The Fat Envelope
A Discussion Of All Things College Admissions and Test Prep
Continuing the theme of avoiding weight gain in college, Julie Manhan at myUsearch.com has some excellent advice for healthy eating in your dorm room. Check it out!
The internet is filled with a seemingly infinite number of blog posts and articles providing advice on how to choose a college. Typically in list form ("8 Factors To Consider When Choosing A School," "The 5 Most Important Factors For Students Picking a College," etc.), these advice columns do little more than state the obvious. Of course academics and "fit" are important - duh - and your college counselor is far more knowledgeable than a blog post. Therefore, I am going to approach this topic from a different angle and try to put a practical and (hopefully) simple spin on things.

Simply put, your college application decision comes down to the following questions:

1. Where can you get in?
2. What can you afford?
3. Where will you be successful and happy?

The first two questions are best discussed with your parents and college counselor. The third question though is the trickiest to answer since it is much more subjective than the first two. It also requires some introspection and research.

Looking at the big picture, the purpose of college is to prepare you for the "real world." In practical terms, that means helping you mature into a responsible, educated adult and providing you with a platform from which you can either get a good job or be accepted into graduate school. Therefore, when evaluating a potential college for the purpose of answering the third question above, as a starting point ask yourself if that school is a place where you can grow as a person and if it would provide you with an appropriate academic path to future success. Realize however that these are not necessarily easy questions to answer. On the first point, ask yourself how you would like to grow as a person and what your non-academic objectives are for college.  100 different students would likely give 100 different answers on this topic. On the second point, determine whether the school's degree programs fit your needs and if they are respected enough to provide you with credibility for completing them. Academic reputation, class difficulty, reputations of professors, and curriculum details are all factors you will need to study.

This approach should provide you with a nice start in narrowing down your list of potential colleges to which to apply. It should also get you thinking about your longer-term objectives. Remember, college is a starting point and not an end point, something which often gets lost in the craziness of the application and decision process. Your ultimate goal is to find a school that will be worthwhile at graduation, and that requires thinking through your higher education goals and objectives in advance. Be open-minded too - there are many excellent colleges so don't obsess about being admitted into a top 10 school.

Some deep thought will be involved to answer the third question above, but hopefully it will be worth it in the long run!
It's that time of year, new dorm, new roommate, new books and new eating habits.  You're off to a new world, away from Mom's cooking and your usual routines.  Add in a heavy dose of stress, and it can be the perfect storm for creating unhealthy habits.  I loathe the term "Freshman 15" but reality is that some students would be glad if it were ONLY the Freshman 15 instead of the Freshman 40!  Here's a few tips to make sure you can still fit into your jeans at the end of the year.

1)  Educate yourself about nutrition.  Mom's not around anymore to make sure you're getting the four food groups.  Most of us know that McDonald's isn't healthy, but what about baked potatoes and broccoli?  How many calories are in that bagel you've started eating every morning?  If you can't differentiate carbohydrates from proteins, it's time to learn!  The Mayo Clinic has put together a great primer of nutrition, so check it out before you hit the road.

2)  Don't eat or drink everything in sight.  That one should be obvious, but for a lot of us, Mom's watchful eye was a big part of weight control.  Don't go crazy just because she's not around making sure you're eating your vegetables.  Most schools are making a good effort to offer lots of healthy options in the cafeteria, so take advantage.

3)  Stay active!  Most high school athletes don't go on to compete in college, so that means many of us become instant couch potatoes.  Don't be the former offensive lineman that gains 100 pounds just because he's no longer on the team!  Colleges generally have fitness facilities available, some with cool amenities like rock climbing walls.  You can also check into intramural or club sports teams if you want to continue your high school sports.  Finally, don't miss out on for-credit physical education classes.  You can earn credits toward graduation AND keep your weight in check.

4)  Resist the urge to snack while studying.  When you're trying to force yourself to read challenging (i.e. boring) textbooks, it's easy to discover you've just munched your way through an entire box of pretzels.  Trying studying in the library.  Most don't allow food inside, so you won't be tempted.

5)  Don't be the one to buy the mini-fridge for your dorm room. 
While it's convenient to keep a stash of sodas in your room, it's pretty much guaranteed that the contents of your fridge won't be limited to baby carrots and bottled water.  If you actually have to go out to eat, you won't skip meals in favor of the giant jar of peanut butter in your room.

So that's a few tips for keeping weight off.  But some students, especially young women, are susceptible to developing eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia when they go to college.  It's a stressful environment and expectations are high.  If you find yourself working out like a madwoman or limiting yourself to a diet of frozen yogurt and water, please visit the campus health center.  Eating disorders can be life threatening if untreated.

Hope you're feeling better equipped to fend off the Freshman 15!
The new U.S. News & World Report college rankings are out. Some thoughts on the 2011 rankings:

- As you will no doubt hear 100 times, the rankings change every year to sell magazines. The colleges themselves do not become better or worse - in order to maintain reader interest, U.S. News simply tinkers with the formula to make sure the list doesn't become stale. For example, MIT fell from #4 last year to #7 this year. But do you really think MIT suddenly became a "worse" school in the last 12 months? Of course not!

- Do NOT apply to colleges solely based on their rankings. Factors such as cost, fit, and available majors are much more important. Sure, you want to go to a good school, but you also don't want to pick one school over another simply because of their respective places in the rankings. You will do far better and be much happier at the college that best fits your personality and ambitions. And don't forget - the rankings change! Next year, the list might look considerably different, especially outside of the top 10.

- Looking at the rankings, I noticed a number of schools strangely ranked too high or too low based on my "real world" assessment of where the schools rank in the eyes of employers, grad schools, etc. Of course, this is a function of the ever-changing formula used by the magazine. (I'll resist the urge to point out which schools have odd places on the list in order to avoid upsetting anyone.)

