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Forster-Thomas's first monthly meeting at our new location took place yesterday -- and some interesting insights came out of it.

Ben Feuer

Company-wide meetings here at Forster-Thomas are a casual affair.  Fine wine is served, we dress to impress, we dine beneath the stars and talk long into the night about our fabulous selves.  

So what's new in Forster-Thomas land?  Turns out, lots!  Auntie Evan and Uncle David continue to break new ground with Essay Busters and Job Talk Daily, to say nothing of their work right here at Forster-Thomas.  Our very own Tom Locke is simultaneously developing a new television series with a Hollywood producer and a new audition coaching initiative for acting students in need of aid.  Kirsten Guenther just won a Rockefeller Grant while continuing to help medical school applicants get in touch with their inner Grey's Anatomy.  Jani Moon launched a website and a Google Hangout TV series.  Aimee Barr conducted a sold out conference for MSW graduates.  Susan Clark created a volunteer art mural in Italy!  Katie Kennedy is hard at work with Evan on his next book!  And of course, no Forster-Thomas meeting would be complete without honoring the glue that holds the entire organization together, Roberto Pineda and Nallely Rosales!

So everybody's doing awesome -- awesome!  What does this mean for those of you who are busy struggling with your essays?  Get to the good stuff, I hear you cry!  All right!  No need to be so pushy!

The first point was made by our very own Uncle David, and it concerns brainstorming.  I tell my candidates to brainstorm all the time, because I consider it an exceptionally helpful way to break out of mental ruts and develop your best ideas.  Well, Uncle David mentioned this gem and I had to pass it on to all of you.

"When brainstorming, most people think their job is to come up with 3 or 4 good ideas.  But that's not how brainstorming really works.  In fact, it goes like this.  First you get some good ideas.  Then you get some OK ideas.  By the time you're on your fifteenth idea, you know you're running on fumes.  And then something magical happens, and by PUSHING THROUGH IT, your last three ideas are usually even better than the first five.  So never stop when the ideas are good -- instead, push on until they're bad, then push through the badness so you can get to the greatness!"

Well said, sir.

I also had a few humble thoughts of my own for all of you stuck in the early stages of drafting your essays.  Google Ventures has taken to using timers to inspire its entrepreneurs/children to get over their perfectionism and innate long-windedness.  I think timers are an excellent tool for anyone trying to be creative, because constraints are empowering.  So if you are struggling to draft an essay, constrain yourself to an hour (or half an hour) to write it.  You might be surprised at how imperfect, and how interesting, the results can be!

Meanwhile, we here in Forster-Thomas land send you lots of love and best of luck for the upcoming application season!

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How to research college? The college search always starts in the same place: the Internet. But until you’ve stepped onto a campus—not virtually, but by setting an actual foot onto an actual campus—you can’t really know what type of college you want to attend. We have worked with countless candidates who insisted they only wanted a “big state school”—until they set foot on a small liberal arts college campus. And we’ve had just as many who wanted that intimate setting who ended up falling in love with a mid-size school likeNorthwesternElon University, or TCU.

Approach the college search with the following mindset: “I don’t know what I don’t know.” What your neighbor said, your older brother said, or your religious community believes—throw it all out. It’s meaningless. You have to decide for yourself what type of campus environment suits you best, and you’ll never what schools taste like until you sample the flavor yourself.

David and I have known this for years, but last month we got an up-close-and-personal slap in the face about how easy it is to forget this advice when we went on a whirlwind tour of North Carolina colleges. We did seven very different schools in 48 hours (DukeDavidsonElonWake ForestHigh Point,University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, andGuilford).


We’re still exhausted—but it was worth every moment. We went with two IECA colleagues and had a lot of fun. None of us may have the energy of a 17 year old anymore, but nothing stopped us from acting like one.  College tours shouldn’t be somber processions through the hallowed halls of academia. That’s no way to really sample a school.

