What I Wish I Knew Before College

You finished your college search and finally made it to what you were told would be the best four years of your life.

Among the stress of finishing homework and rushing to meet deadlines, it’s easy to forget some of the opportunities that college affords you.

Instead of trying to survive credit to credit, semester to semester, here are four tips to enhance your experience.

1. Go to Class & Talk to Professors

Read More

3 Myths About Finding Scholarships

I paid for my entire education with scholarship money.

Because I work with families across the nation about college admissions and financial aid, I’m often asked whether it was my standardized test scores or GPA that led me to win so much money.

The answer is neither.

In fact, what shocks many people is that the ingredients for scholarship success has little (if anything) to do with what happens in the classroom.

Here are a three common myths that often dominate conversations about scholarships:

Myth #1: Scholarships are so competitive. Read More

31 Things I’d Have Told Myself Before College

Original article published May 26, 2013 on momentum.

It’s been almost a year since I graduated from college. I had an incredible four years at the University of Chicago and learned more than I ever anticipated. Now that it’s in the past, I wonder: What do I wish I knew before entering college that I know now?

Here’s the advice I’d have shared with my 18-year-old self:

  1. Master the art of asking great questions. Questions are the driving force of learning. The faster you optimize your ability to learn, the faster you’ll get where you want to go. Read More

My Successful Letter of Appeal to UC Berkeley

Republished from The Huffington Post: http://huff.to/Yb74KD

UC Berkeley was my dream school.

In fact, as a student at a large public high school in the East Bay, as the son and grandson of alumni, and as a young person interested in politics, the University of California, Berkeley, was one of the few schools I knew.

I applied in November of my senior year of high school.

That spring, I received a thin letter in the mail from the admissions office. I went to the garage to open it, to receive the good news. Maybe the small letter would inform me that the fat packet of smiling faces of my future classmates was on its way or available online?


I decided to appeal the decision. I knew the odds were slim: less than 1 percent of the student body at Berkeley were admitted off an appeal. Additionally, I was under the impression at the time that making an appeal was discouraged unless an applicant’s GPA was miscalculated by a full letter grade or their SAT scores had risen significantly. Neither of these applied in my case.

(A big thanks to the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley, who clarified their appeal policy for me. According to one official, while “successful appeal applicants tend to provide new and compelling information… that may have been left out of the application or not placed in proper context,” the admissions office could not confirm that specific GPA or SAT score fluctuations were part of the appeals decision-making policy at the time I sent in my letter. Likely, a “holistic review that looks at each and every aspect of the student” was policy, despite my impression at the time otherwise).

I wrote the letter in one sitting. It took about four hours. I read it over once, and printed four copies. I addressed one copy to the admissions office, another to a professor in the College of Letters and Science that I looked up online, and the other two to a dean and the chancellor. Aside from my parents and the these recipients, I have not shared this letter with anyone.

The letter is below, unedited:

“You made a mistake.” I am sure that hundreds of students and parents have spoken these sentiments to the admission department at UC Berkeley in the course of the past few weeks. I am sure that thousands more throughout the state, throughout the country even, have laughed, cried, and yelled these words, being sure to diminish your institution with each remark. Personally, I hold Berkeley in the highest regards as far as colleges go; having been a life long Bay Area resident, I have come to cherish the diverse atmosphere and thirst for knowledge in Berkeley and the surrounding area entropy. It is in this high-esteem for the university and the community that I write this candid letter.

When a school such as Berkeley is so inundated with qualified applicants desiring to go there, the job of an admissions officer can surely be frightful. Truthfully, I do not feel that UC Berkeley has necessarily made a mistake in its selection, for how can a school sift through the numerous outstanding individuals and select a class meager in proportion to the number of students who wish they could attend. Yes, I write this letter as an appeal for my admissions decision for the Fall of 2003, but more so than that, I feel the need to give a dream school of mine at least one more shot. Regardless of the consequent decision, which I fully realize is statistically to be against my desired response, I must write this letter.

Having listened to my father speak of his college years at UC Berkeley and MIT, the two schools hold a certain mystical quality to me. Knowing well that the type of education I would receive at MIT does not fit who I am and the dreams I strive for, Berkeley has long been the cynosure for my desired collegiate experience. As I recently toured the Berkeley campus, I thought of my dad and tried to picture him in a younger state, walking down the same stretch of Market and Telegraph en route to his favorite hot dog joint, Top Dog. The stories of his time at UC Berkeley held me in awe. My father, a former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory employee, could relate first hand the type of people associated with Berkeley: as I do now, I have always held the school, students, faculty and alumni with respect and admiration.

