Is NSHSS (National Society of High School Scholars) a Scam or a Real Award?

We received a letter from the high school that our daughter is eligible for a membership in NSHSS (National Society of High School Scholars). Is this worth the money? Should we do it?



No, it is not really that prestigious or exclusive—everyone you know got the same invitation letter. No, it isn’t really a honor—invitations were sent out to most students regardless of actual achievements. And no, you shouldn’t pay money for it because everyone in the field of higher education know this is really a scam.

Why do these “honor programs” exist?

So why is the National Society of High School Scholars or the Who’s Who of American High School Students letter an annual source of frustration for me and others who help teens and their families with college admission? These companies (and others like them) do an excellent job of marketing to the hopes and fears of parents.

“Acceptance” letters often come on fancy letterhead with gold seals and extra inserts proclaiming the prestige and opportunity of their offer. Who doesn’t want their child to be recognized? And too often parents and students want to jump at any opportunity to stand out when it comes to college admission.

Unfortunately these “awards” are no more than a purchased database of high school names and addresses looking to sell their accolades.

Can I list this as an award / honor on my college applications?

You shouldn’t. Colleges are not impressed with “awards” you have bought yourself.

Colleges want to see what you have DONE. If you have earned recognition for doing something, it is worth noting on your applications. But Who’s Who or NSHSS don’t ask you to DO anything other than pay for the privilege.

But what about the benefits they mention?

If you are looking for scholarships, conferences, discounts from business partners, or any of the other benefits, you can get them elsewhere. Search for scholarships online that don’t require a $75 membership fee to apply. (In fact, one sure sign of a scholarship scam is asking for money in order to apply.) There are dozens of youth conferences to help motivate, inspire, and challenge students in a variety of fields. And your local health club or Costco will have business partners willing to offer you discounts.

How to spot scams targeting teens and their families.

Next time you get an email or letter in the mail announcing an “opportunity,” here are a few ways to spot the scam:

  • If it is an honor or award, has my child done something specific to earn this honor? (writing a winning essay, competing in a national event, completing the requirements for an organizational award, etc.)
  • Have other neighbors or friends received the same communication? It can’t be exclusive or prestigious if a majority of students receive it.
  • Is payment required? You should NEVER have to pay to apply for or receive a scholarship. Membership in some national organizations may involve a registration fee, but most have a local chapter representative who you can ask (i.e. the debate coach who represents your chapter of the National Speech & Debate Association or the NHS sponsor who represents your chapter of the National Honor Society.)
  • Is this a recognized organization? It can be hard to keep up, so when in doubt, check the National Association of Secondary Principals’ list of activities and contests that offer actual academic value. These programs have to demonstrate some benefit to participating students.
  • Are you considering it solely to “look good to colleges”? There is no silver bullet for admission—no single activity, club, or award that will help you get in. Students should pursue interests and talents. This may be the most genuine way to avoid scams.


So you can throw the NSHSS letter in the trash. You aren’t missing a thing.

Colleges are not impressed. In fact, listing one of these “buy your own award” items on a college application or resume may backfire. Instead of looking accomplished, you look like the fool who got scammed into thinking this marketing ploy was a real achievement.



Honest (Sometimes Unpopular) Course Selection Advice

I’ve started a dozen versions of this article. In each, I try to balance the variations when students’ wants conflict with what they should take to be best prepared for college (and most competitive in the admissions process.)

Why so many drafts?

There isn’t one simple answer to course selection questions. When I meet a family for an academic consultation to work on academic planning issues, I ask a lot of questions and get feedback on that student’s specific needs, talents, weaknesses, and goals.

But this article is general– one size fits all. This isn’t a problem from the college admissions planning side; what they want is predictable. The challenge comes as I consider all of the questions I get from students (and parents) seeking exceptions. “I know you say to take four years, but what if…”

What you find here is my general advice. I know it isn’t always popular, but I know it works.