And touring seven colleges with two other highly intelligent and observant people led to several epiphanies in North Carolina:

1) Everyone has a different take on the same school. Uncle David thought Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, was the perfect environment for a bright, liberal arts-minded, competitive-yet-not-cutthroat student who wanted an intimate environment on a leafy Southern campus that was ready for its Hollywood close-up. Auntie Evan thought it was a great setting for an artsy kid who wanted a traditional college town with cool stores and cafes. One of our colleagues felt Davidson was a prepster heaven custom-made for a private-school student who was a little sheltered (and whose family wanted it to stay that way)—45% of its students come from independent schools. Our other colleague pointed out that, while the student body came from 40 states and 18 countries, 39% came from the Southeast U.S. and wondered if Midwestern kids (at 9%) would feel comfortable. We all agreed to disagree on who the perfect Davidson student was. What does that mean? You have to see it for yourself to decide which one of us you agree with.  And that’s the way it is for all colleges nationwide.

2. Don’t judge the school based solely on the presenter in the information session. There we were at Duke, the crème de la crème Southern Ivy according to US News. We picked up our requisite t-shirts at the Duke University Student Union, walked past the Duke Chapel, wandered through the academic buildings and East Campus housing and then up to Admissions for the info session—and that’s when the whole thing fell apart. I’m not going to say the name of this admissions presenter (because I’m not a mean person), but she was so boring that she could sober up all 60,000 attendees of Burning Man. Trust us. Our colleagues had to keep nudging Auntie Evan awake. How could an info session on one of the world’s most vibrant, challenging, resource-rich academic communities be a better sedative than a 10mg Ambien? Duke should have the best, most interesting, intellectual, interactive info session possible. Yet, all the presenter did was talk and talk and talk at us. One of her personal highlights of Duke’s hometown of Durham was the opportunity to get tickets to Wicked—a Broadway show that opened in 2001 and has toured the country countless times. And she went on and on—it was enough time for Evan’s iPhone to charge up from 20% to 87%.

But here’s the take-away: Duke is phenomenal. The majors, the proximity to Durham (rated one of the country’s best foodie cities in the US), the internships and the research availability—not to mention some of the brightest minds in the world, both faculty and students. The access to grad school and Wall Street. Hello? Duke’s superiority is indisputable. That’s why you cannot dismiss a school based on one boring apple. What you can do is…

3. Talk to random students you meet on campus—not just the tour guide or presenter. Stopping random students walking to class can be intimidating, but we promise you that students love to talk about their school. For the first 20 minutes at Wake Forest, let’s just say it was so white we thought we were in a blizzard. Then, huddled together near the student union (like the football team they turned out to be) was a group of students of color. When Evan made a beeline to talk to them, the other three of us almost fainted by his display of boldness. And Evan cut straight to the chase (which you should feel free to do as well). Evan introduced himself and us, asked a couple of safe questions about these students’ background (like college major, sports, and food), and then cut to what he really cared about: “What’s it like being a student of color at Wake Forest?” None of them batted an eye at the question, and Deacon Devil football cornerback Kevin Johnson had the most eloquent response: “It wasn’t so hard for me, because of where I grew up, but for some of my friends here, it was a real culture shock.” Yet everyone on the team agreed that the quality of the education, the friendliness of the students, and the support of the administration made that initial difficulty both worth it and surmountable. No regrets from anyone.

You won’t get that kind of honesty on a school’s website. And if you did, you shouldn’t trust it until you hear it from actual students on campus.

4) Don’t take your friends’ word for it—or what your mother’s friend’s father’s golf buddy had to say. Sometimes, it feels like the most important part of being an educational consultant is myth-busting. Every year, we hear the same misinformation being spread around communities like a virus: “There’s no Jewish people at Georgetown.” “There’s no Catholics at Brandeis.” “There’s no New Yorkers at University of Texas at Austin.” “Everyone at the University of Colorado at Boulder is a pothead.”

