jump to navigation

22 ways to succeed in college August 25, 2010

Posted by Jason McDonald in : College Related,College-bound seniors , 2 comments

This article is written by my one-of-a-kind college advisor colleague, Gary Canter.  Gary is currently accepting seniors and juniors (classes of ’09 and ’10) to help with the college admissions process.


Researchers have identified certain things students can do to ensure success in college. Ironically students are often unaware of what these “persistence factors” – or keys to success – are and how much they really matter. Here are 22 basic things you can do to thrive in college.

1.   Find and get to know one adult on campus who knows who you are and who cares about your survival. One person is all it takes. It might be the leader of your freshman seminar class or some other professor, an academic advisor, or someone at the career or counseling center.

2.   Learn what helping resources your campus offers and where they are located. Most campuses have career planning offices, personal counseling centers, and academic skills centers, as well as many other resources.

3.   Understand why you are in college. Your college experience will be much more productive if you can identify specific goals you wish to accomplish.

4.   Set up a daily schedule and stick to it. When no one is around to tell you when to study or when to sleep, you need to do this for yourself. If you can’t do it alone, find someone on campus who can help – perhaps someone in your academic skills or counseling center.

5.   If you are attending classes full time (12 – 15 hours per semester) don’t work more than 15 hours a week. Most people begin a downhill slide in the quality of learning beyond 15 hours. Don’t be one of them. If you need more money borrow it from a reliable source or talk to a financial aid officer.  Try to work on campus. Students who work on campus tend to do better in classes and are more likely to stay enrolled than those working off campus.

6.    Treat your academics as your job. Follow this rule of thumb: for every hour you spend in class or lecture, plan to spend 2.5 hours in outside study. Thus twelve hours of weekly class time will require 30 hours of additional study.

7.   Assess and improve your study habits. In integral part of your success in college involves assessing your own learning style, taking better notes in class, reading more efficiently, and doing better on tests. If your campus has an academic skills center (most do), visit it.

8.   Choose professors who involve you in the learning process. Attend classes in which you can actively participate. You will probably learn more, more easily and more enjoyably.

9.   Know how to use the campus library. The library isn’t as formidable as it might seem, and it offers a wealth of information and resources.

10.   Improve your writing. Your writing skills will serve you well throughout your life if you take some pains now to improve and secure them. Write something every day – the more you write, the better you’ll write. Remember writing is for life, not only for Eng. 101.

11.   Develop critical thinking skills. Challenge. Ask why. Look for unusual problems. There are few absolutely right and wrong answers in life, but some answers come closer to being more “truthful” than others.

12.   Find a great academic advisor and fight to keep him or her. The right advisor can be an invaluable source of support, guidance, and insight throughout your college years. It’s common to switch your advisor, from the one you were initially assigned to one of your own choosing, after a semester or two or three, once you’ve gotten more familiar with your college’s departments and faculty members.

13.   Visit the career center early – don’t wait till your senior year. Even if you think you have chosen your academic major, the career center may offer valuable information about careers and about yourself.

14.   Make one or two close friends among your peers. College represents a chance to form new and lasting ties. It also offers great diversity in terms of the people on your campus. Choose your friends for their own self-worth, and not for what they can do for you. Remember in college, as in life, you become like those with whom you associate.

15.   Learn how to be assertive. Standing up for yourself is an invaluable skill. You can learn how to respect the rights of others and have others learn to respect your rights.

16.   Get involved in a least one campus activity outside of the classroom. Work for the campus newspaper or radio station. Play intramural sports. Join a club. Most campus organizations are looking for new students. Check them out during orientation / new student registration periods.

17.   Take your health seriously. How much sleep you get, what you eat, whether you exercise, and the kinds of decisions you make about alcohol, drugs and sex all contribute to how well or unwell you feel. Get in to the habit of being good to yourself and you will be both a happier person and a more successful student.

