Thinking of taking a “gap year”?

The “gap year” has been in the news lately since President Obama’s daughter, Malia, is going to defer her college enrollment for a year and take a  . . .gap year.  What is a gap year?  It’s a space (= gap) between graduating from high school and enrolling/attending university.  For some students, as detailed in the article here, it is a much needed break — a time out of sorts.

How to take one:  if you have already applied to a college or university and decide you want to take a gap year, then you will need to contact your school and ask for permission to “defer” — put off attending for a specific amount of time.  Your school may allow you to delay by one semester or it may only allow you to delay by one year, it depends on the school.  If you don’t ask, you won’t know if it is possible.

If you haven’t yet applied to schools, but plan to do so soon (and enroll the following year), then it might be a good idea to think about the upcoming year as a “gap year” that will positively contribute to your upcoming application package.

As the article linked above indicates, gap years can be expensive:  people traveling all over the world engaging in volunteer activities; working for NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in faraway places that seem needy; but, gap years do not have to be expensive.  Here is the idea behind a gap year:  You are taking a break from FORMAL education (= school) to engage in INFORMAL education (= hands on training in a specified context).  If you want to take a gap year, or need to take a gap year for any reason, look around your local area and think creatively:  where would my time and energy be well spent? What do I like doing and would like to learn more about?  There are plenty of NGOs in your local area, no doubt, that are in need of volunteers and workers (think:  SPCA, Girls/Boys Scouts/Club, public schools, community centers, refugee or migrant assistance centers, and the list goes on and on).  Even if you are not a paid worker, you will still need to submit paperwork and apply; and, depending on the situation, in a public school for example, you may need to undergo a background check or other administrative checks to be able to volunteer.  Every step of the process is a learning step.  You will be learning by doing — by asking questions and seeking input from others — and then you will learn by being trained by someone already in the position.  All of these are opportunities to understand how institutions work, to see real people in real situations responding to daily events.  In short, this is real life.  Don’t approach it as a ho-hum ‘task’.  Approach like this:  this “class” does not provide a textbook or lecture notes.  I must learn everything through observation, asking questions, and trial and error.

THAT learning is the sum total of a GAP YEAR.  Whether it is done on another continent or 2 miles from your home.  Learning how real people undertake their daily tasks is a true lesson that, eventually, will make the classroom not only seem like a refuge, but will bring to life lessons IN the classroom as you can imagine real-life scenarios through the experiences in which you engaged.

If you can do a gap year, do it!  But, take notes.  It’s STILL learning, just outdoors in the classroom of LIFE.

Excitement & Patience

Your deadline to say “yes!” to the colleges you have been admitted is quickly approaching, or may have recently passed; congratulations on making your decision(!), we know it may have been difficult. Many of the high school students I have been interacting with were deciding between some big name institutions – their lists were impressive! However, in my career in higher education, it has not always been this way. For some students, in my recent past, being admitted to the one university they applied, was a big deal, and deciding to enroll was an important decision for the student and her/his entire family. The opportunity to go to college is an accomplishment, and enrolling is a big deal!

Now that the excitement of the admission decision is winding down, it is another time for patience. If the admissions deadline has not yet passed, or has only passed by a few days, be patient with the college’s orientation team, you may need to check their website a few times a week for announcements on dates and deadlines. Be patient with the transcript evaluators, they are still processing you exam scores and transferring credits/units onto your new college academic record. Be patient in planning a vacation and weekend trips, the university is still announcing programs and events for the summer which you may want to attend – be flexible to adjusting plans. Colleges and universities are not like Internet search engines or online shopping that have realtime updates. Regular people are processing forms and paperwork, and are working off of dated spreadsheets (automated tools are expensive, and our budgets are lean).

Thank you, in advance, for being patient with us! We look forward to seeing you at orientation and ‘welcome’ events. We are happy you chose to come here – where ever here is, and we look forward to supporting your academic and career aspirations!