To educational consultants who visit schools regularly, who send a huge variety of students to a huge variety of schools, and who hear back from hundreds of our own alumni (rather than a few graduates of your high school), the above kind of statements is the same as hearing offensive stereotypes like “Brooklyn is dangerous” and “everyone in California is flaky.” Sure, you might have heard about a subway mugging on the G train, but for 20 years, Boise, Idaho, has been a more dangerous city per capita than New York. Commonly held myths about schools are what we call “anecdotal evidence”—kind of like when your uncle told you “Don’t go to China! It’s dangerous. I got sick that time I ate at Lucky Palace down the block.” We promise you two things: One, China isn’t deadly, and two, Lucky Palace has awesome takeout. What happened to one guy, one time, is no way to cast a blanket judgment—especially when you’re investing in four expensive years of your life.

The Two Schools We All Agreed On—And It Took a Campus Visit to See the Light

Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, is where all the stars aligned: Elon has been on our radar for a while, but none of us had visited the campus before. We had heard raves from our candidates who seen it for themselves, but being dubious about anecdotal evidence, we were excited to fact-check their glowing reviews after doing our own Internet investigations.

Elon has a thriving campus social life—there’s something for everyone, from gay athletes to future frat boys to literature lovers. The campus was spanking clean and high tech, with a rah-rah spirit and a leafy campus you could stroll through like a park. With 5,600 students, it’s not too small and not too big; it has excellent programs in business, communications, education, the arts, and even a 3-2 engineering program. Assistant Director of Admissions Scott Christopherson was amazing in his information session—charming, knowledgeable, passionate, and attentive (Duke should snatch him up pronto). Now, Auntie Evan knows why his niece, Julia, has moved this school to the top of her list. (But she’s smart enough to keep going on other campus visits, to make sure.)

Finally, we have to talk about the surprising high point of our trip, High Point University. We went there with very low expectations. After all, we weren’t taking our own advice: We had heard that High Point was a country club for not-so-bright kids, and was investing its considerable resources in “all the wrong things” like fancy dorms instead of quality teaching. And indeed, approaching the gates of High Point was a bit like the approach to Disney World. We hadn’t even gotten past the guard gate, yet we could see the fountains, the EPCOT-like flag parade along the fresh-paved cobblestones, the gleaming-new buildings, and manicured lawns.

We parked our SUV and wandered around campus for a bit before making it to the very welcoming welcome center. There, we chatted with students from all over the country and world—not a tour guide with a memorized speech. They might not have been the top students in their high school classes, but while High Point is not on the Colleges That Change Lives list like Guilford, it is transforming its students in a way we didn’t expect. We met English majors and biochemistry students and seniors who were accepted to top law and medical schools. Indeed, they did love going to a school where you can send your laundry out, upgrade to a deluxe room, and enjoy some of the best campus food in America—but what really mattered to them was their education.

But let’s be honest: Auntie Evan’s favorite person at High Point was the gate guard, Valerie Baxter. The only way to get a true sense of Ms. Baxter is to go and visit. That’s all we’ll say on that. Not even her profile on page 90 of High Point’s viewbook does justice to this larger-than-life personality. Meeting her in person is worth the flight to North Carolina alone. She’s an enthusiastic ambassador of the university, and their most important asset. Give this woman a raise.

Colleges are like “a box of chocolates,” to quote one of our most hated films. Until you bite into ’em, you just don’t know what you’re getting.  Start planning your college trips NOW!

—Auntie Evan and Uncle David


Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.

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To reveal or not reveal other awards? That is the question.

During this time of year—and more and more, during this economic climate—my accepted students revisit, meet with, and ultimately follow-up with financial aid appeal letters to their top-choice colleges and universities, asking for more financial assistance. And why not? It never hurts to ask—especially if you are a top, sought-after candidate at that college. Right?

Maybe. All too often, the request from the college-of-your-choice is the same:  “Please attach the offers you have received from the other schools to which you were accepted.”

