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Share Your Story

I promised the other day in How To Absolutely Forget Every College You Visit that I would blog next about the photos you should take on each of those campus visits. And I shall. Patience, grasshopper. (If you don’t get that reference, you can get context here. FYI, it’s not from Karate Kid.)

But I came across something that I simply had to share. Not just because it validates everything I say about writing your college application essay, but because it’s sheer genius. Shane Snow, tech journalist and cofounder of Contently wrote about the story of Ryan Gosling and how Gosling went from a friendless kid with ADHD who learned to read very late and whose dad bailed on the family, to having Justin Timberlake‘s mom become his guardian and ultimately, you know, becoming Ryan Gosling. 

Snow commented that previously he’d been indifferent to Gosling but following the read of his bio, he began flying the Team Gosling flag. Snow references other examples of this, like when we watch the Olympic Games – sports that we barely understand let alone follow outside two weeks every four years. We go crazy for certain athletes. Why? Because we’ve all lost someone, and most of us don’t appreciate a bully. So we blew up Twitter when we thought a reporter was getting too aggressive with the questions about Bode Miller’s deceased brother. And we cheered extra loudly when skeleton bobsledder Noelle Pikus-Pace won silver, after coming out of retirement following a miscarriage and a broken leg in Calgary. On it goes – we care more because we’re invested in these athletes’ stories. We’ve been given access to the other parts of their lives, parts that resemble our own. And in that recognition there is empathy and connection.

So how does this relate to college admission? My number one piece of advice to applicants is to share your story, and share it well. There’s a difference between being an applicant whose parent has died (at a large college, there can statistically be thousands of such applicants) and being an applicant who lost a parent and then wore that parent’s tie for a year, every day. The first is a label, the second is a story.

We all have stories. I hear from some of my students that there is “nothing special” about them. I love that statement, because then I start to probe. And I find out that their father immigrated to the United States inside the tire of an eighteen wheeler so someday his children could go to college. Or that they were homeschooled since kindergarten and have started their own cake decorating and baking business. Or that they’ve basically been on their own since their attorney father went to prison for drugs.

Our stories are not always our circumstances. Sometimes our stories are our choices, like my student who is passionate about educating other young people about human trafficking. Or my student who has devoted himself to his faith and to re-igniting a love of that faith in other students.

When there are thousands or hundreds of applicants, or even ONE other applicant, just like you, with the same GPA and test scores and general extracurricular stats, what do you think makes the difference? Who gets admitted? Who gets the scholarship? Whose Admission Counselor runs down to their boss’s office and waits outside, stalking them until they get off the phone to burst in with, “We have to admit him!” (Yes, I’ve been that boss. And I’ve been that Admission Counselor too.)

The difference is the story. Share your story. As Contently says, “Those who tell stories rule the world.”,d.b2I&psig=AFQjCNEnfqXc7FELrIBdzEfURjzU1_A0kA&ust=1395091736495850

Posted in College Applications, College Planning, Education, Passion | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How To Absolutely Forget Every College You Visit

How? Ignore my advice and don’t take any notes.

As a first generation college student, I wasn’t able to get much advice from my parents on how to select the right college. So we did our research. One of the best things we did was to go on campus visits. A lot of campus visits. I think it was something like fifty all total. I know, crazy. By the end I was able to decide against applying to a school based on the tour guide’s footwear selection. But I don’t recommend that.

What I do recommend is keeping a log of your campus visits. If you’ve not been on any visits yet, you’re thinking, “What’s wrong with her? I won’t forget the schools I see.” If you have been on some visits, you’re wishing you’d read this beforehand.

Because that first visit was great. Your tour guide was named Leah and she hailed from Phoenix and is majoring in Biochemistry and going to study abroad in China next year. The campus was gorgeous – Georgian brick buildings, lush gardens, ridiculously clean residence halls. The dining commons served sushi. Sushi. You got to meet with the head of the undergraduate business school and he seemed to really understand your passion for both entrepreneurship and accounting – a pairing everyone else has dismissed as weird at best. It seemed like the students were cool – everybody didn’t look the same but you saw people that looked like you and people that you wanted to look like. They have a jazz band you can play your double bass in and a cross country team you can compete on. Pretty perfect fit, and every detail is seared into your brain.

