What can YOU do?

Some thoughts on the events of this week. Not totally related to college, but I wanted to share it anyway.

I’ve been thinking about white privilege a lot lately, for obvious reasons. My thoughts come from a place of pride in my background and an appreciation of how my parents and grandparents worked hard for years to give me a safe and loving childhood. They don’t reflect any personal feelings of guilt; just some ideas about the randomness of life and our power over chance. I don’t think I’m a racist person, but I think that race and power structures might have had an impact on my life at some point. I’m raising my children to care for people who aren’t like them and I’m proud to see that they’re tolerant and kind-hearted. But I don’t know if that’s enough anymore.

This post is not specifically about police brutality, gun control, immigration, terrorism, the EU, mental health funding, whose life matters more than another, or any number of specific issues that have been on the news lately. This post is about more fundamental things like what are our responsibilities to each other as humans.

I understand that being born white has made my life better in a lot of ways than many people. Aside from some snide comments from a few sexist jerks I’ve encountered, in general I have led a life of opportunity, fair treatment, and safety. When I see police officers in my town, they’re the people who help my kids cross the street after school or the people who run the bike rodeo. At their most annoying (and this truly is a trifle), they’re the people who sit along the frontage road just over Route 94 in Northfield waiting for me to drive above 35 mph. What I never see, and I know this is because of where I live and what I look like, is a threat.

By listening to the experiences of others, I’m learning that that comfort in itself is a privilege. And I’m rendered speechless by that random luck of the draw. I’m guessing that I’d feel very different driving my kids home at night up Sheridan Road through Wilmette and Kenilworth if he and I had different skin color.

So instead of feeling powerless and thinking “sure, the world sucks but what can I do?”, I’m looking at my skills and talents and thinking about how I can use them. I’m not so arrogant to think that little old me can fix the problems of racism, poverty, education, addiction, and hatred all by myself. But I can’t sit around and do nothing.

I’m issuing a challenge to people out there. We all have something to give. And I’m not talking about just sending a check to some random charity. I’m talking about getting out there. What do you have that you got — at least partially — because of the random coincidence of the life you were born into? How can you share it with people who might not have had that good luck? If we benefit from white privilege — and I think we do — how can we share those benefits with those who suffer from it?

I’ll go first. As a college counselor, I usually work with kids who already have lots and lots of advantages. They have families who value education and who have the means to live in a town with great schools or pay for private school tuition. They have the means to travel the world and join every sport possible. They have technology at their fingertips. They have the money to hire me. And they deserve my help. But there are plenty of kids with just as many dreams and talents who are stuck in crummy schools — through no fault of their own or their families. Those kids deserve a chance too. I’m calling the YMCA today to volunteer with their teen program. I’m going to offer free college counseling to the kids who go there. College isn’t the only way out, but education changed my life for the better. It’s something I can do right now.

How about you?

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School Profile: Clark University

Another school I visited this week is Clark University. Clark, like WPI, is located outside of Boston in Worcester, Massachusetts. Its motto is “challenge convention; change our world.” Clark prides itself on its ability to offer students a liberal arts education along with hands-on and effective practice in their chosen fields.

At its heart, Clark is a liberal arts school. Most students come in as freshmen with an undecided major and that’s perfectly fine here. There are flexible distribution requirements that give students a taste of several fields. Unlike many colleges that require students to complete general education classes during their first two years, Clark allows them to fulfill this requirement during any of the four years. This gives students who do know what they want to major in the opportunity to take classes in their major earlier in their college career.

Another feature of Clark’s identity is its focus on undergraduate research. Students complete a senior capstone project, but throughout their classes there are opportunities to do research with professors who are researchers and practitioners themselves. Clark’s mission involves discovering and creating knowledge and this is not limited to graduate students. Undergrads work side-by-side with professors and get to publish and present their research as professionals. About 1/3 of undergrads stay for a tuition-free extra year to earn a BA and MA together. Psychology is the largest and most popular department.

Clark is one of the smaller research universities in the United States, capping out at about 2300 undergraduates and 1000 graduate students. Its size, however, is not a disadvantage as the University has strong connections both within its own community and with the city of Worcester. Students have a strong support system in place with academic and career advisors from their first semester. Unlike some schools that might send students to the career center during their end of their senior year, Clark career advisors are life coaches who guide students throughout their four years. They help students find study abroad programs, internships, and volunteer positions that give them a feel for job options and impressive experiences to put on their resumes.

Finally, Clark sees itself as an urban institution. Its location in the city of Worcester gives students many chances to get involved with the local community. Clark students have worked in internships with the local government and biotech, insurance, and tourism/convention industries. Worcester residents are invited to Clark events and activities, ensuring a healthy “town/gown” relationship.

