buying the book that it's mostly a compilation of interviews from their website. There are obvious contradictions in the book, because not everyone's ideal morning routine is going to be the same. There is no easy formula. Except...

At the back of the book, and on the website, they have a Statistics section that covers commonalities among the almost 300 interviews they've done. When you look at the big picture, you see that successful people seem to do a lot of the same things in the morning, and they're things that we all can do to get us going in the right direction. For example:

64% meditate or practice yoga in the morning, and 78% exercise in the morning.
Over half eat fruit for breakfast, and over half list "water" as their first drink of the day.
40% of them--working adults, many of them parents--get eight hours of sleep a night.

This is kind of hard for me to write, because I rarely sleep eight hours during the week, never meditate or exercise in the morning, and have several cups of coffee before I even think about water. But that's the point; we can all improve. And it's also comforting to see that some "bad" habits are still quite normal for successful people with strong morning routines: 49% check their email immediately after waking, and 61% check their phone immediately.

One thing I'm learning, often the hard way, is that a habit you should have when you're older is probably a habit you should have had when you were younger. I'm 43, and the past two years have been the first time in my life with a constant and premeditated exercise routine. What prompted it? Taking care of my injured back--a back that probably wouldn't be injured if I had exercised when I was younger. When I think of things I wish I'd had or known when I was in college, basic motivation and routines are high on the list. A car would have been nice, but an understanding of where and when I concentrate best would have been so much nicer. And this is why you need to think about your morning routines now, if you haven't already. There is no better way to begin your day refreshed, focused, and ready for success than planning out how the morning will begin and giving yourself what you need to make the plan work. 

It's now, as I write this, 26 minutes past my bedtime, so I'm off to sleep. Thanks for reading! For the summer, I'll only be posting once a week. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn. Comments are welcomed. 

The July newsletter is out!

The latest Apply with Sanity newsletter went out yesterday.

Things slow down a bit in the summer, so this month's newsletter is a slightly faster read than the past few. But there's still plenty to read about! Get all of June's Apply with Sanity blog posts in one place, plus other news about getting into college.

The newsletter is your single, readable resource for everything interesting that has to do with your college applications. It's for high school students and the adults who care about them.

It only takes a few seconds to sign up. Click here to subscribe to the newsletter, and click here for an archive of all the past ones.


Hey Google, where should I go to college?

About two weeks ago, Google announced they are severely enhancing their search tool to give you lots of information about colleges when you search for one. So if you do a Google search, for example, on SMU, then you’ll get several categories of data on SMU up at the top of the results page. They pull data from large government databses to get you all the relevant information—including average cost after finicial aid and where the school appears in a lot of different ranking systems. 

So what’s the big deal? Google gives you results search? Isn’t that what Google always does?

Partly, yes, it’s not a big deal that Google gives you information. But here’s what different: they give you a lot of easy-to-read information right at the top of your screen (it’s fully rolled out for your phone screen, and will eventually make it onto desktop as well). The information comes from reputable sources—it’s data, not advertising or opinion. And it’s all the same information for every four-year school in the U.S. 

So the first thing that comes to mind is that Google now competes with College Board’s Big Future and US News and World Reports. It’s a great, free resource for gathering information about schools. It’s professional and reliable. For this basic function, you might stop using Big Future. (If your school offers Naviance or College Greenlight, you may not use any of these. But my experience has taught me that those get ignored a lot by students.

There’s one major thing that Google’s enhanced search doesn’t seem to do that both Big Future and US News do, and that’s use a filter system where you can put in your test scores and preferences to get a list of possible matches. And if you sign up, both Big Future and US News will let you save your info and search results.

Also, at least so far, the “similar colleges” list doesn’t seem to be that great. I searched SMU, Southwestern University, and University of Texas at Dallas (because those are schools I’ve attended). For all, the listed similar colleges are just geographically close, not necessarily similar at all. I imagine as more people use Google it will track what they searach and imrpove the results on this. But it isn’t there yet. 

