One of the Best Ways to Stand Out in the College Admissions Process

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We’re all familiar with the following (all-too typical) admissions story: student X is at the top of their class, has perfect or near perfect SAT/ACT scores, is captain of two teams, is editor of the school newspaper…and doesn’t get in to their top choice schools. Everyone is left scratching their heads thinking, “Admissions is totally random,” “No one gets in anymore,” “It doesn’t make sense!” The truth, however difficult, is that it actually does make sense, and the proof is in the numbers. There are approximately 37,000 public and private high schools in the United States and presumably as many students, if not more, with scores of 1400 or better on their SATs, and with the same school activities, sports, student government and newspaper staff roles, etc. So it’s no surprise that those thousands of students all start to look the same. There really is no mystery then behind why many don’t gain acceptance to their top choice schools.

So, who actually has a shot at getting in to the more selective colleges and how can you be one of those competitive candidates? Putting hooks (legacy, athletic recruits, first generation college students) aside, given the sheer volume of students applying, the only candidates who have a fighting chance are the ones who do things that are not typical and that also show real commitment, impact, character and drive. These are the qualities that really stand out to an admissions committee.

A common misperception is that students need to have a special skill or talent or do something nearly impossible to get the attention of admissions officers - land a starring role on Broadway, qualify for the Olympics, discover a cure for a rare disease, or start a company. No doubt, there are always at least a few of these standouts at every highly selective college, but most kids don’t fall into these rarefied categories. Does this mean then that most students can’t stand out and therefore don’t have a chance? Definitely not! We believe that all students have the opportunity to stand out in the admissions process, regardless of the competitiveness of the school which they are applying to, without having a “hook” and without being a Broadway or Olympic superstar.

Here’s one of the the best kept secrets in college admissions - create your own community service project, start it early, and continue to grow it over your four years in high school. This is something that anyone can do and which does not require a special talent or skill or involve expensive lessons or money. This is not just about volunteering at an existing organization like the Red Cross or Relay For Life (those are great charities and you can do that too). This is about finding a cause that has meaning to you and figuring out how to make your own special impact. Creating your own project shows ingenuity, creativity, passion, leadership and most of all, the ability to commit to something, and follow through. The ideal time to launch your community service project is 9th grade (or earlier), giving you plenty of time to develop and grow it over your high school years and demonstrate your leadership abilities. Growth can mean expanding the scope of your project to impact more people, recruiting and leading more volunteers, raising more money, and/or developing new initiatives - sky’s the limit!

There are lots of places to get inspiration. Read about what other students have done to get ideas. Check out CNN Young Heroes or the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes and see what kids as young as elementary school are doing; brainstorm with family and friends; check out your local paper which will often feature articles of others in your community who are finding their own way to “pay if forward.” The ultimate goal is to   come up with something that aligns with your passions and interests and helps to tell a story about what is important to you. And don’t be afraid to involve others. Most great initiatives take “a village” and you will gain invaluable experience learning to motivate a team, delegate roles and share in problem solving and success.

 Community service fundraiser to benefit suicide prevention organized by two Success Prep Partners students.

Community service fundraiser to benefit suicide prevention organized by two Success Prep Partners students.

Colleges are looking for students who care and want to make a difference - not only in their school community but also in the surrounding community at large. Taking the initiative and creating a community service impact project will not only help you gain a leg up in college admissions but will give you the opportunity to meet new people, discover things about yourself, learn new skills and most of all create something that you can truly take pride in.

Good luck this application season!

Ellen

Close Strong

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Summer days are waning and most college students who were lucky to land a summer job have either completed their work or are close to doing so. While you may already be preoccupied with your fall schedule and plans for the semester, here are some tips for making sure that you end your time at work in a positive, mature and productive manner:

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  1. Connect with your boss and other colleagues on LinkedIn - Hopefully you worked hard to make a great impression and add value at your job this summer. Maintaining the positive professional relationships you established with your boss and others with whom you worked can prove invaluable when you seek full-time employment. Also, by connecting with your co-workers, you gain access to their networks on LinkedIn, broadening your ability to network with professionals at other companies.

  2. Make the effort to say “Thank you” - Saying thank you is never a wasted effort. Thank anyone at your workplace who took the time to train and mentor you this summer. Tell them what a difference their support made in your ability to contribute, learn and grow during the internship (if you’ve already left your job, you can always send a thank you email). If there was someone who helped you land the job, be sure to thank them personally for the opportunity and tell them what you got out of it. Doing so will not only make them feel good about advocating for you but will potentially provide them with the motivation to do it again in the future.