Emotional Decision Making

When it comes to going to college, and being in college, decision making is always important, and thus, the theme occupies a bit of space on our blog. Here are a few more thoughts…

Last October, during a seminar with new students, a small group was working on developing a thesis statement for the chapter they had read. The book was about higher education, and focused on the undergraduate experience and college administration. The thesis statement they came to was: Emotionally Charged Decision Making. Take a moment and reflect on what that statement means to you. (pause: contemplate) Now, think about a recent decision you have made, big or small, was it emotionally charged? If you decided to eat something when you were not hungry, or bought something that was not a necessity, it was probably an emotional decision.

High school students and parents, who are researching institutions of higher education, are you feeling emotional connections with a few colleges? Are those feelings driving your decision on which place(s) to accept admission? Of course they are! In the book the students (mentioned above) were reading, a story of a high school senior deciding to go to the college she was emotionally attached to was shared. This student had received a significant scholarship to a different institution, but instead chose to attend a university with a $20,000 annual tuition and fees price, and no scholarship offer. She graduated with significant debt and took a job that barely covered her monthly financial aid repayment.

During this admission decision time frame, make sure to research institutional graduation and job placement rates, the process for transferring into another major, support services provided within the academic department, student housing, and the campus in general (health, wellness, recreational). A student is not going to need all those things the first five minutes of her/his first day, but you want to be aware of available options.

An emotional connection to a college is not a bad thing, just make sure it is not interfering with a wise decision.

Letter of Recommendation

Students, when it comes to asking someone to write you a letter of recommendation, there are some key things to think about. Cindi has previously written about this topic (in one of these blogs), today I am sharing thoughts on this subject.
Current first year college students are now applying to get into the all-campus honors program at our university and one of the requirements is to have a letter of recommendation from a professor, not from a lecturer, graduate student or a teaching assistant, but from an Assistant, Associate or full Professor (those are professor rankings/titles). I realize this can be an intimidating request, so here are a few suggestions that might help if you are in a similar situation and possibly feeling uncomfortable.
1. TAKE INITIATIVE: Go to the professor’s office hours to ask for the letter of recommendation face-to-face. However, email the professor before showing up, letting her/him know of your intentions. By emailing in advance, s/he may have a moment to recall who you are. In the email, state which course you took/are taking with her/him, reference an assignment you have done or a point you verbalized in class, or a specific topic you have written about, so s/he can recall you more quickly. You can also inform the professor of the organization you are applying to/scholarship you are applying for, and the reason you have been invited to apply. Conclude with a reminder that you will be coming to office hours on … date and time.
2. TAKE ACTION: Show-up at the office hours you stated you were attending to talk about the recommendation. Share with the professor why you are applying for the program/internship/scholarship. Share specific ways you connect to the mission and goals, and what being part of the organization would mean to you. This way, even if the professor does not know you very well, s/he now has a few details s/he can include in the recommendation. By sharing about yourself and the reason for the recommendation request first, the next parts may be easier and seem more genuine.
3. CREATE AN ALLY: Even if, before this moment, you did not have a personal relationship with the faculty member, establish some common ground by talking about a highlight from her/his course. Share something from class that was challenging for you and what you learned from that experience. Ask the professor about her/his experience teaching your class, or an appropriate question that gives her/him an opportunity to participate in this interaction – just make sure you do so naturally! (You can ask about artwork or diagrams hanging on the walls, a picture on the desk, or award/recognition showcased, if talking about the class is not simple.)
4. CONCLUDE: Tell the professor why you are seeking her/his letter of support. It is okay to be honest: “I realize we do not have a very close relationship, but this application requests a professor’s letter of recommendation, not a lecturer or graduate student, and you are my favorite professor.” Or: the professor I learned the most from, or: the professor who has challenged my thinking, or: the professor who has most inspired me – whichever phrase you choose, be honest! Provide the professor with a few things you would like her/him to consider saying about you, such as: attended every course, participated in discussion, did extra credit, came to office hours, etc., or how you meet, or exceed, the qualities and character traits desired of the applicants. If you are really on top of your game, provide her/him a copy of the application and a draft of your responses to the application questions (if applicable).
This entire interaction will probably take no more than 10 minutes, unless the two of your really get to chatting! This is a great task for confidence building. You can do it – and most of all, please do it without arrogance!