Another advantage that Google has over the other sites—which some people find creepy but others see as normal—is that Google is built on targeted advertising. So the more you search schools on Google and it figures out what you’re looking for, the more it can sell advertising to similar schools who will try to put their name up in front of you. It may take some time—even a few years—before it’s got enough data and establsihed advertisers to put all that together. But it could happen quick. If your internet is already good at seeimg to know what you want before you realize you want it, then soon this might be true of colleges, too. 

But please remember an important thing: if you’re interested in a colllege, you need to spend a lot of time on the school’s website. If they send you an email, click on the link! Google isn’t the only site that keeps track of their visitors. One of the primary ways that colleges guage demonstrated interest is to track how much time you spend on their site and which pages you visit. So do some searching on Google...or Big Future...or US News. But remember that you might have a lot to gain from also searching the colleges’ sites as well.

Thank you for reading! Please share this post with people you know. If you have questions, suggestions, or comments, I'd love to hear them. It's easy to follow Apply with Sanity on Facebook and Twitter. You can get Apply with Sanity sent to your inbox monthly by signing up here.

Full disclosre: I have several friends who work for Google. I haven’t discussed this with them, but I’m on vacation and will visit them this weekend. If they give me any additional info on the new college search, I’ll pass it along.

Help spread some sanity

Summer may be a break from school, but it's an incredibly busy time for working on college admissions--and not just for rising seniors.

If you know any college-bound high school students or their parents, let them know about Apply with Sanity!

They can follow along on the website, on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. They can also subscribe for a monthly newsletter with a recap of all the things. There's plenty of sanity for everyone, so share a little bit soon.

College admissions and jewel heists

Last weekend I went to see Ocean's 8 with my wife. We're fans of the story: I've seen the 1960 original with Frank Sinatra and the "Rat Pack," the 2001 re-make with George Clooney and Julia Roberts, the not-so-great sequels Ocean's 12 and Ocean's 13, and now this new one. Except Ocean's 8, I've seen them all multiple times. They're well-executed, elegant cinematography to look at, and they're clever. The movies are just smart enough that you don't feel like you're watching mind-numbing entertainment, but don't actually require a whole lot of thinking. 

And while I was watching Ocean's 8, I was thinking a lot about college admissions. Partly because thinking about college admissions is just what I do, even on the weekend, but also because I've used the "bank heist movie" analogy for college applications before.

The thing about the bank heist genre is that pretty much everyone has a specialized role. There's the mastermind, the investor, the safe-cracker, the getaway driver, the person on the inside, the pickpocket, the hacker, and so-on. The team works because it's made up of people with different skills, and they're all very good at their particular skill. Sure, they need some baseline qualities, like a willingness to engage in crime, but the team is built around a division of labor.

And if you want to join their team, you have to be really good at your specialty, not kinda good at someone else's specialty. Being a decent getaway driver isn't useful if they've already got a really good getaway driver. And none of the crew grew up hoping to be on Debbie (or Danny) Ocean's team, constantly asking "what can I do to get accepted to your team?" They just worked at being skilled at what they do, and then Ocean came to them.

Think of a college admissions dean like a Debbie or Danny Ocean. (Metaphorically. I searched for "most glamorous college admissions dean" and it looks like Google has never seen "admissions dean" and "glamorous" together.) Each year, they're putting together a team. Luckily, it's more than a team of eight or 11, it's hundreds or even thousands of people. But the basic principle is the same. They're never just ranking students in terms of how qualified they are and pulling from the top. They're always trying to make sure they have all the roles filled, each year. They need Humanities majors, Science majors, club leaders, fundraisers, athletes, artists, low-income students to help them achieve their goal of meritocracy, high-income students to help them achieve their goal of not going bankrupt, future professors, future business leaders, future board members. They need high school superstars to guarantee a certain level of success from the get-go, and they need "diamond in the rough" students to hope and cheer for. They need a team big enough to keep the school full, but not so many that the school is strained. There are a lot of bases to cover.

The admissions professionals at universities understand that this is what they're doing. The term they most often use for what they do is "building a class." They don't just accept individual students, they put together a group of students. Earlier this year I heard an admissions officer at a smaller liberal arts college refer to it as "crafting a community." I like that description. If you also understand this is what they're doing, you can increase the likelihood that you're part of the community.

