Productive Summer Plans for High Schoolers

Hopefully high school students realize that summer isn’t just a time to relax and enjoy the sun, but also a time to get a leg up with activities that can help later on with college admissions. Two kinds of pursuits are especially good: those that will broaden you that can be featured on your extracurricular resume, and those that will keep your academic skill set sharp.

Broadening experiences might include a summer job, which shows that you are responsible and disciplined. Although perhaps not as commonly seen these days, work experience is viewed very positively in an admissions context. Other great experiences include travel (especially thoughtful travel, where you learn about places where you’re spending time), volunteer work, and programs like outdoor adventure-type trips. Note that not all of these possibilities cost money, and one even pays you for your time!

Pursuits that keep your skill set sharp include reading, and not just comic books and vampire romance novels, but at least some serious reading. Some high-quality, well-written periodicals that can be easy to come by in libraries and elsewhere include:

  • The Atlantic
  • Discover
  • The Economist
  • High Country News
  • National Geographic
  • National Review
  • The New York Times
  • The New Yorker Magazine
  • Scientific American
  • Smithsonian Magazine
  • Sports Illustrated (some of their longer articles and essays)
  • Rolling Stone (some of their longer articles and essays)
  • The Wall Street Journal

There should be something for every taste and interest on the above list, but I recommend sampling around and pushing yourself to read and engage beyond your current interests, as you will do this in college with General Education requirements in most cases.

Some colleges offer mini summer courses for high school students, giving you a taste of a topic or discipline of interest, and of life on their campus. These can be pricey, but some of the topics I read about in the promotional materials that I receive sound fascinating. Just now I did a web search on “college summer programs for high school students” and a ton of these programs came up.

You might consider doing some gradual prep for ACT and SAT tests and retests by reviewing questions and test segments on the official websites of the two testing companies. You can also sign up on the SAT website to receive their question of the day:

The basic idea behind formulating productive summer plans while in high school is to do something that engages and expands you, and not to simply hang with your friends and kick back. Once college application season begins you will be ahead of the game for sure!


The Tyranny of the Lists

Apparently lists are irresistible to readers. Just this morning I myself chose to read online about the ten best value used cars and the ten best brands of vanilla ice cream. In realms where I have limited knowledge and interest I am pulled in by these titles; however, the content of the lists I see pertaining to higher education give me significant pause as to the veracity and validity of such list-making.

A recent case in point: The Ten Easiest College Degrees. According to Angela Colley of, here they are: Women’s Studies, Religious Studies, English Literature, Sports Management, Creative Writing, Communications Studies, Liberal Studies, Theater Arts, Art, and Education. According to the post the list was formulated (and I quote) “by reviewing studies, comparing entrance requirements and course catalogs at dozens of colleges, and asking college students and recent graduates themselves.” So a high bar was set to be sure for assembling this list, and yet my experience as someone with many years of college teaching experience and past administrative positions in academic advising, first year programs and the like lead me to question her conclusions.

First of all, I am quite sure that the caliber of the institution significantly determines the rigor of its programs, whatever they may be. In my experience, as an interdisciplinary degree program, women’s studies is not for the faint of heart. It can be quite theoretical, and requires students to traverse the terrain between the humanities, social sciences and sometimes sciences in order to critique social institutions and received knowledge. I suppose it may sound easy from catalog descriptions at some institutions, but women’s studies professors are some of the most exacting and demanding teachers that I know.

English literature and creative writing?  Don’t majors in these subjects need to have an appetite for extensive close reading, sometimes of obscure texts (like Middle English for example–yikes!), and endless writing, editing, and re-writing? Many of the students I have taught, advised, and now coached as an educational consultant want to avoid this sort of thing like the plague. I imagine it all comes down to interest and aptitude: if you are engaged by something and feel you have skills that relate you will gravitate toward that subject and enjoy it. Math comes more easily to some students, and English to others. As someone with no artistic sensibilities or skills whatsoever, I am sure I would have made a lousy art major, and would have been miserable in such a degree program, and found it tough going.

