How To Narrow Down Your College Choices

choosing a collegeIt’s that time of year again. High school seniors around the country have finally received all of their much-awaited envelopes from higher education institutions. They’ve stacked all of their big envelopes, removing the definite “no’s” and religiously studied the pamphlets and pages inside the “maybe” colleges’ big envelopes.

So, how do you whittle your list of two, or three, or 10 possible universities down to one definite pick? While this elimination process may not come down the thought-free destiny you hoped it would, you’ll find that all your judicious thinking pays off in the end.

If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit one or more of your final choices, getting a first-hand look at the campus will definitely add to your perspective on the place. However, college tours can be time-consuming and expensive, especially when you’re trying to take several tours within the month, so they’re not always an option.

Whether you can personally tour a campus or not, there are a several important qualities to consider when choosing your university.

1. Size. Are you looking for small classes? Or would you rather live in a city-like environment and attend a big university? Thinking about what size school will be most conducive to your learning experience will speed up your elimination process.

2. Geography. Do you know what part of the country you want to live in for the next four years? Do you care which region you’re in, or what the weather is like? Of course, this should by no means be your number one consideration, but perhaps it will help you make an important final decision between two comparable schools.

3. Travel. How far is this school from home? If you’re a homebody and you’ll want to see your parents every weekend, a school 4,000 miles from home may not be your wisest option. If you aren’t affected by homesickness and don’t expect to go home more than four times per year, a long-distance commute back to your parents’ house may not be a deal breaker. Consider travel time, expenses, and mode.

4. Financial. How much does this school cost? If you have money saved up from your parents or from your high school job, your budget may be a little more elastic. But it’s good to know ahead of time what you’ll have to do to keep your head above the water when it comes to post-college debt.

5. Academics. Do you know what you want to study? If so, do a bit of research on their programs and see if they’re a good fit for you. If you’re not sure yet about what you want to study, or suspect you might end up switching to a different major, it may be best to keep your options open and select a well-rounded institution.

Much like people, no school is perfect, but it’s your job to pick the school that is the best fit for you. Don’t stress about it too much though: in the end, no matter what school you choose, the next four years will be filled with new experiences, excitement, and personal development.

Why Insisting On One Dream College Can Backfire

college studentYou own all the paraphernalia, you know all the fight songs, and you’ve already visited (more than once). Maybe it’s where your parents met, or where your older sister went to school. Maybe you like the sports, or the city, or the prestige. Whatever the reason, you know one thing for certain: this is your dream school, and you are destined to go there.

All through high school (or maybe even throughout your life), this school has been your end goal. Every homework assignment, every test, every extra-curricular activity, has all been for one purpose: your admittance to the school of your dreams.

And while goals are great, having your heart set on a specific school can coax you into devastating letdown. Beyond your grades, your application, and your SAT scores, you have little to no control over who admits you and who rejects you.

Not to mention, this attitude will render you numb when it comes to answers from every other college in the universe. When no other school was given a chance to compare to the “dream school,” no other admittance will be of any significance to you. Instead of celebrating these achievements, you’ll remain anxiously in waiting for the one big envelope that you actually care about, should it ever arrive.

Placing this much emotional stock in one place could take a vicious toll on your self-esteem. Investing yourself entirely in the admission to a single, all-important school leaves you very vulnerable. If rejected, you’ll find that you feel rejected not just as a college applicant, but also as a person. You won’t feel good enough and you’ll feel like you failed when in fact, you just aren’t a good fit.

If your dream school happens to be have a high price tag attached to the degrees it bestows, with not much financial aid, setting your heart on that college could also mean taking on a huge debt. Starting your adult life with the burden of a huge debt can be extremely difficult. Are you sure the huge price tag is justified? Will you ever see a return on your college investment if you attend a college that’s beyond your means?

Not only can focusing on a single college leave you heartbroken and financially broke, it could also lead you to overlook many other equally suitable colleges. Because even if you think you chose this dream school for the “right” reasons, what exactly are the right reasons? When you fell in love with a college when you were 12, did you know what you’d want to study when you were 18? When the winner of the 2009 Final Four became your fantasy school, did you know what size school would benefit you most? When you create a long-term emotional tie to a university, you don’t rationally weigh out all the pros and cons. But when you’re choosing where to spend the next four years earning your degree, you’ll want to think things through.