Like the members of the bank heist team, there are some certain baseline qualifications everybody needs to have. You should take challenging classes in high school and do your best at them. You should write well. You should have someone--like a counselor or teacher--who can vouch for you in the form of a recommendation letter. 

The good thing is that there are plenty of colleges and universities who will accept you just for demonstrating those baseline qualities. But if you're hoping to go to a school that you would describe as a "dream school," if you're hoping to be invited to join a community that denies more people than it accepts, if you're hoping to go to a school known for its impressive students, then you have to do more than have the baseline qualities. You have to have qualities and skills that you've worked at and practiced. Simply copying what others have done because you know it worked in the past doesn't get you what you want, because it's missing the point. You'll end up being the decent getaway driver when they already have a great getaway driver.

So what do you do? Debbie Ocean has the answer. In the movie, when her (literal) partner in crime Lou asks her "Why do you need to do this?" Debbie answers "Because it's what I'm good at." This should be your motivation as well. Any time you wonder "what do colleges want?" you should instead ask "what am I good at?" There are some problems that you have a talent for solving. They may be mathematical or scientific problems. They may be analytical problems. They may be organizational, or emotional, or inter-personal, or physical. Figure out, if you haven't already, what kinds of problems you like to tackle. Then, find ways to practice tackling more of those problems.

When you do this, many of the extra-curricular programs at school will make a lot more sense. You don't join the robotics team because it looks good to colleges, you join it to practice solving complex physics and programming problems. You don't join the Model U.N. team because it looks good to colleges, you join it to practice solving negotiation problems. You don't join the volleyball team because colleges want you to be athletic, you join it to give you practice solving problems around teamwork and personal discipline. If you hone your skills, then it will be a lot easier to locate--and join--the best crew for you. 


Thanks for reading! My other favorite heist movies are Ronin, Bellman and True, Sexy Beast, and To Catch a Thief. What are yours? For the summer, I'll only be posting once a week. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn. Comments are welcomed.

 Photo from  Ocean's 8 official website . These are actors, in a fictional story. You should not steal diamond jewelry to pay for college.

Photo from Ocean's 8 official website. These are actors, in a fictional story. You should not steal diamond jewelry to pay for college.

Apply with Sanity is looking for the next round of Meet the Class seniors

Last year, from September to May, I checked in once a month with two high school seniors about their college admissions ups and downs. You can read all their interviews here.

Now I'm looking for this year's class! I'd like to find three to five college-bound seniors who will share their stories with us. Ideally, they'll be from different backgrounds and different types of schools.

All it requires is answering a round of questions over email once a month. I won't use any identifying information other than your first name, so it's relatively anonymous. 

If you're interested, just fill out the Contact form.


Making a useful college mission statement

I've written about how and why to craft a college mission statement, but I want to follow up with more detail and give a sense of how you might use the mission statement to help make your college search more efficient and effective.

Let's walk through Kim's mission statement and see how it works. And let me state something obvious that needs repeating: Kim's preferences are simply what she wants and likes. They're neither good nor bad, and they're different than yours. That's just fine.

What we put together is this: "I want to study social sciences and have opportunities for research and professional interactions with professors at a small- to medium-sized urban university, preferably on the East or West coast, with a traditional campus feel and a clear path to graduate programs."

  * "I want to study social sciences" Kim doesn't know what she wants to major in, which is okay because she still has a year of high school left (and she'll probably change her mind once she gets to college). But she's pretty confident it will be in the Social Sciences category. Maybe Political Science, maybe Sociology, maybe Criminology. She'd like to be an FBI agent or work in public policy. When she thinks about giving back to society, it takes the form of public policy more than volunteering spare time or spare change.

  * "and have opportunities for research and professional interactions with professors" Academics are only a part of college life. There are also lots of social, athletic, spiritual, and professional opportunities. For some people, classes aren't even the major focus of college, just something they need to do in order to have access to the other stuff. But for Kim, the academics are central. She'd like opportunities to help with research, and she's interested in interacting with professors outside the classroom.