Invitation Options

Last week, the program in which I work, University Honors, 1500+ first year students were sent an invitation to apply to program. That list of 1500 are all students who have a GPA of 3.5 or higher, after their first term at the university. Congrats to these students for having great first-term grades as during that time they were handling the transition to college life and college academics.
 
On Tuesday, I hosted an information session regarding the invitation. After the session was over, there was a student who asked for a few minutes of my time. She was concerned that although she received the invitation, she was not confident she was really Honors ready as she is struggling with one of he classes this term. What would you do if you were in her situation?
 
Invitations. How many invitations do you receive on a weekly basis? Think about your email inbox. Do you receive invitations to go to events, to shop with a discount, to join an organization, to make a contribution to a charity, to apply for a credit card? The list of invitations is lengthy. What decision making skills do you employ when deciding which action to take? Some decisions are simple: “I do not have a $100 for that concert ticket.” so that email can be immediately deleted. Others decisions are not as swift. “Do I have time to join this club? I really like the activities they do, and it would look good on my resume.”
 
When making the ‘big’ decisions, take your time. Make a list of pros and cons, ask your friends, ask people you trust, talk to people in the organization about their experiences, talk to people outside the organization about their opinions. In the case of the student in this story, she was concerned about asking for a letter of recommendation, her upcoming grades, time management and recent family struggles. I reiterated to her, that receiving the invitation was an honor in itself, and for her to be considering those other things also meant she is a proactive thinker! Moving forward with the application process might not be in her best interest, and that is okay. College is one of the best times to engage with your decision making skills.
 
The next time you look at your inbox, give a brief thought to how you are making decisions: quickly, slowly, thoughtfully, knowingly… and, do delete that credit card application without even opening it!

Make the most of your college visit!

Everyday at my school, I see campus tours — parents, high school teachers, and most importantly YOU — prospective student(s)!  But, are you making the most of your campus visit?  Our book has detailed information about campus tours/visits and ways to make the most of them.

Here is a quick peek:

First:  Why visit?

If at all possible, visit the schools to which you are planning on applying.  You want to experience first hand the “feeling” of the campus — are there lots of green spaces and trees?  Or, is it urban and bustling?  Are the walkways well-manicured and maintained (look for good lighting and emergency assist markers)?  Do classrooms have modern equipment and desks/chairs in working condition?  Visiting a campus is like trying on a new pair of shoes — you want to feel if they are the right fit and style.

Second:  Questions to ask during the visit.

Before you arrive, find out if you can sit in on a class (ask to sit in on a lower division general education course); also ask to eat in the dining commons or resident hall cafeteria — get a real feel for many aspects of campus life (and check out the food!).

While on the visit, be sure to find out what makes an application competitive — do they have sample application essays?  How important is your SAT/ACT score?  How many units are required to be considered a full-time student?  Ask about cultural communities (religious, sports, political, service, etc).  Ask about popular on- and off-campus hangouts.  Ask about internships when you talk to someone in the major you might choose.  And, ask how roommates are matched in the residence halls.

Ask as much as you can while on the visit/tour — do NOT just passively follow the tour guide.  Tour guides are marketing the campus to you — which is great — but just like any highly valuable product, you want to know what you are buying — for the next 4 to 6 years. Ask tough and detailed questions.  Take notes and have fun!

Motivation & Organization

Happy New Year students! There are many things going on for you all! Here is a quick run-down of important tasks for the start of the new year – which of them apply to you?

*  All college students for the 2016-2017 academic year: it’s FAFSA time! Do not delay, do it today (or as soon as you have received your and your parent’s 2015 tax information)! Get it done before March 1!

* Returning college students: reflect on successes and challenges of last term and make a plan for success this term. See your advisor(s) immediately for time sensitive questions.

* College seniors who are working on a thesis or capstone project: outline the steps to complete this task. Set deadlines, document the activities you need to do to meet the deadlines. Plan meetings with your faculty sponsor/advisor and make sure they happen – do not let them cancel on you more than once, these final weeks will fly by. Your thesis/capstone is a great opportunity to let your light shine – this is your independent study, your passion – thrive!

