Link copied to clipboard

When someone asks me to share advice for “a high-achieving student,” I’m usually reluctant because it often trends towards a discussion of “How to get into a prestigious college.”   So if you’re a high-achieving student, here are five tips that can help you maximize the benefit from your impressive work ethic, no matter where you want to go to college.

1. Focus on the big picture.
Yes, you want to go to college.  But I hope you have a bigger goal here.  You want to be well-educated.  You want to develop your mind and your work ethic.  You want to be well-prepared to succeed in college once you get there.  As you go through high school and plan for college, don’t just focus on what admissions advantage you’re getting. Think about the life advantages, too. There’s no guarantee anything you do will get you into one particular school. But everything you do gives you a bigger life advantage. Those bigger advantages guarantee that you’ll get in someplace and that you’ll also be more successful once you get there.

2. Drift towards your strengths.
High-achieving students often have a tendency to spend their time trying to polish up every slight, perceived weakness so they’re free of imperfections.  A better way to stand out and be happy is to focus on your strengths.  If you’re much better at math than you are at English, you could get a tutor for AP Lit.  But why not redirect that time to tutor students in math, or take a college level math class, or captain the math club?  The Gallup Organization’s research has showed that spending time building strengths is far more productive than logging countless hours trying to fix weaknesses.  You’ll be happier, you’ll be even better at something you like and are good at, and you’ll have more success when you apply to college, too.

3. Have a favorite subject and teacher.
Admissions officers want to see flashes of your academic interests.  And college interviewers routinely ask about your favorite subjects and teachers. The students who’ve thought about their favorite subjects and worked especially hard in them always have the best answers to those questions.  So have a favorite class and teacher.  If you don’t have one or both, what could you do to find a class and teacher that you really look forward to every day?  There’s no reason that school should feel like a job all the time.  A favorite class and teacher can show you just how enjoyable learning really can be.

4.  Be academically engaged.
It’s possible to get straight As and not necessarily be an engaged student.  If your only academic concern is whether or not you’ll get an “A,” you have a good work ethic, but you’re not academically engaged. Do you participate in class? Do you ask intelligent questions? Do you do reading outside of your history class, build a working solar panel in physics, or do an oral report in US history dressed up like Ben Franklin?  If you do those things, you’ll be an engaged student, you’ll probably enjoy school more, and you’ll be more appealing to colleges because of it.

5. Remember that if anyone should be able to enjoy the admissions process, it’s you.
I’m consistently surprised by how many high-achieving students (and their parents) are so unnecessarily anxious about the college admissions process.  The vast majority of colleges in this country will trip over themselves to admit a high-achieving student.  Yes, it’s obscenely competitive to get into about 40 colleges, and those may well be some (or all) of the schools you say you want to attend.  But if you step back and appreciate how hard you’re working and how much you care about your future, you’ll realize that everything is going to be OK, whether or not Cornell says yes.  Be happy and confident about your future.    Don’t believe that a prestigious college has the power to decide whether or not you’re going to be successful. You get to make that decision for yourself.

Full disclosure: We’re part of The Princeton Review, and we have some strong opinions about just how wonderful are their courses and tutoring. But it’s easy for students (and the parents who foot the bill) to get paralyzed by the options available to them to prepare for the SAT or ACT. You have books, online courses, weekend seminars, long classes and private tutoring, to name a few. And the price tags range from free to more than the cost of many teens’ used cars. It amounts to a lot of pressure. No matter what your testing goals, time or budget, here’s some advice about making your test prep choice.

1. Beware of prep peer pressure. Like most things in high school, the fact that everybody else is doing something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should, too.

About 25 percent of our Collegewise students don’t do any test preparation, and it’s not because they’re all great test takers. A ‘B’ student who applies to colleges loaded with kids just like him will find that his average test scores are good enough. You’re not going to Berkeley, USC, NYU, Duke or Boston College without high test scores; but if you’ve found colleges you like and your scores are already higher than those of their admitted students, what’s the sense in doing test prep? Before you decide to prepare for the SAT or ACT, research the colleges that you’re considering and find out what the average score is for students they accept. Take your list to your counselor and ask for her opinion about how your current scores (PSAT, PLAN or a practice test) stack up. If you and your counselor decide you’ve found some appropriate colleges and you would benefit from higher test scores, do some test prep. But don’t do it just because everybody else is doing it.

There’s one important caveat to this piece of advice.  If you’re going to be pursuing merit scholarships at colleges, you should see whether your top choice schools use test scores in awarding this money.  Sometimes your scores are good enough for admissions, but not high enough to earn scholarship money so you want to ensure that you know both pieces of information.