18.   If you can’t avoid stress, learn how to live with it. While stress is an inevitable part of modern life, there are many ways of dealing with it. Your counseling center can introduce you to techniques that will help you worry less and study more.

19.   Show up for class. Professors tend to test on what they discuss in class, as well as grade in part on the basis of class attendance (and participation). Take your new freedom seriously and responsibly.

20.   Remember that you are not alone. Thousands of other first year students are facing the same uncertainties as you are facing. There is strength in numbers, Find a support network and use it.

21.   Learn to appreciate yourself more, and to forgive yourself for mistakes you will make. Hey, you got this far, you can do the rest.

22.   Try to have realistic expectations. At first you may not make the same grades you made in high school. Or if you were a star athlete in high school, you might not be anything special in college. You can still expect the best from yourself and learn how to deliver it.  

Gary L. Canter
College Placement Services
210 St. John Street
Portland, Maine 04102
(207) 772-9711

College Placement Services provides high school students and their families
assistance with all aspects of the college search, selection, application
and financial aid process.

How to Visit a College April 14, 2010

Posted by Jason McDonald in : College-bound juniors,College-bound seniors , add a comment

Hey there Class of ’10 -

Gary the College Guy here . . .

Most of you will make some college visits this spring, and I want to give
you some ideas and thoughts to incorporate in to your planning. For those of
you who haven’t decided to visit some schools – you should. Whether you go
far (which isn’t necessary, as there are literally hundreds of schools in
New England which will welcome you for a visit) or stay close to home, it’s
a good idea to get yourself on to some real college campuses, so all of this
mumbo jumbo about choosing colleges to apply to will start making sense.

I think that what’s important at this stage of the game is NOT to try and
see all the schools you think you’re most interested in applying to, but
rather to visit a sampling of different types of campuses so you can check
out first hand what this college thing is all about. Heck, most juniors I’ve
spoken to don’t have a clue about where they want to apply yet, and that’s

Some of you may be planning to visit campuses over the summer. That’s an
okay time to visit schools, but the problem is that at that time of year
you’re seeing a ghost town – the physical plant only. Unless it’s a major
University with a full blown summer session, those kids you see walking
around will likely be high school (and younger) dudes attending summer
sports and academic programs. So February and April break are good times for

If you’re traveling with family or friends this winter and spring, consider
that just about wherever you go, however you get there, there will be cool
schools nearby or on the way.

But again let me emphasize that your visits for now are just PRELIMINARY and
EXPLORATORY, so keep it mellow and just cruise a few schools…

As I said above, I think it’s not so important to visit EVERY campus you
think you’re interested in; but it is VERY IMPORTANT to experience a variety
of campuses before you make your final selections of where to apply. The
idea here is not so much “seen one, seen ‘em all”; rather it’s that because
visits take time and money, if you’ve seen a VARIETY of campuses – a small
and a large one; an urban and a rural one; a state University and a private
college – you’ll be in a better position to make judgments about schools
from the propaganda you’ll receive from them, as well as information from
books and off the internet.

Okay, now on to the actual visit. I know many folks start off by doing
³drive throughs², but I don’t like ‘em. How much can you tell about the
nature of a person from a photo? Not much, and that¹s the way I feel about
drive throughs. If you¹re gonna take the time to visit, take the time to do
it right.

First, CALL AHEAD (to admissions) – preferably a week (so Feb. break
visitors should make your calls this coming week and you’ll be right on
schedule) – to register for a tour and an information session if they’re

Second, REQUEST AN INTERVIEW from admissions. Now I know what some of you
are thinking here – but don’t be uptight when you hear the word ‘interview’.
Any sit down you have this early in the process will just be an
INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEW, a chance for you to ask questions and to get
practice in an interview setting. Only a handful of colleges (the
super-selective ones) require EVALUATIVE interviews – and those will take
place next fall and winter when you’re a senior, AFTER you’ve applied.
Nevertheless, I think it’s great to take some interviews now for the
experience of learning how to feel comfortable answering AND ASKING
questions. Think of ‘em as dry runs – and don’t sweat ‘em!