  * "at a small- to medium-sized urban university" Kim wants to live in a city. She's much more flexible on the size of the campus than the size of its location. 

  * "preferably on the East or West Coast" While based more on past experience than anything objective, Kim feels a strong preference for East and West. She won't ignore good fits from the South or Midwest, but she isn't really seeking them out.

  * "with a traditional campus feel" This has come up a lot with Kim. She really likes a traditional college vibe. Stone buildings, a concentrated quad with a big lawn, things like that. She's reconciled this love of old traditional college campuses with her desire to live in a city she can explore by looking for schools that are like small self-contained spaces within a larger context. So, for example, Columbia in New York City is much more appealing to her than NYU. I suspect she's been heavily influenced by Rice University here in Houston, which feels very much like a small town in the middle of a giant city.

  * "and a clear path to graduate school." Virtually any university is a path to graduate school, but Kim wants to make sure she's at a place where it's normal to go on to a graduate program and she can have support for working toward a graduate program.

We didn't get to this mission statement quickly--this was the fourth of six sessions. I wouldn't ask anyone to put together a concise mission statement about what they want until they've spent a lot of time really exploring what they want first. There are other things that Kim and I talked about that I know she'd like in a college, but these are her priorities.

After putting the statement into a readable, if lengthy, sentence, we went back and gave weights to each element based on a 100-point scale. By giving weights and scores to the different elements of her mission statement, Kim can be clear to herself and others what's most important, what's kind of important, and what's only marginally important. It also gives her a way to compare and even rank schools based on her criteria, not the criteria of a magazine or website. The "top 100 schools in the nation" don't matter to Kim--the "top 100 schools for Kim" matter to her.

  * "I want to study social sciences" 40 points. As much as Kim likes to think about the aesthetics and general vibe of a school, she recognizes that studying for her degree is the most important to her, so she gives this a lot of weight. In our session, we looked up the most popular majors for schools on Big Future. If "Social Sciences" was on the list, she gave the school at least 30 points. If it was the top major, with over 30% of students majoring in social sciences? Then it gets all 40 points. 

  * "and have opportunities for research and professional interactions with professors" 40 points. This aspect is the other most important one to Kim. She needs to be at place, wherever it is, where she feels welcome to visit professors during office hours and she can have opportunities to participate in research and internships. She wants to be very hands-on with her academic classes. We had to use published faculty-student ratios as a proxy for access to professors and projects. This isn't a perfect measurement, but it's something she can get a better look at during campus visits and her own research.

  * "at a small- to medium-sized urban university" 5 points. Size makes a difference to Kim--she doesn't want to feel lost at a giant school. But she also recognizes that she can figure out schools of different sizes as long as the other stuff is taken care of. Again, we used the official College Board designations to determine what is small and medium. 

  * "preferably on the East or West Coast" 5 points. Kim prefers to look at D.C., New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle. But she's open-minded if a good fit comes along from somewhere else.

  * "with a traditional campus feel" 10 points. Kim's less flexible about the general feeling and tone of her college. This was the most difficult part to gauge for us in our short session. We mostly just looked at photos of campuses online and had to make a determination. She can work on getting a clearer sense over the next year through further searching and possibly visits.

  * "and a clear path to graduate school." 0 points. For Kim's own motivation, and to be clear in her communication with schools about what she's interested in, she kept this in her mission statement. But we also recognized that it's really hard to measure, and that counting for this is probably the same as counting for opportunities for research and projects. So it stays in the statement but gets no points.

I also asked Kim to give bonus points for safety schools. I cannot overstate how important this is. Too many students have a completely separate search for safety schools. They apply to schools they want to attend, and then they apply to a few schools they don't have much interest in but are likely accept them. This can turn out disastrous! Safety schools should be schools that match your criteria...and also are likely to accept you. They may not be "dream schools," but you don't want to count them out. To help keep safety schools on the short list, we add bonus points to them. How exactly to define a safety school is different for each student and each situation, but this is what we did for Kim: we added 5 points for schools whose overall acceptance rate is over 80%. For schools where her SAT scores are above their mid range, we added another 5 points. 

