Summer Fun, Some are Not


Dear High School Juniors:

What are you planning to do this summer?

If you ever wanted to strengthen your college applications by volunteering for Habitat for Humanity or doing a sandwich run for a shelter or volunteering at a position related to your career aspirations or visiting every Major League stadium in the country, do you realize how many summers you have left to do it?

One.  This one.

If you ever wanted to participate in American Legion ball and/or a Summer Travel team, become a lifeguard, learn CPR or shadow a CPA and, thereby, show your college suitors why you would make a great athlete, Allied Health major or Accounting student, do you know how many summers you have left before you start filling out college applications, gathering recommendation letters and preparing personal essays?

That’s right.  One.  This one.

And if you’ve already done one (or some) of these things, do you want to stop now and leave those same admissions counselors wondering, “How come Brad didn’t continue with that?  Why did Caitlin stop right before she became a black belt?  Maybe they aren’t good at completing tasks.  Hmmm.”

Some of you may be very familiar with utilizing your summers to advance your admissions credentials or further your professional interests.  Others may be more familiar with using summer to improve your results on Call of Duty or Beach Frisbee.  Whichever best describes you, this is your summer of admissions.

But Call of Duty and Beach Frisbee are my professional interests…

I have a feeling your Mom disagrees, Justin. 

But, Mr. Szarek, aren’t my grades and my High School curriculum more important to those admissions folks?

Ah, you listen well,  Ashley.

Courses taken and grades received certainly carry the heaviest load in the College Admissions process.  But, for the most part, July and August are an opportunity to influence other parts of the application process.  Here are some thoughts, tips and ideas for a future college applicant to make the most of his or her summer months:

1) Volunteer.  At least once.  You won’t regret it.

2) Work.  For the experience, for something to put on your resume and for the money.  You’ll need more of all of these things real soon.

3) Take a summer course at a local community college.  Saves $ and gives you a taste of college.

4) Take good notes when you travel.  Those may become the outline of a great personal statement.

5) Read a great book that you always wanted to read.  Personal Statement fodder and just a great thing to do.

6) Think about which adults really know you, like you AND respect you.  You are about to ask a couple of them to write about you.

7) Look at a “These Words Appear Most on the SATs or “Key Tips to SAT Success” article.  Once.  Maybe twice.

8) Ask yourself, what DO I want to be when I grow up?  Write the answer down and date it.  Don’t worry too much if the answer has plenty of commas or plenty of white space.

9) Look at your Senior year list of courses.  Are they the courses to best help you achieve your goals?  If not, what is the high school’s process to make changes during the summer or during the first week of classes?

10) Write down your top five schools.  (Six, four, eight or ten are also acceptable totals.  27 is NOT.)  Check off which ones you’ve visited and highlight the rest.

11) Don’t forget to enjoy the summer, at least part of the time.  It is a time to re-energize your academic batteries; make sure you do so.

And, now, for your listening pleasure, I give you a choice: Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong – Summertime.  Or, if you prefer:  Kid Rock doing All Summer Long.  Enjoy.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  Please feel free to email me at, call or text me at 908-403-3819, join me on Facebook on “College Counseling for the Rest of Usand join me on Twitter at @MichaelCCR.

Sophomore, Soph o Less.


I have a College Admissions laboratory at my house.

It’s called “having twins who are sophomores in high school and took the PSATs last Fall and one who filled out a NRCCUA Survey although he has no memory of it and swears it never happened”.

Since October, the lab has received hundreds of mailings addressed to each of these individuals.  I believe the statistics are such:

February 1995-October 2010: 197 pieces of mail – mostly birthday and Christmas cards.

October 2010-Present: 219 pieces of mail from various colleges across this fine nation (and 1 or 2 abroad).

And it’s (almost) all a complete waste. 

I don’t mean in the environmental sense; we can recycle the materials.  But, in the “they don’t even open them, assume Dad will take care of it, don’t even know why they’re getting them or what the people sending them want them to do about it” sense.

The boys also get emails, which they ignore with almost equal vigor.  I don’t believe they’ve had any contact via social media.  Yet.

We are seeing two trends that have emerged in the last decade come together in a gloriously imperfect storm.  First, colleges are trying to reach students earlier and earlier and (correctly) believe that students are, equally, looking at colleges earlier and earlier.  Second, we are at a point in time when communication is in flux.

As for the first issue, students are looking earlier.  But almost all of that looking is via online surfing.  And they are generally casual window shoppers.  They are unsure about the entire college process and a headline on a mailing piece will rarely change that.

As for the second issue, we are in a world that offers phone, email, text, Twitter DMs, Facebook messages, blog comments, Online Gaming Messaging and even snail mail as legitimate modes of communication.  Never have there been more options and less certainty on how to talk to someone.

I don’t really know what the “right” answer is.  However, I do have a few thoughts on how the process might work better.  I encourage other parents and counselors who read this to chime in with own advice and thoughts..