BTW, not every school will give you an interview – they take up staff time -
but if you’re assertive many will schedule you. It’s not a bad job for mom
or dad to make the calls to try and set these up.

Third, leave time (an hour!) for doing something I call going
“FREE FALL” after the tour and interview. This means to SPLIT UP – student
from parent, and also student from friend if you’re visiting with a buddy -
and go wandering around campus with a knapsack so you look like, dare I say
it, a college student. Make it a game as you try and blend in: see if
someone mistakes you for a college student and asks you for directions (one
point) or where the happening party is tonight (five points!) or for a date
(you win!) Find a comfy place to get some face time and hang out. Plan to
meet back at the car or the admissions office in an hour or so.

The idea here is to get yourself AWAY from the comfort and familiarity of
parents and friends, and to actually put yourself in the head set of
thinking “could I see myself here as a student?!” I often get feedback from
kids that going ‘freefall’ was the best part of their visit – sometimes very
groovy things happen! So leave time for this!!

Okay, so I think every visit should include at a MINIMUM the above three
things you can try to arrange beforehand include sitting in on a class or
two (asking admissions or academic departments directly is how you do this);
spending an overnight in a dorm; meeting a coach or theater or band
director (as befits your interests), hooking up with a student you know who
goes to the school for one or all of the above. Students and parents can
call admissions to request help in setting any and all of these things up.
Remember: all schools are businesses, and their objective is to get you to
apply and choose them. Thus the friendly folks in the admissions office are
there to convince you why you should go there, so use them to help you
create what I call a “substantive” visit!

I recommend visiting no more than two schools/day. Don¹t try to cram in too
many – you¹ll feel rushed and you¹ll forget stuff. Plan on taking a minimum
of 2 – 3 hours per campus. Bring a digital or ‘disposable’ camera with you
and take some shots on each campus to help you remember which place had the
new library, which the awesome climbing wall.  After the tour and info
session/interview, go have lunch or a snack in the main cafeteria. Hang
around in a populated area during a class break so you can see some action.
And don’t forget to pick up an issue of the campus newspaper and read it -
lot’s of good non-propaganda material in there to feast upon.

As always, feel free to check with me before your visits if you want
suggestions or ideas for schools to go see, or questions you can ask during
interviews, or help setting up meetings with professors, coaches, other
faculty. That’s why I’m here!

Okay, gas up the tank, pick out some good CDs (I’m currently back to a
Springsteen phase – good driving AND college music!) and don’t wear the
jeans with the grass stains on ‘em!

Go have fun!

Gary L. Canter
College Placement Services
210 St. John Street
Portland, Maine 04102
(207) 772-9711

College Placement Services provides high school students and their families
assistance with all aspects of the college search, selection, application
and financial aid process.

Wait List Hell

Posted by Jason McDonald in : College-bound seniors , 1 comment so far

Hi gang,

A number of folks have responded with questions about those letters of
appeal I mentioned in my last email. Here are some ideas for ways to respond
to schools which have wait listed (or even rejected) you.

I’ve appended a suggested format at the end of this email to give you an
idea of how such a letter could look.

Before getting in to such strategies, listen carefully to me: I don’t know
of anyone out there who hasn’t gotten one “bird in the hand” – one sure bet
acceptance, and though I’m all in favor of going for the gusto and appealing
at your wait list schools, this is primarily the time to get your heads and
hearts around being excited for your top choice school where you HAVE been
accepted. You can’t pin all your hopes on the wait list school to come
through – truth be known it probably won’t. So go ahead and give it a shot
but also “move on” and get  psyched for the school(s) you know want you.

Many of you will be tempted to say “heck with ‘em” and toss the offensive
letter in the waste basket and never think about that school in a positive
sense again.

Think twice before you do that. Can you say “sour grapes”? Sure, it’s a drag
they didn’t take you first time through. Yep, they blew it, and you can be
sure that they accepted some kids who couldn’t carry your backpack, while
they outright rejected some great and worthwhile kids, not to mention wait
listing you. In other words, the college selection process is neither
infallible nor fair. Who ever said it was?