I am by no means advising you not to be ambitious. I’m not advising you not to care about where you end up, or to just “see what happens.” Actually, my point is quite the opposite: set lots of goals and give yourself lots of options. That way, when the admission letters start clogging up your mailbox, you’ll have a lot to be excited about.

What Are Colleges Looking For?

filling college applicationThere is nothing more frustrating than trying to figure out what colleges look for in their applicants. Do they prefer higher grades or perhaps a killer list of extracurricular activities? Is a student with an average GPA but a stellar essay not considered in the application process because he couldn’t remember why Woodrow Wilson won the election of 1912 on that one test at that one time in AP US History?

The truth is that there is no one list that will let you know what colleges are looking for, but as long as you keep up these four main components in mind throughout high school, you will have a high chance of getting into the college of your choice.


I don’t like the concept of GPA – the idea that every little grade you ever got on every little quiz will count towards the grade your college will look at. When I started high school, I had no idea that my grades at age 14 would count towards these final all-important three digits. Obviously, it’s very difficult to get a perfect unweighted 4.0, but keeping your GPA up will definitely help to get you into college. It is the number one factor that colleges look at and many times, unless you’ve opened libraries in Africa for the blind and deaf, it is only the initial part of the application. Meaning that in many competitive schools, they won’t even consider certain GPA’s because there are too many over-qualified students as it is. In simplified terms, if you keep your GPA above a 3.75, you at least have a chance of getting into a top 100 school.


This is my personal favorite because this is the part of the application where you are able to really show the colleges who you are. It’s important to invest your time in something that is important to you and that will help you to become a better person. Volunteering, sports, theatre, art and music are some of the most popular extracurriculars. Each of those shows a different part of who you are as a person, so choose an activity that you feel will portray you best. Colleges also look for consistency, so make sure that whatever you choose to do in your free time, you stick to it. They will also look for an honorable amount of community service hours, so make sure that you have at least 100 hours on your application.

Teacher recommendations

Teacher recommendations are one of the hardest things to acquire, because you only have a limited number of educators you are able to turn to. UC’s do not require letters of recommendation, and there is a good chance that other public universities do not require them either, so if you’re thinking of applying to only public schools, this component might not be relevant to you. But for those who want to apply to private schools, teacher recommendations are crucial. In theory, the recommendations can come from a number of people: your supervisor at the volunteering center, your boss at your internship, and your counselors are all valid, but the ideal recommendation writer is one that taught a core class in your junior year. To achieve a perfect rec letter (or even two), try to participate in class as much as possible and try to see the teacher outside of class. Make sure that they know enough about you to write a great letter.


This is the most personal part of the application. Some universities make you write supplementals, but most require the basic essay accompanied with a very broad question. This is your chance to show the school you are more than what your GPA says. Don’t write about grand adventures such as a trip to Africa where you paid eight thousand dollars to go to and pour some cement. Most colleges have had enough of these “life-changing” yet very expensive summer trips. Try to look deep into yourself and find something about you that makes you different. Even if its very small, such as going to see a koi fish pond with your dad or visiting an old relative. If you can write well, you’re more than prepared for the essay, regardless of the topic.

All four components of the college application are important, but if I had to choose one, I would advise you to make sure you get good grades, as a high GPA is often what gets a top college to at least consider you.

This is a guest post by Noa Livneh, a high school junior in the San Francisco Bay Area.

5 Tips for Coping with College Stress

college stress While college is most often an incredibly exciting time in life, it can also be a stupendously stressful period. The ability to simultaneously navigate college academics, extra-curricular activities, social activities, and a full night’s sleep is an artful, yet arduous, balancing act.

During your years in college, you’ll need to find ways to calm yourself through your busiest times. Though everyone’s way of managing this stress is different, here are a few suggestions to consider when you’re trying to relax.

1. Exercise. Give your brain a break and let your body take the heat. Use your built-up stress to get a great workout while boosting endorphins at the same time. It’s a wonderful way to feel good physically, and reboot your brain. Not to mention, science says that physical workouts improve test scores.

