If you are in a maze, your only goal is to come out the other end. College and the admission process may be confusing, but please try not to approach them as if they were mazes. Some thoughts, below:
Don't (merely) go with the flow
I attended college, was graduated from college, write (have written) many recommendations for people who end (ended) up going to college, read a lot about college, and most importantly think almost constantly about what education is and can be. We live in a very education-oriented community, which is a good thing, but that sometimes means that we see college as something to do because...well...it's simply what is done.
Let me be blunt: that attitude is stupid.
Please make your college admissions odyssey one that you think carefully about. If you're doing this mainly because you think you ought to, perhaps you're not ready for college yet. Don't get me wrong: you probably will be ready -- although I do not believe that college is necessarily the best option for everyone -- but you may not be ready yet. That's okay. Don't (merely) go with the flow.
I'd be happy to talk to you about this. Stop me in the hall, or send me an email.
Stuff worth reading
Here are some articles that are worth spending a little time with. If one of these requires a sign-on of some sort, you should get it (for instance, you should have a signon at nytimes.com, which is free but extremely valuable...although you do have to pay if you want to read more than 10 articles a month...and if you subscribe to the Times on Twitter you can read much more for free).
If someone tells you that you should major in business or education instead of liberal arts (history, chemistry, English, philosophy, etc.: all the not-specifically-prep-for-ONE-job majors), he or she is mistaken. That does not mean that you shouldn't major in something more specifically career-focused if that's what you really want...just don't think that it will make you more attractive to prospective employers. Employers really want people who can think critically and innovatively, and the liberal arts are generally considered better in those regards. Don't let yourself be scared away from a major that really interests you! The Wall Street Journal has an encouraging article about college majors that uses a very broad-based survey of employers to support that perspective. These employers seem to agree with Menand (see previous bullet).
A note about academic honesty, the first item on the USA Today article: take it very seriously. By the way, Radnor has an Academic Honor Code, and there is no valid reason for you not to adhere to every aspect of it in everything you do. One example: if you hire a college admissions consultant, and he or she offers to write your essay (or part of it) for you, or do any other thing that you know in your gut is wrong, run in the other direction. Even if you say "No" to such an offer, he or she has made that offer to other kids who didn't say no, and the truth will come out at some point. If that's so, and you're affiliated with someone who has demonstrated a lack of integrity, you will be smeared by association. It is essential for you not to cheat, but it is also highly responsible for you not to associate yourself willingly with people who are unethical.
If you have an interview -- which I recommend strongly -- you might want to prep for it by reading some of the best-known things that have been written about college for commencement speeches. Yes, these are usually heard by graduates after college, but that doesn't mean they should be. My point: if you have read more, and have read more interesting things, you will have made yourself a more interesting, more appealing person, with more ability to contribute to any conversation...including an interview. Some famous favorites, although I don't agree with everything they say, are:
Make summer count. That doesn't necessarily mean "go to foreign nation X to build houses", although it may. I really like Inquirer columnist (and Viewpoints 2008 guest speaker) Michael Smerconish's commentary about the value of a summer job. Key excerpt from a segment that cites his conversations with admissions experts from Lehigh and UPenn:
“I honestly don’t think it matters much whether or not the student saved the world or literally rolled up his or her sleeves to perform a menial summer job,” Bunnick [of Lehigh] told me....Working the grill, waiting tables, scooping ice cream, and folding T-shirts “all require the employee to show up on time, be a team member, have a good work ethic, be service-oriented, learn how to take critical (and positive) feedback from a manager, manage a paycheck and what goes into it — what it means to work for a wage,” Mott [of UPenn] said. “All of these intangible skills will serve a student well in college.”
And when you do get to college, and you're looking around at your peers, and you see what Paul Trout saw in 1997 -- or worse -- know that you can be curious and intellectual, even if some of those around you have a sickening disdain for thinking and scholarship. (His analysis is very dark, and I don't believe it applies to every situation, but I'm equally confident that he describes a real problem that is not any better today than it was in 1997.) Peer pressure affects us at all ages, often to do foolish things...like bad-mouth hard work and brag about not reading.
Some students seem to think that the last semester of high school, or even the last year, is their free time, which they've somehow earned for having been in school for more than a decade of non-summers. This is the same kind of attitude that leads college students to care only about getting out, and to believe that thinking is only for those few hours in class, if that. Please don't be one of those people. The end of high school is not post-high school; it's pre-college, and when you should be thinking at your most adventurously. You can make it all the way to graduation. It's healthy to do so. (See also: "Be a good senior", below.) Oh, and "senior slump"? There's already a time slated for that -- it's called Summer. Enjoy it thoroughly!
I'm sure I'll find lots more to add!
Advice from recent graduates
I am fortunate to count among my friends a number of recent Radnor graduates. Our conversations sometimes turn to topics related to college. These thoughtful young people have been generous enough to share their thoughts on applying, matriculating, studying, and succeeding; these insights have figured into the opinions I reflect on here.
I will add and continue to update an attached document with advice from these young people. Everyone has an opinion, which means that nobody's opinion is necessarily valuable, but I happen to think that these thoughts are worth reading.
When I get the document ready (date TBA), you will be able to click here to download it.
Thinking of asking a teacher to write a recommendation for you?
What appears below are just my suggestions. You should find out what your counselor has to say too, and take that very seriously (unless it disagrees with my suggestions...just kidding!). Your counselor may provide excellent advice about which of your teachers would be the one you'd want to ask, based on his or her knowledge of you, the faculty, and what kind of education you want to pursue.
Always ask in person, NOT electronically.
Do not assume that the answer will be yes; express your thanks if it is and be gracious if it is not.
Do not ask before the start of your senior year, but do ask early enough to give the teacher plenty of time to write the recommendation. Some teachers -- especially in English and those who teach juniors -- write MANY recommendations at a personal cost of an hour or two per recommendation. Just keep that in mind, and don't assume that the teacher can write unlimited recommendations in a short timespan.
Find a teacher who knows you well and can say specific things about you. This is also a plea for you to be active in class, and demonstrate that you care about learning more than just about grades. Make it possible for your recommender to say that you are the kind of person who will make a college a better place, both in the classroom as an intellectual contributor, and on the campus as a positive force.
Be a good senior. You may not believe it, but a teacher's reputation is on the line when he or she writes a recommendation for you. Teachers take these very seriously. If you are going to be praised for your integrity and your honesty or how you are respected, and then you plagiarize a paper, you've done damage not only to yourself but to that teacher. If you are going to be praised as a hard worker and a leader, and then you slack off your second semester and pull terrible grades, that's damage too. (And, by the way, The New York Times reported in the spring of 2009 that colleges are more and more likely to check second semester grades and even withdraw admission offers from students who show steep declines or lapses in character.) Some teachers will even make it clear that they reserve the right to withdraw a recommendation if something happens to make their praise of you turn out to have been unmerited. (FYI: I am one of these teachers.) I hope you will respect the institution, the process, the recommender, and especially yourself, and be a good senior.
One final opinion, and this is just my opinion, which I know is not popular in some circles: don't apply to more than six schools, of which at least one is very safe for you and no more than two or perhaps three are "reaches". This has as much to do with your classmates as it does with your own apps and recommendations. If you apply to twenty colleges, you've made it harder for classmates to get into those colleges, and you've been inefficient with your own time and the time your recommenders spend. A better plan: find the colleges that really interest you, do your research, work them hard, go visit and attend their sessions when they visit RHS.