My talk with seniors

Last week I had a chance to go over to my neighborhood high school and talk with juniors and seniors in their International Baccalaureate program. The students sent three questions ahead of the visit, and I had a chance to respond. I'm repeating the questions and answers here, because I think these are pretty common questions for college-bound students.

If you have other questions, leave them in the comments or email me. I'd love to talk about them!

1. Is a college vision statement really necessary? Or is it only really necessary if you don't know yourself well?

Look, none of this is technically necessary. Not a mission statement, not going to college, not even graduating high school. But if you are going to apply to college, and if you want to do that efficiently and effectively, then a mission statement is one of the best tools you have.

Your mission statement has three parts, combined (usually) into a single sentence. The first part has to do with what you want to do at college. That includes some of the obvious things like maybe what kind of major you want to pursue. But it also includes the social interactions and community culture you'd like to be a part of. Take time to think about all the things you want and expect to do at college. The second part of your mission statement is about where you want to do the things you say you want to do in college. Maybe you have geographical preferences, maybe you have size preferences, maybe you have preferences about the makeup of the student body. Think about all your expectations of what you want your college to be like. The third section is for all those "little things" that are actually quite big to you. Like financial restraints, physical accessibility, off-campus opportunities, or special programs. After you take time (when I work one-on-one with clients we spend hours) to brainstorm all these things, you combine the priority elements into a single statement. 

Here's an example mission statement from someone I worked with this summer: "I want to graduate from a small or medium-sized college, preferably in an urban area on the East or West coast, that offers a wide variety of majors and opportunities to interact in a diverse community." This student, let's call her Katy, doesn't yet have a sense of her major or career path. She's good at lots of things, both in the Liberal Arts and STEAM, and she wants to be somewhere that offers strong programs in a variety of fields. She wants to go to school in an East or West coast city, and she's looking for a small or medium school. She's used to being part of a diverse population at her high school, and she'd like to continue being a part of a diverse population. So Katy uses this mission statement as a declaration of what she wants to do and where she wants to do it. She didn't come to this declaration because she didn't really know herself well, but because she does know herself well.

There's still so much more you can do with your mission statement after you've written it. What I ask students I work with to do is break the statement down into its parts and give a numerical weight for how important each element is. (Almost everybody does this on a 100-pint scale, but you can use whatever sale feels right to you.) Here's Katy's breakdown:

Size (up to 5,000 undergrad students): 15 points.

Urban area: 15 points.

East/West coast: 15 points.

Variety in majors: 40 points.

Diversity: 15 points. 

So you can see that Katy can be lured away from the coasts by a good fit, and she can be lured away from an urban school by a good fit. But it's going to be really difficult to lure her away from a school without a wide variety. That's really important to her--that's what defines, for her, a good fit.

I also ask students to give five bonus points for safety schools. Safety schools aren't a separate list of schools that you only think about if you have to. Safety schools are the schools that you're interested in and that are also likely to accept you. Each person's definition of safety is a little different, but I use SAT/ACT scores above the middle range and/or schools with an acceptance rate over 80% as a starting point. (For more on safety schools, click here.)

Students should also give up to five bonus points to schools that are affordable. You never know for sure what a school is going to charge you until after you've applied and got a financial aid offer, but you can use the school's net price calculator to get an estimate. If their estimate is within your budget, then add some points.

To get preliminary scores for all the elements of the mission statement, I usually use the College Board's Big Future website. It gives most of the basic data you'd want for any school, and it's standardized for all the schools, which makes them easier to compare.

So now you've got something you can really work with. You've got a personalized mission statement with weighted categories. You can give any school you come across a preliminary score based on your personalized criteria. You can keep track of which schools are a better fit than others by comparing scores on your mission statement. Now, instead of looking at how magazines or websites rank schools based on their needs, you can rank schools for you, based on your needs. You can see how helpful this is to keep you on track.

And once you have a good mission statement, your job is to investigate schools to get more accurate scores on your scale. When you visit college fairs, talk to representatives, or tour campuses, you're focused on what you want and need in a school, not whatever marketing points they're trying to push. You are now in control of finding the school for you. (For more on mission statements, click here and here.)

The sooner and more thoroughly you do this, the better. Because here's what nobody ever tells you: the better you do in the fall, the easier it is in the spring. Which, unfortunately, means that most seniors have a worse spring than fall. 

Yes, the fall has a lot of work involved. You're filling out applications, writing essays, asking for rec letters, and also trying to do well in high school. But for too many high school seniors, that work in the fall is done haphazardly and randomly. And then in the spring, things get real. Now you have to make decisions. Now you have to compare financial aid offers and actually make decisions about what you can afford. When I taught seniors at a college prep magnet high school, I always had more students absent for college visits in the spring than I did in the fall. I had more students crying in my room at lunch in the spring than in the fall. I had more students complain about stress and indecision in the spring than the fall. But the more methodical, thoughtful, and careful you are in the fall, the more smoothly the spring can go.

2. How many schools should one place on their spreadsheet and actually apply to?

The class had seen this Ted talk from John Katzman advocating for applying to 14 different colleges, and they wondered what I thought.