So what should you do? Is it ethical for your first-choice school to see what other institutions have offered? Is it anyone’s business? Should you ignore the request?

Let’s work through these questions for some peace of mind.

Recently, a student of mine who was accepted to her first-choice private university, and offered $10K per year. Nothing to sneeze at, but not enough. What she needs is $15K to make it possible for her to attend without taking a job. After her second visit to the campus, the financial aid office asked her to reveal the other colleges’ offers. That’s when my student asked me, “What should I do?” After all, no one had offered her $15K. Her second and third choices offered her $11K and $13K respectively. She was worried she had boxed herself in.

Are you in a similar situation? Have you already met with the financial aid office? If so, here are a few questions you might be asking yourself:

If my first-choice college—the one I want the $15K from—sees the lower offer from another school, are they likely to meet it or beat it? What is the benefit of showing them a better offer? Isn’t it like showing your poker hand?
Should I reveal the lower offer, but explain that although my first-choice college is A, I will have to go with College B—a great school, but not the one I have my heart set on?

Since it’s my number one choice, should I just take the 10K offer and figure out a way to make up the difference? Work at Starbucks or the bookstore?

Obviously, you get that all of the questions depend on how bad you want to be at your number-one choice, here are some responses from the wisest colleagues in the admissions biz.

First off, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples—make sure the tuition is frozen for the next four years—meaning the colleges you received financial awards from are similar in rank and style…

1. Go ahead and show your number-one that better offer from the other schools. All colleges base their calculations on the same federal methodology, but alter their offers based on their particular financial policies. So, seeing a higher offer just might get you the extra $ you need. If the margin is small, my colleagues assure me, your top-choice will adjust their original offer to match the other schools.  But make sure you’re only sharing the letters of “comparable” schools…for example, a highly selective college won’t care that you got a full ride from a local “suitcase school.”

2.  When you’re sending in that “please, sir, I want some more” request, make sure you do it with grace and respect. Express your regret at even having to make the choice between your number-one and the other schools.

3. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. If your number 1 is really your number 1—has the programs, the people and the professors you want—then rise to the occasion and don’t let a few thousand dollars come between you and dream school. Who cares if you spend a few hours a week in college asking “would you like fries with that” if you’re set up for the career you’ve wanted?

Finally, I’d go with what Nirav Mehta, the associate director of admissions at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, said when I asked him the above three questions:

“I believe the other offers should be revealed, as requested by the Financial Aid Office. But it's equally important to highlight the real financial need without an adversarial approach. Financial aid officers are interested in helping young people realize their educational dreams, but they're making decisions with limited information. Helping financial aid officers get an honest picture of the situation will be the most effective approach. I have seen modifications in the financial aid package with this kind of approach that focuses on the need, especially if [you’re] academically stellar.”

Thanks, Nirav!

Don't be shy! Schedule a consultation to find out how we can help you.

Bottom line: It never hurts to ask, and honesty is the best policy.

Auntie Evan

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The changes to the SAT starting in 2016 are creating a lot of hand-wringing in the college admissions industry. But it  is, as Shakespeare would say, Much Ado About Nothing.

When the news of the new SAT broke, Evan Forster and I were visiting colleges in North Carolina. Everyone was talking about the new SAT—except for the admissions officers giving info sessions. As “test optional” becomes increasingly common in the college admissions process, and is even starting to take root at very selective schools, the best ticket to success in admissions remains the same: DO WELL IN HIGH SCHOOL, and take advantage of the most rigor your high school offers (AP courses, honors, etc.). For colleges that continue to review standardized tests, the only change is their job got a little easier: They are back to the 1600-point scale most are familiar with, and they will continue to factor in the SAT as one of many data points in their decision-making.