(Kim is confident that the schools she's looking at are within her financial reach, so we didn't include cost in the mission statement. If cost is a major factor for you, add bonus points for schools that fit your financial need. You may even put cost into your mission statement.)

Then, to make sure everything seemed right, we tested the mission statement. We scored three schools that I already know she's really interested in to make sure they got high scores. We scored three schools I know she's not interested in to make sure they got low scores. This also made Kim rethink her weights and points. When Franklin Olin College of Engineering, which only offers degrees in engineering, got high marks for being in an urban center and having a really low student-to-faculty ratio, she had to decide if she wanted to put less emphasis on those elements and even more on a strong social science program. But Olin still got less than 50 points, so she kept things as they were.

So now Kim has a working mission statement, with weighted scores. Think about how useful this is to her.

It's useful in a passive sense, because when Kim gets a brochure or email from a college, she can get a quick sense of how interested she might be in the school with only about a three-minute online search. How big and where is the campus? What's the faculty-student ratio? Is Social Sciences a major department? Done. Kim doesn't overlook good fits just because she hasn't heard of them, and she doesn't waste time exploring not-so-good fits just because a school has a familiar name. It also helps her cut through the marketing and look at what's really important to her. She doesn't have to figure out which school she should pursue based on comparing one school's standard class-under-a-tree photo with another's.

There's also a more active way that this mission statement is useful. When Kim is doing more in-depth research, or visiting a campus, or talking to a school's representative, she has very specific questions to ask. She's trying to get accurate scores for the sections of her mission statement. So Kim is moving beyond just "is Social Sciences popular at this school?' and also asking "what percentage of Social Science majors go on to graduate programs?" And "Does the university have graduate programs in the social sciences, and if so how does that affect the undergrad program?" She's also getting a sense of just how much the school's community interacts--remember, she's looking for urban areas--with the greater community. Is there a subway stop nearby? What kind of local partnerships does the school have? Having this mission statement and weights gives Kim a clear way to actively seek what she's looking for rather than just going on a campus tour hoping to be wowed by the dining hall selections.

One last thing that I tried to make clear to Kim and I'll try to make clear here. While this process is literally formulaic, it doesn't have to be rigid. All it does is make you more self-aware. Kim can change and tweak her mission statement and the weights as much as she needs as she keeps developing over her next two years of high school. If there's a school that doesn't score high on her mission statement that she stills wants to apply to because it has some special feeling, that's great. If a school scores really high but just repels her for some reason, no problem. But she'll be aware that she's applying to a school that has a special something even though it doesn't fit what she says she wants. She'll be aware that she's passing up something that fits her needs, at least on paper. She can still be swayed, but she won't easily get played.

What's important to you is probably very different than what's important to Kim. She's not considering sports, Greek life, cost, quality of boarding, or several other things that many people do consider. But whatever is important to you, once you understand what that is, can be put into a mission statement like hers. It makes you a much more active problem-solver and less of a passive product hoping to get accepted somewhere.

[This is an editied version of a post I first ran last year.]

Thanks for reading! Please share this with someone who would like to read it. For the summer, I'll only be posting once a week. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn. Comments are welcomed.


The Glossary: summer melt

Summer melt refers to the students who graduate high school planning on going to college in the fall...but don't make it. It's hard to count exactly how many people this includes--it depends on who you ask, and how you define "planning on going to college"--but most estimates for high school graduates who change their plans over the first summer are between 10% and 40%. That's a lot of melting students! The majority of students affected by summer melt are low-income and/or first-generation, but it happens to some extent across the board. 

Most of the advice about solving summer melt, or at least making it smaller, is directed at adults like high school counselors and college enrollment offices. This makes sense, because one of the main factors of summer melt is not having enough support or encouragement. However, there are things any incoming college student--at any year, not just the first year--can do to stay cool (as in, not melt) over the summer.

