PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 167 | How Do I Prioritize So Many Competing Issues?

With so many different issues to address in the college admissions process, how do I know what to emphasize and de-emphasize?

Show Notes:

In this episode, I try to help families focus on the issues that matter most when it comes to college admissions. In my experience, some families get too hyped-up about the wrong issues. Despite their good intentions, misplaced energy and focus sometimes lead them astray. Listen to the 4 issues that should be emphasized more and the 4 issues that should be emphasized less. With so many issues competing for our attention, I don't want you to waste any precious time or resources on low impact activities.

Show Transcript:

[00:00:26] Hello friends, and welcome back to the PrepWell podcast.. In today's episode, I want to discuss a few items that most families place too much emphasis on and too little emphasis on. The college admissions process has so many moving pieces that sometimes it's hard to know how to prioritize all of these competing issues. So I'd like to go through a bunch of hot button issues and give you my opinion on how to prioritize them. Let's start out with a few issues that I think families put too much emphasis on. Starting off with a. Yes, GPAs important, but only to a degree. I know I've brought this up before, but I'll do it again for any new listeners as the college admissions readers are zipping through your child's application. I can guarantee you they are not paying attention to whether your child has a 4.2034 or five or a 4.20392. That level of detail is completely lost on them. They're going to glance at the GPA for a millisecond and quickly get a feel for whether they're looking at an A student, a B student, or an AA should be a student. And that's about it. And if the GPA is above a 4.0 or well above a 4.0, they will know that the student took some waited classes and did well in them. That's about it for GPA. It's a very quick signal which provides some context as they dive into the student's actual transcript.

[00:02:04] Which leads me to the next item that I believe gets too much attention. Which is the exact classes that your child takes. Yes. Class selection is important. Yes. We talk about rigor all the time. Yes. Admissions officers want to see how much your child has challenged themselves, but they're not spending an hour going through the transcript with a fine tooth comb. For a student with a 4.0 plus or minus, they will likely not analyze every single grade you got in every class that you took in every grade. They're going to look for anomalies. Where did this student not get an A and why? Are there any patterns? Did they get most of their BS in humanities classes or STEM classes? Did they get BS in their AP or honors classes or in their foreign language class? Within a matter of a few seconds. A shrewd college admissions officer has a very good sense of where the student stands among their peers, because remember, the admissions officer will be familiar with the student's score, the types of grades that the students get and the classes that are the most challenging. This is normally not their first rodeo. They're not starting from scratch when they analyze each student. They have a picture in their head of certain categories of students from years past and their experience, and they almost immediately know how to size up each student. Now, you might find exceptions to this rule at the most selective colleges out there, the yellows, the Harvards, the MIT. These are the world where sometimes there's a little more hairsplitting among student credentials. But for the most part, this is a fairly quick part of the assessment. And by the way, even at the most selective colleges, depending on what else the student has going for him or herself, the admissions officer doesn't get that far into the weeds.

[00:04:05] So the moral of the story is don't agonize over whether you should have taken AP Chem in sophomore or junior year or freak out because you weren't able to take the community college math course because of a scheduling conflict with marching band or storming to the principal's office demanding that you get Teacher X instead of Teacher Y. In the big scheme of things. Isolated incidents like this will likely never even come close to hitting the admissions officers radar. Focus on what matters, which is how you perform in the classes themselves, whichever classes they may be. Let's move on to sports. I'm sure we've all seen or heard about the parents who get completely unhinged from reality at their child's sporting events. Yes, I know a lot of parents may be reliving their own mediocre or failed sports careers through their children, and that seems to drum up a fair bit of resentment and insecurity and even hostility when things are breaking bad for their child. Or parents are so invested financially, emotionally, socially in their child's sport. That they begin to lose their grip on reality, or they're so obsessed by this notion that sports is their child's only ticket to college, that every day becomes a litmus test over whether or not they're on track. I know this is a thing with parents because I've been through phases of each of these psychoses to varying degrees, and they're not healthy for you or your child. So the bottom line is we need to chill out a bit more. Unless your child is a high level division, one prospect from the age of 15 and everybody knows it with a lot at stake. Then your child's high school sports career and their success is not all that critical in the big scheme of things.