And how many schools have a straight-up education major anyway? Most of the schools I’m familiar with feature education licensure programs to impart pedagogical skills, and require that students major in selected disciplinary degree programs, such as science, English, mathematics, social science, etc. This is also what many states require of prospective teachers.

My skepticism of lists extends to the college lists that many students and families seek out and follow, where I believe similar faulty assumptions and easy conclusions prevail. Whether it’s the The 377 Best Colleges, or the 40 Colleges That Change Lives, my question is always, according to whom, and why were some schools chosen and others left out? Surely there are more than 40 colleges that change the lives of students in powerful, positive ways—in fact, I’m sure of it. In my view lists are too easy, too pat, and too limited. And yet I understand their allure. Today I’m purchasing some Ben and Jerry’s vanilla ice cream (ranked # 1 on the list I read) to go with the peach and raspberry pie I’m serving my guests for dessert tonight.  My clients, however, unlike my dinner guests, shall be liberated from the tyranny of the lists, as much as I can help make that happen.

Case Western Reserve University

I was impressed on a recent visit to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. In fact, my first sense was that the school has a decided Ivy League feel to it with its size, architecture, and urban location. Case is a private university with 4016 undergraduates and 5620 graduates. It is ranked as more selective by U.S. News, and attracts students with SATs averaging 1336 and an ACT cumulative average of 30. One of the few universities in the U.S. with more males enrolled (56%) than females (44%), this is no doubt due to the popularity of its engineering programs – although biology, nursing and psychology are also found on the list of top majors.

Case has some impressive institutional stats, including a 92% freshman retention rate. The school meets 91% of undergraduate student financial need, although I was less impressed by the average debt of recent graduates: $39,886. In athletics the school plays at the Division III level.

I loved the campus and its mix of traditional and modern buildings. A standout is definitely the Peter B. Lewis building, which houses the internal School of Management. Architect Frank Gehry may be known for the undulating forms and curves of his major buildings, but to my untrained eye it also looked as if a very unfortunate explosion may have occurred inside. My photo of the building is at the top of the blog. I am very sorry that our tour didn’t include a peek inside. I also popped in a picture from the lovely main library at the bottom, which was featuring therapy dogs as a relaxation antidote to final exams during my visit—which I loved.

Finally, an observation or two about Case’s location in Cleveland: the city is far from the joke it once was, shades of urban blight and the Cuyahoga River in flames. Cleveland is now known as a hip metropolitan center with much happening in the arts and sports, and I am aware that it is also a major foodie destination. Any student looking for a standout education in an interesting urban setting should consider Case Western. 

Santa Fe University of Art and Design

Until recently I have been snootily dismissive of for-profit colleges, but I must eat my words, for now I know Santa Fe University of Art and Design. I spent two amazing days on campus in late April and was beyond impressed. For the right student—likely one who is passionate about creativity, and ready for an intense hands-on learning experience—this could well be nirvana.

I was fortunate to be one of forty-some educational consultants, high school guidance counselors, and art teachers invited for an in-depth introduction to the college, and I dare say that every person in the group was quite amazed at all that we saw and experienced. SFUAD is the former College of Santa Fe, reborn from the ashes of the former school, which fell on hard times and closed for a while. Following a commitment from state and local stakeholders, a new partnership with the Laureate International University system, and a rebirth in its new university guise, this is now a thriving and truly exciting school.

Programs at SFUAD include art, contemporary music, creative writing and literature, dance, graphic design, moving image arts (film/video), performing arts, and photography.  We got up close and personal with the students and their work and were treated to musical performances, a dance number, a theatre piece (from The Book of Mormon), and toured every building, where we saw students at work on all manner of interesting projects. The final evening of our time there included a chance to attend a theatrical production (Once On This Island), a student BFA show, and an exciting tradition in its third year, called Outdoor Vision Fest, where student multimedia work is projected at night on the walls of the Visual Arts Center, an architecturally intriguing campus building. All of Santa Fe is invited to this increasingly popular event, which this year featured live music and food trucks as well as the visual extravaganza.