The changes are not going to affect the test prep industry at all—0%—except in their curricular focus. It’s not going to “cripple” them, or reduce business, nothing. Even with Khan Academy. If you had the money for test prep to begin with, you’ll still going to want a personalized touch—a teacher at the front of the room, sitting across from you at a table, or talking interactively with you on a screen.

Khan Academy is going to EXPAND access, it’s not going to eat away at the test prep industry. Imagine if Khan Academy put out great videos on how to write a personal statement and choose the right school for you, etc. Would college counselors lose their job? Not a single one. So Evan and I applaud the partnership with Khan Academy, and support our test prep brethren like Applerouth in their continued growth as well.

Everything else is hand-wringing and will be forgotten in a week—unless we keep the drama going.

At the end of the day, this isn’t about predictive power, or the test prep industry, this is about the College Board trying to stay relevant in an ACT world. The more we talk about test prep and the impact of the changes, the more relevant College Board remains.

What’s happening right now is like Miley Cyrus taking off her clothes at the VMAs: It got everyone talking, and her career went to another level. The College Board is Miley Cyrus, and we’re all willing participants in this game.

--David Thomas and Evan Forster

Also, check out our videos on the subject!

What Does the New SAT Mean for Me?

What does the new SAT 2016 mean for you? Short answer: you should rejoice! Watch to find out why.

Tags: College Admissions Consulting, Leadership

The College Board is Like Miley Cyrus

The new SAT to be launched in 2016 isn't a big deal -- the College Board is just trying to stay relevant. They are just following the Miley Cyrus playbook.

Tags: College Admissions Consulting, Leadership

Many business school applicants make two costly mistakes concerning the recommendations they must secure to apply to MBA programs. The first mistake is assuming that since someone else is writing your recs, you have no control of what they say (psst: you do!). The second mistake is in choosing a recommender—if you choose the wrong people to write your recommendations, it doesn’t matter how fabulously glowing their reviews of you are.

So what makes a bad recommender? Well, that’s for another blog (a really long one that, frankly, I don’t have the time to write). Instead, I will answer a question we get asked a lot by MBA applicants: Does my recommender have to be a professional recommender? Some schools say extracurricular is OK, so…well, is it?

I like questions with easy answers, and this one is pretty basic: Extracurricular resources are almost NEVER a good choice—unless a program specifically asks for it, as does Chicago Booth for the 2013–2014 application season.

Now I know what you’re thinking: It’s just not fair! After all, you put in 10 hours a week at that non-profit for homeless people, working your butt off on that auction, which raised more money than any previous year in history! Or you held a board position on that committee for immigrant children, and that’s actual leadership that MBA programs are supposed to care about! And the co-chair of Protect the Sea Otters has worked with you for six years, so they know you better than any of your stupid Managing Directors!

I get it. I feel your pain. And as a fan of Sea Otters, I thank you for your service. And while you have plenty of valid arguments, the simple fact is that MBA programs want to see recommendations from professional sources. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. It levels the playing field. If everyone has the same type of recommender, it makes it easier for adcoms to evaluate and compare different applicants. 
  2. Employers tend to have higher standards. If someone pays you for your service, they expect a certain level of drive, commitment, and effort. They also have a very clear idea of your ability to meet expectations. If you volunteer somewhere, this is not always the case. 
  3.  It is a business degree you’re applying for. Finally, the obvious—you’re applying to b-school, not v-school. So the schools ultimately want to see how you do in a business setting, not a volunteer one.

So, yes—it’s always best to choose a professional recommender (for more info on how to select the best professional recommender, see Chapter 6 of The MBA Reality Check). And this is the case even when schools say it’s OK to have an extracurricular recommender! Schools love to say one thing but evaluate you for another. Seriously.

However, I know you have one final worst-case-scenario question: What if you can only secure one strong professional recommendation? Is it better to have a BAD professional recommendation for rec #2, or a really good extracurricular one?