2. You get out what you put in. This is one of those times when a cliché is actually true— no matter how reputable and expensive the test preparation, you’ll get out of it what you put into it. That’s true for any kind of self?improvement you pay for. You could hire the best personal trainer in town who worked all your friends into Olympic shape, but if you don’t do the workouts (and eliminate regular servings of your beloved French fries), you’re not going to get the desired results. Like fitness, good test scores can’t just be purchased. The effort has to be there.

3. Spend wisely. There are many low?cost preparation options, from shorter courses to books, that have all the same information taught in an expensive class. The biggest difference is if your parents buy 25 hours of private tutoring, you’ll be using those 25 hours. Books and shorter courses are far more lenient on the reluctant prepper. Some kids will study for standardized tests even when they aren’t forced to, but a lot won’t. If you do decide to take a class or work with a tutor, ask for recommendations from friends who’ve already prepared.


Today, I finished training three new counselors—Meredith, Rhiannon and Monica—who worked in admissions at Cornell, Sweet Briar and Harvard respectively.  During lunch, I posed the following questions to them, and I’ll share their responses here.

After you read an application, what is the biggest turn-off?

1. Arrogance

When confidence goes too far and a student is entirely too self-impressed, it’s not a likeable quality.

2. Dishonesty. 

Nobody likes to be lied to.  One of the trainees said that she would count up the total number of weekly hours a student listed for activity involvement.   If the total number exceeded the total number of hours that exist in a week, she knew that something was amiss.

3. Trying too hard to be impressive.

Tell the truth and be proud of what you’ve done.  But don’t try to add marketing oomph to your messages.

What qualities always resonated?

1. Confidence

Confident kids are proud of what they’ve done, but they don’t feel the need to add a dash of marketing to make themselves sound more impressive.

2. Honesty.

A kid who was comfortable enough in her own skin to admit what she didn’t know or wasn’t good at always shined through.   The trainees were clear not to imply that everything is worth sharing.  Just don’t lie about whatever you do mention.

3. Authenticity


Just be yourself.  All three counselors agreed that this was the most important one.

We’ve always thought it’s unfair to ask high school students what they’re looking for in a college. It feels like asking people to explain what they’re looking for in a car when they haven’t actually driven one yet. But while you may not know yet what you’re looking for in a college, you do know yourself better than anyone else. So here are ten questions that can be a good starting point to get you thinking about what you might like from your college experience. Your responses can also help you focus your initial college search.

1. Why do you want to go to college?

It’s good to consider why you’re doing all this, and your answer to this question can impact your college search. If you answer, “Because I want to be a journalist,” it makes sense to look at schools that offer a journalism major. If it’s, “Because I’ve lived in the same gated community my entire life and want to experience something different,” you’ll want to pay attention to where the schools are located and the diversity of their student populations.

2. Do you think you’re ready to go to college?

There’s no shame in feeling nervous, academically unprepared or just unsure of yourself when it comes to college. But I’ve seen students who, instead of just being honest about their doubts, dragged their feet through the entire application process, leaving their parents to (resentfully) do all the work for them. If you have similar concerns, first, be honest about it with yourself and your parents. Second, apply to at

least a few colleges anyway. You apply in the fall of your senior year but you don’t actually decide where— or if—you’re going to go to college until the end of your senior year. If you’re still not ready to go then, you could consider other options; but a lot can change in those six to eight months. Refusing to even apply just takes options off the table that are hard to get back later.

3. How have you done your best learning?

We like this question better than, “Do you want small classes or big classes?” The right colleges should give you lots of opportunities to love what you’re learning and how you’re learning it. So think about the times in high school where you were at your intellectual best. Not just the times when you got the highest grades, but when you were excited about what you were learning. Was it a particular subject? Was it because the teacher was great? Was it because it involved projects, competition with other students or a lot of class discussions? Or maybe it was something that didn’t even

happen in school but you just took the time to learn it on your own? Your answers to this question can tell you a lot about what you might like to study, whether or not it’s

important that you like the teacher, and how much academic freedom you’ll want to take classes you want to take.

4. What would you like to learn more about?

“What do you want to major in?” is a big question a lot of my students aren’t yet ready to answer. “What would you like to learn more about?” is less committal. It lets you consider how much you like math without necessarily deciding that you’ll major in math yet. College is school, after all. It’s important to consider the learning part of your future four years.