How to select high school courses

1. Make a Four-Year Plan

You don’t need anything fancy, but I like to make the options visual, so I use a blank sheet of paper divided into four columns (one for each year of high school) and a number of rows to equal the number of courses a student can take per year. So my daughter’s plan has seven rows because there are seven class periods per day at her school.

I like to keep my chart organized, so I assign the first four rows to the core academic classes: English, math, history, and science. The next row is for foreign language. This leaves the remains rows, two in my daughter’s case, for all other classes.

Here’s what the plan looks like today:

If your student is already in high school, fill in the courses completed already. I keep the chart handy and fill in courses as I discuss the remaining suggestions.

2. Four Years of English, Math, History, and Science Are a Must

Some schools, districts, or states will have different graduation requirements. For the college-bound student, four years of these core courses are essential. That means a student will take English, math, history, and science every year in high school, even if he or she started taking high-school level courses in junior high (Algebra I for example.)

This is non-negotiable for me. (And why my advice is sometime unpopular.)

Of course, the specific courses are up for discussion. A student who struggles in math may decide senior year calculus is too hard and take another math class instead. Some students will elect to take advanced, honors, or AP level classes in certain subjects. The specifics will vary, but all students should plan for four years in these subjects.

Do you HAVE to?

Do you want to be academically well prepared for college? Do you want to risk the potential red flag to admissions officers when they see you have taken the easy way out and skipped that senior year course? I’m not saying four years is a requirement at all colleges, but you should know that it is expected by most and anything less can work against a student at some colleges.

3. Four Years of Foreign Language Are Strongly Encouraged

This is a topic where I adjust my answer depending on the client. A strong student who is potentially considering top schools should take four years of the same language.

In my family four years of the same language was non-negotiable. (My daughter chose to take AP Spanish V next year because she has enjoyed all of her Spanish classes and thinks Spanish literature will be interesting.)

My general rule is that three years of the same language is essential, four recommended. However, there are some cases where I have given different advice to clients. I take into consideration the following:

  • Learning differences that impact language learning
  • Current grades in foreign language
  • Overall academic profile
  • College aspirations
  • What a student would like to take instead

A student who has struggled through the required years of language and would want to replace year four with another academic course can. But the student who has made A’s and B’s and just “doesn’t want to” because he or she heard the class “is hard” should take the extra year.

Yes, colleges know third and fourth year courses are harder which is why it is good thing to do. It is also good because you will gain additional language skills, which are in high demand in many employment opportunities.

4. Plan for Additional Requirements

Every school has different requirements. If you attend a private religious school, you may need to plan for four years of Theology or Bible classes. My daughter’s school requires students to take a year of P.E. and a year of an arts course.

Figure out what additional requirements you need to meet and add them to your four-year plan.

For most students these are not the fun courses they want to take. I don’t think it is necessary to “get them out of the way” early, but you do need to plan for them.

My daughter’s schedule has been full with academic courses, Spanish, tennis, and debate, so she has not taken her required arts credit in 9th or 10th grade. We have penciled art in for 12th grade when she has an opening in her schedule because she will have completed Spanish 5, the highest level language class offered at her school.

5. Fill In Gaps With Electives (“Wants”)

Electives are the courses designed to allow students to test out interests, develop skills, and discover strengths beyond the core academic classes. Electives aren’t meant to replace academic classes; they are intended to supplement them.

  • Consider courses that pair with a student’s extracurricular interests: band, journalism, theater, debate, sports, etc.
  • Explore courses that relate to potential career interests: computer science, psychology, extra science classes for the student considering pre-med, etc.
  • Look for opportunities to develop leadership, communication, or interpersonal skills: JROTC, FFA, independent research, PALS, newspaper, etc.

For me, electives fill in the remaining openings in a student’s schedule. If you have done the first four steps correctly, you will find almost no time left for all the interesting electives your student wants to take.