- The further you move down the list, the sillier it becomes. For example, who is to say that the University of the Pacific is the 99th ranked national university in the country while Florida St. is a mere 104? These distinctions are completely arbitrary.

- However, there is some value to seeing where a particular college is generally ranked to get a sense to how it stacks up in comparison to other colleges. It is safe to assume that there is little-to-no difference between colleges ranked in the same vicinity on the list. You have to split hairs to rank the top 10 or so schools, and the schools down the list are pretty similar in quality to the other schools ranked within about 20-25 spots.

You can probably tell I'm not a big fan of the U.S. News rankings. I believe that in an attempt to sell magazines, they try to create order under the guise of a formula in an area that by its nature is subjective. For Person A, Harvard may be the best choice, but for Person B it is Duke. 

Therefore, I believe that it is imperative to thoroughly investigate the schools in which you are interested, and the rankings should be just one of many criteria to use to make your application decisions. Use the list as a resource to learn about schools you may not know much about.  Then, spend time on the schools' websites, talk to your college counselor, and take visits if possible. The process can be time-consuming, but in the end worthwhile if you land at a school that you love. Just don't use the U.S. News rankings as a shortcut or you may regret it later!
For matriculating college freshmen, your first day of school is most likely almost here. That means moving into your dorm room, meeting your roommate, and being (mostly) independent from your parents.  You also have to learn the layout of your new school and get ready for your classes, not to mention meet the other students in your dorm. That's a whole lot to worry about! To simplify things, here are a few last minute pointers that hopefully will make your life easier:

1. Don't bite off more than you can chew.  College has all kinds of tempting options, academically, socially and extracurricularly.  You can't do it all, especially in your first semester. Prioritize and manage your time. Becoming involved in too many things can be a GPA killer.

2.  Maintain balance.  Similarly, don't overdo any one thing over all others. We've discussed this issue previously, but maintaining a nice balance is critical to a positive college experience. Don't spend all your time socializing or your grades will suffer. Don't spend all your time in the library or your social life will suffer. And so on. The trick is to strike the right mix between academics, extracurriculars and socializing.

3.  Meet as many people as you can.  You will never have as good an opportunity to meet new people and make friends as you will in college.  Those new friends could very well become lifelong friends and connections. Sure, it is very important to make good grades, but it is almost as important to build a nice network of friends and acquaintances. The rewards will last your whole life, and with internet and social networking, it is incredibly easy to stay in touch beyond graduation.

4.  Don't spend too much time on your computer.  Speaking of which, social networking can have a downside too. It's great that you can Facebook with your old high school buddies, but it shouldn't come at the expense of making new friends. Why spend a ton of time playing around on the internet when you can walk down the hallway of your dorm and hang out with new friends? The social skills you learn in college from meeting and interacting with strangers are critical for the real world.

5.  Be open-minded. Academically, be careful about committing too early to a course of study. You might be convinced right now that you are 100%, for sure, definitely pre-med, then realize you hate college-level science classes but love political science. Sample a wide variety of classes to determine what you truly like and dislike. And socially, be open to meeting people from different backgrounds and with different interests. Everyone has something to offer, and your peers might turn you on to new things - bands, sports, extracurriculars, etc. - that you discover you really like.

Most importantly, have fun! You will look back at college as the greatest time of your life.
With summer vacation winding down and school getting closer and closer, it is time for rising seniors to start thinking about the SAT or ACT and for juniors to start thinking about the PSAT. I know many of you seniors already took the SAT in the spring, but there is a high likelihood you will be taking it again in the fall. Meanwhile, others may only be taking the SAT for the first time in the fall and all juniors will be taking the PSAT for the one and only time.

Therefore, following are some posts that cover SAT/PSAT basics:
If you scroll through the blog, there are many more posts covering different aspects of the SAT, although the ones above are most important with respect to the basics of the test.
We have another guest post today, courtesy of Laura Wilson at Wilson Daily Prep. Previously, we talked about the difference between the SAT and PSAT. This article discusses choosing between the ACT and SAT. Thanks Laura!

Perhaps you have heard the rumors about the ACT vs. the SAT.  "The ACT is easier," or "The SAT is more favorable."  There is little truth to many of these rumors but when the time comes for testing sometimes one test can be advantageous based on the skill set of the individual.  So, what is the best choice? When should you consider the ACT?

The best time to consider the ACT is before you even start with test prep, test-taking, or test anything.  The best time to consider both tests is at the start of the entire process, so that there’s no guessing later on.  Take a diagnostic SAT and a diagnostic ACT (practice tests are usually available in your school’s guidance office).  Compare the starting scores, and go with whichever test you score higher on naturally.

That being said, most people dive blindly into the SAT.  If you’ve taken the test three times and you’re still not attaining the scores you’d hope for, it’s time to switch tests.  The ACT is fundamentally a different exam, requiring literal interpretation and analytical skills, rather than critical reasoning.

Students who are considering the ACT should be strong math students (trig/pre-calc level), strong readers, and able to aptly interpret charts and graphs.  Students with very weak vocabularies might also perform better on the ACT, as the test altogether eliminates the vocabulary hurdle.  Students that are extremely weak in math or struggle with timing should not take the ACT.

Bottom line: if you’re considering taking the ACT, take a practice test first, under timed conditions.  The ACT is a time-intensive test, and unanswered questions are counted as wrong.  Not finishing a section can severely impact the score.

All schools will accept the ACT in place of the SAT – so students do have options!  And, they should consider these options carefully.  Don’t do what everyone else is doing; do what’s best for you.

You can find a summary chart here describing the ACT, SAT and PSAT.