5. How hard do want to work academically?

Some schools are a lot more demanding than others. I’ve met students who say they want to go to Cornell but don’t want to take four APs their senior year of high school because of the workload. Those students shouldn’t apply to the school with a reputation as the hardest Ivy to get out of.

We don’t think you’re a bad kid if you admit you don’t want to overdo the academic intensity in college, but it’s worth considering before you pick your schools. When researching schools, pay attention to what the students say about their experiences. Students at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, University of Chicago and Middlebury will bring up how much they study. It’s like a badge of honor. Swarthmore College even prints

T?shirts that read, “Anywhere else it would have been an A…really.” That’s a clue.

6. Do you have any idea what you want to do with your life?

We haven’t met many successful adults who discovered their career paths when they were 17, so I don’t think it’s a problem if you can’t yet answer this question. But if you already have a future career in mind, it should probably be a key criterion to consider when picking colleges. Do a little career research and find out where people successful in the field went to college and what they studied. You might be surprised by what you find. For example, Google and Apple employ more graduates from San Jose State than they do from Berkeley, UCLA or MIT.

7. What would you like to do on a typical Tuesday night in college? What about on a typical Saturday night?

We think this is a fun question because it’s not necessarily the same as “What activities do you want to do in college?” The answers to this one draw out everything from the types of students you want to be around to where the campus is located to what you want to major in. When we ask our Collegewise students, we get answers like, “Playing video games with my new friends in the dorms,” “Talking politics in the coffee shop,” “Heading into the city to do something fun,” “Building a working robot with the other engineers,” and “Going to the big football game.” This question also gets at just how comfortable you are with the idea of students drinking and doing other things they may not tell their parents about. With some notable exceptions, like the military academies and strict religious affiliated colleges, a certain percentage of kids at every school are going to find a way to have their good ol’ college fun. Just how prevalent do you want that kind of fun to be? You’re only in class for a couple hours a day at most in college. The rest of the time, you’re living your life on (or off) campus with your fellow students. Think about what you’d like to be doing in your free time and look for where that will be possible (See “50 Things You Can Do in College” if you need help brainstorming).

8. Do you want to go to college in a place that’s different or similar to where you live now?

This one hits on everything from your city and state, to the size of your town, to the type of people in your community. College can be a four?year opportunity to live in a different place very different from where you live now. But that’s not the right opportunity for everyone. It’s good to consider just how much change you want to take on when you go to college. One of our former Collegewise students said he wanted to be someplace very different because, “I’ve lived in the same gated community my entire life and gone to school with the same group of kids since I was five.” When he later applied to college, he mentioned that need for change in a lot of his “Why do you want to attend this college?” essays. One of those essays began, “I have never met anyone from Arkansas, and I think it’s about time that I do.”

9. Do you want to be with students who are like you or different from you?

Differences can come in lots of forms, like ethnicity, sexual orientation, where people are from, their religious beliefs (or lack of them), their politics, whether or not they drink or use drugs, etc. Some colleges are a lot more diverse than others, and it’s a good idea to consider whether or not you want to be with people who may be very different from you. A popular college application essay question asks you to describe how you’ll contribute to the diversity of the campus community. Schools that ask that question

tend to be proud of their diverse student population and look for students who want to become a part of it.

10. What’s your family’s college budget?

First, talk to your parents and get a sense for how much they can afford to help send you to college. It’s normal for some parents to be reluctant to discuss finances with their kids, but you can’t do a responsible college search without knowing your family’s financial limits. If your parents are uncomfortable discussing it, ask them to share the budget in “round numbers.” That feels a little less financially invasive.

Second, don’t automatically eliminate any college that’s over your family’s budget. You won’t know theamount of any potential financial aid package until you are actually admitted. You can estimate it through coleeges’ Net Price Calculators, but the package could later be influenced by other factors, like your strength as an applicant. It would never be a good idea to apply to a long list of schools your family couldn’t possibly afford. But don’t cross every school off your list that exceeds your family’s budget, either.

The New York Times ran a story recently about the admissions process at UC Berkeley.  I’m not even going to share the link here because, like many articles about admissions that appear in major newspapers, it injects plenty of angst by pointing out that the highest grades and test scores don’t always win.  People who are stressed about this process become more so when it’s pointed out to them that the selection process isn’t entirely scientific.

Here’s the thing—everyone in-the-know acknowledges that the process can be murky.

There are plenty of colleges you could apply to that simply admit those with the most rigorous classes, highest GPAs, and best test scores.  Any school who asks only for a transcript and test scores—no essays, no list of activities, no recommendations or interview—is one of those schools.