Until you’ve seen three more schools. Then Leah has morphed into Larry and weren’t the residence halls pretty dirty? And was that the school where the professor you met told you that no one is able to double major in entrepreneurship and accounting?

By the time you’ve visited an additional four campuses, (for only a grand total of eight, compared to my fifty) every detail about the individual schools has been put in your brain blender and set to crush. And your folks are not taking you back to all of those places. So you apply to the ones you think you remember really liking, and develop some pretty spectacular stomach cramps worrying that you’ve gotten it wrong.

So unless stomach cramps are your thing, allow me to assist. There are three primary areas that you should be assessing when you visit a college campus. The first are the campus facilities. Do the buildings look well maintained? Inside and out? How about the sidewalks? Are there seasonally appropriate plantings/gardens? Do you see people working? What about debris and recycling – in the parking lots, outside the dining commons, inside the residence halls? Does the campus have a current feel or does it remind you of your ancient grammar school? Overall question for this piece is “What do things look/feel like?” And you should record your impressions, particularly anything that strikes you as either very appealing or very unappealing.

The second area is student life. What do the students look like? Like you? Like someone you want to become? What don’t they look like? As your tour guide ushers you around campus, do other students greet her/him? Do students make eye contact with you? How are students walking around campus – alone, in packs, in pairs? Are students smiling? Can you envision yourself eating meals with these people? Can you envision dating them? I know, you’re already dating someone and you’re going to stay with them. Good luck with that. It actually works for some people, but it’s a pretty small percentage of the students who enter college with that plan. (True story – I cried across the state of Pennsylvania on the way to college about leaving my boyfriend. Three days later I called him and said I didn’t think it was going to work out.) How about Greek Life? Is it the key to a social life? Is it very competitive or cliquey? How easy is it to get involved on campus? What are your housing options? How about dining? If you have special dietary needs or preferences, can the school accommodate them? Ask your tour guide about this, not your admission counselor. How safe do you feel on campus? How safe do you think you’d feel at night? Again, record your impressions.

Finally, the primary reason you’re attending college, academics. Despite what you saw online, ask about the programs of interest to you – do they exist? (Stranger things have happened, I promise.) Are the programs very popular? How difficult is it to get into specific classes? Is it possible to double major? Even in two subjects that are in different schools, like engineering and music? How accessible are faculty members? What types of special academic opportunities are available – research, internships, co-ops, etc.? Make sure you visit both the largest classroom on campus and a typical classroom. You may be fine in a class of 250 students, but it helps to visualize it. Tour labs or studios or facilities that are specific to your interests. The wind tunnel may be amazing, but if you’re a psychology major you won’t be spending much time with it. Directly ask your tour guide, “Do I want to study French here?” (Not just French, but whatever majors you’re considering.) Then the same drill – jot down what strikes you as great or awful.

Finally, rank the school on a scale of 1=Not Going Here to 5=Perfect Fit.

Did I mention you should also take pictures? Stay tuned, that’s tomorrow’s post. And you’re welcome – you can use my form. KSA.CampusVisitNotes

KSA Campus Visit Notes

Posted in College Planning, College Visits, Finding A College | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Freshman Year Doesn’t Count – The Myth That Keeps On Giving


If you know a student in 8th grade or their freshman year of high school, hear me now – freshman year counts. When students apply to college in the fall of their senior year. they have only three years’ worth of grades to share. So freshman year is one third of that cumulative GPA. For every “C” grade a student earns in freshman year, they will need an “A” to bring that up to a “B”. Imagine what a “D” does to a GPA.

I worked with a client who fell in love with a particular college. The student was a good fit for this school, except in her freshman year she hadn’t applied herself to her studies they way she did in subsequent years. While colleges will be pleased to see her improvement, there’s nothing she can do to change what that year did to her GPA, removing her from their typical GPA range for admitted students. Her response when I brought this up was that she wished that someone had told her this in her freshman year. So I’m telling you.

