Tuesday, March 21, 2017

When Less Is More

There are things a high school junior can put off in life:
--Making your bed.
--That overcooked broccoli on your dinner plate.
--The gum on your sock left on the floor by an inconsiderate sibling.

And then there are some things that require immediate attention.

The updated Common Application essay prompts for the 2017-18 application year have been released. And we can guarantee your first draft of your initial idea can only get better with more thought and polishing. The prompts are:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma--anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? 

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. 

No need to freak out. Many high schools allow junior and/or senior students to complete a first-attempt Common App essay as an in-class English assignment. Maybe you are already planning or working on yours.

There are a lot of ways to approach this important effort to help you gain entrance to the college of your choice. Try some concepts, some with teacher guidance, some on your own.

Here's one tip, with a little background from a journalist. I call it "Last Before First." Try it before writing your first essay.

Imagine that your essay is going to be the cover story of a magazine.

In the lifecycle of a feature story, there is a PR pitch, an interesting phone call, a dinner-table conversation, a nugget of information, then research, consultation with experts, numerous back-and-forths between writer and editor and a dash of imagination to find a hook to ensure the story will be fresh. Editors may skip all the traditional journalism rigor and jump ahead to one of the LAST things--writing a headline for the story.

Can you captivate readers with four-to-six words that will be splashed across the cover in very large type? If you cannot think of a showstopper that makes others want to read the piece, then you have a problem.

So, after you have a topic, try writing a headline for it and bounce it off mom, dad or your English teacher. Does their expression say, “Wow”? Find that hook that makes your essay one in a thousand.

--Mike Ryan

Monday, February 27, 2017

Feed The Academic Soul

One important college consideration beyond academics is often completely neglected. Food. 

Your son or daughter is going to eat three nutritious, healthy, well-balanced meals every day of each semester, right?


We know kids who go off to college and gain 10 pounds by their first visit back home... and a bunch of others who ended up living on Wheat Thins and Triscuits "because everything behind the dining-room glass looked gross."

There are healthy options to be aware of. Villanova offers a bag lunch program for kids who are just too busy to take a half hour out to sit and eat at a table. Oklahoma State meal plan money can be transferred, with some restrictions, from one semester to the next. 

Roasteries and other coffee makers have popped up at multiple high-traffic points on numerous campuses. Starbucks has tested coffee trucks chasing students on the campus of Coastal Carolina University. Stanford has a "peanut sensitive" dining hall. Participants in Oberlin's Student Cooperative Association decide the menu, prepare the food and handle cleanup. And best of all, UC-Davis has a farmers' market on site and allows students to put a small portion of their meal plan budget towards farm fresh veggies and fruit in spring and fall. Yum.

The point is this: When making that last tour of campus before The Big Decision: Make sure your child is comfortable with the food program, and there is no better way than to sample the fare before committing.

-Mike Ryan

Monday, January 23, 2017

Ways To Chart That Post-College Paycheck

Through the current state of human genome mapping, we can now take a small test tube of blood and accurately predict someone's height, weight, age, hair and eye color -- and even what her face looks like.

If biology has progressed that far, is it really possible to project what a college student might make in the job market -- before her first day of freshman orientation? Well, no, not exactly. But it is possible to hit some projected ranges.

It remains a truism that college graduates make $1million more than those who stopped education after high school. But drill down into such data as from the U.S. Census Bureau and there are huge variations both by subject and across majors. Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce has a refined study on income potential.

But there are others. For instance, the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project parses data by percentile, so that, for example, economics majors' earnings are about three times as large at the 90th percentile compared with the 10th percentile. Where you count economic beans after college matters -- and thus there is stunningly greater value in degrees from such schools as the University of Michigan than your local commuter college. Thus one can arrive at a much narrower range building off university quality.

There also is a data farm called Educate to Career, which ranks about 1,200 universities and colleges -- showing, for instance, starting salary averages by major within those schools. The median social work degree grad starts around $44k, while the median engineer begins in the $80s.

Readers can drill down to find out, for example, the average SAT score at Carlton College, and that the school produced 34 computer science grads in recent numbers.

The ETC College Ranking Index is full of interesting metrics used in its algorithms. Some of the metrics include: Major, weighted against national norms; percentage of persons employed within one year of graduation (weighted on an occupational trend basis); and the all-important net cost of in-state tuition. Using Purdue University as an example, one can learn the four-year graduation rate is 37.5%, the "net" annual price of tuition is $5,414 and the average engineering grad starts out at $47,500.

The ETC index has an interesting take on why Ivy League schools do not fare as well as other top universities. But the bottom line is that the index can help identify schools providing a quality education with proven career placement at a lower net cost than at some of the elite universities.

-- Mike Ryan

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

California Dreaming

Have you gotten tired of Midwest winters? Are you thinking four years of shorts and flip-flops at a California college is sounding like more your style?

Get in line.

California universities have long attracted young women and men, but we have just passed a significant milestone—a number as relevant as 61 was to baseball—before steroids helped shatter the single-season home-run record.

UCLA has received 102,177 applications for the Class of 2021, the first time an American university has received more than 100,000 freshman applications--each with a $70 application fee unless waived.

Do the math. That's a staggering amount of competition for what will be somewhere around 6,500 acceptances.