But if you’re applying to a highly-selective college that admits fewer than 20% of their applicants, they can’t admit based on grades and test scores alone because they don’t have space for all the applicants who meet or beat those numbers.  Grades and test scores can only be so high.  And the most selective schools have plenty of applicants who’ve maxed out in both those areas.  So it’s really not surprising that, at those schools, the process becomes less scientific once you move past the numbers.

College admissions isn’t the only place this happens.  Imagine these scenarios:

You need to choose a computer programmer from five finalists.  All five have superb credentials and impeccable references.  Who do you pick?

Five different people ask you to the prom.  All five are nice, smart, and attractive.  All of them have great personalities.  Who do you pick?

You’re selecting a goalie for an all-star soccer team.  Five different goalies from competitive teams are available.  Each has an impressive win-loss record, and all five were named MVP of their respective teams.  How do you choose?

You put an ad on Craigslist for a roommate and narrow it down to five finalists.  All have clean background checks and money to pay.  You really think each of them would make a likable, respectful roommate.   How do you choose?

The more selective the college, the less of a numbers-driven meritocracy the admissions process will be.  The numbers will always be important, just like the qualifications of each person in the above scenarios are important.  But once you have finalists who’ve achieved those metrics, you have to look to other, less tangible qualities.  And the more you try to game that process, the more frustrated you’re going to be.

Every family has a choice when coming across information like that shared in the New York Times piece.  You can get mad about it and cry foul (ignoring the irony that the school’s ridiculous selectivity likely influenced your decision to apply).  You can assign blame to the college, or to the kids who you think benefit, or to the high school you attend that doesn’t assign a numerical rank.  But none of those things alone are keeping you out, and none of those emotions are helpful.

The other choice is to acknowledge that any school that rejects the bulk of their applicants is a school with far more qualified applicants than they can possibly admit.  In that pool, there is no magic formula, no scientifically proven path to admission.

The best strategy if you’re applying to those schools is to first make sure the schools fit you.  Don’t apply just because of the prestige.  Take your best admissions shot by presenting yourself honestly and thoughtfully.  And make sure you also find other schools you like where your chances of admission are stronger.  The harder you’ve worked, the more options you deserve to have.

The decisions aren’t entirely scientific.  But like new hires, dates, roommates and all-star players, the final choice is almost always made carefully and deliberately.

College is extremely expensive. But it doesn’t have to be if you know how and where to find scholarships and “free money”. The Princeton Review shares what it takes to get scholarships, how to apply for financial aid and how to graduate from college debt-free.

One of our counselors referred to his last year working in admissions at a highly?selective college as the “year of the blood drive essay”. That year, an unusually high number of applicants told the same tale of how one on?campus blood drive changed their lives and made them appreciate the importance of serving humanity. Writing such grandiose statements into your essays won’t help you stand out. The statements sound cliché. So here are the five most overused clichés we—and every admissions officer we’ve spoken with—see most often, and which you should avoid.

1. The aforementioned “blood drive essay” or “How community service taught me the importance of helping others” Colleges appreciate students who are concerned about their communities. But one blood drive does not a humanitarian make. A claim to have learned how important it is to help people, needs to be substantiated with evidence of a sincere, long?term commitment to actually helping people. Otherwise, your message loses some oomph. If you had an experience during your community service that really meant a lot to you, say so. And be honest. Otherwise, consider doing a good deed for admissions officers and avoid the community service cliché.

2. “Hard work always pays off,” and other life lessons learned while playing sports The problem with many sports essays is they explain what life is like for every athlete. You go to practice. You work hard. You compete. Then the student makes it worse by saying sports taught him the importance of hard work and commitment, which is almost certainly not something he would say to his friends. Be original. Tell your sports story that nobody else can tell. If you can’t find a story you own, just write about something else.

3. “How my trip to another country broadened my horizons” This essay essentially says, “France is very difference from the United States—the food, the language, the customs. But I learned to appreciate the differences and to adapt to the ways of the French.” Visiting a country and noticing that it is different is not a story that you own. The admissions office doesn’t want to read your travel journals. Instead, make yourself, not the country, the focus of the essay. One of my students who had never previously ventured onto any sort of dance floor wrote that his trip to Spain was the first time he’d ever danced in front of other people. That wasn’t an essay about how Spain was different—it was an essay about how he was different in Spain.