If it comes down to the above scenario, then go ahead and break the rules and get the extracurricular rec. I’d always prefer to see a good rec than a bad one, regardless of category**. Just know that you’re at a slight disadvantage, so the recs better both be GREAT, and you better have amazing essays to boot!

**This does not apply to academic recommendations or the recommendation of a family member, both of which I refer to as “suicide letters.” The only time you should ever get a recommendation from a family member is if you work in a family business, and a family member is the only person with authority over you—and even then, you’re usually better off going with a client, a vendor, legal counsel, or someone else.

If you can’t get recommendations from either a professional or extracurricular source, then don’t bother applying. Go get a job instead—and do it well.

--Justin Marshall

David Thomas explains why being yourself really is the best approach to an admissions interview—no matter who your interviewer is.  

Andrew called my cell phone at an uncharacteristic hour, with an even more surprising nervousness in his voice. This tall, confident trader—a lacrosse star at his Little Ivy and a standout professional at his big securities firm—had just been assigned his interviewer for Wharton. "I googled him, and he's a pretty important guy; he's gotta be in his fifties at least," Andrew said. "How am I going to hold my own? He'll eat me alive."

I chuckled, because I've heard this fear a thousand times. Alumni interviewers come in every shape and size, age and experience level. Some schools try to match you with someone similar, others give you a list of people to choose from, and others simply assign an interviewer to you.

While you never know what your interviewer will be like until you're seated in front of her, I've noticed some definite trends. In general, I prefer my candidates to get older interviewers, not younger—the closer in age your interviewer is, the more likely he will see you as competition. He's more likely to test you, screw with your head, challenge you on your answers, play cat and mouse. You know, pull out the measuring stick. Older interviewers, on the other hand, are more likely to want to get to know you. I told Andrew he's more likely to be offered a drink by this seasoned alum than drawn and quartered.

Of course, that answer spun Andrew off onto another fear: "Is getting offered a drink some kind of test? I mean, if I accept it, I'm a partier, and if I decline it, I'm being rude!"

I told Andrew to trust those sharp interpersonal skills that had gotten him so far in his career already. "As soon as you walk in, while you're taking off your overcoat and adjusting to your chair, make some small talk: 'Have you been doing this long?' 'How about those Yankees?' Whatever usually works for you. Does he just grunt or dive into an answer? If he sits ramrod straight and his desk looks like Martha Stewart herself organized it, then play it a little cooler. If he props his feet up and doesn't even glance at your resume, adjust accordingly"

No matter what, however, be yourself, I cautioned Andrew. Calibrating your style is not the same thing as pandering to the audience.

A couple of weeks later, Andrew called me to report on the interview. "David, man, I'm so glad we had that talk, or that interview would have freaked me out!"

Turns out that the interviewer hardly asked a single question about Andrew's leadership experiences or five-year plan. After asking some questions about why Andrew wanted an MBA and why he was attracted to Wharton, the guy launched into a story about how much he loved his own time there—especially some of the "girls" he'd gone out with.

"Then he started peppering me with questions about, well...you know, basically how much I got laid." I almost burst out laughing. "I mean, he wasn't creepy about it, it was more like locker-room talk, like we were old buds. If you hadn't kind of told me something like that might happen, I would have thought he was trying to trap me or something."

The interview did get back on track—Andrew got to tell his favorite leadership story we had whittled down to a tight narrative—but the tension had gone. He spoke with the easy confidence Andrew had when he first walked into my office eight months earlier—the same confidence that got me to say "yes, I want you as a Forster-Thomas client"—instead of the nervous nelly he had become after getting the interview. Once he relaxed, Andrew got to shine, flash his hundred-watt smile, even make a little fun of himself when answering a question about his weaknesses. And Andrew got the proverbial fat envelope from Wharton as well.

Be yourself. That's much more attractive than twisting yourself into a Stepford candidate—plus, chances are, you're not a great actor. You'll be fooling no one but yourself, and stripping yourself of all the individual quirks and traits that make you memorable.