[00:06:00] College admissions officers will not care whether your daughter's volleyball team won or were runners up in your city's conference tournament. They won't know or care. They will not know or care whether your child was first team or second team all conference. It just won't register with them. So unless your child has a legitimate shot to use sports to launch them into college or beyond, in which case there may be cause to be a little bit more involved in the process, then we should all just take a big inhale and exhale and come to grips with the fact that it probably won't matter all that much. What about brand name colleges? There continues to be an outsized focus on brand name colleges. I do here over and over again. I want my daughter to go to a college that people have heard of, one that's prestigious. It will help her in the job market. It will help her if she decides to move to a different part of the country. And I get that. And far be it from me to argue against the value of brand name schools. My wife and I both went to Yale. I went to Harvard Business School. My two oldest sons go to Yale. My third son is going to the Naval Academy. So we've been the beneficiaries of what these brand name schools can do for us in our lives. But how far do we want to extend this? Don't get me wrong. If you can go to a top tier school, there is certainly value in that. Assuming you're not going hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt. But since hundreds of today's selective colleges, I'm talking private liberal arts colleges that people have heard of all cost about the same amount of money, let's call it $90,000 a year.

[00:07:48] So I think we all need to take a step back and decide whether the brand name is really worth the money. And if so, where is the cutoff? As I said before, if you can afford a Harvard or Yale, even if it means taking out some student loan debt, it probably makes sense to take that leap. But what about a school in the top 15 or 20 or 25 or 30 that most people would consider brand name schools? Is it worth going to one of these schools at $90,000 a year? If you and or your child is going to end up several hundred thousand dollars in debt. That's the question I want to leave you with. Obviously, there are a lot of factors to consider when making this decision, including how motivated your child is and whether or not they'll make the most out of their college experience. But we'll have to leave that to a different day. My final point here is to encourage you to think beyond the brand names and lastly, low significance extracurricular activities. I've addressed at length the importance of X's extracurricular activities. But I should also remind you that not all ECAS are created equal. Today, I want to make sure that you are not putting too much weight on low significance, ecas. What do I mean by that? Well, I hear a lot of parents say that their child is super busy and they're active in school and they're in this club and that club, and they do so much volunteer work and so much community service. They hardly have a second to breathe. And all of that sounds great. Until we get into the particulars. Oftentimes when I dig below the surface, there is not as much substance as you would think.

[00:09:35] Being in a school club like the environmental club that has five female members who are all best friends. And they meet once a month and don't do all that much. That's not really a significant extracurricular activity. Being part of a yearbook and taking photos and captioning them is fun, but may not be the most challenging essay of all time. Playing on a sports team takes up a lot of time. But to what end? Participating once a month at the local soup kitchen is nice of you, but it may not move the needle when it comes to college admissions. Why not? Because these activities aren't fun or noble or educational, but because they are common and they're often unrelated to what the student wants to do longer term. I wouldn't necessarily characterize them as time wasters per se, but maybe more like time fillers. There are things that your child does that eats up a lot of time, which in turn makes it seem like they're really busy and active and thus super accomplished and highly successful. But when it comes time to fill out a college application, many of these activities can come across as hollow or generic. And of course, that's not where you want to be. You'd rather spend more time doing fewer activities that are more substantive and more aligned with where you think your child might be headed in college and beyond. All right. Let's switch gears now into a few things that I think families should put more emphasis on. The first one is the cataract. Because of the recent policy changes that removed the SAT and ACT as a requirement. In most colleges, these tests seem to have lost some steam among teenagers. Surprise, surprise. Can you blame teenagers for getting behind a policy that reduces their workload and stress? Despite all of the hype around test optional and test buying policies in which schools are doing it and which ones are not, and how long is it going to last? My advice is to ignore all of that and simply prepare to do the best that you can on one of these standardized tests.

[00:11:59] It's not overly complicated. Students have been doing this for decades, and there's no reason to stop now. These tests are not going away. And at the very least, even if you apply to a school that is test optional, your chances will go up if you can produce a competitive score. So instead of hamstringing and limiting yourself without an essay to your race score. Because it's not convenient or fun to study for these tests. Go in the opposite direction, prepare well for it, study hard, take practice exams, get a competitive score and use it to your advantage. I'd like to bring back the emphasis there used to be on preparing for and taking the SAT or ACT tests for a number of reasons that I'll address in a future episode. What about jobs? I did a whole episode on teenagers getting jobs about. Think it was two weeks ago. Episode 165, I believe. So if you want to do a deeper dive into that topic, please go back to that episode for more details. During the government shutdown of businesses for two years, teenagers got comfortable not getting jobs. They stayed at home. They got more proficient, if you will, on their phones and laptops and with their game consoles. Well, now that the government shutdowns have been lifted, I'd like to see this trend reverse itself and get back to the point where teenagers are getting real world job experience. In many college admissions officers minds, a legitimate job is far more valuable than participation in some generic afterschool club. There are so many more life lessons to be learned when you're working for pay and you have a boss and responsibilities and you must take personal accountability. So please help me get the word out that more emphasis should be placed on getting out there and getting a job.

