Top 10 Tips for College Success

This post is partly for my clients who are about to go off to college this August and September, and is a compilation of what I know as a faculty member, past administrator who ran college student success programs, and once-upon-a-time student who learned much of this the hard way.

  1. For starters, know that college is truly different from high school. It is different in terms of rigor (the difficulty level and pace of the average class), and in terms of you being 100% responsible for yourself. Even if things seem manageable at first, don’t let your guard down in terms of giving your studies your all.
  2. Show up.  You will be tempted at times to cut class.  Don’t.  Missing class when there is no compelling reason to do so pushes students down the slippery slope toward struggle. Some faculty members test heavily toward lectures more so than readings. Borrowing others’ notes or reviewing PowerPoint class outlines isn’t the same as being there. Plus, professors notice when you aren’t present, even if they don’t formally take attendance. When it comes time at the end of the term to make decisions on borderline grades for those who missed frequently, guess what decision gets made?
  3. Keep current on reading and other assignments. Keeping up with reading reinforces what is happening in class. Also, when it comes time to study for an exam you don’t want to be catching up on reading; you want to be integrating and processing at a higher level. That is, if you want an A or a B in the class.
  4. Get a calendar and use it. Use it to plot out your class meeting times and locations, and the due dates for all tests and assignments. Consult your calendar frequently. Good time management skills will help you in college and in life after college, and are a habit of those who are highly successful.
  5. Learn how to study for college, as your high school habits likely won’t be sufficient. There are techniques for how to read and retain material, take notes in class, study for exams, and write sound papers.  Participate in how-to-study sessions at your college if they are offered, or check out a guidebook, like Becoming a Master Student. Also, join a study group.  This is also a great way to expand your friendships.
  6. Also, prioritize studying, and allot sufficient time to it on a regular basis. The generally recommended amount of time for studying per week is 2 hours for every credit hour you are enrolled in. If you are signed up for a typical 15-hour load this comes to 30 hours per week, plus your class time of approximately 15 hours, totaling 45 hours – more than a fulltime job!
  7. Don’t be anonymous with your professors, especially if you are attending a college with larger class sizes. Volunteer answers, comments or questions during lecture to show you are engaged. Visit your professor during her or his office hours. Push yourself to sit towards the front and make eye contact with your teacher. Having faculty who know you will help enormously as you close in on graduation and need recommendations for jobs and grad school. And while I’m at it, no web surfing or texting during class!
  8. Take advantage of all that your college has to offer. Utilize the gym and pool, join a club, become involved in volunteer work and service opportunities, pick up free condoms at the health center, consider internships and study abroad opportunities, etc. If you are female, definitely take a safety or self-defense class.
  9. Seek out help when needed. Most likely your college offers tutoring, counseling, a wide range of interesting workshops, and other forms of help and support, often for no charge. This is the only time in your life when so many things are free or low cost. Check out what all is available!
  10. Cultivate friends who are serious students and who will support you being a serious student. Hanging with a focused crowd of fellow students is an easy way to reinforce good habits, and learn new ones. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have fun and party; after all, that’s part of the college experience too! However, take steps to be safe and watch out for each other, especially in reinforcing the reason you are enrolled in college in the first place.
  11. If you follow these suggestions pretty faithfully, you will have mastered the keys to college success. I wish you an enjoyable and successful college experience!

Pinnacle Summer College Planning Clinic

With school counselor caseloads climbing ever higher, families rightfully fear that students will lack personalized help with planning for college at the same time that admission selectivity reaches a peak nationwide. This summer local independent educational consultant Dr. Lisa Ransdell is offering a six-week reasonably priced college planning clinic to a small group of rising high school juniors and seniors.

The clinic provides 12 hours of instruction and personal guidance with key aspects of college planning, including college searching/matching, essay development and editing, career/major planning and assessment, financial aid guidance, model campus tours and interview preparation, and more. After completing the clinic, each participant will be far ahead of many of his or her classmates with much of the work of applying to college complete or solidly begun. Parents are invited to attend the financial aid and scholarship class meeting.

At the conclusion of the sessions each participant will receive a detailed, personalized report with college matches, the student’s edited essay draft, the college major assessment report, a point-by-point college planning timeline, financial aid and scholarship recommendations, and more.