Cal State-Long Beach, home of mascot Prospector Pete, got nearly 62,000 freshman applications, and USC received almost 52,000 from prospective Trojan freshmen.

And this is in a state cutting back on education budgets.

So while you and your parents are preparing your college app packages and thinking about going West, have you assembled all the details, filled out the questionnaires, answered all the "optional" interrogatories, checked all your spelling and grammar and written a 1-in-100,000 college essay?

If not, get cracking! Those California beaches require more than a little legwork.

--Mike Ryan

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Take The Team Approach To A Good College Fit

Aristotle was an early proponent of "learning by doing". Consider a hot topic in education these days called PBL, project-based learning.

Yes, the book is still part of the U.S. History curriculum, but increasingly teachers are assigning say, a World War 1 documentary to a class team. PBLs are knocking down the barrier between book-learning and post-academic real-life projects.

It's time to consider a PBL as an effective method to grow big-schooler knowledge about the college hunt.

There is so much more information about college classes, professors, application tricks, essay tips, undergraduate cultures and more than there was just 5 years ago.

It seem to me that it is time for high-schoolers to recruit a cadre of college-eager peers, say four or six like-minded students who agree to set up a calendar of obvious tasks and regularly meet for progress reports.The group's goal would be to guide each other through the rush-to-apply process. In K-12 education, PBL has evolved to address core content through rigorous, hands-on learning. The PBL skills learned seem a perfect fit on college prep, whether discovering the quirkiest essay prompts of the University of Chicago, why Boston College kids refuse to use lunchroom trays or how Oberlin students can hang a Picasso in their dorm rooms.

Bonus points to inviting members to your PBL group from other schools who will no doubt have a fresh perspective on what's important.

-- Mike Ryan

Friday, November 11, 2016


You have an image, an online persona. In marketing parlance, you are a brand with positive attributes. Lucas Cruikshank and Tavi Gevinson Dude Perfect carefully design their Web worlds into branding icons on the Internet. Your web presence should be cultivated so use social media wisely in your junior and senior high-school years.

Positivity promote your personal brand. Twitter. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Flickr. Google+. Think about who you are as a representative of your high school. Consider a few positive words that define you, the well-rounded future college scholar, not the underage Instagram poster with beer bottles in the picture background. Use these appropriate words as a filter before you post anything publicly to Facebook or other social media—if you think what you are about to post doesn’t measure up to your brand, DON'T.

Inventory your social media accounts, your blog posts and YouTube videos. Potentially offensive comments? Risque photos? Inappropriate gestures or clothing? Profanity? Serious negativity? Drinking? Bigotry? Threats?

So let's state the obvious: If Grandma might not approve, delete it.  And remember, it’s all about upkeep. Junior year is a great time to Google yourself and review every social media account with a fine-toothed comb. Tighten your privacy and security settings; cruise through your Activity Log and Archive. Delete posts and images that may be deemed detrimental by a university scanner. Again, if you don’t think you could show it to your parents, don’t let the world see it.

But your job is not finished.

Next, we all use spelling shorthand but if you see series of poorly spelled verbiage, erase it. Everyone accepts AMA and TMI; C3R741N P30PL3 is definitely clever; but wierd is wrong. Trim down your Likes, Groups and Apps. Do you want a college social media reviewer know that you seem more focused on Farmville or Candy Crush than homework, sports and clubs?

Adjust Facebook privacy settings to review all tags; this gives you ways to minimize a questionable tag and better control of the brand you are showing the world. Similarly, un-Tag anything embarrassing. This is genuinely important for getting that part-time summer or college job.

Lastly, remember that LinkedIn profile you had created a year ago? Make sure that it is up-to-date in relation to your resume. Different dates and other information may be caught by potential employers. Show growth on your LinkedIn employment history; don't just parrot the words on your resume. Build your Skills & Endorsements. Expand your membership in Groups that match your academic and work interests. And find Influencers to follow who make you appear more advanced than others in your age group.

Colleges have many ways to disqualify 9 out of 10 candidates for admission. Don't let a visible beer can or bit of profanity make you that No. 9.
--Mike Ryan

Sunday, October 2, 2016

FAFSA For The Rest Of Us

One of the biggest nightmares dreaded by parents and students is the completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. As many as 55% of households do not fill out the elaborate form, some because of family wealth, but many because it is, well, really, really hard to round up all the pieces.

The new submission date, Oct. 1, replaces the old Jan. 1 date, which in the past forced, and frustrated, parents to collect financial information before their entire situation was readily available. Thus, the 2017-18 FAFSA requires households' 2015 tax reports. How cool is that? We all have that material from our 2016 tax filing.

But wait, this gets even better for all you harried parents. There is now something called the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) to import automatically your tax information into your FAFSA.

Never lose sight of the fact that FAFSA is a powerful predictor of school financial offers, as well as a factor in Pell Grants and federally supported loans.

So here's the bottom line: With all the information at hand three months earlier, you, the parents and child, get more time to meet most deadlines and crucially now have a way to explore and understand your financial aid options like never before.

It is the dawn of a new day in paying for a college education. And an even better time to contact your college consultant for help navigating the thousands of other issues between you and your child's best college choice.
--Mike Ryan