But don’t walk away from it just yet. You wanted to have the option to go to
that school – give it one more shot by telling them that. Return whatever
form or postcard they may have sent you to indicate your willingness to
remain on the wait list, but don’t stop there.

I think you should send ‘em a letter which conveys, pleasantly, the
following thoughts:


Or something to that effect.

The idea here is to be nice, to be confident, and to take one more shot at
wowing them with what a great addition you’d be to their school. This is
sort of like the follow-up letter (which I described to you in my February

Let them know that you are still extremely interested in them.

Tell ‘em what’s new and exciting in your life – stuff like what you’re up
to, third quarter grades (what you’re anticipating), new or ongoing sports
or other activities, awards or special recognitions, new jobs or events,
etc. etc.

Give them another piece of writing they haven’t seen (one of your essays
that went elsewhere, or a recent paper you’ve written); and if possible have
another letter (or two) of recommendation sent to them (tell them it’s
coming and from whom).

Let them know that you have received other acceptances, and that you will be
choosing one by May 1st, but if they were to indicate to you that there was
a strong chance that you’d be coming off the wait list, you might ask for an
extension beyond May 1 before you commit somewhere else (yes, you’re allowed
to do that).

Some schools will grant you two extra weeks if you give ‘em a good reason
for the request; it’s not uncommon for students to send a deposit to a
school where they’ve been accepted while waiting to see if they come off the
wait list somewhere else. If they do, they write a sincere letter to
the first school rescinding their decision. You may have to eat the deposit
(usually between $200 – $400) but in the big picture that may not be so

Well, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ with it. Don’t get your hopes too
high with this, but if I were you I wouldn’t take this lying down with an
icepack on my head. Tell those admissions folks what they’re about to lose
out on, and then at least you’ll know you gave it your best shot.

And one never knows…

If any of you want to talk strategy, or need help with your decision
process, please don’t hesitate to give me a jingle or email. And for those
who are now closely checking out the financial aid part of the puzzle, let
me know if I can be of help. Don’t forget it’s not unheard of to ask for
more (but it matters if you have NEED versus WANT. Both are legit, but the
approach you take in the asking will vary).

Sheeesh. Bet you never thought life would be so complicated! Get used to it!
And don’t be disheartened or discouraged! There’s plenty of good times
coming your way, and they will outweigh all this burdensome stuff, trust me
on that!

Here’s that example of a wait list appeal letter:


your address


Joann McKenna (address it to the person in admissions who signed the WL
Director of Admissions
Bentley College
Waltham, MA

Dear Ms McKenna,

I recently received word that I have been wait listed at Bentley College for
next fall’s incoming freshman class. Though I’m disappointed, I am writing
to inform you of my continued interest in being accepted to Bentley – in
fact, your school remains my top choice (or, one of my top choices).

I’m a senior at East Armpit High School in Eustis, Maine. I’m currently
wrestling with a busy schedule highlighted by fourth quarter academics
(these teachers never let up!) and an intense amount of school involvement
in a number of organizations – primarily as Secretary of the Student Senate
and President of the Prom Committee. I’ve enclosed a piece of writing where
I share some of the rigors of my daily routine.

As I squeeze in time to visit and attempt to prioritize the schools where I
HAVE been accepted, I thought it might be to my advantage to send you some
additional materials which, if appropriate, I’d appreciate your including in
my application file. Perhaps I didn’t do as thorough a job as I could have
sharing with you my activities and energies, which I will undoubtedly bring
to whatever school community I wind up at next fall. With this in mind, I’ve
included with this letter the following:

1. a copy of my third quarter grade report.

2. the above mentioned writing sample on my business-related interest and my
experience as President of Prom Committee this year.

3. additional letter(s) of recommendation from __________, my __________
teacher; these will arrive under separate envelope.