  3. Provide closure on your work - If someone else is taking over any projects on which you were working, offer to train that person, document where you left off in a closing memo, and/or offer your availability after you leave to speak on the phone and answer any questions. By doing so, you communicate your desire to help the organization make a smooth transition and minimize any loss in productivity upon your departure.

  4. Ask for recommendations - If you’re confident that your manager and others were happy with you and the quality of your work, don’t be afraid to ask them if they are willing to give you a strong recommendation letter or serve as a reference for a potential future employer. Doing so at the end of, or immediately after, your summer job is ideal as your work and impact will be fresh in their mind.

  5. Stay professional until the end - Your job/internship may end with a send-off event, especially if the organization has brought in a group of interns. My strong words of advice are, do not drink alcohol at any exit event, even if company employees who are of age are drinking. Alcohol can loosen inhibitions and can result in you saying or doing things that can ruin the great impression you made all summer long. It’s truly just not worth it.

  6. Update your resume and LinkedIn profile - You may have worked on a variety of projects over the summer. The time to document what you did on your resume and LinkedIn profile is NOW! Four months from now, when tests and papers are priorities and the summer is a distant memory, it will be much harder to remember the important details of your work.

  7. Allocate time for introspection - Now that your summer job has ended, take some time for quiet contemplation of what you personally learned from this experience. What kinds of work did you enjoy the most? What tasks were a struggle for you? When others gave you constructive feedback, were you able to really listen and improve or did you get defensive and shut down? Did you experience moments of “flow” where the hours seemed to just fly by or was each day a grind? Maybe you loved the creative work or found that digging deep into research was fulfilling. Perhaps coordinating many projects at once was easier than you thought or you found it overwhelming. Hopefully you learned what you love to do and were able to identify what you’d never want to do again. Were you were brave enough to take some personal risks and try things outside your comfort zone? Taking the time to think about these considerations will help you better evaluate future career possibilities and will ensure that your next work experience will be even better.

Hopefully your summer job provided you with lots of opportunities for personal and professional growth. Don’t lose the opportunity to close strong!

Shari

How to Ace Your Summer Internship: 12 Must-Read Tips

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You did it. You scored that golden ticket – the coveted summer internship that college students fight tooth and nail to get, especially as rising juniors and seniors. Why all the hype though? Why not just work at a local 7-11 or a camp for the summer? Professional internships are valuable for many reasons – they can help you figure out if your burning desire to enter a given industry is justified; they can provide a leg up in getting a coveted full-time job offer upon graduation; and they are a great way to build skills, maturity and understand what it means to be accountable to others. But getting the internship is only half the battle. If you really want to get value out of your internship this summer and up your chances of getting an offer of full-time employment or, at the minimum, a glowing recommendation, here are a few simple things you can do to become a star intern:

Make a Great First Impression: First impressions matter. A lot. They can impact how your boss and others perceive you during your entire internship – even if you try hard to change that impression mid-way through. Here are some adjectives that you want the people you are working with using to describe you after your first week on the job: “hard worker,” “eager to learn,” “diligent,” “accurate,” “team player,” “willing to go the extra mile,” “smart,” “dependable,” and “easy to work with.” Other adjectives depending on the role you are in might be “creative,” or “analytical.” Importantly, you unquestionably want them to say, “Oh wow, what a great hire we made!” 

Always Show Gratitude: New employees, especially interns, often require a significant amount of training and handholding before they can get up to speed and add value. When co-workers take time out of their busy work schedules to train you on a new system, invite you to a meeting, explain the business and answer questions, or even take you out to lunch, don't forget to express your thanks for their efforts. "Thanks so much for explaining the structure of the department to me. I have a better understanding now about how projects are managed and the flow of information here."

Strive to Get Work Done Before It's Due: Yes, sometimes striving to exceed deadlines will mean putting in some late hours or weekend work, but it is likely that the people you are working for have “paid their dues” early in their careers and will expect you to do the same. Being among the first to arrive and last to leave the office is also a great strategy and shows your commitment and desire to work hard.

Take Every Opportunity: Interns are often looked upon as "smart, cheap labor" and thus many people in the organization may ask you to help them with projects. View each of these projects as an opportunity to learn something new, work with someone different and build positive relationships across the organization. The more skills you pick up and the more people you please with your great work, the more you will become an invaluable resource and someone whom everyone is clamoring to have as a permanent member of their team. If you find yourself with downtime, after checking with your supervisor, make sure others know about your availability to help out and take on additional assignments.