Clark evaluates applications holistically, so you are more than a number here. Students have an average high school GPA of 3.65 and should have strong writing skills. Admissions officers place a lot of emphasis on involvement outside of the classroom. Are you involved in your community with extracurriculars? Do you have a lot of family responsibilities? The admissions office at Clark values these kind of experiences. Didn’t rock your ACT? That’s ok here. Clark is test optional and “really doesn’t care” about test scores. They believe that your high school transcript and the courses you chose are more predictive of your success at Clark. About 1/3 of applicants submit test scores and about 17% of students are international. Clark has a 55% admit rate and is need aware for financial aid.

Clark students are excited to learn what they love and they feel like they have found a home at the University. People are described as “caring” and “involved.” Clubs, in fact, are a huge part of campus culture. For a strong liberal arts background with ample opportunities to develop your career interest and options, give Clark at try. For more information, click clarku.edu.

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School Profile: Worcester Polytechnic Institute

I’m lucky enough to be in Boston this week at the Independent Educational Consultants’ Association conference. One of the great things about these conferences is that we get to visit schools in the area. Today’s profile is on Worcester Polytechic Institute.

WPI is less than an hour outside of Boston and has around 4000 undergraduate students who mostly choose majors in technical fields like engineering and computer science. What makes WPI unique is its focus on merging theory and practice and teaching kids how to use their knowledge to positively impact society. Although the school year is divided into four intense and fast-paced 7-week terms, students say that the atmosphere is collaborative and supportive. There’s less of a focus on grades and GPA and more on learning skills and developing creative ways of thinking. WPI offers a fairly flexible curriculum which is unusual for STEM majors. Additionally, students have nearly 4 months off during the summer to pursue internships and co-ops.

One of the distinctive features of WPI’s curriculum is its focus on project-based learning and hands-on experiences. Students work on real-life projects that are sponsored by companies. They learn how to identify and solve issues that can make a difference in people’s lives. Nearly 40% of freshmen choose the Great Problem Seminar, while other students work on the Interactive Qualifying Project and the Major Qualifying Project, a senior capstone experience that requires students to work in groups to address an issue in their professional field.

Many students who choose engineering at other colleges find it difficult to fit a study abroad experience into their college years. Not at WPI! The University has centers all over the world that are staffed with WPI faculty members, so students can learn about other cultures without losing any academic time.

WPI makes a lot of sense financially. Whereas there are many schools that offer a bachelor’s and master’s degree concurrently, students usually need 5 years to complete the requirements. At WPI, students can achieve “more in 4”: they can earn an undergraduate and graduate degree within 4 years. In addition, co-op jobs can pay up to $20,000 and graduates have an average starting salary of $66,000.

As for the numbers, you’ll need pretty good stats to be in the range of accepted students. Applicants average a 3.87 GPA and the middle 50% of ACT scores is 27-32. WPI has a 46% acceptance rate. Most applicants have some experience in high school with Robotics, Scouting, and tinkering. If you’ve loved taking apart stuff around the house and your parents know you as a “warranty voider,” you might have a home at WPI.

The program is intense and immersive, but if you love figuring out how things work WPI could be worth a look. For more information about Worcester Polytechnic Institute, visit wpi.edu.




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And the Winner Is . . . You!


My students have all heard from their schools by now and are in their last few days of choosing where they’ll go to college next year. May 1 is National Decision Day. Deposits are due to ensure a spot in this fall’s freshman class.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to say congrats to all the students. You have all worked hard at school and extracurricular activities – from starting up your own businesses to running cross country to dancing to helping out at church to racing go-carts to playing music. Whew! I’m not sure when you all slept. Regardless of your future plans, you should all feel really proud of yourselves. You’re a great group of young adults!

My students this year were awarded an average of $38,500 in scholarship money and they were accepted to all kinds of great schools. Here is a list of the amazing choices they have this year (in alphabetical order):

American University

University of Arizona (Honors College)

Bentley University

Boston University

University of California – Santa Cruz

California Polytechnic Institute

Clemson University

University of Colorado – Boulder

University of Denver

DePaul University

University of Illinois

Indiana University

University of Iowa

Lafayette College

Loyola Marymount University

Marquette University

University of Miami – Florida

University of New Hampshire

University of Oregon (Honors College)

Tulane University

University of Vermont

Villanova University

University of Washington

University of Wisconsin

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Who Needs Sleep, Anyway? Regular, Honors, and AP Classes.