4. my updated resume, and an accompanying piece of writing describing my
scouting experience (I received the Gold Award in 2005) and my work as a
Peer Mediator.

I know that your numbers were high this year and you had a competitive pool
to chose from (good for you, I suppose), and I know that my SAT scores may
not have impressed you. However, I’d like to think that my grades and
classes, and my activities and my drive to be successful, will outweigh
those scores and convince you that I will be an asset to Bentley’s class of

Obviously, timing is of the essence because I have fortunately received
several other acceptances from good schools, all of whom need to know by May
1. I’m told that I might be able to extend this deadline by a week or two,
but frankly I would need to receive some sign from you that it may be in my
interest to request extensions. If there is anything further you could
suggest I do to help you come to the conclusion that moving me from the
waiting list to the accepted list is called for, please don’t hesitate. I
would be happy to make myself available for an interview if that would help.

One final question: have you ever offered a wait listed candidate like
myself a January start? I might be interested in such a possibility.

Thank you very much for your continued consideration. I look forward to your


Joe Beets



You know, I’ve even had students send a variation on this letter to schools
which have REJECTED them. Why not, if it’s really your first choice? I
believe they DID make a mistake by not selecting you, so what have you got
to lose by giving ‘em one more chance to get you?!


But listen up. I don’t know of anyone out there who hasn’t gotten one “bird
in the hand” – one sure bet acceptance, and though I’m all in favor of going
for the gusto and appealing at your wait list schools, this is primarily the
time to get your heads and hearts around being excited for your top choice
school where you HAVE been accepted. You can’t pin all your hopes on the
wait list school to come through – better to give it a shot but also “move
on” and get  psyched for the school(s) you know want you.

You’re gonna do great. Good luck with your decision process, with figuring
out financial aid, and let me know if I can be of help.

That’s all from your matriculation maitre de, your deposit decision doyenne,
your senior slide sufi, your EFC enthusiast, your – ah, you get the idea…



P.S. And just to prove that “great minds think alike” (or at least that once
in a while I get lucky!), read this week’s Jay Matthews “Class Struggle”
column in the Washington Post on exactly the same subject, where he (ahem)
gives just about the identical advice I have:


Gary L. Canter
College Placement Services
210 St. John Street
Portland, Maine 04102
(207) 772-9711

College Placement Services provides high school students and their families
assistance with all aspects of the college search, selection, application
and financial aid process.

College Rejection Letters

Posted by Jason McDonald in : College-bound seniors , add a comment

Hey Seniors – READ THIS!

David Nyhan was an award winning columnist for the Boston Globe for 32
years. He wrote a version of this column every April for over 10 years. This
is the last one he wrote before he retired in 2001. I’ve been sending it out
to seniors ever since I first read it.

Nyhan died in 2005 at age 64. He spent a lot of time on Chebeague Island
here in Maine, and was a very influential and well-respected journalist.

This is good, good stuff.


P.S. Don’t forget – if you haven’t yet sent me an update on what you’ve
heard from your schools, please do so. And stay tuned for another rant in
the next day or two about wait-lists, financial aid appeals, making final
decisions (which you have to do by the end of April) and more!



Author:    David Nyhan
Date: March 31, 2001 Boston Globe
Page: A15
Section: Op-Ed


“Dear So-and-so:

“The admissions committee gave full consideration . . . but I regret to
inform you we will be unable to offer you a place in the Class of 2005.”
Lots of applicants, limited number of spaces, blah blah blah, good luck with
your undergraduate career. Very truly yours, Assistant Dean Blowhard,
rejection writer, Old Overshoe U.”

This is the season of college acceptance letters. So it’s also the time of
rejection. You’re in or you’re out. Today is the day you learn how life is
not like high school. To the Ins, who got where they wanted to go: Congrats,
great, good luck, have a nice life, see you later. The rest of this is for
the Outs.