The other thing I can’t fix for students in their senior year is the level of involvement and engagement they’ve had in high school. While it’s true that most schools are concerned with your GPA first, the rigor of your high school curriculum second and your ACT or SAT scores third, your extracurricular activities are not to be dismissed. Colleges want students who will be active on their campuses and the number one predictor of that involvement is whether a student has been involved with his school and/or community in high school. If you decide to spend your freshman and sophomore years crushing opponents in Call of Duty or folding thousands of origami fish or becoming a leading expert on The Vampire Diaries, don’t be surprised that most colleges will not find those pursuits as valuable as you have found them.

What is valuable to schools? Depth, not breadth. That translates to: don’t join everything, join things you’re truly into and stick with them. Being a “member” of 6 clubs is not nearly as impactful as being a leader in one club and competing at the state level with another. And if you’re not a natural athlete or artist or actor or musician, your best bet is to think outside the box.

What do you really love? Animals? Start a non-profit, or align yourself with a local animal shelter and become their biggest supporter – take photos, tweet and Instagram for them, ask everyone you know for old towels. Blog for them.

Do you love traveling? Convince your family to host an exchange student and see if you can later stay with that student’s family. Look into summer travel programs for students – some have volunteer components and can be very inexpensive. Others have scholarship programs to help defray expenses.

If gaming is your thing, take it to the next level. Create a summer camp for kids obsessed with Minecraft or teach basic coding and/or gaming skills. Organize a game-a-thon to raise money for a charity.

The final thing that’s important about freshman year is your choice of classes. If you aren’t taking the most challenging courses available to you from the outset in high school, these types of courses are not going to be offered to you later. Part of that is a simple matter of course sequencing, the other part is that you will be stereotyped as someone who either can’t or won’t work at a higher level. So when your counselor offers you Honors courses, take them. If your counselor doesn’t offer you advanced-level coursework, ask why. Push to be given the chance to prove yourself.

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Denied: A Cautionary Tale of College Applications Gone Awry


This is the time of year when I begin to hear from parents of students who’ve been denied admission to the college of their choice. These are tough conversations. Parents are doing a lot of second-guessing, wondering if things would have been different if they’d hired me or someone else to help them with the college application process. The students are disappointed, some of them are devastated. I have no magic in these conversations, no ability to compel schools to admit. (If only!)

What I do have is clarity. I have knowledge, about whether an appeal of the decision is appropriate and how to submit one if it is. I have data, about who was admitted and why the profile from last year’s admitted students doesn’t match this year’s. I have compassion, to support families during a difficult time and give them the direction they need to make a new plan.

What’s a new plan? A new plan might be researching schools that are similar to the “dream school” and helping the student complete those applications quickly. There are over 7,000 (that’s right, SEVEN THOUSAND) higher education institutions in the United States. Every single one of them has at least one doppelganger. Most of them have several. These “twin schools” are probably not in the same state, and may not even be in the same part of the country, but they exist and can offer a student who falls in love with a specific type of school the opportunity to still have that same undergraduate experience, somewhere else. A new plan might be determining that the the best option is to reapply as a transfer student to the “dream school”. A new plan might mean going to a state school or a local community college prior to transferring. Sometimes a new plan means choosing to take a gap year, to work or volunteer or study abroad. 

As an objective party, I can offer advice at a time when a family may be struggling with communication difficulties and a student may be suffering from a tremendous blow to his self esteem.

Recently I had a call from a mother because her son had not been admitted to his first choice school – the only school to which he’d applied, Early Action. She asked me outright if I thought he would’ve been admitted if they’d been working with me. I said that I couldn’t tell her without more information, but it was unlikely. Unless he’d done a terrible job of representing himself on his application and with his activities resume and essays, it’s unlikely that simply working with me would have gotten him admitted. But – and this is a significant – her son would not have been applying to only one school. I would have found other schools that were a fit for him, other schools that he would have fallen for the way he’d fallen for “the one”. So if he’d been denied admission to that one, there would have been other offers to focus on and get excited about. He wouldn’t be slogging through school now, trying to be happy for his friends while not speaking to his mom and secretly panicking about what he’s going to do next year. Instead, he’d be moving forward with his plans to study engineering and play in the marching band and join the LEGO Robotics Club.

I don’t write any of this to scare you. Very few students will apply to only one school and be denied admission. But it does happen, and similar scenarios happen too – students apply to several schools but don’t actually select some of the schools (instead, picking schools near home or ones recommended by a parent or teacher or friend) so when those schools become the only options, they have no interest in attending. Or students are admitted, but the anticipated financial aid is not awarded, so the school is either no longer an option or at least a much less desirable option. None of these scenarios are good and all of them are avoidable with planning.