Just as you get back from spring break and you’re gearing up for the last push of the school year, your advisor may tell you that it’s time to sign up for next year’s classes. Some students need a slower pace or may have an IEP or other academic accommodations for learning differences. Some students want to sign up for every AP class they can find. What’s the best path to take? Is it better to get an A in a regular level class or a B in an honors or AP class?

Let’s start with some definitions and pros/cons of regular, honors, and AP level classes:

Regular level classes: Most high school classes are offered at regular levels. Regular classes are structured for students who need to learn at an average pace with a moderate level of content depth. Some regular classes are for students who are new to a subject. Regular classes are the default for the majority of high school students in the United States. They’re not remedial; they’re not advanced. Students who take regular classes often report that their lives feel well balanced between academic work and extra-curricular activities, especially if they’re on a traveling team or have responsibilities that demand a lot of time outside of school.

There is nothing wrong with taking regular level classes. In the college craziness, you might think that no one in the world is taking anything but honors and AP classes. Not true. Most students take the majority of their high school classes at a regular level.

One of the drawbacks to taking regular level classes, however, is that it can look like you’re not challenging yourself or that you’re slacking off, especially if many of your peers are taking a more rigorous schedule. Another drawback can be that if you take a regular level class in a subject you really love, you might get bored because the content is moving too slowly or your teacher isn’t giving you opportunities to extend your learning. Finally, if your test scores (ACT or SAT) are really high and you’re signing up for all regular level classes, colleges might see you as a smart but lazy or unmotivated student.

Honors and AP classes: Honors classes are offered by high schools to students who have demonstrated the ability to work at a higher level than the average student. You might have to take a test to place into an honors class or a teacher might have to write a recommendation on your behalf. Honors classes are taught by regular teachers who have been trained to teach high school material at a faster speed or more complex level.

AP, or Advanced Placement, classes are overseen by the College Board. This independent organization offers college-level classes to high school students. AP classes are considered to be higher than honors classes. Teachers are trained by the College Board in AP techniques and part of their job is to prepare you for the AP exams. If you take the AP test and get a strong score, you can either skip out of some freshman college courses or get placed into higher levels. One of the biggest advantages to taking AP courses is that it helps your GPA. An “A” in an AP class usually gets more points than an “A” in a regular level class. Colleges like to see honors and AP classes on your transcript because it shows them that you like to push yourself. Perhaps the best advantage, however, is that it offers a more interesting level of study. If you really love a subject, it’s pretty cool to get to learn it at a college level when you’re still a junior or senior in high school.

Taking honors and AP classes can have some disadvantages, though. There will definitely be more work for you to do in a shorter amount of time. Teachers will expect more analysis and critical thinking from you than they might in a regular class. This can cause a great deal of pressure. If you sign up for a lot of honors and AP classes, be careful that you don’t spread yourself too thin. It’s pretty unrealistic to think that everyone can be exceptional at every subject, after all.

* * *

So you’re looking at the choices next year and you’re not sure what to do. My advice is to challenge yourself with a few honors or AP classes in subjects you really love. Say you’ve always loved science – go ahead and take that honors chem class! And maybe you’re pretty strong in history too – go ahead and take the AP history class! But that doesn’t mean you have to sign up for AP Spanish and English and Psychology too. Go for a balance of your interests and a realistic assessment of your time.

Right now, it may seem like getting into college is the meaning of life. It’s not. Really.

Getting into college is just one part of your life.

You want your high school record to demonstrate the best of what you can do, but you also want to be a teenager. You’re not just a college applicant from the moment you start high school; you get to be a kid along the way. You’ve got your eyes on the destination of college, but you want to survive (and enjoy) the journey of getting there.

Challenge yourself at school, but don’t overdo it. Pick your schedule based on your interests and passions. Go for it with the classes you love, but don’t freak out about cramming seven AP classes into each semester.

Seriously, you’ll need to sleep at some point.

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Visiting Colleges: To-may-to, To-mah-to

red-tomato-1444420420UzII get a lot of questions about college visits during this time of year. Spring break seems to be a natural time for juniors and seniors to visit campuses. There’s an extended period of time off from school, teachers often give less homework over this break than over a regular weekend, and many families vacation away from home–often near a college town or a major urban center that may have many schools close to one another. If there are younger kids in the family, say middle schoolers, they’re with the family and might want to come along for the ride.

Colleges make admissions decisions using two large categories and depending on your timeline, you should focus on one or the other during a campus visit: objective/detail and subjective/big picture. Objective/detail items include test scores and grades. They help colleges predict whether or not your student is ready for the academic challenges of college work. Subjective/big picture items include extracurricular activities and essays. They’re designed to help colleges get to know your child’s personality and character. Subjective items are harder to compare than a hard number, but they can often make or break the college experience because they indicate whether or not a school is a good match/fit. Your student won’t have all of the objective items ready by spring break of junior year, but he or she has had the subjective stuff since childhood.