Dr. Ransdell launched her education consulting practice, Pinnacle Education Consulting, LLC, in 2007 in the Denver area.  Lisa works with all kinds of students, sharing with each insight from her 20-year career as a higher education administrator and 28-years as a college faculty member (ongoing). She is a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, and the Denver-Boulder BBB.

Lisa’s past clients are attending or headed to schools like the University of Denver, the University of Colorado, the University of Chicago, Gonzaga University, the University of Southern California, Villanova University, Louisiana State University, the University of Oregon, and many more excellent colleges. The summer clinic is very affordable and offers phenomenal value and terrific benefits to participants and families.

For info/to register:                   303-635-6620

Campus tour at UC Berkeley

Assessing College Readiness

How do high school students and their families know if a student in the relevant age range is ready to take on the rigors of college with a likelihood of success? This is a significant question, as each year all but the most highly selective colleges lose from 10-20% of their most recent matriculated class (sometimes more!) for a range of reasons. Some of the lost students drop out due to low grades, some are expelled or suspended for behavioral infractions, and some depart an institution that they ultimately feel wasn’t a good match.

In my view there are two types of college readiness, both quite important. One type is intellectual readiness. This readiness has to do with whether a student possesses the requisite skills for college success. Reading comprehension, basic math skills, and writing ability are the key variables here. Students with significant deficits in any of these areas are starting college at a disadvantage, since college coursework assumes a basic command of literacy and numeracy. In Colorado (and elsewhere), media coverage of the high number of students requiring remedial coursework as they start college demonstrates awareness of the importance of this kind of readiness.

The second type of readiness gets less attention, and is less understood and commented on. This type is emotional maturity, including the discipline required to work hard and prioritize studying, basic time management skills, and a willingness to assume responsibility for one’s choices and actions. In an age where “helicopter parents” have managed virtually every aspect of the lives of their offspring, and with fewer and fewer students working during high school, even over summer breaks, many students may be at a loss at how to take on responsibility for their lives. Yet this is what they must do to be successful in college.

Having spent much of my career as a higher education administrator designing and managing programs to increase student success, I have found in my current career as a college planner that I’m pretty good at predicting which of my clients are ready in this latter sense. When comparing extremely bright but immature students with those with lesser intellectual gifts who are disciplined, my money is on the worker bees nearly every time.

So how do we move the unfocused, unmotivated bees along? Sometimes delaying fulltime college attendance can be just the thing.  There is nothing like a yearlong job to foster additional maturity and appreciation of the benefits of college study. Another option might be a gap year, where students complete service projects while travelling and/or studying with fellow students in an established program. A graduated start, say, at a community college, paired with part time work or an unpaid internship at Mom or Dad’s office or business can also be a good way to go. The idea is for the student to consistently engage in something that builds maturity and promotes life learning while they wait out a year.

College Preparation, Year By Month

Dr. Lisa Ransdell is an independent educational consultant and college counselor who helps students and their families stay on top of college planning. Lisa’s practice is grounded in 28 years of college teaching and 20 years in higher education administration. She constantly tours, reads, and does professional development in order to give clients the most up-to-date info.

Bodleian Library, Oxford

I have blogged about this important topic before, but just came upon a great series of guidelines for high school students on how to best plan for college: year by year and month by month. The guidelines are published by NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling.  Here is a nugget for each year of high school from the piece:

Freshmen: Investigate what high school courses are required by colleges and plan your enrollment accordingly.

Sophomores: Prepare for and take the PSAT in October. This test prepares you for the SAT next year, and can be repeated next fall to try for National Merit Scholarships, a significant source of scholarship money.

Juniors: Begin a preliminary list of colleges of interest, and make contact with them, either by visiting or by requesting literature.

Seniors: Keep grades strong and attend to college application deadlines. Don’t take rolling admission policies for granted at colleges that don’t specify a specific date. These schools will close down admissions once their incoming class is full.

For the full set of suggestions for each year and month, see NACAC site:

I also see they have a Preparing for College newsletter for high school students and families, which is also likely a good source of info.