SFUAD is a happening place, and fits well into the arts milieu of Santa Fe. The film school is the jewel in the crown of campus as it also hosts major professional productions, including acclaimed films like True Grit and No Country For Old Men, as well as the A&E TV series Longmire (we were allowed on the Longmire set during our visit). What this means is that film students have a chance to intern and be exposed to fully professional industry connections and experiences, even as beginning undergraduates.  Amazingly, film students are given a Canon T4i DSLR camera with a zoom lens at the start of their enrollment, free of charge!

Three things in particular stand out to me about this school. One is that faculty members are working creative professionals who are well known and respected in their fields. I noted from the school website that Creative Writing and Literature Department Chair Dana Levin was a member of the jury pool for the National Book Awards in Poetry last year. Vice President for Academic Affairs Gerry Snyder is a painter who has exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC, the Museum Gallery of Modern Art in Sophia, Bulgaria, and elsewhere. This sort of distinction seems to be true of all the faculty chairs.

Another standout feature stems from the school’s connection with Laureate, which provides for study abroad opportunities at other Laureate institutions worldwide, including Domas Academy in Milan, Italy, where Santa Fe students can get a taste of fashion design, interior design, car design (!), and urban architectural design. Media Design School in Auckland, New Zealand, which specializes in digital design and 3D animation, is yet another option.

A final standout feature is the remarkably collaborative and interactive way in which the whole place works, involving both students and faculty members. We repeatedly heard from students and our tour guides that the average student makes connections across campus with fellow students in other disciplines and majors, and they develop working relationships, contributing to one another’s projects just as professionals do in real life. What a novel concept!

To see images of last year’s OVF, click or copy here:


Late Spring-Early Fall ACT and SAT Testing

The end of the school year and early fall can be a great time to take or retake college admission tests to try for higher scores. When scheduled at these times there are fewer competing commitments and distractions that might interfere with solid preparation. Neither the ACT nor the SAT is administered over the summer months. The last opportunity to take the ACT at this point is June 8. The initial registration date has passed, but you may register on a late basis until May 17 and pay an additional fee. The last opportunity to take the SAT prior to the summer hiatus is June 1. Late registration for this test is by May 22, also with a late fee. The basic charge for the ACT without the optional essay is $35; with the essay the cost is $50.50. I recommend taking the test at least once with the essay, as some colleges require it. The basic SAT cost is $50. Low-income families can request to have fees waived by both companies.

The earliest fall administrations of each test are as follows: ACT September 21 (with a registration deadline of Aug. 23), and SAT October 5 (with a September 6 deadline).  Remember that you may take tests numerous times and most schools will utilize your best outcomes in their admissions decision. While it is the case that more than 850 schools are now test optional (meaning that you needn’t submit test scores), many schools still rely on testing as an aspect of admissions decisions, and especially, for awarding merit scholarships. Therefore you don’t need to overly stress about ACT and SAT testing, but you should give the tests your very best effort, including plenty of advance preparation.

The official test books from the two test companies feature actual retired ACT and SAT tests along with in-depth information about skills and strategies for each test segment. Titles and ordering information for each are:

The Real ACT Prep Guide, 3rd edition. ISBN-13: 978-0-7689-3432-8

The Official SAT Study Guide, 2nd edition. ISBN-10: 0874478529

Also both companies feature a full test with answers and preparation suggestions on their websites:

The above methods of self-preparation work well for students who are highly disciplined and self-directed. For those who work better with someone leading the way and explaining questions and answers in detail, Pinnacle Education will be offering both individual and small group test prep in advance of the June and September/October dates. Call or email for additional information:   303-635-6620

Making a Decision About College Acceptances

If you were lucky enough to receive acceptances from more than one of the colleges that you applied to, you are in the enviable position of deciding among competing offers. While this can potentially feel overwhelming, there is a rational way of making a choice.

