Category Archives: Books

Q&A: Son is a HS freshman — Where to begin?

A friend and parent of a high school freshman recently wrote:

Q.  I googled a college-related question a few days ago and by chance stumbled upon your Dr. StrangeCollege blog!
In the time it took me to find an answer to my question (partially from your blog and other online sources), I discovered that I am alarmingly overwhelmed by my complete and utter lack of preparedness. Clearly, I should start reading something about college, since L. is now in high school. I found it strangely comforting to think that I could go back and read your blog from the beginning. I feel calmer already!
Do you, in fact, have someplace that you recommend us poor, frightened, slightly nauseous newbie parents start learning about the whole process? Books? Websites?QandA block

A.  I have a lifelong habit of looking to books when I have a question. Here are a couple I would recommend for an overview:

1. The College Solution, a Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price (2nd ed.), Lynn O’Shaugnessy.

O’Shaugnessy has a website with the same name as the book; she also blogs for CBS Money Watch. While her focus is financial, she writes succinctly and with a good deal of common sense about most college-related topics. It’s a good quick introduction.

What’s fascinating is the motivation behind a school’s decision on which applicants capture a price break and which don’t. I can’t delve into this topic without at least mentioning this fact: Private and public colleges and universities routinely employ in-house enrollment managers or hire consultants who devise ways for colleges to use their institutional cash as strategically as possible to assemble their freshman classes. Typically this means helping institutions leverage their own revenue to attract the kind of teenagers they covet. Enrollment management practices have turned financial aid from primarily a utilitarian way to help disadvantaged students into a powerful tool to attract high-achieving students and the wealthy.

2. Crazy U., One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, Andrew Ferguson.

Ferguson is a journalist and magazine editor, but this is his story of the eighteen months from his son’s junior HS year through to leaving for college. He writes beautifully about the emotions involved (for parents and child), tells very funny stories (especially about the things parents say to each other), and digs deeply into areas you’ll probably want to know about, like college rankings, standardized testing, etc. This is what it looks like to parents today. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry. We made Mod Squad Pete read this one and it’s time for me to put it on M.S. Julie’s reading shelf.

It wasn’t until Christmas was upon us that I realized why he’d been so calm about writing his essays. He hadn’t been writing them.

“It won’t take long,” he said, after I pointed out that he hadn’t much time left. He had logic on his side, as he often did — inadvertently. It wouldn’t take him much time to get it done because there simply wasn’t much time to get it done. QED. By mid-January, when the last of the essays was sent off and all creation seemed to relax with a sudden release of held breath, a mother told me that she and her daughter had put in three solid months of work on the essays, “every day after school and weekends.”

“We did three months of work too,” I said, ” in twelve days.”

You might start here.

You might start here.

If/when you want to read more about things your son could be doing right now, you might look at Elizabeth Wissner-Gross’s two books. Her sons were both skilled and interested in a math/science track, so there’s an emphasis on STEM competitions, but there are plenty of gems in both books. I like these for cherry-picking tips related to a child’s specific interests:

What High Schools Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know), Create a Long-Term Plan for your 7th to 10th Grader for Getting into the Top Colleges

Keep in mind that grades are the currency by which opportunities are bought in today’s meritocracy. No matter how many after-school activities or advanced level courses your child has on his résumé, no most-competitive college or selective summer program will be impressed if your kid earns less-than-top grades.

What Colleges Don’t Tell You (and Other Parents Don’t Want You to Know), 272 Secrets for Getting Your Kid into the Top Schools

The important picture to keep in mind is that admissions officers read hundreds of applications, and sameness is detrimental.

This might be the time for a few readers of this blog to call me out as an obsessive. Accepted. Especially when I admit that these are merely the books one might read to get ready to read about the specifics of selection, application, essay-writing, and financial aid. Recommended reading for those topics still to come.

This is also probably a good time to reiterate a few beliefs I hold:

  1. What the kid brings to college in motivation, study habits, and acquisition of real-life skills will make much more of a difference than getting into a top-ranked college (especially when the rankings are based upon such ridiculous criteria as college administrators ranking each other).
  2. There is a college for every student — if college makes sense for the student. “Only 2% of institutions accept less than 25% of their applicants. Those 60 elite schools (out of 2,421) educate just 3% of the nation’s full-time undergrads who are attending four-year institutions.” That from Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s blog here.
  3. Start thinking about finances — and what your family thinks makes sense to pay for a BA or BS — now. Talk about it with your student when he or she is still building the long list of colleges, before winnowing that down to a short list.

Good luck, newbie parent, to you and your student!