A junior year spring break college visit should focus on the subjective stuff: the big picture.

The main purpose of a junior year college visit is to see what kinds of colleges your child likes. Is she excited by the energy of an urban campus? Does he want a rural college in a college town? Does she want to have access to world-class scientific labs? Does he want to pledge a fraternity or study abroad? These characteristics can be found at many schools.

A senior year spring break college visit should focus on the objective stuff: details which will help your student make the final decision.

The main purpose of a senior year college visit is to decide which school your child wants to attend. By this point, he or she can answer the urban/rural or the liberal arts/pre-professional question. In contrast to the junior year generalities, senior year is all about picking a single school. This can be a tough call; a college visit can really help your student make a confident choice.

Think of it another way: if you’re getting ready to buy a house, you probably don’t just tape a map to your wall and start throwing darts. You visit neighborhoods, you decide if you want an apartment/townhouse/free-standing home, you think of your family’s needs. That’s like your junior year spring break visits. You’re looking at broad characteristics at this point. Come senior year, however, you have your budget (test scores and GPA) and you can really get down to business. Now is the time to get specific. You’ve narrowed down a “neighborhood” (big or small, urban or rural, liberal arts or public research, conservative or liberal) and you’re ready to look at specific “homes” (Kenyon vs. Denison, UCLA vs. USC, Michigan vs. Ohio).

So . . . what do you do on a visit?

Whether it’s junior or senior year, the things you do are pretty much the same. It’s just your attitude that’s different. As a junior, you’re thinking broadly. As a senior, you’re thinking specifically:

  • Take a campus tour (and marvel at the tour guide’s ability to walk backwards)
  • Go to an info session (they often tell you exactly what they’re looking for in applications)
  • Talk with an admissions officer (sign up on-line through each college’s website)
  • Have lunch at the cafeteria (especially if you’re vegan, gluten-free, etc.)
  • Ask random students questions even if it feels weird (just walk up to them and tell them you’re a prospective student — they’re always happy to talk)
  • Try to sit in on a class (to see what kinds of teaching styles are valued at the school)
  • Wander around campus and off-campus (pretend you’re a tourist)
  • Take lots of notes right after the visit
  • Talk with each other: what did your child like? what did your child dislike? why?

Whether or not your child ends up at a school that your family has visited really doesn’t matter. A campus visit might trigger a “Yes! This is it!” feeling. Sometimes your child won’t even want to get out of the car. Just remember the purpose of your visit:

To-may-to, To-mah-to

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Sorry, Kids. This One is for the Parents.


Most of the posts on this blog are directed at the students. Sorry, kids. This one is for your parents. I have an assignment for them.

So, Mom and Dad: Your college applicant will be getting the last few college decisions very soon. In a weird and sort of cruel coincidence, these decisions often arrive when families are spending more time together during spring break. Maybe you’re driving in a car on a cross-country road trip or binge watching Gilmore Girls together. Every blip on the phone is loaded with potential joy or sadness. When you hear it, instead of asking “What does it say? Did you get in?,” do this instead:

You’re going to write a letter. An old-fashioned one. On paper.

Your letter is more important than those letters. Those letters are about what your child has done. Your letter is about who your child is. Those letters are about your child’s future. Your letter is about your child’s present.

It’s not a letter full of advice. That will come later, maybe on the drive to college when your car is crammed to the roof with clothes, a desk lamp, a brand-new Target sheet set, and a hidden favorite stuffed animal. It’s not a letter full of regret. That may come later, when your child is miles away and you wonder if you did everything you could. (Of course you did!)

It’s a letter that shows your child that no matter what acceptance or rejection letters come their way, they are good enough. Right now. The way they are.


There’s plenty of research that shows that someone’s college choice does not determine success in life. Frank Bruni is one of my favorites. But all the social science evidence in the world means little if your son or daughter thinks that it does. And they just might think that. Their friends will immediately post where they got in. Their high school might have a “wear your college” t-shirt day. They might even have heard this message from you at some point. And as a parent, I too wonder if my kids’ choices somehow reflect my own success (or failure).

But it doesn’t. A college acceptance or rejection letter is just that – the college had space for a student one year or it didn’t. It doesn’t say anything about your son’s kindness or your daughter’s sense of humor. But your letter can.

So go ahead and write it now. Take a few minutes to tell your kid how great she is, right now and right here. In 20 years I bet that college letter will have disappeared, but the one you write will never be forgotten.

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