June 30, 2008

When to Hire a Private College Admissions Counselor?

Of course, like everything, every student has different needs. It is not universally true that every high schooler undergoing the college application process needs to hire an admission “expert”. Granted, hardly any who call themselves such truly know much more than any guidebook could tell you. There is, however, one thing that is indisputable: all young people need advocates in their lives. Sadly, a common trend in education, private and public, alike, is that the high school guidance and college counseling departments are too overworked and underfunded to offer much more than one or two generic meetings to discuss the local and in-state university landscape. Not to mention, they all too often quickly dismiss certain universities as unrealistic and impossible for the student to gain admission. There have been very few instances that I can recall where I have said to someone that he/she can’t gain admission somewhere. It’s just not a good habit to practice. With the constantly changing state of the college admission process, you might want to look into hiring a private counselor if you meet any of the following criteria…

You might benefit from a private college admissions counselor if…

  1. You are not in the top ten percent of your high school class (the students who the school counselors ordinarily tend to focus on)
  2. Or, you are in the top ten percent of your class, academically, but have doubts about what you want or what might be a healthy fit for you.
  3. You’re seeking a less traditional academic path, in that you are a student looking to pursue athletics, theater, music or art at the university level.
  4. Your high school has a very poor record of college preparation and you believe that you are unique among your peers for wanting to pursue 4-year university immediately following high school graduation.
  5. You want to apply to out-of-state or in-state schools that your guidance office says are a “bad fit” or “out of your reach” or “not financially viable”.
  6. No one is helping direct you to potential options or many people are offering differing opinions on your future.
  7. You are a student-athlete and unsure of how to initiate conversations with college coaches.
  8. You need motivation and a lot of positive reinforcement during this very stressful process.
  9. You don’t want an all-out war in your house because of the intensity of the college search and application processes.

As for instances when, I believe, working with me has made a significant difference in a student’s life, there are many. Each different student has a different set of needs and recognizing this is the first of many steps. I have many students who had committed so much of their lives to athletics and were extremely talented, but did not want to focus on that in the college process even though it could be a tremendous benefit. They pursued that angle and it helped significantly. I had one student whose SAT test scores, combined for math and reading, totaled less than 800 but was accepted to the flagship campus of one of the top state systems in the country- a top 50 university. He got it because he really got to know the admission counselor for his region on a personal level and she helped become his advocate on the inside because she knew he would be successful once he got there. I have worked with students who had no support at home and those who had parents hovering above them at all hours. Both of these groups needed me to serve as an outlet.

Some need a mentor. Some, a teacher. For others they need a mediator or a counselor. I have been called a big brother and a father-figure, a disciplinarian and a friend. I have been rewarded, many times, with the first phone call once a student finds out that he/she has been accepted to their top-choice school.

But, like everything else in life, do your homework. Check references of the private counselor. Ask if you can meet with former/current students of theirs’. Ask as many questions as you can and be prepared for the extra time that a good consultant might ask you to put towards this process. Remember, we all need advocates in our life. In one form or another, paying for a mentor or a counselor is no different than paying the soccer coach who might end up as a role model or the tutor or the private music instructor. Just be aware of what you expect out of the process and make sure that the counselor you choose is on the same page as you are.

June 12, 2008

Setting A College Admissions Schedule

I've been doing some writing lately for a few other higher education organizations. I wanted to go ahead and publish, on this blog, an article that I had been asked to write for a wonderful college admissions group based out of Colorado, My U Search. I thought the article had some really positive points. Decide for yourself . . .

No matter how much anyone tells you that you can prepare for the college application process beforehand, it’s inevitable that it will, ultimately, feel like a time-crunch. Too often, the process seems like a race against the clock. And, along with everything else going on during the senior year, the necessary organization is essential if one hopes to find any gratification or enjoyment in this process or senior year, itself.

Although there is no single step more important than the submission by the appropriate deadlines, to assure that these deadlines are met with ease, what you need to do is, read the entire article below, take a deep breath and get to work.

Get to know your teachers. You don’t have to be a “teacher’s pet” just to let your teachers know you care. Introduce yourself the first week of class. Look interested. And once in a while, get to class early or be the last one to leave and make a comment/ask a question about the material that you’re studying that shows you’re thoughtful and intelligent—even if you’re not, it’s good to practice. When grading period comes and you’re hovering between a B+ and an A- (or a C+ and a B-), you bet they’ll remember all those times you went out of your way to be friendly.

Tip #1: Teachers are your greatest allies. Think about how many teenagers they see every day. By showing interest and being thoughtful, you can really stand out in a positive way. This can make all the difference.

Realize that the process involves many steps and the actual applications (requesting information from you like D.O.B., SS#, Address, etc . . .) are the most simple part. So, just because an application is not being released for you to view and fill out, until October of your senior year, does not mean that you can’t get started on it earlier.

Tip #2: Gather basic information about you, your parents and your academic history in a single document, saved somewhere.

