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.

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:


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.

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!

Talking Campus Violence

In these weeks following the Newtown, CT tragedy, as our nation (hopefully) launches a far-reaching and serious examination of the feeders of acts of public violence, those of us who counsel prospective college students may be well advised to raise the topic with our clients and their families who have surely considered it. As we all know, colleges and universities have had their share of this violence, as Virginia Tech and so many other instances remind us – along with other more frequently occurring types of campus violence that don’t often make the news, like rapes, suicides, and brawling.

What might we say on this topic to our client families that might be helpful and not just alarming? One thing would be to recommend that a college’s violence prevention and response plan be queried as one of the range of factors included as schools are compared and considered. My past experiences as a college administrator who often dealt with incidents and at-risk students thoroughly convinced me that multi-pronged approaches including awareness and early intervention are the most powerful ways of diminishing the incidence of violence on campus … certainly over outdated measures that may sound good but don’t accomplish much. How many times, when a parent has asked about sexual assault in an admission information session, have they been told of blue light emergency phones and escort services, even though most women who are raped while at college are victimized by an acquaintance in a dorm room, apartment, or fraternity house?

The following list of measures, policies and procedures constitute some elements of a best practices model for campuses that are taking the threat of violence seriously, and addressing it holistically.  I am grateful to have found online a report made to the MA Department of Higher Education that helped fill in the gaps in my knowledge since I last worked as a Student Affairs staff member:

1) Publication of campus crime statistics: Since passage of the Clery Act in 1990, named for a female undergraduate who was raped and murdered at Lehigh, campuses must make yearly statistics available on campus crime. Schools that do this more openly, rather than burying the report in obscure pamphlets and publications that must be sought out, signal a more proactive stance.

2) Educational and awareness programming: When programs are extensive and ongoing, ideally starting with first year student orientation and crossing over into campus media, classrooms, and residence halls, it helps to establish behavioral norms and makes a statement about institutional values and commitments.

3) The use of technology to alert students to developing threats: Notification systems can use cell phone alerts, email announcements and other means of quickly informing students of a threat or breaking incident. The campus where I presently teach part time has such a system. Thankfully, it has never needed to be employed, but it is regularly tested, so I know it works.

4) The use of multiple technologies to increase campus security: Widespread use of technologies like sophisticated door locking systems and CCTV cameras are important as safeguards and deterrents and should be widely employed.

5) Adequate psychological services, including specialized services and programs on topics like substance abuse, suicide prevention and conflict resolution: Counseling Centers play an important role not only through the provision of individual therapy, but also in educating the campus community about warning signs and available resources.

6) Creation and regular updating of detailed emergency response plans and crisis management teams that represent all factions of the campus community, including external community responders.

We might also suggest that when questions on such subjects are asked, the receptivity of institutional representatives is in itself an indicator of the commitment of a college to deal seriously with these issues. Finally, I recommend a powerful, sobering book about an actual incident written by my friend Gail Griffin, recently retired professor of English and Women’s Studies at Kalamazoo College: The Events of October: Murder-Suicide on a Small Campus. The link to the Massachusetts task force report that I referenced:



A Rubric for Strong College Essays

At the college where I’ve been teaching part-time since 1997, everyone is suddenly mad for grading rubrics, detailed illustrations of performance expectations for assignments. I embraced them myself for both my lower and upper division sociology courses a couple years back, and it occurred to me that a rubric of sorts might well help students more easily compose strong college essays. The following represents an effort in this direction on my part in this college application season. I chose to compose it as a series of questions, although my course rubrics tend to feature declarative statements.

Does the essay clearly address the prompt, or one of the identified prompts?

Is it well written with proper grammar, perfect spelling, varied sentence structure and appropriate paragraph breaks?

Does it reveal something essential about the author? Does it give the reader a glimpse into what makes her or him tick?

Does it feel authentic and honest, or forced, as if the writer is trying to impress the reader with what is shared?

Is it likely to engage the reader from the first sentence or paragraph? I ask my clients to imagine an admission’s office representative working his or her way through a large stack of folders over the course of a day, with the student’s folder and essay nearly at the bottom.

Does the essay fit within the maximum length permitted for this particular submission?

Recently a female client of mine was clearly a bit stalled out on her lead essay. She wrote an acceptable but pedestrian piece about summer camp. It would not have fully addressed bullets three and five above, and I knew she could do better. I also knew that she had a passion for something that has long been a part of her life that she wasn’t sharing: dance.

I invited her to come by my office for a writing session, and suggested she pretend she was composing a 30-minute timed ACT essay. I gave her some orienting questions that I hoped would spark her creativity on the subject and WOW, did it ever! In less than 15 minutes time she knocked off something that was absolutely compelling about the role dance has played in her life. It required very little editing, and shortly thereafter off it went to CU as her short essay.

For those of us who help students with essay development and editing it doesn’t always come this easily, but I offer the above in the hope that it might prove helpful to a student, or someone assisting a student with this task. The other thing that can also prove to be helpful is for students to read essays submitted by successful applicants to a variety of institutions. There are books featuring such essays, and pay per view-websites purporting to feature such essays, but my favorite thing to do is to share the essays of past clients (with their permission of course).

Good luck, and remember, everyone needs editing!


Celebrating the Rebirth of Antioch College

Antioch College campus

I’ve been gratified recently to see one of my favorite small schools return from the abyss. Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH is back in business, thanks to the support of loyal alums, faculty and staff members. Antioch closed its doors in 2008 after several years of declining enrollments and management problems.

The college is historic and socially progressive, having been founded by abolitionists in 1852. It is among the first U.S. colleges to admit African Americans and the first to fully implement coeducation, enrolling female students in courses and programs alongside men. Among Antioch’s many notable graduates are Clifford Geertz, Stephen Jay Gould, Coretta Scott King, Leonard Nimoy, and Eleanor Holmes Norton. Noted American educator Horace Mann was its first President.

Part of Antioch’s progressive tradition that lives on is the coop program, which has students alternating academic quarters on campus with internships across the U.S. and abroad. Last year a small group of 35 students matriculated at the school and all received a Mann scholarship that fully covered tuition. This will continue next fall and for two additional years until the school is fully re-accredited, meaning that a fine Antioch education can be had for the price of room, board and fees – less than $10,000 a year! I am unsure of the selection criteria for such a small class, although I would guess that they are looking for excellent students with an active social consciousness.

On a personal note, I was very interested in Antioch when I was an Ohio high school student planning for college. My mother, who never attended college, but who grew up near Yellow Springs and shared local suspicion about what went on there, said something to the effect of “You will attend a communist college over my dead body!”  — So of course I didn’t apply. However, I always loved visiting YS and attending events on campus, including on one occasion a powerful rendering of the Three Penny Opera. I especially hope that the cool swing that hung from one of the ancient trees on campus has been restored, and that Young’s Dairy Farm just outside town has weathered the absence of students during the three-year closure.

Welcome back Antioch College; may you live long and prosper!!