Wherever I go, I know I will earn an outstanding education. The schools I am deciding amongst (Occidental, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis, Santa Clara, and possibly Pomona) are all revered institutions of higher learning. Further, I feel confident that my desire to succeed and do the best I possibly can will further guarantee a positive college experience. Since submitting my college applications in November, I have gained a better understanding of myself, and a better understanding of the surrounding world. Through numerous event planning and participation in the Link Crew events, I realize how impressionable young minds are, and the importance of positive role-models. Thus, I have focused more of my energies into sharing personal ideologies as well as high school experiences with the lower classmen. Currently I am organizing a Drug-Awareness assembly to take place prior to finals week. The assembly is specifically designed to inform the freshmen of various substance abuse and health problems they may encounter in their next few years in high school, and the consequent malignant effects each substance/disorder can have on an individual’s life.

Politically, Berkeley is the place to be. With an on-going war in Iraq, the UC campus is the site of much heated debate. As I dream of one day becoming a politician, a dream I plan to make a reality through hard work and determination, Berkeley would provide me with the dynamic atmosphere of political discussion, the kind I relished in at California Boys State and continue to love. Through the relationships and subsequent dialogue I would have with peoples of different nationalities and beliefs at Berkeley, I would be better equipped to make my own decisions in life by way of the additional knowledge gained from such a “melting pot” of people. Needless to say, my goal of becoming a successful public servant continues despite being denied acceptance at Berkeley (currently I am reading Leadership by Rudy Giuliani, an inspirational and informative book which discusses how important it is to work hard for what you believe in) . Though, with this in mind, I feel I could make great strides in the right direction by attending Berkeley.

As I go from one activity to another, from tennis practice where I’m expected to lead the team as captain to musical practice (despite being musically inept, I have practiced numerous hours in the shower throughout my entire life, and plan to be the best Elisha J. Whitney Anything Goeshas ever seen!), the disappointment and anxiety I feel at my denial to Berkeley continues. I realize that, like thousands of the other students who may be bewildered at an admission decision, I am simply used to trying my best and yielding the fruits of my labor. Life is full of ups and downs, successes and failures — even at the green age of 18 I understand this concept well, and realize I will experience my share of both in life. I realize this is not a failure. All the events and activities I have participated in have been due to sheer love and enjoyment, and my knowledge gained from such experiences will aid me always, whether I attend Harvard U or Clown College. Indeed, the colleges I have been accepted to are among some of the top schools as well, and I do feel proud of my options.

Still, Berkeley lingers in my mind, and I must exhaust all enrollment opportunities to be fully content with the application process. A final, more personal note as to why I so desire to attend Berkeley over a few of my other possibilities: in the middle of November, in the midst of completing the bulk of my college applications, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Combined with applying to college, completing homework, staying on top of classes, and keeping my commitments to extra-curricular activities, the knowledge that my mom has a serious form of cancer made those few months all the more stress-filled and difficult. Thank the Lord, my mom has successfully completed radiation and continues to see specialists regularly, solidifying her status in my mind as the strongest person I know. Going off to college, I am going to miss my mom dearly, and she will dearly miss me. I’ve always been very close with her, and I recognize the ambivalence within her of wanting me to stay close to home in the Bay Area while wanting what’s best for me. I feel similar sentiments, having the strong urge to protect and care for my mom, visiting on a regular basis, while desiring to grow as a person into the man I strive to be. Berkeley would be the perfect choice of school in relation to both aspects: its proximity to my home town of Livermore, as well as the educational opportunities Berkeley offers.

I truly believe that God has His plan, and that everything works out for the best. All I feel I can do is submit this letter and let fate have its way.


On re-reading the letter for the first time in nearly 10 years, I remember why I had to write it.

First, I wanted to make the case that if I were to attend Berkeley, I would do just fine. And second, I needed to write the letter for my own sake, not for anyone else; to rest easy with the knowledge that I had tried my best to get in.

The portion of the letter that took the longest to write was the last section. I tried to strike a delicate balance in writing about my mother’s illness: I did not want to use the situation to curry any advantage, but I had to be honest about a painful issue that was affecting me and my decision-making — and would continue to impact my life over the coming years.

A few weeks after mailing the letter, I received a personal letter from the dean. He said that he empathized with my situation and appreciated my reflection, but had no power to reverse a decision. He would forward my letter to admissions.