[00:14:04] And in an ideal world, it would be a job that is aligned with your future goals, whether that's a preferred major or a career aspiration. But at this point, I won't be choosy. Get out there, get a job, and see how the real world works. Let's move on to college research. Teenagers need to spend more time learning about colleges. Also known as researching colleges. I hesitate to use the word research because most teenagers will recoil in fear when they hear the word research. It sounds boring and intimidating. That might be true. And if you don't have someone guiding you, I can see where it's easy to get lost in a college's website. But I'd like to turn this trend around. I think there needs to be a much bigger emphasis on students learning about the colleges they're applying to. I've worked with students who spend 5 minutes researching a college that costs $90,000 a year. They weren't sure if the college offered the major they were interested in. They barely knew what state the college was in and had very little personal investment in the college. And this is just not the way to go about applying to college. And with the information available at our fingertips today, being a near expert on every college you're interested in and applying to should be a given. So let's recommit to some good old fashioned research so that we know what we're getting ourselves into. About affordability. If you haven't had the chance to see how much colleges cost these days, it's time to educate yourself. You. Back in the day, there were a range of cost options from super high end to moderately priced to more affordable colleges. These days, there are essentially three choices. $90,000 a year for an out-of-state private liberal arts college, $60,000 a year for an in-state college, and $10,000 and below for community college.

[00:16:08] With the exception of the community college options, neither of those other two options 60,000 and $90,000 a year are particularly feasible for most families, especially families with multiple children. So we need to re-emphasize how important it is to look at cost when it comes to your target colleges. A lot of students continue to blindly apply to colleges with no idea what the final cost of attendance might be. This is a fool's errand and can lead to a lot of wasted time and disappointment. It might make better sense to go to a community college for two years to save some money and then transfer to a higher cost four year college. Maybe you should consider an ROTC scholarship which covers all, if not most, of your college tuition. Or maybe the service academies are starting to look a bit more enticing since every one of those schools goes for free. And actually get paid to attend. These days, it's imperative that we focus on affordability much earlier in the process. And lastly. Well aligned extracurricular activities that match a long term vision. As I mentioned earlier, I would urge you to put more emphasis on essays that align with what your child thinks they want to do in college or beyond. And I know that can be a squishy notion in the beginning of high school. A lot of students throw their hands up and say, I don't know what I want to do. I don't know. But you have to start from somewhere running around doing random activities because you haven't taken the time to sit down and think about your future. Is a much tougher way to go. I always advocate for students to sit down with their parents or with me to think through what they seem to like.

[00:18:02] What classes? What topics? What movies? Who are their role models? Where do they see themselves in five, ten, 20 years? These aren't always easy conversations, but they can start to get your child thinking about their future instead of just what's in front of their face on their phone. Let's start to re-emphasize the quality of extracurricular activities, more so than the mere existence of extracurricular activities. That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for your continued support. Case you didn't know this podcast supports prep academies online mentoring program where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos from me, where I break down important topics and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly top tier colleges, service academies, and for ROTC and athletic scholarships. Many parents who listen to this podcast already have their high schools enrolled in Prep Academy, which is great. If you don't yet, please consider enrolling them. Registration is only open during freshman and sophomore year. After that, we no longer accept new students. So if you have a freshman or a sophomore in high school and you like what you're hearing on these podcasts and you'd like to get more content like this tailored specifically for your child, for their specific grade and with their specific goals in mind, go to and enroll today. If you're a parent with a middle schooler or high schooler that might find this episode helpful, please share with them and give us a rating. Word of mouth and positive ratings help our podcast reach a wider audience. If you have questions, comments, or an idea for an upcoming episode, please reach out to me by email. Demi on Instagram Check out our blog Facebook page, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

[00:19:50] I would love to hear from you. Until next week, Goodbye. Good luck and never stop preparing. This podcast is brought to you by PrepWell Academy. PrepWell Academy is my one of a kind online mentoring program that delivers to your ninth or 10th grader a short, highly relevant video from me every week. Every Sunday, in fact. Or I give them a heads up about what they should be thinking about to stay ahead of the game to get these valuable lessons into your child's hands. Please head over to and enroll your child today.

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PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.

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