This is the reality many families don’t like to face: there will always be more interesting electives than available time in the schedule.

6. Consider Course Content & Appropriate Level of Rigor

Content and rigor can help you decide between different options. Examples illustrate this better than any description.

Senario A

A student has completed biology, chemistry, and physics and needs to select a science course for his senior year. Should he take anatomy, AP Biology, or AP Environmental Science? All three meet the standard in #2 above (four years of core courses), so how can he decide?

Let’s add in that this young man is strong in the sciences, has been taking challenging academic courses on an advanced level in the past, and is considering medical school for the future. His interest in medicine would lead me to focus on either anatomy or AP Biology– both courses that will contribute to his future goals. While anatomy sounds perfectly suited to a potential pre-med student, I still need to consider appropriate rigor. A strong academic student may get more out of the AP class, making it my first choice for his senior year science.

Senario B

A student thinks she will study engineering in college and is trying to balance her interest in playing soccer and working on the student newspaper with the “Principles of Engineering” course sequence she sees in her high school’s course catalog. Does she need to give up either soccer or newspaper to make room for these engineering electives? What would serve her best in college? What do colleges want to see for admission?

The first step is to recognize that colleges (and their engineering programs) want core academic courses before electives. So four years of challenging math and science courses are the first step. Choose calculus over statistics; take AP / IB or honors when appropriate. Consider an extra year of science or computer science as an elective.

Next, if this student in interested in participating in soccer and newspaper (and presumably will take those courses during the school day), I would encourage her to continue. There is value in these activities: teamwork, planning, practice, leadership; meeting deadlines, working with others, accepting constructive criticism, time management, and so much more.

This is why colleges like to see students commit time to activities outside of the classroom. Yes, sometime students have more interests than time, but if possible, I’d encourage this student to remain with newspaper and soccer as long as they continue to be meaningful activities for her.

Finally, don’t feel compelled to take every course with “engineering” in the title. This student will not be limiting her future opportunities if she never takes these elective courses. And not all courses with “engineering” in the name will lead her towards her goal of a four-year degree in the field.

For example, at my daughter’s school many of the vocational classes include “engineering” in the title. These are interesting classes, but for admission to a university engineering program, higher-level math and science courses will outweigh vocational electives. (I’m not saying these are bad courses, but they aren’t worth this student dropping out of soccer or newspaper to take them.)


Following these basic principals will give you a competitive high school plan.

If you are still struggling or want more personalized advice, I offer individual 90-minute consultations for $225. I will answer your questions; n o need to commit to ongoing services. For more information visit my consultation page.


Study Skills for Better Grades with Less Stress

Study Skills Better Grade Less Stress

In the process of advising teens and families on how to best prepare for college admission, I often suggest a student work to improve his or her grades. Sometimes better grades simply require getting serious or devoting a little more time and effort. However, in many cases students don’t know what to do. That’s where study skills enter the picture.

I’m familiar with a variety of strategies and organizational techniques, but I’m not an expert. But I do work with someone who specializes in these areas—Gretchen Wegner. The greatest compliment I can pay my podcast co-host Gretchen is that she helps me learn new study strategies, even if I’m initially doubtful.

I’m a “just the facts” person when it comes to studying. I was always good at school and test taking was a skill that came easily, so I didn’t want to waste time on “creative” study solutions. I could read the chapter, complete the assignment, and get top grades without too much effort. Gretchen has spent her career working with students who need another approach.

If you have ever struggled in a subject or studied only to find it wasn’t enough, you know that some of the “old school” approaches to education aren’t sufficient. Gretchen combines the latest research in brain science and learning with an understanding of teens to present strategies that really work.

Here are some of my favorites. (Click on the titles to access that episode on The College Prep Podcast website.)