On a sheet of paper list the pros, cons, and open questions you have for each school offering you a spot. These should relate to the factors that were important to you as you identified your colleges of interest. Overall school reputation, strength in your major, availability of programs you would like to participate in (such as study abroad, internships, etc.), campus culture, and cost might be among some of the factors you rank at this point.

If you feel you don’t have adequate information consider making use of good guidebooks and other sources, such as the Fiske Guide to Colleges for a print resource, or the website Unigo, for extensive student reviews of their own institutions:

Don’t overlook the subject of cost, as decisions you make about the amount and more importantly, the composition of your aid packages are critical in this day of soaring student loan debt. Look to see who gave you the most money, but also look to see who gave you the greatest about of gift aid (free money) from your college acceptances, which is aid in the form of grants and scholarships. In particular seek to minimize your amount of aid in the form of loans, a type of self-help aid. If your aid letter doesn’t make this clear, feel free to call the financial aid office at the school and ask about the terms of your awards, whether they will continue in subsequent years, and any requirements you must meet to continue to receive that award.

If you were disappointed with your outcomes and acceptances, consider either the possibility of a Gap Year, a period off between high school graduation and starting college where you pursue a program that will further season and develop you. Also consider attending at a community college (which can save a lot of money!), and applying later to your dream college as a transfer student.

Topics contained in this post are explored in much greater depth in my book Get In! The High-Success, Low-Stress Guide to College Planning, available shortly from Tattered Cover Bookstores in Denver and Highlands Ranch, and from Tattered Cover online:


Available Soon: GET IN! My College Planning Book

Dear Blog: My apologies for the neglect; it has been nearly two months since I have posted on you, but there is a good reason. I finished my book: Get In: The High Success, Low-Stress Guide To College Planning. It will soon be available for purchase from Tattered Cover Bookstore here in Denver, and after that through Amazon. Soon I will be back posting regularly, but for today I am sharing the front cover, created by NZ Graphics.

Why Consider a Gap Year?

The concept of a Gap Year is getting a lot of buzz these days, and many colleges are highly favorable toward students who make this choice. They know from first-hand experience that many post Gap freshmen are among the most well adjusted, thoughtful, and academically successful students that they have enrolled. A Gap Year (or semester) is a period of time off between high school graduation and the start of college during which the student engages in activities that promote personal growth and empowerment. A Gap experience may involve travel, volunteer service, employment, an internship, or some combination thereof.

A Gap Year can be an excellent choice for most any student, but is especially recommended for those who could use a break from the burnout of intense high school academics (prior to taking on the rigors of college study), those who may be somewhat unfocused in their goals and aspirations, and others who aren’t quite developmentally ready (aka mature enough) to make the most of living and studying independently. Since I have known a number of students like this in my education consulting practice, I appreciated the following quote by Danielle Wood, from the Today Show online:

Sending a kid who’s not ready off to college is like sending a kid who’s not hungry to an all-you-can-eat-buffet.

So how does a family explore Gap Year opportunities? A basic web search is a good start, although there are also now some good books available on this topic. Two important pieces of advice from those in the know: One, a Gap experience should never be a last minute fall-back option, for example upon receiving a rejection letter from your top college pick; to ensure a good experience it should be thoroughly researched and planned well in advance. Second, a Gap Year Program made available through an agency or organization, if that is the choice, should involve thorough investigation of its safety and soundness, especially if it includes travelling or living far away from home.

Some well-known programs are quite expensive, especially those that involve an overseas placement or a lot of travel, so shop around for the most reasonable cost. Also consider making a deal with your parents for a program of shorter duration in exchange for you working for three or six months to carry some of the cost; both the job and the program constitute your gap experience in this scenario. There are a few programs that are low cost or free that involve intensive service, such as the Americorps programs, some of which actually pay a small stipend or grant to help cover college costs.

A final great thing about Gap Year experiences is once again, the extent to which colleges are increasingly favorable about them (including Ivies and other highly selective schools), sometimes actually promoting them to students or granting deferments (giving permission for a delayed start date) to accepted students who decide they wish to do this before matriculating. Some students have even found that completing a Gap Year has improved their chances with a school that previously rejected or wait listed them.