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3 Tips From Debt-Free U.

Last spring Mod Squad Julie and I attended a ‘Pathways to College’ program, presented by JHU-CTY and offered at UVa. Julie’s favorite session was a student-only program on essay writing.

Mine:  straight talk from an accountant on how to finance college, with an emphasis on the need for parents and students to discuss finance — and its impact on college choice — from the very beginning, rather than waiting til April 1st when decision letters provide the cost of attendance. The advisor said,

“It’s not fair to ask a teen to make a decision of this magnitude without helping him or her learn how to process such a decision and how to consider the long term impact on their lives.”

Not long after that I ran into this book:  Debt-Free U, by Zac Bissonnette. I remembered seeing something about it when it first came out but at that point, just a year and a half ago, college seemed far away.

Bissonnette is impressive. He started his first business in second grade (the Oriental Trading Company was his supplier) and never looked back.

“Watching my parents struggle with money when I was young has been the key factor in making me as financially responsible and ambitious as I am today… I spent a good chunk of my youth figuring out various ways to make money.”

He’s hard core — seriously hard core — about avoiding student and parent loans. He makes the case that a motivated student can achieve an engaging, top-notch education at most public universities if the student is willing to make the most of the opportunity. Sometimes the writing veers into self-help cadence (“You, too, can avoid debt….”) that gets tedious. Of course, one reads this book for… help.

Zac Bissonnette’s tips on achieving a college education in the smartest financial manner:

1.  Effectively:  pay cash. No student loans. No parent loans. Get second or third jobs, start at a community college, attend public universities, pay fees in monthly installments, forget trying to find the perfect fit, make the most of what your family can afford to pay for.

2.  Graduate in four years. Take summer courses at a community college, take a full course load each semester, don’t fail any classes, don’t study abroad. “A better idea? Graduate on time, save money, and then travel.” Finish in three years to save 25%.

3.  Work during college, especially work that will help move you toward a career, move off campus as soon as possible, and stay out of credit card trouble.

A couple more points:

According to Bissonnette, the four people most closely involved with a prospective student and his family are not there to help:

  • The guidance counselor, if he or she has the time to help with applications, has no training as a financial advisor.
  • The college admissions counselor is a sales person. “The reality is that admissions officers have far more in common with car salesmen than with the world of academia they are ostensibly part of.”
  • The financial aid advisor is a sales person. These people work for the college, not for you.
  • Family and friends provide more peer pressure than real financial guidance.

Financial aid is offered on an annual basis; what a student receives freshman year is not guaranteed beyond that. “One of the most heinous methods that colleges use in awarding financial aid is what I like to call the crack-dealer method. They give you a good deal on the first hit and then jack up the price.”

There’s much, much more. I don’t agree with everything Bissonnette recommends (and he doesn’t expect me to), I have great respect for the choices he made for himself (and his family), and I appreciate the choices he suggests students and families consider.

Title:  Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents

Recommend? Yes.

Stars (out of 5):  4


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How to Write a College Essay (in 10 Steps)

Perhaps the only time a high school student would choose to read a book about writing college essays is when he or she is staring at rapidly advancing deadlines and doesn’t have time to.

Essay coach and professional writer Alan Gelb fully anticipated that scenario and offered up his advice in brief, digestible steps:  Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps.

Conquering the College Admission Essay

Cover photo, courtesy Alan Gelb.

Note:  he left out the word “easy” on purpose. These steps are logical and not insurmountable. (Hmm, would Gelb write “doable”? I don’t think so.)

“This is the time when you want to focus exclusively on that which is absolutely critical, eliminate anything that feels like padding, and simply get the job done in the best possible way as fast as you can.”

Where to start? Here are four things the college admissions essay needs:

  1. “The Once” — this is the specific time in which the essay narrative is situated. Think ‘once upon a time,’ when and where exactly is that?
  2. The Ordinary vs. the Extraordinary — what out of the ordinary thing makes this story worth telling?
  3. Tension and Conflict– no conflict equals no interest for the reader.
  4. The Point — at the end of it all, what’s the point? It doesn’t need to be as explicit as a moral from Aesop’s fables, but the writer should arrive at a conclusive point.

The ten steps Gelb describes are clear and fully explained, then reinforced by quick recap bullets at the end of each chapter. He recommends three or so edits plus a final polish, and he provides examples that illustrate the editing process within the text of the book, followed by more complete examples in the appendix.

Gelb presents a lively narrative; he has worked with many teen writers and he makes it sound like he’s enjoyed it. Perhaps that’s his ‘extraordinary.’ This all adds up to a fairly quick read and a good reference tool.