080: The Right & Wrong Ways to Study with Flashcards

I’m a big fan of flashcards— specifically the paper ones you can shuffle and sort which have some functionality that apps like Quizlet can’t replace. When Gretchen introduced me to some of the strategies listed in this episode, I was skeptical. (I’m not a personal fan of “fun” activities; I’d rather just study the cards.) Why should we add in “silly” activities to regular study? Because it works. Well. Since this podcast aired a year ago, I have encouraged my students, and even my own daughter, to incorporate these techniques.

In Gretchen’s academic coaching practice, she notices students mindlessly use flashcards. This makes studying take longer and results in less effective learning.

In this interactive podcast, Gretchen walks listeners step by step through her favorite technique for using flashcards to turn your brain ALL the way on. Come with a few blank index cards (or a torn sheet of paper) and follow along. You’ll discover:

  • The less effective ways students use flashcards
  • How to use categories and grouping to turn your brain to “on” while you learn
  • How to infuse silliness while still learning effectively, and
  • Ways to invite family and friend to play with flashcards, in order to make info stick longer

If you’d like more practice with this creative technique, or want to learn 10+ additional techniques for taking the boredom out of studying, check out the Anti-Boring Approach to Powerful Studying.


143: How to Read a 400 Page Book in Under Two Hours

One of the most time consuming activities for students is reading! And most students don’t effectively read most assignments. (Eyes moving over the pages won’t help if the information never enters their brains.)

In this episode discover simple tips for reading faster and more effectively than you ever thought possible. Learn:

  • The section of the book readers usually skip (but shouldn’t)
  • How to skim for the structure of the information so you remember the main points
  • How to find secret clues inside the chapter that will allow you to quickly identify main ideas
  • How to use your hand while you read to help you read faster
  • How to annotate a nonfiction text (it’s not what your teacher taught you!)


130: How to Get Homework Started Painlessly with the Pomodoro Method

As a parent I’m pretty fortunate when it comes to the task of refereeing homework. My fourth grader comes home and immediately starts his work and my high schooler may grumble some days, but has always been self-motivated. I know not all parents are as lucky.

Initiating homework is a hard task for students! Especially students with executive function challenges (planning, organization, self-monitoring, prioritization, task initialization, etc.)

Tune in to this episode to learn about why the Pomodoro technique is such a good antidote to getting work started, and how to set yourself up for success with this technique, including:

  • What the Pomodoro Technique is, and why it’s so helpful for students
  • 4 tips to get your work space set up so that you make the most of the Pomodoro Technique
  • How to adjust it for your unique work style
  • How to take breaks that refresh you, so that you’re ready to come back for more

This is another example of one of Gretchen’s techniques I doubted when I first heard of it, but that I have started using at home.


Here are some other great episodes to help you build your study skills arsenal:

014: How to Study So Well You are 100% Ready for Every Test

128: How to Help Teens Get Control of Their Schedules

029: How Parents Can Raise Teens Who Manage Time Well with Leslie Josel

010: How to Take Powerful Notes That Make Key Points Stick

100: The Key to Inspiring Students to Study Strategically

, , , ,

Key Standardized Tests You May Need This Spring

SAT ACT test taking


Now is a good time to plan all standardized testing for the remainder of the school year. Most families with juniors know it is time to take (or retake) either the SAT or ACT. But there are some other testing issues that may not be so obvious.

Here are some considerations based on your student’s grade level:

Freshman (9th Grade)

Freshman typically have few requirements outside of classroom tests and state-level exams. However, there are some exceptions (and opportunities to get ahead.)

PSAT – If your student took the PSAT in October 2016, you can review scores online at CollegeBoard.org. You may need to create a student login; be sure to save this information because over the next four years you will need it. Your school’s guidance counseling department can help with the information you may need to create a College Board account.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – AP Exams are designed to test students’ knowledge of the curriculum covered in Advanced Placement courses, high school classes that are designed to teach the equivalent of a first-year college course in the particular subject. AP Exams are hard and most high school freshman struggle to develop the analytical and writing skills necessary to do well on these tests. If your student is taking an AP class (not pre-AP, but actual AP), you should hear more from the teacher or guidance counselor about signing up for and taking the AP Exam. This year’s AP exam schedule is available online.

