In the past month I’ve had a number of situations where families were trying to follow too many different approaches and didn’t understand why they weren’t seeing results.

It may seem like more information is better when looking to improve ACT / SAT test scores, find the right college, write a successful essay for scholarships or admission, or plan high school courses. This is where many find themselves searching the internet looking for all the best advice. But more isn’t always better.

Here’s an analogy that speaks to me. I can seek out different advice on weight loss. One plan lets me eat as much bacon as I want as long as I cut out carbs. One plan lets me eat ice cream as long as I watch my total calories. One plan tells me to ignore calories as long as I eat foods from the approved list. I will probably get results if I can follow each of the plans to the letter. What I can’t do (and expect results) is pick my favorite parts from each plan. I might want to eat unlimited amounts of bacon and ice cream, but we all know I can’t do that and expect to see a smaller number on the scale.

You can’t mix and match your favorite college planning tips either. Or, simply put, you can’t ride two horses at one time.

Here are some of the ways I’ve seen families get bad results by trying to follow multiple test prep and college planning tips.

Academic Planning

This is the area where many of my clients have a mixed bag of suggestions they “heard from someone.” Rumors run through a school or community, often starting with snippets from more comprehensive planning advice.

Single pieces of course selection or academic planning advice, taken out of context, can create confusion (and poor results).

These are examples of the types of things you might hear:

  • Take as many advanced courses as you can
  • Only take advanced classes if you can earn A’s
  • Focus on your GPA
  • Focus on your class rank
  • Don’t worry about GPA or rank just get good grades in rigorous courses
  • Take classes in the summer to get ahead
  • Use your summer to build your resume
  • Lower grades in advanced classes are better than As in regular classes
  • As in regular classes are better than Bs in advanced classes
  • Grades are most important
  • Extracurriculars are equally important

You couldn’t possibly follow all of these tips.

What you need is information on what colleges are looking for and personalized guidance based on your unique situation. I know it isn’t what people want to hear, but often the right answer is “it depends.”

Here’s just one example. My general advice is that students should take at least three years of a language other than English. (My own children have to take four years— I’m the mean mom.) However, over the years I’ve met with many families and advised them that meeting the two years required for graduation was sufficient.

Why? Shouldn’t the advice be consistent?

Different students have different strengths, weaknesses, priorities, and needs. A student with a learning difference who is struggling just to make it through English class with passing grades doesn’t need to take a third year of another language. A student who already speaks another language fluently at home doesn’t need to take an additional year of yet another language just to have it on his or her transcript.

Listen to reliable sources and learn the factors that prepare students for success in the future. Then seek out personalized advice to create your own plan.

I do offer individual consultations if you want help in this area: https://www.collegeprepresults.com/schedule-consultation/

Test Prep

There are a few major concerns when students take test prep advice from multiple sources

  • Contradictory advice
  • Confusion
  • Burnout

Like with academic advice, test prep can involve contradictory strategies. Do you skip the reading passages and start with the questions or read the passage first? While many strategies may overlap (we are all dealing with the same test), some strategies will clash with others leaving students wondering which approach is best.

Another concern is the confusion created when students try to remember too much. There is enough to think about on the ACT / SAT without trying to remember dozens of strategies, steps, tips, or rules.

My goal in teaching is to simplify what students need to remember; not all test prep takes this approach. In fact, some books and classes have more content just so you feel you are getting your money’s worth. The problem is students go to the exam trying to remember all the information and they waste time, energy, and brainpower. Information overload will not produce results. Here, less really is more.

Finally, even the most diligent and driven students can burn out. Sometimes in the process of trying to provide all the best opportunities, parents start too soon and ask students to work through too many programs. High school students are (or should be) busy with academic work, and extracurricular interests. Too much test prep can result in burnout. The sad thing is the burnout typically sets in just when these exams really matter—junior year.

College Selection

College selection is a personal decision. I often make an analogy to purchasing shoes or a new car— what my friends like may not be what I want or need.

As you research colleges, you will find an overwhelming amount of information: rankings from multiple sources, advice from well-meaning friends and family, official material from the schools themselves, and opinions on message boards, YouTube, etc. providing both positive and negative feedback. Take all of it with a grain of salt.

No one knows better what type of college will be a good fit than you.

Rankings may prioritize factors you don’t care about. College marketing materials (like new car brochures) seek to promote the strengths of a school and may not mention the weaknesses. Friends and family want to help, but often provide input that is limited to one person’s experience (and sometimes outdated!). And you never know the full story when you read a review online.

Some people love the deep dive into information. Other people find the process exhausting and confusing. If you are like me, you’ve had a similar experience with trip planning. You’ve talked to people, combed the internet, read tons of reviews, then decided you should have skipped most of that “research” because it didn’t change your initial decision.

This time last year, I got a panicked call from a family I had worked with for years. Their youngest had finally made a decision, but they were starting to second guess the choice. Admittedly, we were in the start of the pandemic and travel had shut down. They couldn’t make another visit to the campus to confirm their original thoughts. The problem started with some news out of the college’s athletics program (student was not an athlete) which led to reading too many online reviews. (How many of us did on one topic or another last year?!!) I offered my opinion based on my history with the family and this particular student. I also encouraged them to call the college directly and ask for more information. The admissions office was very helpful and the student decided to stick with the decision and has had an amazing experience, even given the difficulties faced by all college students this year.

I do want my clients to make informed decisions, so I’m not advising anyone to ignore news reports or reviews found online. But my experience has shown that there is a fine line between well-informed and overwhelmed.

Research wisely. Know your priorities. Don’t let the volume of material overwhelm you and put the information in perspective; you can avoid the problems associated with too much college selection advice.

Essays & Applications

This is likely the area where too much advice is the most harmful to students and their results.

I call it the Frankenstein effect. The student starts with an idea for an essay. Then mom wants to make sure XYZ is included. They watch a YouTube video where a college student says he got into this competitive school because his essay did this or that, so those get added. Friends, teachers, and neighbors chime in with suggestions they’ve heard. The draft is written. Then a friend says to use the thesaurus to add sophisticated vocabulary. More “winning essays” are read and emulated. Mom edits to brag more. Two teachers and a coach give input. And what the student brings to me for a final review looks like a sewn together monster lacking a cohesive message.

Colleges want authentic answers written by students. They don’t want exaggerated stories or essays that sound forced. They don’t want yet another knock-off of the unique essay that made the news. They also don’t want ghost written essays or those that have been so heavily edited that they have lost the student’s authentic voice. [Yes, these things become more obvious the more application essays you read.]

Families should understand what colleges want. These essays are not like the essay students write in high school. They are more like personal narratives and the last time most of my clients wrote one of these was in 5th grade.

Students should get trusted advisors (maybe as many as 3, but 1 is good) to edit the final copy. Time and effort should be put into telling the student’s unique story, but this isn’t the job for a large committee of advisors.

(I will offer a one-day workshop on college admissions essay this June. I will offer both in-person and Zoom workshops. Registration will open in May once we finalize dates.)

Conclusion

I have two children (8th grade and college) and I understand the desire to seek out all the best resources to help my kids. Just keep in mind that there are times when more isn’t better.

I had a business coach put it to me this way, “Megan, you can’t ride two horses at once. No matter how talented or smart you are, you can only put your seat on one. Trying to ride more than one will waste time and take you nowhere.”

As you work through academic planning, test prep, college selection, and application issues, keep this in mind. Seek out high quality information from trusted sources then start riding.