College Application Outcomes

We are pleased to inform you/We regret to inform you….

It’s the season of college application outcomes, as students are beginning to hear back from the schools to which they applied. Should you receive more than one acceptance you have a hard decision to make, but there are ways of doing so rationally, and reducing the associated stress and angst.

First, if you did your homework and chose schools that are a good fit for you, know that your happiness doesn’t ride on making a particular choice. The majority of students will find a niche and have a good experience at a majority of schools. So take some pressure off on that score.

Second, go about gathering the facts and make a systematic comparison. On a sheet of paper list the pros, cons, and open questions about each of your accepting schools. If your dream is to major in business marketing and study abroad, evaluate the relative strengths of those programs (there are rankings and ratings online that are easy to access to help with this). If you visited, what did you think of the dorms at your schools?

Third, which school is offering the best financial deal? Don’t only consider the total amount of your financial aid package, but also consider some less obvious factors. Who is giving you the package with the highest amount of gift aid (money you don’t have to pay back, like grants and scholarships), and the lowest amount in loans? Look also at the renewability of your aid package over time; if your grades stay up will you get a similar package in successive years, or will it likely diminish in years two through four? If your award letter doesn’t address this you may need to call the financial aid office and ask questions.

It may be advisable at this point to visit your schools, if you haven’t already, or to make a second, more in-depth visit. Many schools have special visitation programs for accepted students. You may have an opportunity to spend the night on campus, visit a class, or meet professors and fellow students with similar interests. This can be an important thing to do, as your gut response to spending time on campus is a valid consideration as well.

Finally, what if the unthinkable has happened and you were wait listed at one or more schools, or rejected? If you were wait listed at a school that you have a strong desire to attend, let them know of your continued interest, but don’t rely on a positive response. Some of these schools will receive “no thanks” replies from some of their accepted students, and this may indeed open up a space for someone like you further down on the list. This is a great thing if it happens, but there are certainly no guarantees.

If you are facing the bleakest outcome – no acceptances at schools of genuine interest, this is a good time to regroup. Trust that you will, eventually, get into a school that you truly wish to attend. It may be a good opportunity to consider a gap year experience, which will further season you and potentially increase the interest of some colleges in you as an applicant. This may also be a good time to apply to a community college or less selective school with a later application deadline, which may also prove to be a cost savings. You may have better luck down the road as a transfer applicant.

Best of luck with your decision!

The Ideal College Experience: Inimitable Opportunities

U.S. News today published a piece on colleges that were found to have falsified admissions data: They conclude with an optimistic projection that such abuses are not widespread, but I wonder, in today’s climate where lots of attention is paid to rankings (with little awareness in many cases of what they actually mean), and where competition for students is intense.

A few days back a NYT blog by Frank Bruni made a convincing case for bypassing the usual rankings and ratings in favor of some atypical indicators that may reveal more meaningful realities – among them, the number of international students attending a given college, and the number of students who participate in study abroad: Bruni is an elegant and thoughtful correspondent. Here is a taste, as he frets over his high school junior niece’s college planning process:

…. as surely as my niece swims in numbers, she drowns in advice. But much of it strikes me as shortsighted and incomplete, and I worry that she’ll be coaxed to make her choice in a way that disregards the inimitable opportunity that college presents, the full bounty and splendor of those potentially transformative years. I have the same worry about other secondary-school students who, like her, possess the economic and intellectual good fortune — and the hard-won transcripts — to entertain a wealth of alternatives, because I think we let them get too distracted by rankings, ratings, brands. We don’t point them toward assessments and dynamics that are arguably more meaningful.

My goal in my consulting practice is to help students find that ideal college that routinely provides those “inimitable opportunities” (often a set of colleges, actually), but it’s hard going sometimes. Thanks Mr. Bruni for framing the issues in such elegant prose!