Early Fall College Planning

What should high school students and their families be doing in the late summer/early fall to be ahead of the college planning game? Here is what I would suggest:

Seniors: Do as much as you can before senior year starts. You will be distracted, you will be busy, and besides applying to colleges your main job will be keeping your grades up. Start your college essays; you can have them well underway if not finished before your classmates — one less stress during crunch time come November-December, which is prime application-time. Check the essay prompts for the Common Application, which are pretty typical.  Even if you are asked to write a different kind of essay by a particular school, cutting and pasting sections is often possible.

Also, do some initial scholarship research to see what you might qualify for (also a time-saver later), and visit any schools you have a clear interest in that you haven’t visited. Many colleges regard an official visit as an indication of sincere interest, so don’t miss out on communicating this.

Juniors: Do some serious prep for the ACT/SAT (see my blog of Feb 21, ‘11) and take each exam.  If your results aren’t stellar determine which was your strongest test, do more prep and re-take it.  Schools will only consider your highest scores, so there is no downside to repeating these tests.

Make this a standout academic year, as junior year grades are what you will be showcasing in the majority of your applications come fall of senior year. Maintain one or two of your past extracurriculars, as these will be scrutinized as well.

Begin building a college list and touring colleges in earnest to identify what kinds of schools match you, and to establish your interest.  Participate in some of the college fairs that happen locally in the fall. This is a great chance to learn more about all kinds of colleges, collect information, and meet admissions reps.

By all means, consider working with an independent educational consultant!:)

I made additional recommendations for high school sophomores and freshmen in my past blog of Sept 28, ‘09; check it out!


Test Optional Colleges

An evolving trend in the world of higher education is a swing toward test-optional colleges, meaning schools where students are not required to submit SAT or ACT scores. According to the National Center For Fair and Open Testing, the current count of such institutions is over 850, and is expected to continue growing. The list includes many selective and highly selective colleges, especially private liberal arts colleges, and some state universities. So far no Ivies have gone T.O. (after all, the SAT was originally developed as a means for Harvard to judge applicant scholarship worthiness). The following is a short illustrative list:

  • Bard
  • Bowdoin
  • California State system
  • Denison
  • Franklin & Marshall
  • Lawrence
  • Lewis & Clark
  • Middlebury
  • Rollins
  • University of Arizona
  • University of Kansas

Test optional is good news for students who are bright and hard-working who may not perform well on standardized tests, and it is good news for colleges, as the trend allows them to escape to some extent from the tyranny of publishing ever higher student score ranges to sustain their selectivity profile.

The diminishment of the importance of testing follows from long years of criticism of the cultural bias of such tests and their potential lack of validity. Admissions professionals at many colleges affirm that the strongest predictor of student success in college is performance in a rigorous high school curriculum.

For a comprehensive list of test-optional colleges, see


Common Misconceptions of a College Education

Dr. Lisa Ransdell is an independent educational consultant and college counselor who helps students and their families stay on top of college planning. Lisa’s practice is grounded in 27 years of college teaching and 20 years in higher education administration. She constantly tours, reads, and does professional development in order to give clients the most up-to-date info.

I liked many of the points made in a recent commencement speech at Michigan State University by Roger Ferguson, President and CEO of TIAA-CREF, the retirement-investment firm used by a majority of the nation’s college professors and staff members. Ferguson, who is an attorney and former Federal Reserve Board Chairman, highlighted three common misconceptions of a college education for the benefit of those graduating.

First, he challenged the idea that the main purpose of attending college is to get a job and maximize earnings as much as possible. By way of illustrating what can happen when people and companies place the pursuit of money above all else, Ferguson cited the ongoing financial crisis and the long-term fallout that can occur when greed prevails in human enterprise.

Second, Ferguson took issue with the notion of “climbing a career ladder”, observing that many of those who are most successful in the U.S. at present are willing to operate as if on a career climbing wall, where one must shift horizontally, perhaps briefly descent before ascending once again, and carefully read the terrain and strategize in order to keep moving and progressing.

Finally, Ferguson debunked the idea that graduation marks the end of education. He made a strong case for the importance of lifelong learning, and observed that this learning doesn’t necessarily take place in a classroom environment.