1) Have a Call to Action.  What do you want Ashley or Brad to DO about this mailing you sent them.  However…

2) Do not assume they are getting excited over receiving a free shirt if they enter a code into a website you are directing them to.  Too much work for something they really aren’t as excited about as you are.  I’m talking about Open Houses, presentations in or near their hometown, tickets to a sporting event, scholarship applications.

3) If you are going to reach out to sophomores, think about how to entice the parents.  They are more likely to opening the envelopes, anyway.

4) Compile much data.  Do much thinking.  You are spending a boatload of money to do this.  Is it worth it?  I don’t know.  One sophomore who locks in to a college and goes on to attend and graduate may contribute over $100,000 of income to an institution directly and much more, indirectly, if Justin or Caitlin really likes his or her experience.  So, you can afford a lot of strikeouts.   A LOT of strikeouts.  But, in today’s world, are you hitting ANY home runs with snail mail?  Again, IDK.

4) Email is not dead.  But be aware that it is often used more like texting than snail mail and act accordingly.

5) Use Social Media.  Sophomores can friend, fan, like, comment, connect and view in relative obscurity.  The better question is how to get them to your sites.  The even better question is who is going to be the first college to nail it just right – I don’t think we’ve seen the first truly viral college campaign.  Yet.

6) Don’t do any of this just because you have done it before.  As I said, my sons have received several hundred pieces of mail in the last 7 months.  They’ve opened about 5 envelopes.  Maybe it’s worth it, but I would think long and hard about why you’re doing this campaign and what mode of communication would best meet your goals.  If it is money that can be moved to scholarships or new academic facilities, or improvements to the Student Center, that wouldn’t be so bad for recruitment, now, would it?

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  Please feel free to email me at, call or text me at 908-403-3819, join me on Facebook on “College Counseling for the Rest of Usand join me on Twitter at @MichaelCCR.

A Course is A Course, Of Course, Of Course


We’ve talked about SATs (“Those Three Letters That Start With S”), Extra-Curricular Activities (“The Social Network”), Personal Statements (“The Art of Candy Stripping and the Trumpet Player on the Moon”) and Interviews (“Interviewing 101”).

But I don’t think that we’ve discussed, yet, the most important part of the application folder.

Uh….yes, you did – Those Three Little Letters….)

Brad, tell your Mom there is something far more important to most admission counselors than the test you took on one, two (or three) Saturday mornings.

OK, but she doesn’t believe you.

There is no better indicator, no more comprehensive piece of information, no more telling tale of a student than the high school transcript.

It tells me the courses taken, the grades received, the school attended.  It shows me trends and gaps.  It reveals questions and concerns.  It puts the dreaded SAT in some type of context, as well as coupling with the extra-curricular activities to reveal the student’s time management skills. 

The high school transcript lets me know what kind of student your high school thinks you are.  Did they offer you the chance to take AP and honors courses?  What kind of courses did you take – it was your counselor and teachers who suggested them, to begin with.  The letters of recommendation only verify or contradict the information that the transcript has already provided.  Everything else in the admission folder is put into context around that transcript.

So, in true blog form, it’s probably worth providing some key bullet points to help you better understand the transcript, its role in college admissions and what you and your child can (and cannot) do to present Ashley or Justin’s best side.

Here we go:

1) What you did at 14 and 15 matters.  More than anything else, this is the part of the admission puzzle you are creating before you know you are creating it.

2) But the more recent grades matter more.  We are getting you at 18, not 14.

3) Colleges do look – very much so – at curriculum.  A 3.2 in AP and honors courses trumps a 4.0 in Basket Weaving.  (Unless you are going to major in Basket Weaving in College).

4) But, please note that a 1.7 in AP and Honors courses does not  help you.  Generally, take the hardest course in which you can do well.  I realize determining that is not always easy.

5) Admissions folks generally recalculate your GPA based on their system and based on your “core” courses in English, Math, Social Studies, Science and Foreign Languages.   I know few schools, if any, that look at an A in Driver’s Ed and a C in English and come up with a “B” overall.

6) If a high school has a 4.0 scale and their top 10 percent is averaging 4.5, we are not amused.  Those type of “110 percent” rating scales are for the families, and for Class Ranking purposes, NOT for the admission counselors.

7) As noted, the asterisk to #6 is Class Rank.  If we use class rank in our calculation, we use the high school’s ranking.  But it may not outweigh our own GPA and curriculum evaluations.

8) The newest trend in admissions – self-reported transcripts.  No kidding.   Link here (video).

9) If Ashley can handle it, be aware that AP courses and college-level courses offered through your high school, can save you $$$ in the overall scheme  of things.  They will cost much less than the cost of the typical college credit.  But don’t forget the “if Ashley can handle it” part of the statement.

10) Help Caitlin and Justin, as appropriate, in course selection each Spring.  The difference between AP Physics and Physics for Beginners is FAR greater than the difference between a B and C.  Again, curriculum matters.

11) And remind Brad that all he can control is to do his best.  And give 100 percent, not 110 percent – unless Math is not one of his strong suits.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.  Please feel free to email me at, call or text me at 908-403-3819, join me on Facebook on “College Counseling for the Rest of Usand join me on Twitter at @MichaelCCR.