2. Make a to-do list and be specific. This classic organizational tool is not only good for keeping your priorities straight; it’s also great for managing stress. When you draw up your list, make sure to write down the little things that you need to do, rather than the big ones. For example, instead of “write Psych 101 paper,” specify “write introduction to Psych 101 paper.” This will allow you to cross things off more frequently, giving you a feeling of accomplishment and motivating you to keep going on.

3. Give yourself a break. You don’t have to be “on” 24/7. Give yourself time to do the things that you enjoy, whether it’s playing sports, having conversations, reading books, going to parties, or having alone time at home. This will reduce your stress levels, make you a happier human being, and probably increase your overall productivity.

4. Eat a full and healthy meal. Although you may be tempted to skip dinner and snack while studying instead, it’s worth it to take a break to eat a nutritious meal. Food fuels your body and mind, helping you to stay awake and focus better. In the end, taking the time to eat a balanced meal will probably benefit you more than the study time. Plus, mealtime is a great time to socialize and de-stress from a day alone at your desk.

5. Get enough sleep. Although using those eight nighttime hours to study for a test may seem like a good idea, it will most likely reduce your productivity the following day. This will not only negate your productivity during your all-nighter, it will likely put your productivity in the negative. The world is a much better place when you’re well rested.

Everyone has their own individual way of coping with challenges and each of us will find different tactics to ease the stress of college. But when you’re finding yourself overwhelmed with school, don’t power through it; instead, find what helps you cope and don’t be afraid to relax.

Why College May be the Best Time of Your Life

Happy college studentWe’re all familiar with the stereotypical college experience, with the excitingly sinful universities of Hollywood, overflowing the booze and frat parties and parent-free fun. And thus, every high schooler in America anxiously awaits the day that she or he can move into the dorms and party through the next four years.

Though as anyone who has gone to college knows (and anyone who hasn’t probably suspects), this fantastical depiction of college life isn’t the reality. Or if it is your reality, there’s a high likelihood that you won’t be leaving with a degree.

But just because this part of life, much like all parts of life, isn’t the same as in the movies doesn’t mean that college isn’t a wonderful and unique experience. Your post-secondary education can be fulfilling in a number of ways that aren’t quite as seductive as Hollywood’s version… though they are quite arguably, much more impactful.

1. You’ll learn what you love. So, you don’t know what you’re passionate about? That’s totally okay. In college, you’ll have time to explore various topics and find out what makes you tick. Just be sure to focus and squeeze all that you can out of your academic experience Listen in class, study, and go to office hours. Because as my father always tells me, “passion doesn’t tap you on the shoulder.” In other words, you’ll need to make an effort to actively search for it.

2. You’ll form new opinions. The college campus is a microcosm filled with smart people with passionate viewpoints. During your time in school, you’ll hear different perspectives, from both students and professors, that challenge your current opinions, or help you develop new ones. At the end of it all, you’ll suddenly find yourself with an entirely new body of (hopefully) well-informed beliefs.

3. You’ll make lifelong friends. When you’re in college, your friends are all around you, all the time. This catalyzes the development of these college friendships, resulting in quickly arising, enduring bonds. Most likely, you’ll have something important in common with these people in your life, and many of these friendships will be based upon your passions and similarities, instead of the fact that your parents are friends. Not to mention, making friends in the hotbed of ideas that is a college campus precipitates an exchange of thoughts, ideas, and goals—the kinds of discussions that really help you get to know all layers of a person.

4. You’ll have access to the best resources. Take advantage of the libraries, the speakers, the recreation facilities. Read books, go to events, and hit the gym. Because once you graduate and you’re off on your own, you’ll realize that out in the so-called “real world,” these things come at a price. And that price is in money, which you probably won’t have much of. Not too mention, most speakers won’t be as easily accessible at a walkable distance from your home. Challenge your mind, thoughts, and body with all of the wonderful free resources on your university’s campus.

There are many things to take away from college besides questionable photos. Be sure that you devote 100% of yourself to making your college experience the best that it can possibly be.