So the moral of my cautionary tale is just that – make a plan. Start early, freshman or sophomore year in high school is ideal. Use the resources available at your school, in your community, on my website

Contact me if you have questions or find yourself in a difficult situation with regard to college admission. I’m happy to help!


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Not Too Late To Apply – Colleges Still Have Room And Money

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably applied to schools and been admitted. You may have even honored the May 1st National Response Deadline and indicated to a college or university that you intend to register for classes, move into a residence hall and attend orientation. Maybe you have a hoodie with this school’s name on it. But are you happy with your decision?

Maybe you’re concerned that the financial aid package you received is not realistic for you and your family. Maybe the school you’ve chosen was not among your “top picks” and now you’re wondering why it was on your list at all! Maybe the school’s too far away from home, or not far enough away. It doesn’t matter what the reasons are. If you wish you’d applied elsewhere, there is still time to do so, but you need to act now.

Every year after May 1st, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) sends a survey to all of its member schools, asking which of them still have space to accommodate incoming students for the fall semester. This year, as of the May 2nd deadline, there were 205 schools that responded (many schools don’t respond or respond later, so the numbers change) indicating they have room for first year students! 208 schools have room for transfer students and (drumroll please) 210 schools indicated that they have institutional financial aid available! And remember, the money from these schools is in addition to any monies you may be eligible for by filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) So to review, these colleges still have room and money. That’s huge.

To view the Space Availability Survey Results 2013 yourself, go to NACAC’s website through June 28, 2013. But then what? If you see a school that interests you, what should you do? CALL THE SCHOOL RIGHT AWAY. Let me repeat. CALL THE SCHOOL RIGHT AWAY. Remember all of those postcards and letters and emails you were getting from schools over the past few years? No more are coming. NACAC-member schools are prohibited from attempting to recruit students who have committed to another institution. But over 200 of them are sitting around anxious, because they have space to fill and money to give. So go to the school’s website, find the number for the Office of Undergraduate Admission and call it. When someone answers, ask to speak to an admission counselor. (If you have a minute, you can usually find out who the counselor is for your geographic area or high school on the admission office’s web page.) When you have someone on the phone, mention you saw the school on the NACAC survey and ask if they are still accepting applications for fall. Ask if there is scholarship money still available and ask about housing. Once you get the answers you need, thank the counselor, get off the phone and get cracking on that application!

Something else to consider. If you committed to another school, they typically have the right to keep your enrollment and housing deposit, depending on how this outlined in their enrollment contract. There may be other stipulations also, so before you get ahead of yourself, call the school where you enrolled and speak to an admission counselor there. Don’t be surprised if they play hardball – they may fight you or they may fight for you, by offering you more money to remain enrolled.

One last note. Be honest with yourself and with your schools. If you don’t plan to attend a school, alert them as soon as possible. If you’ve made a mistake and need to find a new game plan, share that with the schools you’re now considering. If there are special circumstances, mention those too. I once received a call from a student who had enrolled at another school but who was now considering my institution because her mother had died and she needed to go to college closer to home. When I heard her story I was willing to move mountains to help her, and did. Your story doesn’t need to be as dramatic, it just needs to be yours.

Posted in College Applications, Finding A College, Paying For College | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Paying For College – What is tuition discounting? Part 1

As promised over on the KSA Educational Consulting Facebook page, I’ve begun a series of tips and posts about paying for college. Today’s post should interest any student planning to attend college or anyone who has a vested interest in such a student. So if this is you, read on! Tuition discounting is probably one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted aspects of college admission, so let’s start with a working definition. Hang on to your hats, this may seem complex but I’m going to break it all down.

The College Board – the education advocacy not-for-profit group that administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the Advanced Placement (AP) exams and much more – distributed a great report in 2006 titled, “Tuition Discounting: Not Just a Private College Practice” that defined tuition discounting as the average institutional aid per student (which is the average amount that a school would give an individual student in grants or scholarships) DIVIDED BY the published tuition and required fees of that particular school (so the published total cost of that school, excluding room, board and books).