* High school seniors: finish up your campus tours of places to which you applied but had not yet visited. Utilize our On the Quad campus tour worksheet to maximize the information you receive on those visits.

* High school juniors: if you haven’t already, begin making your list of colleges you are interested in researching. Utilize our On the Quad self-assessment worksheet to reflect on why you want to go to college and what expectations you have for yourself the school you attend.

* All students: begin your search for a summer internship! Now is the time to research options, polish your resume and write a good cover letter. Bring your second or third drafts to your career center for fine tuning. In this process you will discover there are interesting opportunities you have already missed – plan on them for next year!

Maximize your new year motivation and make it a great term!

Handling Holiday Questions with Ease!

Soon to be college students and those in college, here are a few thoughts on how to handle the questions of “What are you studying/going to study? What kind of job are going to get?” during your holiday gatherings.

If you are unsure of which college you will choose to go to, or the major you plan to select, I suggest turning the question back on the person asking it. “How did you decide to go to the college you went to? What college was it? Where was it? What was your major the first day you were there? What major did you graduate with?” etc. Like in current times, people who were in college 10-30 years ago, often changed their majors, struggled with an academic obstacle, and have a story or two to share. Get these people talking about their college experience! If the person asking the question did not go to college, ask her/him what they would have studied if they had gone, and why they are selecting that major/field of study now.

If you are nearing the end of your college career, of course people are asking you what career or job you are headed toward. In these cases, I again suggest asking this person questions rather than replying right away. “What did you do the day after you graduated? How long did it take you to find a career related position? How long did you stay in that job? When did you realize you were on the path to the position you have now? What advice do you have for me? What are the top two traits you are looking for when you hire an entry-level employee?” It is extremely unlikely the person you are speaking with is doing the same job s/he did when they graduated, and soliciting advice from her/him is wise. You can thank the person for all their insights and never answer the question they asked you!

When you answer questions about your major/field of study, I suggest you speak passionately! Demonstrate your enthusiasm for YOUR choice by talking smartly about your classes, the research you are doing, the faculty you are learning from, and the opportunities you have engaged in on your campus. Share fun-facts about your program and/or college, and be proud of what you are accomplishing.

When answering questions about your intended career, be positive in your responses, showing confidence in YOUR decision to get a Bachelor’s degree in this field. Talk about the career workshops you have attended, the guest lectures you have seen (that have inspired you), and the resume you have already drafted. Ask if s/he would like to see it, and a sample cover letter you have written, and ask for feedback and edits. Also, make sure to ask this person if they know anyone in this field, or a similar field with whom I could do an informational interview. Informational interviews are a great way to learn more about an actual position and a company – take advantage of these connections.

Now you are ready to embrace these loaded question gatherings!

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Repeating a Course

College students: the end of the term is upon you! Maybe you are already enjoying winter break, the students at the university I work at vacated campus last weekend, or maybe your only motivation through finals right now is your excitement for the upcoming Star Wars premier. If you are in the midst of finals, stay focused, committed, and give your best to these exams, projects and papers.

As you are anticipating and checking your grades, some of you may find yourself in an unhappy place. There are students who are satisfied with the ‘C-‘ they earned in a difficult course, but another student may be in agony over a ‘B-‘ in a course they really enjoyed and thought they were doing well. Another student might be solely focused on her/his GPA as they are planning on professional school, and have a desire to repeat a class in which they received an ‘A-.’ Should you find yourself in a situation where you want to repeat a course, you need to look up your campus’ course repeat policy.

Many institutions, especially ones with a large number of students, have very clear guidelines on repeating courses. Often, if a student received a ‘C’ or ‘C-‘ the course cannot be retaken. Generally the reason for this is: seats in the course need to be available for students taking it for the first time, sometimes it is so students stay on track for a four year graduation plan. At other institutions, a student may be able to repeat a course s/he received a passing grade, but the second grade will not be calculate into the student’s GPA. (The course and grade are on the official transcript, but not in the overall GPA calculation.)

Whatever the reason for considering a course repeat, know the repeat policy. So, for those of you heading into a final – you now have some extra motivation to put the time and energy into your studies! Give 100%, you will not be disappointed with yourself!