How to Make the Most of Your Spring Break

college spring breakAs spring break approaches, you’re probably feeling a confusing mixture of emotions. Dread, for the next week of finals or midterms. Excitement, for the class-free week to come. And most peculiarly, a looming sense of anxiety about how to effectively spend this week of sweet, sweet freedom.

While right now, in the midst of exams, planting yourself on the couch for a full, carefree week of catching up on all the new HBO series sounds pretty appealing, you know that it’ll probably get old after two days. Okay, that’s a lie, but then you’ll find yourself back at school sans spring break stories (unless you count Hannah’s NYC adventures and misadventures in Girls).

So then, what can you do to ensure that you’ll accomplish more this spring break than watching three new television series? Here are a few ideas to make the most of your college spring break.

  1. Take a trip with friends. You’ll need a little money and planning skills for this. But even if you’ve only got a few hundred dollars to your name and you’re not much of a planner, there are ways to easily vacation on the cheap. Look into camping trips, hikes, or all-inclusive cruises. Choose something nearby to eliminate the expense of the plane ticket. If all goes well, you’ll come back to school with memories of things that you actually experienced instead of stuff you watched other people do on a screen.
  2. Volunteer. Many places are in constant need of help, even if only for a week. Whether it’s a children’s hospital, soup kitchen, animal shelter, or wetland, volunteering to make your hometown a better place is a productive, eye opening, and generous way to pass your free week.
  3. Get a head start on summer. For so many college students, figuring out what to do with summer is a major stressor. Kick start your summer plans by researching and/or applying to abroad programs, summer school, or internships. By the time summer rolls around, you’ll have it all figured out.
  4. Spend quality time with family. If you go to school away from home, you know that family time is scarce, and precious. So, spend the week dining out with your parents, going to movies with your siblings, and relaxing with everyone together. This together time is rare, and growing rarer, so make the most of it.

Whatever it is you choose to do with your spring break, whether it’s productive or purely relaxing, be sure that it’s something you enjoy.


Volunteering in High School

volunteerWhere is the best place to volunteer? How many hours should I get? Should I volunteer at one place or spread my time out at numerous organizations?

All these questions were running through my mind during my freshman year of high school. Ever since I was in 7th grade, all I heard high schoolers talking about was volunteering. At the time, I had no idea what that meant, it seemed like a huge responsibility and an even bigger burden. But as I started to learn more about the concept, I realized there are countless ways to achieve your goal.

First of all, we’ll cover what high school requirements want and what colleges want. In my high school, volunteering is part of a living skills class. In order to pass the class and graduate, I must complete fifteen hours of community service within six months of the class.

Colleges are looking for a much higher number. In order to even have your hours appear on your application, you need to complete a minimum of 100 hours. This number may scare some of you who have not started to volunteer, but in reality it’s not that hard to achieve. In fact, you should get two to three hundred hours in order for your college application to really stand out.

So where should you volunteer? It’s simple to find an organization that will just give you hours, but ideally, you should find organizations that also allow you to show your leadership skills. This will demonstrate to colleges that you don’t just stand in the crowd counting your hours, but actually accomplishing meaningful work.

I recommend you start volunteering someplace that will give you a certain position. I work with kids as a counselor and teach them about other cultures and their history. This not only shows my leadership skills as well as my public speaking abilities, but it also earns me three hundred hours EACH YEAR to put on my college application.

The second thing you need to keep in mind is that it’s always better to volunteer at one place for a long time rather than at numerous locations earning random hours here and there. Colleges like to see consistency, and they especially like to see dedication. Make sure you get to know your volunteering advisor (the person who is signing your hours sheet) – they will be more than happy to write you a letter of recommendation.

Volunteering hours are an opportunity to get to know yourself better and do something meaningful. It’s important to choose an organization wisely and make sure you have a true passion for the cause, otherwise you would just be wasting precious hours. Do not volunteer just to check it off your list of to do’s for colleges. Find something that you truly care about and pour your energy into it. In the long run, doing something important to you will count way more towards college and even beyond your years of education.

This is a guest post by Noa Livneh, a high school junior in the San Francisco Bay Area.