A week later, I received another letter in the mail: this time, from the admissions office. The letter was less a letter, and more of a fat packet of smiling faces with the words “congratulations.”

I was grateful and, more so, encouraged. I had given myself a chance, and now I had proven to myself that I could.

Around the time that I received the letter, I went on a college trip down south to visit the other California schools where I had applied. Eventually, I decided to accept a generous offer of admissions from Occidental College. I decided it would be a terrific place for me to grow, a school of small size, high caliber, and limitless possibility that my favorite high school teacher said I could “make into my own.”

The one regret I have with the letter is that I never sent a thank you to the dean for his kind words of support. He took the time to send a personal letter to some random kid who made a bold move. His letter touched me, and I never said just that.

Belatedly, but better late than never: thank you so much, Dean.

Finally, if you are a high school senior (or parent) who receives a thin envelop from a dream school this spring and are “bewildered at an admission decision,” take heed. For: “life is full of ups and downs, successes and failures.” And, if you do what you do out of “sheer love and enjoyment,” and treat others accordingly, you will have already succeeded in life beyond any institution’s measure.

You will be just fine.

How Facebook Helped Launch My Career

Graduating from Lehigh University was an exciting time in my life. I couldn’t wait to move past the dorm rooms, final exams and group projects and begin my journey as a young professional.

By August, I was off to England to work as a teacher for youth girls lacrosse at a school outside of London. I was ecstatic to take an opportunity where I could go abroad for the first time in my life and continue to play and teach a sport that shaped a majority of my youth and college days.

My experience in England was eye opening, but when it was all said and done, I came back to the U.S. a little lost as to what to do next. Read More

5 Tips to Maximize Your Internship

When I took my first internship in publishing, I hoped to gain on-the-job training and valuable experience to put on my resume. A job offer was in the back of my mind.

Even though I wanted to improve my prospects of employment in the future, the opportunity to gain skills was my main motivation.

But for me (and all interns), these benefits are not a given; you only get as much out of an internship as you put in. To that end, here are five tips for how to maximize an internship you might pursue.

  1. Learn your industry.
  2. As a novice, the burden is on you to educate yourself in your field.

    As a working writer, I read everything from trade magazines to websites and blogs relating to issues about newspapers, publishers, the literary community, etc. (everything related to my field). It makes me more confident in my work to know that I’m informed. Know who the important movers and shakers are in your field.

    This applies to your workplace as well: Who runs your company? What do they do? Where do you fit into the overall scheme of things? The first job of an intern is to understand.

  3. Clarify duties, responsibilities and expectations.
  4. One of the most common internship stereotypes is that all you will do is complete menial tasks.

    For a publishing internship, I learned how to format articles for printing, but I also had to bring coffee and take notes during editorial meetings. While this is true of some internships, and nearly all of them require some amount of grunt work, a proper internship should also involve knowledge and training that will help you become an expert in your field. Whenever I felt as though I might be doing something “beneath me,” I just reminded myself that everyone has to pay their dues, and that paying mine would pay off! And it did.

  5. Set personal goals, and keep yourself busy.
  6. Develop a set of goals, macro and micro, to pursue while interning.

    If your end goal is to get a job out of the internship, devise smaller goals along the way that will facilitate that. Keeping busy is also important. Whenever I finished a project ahead of time at my publishing internship, the first thing I did was ask my supervisor if there was more to be done. Doing this helped me feel that I was taking advantage of every opportunity available to me.

    Some of the best learning came from opportunities I sought out, not just those assigned to me.

  7. Use social media to your advantage.
  8. Social media is playing an increasingly important role in the workplace.

    This was how I got my internship in the first place (through an open call on Twitter). One of my main tasks during my internship was to create and maintain a blog for the publisher that hired me.

    Social media responsibilities are also commonly handed off to the younger office members, so proving your worth here may be an inroad to a permanent position. Taking on the blog really gave me a sense of ownership over my work, and it was great to be able to showcase my skills in such a public-facing way.

  9. Always go the extra mile.
  10. A willingness to do whatever is required of you, no matter how minuscule or seemingly mundane, will endear you to your employers.

    Among a group of interns, I was selected for an editorial position precisely because I had volunteered extra time by organizing a fundraiser for the publisher. I got the editorial position because I seldom said “no” when professional obligations were asked of me.

    Remember: You never know what opportunities might come your way when you say “yes.”