What could this look like? At a school where tuition was $41,000 and fees were $800, if the school offered its average student $15,000 in institutional aid, that school’s tuition discount rate would be 35.8%. The College Board’s report indicates that for the 2004-2005 school year, private 4-year colleges in the United States had an average tuition discount rate of 33.5%. A report in 2009 completed by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) indicates the average nationwide for all schools was 42.4%. Last year, NACUBO reported that the average student at a private 4-year college was receiving a tuition discount of 49.1%!

Are you still with me? An important piece to understand is what the phrase “institutional aid” means. Essentially it means all grants and scholarships issued by an individual college ITSELF. If you were following along on Facebook, you’ll know that the largest sources for college funding are: federal government (44%), colleges (36%), state government (9%) and private scholarships (6%).  So the 36% that comprises the second largest source for money for college is “institutional aid”.

I’m guessing your next question is “How do I get institutional aid?” Schools typically distribute awards according to financial need, academic merit and other non-need criteria.  That third category of “non-need criteria” is the wild card, and is unique to every school. Particularly at private institutions, non-need criteria can be anything from athletic or artistic ability to geography or choice of major.

Ok, that’s enough for Part I. Stay tuned for further installments of Paying for College where we’ll discuss the difference between private and public institutions and also cover the other three sources of funding. If you have questions, comment here or on the KSA Facebook page!




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The Force Is Strong With This One

I read something this morning that was so powerful, I felt like I’d been physically struck. Sometimes words are like that – reaching places inside ourselves we forgot existed.

The article I read was from a site called Edutopia, created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation.  (George Lucas wrote and directed a few little films – the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies are some of them.)  Part of the vision statement for Edutopia is this:

“It’s a place of inspiration and aspiration based on the urgent belief that improving education is the key to the survival of the human race.”

If you’re in school now or have ever been in school, I bet that statement resonates with you too.  Because so much of our early lives are spent in school and so many experiences there, both in and out of the classroom, combine to build us up or tear us down.

It’s the tearing down part that really worries me.  It reminds me of something a historical preservationist once told me, “The greenest building is one that’s already built.”  It’s much more difficult and more costly in countless ways to create from scratch – buildings or people. It’s always best to build on an existing foundation.

So when students are educated and their knowledge and confidence are built, layer by layer and year by year, it’s beautiful.  When years pass where no new additions are added or worse, where only tearing down takes place, students suffer in countless ways.  And maybe they never grow into the potential they had when their educational journey began.

I hope you’re nodding your head.  I really hope it’s not because this is happening to you or has happened to you.  I hope instead it’s because you see that what I’m saying is true and because, like George Lucas and me, you believe that improving education is the key to our survival as people.

Let me circle back to the article that started this entry.  It’s titled, “Believing in Students: The Power to Make a Difference”.  I urge you to take a few minutes right now (it’s a quick read, I promise) to click on that link and read the article.

Did you ever have a teacher like the one Roxanne describes in the article?  One who believed in you, really believed?  Amazingly, I had several.  My first one was in the 3rd grade, Mr. Kelleher.  I can’t even tell you specifically what he did, other than teach me my Roman numerals.  But I knew, from the way he listened to me, that he believed in me.  My second one was in the 4th grade, Mrs. Devlin.  She gave me my first opportunity to speak in front of a large group of people and assured me of my ability to be great at doing so.  She was right. Mrs. Monninghoff in the 8th grade encouraged my writing, believing in my thoughts and my voice.

But without question, the teacher who kept the sailboat of my young life on course was one of my high school teachers, Mr. W.D. Merkel.  I could write an entire post, possibly a book, on the difference that “Merk” has made in my life.

High school is both amazing and devastating.  It’s a time when you’re realizing both who you are and who you’d like to be.  I’ve come to understand that it’s a trial for most people – not just the ones on the fringes of social circles.  All of us are navigating our own rough and unfamiliar terrain without a map.  So we seek guidance – a compass to show us the way, a constellation to orient ourselves around.  Parents can help, but we need others – people who don’t have to support us – to believe in us.  To tell us that we’re worthy, capable, special. To nudge us when we begin to drift, to cheer loudly at our victories, to clap us on the back with pride at our efforts when we’re defeated.  Merk was all this and more for me and for so many others.