The most difficult part of simplifying the process is the selection of colleges that are within your range of possibilities. This means that while not all of your applications should be going to schools that might be a long shot for your acceptance, you can apply to a few- if that’s really where you could picture yourself going to school. Don’t ever apply somewhere just to see if you get in.

Tip #3: No need to apply to 10 schools. Seriously. Apply to 2 that you know you can get in, 2 you want to get in and 1 you would love to go to . . . anywhere! At the end of the day, you only get to go to ONE college. This is a time when you need to learn good judgment and exercise sound, practical thinking.

Over the summer, prior to senior year, begin brainstorming essay ideas. One of the most common essays, which, once it has been written, can be edited to fit many of school’s requirements, ‘discuss a significant obstacle you have overcome, goal you have achieved or event that was meaningful in your life’. Think about it. Get creative. Write it. Refine it. Re-write it.

Tip #4: Don’t go to your parents first for their feedback on your essay. Why? The essay is a wonderful opportunity for you to express yourself in a creative fashion and parents, ordinarily, think that creativity is too risky for something like this. If you intend for parts to be humorous, show it to one of your friends (a smart one, please) and see if they laugh. If not, keep working.

Make sure that you have sat for your standardized tests at least once (SAT and ACT) during your junior year. If you are taking any AP exams, also sit for the correlating SAT II test around the same time (try the May or June dates). This goes for someone who might be a sophomore or freshman taking AP courses, as well. Note: there are not always coordinating SAT II’s, but in most cases, there will be.

Tip #5: You can’t cheat the tests! Know what they look like and how long they take. Sadly, though I hate standardized tests, it is the case that people who score higher on the SAT/ACT tend to earn it. They have prepared and motivated themselves. No one else is sitting for you.

Letters of recommendation should not be just a written description of your activity resume. That information, the applications have gathered. If a college/university is taking the time to read your letter(s) of recommendation, keep in mind that it’s important to utilize a teacher who can speak personally to your strengths, struggles, motivations and goals. Perhaps he/she can emphasize an obstacle that you’ve overcome, a turning point in your academic career that they witnessed, an anecdote that exemplifies your maturity, etc . . . This comes back to #1. To put yourself in the best position to have strong recommendations, you need to be open, honest and intellectually curious with your teachers.

Tip #6: Letters of recommendation are tiebreakers in the application process. If a school wants a letter of recommendation from a teacher of yours, don’t necessarily go to the teacher whose class you got an “A” in, but go to the teacher who witnessed you grow, challenged you to push yourself and would be your biggest champion.

After you have all of this in order, be aware that the application deadlines come and go quickly. Do your best to have a schedule set aside for work on your application essays and short answers (i.e. every Tuesday and Thursday from 3-5:30). When you’re done with those, use your allotted time to go ahead and complete and submit the applications. If you start working on your essays and gathering your information in the first week of September of your senior year- and you were to commit 5 hours each week (as the example above)- you would have invested, well . . . A LOT of time as the deadlines draw near. You would certainly be able to turn in any state school applications (which are on a rolling admissions basis, usually) extremely early (November). If you’re applying for any schools through their early action or early decision options, let those be the first applications you prepare when they become available in the Fall.

Tip #7: If you set a schedule and follow through with it, you will find yourself with much of the application process completed before some of the schools even release their applications. Just by being prepared and giving yourself time to dedicate to this goal, you’re beating the crunch.

College/University-based, merit scholarships are as simple as this: if a school has specific levels of academic scholarships for incoming freshmen, they will, most likely, offer them to a certain percentage of the incoming class - top 10%, for example – based purely on GPA and standardized test scores. You can inquire to learn what their average scholarship recipient was for the year before. But nearly every school increases their selectivity each year as the overall applicant pool is more competitive. Public schools do not always offer these merit scholarships, but most private schools do, excluding the very elite, top-tier universities where every student is deserving of a merit scholarship.

Tip #8: Apply to where you want to apply and worry about the money later. Honestly, college is expensive; you’re going to look at the costs once you’ve been accepted. Don’t let that come into play right now.

As for “outside” scholarships, begin looking into these options as early as possible—perhaps during the summer before your senior year. Before anything, look into all of the local service organizations (Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions, Knights of Columbus, etc . . .) to see what their qualifications are. Then, make some phone calls around to some companies which are based in your area (insurance companies, law firms, technology companies, restaurants, etc . . .) to see if they offer any scholarships for local, graduating seniors. Also, check in with your school’s guidance office to see what resources they might have available for local scholarships. Be aware that there are many scholarship websites available. However, before you pursue the national $5,000 scholarship that requires an essay about “virtue and what it means to you”, I implore you to look around at these local resources which are offering $250 and $500 opportunities, for, in most cases, much less work and a much higher chance of winning.

Tip #9: Like with your food, shop for scholarships LOCALLY, first. Before your senior year, begin asking around to friends, family, college graduates, teachers and local professionals to see if they can point you in the direction of scholarship opportunity. It will also be a great opportunity to learn how to network yourself!