Melissa Woodson
St. Louis, MO

Melissa Woodson is the community manager for @WashULaw, an LLM in US Law at Washington University in St. Louis. In her spare time, she enjoys running, cooking and making half-baked attempts at training her dog.

How every teacher can transform their under-performing classroom tomorrow

The headline of this month’s Harvard Education Letter is seductively simple: “Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions.” The advice is undeniably practical. But will asking questions alone suffice to create engaging classroom dialogues?

The article highlights the Question Formulation Technique (QFT), a technique for encouraging students to direct inquiry in the classroom, engage with each other and develop critical thinking skills. A teacher whose students are under-engaged in the classroom would do well by her students to study the QFT technique and begin testing elements of it. If nothing else, QFT shows that “Any questions?” following a lecture will not provoke many questions. To engage students, questions must be engaging, too.

Though effective, QFT is only half the equation. Students need to ask questions, yes. But they need to answer them, too. The teacher plays the role of guide, facilitator, and provocateur.

Most teachers I had operated under the transactional method of teaching, which is similar to a bank transaction between teller and customer. The teller (teacher) holds the money (knowledge), while the customer (student) is in demand of it. A one-way transaction occurs to process the knowledge from teacher to student.

The transactional method can be characterized as organized and linear. An ideal classroom operating under this method of teaching may look something like this:

More often, though, the transactional method classroom looks something like this:

That’s me in the front (left), teaching English to a group of 20-something students in the jungles of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Students obediently scribbled information as I imparted my knowledge, them craned to see my notes on the board. My original plan was to lecture on different conceptualizations of courage, sourcing JFK’s Profiles in Courage. That was until I arrived, asked “how are you?” and was met by largely blank stares.

One of the problems of the transactional method is that it is highly assumptive. I assumed that my “English” class was closer to “English Literature” than “English 101,” and that the 16-22 year-olds would be able to speak at an advanced level in English.

I was wrong on both fronts. Even if I had delivered a magnificent lecture (I didn’t), I was clearly way off the mark in terms of content. In the transactional method of teaching, the teacher must make a series of educated guesses daily as to the level of preparation of his students.

An alternative method of teaching is to empower students to drive their education forward by teaching them to ask questions and to respond insightfully. This organic method can be unpredictable, and highly effectively.

In spite of my JFK gaffe, my students gave me another opportunity to mold their minds and returned every other day over the next two weeks for Mr. Kevin’s class. With the honor of teaching again afforded to me, I decided to turn the teacher-focused classroom into a learning circle. Literally. 

I pinpointed the most advanced English-language learners and goaded them to help lead activities and discussion. I provided a framework for learning, and students reinforced the material by asking questions and interacting with me and, even more importantly, with each other.

To teach effectively, I learned to be a student and encouraged my students to teach, too. I learned a lot, including a very effective method for teaching English to students who speak a language like Khmer, in which verbs do not inflect (more on this in a future blog post). I learned the power of non-transactional teaching. 

And my students taught me a lot about courage, even if they were just learning the words to express it.

College News & Views, Vol. 2

BetterGrads College News & Views is an ongoing collection of college-themed posts around the web. Our social media team, partners and guest contributors take part in providing this service to you.

This week, we came across several articles about how to negotiate your student loan package, relative poverty levels for college-age students and non-students, plus a fun way to look at college clubs. Enjoy reading!


College Life:

10 Bizarre But Real College Clubs (Zen College Life)

Did you always want to be a highly-skilled assassin? Or just have an excuse to stare at people on campus? We’ve all got strange interests, but these institutions of higher learning have taken the next step by offering up a club for that craving.

What to do if you’re failing a class in college (Helium)

The agony and defeat of a failing grade may first pop up in college. Maybe you never worried about failing a class before, but with the hectic pace and responsibility of college, you’re looking at a “fail.” Don’t panic! Read on to find out how to mitigate and resolve the problem without losing your mind.

The Value of College:

Tips for Negotiating a Better College Financial Aid Package (Ask the Money Coach)

Did you even know you could negotiate your financial aid? This author gives a list of tips for asking for a better rate and terms that could save you thousands. Never hurts to ask!

What the Lost Decade of Wages Means for Colleges and Their Graduates (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Yes, tuition is expensive. But what will it mean for your long-term earning potential? This article details the relative poverty level for college-age students and non-students.


U.S. News Releases 2012 College Rankings

US News Best Colleges 2012 It’s that time of year again! At the opening of the 2012 admissions season, U.S. News has released its 2012 Best Colleges rankings.