SAT Subject Tests – Very few freshman will find themselves in a situation where they should consider taking an SAT Subject Test this spring, but it is possible. Freshman who are taking AP U.S. History or AP World History should consider taking the Subject Test in May or June. Subject Tests are appropriate for underclassmen when they are taking an advanced course in a subject they will not continue with the following year.

For example, a student taking advanced Algebra would NOT take the math Subject Test because he or she will take another math class in 10th grade. But a 9th grader who is finishing AP World History and will take a different type of history next year may want to take the SAT Subject Test this spring when his knowledge of world history is at its zenith. It is rare for freshman to take other advanced classes that correlate to Subject Tests, but occasionally I will meet one taking AP Biology, Physics, Chemistry, or language (Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, etc.)

To learn more about the SAT Subject Tests, you can read “SAT Subject Tests: Should You Take Them and When?


Sophomores (10th Grade)

Like freshman, most sophomores are still a little early to worry about testing related to college admission, but there are some important exceptions.

PSAT – Like freshman, sophomores who took the PSAT in October should login to their College Board accounts and see their results. Because they will take the SAT as juniors, sophomores should spend additional time reviewing strengths and weaknesses and developing a plan for improvement.

Sophomore PSAT scores are key in identifying potential National Merit Scholarship candidates in time to prepare for next October’s exam. If you have a 10th grader scoring in the 90th percentile or above, you may want to give serious consideration to whether he or she can score well enough next fall to earn recognition and, if so, what type of study plan you should follow to pursue this opportunity. For more about the PSAT and National Merit Scholarships, read this article.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – See details under 9th grade. I strongly recommend all student enrolled in an AP class take the AP Exam. You do not need to send scores to colleges for admissions consideration, but some universities will accept strong AP results in place of the SAT or ACT. (See NYU’s testing policy as an example.)

SAT Subject Tests – See the discussion of these tests under freshman year. More sophomores may be in a position to take Subject Test exams this spring. As I write this I’m thinking that I need to sign my own daughter up for the May test date. The week before the May 6 SAT administration (SAT Subject Tests are given on the same Saturdays as the SAT.) she will take the AP U.S. History and AP Spanish Language exams. Why not take those Subject Tests while the material is fresh in her mind!


Juniors (11th Grade)

Junior year is full of admissions testing. The sooner you can finish with standardized exams, the sooner you can turn all of your attention to the college search and application process.

SAT / ACT – Every college or university that requires standardized tests for admission will accept either the SAT or ACT—with no preference given to either one. Many juniors have already taken the ACT and/or SAT this school year, but most students take these exams more than once because colleges look at a student’s best score. If your junior hasn’t taken the ACT or SAT or isn’t satisfied with his or her scores, make plans to complete your testing soon.

PSAT – Hopefully you have already accessed your results online and started working on areas of weakness. If your student scored extremely well on the PSAT, you will want to keep your eye out for National Merit communication. Typically National Merit doesn’t release semi-finalist information until the start of a student’s senior year, so be patient.

Advanced Placement (AP) Exams – See details under 9th grade. Juniors really should be taking AP exams for all of their AP courses. Yes, the tests are hard. No, not everyone will earn a score which qualifies for college credit in the future. But the process of studying for a tough, comprehensive exam is great practice for college.

SAT Subject Tests – See the discussions above, but this is the time to complete all the Subject Tests you may need for fall. This means it is time to take Literature, Mathematics (highest level you can), and any other key subjects or those that may be required by colleges on your list. Students can take three Subject Tests on any test date, but keep in mind you cannot take the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests on the same day. So many juniors will take Subject Tests in May and retake the SAT in June.

Spring is a busy time for everyone. We all have end of the year activities so it is vital to plan ahead to avoid schedule conflicts.