FAFSA is not as difficult as it seems. You will need the appropriate tax information and a healthy amount of both time and patience. So, FAFSA is the LAST thing you’ll probably be worrying about as it can’t possibly be completed until the taxes from the previous year are filed. In other words, you can’t start the FAFSA until after January 1st of your senior year and just for the sake of the timeline, try to have it completed around March and you will be okay with the deadlines. This means being organized and getting your taxes done early.

Tip #10: Be organized, be organized, be organized. You WILL be off to a wonderful college, soon. We just don’t know where, yet.

June 5, 2008

I can't tell them everything I want to tell them ...

Granted, most high school seniors find the most difficult part of their senior year to be brainstorming the ideas for their college admission essays and then, once they’ve got their topic chosen, writing it in the preferred amount of words. Before I go any further, let me say here what I know to be true, the application essay(s) are the most important component of the applications, by far. The point is not to be well-organized with the transition sentences and the specific number of supporting arguments. The point is to be creative and execute whatever you undertake to write (a poem, song, short story, typical essay, etc. . .) with style and verve. Take a risk. Challenge yourself.

That’s the point of pursuing a college education, right? It’s one big risk. You have to move away from home, live with a complete stranger, eat in the same place all the time, get yourself to 8am class, live on hardly any money, choose for yourself what you want to get involved in and be happy about it all—and when you’re not coping with the pressures of this transition, recognize it yourself and seek out your own help. See, college is all about testing YOUR limits. May as well start testing yourself during the application process.

Believe me, I understand how difficult it is to sit down and write about a specific topic, especially when the topic is personal. Writing about oneself is THE most difficult. The only people who seem to be really effective at this are politicians and I don’t know if any of them truly write their own books anyway. Then again, they have lots of practice talking about themselves. The everyday layman, however, does not. This doesn’t mean you don’t have some really interesting or tragic experiences to write about. And, if you can’t think of any- no worries. I always tell my students, the topic doesn’t have to be brilliant. You could write 1,000 words about staring at a fish in a bowl. Just so long as you make it fascinating. You see, the essay is a different type of exam. Though it is by no means standardized, the admission essay does test your ability to say something important about yourself (your terms) but in a regulated number of words (their terms). It’s sort of like your chance at an interview. But it’s also a bit like your first true test of expression.

In high school, no one cares about expression. Your assignment is never to write a poem or a passionate stream of consciousness piece, right? Correct. Your job in high school is to comply with the various and varied standardized tests and write all assignments in such a manner that you’re constantly preparing your organizational writing skills to look like this:

Paragraph 1- Present your generic point of view

Paragraph 2- Present your first supporting argument and example

Paragraph 3- Present your second supporting argument and example

Paragraph 4- Present your thi- . . . and on and on and on

Conclusion - Conclude your paper by re-stating your point of view but don’t present any new facts.

Wow! Doesn’t this just bleed creativity? I know that I, for one, am fairly confident that if a student can write creatively in order to express him/herself caring not whether every thesis statement is perfectly positioned in the first paragraph (as students are taught in high school to be the ONLY proper way to create an introduction) but that the thoughts are organized in a manner that promotes flow and easy understanding for the reader, they will not have to be taught the concept of written expression as it pertains to communication in the post-high school years. And I don’t think there is a single university professor out there who is anxiously awaiting a group of really inept freshmen writers hoping to teach them all how to write a creative and well-thought paper. You see, every person must be able to express emotions and ideas on paper if, for no other reason, than the fact that he/she wants to become effective in the professional world (not to mention one’s personal life where writing and written communication are becoming more and more necessary with the advent of email). I have conversations all the time with both students and parents, alike, where the ability to effectively communicate inevitably comes up as a significant concern of both groups.

The biggest concern for most parents is that their student(s) cannot express themselves on paper. Have they ever been taught? Regardless, this is not the issue. In my opinion, if a student is an avid reader, whether or not he/she has ever had good writing instruction, the level and reading ability comes through in his/her writing. Writing is so unique in that it is not really a teachable craft. I believe that grammar is teachable and a basic knowledge of it certainly will benefit any writer. However, to truly be able to convey a message, one cannot be pushed or prodded but instead must be creatively inspired and practiced. In other words, start writing NOW! Write for ten minutes every day. Write poetry: haiku; limerick; stream of consciousness, etc . . . Write fiction using creative first lines to get you started. If nothing is coming to mind, try this: “Stuck. She was experiencing another case of writer’s block and this time . . .”

Seriously, go for it. Write away. Oh, and don’t forget, the key to all good writing- err, at least the key to all things written well is READING. You’ve taken the first step by reading this blog. Now, go read something more interesting. Then, if you finish your fiction and poetry writing and you are, for whatever reason, craving another assignment but cannot conjure up any ideas, drop me an email, actgroupbrady@gmail.com and, if you want me to read it (and respond), make sure that you have expressed yourself clearly and creatively. I’ll look forward to great things from you in the future.