If someone is nudging you, don't ignore them. The main tactic people use to prevent summer melt is simply to keep in contact. Some high school counselors send text reminders to their now-former students reminding them to keep up with preparations for college. Some colleges have teams of administrators, students, or alumni who try their best to stay in touch with incoming first-year students and make sure they're doing what needs to be done in order to enroll in the fall. Some family members are known to nag at their children. Whoever is reaching out to you, do not ignore them! If you're absolutely, 100% sure you have everything you need, have done everything you need to do, and will have zero questions or problems, then politely tell them so. But almost no one is ever absolutely, 100% sure of such things, so stay in touch with those people. They're doing what has been demonstrated as useful to getting you where you want to be--even if not every single message is exactly what you need to hear in exactly the right words or tone--so keep engaging with them.

If no one is nudging you, then you have to find somebody to be your go-to. It can be a parent, family member, someone at the college, a teacher or counselor from your high school...almost anyone you trust. It would be better if it's a person with college experience. It should not be somebody who has an interest in you not going to college, like a boss at your summer job or a friend who isn't going to college. As soon as possible, just tell them what you're looking for. Something like "I'm trying to go to college this fall, but I know that the process from now till then can be tricky. Can I count on you to give me reminders and help me answer questions?" Wherever you go in life, whatever you do, finding a mentor can be the difference between huge success and solitary failure. So go ahead and get practicing now.

Understand the specific problem and practice saying it aloud. This is by far the most difficult piece of advice here, so let me tell a story to help explain:

Many years ago, I had a student--a senior, just weeks away from graduation--get really angry at the school. He was visibly upset, and said things like "I hate this school! It's so overbearing and fascist!" Now, this was a small and quirky magnet school for gifted & talented students. It had its faults, but I'd never heard it called fascist before then. I asked him, a normally cheerful guy, what was so wrong with the school. He was angry that the school was requiring him to wear the graduation cap and gown to the graduation ceremony. He just wanted to wear nice clothes without the cap and gown, but the "fascist" school wouldn't let him participate without wearing them. I tried to explain that virtually every high school and university in the country, possibly the world, has special clothes for ceremonies. That the funny hats and robes of our tradition go back to medieval universities; that there was nothing particularly wrong with asking people participating in a ceremony to wear ceremonial clothes. "But they messed up my order and I don't have  gown that fits!" Ah, that was the problem. The wrong-sized-gown problem was easily fixed, but he didn't know that it was easily fixed. And, frustrated at the technical problem he didn't know how to solve, he decided he'd go without and be angry at the school instead. 

I suspect that a similar thing happens with a lot of summer melt students. A problem comes up that they don't know how to solve. Maybe it has to do with going to an orientation week in the middle of the summer, when you don't have the money and getting a week off work isn't easy. Maybe the financial aid isn't working the way it was supposed to. Maybe there are forms asking for information you don't have. And so students, not sure what to do, decide they're just not going to college.

To prevent this from happening, you need two things. First, you need that person you can trust to help you out. And next, you need to be able to say very specifically what the problem is. You have to be able to say "I'm supposed to go to an orientation, but I have no way of getting there and I don't have the week off. What can I do instead?" You have to be able to say "now that I'm getting a better understanding of the real cost, I don't think this financial aid package is really going to be enough. What can I do to make this work?" You have to be able to say "I don't understand this form, and I don't have all the information. Is there someone who can help?" There's going to be someone on the college campus who can help you, but you'll need to know what help it is you're asking for, and you need someone--probably and adult--to help you figure it all out. But understanding and being able to explain the problem is always the first step to getting it solved.

Make a back-up plan. "We'll see what happens" is not a back-up plan. If it looks like there may be difficulty in you getting to college this fall, make a "just in case" back-up plan. Use if/then statements, like "if I can't get more financial aid and make this affordable, I will enroll at the local community college instead." It's hard to predict exactly what the problem may be or what the back-up may be. But for whatever problem you do encounter, work up a back-up plan while you're also trying to find a solution to the problem. So don't give up on  the college you're think you're going to, but also look for other ideas that don't involve never making it to college.

(For more on Summer Melt, begin here, here, here, and here.)

Is there another term you'd like to see in The Glossary? Let me know, and I'll explain it!

Thanks for reading! Please share this with someone who would like to read it. For the summer, I'll only be posting once a week. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn. Comments are welcomed.