Title:  Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps

Recommend? Yes, and even better if M.S. Pete had read it.

Stars (out of 5):  5

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Which Colleges Offer Which Majors?

Rugg's Recommendations on the CollegesFrom the overstuffed shelves of college books, sometimes you find one that was written and published to answer just one question:  Which good colleges offer a major in _____ [fill in the blank]___ ?

Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges by Frederick E. Rugg answers that question.

  1. The first section offers thirty-nine ‘Recommended Undergraduate Programs,’ as Rugg puts it: “quality departments at quality colleges.” Under each of these major programs (Ag to Zoology), the recommended colleges are broken down by selectivity (most, very, and selective) with codes indicating the size of the school.
  2. The second section offers sixty-eight ‘Miscellaneous Majors.’ I heard of this book from a friend (and librarian); she had used it to research colleges offering Musical Theatre majors.
  3. The third section lists SAT, ACT and recommended majors for all the colleges mentioned in the book.

This description seems rather basic — a book of lists — but I found it surprisingly useful for building a list of colleges to research. Plus, how many books offer up a photo of the author as Sherlock Holmes?

N.B., My copy came from the library; Rugg’s website indicates the updated editions are published in .pdf form only.

Title:  Rugg’s Recommendations on the Colleges

Recommend? Yes. Useful for basic department research.

Stars (out of 5):  4


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6 Career Secrets from Johnny Bunko (and Daniel Pink)

Over lunch with another parent a couple of years ago, I happened to mention that our three children (aka the Mod Squad) were all interested in high-unemployment careers:  jazz musician, musical theatre actress, and sports broadcaster.

SJohnny Bunkohe said, “You need to read Johnny Bunko.” She was right.

Presented in manga form, written by Daniel H. Pink, the full title is The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: the last career guide you’ll ever need.

Briefly, Johnny Bunko is a nice enough guy who did what everyone (parents, teachers, counselors) told him to do. Now he’s stuck in a dead-end job, making mistakes, hating his life, nowhere near what he would love to be doing.

Fortunately, through magic chopsticks (you have to read it), he meets Diana, who helps walk him through career moves toward work that he loves. He has to work toward his end goal, and each of Diana’s lessons helps him surmount another career obstacle.

Here are Diana’s Daniel Pink’s Career Secrets:

1.  There is no plan.
2.  Think strengths, not weaknesses.
3.  It’s not about you.
4.  Persistence trumps talent.
5.  Make excellent mistakes.
6.  Leave an imprint.

Everybody in the house read it. (1. Anyone here, while eating, will look at any reading material left on the kitchen table, and 2. It helps that it looks like a comic book.) The art by Rob Ten Pas is excellent. While the storyline involves business assignments in accounting and marketing, the graphics make it easy to understand for young readers.

Title:  The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: the last career guide you’ll ever need.

Recommend? Absolutely. We’ve given this to all ages.

Stars (out of 5):  5


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4 Secrets from How to Make Colleges Want You

Some years back we watched “21”, the movie made from the book about the MIT students who learned a card counting system to beat Vegas at blackjack. The main character is one of many superstar students applying for a joint MIT/Harvard School of Public Health program. As I remember (weasel phrase if you ever heard one), he learns the blackjack system so he can stand out from all the other Woebegone Kids applying.

Mod Squad Pete, then in 8th grade, asked a few days later, “What can I do to stand out?”

I mentioned his question to my sister (HS guidance counselor in Midwest). A few days later, when she ran across this book, she sent me a link. I ordered it: our first college book purchase.

How to Make Colleges Want YouThis is one of the few college books that he read. At least, I thought he read it until I looked it up to write about and found a bookmark a third of the way through.

Nonetheless, this is one that he was, at least, sort of, interested in.

Quick synopsis:  author Mike Moyer was not a SuperKid in high school, but he figured out how to make himself stand out to colleges and he will share his tips with you. Among them are these four:

  1. Present the diversity a college needs. (Takes research to find out who needs you.)
  2. Get noticed with Non-Teenager Activities. (He raised homing pigeons, demonstrated their skills to admissions officers.)
  3. Break out of the expected ‘Zone’. (The Zone could be geographic, demographic, etc.)
  4. Strike the college’s ‘Nerve.’ (As much as they want diversity, they still need to know you will fit in.)

Title:  How to Make Colleges Want You:  Insider Secrets for Tipping the Admissions Odds in Your Favor

Recommend? It’s a bit of a hoot for the student to read. A fun place to begin.

Stars (out of five):  3

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