So here’s where I’m at with this first blog post of 2013.  One of my students texted this to me a few weeks ago, “You are the freaking best.” I’m hoping that text means he knows I believe in him. But it’s not enough. I need to be certain that all of my students know that I believe in them, and that I’m reaching out to touch the lives of students outside my practice.

Those of us who understand, who’ve been touched by teachers like Roxanne’s and like Merk and the others who influenced me, have a responsibility. Our responsibility is to see that students everywhere know that they are believed in. That the Force is strong in each and every one of them. Who believed in you and what can you do today to show a student that you believe in them?


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Don’t Look Back

Today, all over the United States, students are starting and returning to school. This has actually been happening for a few weeks already, but today is significant to me as my daughter started today.  She’s in first grade and attending a new school, her fourth in four years.  Why is this her fourth school?  One word – fit.  I preach “fit” with my students like a charismatic televangelist, which is to say with serious passion and conviction.  So it stands to reason that I’d accept no less for my own child.  But I’m here to tell you, it’s a wee bit trickier when the student is 3, 4, 5 and 6, rather than 17 or 18.  Because at 3 we had only the faintest idea of how my daughter learned best, or what types of peers would comprise her “tribe” or what her preferences were.  At 6, and after some educational testing, we have a much better sense of her needs and gifts, thank goodness.

Her new school is a 30 minute drive from our home so we set off and as we got close, I asked her if she’d like me to walk her in.  She said yes, “Because sometimes I’m shy at first.”  And I was pleased, because we all like to feel needed.  We pulled into a parking spot and a teacher approached our car and asked me to move, as I had unwittingly parked in the drop off area, which would be dangerous.  (Whoops!)  I began to turn the car to drive to the other lot and all of a sudden my daughter said, “Never mind, Mama, you can just drop me off.”  I asked if she was sure and she reiterated that she was fine.  I pulled up, and a teacher asked if she knew where her room was. She said no, so the teacher enlisted the aid of an 8th grader to walk her to class. Without a backward glance, she strode off, into a building she has seen exactly once before.  And I swallowed very hard, pulled my sunglasses down, and drove away.

What flashed through my head as I drove was the memory of when I left home for college.  I had only considered schools that were quite a distance from my hometown, so in August of my freshman year, my parents and I had a full day’s drive to my university.  I cried a bit during that drive; because there was a boy I thought I’d really miss.  (In case you’re wondering, I broke up with him over the phone less than a week later.)  But there was no question that I was excited. I’d lived my entire life in a small rural community and I was going to an urban university that recruited students from all 50 states and over 100 foreign countries.

Once on campus, there were nerves of course.  Would I love it as much as I’d loved my visits?  Would I fit in?  How would I manage sharing a room for the first time?  My parents and I unloaded their minivan and we made my bed, hung my clothes and plugged in my answering machine.  (Yes, I’m that old.)  Soon I heard music coming from down the hall.  I told my folks I’d be back in a minute and left to investigate.  The song was from my favorite artist, Billy Joel.  But it was from his first solo album, Cold Spring Harbor, an album only a true fan would know.

And so it began.  Kelly was my first connection at college, the first confirmation that I’d made the right choice.  I went on to find my tribe, including the man I married 16 years later, (though that’s a story for another blog post) and many friends who joined us on campus where we said our vows.  This morning, I sent a link to photos of my daughter’s first day to one of my college roommates, who lives in England.  My life has been powerfully enriched in so many ways by my undergraduate alma mater that I have neither the words nor the space to encompass it all here.

So it will be for you.  Give yourself the time and the space and the resources to learn – about who you are, about what you want for your future and about the colleges and universities in your country and around the world that can help you become the person you’ve always dreamed you could become.  When you do that, I promise – you won’t need to look back either.

Finding the right fit for school is important at any age. With college, finding the right fit can change your life.

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A Question of Ethics

On this day in 1987, I stepped up on an outdoor stage at Delaware Valley Regional High School in New Jersey and presented the following speech titled “A Question of Ethics” to my graduating class. As I re-typed it today, I found myself wincing a bit at my intensity and zeal. 

Yet I can’t help but think, 25 years later, that the names have changed but the headlines remain: John Edwards, Herman Cain, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Jerry Sandusky, Goldman Sachs, Enron, etc. 