The Glossary: rolling admissions

The Glossary: rolling admissions

Rolling admissions means that universities assess your application on a first-come, first-served basis when they get it. There is usually no final deadline to apply. You just send in your application when it's ready, they have a look, and they get back to you fairly soon--usually around four weeks. Most--but not all--of the schools that have rolling admissions are large, state schools. They are large and robust enough to just look at each application as it comes in and decide if you're admissible or not without trying to "craft a community" or compare you to their other options. Some of the universities with rolling admissions are places you've probably heard of, like Penn State, Michigan State, and Arizona State. If you're looking at a college that has rolling admissions, especially if you're looking for a college because it has rolling admissions, there are a few things to understand.

Three things you can do right now

1. Sign up to get my monthly newsletter. The next one will be coming out June 1st. It has all the content you may have missed from Apply with Sanity, plus links to several handfuls of college admissions news. 

2. If you are a student who will be applying to college next year and are willing to let me interview you once a month about your process, let me know that you're interested by hitting the Contact button or emailing me at Benjamin at Applywithsanity dot com. You can get a look at what it entails by reading this year's batch.

3. If you're an adult who has some college advice you'd like me to share, pass it along! Hit the Contact button or email me at Benjamin at Applywithsanity dot com. But there's a catch: it needs to be 12 words or fewer!

Jack's final interview

Jack's final interview

I had a feeling that Jack would have some surprises for me, and sure enough he did! Read Jack's final interview below, and read all of his responses going back to the beginning of the school year in September. I'm so very grateful to Jack for letting us follow along on his admissions journey. If you'll be applying to college next year and want to participate in Meet the Class, let me know!

Should you hire a college admissions consultant?

Should you hire a college admissions consultant?

I've had a slow month as seniors are (for the most part) done with the college admissions process and underclassmen are busy with exams and finishing up the year. But the first week of June I have at least four initial meetings with new clients coming on board. I'm still pretty new in the Educational Consultant business, but there are a lot of Independent Educational Consultants out there, with a lot of different approaches and price ranges. Should you consider hiring an admissions consultant? Who are they for?

Your end-of-year assignment

Your end-of-year assignment

Around this time of year, when people are graduating from high school and college, I like to have a look at graduation speeches. Most graduation speeches are not very good--how could they be?--but that doesn't mean that there aren't some really great ones. Over the past week I've been perusing this year's best (Chance the Rapper and Oprah seem to be the hits so far, but there are still plenty to go) and the best from last year. 

And here's your assignment: draft your own graduation speech. Don't worry, you won't have to deliver it, or even write it. But give it some good thought and make an outline. Do this whether you're a graduating senior, a soon-to-be sophomore, or a been-there-done-that parent. 

Here are the ingredients to a good graduation speech.

How universities are organized

How universities are organized

Here's a pop quiz for you: what's the difference between Harvard College and Harvard University? I'll answer at the bottom.

But first here's a story. A few weeks ago I was at a conference for educational consultants, in a session about demonstrated interest. One of the presenters gave an interesting example from when he was an admissions officer at a major university in the Mid-West. He said a high school student flew in from the West Coast to do an on-campus interview. That's definitely a sign of demonstrated interest. However, the student ruined it when he said in the interview that he was really excited about studying business. This particular university has a well-known business school for people getting an M.B.A., but doesn't offer business as a major in the undergraduate program. And this, the presenter said, was a negative sign of demonstrated interest. The kid says he's really interested in the school, but doesn't even know they don't offer the major he wants?

What should you be doing this summer?

As the school year winds down and you start wondering what to do with your summer, come to Apply with Sanity for some great ideas. And don't worry: I'm not going to tell you to take a test prep class.

Apply with Sanity aims to be the premiere source for readable, wise college advice for high school students (and the adults who care about them). Spread the word!

The Glossary: need blind

The Glossary: need blind

There are currently around 100 colleges and universities in the U.S. that claim to offer need-blind admissions. Need blind sounds really great, but what exactly does it mean?

Need blind means that the school's admissions staff don't take your financial situation into account when they consider whether to accept or deny you. Your ability to pay isn't a factor. It does not mean that they don't know anything about your financial situation.