The rankings are an infamously controversial guide for comparing America’s colleges nationally, regionally, and across subject areas and other special interests. This year Harvard University and Princeton University are tied for first place among national stature universities, followed by a list of other Ivy League or Ivy-like universities. But you know that’s not particularly useful.

How to really use College Rankings
While I enjoy the festive competition of college rankings as much as the next guy, what students need to know from the rankings is not where a school stacks up nationally, or even regionally. It’s about all the underlying data and context.

“What is the best college?” is, and should be, a very subjective question. Seniors in high school should be thinking about what majors they want to study, whether they want to live in big cities or small college towns, and how far they want to be from home. Great colleges are scattered all over the country and all over the Best Colleges rankings.

To understand and explore what factors are most important to you about finding a good fit, I encourage all students, parents, and administrators to register for U.S. News College Compass before September 16 (while it’s free!):


While we here at BetterGrads haven’t had a chance to check out the College Compass yet, hopefully (in addition to the full rankings) there will be some great tools inside for those that are college hunting this admissions season.

Perhaps someday U.S. News will even ask our BetterGrads mentors to weigh in on the rankings (like high school counselors). I would love to know what our mentors have to say!

BetterGrads applies to speak at SXSW

Vote for my idea for SXSW 2012
Kevin and I, BetterGrads’ co-founders, have submitted a proposal to speak at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas in March 2012!

The presentation is titled +1 Matters: Social Networks and Education.

We want to talk about what we have been trying to do with BetterGrads so far and what every educational initiative should know about social networks. Every year, high schools lose their most valuable resources when alumni leave for college. With online social networking, this doesn’t have to happen. Our presentation is about the importance of social capital for education. Most people know social capital from the book Bowling Alone: it’s the stuff that drives civic life. But it can drive many other things, like a student’s success in college or career.

As you know, at BetterGrads we connect recent graduates back to their public high schools as mentors, regardless of distance, because unlike their private school peers, public school students lack strong connections to successful alumni. This is basic social networking, made possible by tools we take for granted, like email and video chat. We want to make sure the value of social networking for social capital is not taken for granted by educators and entrepreneurs. We’ll talk about research informing our point of view, and program and technology decisions we’ve made to put social capital at the fore.

So BetterGrads supporters (that’s you!), register for SXSW’s website, give us a +1 and add a comment about what you would like to learn from a such a presentation. Voting ends on Friday (Sept. 2).

Thank you!

College News & Views – Vol. 1

BetterGrads College News & Views is a weekly collection of college-themed posts around the web. Our social media team, partners and guest contributors take part in providing this service to you.

This week, we came across several articles related to being ready for college, what students think of the price tag for a degree, and some tips students can use when gearing up for the semester.


College Preparation:

ACT Scores show 1 in 4 high school grads are unprepared for college (TIME)

Standardized tests are questioned by many as a legitimate measuring system for a student’s success, but this year’s ACT results are out, regardless. Nearly 30 percent fell below the college-level standards in English, math, science and reading. Is this reflective of a larger problem? Or are there other ways we can effectively test students’ college preparedness?

Getting ready for college (Freelance Writer Network)

This author provides a comprehensive rundown of basic–and super important–things to keep in mind when prepping to leave home for college. From the basics of money managing to avoiding getting your laptop stolen, this is a good checklist to keep in mind when preparing for a new semester.


The Value of College:

Women get more value out of college than men do (Reuters)

Of more than 2,000 people surveyed by the Pew Research Center, 77 percent said women need a college degree to have a successful career. Comparatively, only 68 percent of the group predicted the same for men. Perhaps an 11 percent discrepancy is not glaring, but is it reflective of the general perception of gender an the value of a college degree? The survey went on to say that half of women thought a hefty tuition is worth the slumping debt, while only 37 percent of males agreed.

Beating the odds (STRYVE Magazine)

Some students don’t have an easy road to college, and this inspirational story will uplift you if you’re feeling unsure about what you can get out of the college experience. There can often be more opportunities for you than you think… You just have to look.


College Tips:

The best college admissions Twitter accounts you aren’t following (Student Advisor)

Still looking to apply for college? Want to transfer? Then find your dream school’s admissions office social media networks. This article lists the top college admissions Twitter accounts that are eager for students to engage with them online.

Study habits for college (Junhax)

Tired of boring, generic advice? This article gives some super-specific suggestions on how to make the most of your study time! A good opportunity to prepare before you get slammed at crunch time during midterms in a couple months.