Say "Yes" to (Almost) Everything: As an ETP (eager to please) summer intern, you will want to say yes to every assignment for the reasons outlined above. However, if you take on so much work that your work quality suffers and you start missing deadlines, this strategy will backfire. If you find yourself with so much work on your plate that you can't get it all done correctly and when promised, reach out to your supervisor. They can help you prioritize your work, offload work if necessary, or find additional resources to help get the work done.

Take Initiative: Interns are especially valuable because they bring fresh perspective to an organization. If you have an idea – maybe you’ve come up with a more efficient way of getting something done, a way to save money or just have some creative suggestions – find a way to share it...appropriately. By appropriately I mean modestly, because all organizations whether they are corporations, labs, schools, summer camps, hospitals, law firms, etc. are filled with people who have egos, priorities and agendas. Attending a department meeting and saying, “The way you’ve been running this program seems to be very inefficient,” may not win you many friends, especially if the program “owners” happen to be sitting right next to you! A better way to present your ideas might be to say, “I have some thoughts about how to make the XYZ program even better. If you are interested, I’d love to share them with you!” You just may make some magic happen!

Don't Complain: An intern's work can be hard and it can be boring. If you are lucky, you will land an internship that provides lots of mental stimulation and challenge.  If you are unlucky, your work as an intern can be as boring as watching paint dry (my first internship was a job at a national TV ratings company which required me to transfer TV ratings statistics from computer printouts onto a spreadsheet - ALL DAY LONG). If you are like most interns, your work will be a mix of the interesting and mundane. Each assignment, whether it is getting coffee, making copies of the pitch presentation, or building a financial model, is important to the organization and, as an intern, you should do it all with a smile on your face. Keep the phrase, “not in my job description” out of your lexicon.

Be a Confident Learner: Interns are not expected to know everything when they walk in the door. When your co-workers are explaining things to you, listen closely and take notes (I recommend bringing a laptop or a notepad to every meeting). If you are given an assignment and you need clarification, by all means, ask questions. But then, have the confidence to take your best shot at the assignment and ask for feedback when it is done. People at work are busy and, senior executives especially, don't want to have to answer constant questions or hold your hand while you do your work. If you have questions after starting an assignment, ask yourself first, can I get the information by doing some research on my own or asking my peers in the organization? And, if you do make a mistake, own up to it and don’t blame others. “I just noticed that I should have used x to calculate y. Let me fix that and resend you the file asap,” shows that you are owning responsibility for your work vs. “I got the spreadsheet from accounting – they must have put in the wrong formula.”

Check and Double-check Your Work: Turning in sloppy work containing errors or typos will quickly erode the confidence that your employer has in you. After completing an assignment, check your work thoroughly before turning it in. If possible, and if time permits, ask a peer to look at it too and give you feedback. Developing a reputation for producing reliable, high quality work will increase your value to the team and the probability of being offered a full-time job after graduation.

Don't Gossip: Workplaces can be a hotbed of alliances and turf wars. My recommendation is to keep your head down and stay out of the fray. Nothing good ever comes from talking about people at work behind their backs and it could backfire if you are caught doing it. Your goal should be to smile and be polite and professional to everyone – from the receptionist to senior management. Speaking badly about the company or their competition in the workplace is also ill-advised and unprofessional.

Dress for the Job You Want, Not the Job You Have: Prior to starting this summer, ask your human resources contact about the dress code. Then, once you start, take your cues from others in the office, but err on the side of professionalism. For example, if half of your co-workers are wearing jeans and a T-shirt and the other are dressed in business casual attire, select the latter as your uniform. You will increase the likelihood of being asked to join an important internal or client meeting if you are looking sharp.

Focus on the Affirmative: How you communicate in the workplace is just as important as what you communicate. Using words like “can’t” and “won’t” tells others that you are a “can’t and “won’t” kind of person. If someone gives you a deadline that is unachievable, asking them, “would I be able to get that to you by ____?” instead of saying, “I can’t do that,” communicates that you are someone who looks for potential solutions and not roadblocks. This communications approach also works well when you are trying to navigate work commitments and office social invitations. It’s hard to turn down a coworker who extends an offer to go to lunch, but if you have an important deadline looming, instead of shutting them down with “I can’t,” you might say, “I’d love that but I have a big project due...how about tomorrow or early next week?”

Your summer internship is going to be filled with opportunities to learn and grow. Hopefully it will be fun, exciting and lead to the next great step in your career. If it doesn’t exactly meet all of your expectations, remember that it will still impart important life lessons and will help you learn more about work, about others, and most importantly, about yourself.

Best of luck!

Shari