4. “How I overcame a life challenge [that wasn’t really all that challenging]” Essays can help admissions officers understand more about a student who has overcome legitimate hardship. But far too many other students misguidedly manufacture hardship in a college essay to try to gain sympathy or make excuses (e.g., for low grades). This approach won’t work. If you’ve endured a hardship and you want to talk about it, you should. Otherwise, it’s probably better to choose a different topic. Note: The pet eulogy falls into this category. Lovely if you want to write one. Just don’t include it as part of your college essay.

5. Anything that doesn’t really sound like you Your essays are supposed to give the readers a sense of your personality. So give your essays a sincerity test. Do they sound like you, or do they sound like you’re trying to impress someone? Don’t use words you looked up in the thesaurus. There really is no place for “plethora” in a college essay. Don’t quote Shakespeare or Plato or the Dali Lama unless that is really you. If your best friend reads your college essay and says it sounds just like you, that’s probably a good sign.

I’ve read (and written) quite a bit about how to be more productive at work or school.  Here are five things that have worked for me.  Your mileage may vary.

1. Get unpleasant tasks done first.

If you have something to get done that you’re dreading, whether that’s a difficult conversation with a customer or an expense report that needs to be completed today, do that task first.  It’s easy to procrastinate on things you’re dreading.  But putting them off doesn’t make them go away and just prolongs the dread.  If given a choice of dreading something for ten minutes or dreading it all day, that’s an easy choice.  And the truth is that not only is the task usually a lot less unpleasant than you expected, the feeling of having it done and dealt with is a great way to get on with your day.

2. Don’t multi-task.

Multi-tasking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  It sounds good in theory to work on lots of things at once, but the list of to-dos goes away faster if, whenever possible, you focus on just one thing at a time.

3. Close your email when you’re working on something important.

This is a more specific item of the “Don’t multi-task” tip.  You get to choose when and what to multi-task, but you don’t get to choose when, and how many, emails arrive. Incoming email is a constant stream of interruptions that divert your focus from what you’re working on.  And unless you’re a lot stronger than I am, the curiosity gets the best of you and you’ll end up reading and probably responding to every email as they arrive.  If you’re doing something important, close your email and focus.  The emails will be waiting when you’re done.  And if you can’t wait that long, put yourself on an interruption diet and only check email at certain times of the day.  While you’re at it, keep Facebook closed, too.  And for the trifecta, turn your phone off and answer your calls and text messages later.

4. Don’t go to meetings unless they’re (really) necessary.

Too many meetings get scheduled just to say that the group met about something.  Sometimes a meeting is a necessary gathering to make important decisions.  But that’s often not the case.    Do anything you can to avoid attending meetings unless there’s an expressed purpose, agenda, and decision that needs to be made before the meeting ends.

5. Say “no” often.

Sometimes the best way to get things done is to say no to less urgent, less important opportunities.  What’s really important?  What do you need to focus on, do well, and get done?  Whatever it is, that’s the top of your to-do list. Until those things are done, say no (politely) to other things, or agree to do them when the important stuff is done.

I’m all for families giving careful consideration to the cost of college and the expected return on the investment.  The cost of college has gone up, the student loan crisis is officially out of control, and I encourage every student to carefully consider how their time at whatever college they choose to attend will help them prepare for a meaningful and rewarding career.

Still, every time I see an article (and I’m seeing them a lot these days) about the reported best or worst majors for college students, I become progressively more annoyed.

First, most of those lists focus on only one part of the return—the money.  What about whether or not the graduates enjoyed what they learned?  What about whether those majors helped them identify a talent to pursue after graduation?  What if they’re happy in their chosen careers and with their lives?  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make money, but to label a major as reportedly better or worse based only on the average salary for graduates is an awfully narrow view to take when deciding what to spend four years studying.

Second, very few successful people can draw a straight line backwards from their successful career today to their choice of college major.  Yes, if you want to be an engineer, you need to major in engineering.  But many people who begin college don’t yet know what they want to do when they leave.  For them, the college years should be all about learning, growing, and preparing for life after college.

We should talk about education.  We should talk about the price of college, student loan realities and whether or not the more expensive schools are actually worth those costs.  And we should talk about how your intended career should or should not influence where you go to college.  If you want to be a kindergarten teacher, it probably doesn’t make sense for you to take out $150,000 in student loans to attend an expensive private school and major in education   But that doesn’t mean that education is a worthless academic pursuit.

Think about why you want to go to college, what you want to learn, and how you think that might prepare you for life as a college graduate.  Pick schools that fit you and your budget.  Then have a remarkable college career wherever you go.

Don’t let a magazine pick your college major for you.