I think 14 sounds a little arbitrary and specific. I also think it sounds a little high. But I understand his reasoning behind the talk, and I agree completely. So let's break down the process.

First, spread your net wide and look--very briefly--at a lot of schools. Whenever you come across a school that seems interesting, do a quick estimate of its score on your mission statement and see if you should keep considering it. Start with a list of at least your top 20 or 25. When I finish up with a one-on-one client, I give them my own "long list" of 20-25 schools. Some are ones that we've already discussed, and others are schools that I think the client might want to have a look at.

From that, narrow down your list to around 12. There's nothing magical about 12, it's just that you want to have a manageable short list of schools that you can spend more time getting to know better and possibly apply to. Some students have the time and energy for their short list to be up to 15 or 20. Some have the time and energy for five. The number isn't important; what's important is that your narrowed-down list has been narrowed down using your criteria for what you want and need in a college and which colleges are likely to agree that you are a good match for them. That's why the mission statement is so important. It gives you a way to organize your list and have confidence in the ones you choose to apply to.

The other really important thing--and this is why you give bonus points on your mission statement--is to make sure that at least 25% of the schools you keep on your short list are safety schools. Remember safety schools are schools that meet your criteria and you'd be happy at, they just have a higher chance of accepting you and being affordable. They're not schools that you'll "just" go to if nobody else will take you.

So from your short list of 12 (or 14, or 8, or however many make it onto your short list), you'll end up applying to somewhere between one and all of them. How many depends on timing, early application options, and your own tolerance for risk. Some students apply Early Decision to one school, get accepted, can afford it, and are done. Some apply in an early round of three or four in October and wait to hear back from them before they make another round of applications for January 1 deadlines. Most students end up applying to all of their short list schools.

So the number I give isn't 14. It's 20+, then 12, then 1-12. And again, the more on top of things you are in the fall then the less stressful the spring will be.

3. How do you turn your resume from just a list of accomplishments to something more meaningful for the schools to which you're applying? 

The short answer is that you don't. Your resume is, literally, a one-page summary of your experience and accomplishments. That's it. And ironically, the more you do things just because you think they'll "look good on a resume," the less valuable that list is, since you haven't really committed to much except being able to list them. When students would come to me for a teacher recommendation, I'd never ask them for a resume. When I take on coaching clients now, I don't ask for a resume and we don't work on one. 

What's meaningful to colleges isn't your list of accomplishments, but who you are as a person. They can see your grades, test scores, and transcript--they have papers with lists, and another list on paper isn't going to help you much. What they want, and what you have to show them, is a human. You need to be an interesting person, not a resume.

So what you do is choose the most interesting one or two things from your resume, and you focus on those. You integrate them into your application essays. You find ways to bring them into the conversation when you're in an interview. You spend time in high school increasing your connection to whatever those items on your resume are. 

Here's a story from a long time ago, when I was in high school. By the second half of high school it was quite clear that I was not going to be the aerospace engineer I wanted to be when I started high school. I was in the competitive Computer Club, and I sucked at it. My science classes did not go well. Pre-Cal was (and still is) a mystery to me. Plus, it turns out I'm afraid of flying! But I had a growing interest in fiction and writing, two things I shied away from earlier. I joined the newspaper staff, and one summer went to a high school journalism summer camp at UT-Austin.

The camp was great. I learned a lot, practiced a lot, and felt like I was doing ok at something, a feeling I hadn't had in a while. At the end of the week, there was an awards ceremony where each instructor called out the best news writer, best headline writer, and best editorial writer from their group. I didn't expect to win any of the awards from my instructor, and I didn't. But, after handing out the little trophies or certificates or whatever she handed out, my instructor said that she wanted to give some special words for "Ben Holloway, because really everything he writes deserves an award." I literally gasped and blushed.

It would be exaggeration to say that was the single moment that changed my life. But not a huge exaggeration. That camp and that recognition boosted my confidence more than a whole semester of straight A's. It confirmed that I was moving in the right direction. I went on to major in English, teach English, get a Master's degree in English. Now I write for my website for a living.

When I tell you that story, I'm doing a few things. I'm taking one tiny point from my high school career and expanding it into something bigger. I'm taking four or five days from a summer in the early '90s and making a story that shows my humanity. I'm providing some context for my crappy Pre-cal grades (and Chemistry grades, and Physics grades) that puts a more positive light on them. And the really fun part? Since I didn't technically win an award, that wouldn't even be on my resume!

This is what you want to do with your resume. Make it show your humanity, not just your accomplishments. And do that by letting go of the resume and spending a lot more time and energy on essays, interviews, and just being a good high school student. A resume can be a great tool for organizing your thoughts about yourself and presenting them quickly to another person. But unless that other person asks for a resume, don't volunteer it. You have more important things to share with them.

And that covers pretty much everything from my 45 minutes with the classes. If you've got a high school class that wants me to come speak, I've got things to talk about. If you've got questions, I've got responses.

Thanks for reading! Please share this with everyone you know who would like to read it. Follow me on Facebook and/or Twitter. My next blog update will be Monday morning.

Heights High School, in Houston. Image taken from the school's web site.

Heights High School, in Houston. Image taken from the school's web site.