The difference between then and now is that I know that life isn’t lived in the headlines. It’s lived in our homes, in our communities and schools, on our athletic fields and performance stages.  It’s lived in our houses of worship, in our outreach organizations and now, online – in our social media outlets.  Whether we’re starting high school, graduating from high school, graduating from college, or at a completely different phase of life, we should remember that we have power and influence.  Over our own destinies as well as those whose lives we touch.  Speak up, reach out, be a person of integrity in your life and present yourself that way online.  Don’t write or post things that will make your college admission counselor or future boss question you.  

So I’ll ask again, what are you doing in your life to be an example of ethical living to others?

New York Times headline: “Presidential hopeful Gary Hart drops out of campaign in wake of scandal.”

Wall Street Journal headline: “Reagan send out mixed messages over Iran conflict, public opinion polls show his ratings plummeting.”

Washington Post headline: “Bakker’s affair opens door to a closet full of scandal at PTL.”

Why do I come before you with headlines such as these?  What significance do these scandals have for those of us stepping out into the world?  Time magazine felt that these and other such occurrences were significant enough to do their entire May 25th issue on them.  I see them as important not only to us graduates, but to the entire country, and I therefore have chosen to make them the focus of my remarks this evening.

It seems that there is virtually no area of society that has remained unscathed in the recent wave of scandal.  From the White House to churches, medical centers, military ranks, and stock brokerages – of the institutions that make up the backbone of our country, none have remained untouched in the latest dusting with the proverbial white glove.

Yet these disturbances in our ethical structure seem remote and detached from our lives.  They are distressing but seem unreal because these are not people or groups that we are personally acquainted with.  We allow ourselves to pretend that these scandals happen only to people in the public eye, but in truth we are fooling ourselves.

Allow me to take a moment to ask some rhetorical questions:

Amy, if you were stopped by a policeman for speeding next week, how would you respond to his questions?  Would you admit freely that you were traveling at 30 miles per hour above the posted limit?  Or would you more than likely deny that you were speeding and even offer to swear on a Bible if one could be obtained?

Darren, in a few years you’ll be filing income tax forms, if you do not already do so.  Will you be absolutely accurate about every source of income you receive and every expenditure you make?  Or rather, will you try to hold on to as much of your hard-earned money as possible by creating deductions which in reality you do not have?

Rob, if next year a friend came to you with a copy of one of your final exams, would you tell him that you could not possibly look at it?  Or would you pore over it every day until the actual exam, knowing that this could change your grade from a C to an A?

These are purely hypothetical situations, but they aren’t unrealistic ones.  Any of us could encounter incidents of this nature in our daily routine.  They’re present at work, at home, in school, even in our leisure activities.  We have been presented with such opportunities before and we’ll be presented with them again many times in the future.

I used these examples for a reason; to demonstrate how relaxed our attitude about ethics in daily living has become.  It has almost become acceptable to lie to officers of the law, to steal from the government, and to cheat on tests.  We no longer view these as terrible offenses, just misdemeanors.  That’s where our problem lies – not in the acts themselves – for there will always be lying, stealing and cheating, but rather in our attitude about such behavior.

The moral fiber of our country is being threatened by society’s condoning of these types of non-ethical practices.  Our carefully built structure of moral ideals and laws is weakening, and it will crumble from within if care is not taken to bolster it.

You are probably wondering why I’m bothering with these weighty issues on what is supposed to be a night of celebration.  We are here because we have worked hard for four years, and we deserve to feel both proud and relieved.  I could have come up to this podium, looked out over your heads, and said, “Hey guys, we’re outta here!”  Instead I chose to tackle a problem which I feel is not only just as important as major political and social issues, but something which we have the power to control.

As the next generation to assume power we have a responsibility.  A responsibility to continue the values which were instilled in us by our parents and educators.  If we care at all about the state of our nation, we much care about our role in this United States.  Today, as older brothers and sisters, and tomorrow as parents, we must be an example not only in word but in deed, of the kind of ethical living that we want in our world.