I thought this was a solid graduation speech with some great nuggets for graduates and their families. Not all commencement speeches hit the mark, but this one seemed short (a good thing I think!), and truly sweet. Congratulations high school and college graduates of 2011, including some wonderful past clients.  May the world be your oyster!


The Economic Worth of College Majors

Penn Office of Admissions

Something that should be attended to as a part of college planning is the student’s choice of major. I disagree that students should feel pressure to make a firm decision before matriculating, but the process should at least be launched in terms of exploration and consideration. There’s a great piece by Jacques Steinberg (author of a fine book on elite college admissions, The Gatekeepers) in the NY Times “The Choice” blog on May 24, 2011, about the relative value of the range of college majors. Referencing a new report by Georgetown University, Steinberg shares the good news, which is that college degrees more than pay for themselves over time, and position bachelors degree holders well ahead of those with high school diplomas in terms of future earnings.

It’s no surprise that some degrees pay off far more than others. At the top of the range for what BA/BS degree holders can command in salary are petroleum engineers and pharmacists. At the bottom are holders of degrees in psychology, early childhood education, and theology.

This information matches what I’ve been saying to students for some time. You should study what you love and what you are suited for (certainly not all are suited to be petroleum engineers!); however, some degrees will require more forethought and initiative on the part of the student than others to lead to a good-paying job. Psych majors (especially counseling psych) will command higher salaries if the student goes on to grad school and achieves a higher-level credential. The pursuit of internships can add greatly to the value of all degrees. Others who wish to major in broad liberal arts subjects (such as philosophy or art) would be well advised to select a more hard-nosed minor that confers a more concrete knowledge base, such as accounting, or computer information systems. Acquiring a pragmatic skill set, whether in the form of a minor or grouping of courses, such as foreign language study, can also add a lot of clout to a degree.

Crazy U

In my work as an independent educational consultant I frequently make use of multiple resource guides, databases, education blogs and publications. This past weekend I added an entry to my list of favorite non-traditional books about college planning: Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, by Andrew Ferguson.

Ferguson applies humor and plenty of ironic commentary to his tale of helping his son with the college planning process. One of my favorite chapters recounts the author’s attendance at a presentation led by the most expensive east coast college consultant, whose fees are in the neighborhood of $40K for comprehensive services, typically targeting the Ivy League and other elite east coast colleges.  Ferguson skewers her readily, along with the parents who are gullible enough to fork over the funds for her tactics of intimidation and snobbery.

Ferguson also takes colleges to task for their arcane and obscure norms in vetting applications, as well as the obscene extent of inflation in costs of attendance.

His points are well taken; in fact, I am considering emailing him to share something I’m sure he already knows: that there are highly qualified, ethical college consultants who work hard (at reasonable rates) on behalf of students and families to demystify the process and expand options.

This is a fun and illuminating read, and will be savored by professionals and digested by parents.  I recommend it highly.

Lisa Ransdell is an independent educational consultant in Denver, Colorado with an extensive background in college teaching and administration. She helps students and families nationwide with all aspects of college planning.


Worthwhile Models: 3+2 Programs

I’ve been excited to see that quite a number of colleges have made special arrangements with other institutions that permit flexibility and cost savings for students.

One great model is the 3+2. This type of set-up can permit a student to attend, for example, a favored liberal arts college for completion of prescribed general education requirements (for a period of three years), and then transfer to another institution for a final two years of intensive, specialized study in the major.  Many liberal arts colleges have established a relationship with larger schools with engineering programs.

Some examples include Beloit College in Wisconsin, which has arrangements with Columbia University and Washington University, St Louis, as well as Kalamazoo College in Michigan, which features arrangements with the University of Michigan and Wash U. There are many more of these to explore and consider. At the end of the prescribed program the student has two degrees: one from the liberal arts college, and one from the engineering program school.

My favorite 3+2 is offered by Stephens College, in Columbia, MO, a historic women’s college. They now offer a partnership with Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA leading to completion of the MPA (physician’s assistant) graduate degree. This program affords a quality experience at two fine institutions in interesting areas of the country as well as two valuable degrees, with the graduate ready to begin working in her field at the end of five years. What a super concept!