You sort of felt it was coming. Your SAT scores weren’t the greatest. Your
transcript had some holes in it. You wondered what your teachers’
recommendations would really say, or imply. And you can’t help thinking
about that essay you finished at 2 o’clock in the morning of the day you
absolutely had to mail in your application, that essay which was, well, a
little weird.

Maybe you could have pulled that C in sociology up to a B-minus. Maybe you
shouldn’t have quit soccer to get a job to pay for your gas. Maybe it was
that down period during sophomore year when you had mono and didn’t talk to
your teachers for three months while you vegged out. What difference does it
make what it was? It still hurts.

It hurts where you feel pain most: inside. It’s not like the usual heartache
that kids have, the kind other people can’t see. An alcoholic parent, a
secret shame, a gaping wound in the family fabric, these are things one can
carry to school and mask with a grin, a wisecrack, a scowl, a
just-don’t-mess-with-me-today attitude.

But everybody knows where you got in and where you didn’t. Sure, the letter
comes to the house. But eventually you’ve still got to face your friends.
“Any mail for me?” is like asking for a knuckle sandwich. Thanks a lot for
the kick in the teeth. What a bummer.

How do you tell kids at school? That’s the hard part. The squeals in the
corridor from the kids who got in someplace desirable. The supercilious puss
on the ones who got early acceptance, or the girl whose old man has an in at
Old Ivy.

There’s the class doofus who suddenly becomes the first nerd accepted at
Princeton, the 125-pound wrestling jock who, surprise, surprise, got into
MIT. But what about you?

You’ve heard about special treatment for this category or that category,
alumni kids on a legacy ticket or affirmative action luckouts or rebounders
or oboe players. Maybe they were trying to fill certain slots.

But you’re not a slot. You’re you. They can look at your grades and weigh
your scores and see how many years you were in French Club. But they can’t
look into your head, or into your heart. They can’t check out the guts

This is the important thing: They didn’t reject you. They rejected your
resume. They gave some other kid the benefit of the doubt. Maybe that kid
deserved a break. Don’t you deserve a break? Sure. You’ll get one. Maybe
this is the reality check you needed. Maybe the school that does take you
will be good. Maybe this is the day you start to grow up.

Look at some people who’ve accomplished a lot, and see where they started.
Ronald Reagan? Eureka College. Jesse Jackson? They wouldn’t let him play
quarterback in the Big Ten, so he quit Illinois for North Carolina A & T. Do
you know that the chairmen of both General Motors and General Electric
graduated from UMass? Bob Dole? He went to Washburn Municipal University.

The minority leader of the US Senate, Tom Daschle, went to South Dakota
State. Speaker of the US House of Representatives J. Dennis Hastert went to
Northern Illinois University. Dick Armey, the House majority leader, took a
bachelor’s degree from Jamestown College. Winston Churchill? So slow a
learner they used to write to his mother to come take this boy off our

I know what you think: Spare me the sympathy. It still hurts. But let’s keep
this in perspective. What did Magic Johnson say to the little boy who also
tested HIV positive? “You’ve got to have a positive attitude.” What happens
when you don’t keep a positive attitude? Don’t ask.

This college thing? What happened is that you rubbed up against the reality
of big-time, maybe big-name, institutions. Some they pick, some they don’t.
You lost. It’ll happen again, but let’s hope it won’t have the awful kick.
You’ll get tossed by a girlfriend or boyfriend. You won’t get the job or the
promotion you think you deserve. Some disease may pluck you from life’s fast
lane and pin you to a bed, a wheelchair, a coffin. That happens.

Bad habits you can change; bad luck is nothing you can do anything about.

Does it mean you’re not a good person? People like you, if not your resume.
There’s no one else that can be you. Plenty of people think you’re special
now, or will think that, once they get to know you. Because you are.

And the admissions department that said no? Screw them. You’ve got a life to

Gary L. Canter
College Placement Services
210 St. John Street
Portland, Maine 04102
(207) 772-9711

College Placement Services provides high school students and their families
assistance with all aspects of the college search, selection, application
and financial aid process.