Our younger brothers and sisters and someday our children will look to us for guidance because there are virtually no role models for them among public figures.  Scandal is gripping our nation by its throat and squeezing from it all of the breath of morality.  Do we want our children to grow up believing that all religion is a sham; that the people who guard our financial markets are corrupt; and that the leader of our nation, the individual who is supposed to represent all of the values of our country, the President of this United States is a liar?  If they are aware of these things and believe them to be examples of the conduct of society, who will they become?  And what will they teach their children about ethics?  Maybe the question should be – will they teach their children about ethics?

We are officially moving out into the world.  We will attend college, begin jobs, and start families.  As members of society, as people, we must remember where our duty lies.  If we are an example of ethical living to others, perhaps others will find the courage to lead ethical lives as well.  Then and only then can the question of ethics in modern society be answered.



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These Are The Days

I read something this morning, posted by journalist Connie Schultz on Facebook, that stopped me in my tracks.  If you know me, you know I read a ridiculous number of articles online, about every topic imaginable, so when something speaks so powerfully to the work I do and to you, the students and people I’m lucky enough to work with, I need to take a few minutes to process that information.  And then I want to share it.

This was that kind of article.  I’m sure it’s all over the internet, but if you haven’t seen it, I want you to click on the link right now and go read it.  Then, if you’d be so kind, come on back and hear me out.

The article is titled The Opposite of Loneliness, written by Marina Keegan ’12 of Yale University, for a special edition of the Yale Daily News which was distributed at Yale’s 2012 commencement ceremony last week.  It’s written in the way that I try to help my students write – from the heart, with passion.  Her voice comes through my computer screen and grabs me, and hours later I still can’t figure out how to get her to let go.

The piece is especially poignant because Ms. Keegan died in a car accident on Saturday, May 26th, just two days after graduation.  The loss of a young person so committed, so talented, so clear on who she was and who she hoped to become, is beyond tragic.  My heart goes out to all who knew and loved her.  And I mourn the loss of someone I didn’t know who was already making a difference in the world.

But her piece is not powerful because she’s gone. It’s powerful because she wrote it that way. She wrote to her classmates of course; to other students still enrolled at Yale; to graduates of schools around the world; but she also wrote to me and to you.

I often talk about the opportunity to “find your tribe” in college – (my students are groaning right now because it’s definitely a favorite phrase of mine) the chance to research and select the environment in which you will learn, grow, socialize and live for the four years following high school.  It’s one of the most incredible aspects of selecting a college and in my humble opinion, also one of the most overlooked aspects.  Ms. Keegan says about this:

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow and leave this place.

It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.

This is precisely what I’m talking about when I go on and on about the tribe business.  If you choose wisely, I promise you will feel like Ms. Keegan when you graduate. Promise.

The other piece of her article that grabbed me was her focus on the fact that the best days haven’t passed, they are carried along inside of each of us in memory and we build on them in the days and years to come.  She writes so beautifully:

When we came to Yale, there was this sense of possibility. This immense and indefinable potential energy – and it’s easy to feel like that’s slipped away. We never had to choose and suddenly we’ve had to. Some of us have focused ourselves. Some of us know exactly what we want and are on the path to get it; already going to med school, working at the perfect NGO, doing research. To you I say both congratulations and you suck.

For most of us, however, we’re somewhat lost in this sea of liberal arts. Not quite sure what road we’re on and whether we should have taken it. If only I had majored in biology…if only I’d gotten involved in journalism as a freshman…if only I’d thought to apply for this or for that…

What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over. Get a post-bac or try writing for the first time. The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.

It’s not lost on me that Ms. Keegan did not have the opportunity to change her mind or start over.  It’s what makes this piece settle into your gut and not leave.  So I ask you to take her words with you, to share them with those you meet, to thoughtfully consider the power you have to begin, or to begin again.

The title of this post is from a song that was popular many years ago, titled These Are Days, by a pop group called 10,000 Maniacs. The song is about the power of this day, this time in your life. I feel renewed listening to its message, ready to move forward with passion.  I hope you feel likewise.  Until next time, let Ms. Keegan’s words and these lyrics plant the seeds of transformation in you.

These are the days
These are days you’ll remember
Never before and never since, I promise
Will the whole world be warm as this
And as you feel it,
You’ll know it’s true
That you are blessed and lucky
It’s true that you
Are touched by something
That will grow and bloom in you


Marina Keegan



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