The Challenge of Transitioning to College: Professors

Guest Post by Alexander Merrill, Owner of Alliance Tutoring, Greenwich, CT

That face is still burnt into my memory, a photograph that will never fade: Professor Judy Smith, her granite features nestled into the corner of memory cluttered with lessons learned. I had signed up for her Native American Literature class in the fall of my sophomore year at Kenyon, or rather I had attended the class the first day and got her to sign a slip of paper that allowed me entry.

I was not nearly responsible enough to know when the deadline for course sign-ups was, much less grasp its importance or impact. “Native American Literature” sounded interesting to me. I liked Geronimo, the Battle of Little Bighorn and Pocahontas, so this class would do well enough, I figured. I still had no idea what to major in, but English classes were decent for me, so why not? Smith seemed all right to me at first glance, not uninteresting and a reasonable enough person on the surface. Besides, it fit into my schedule during an afternoon Monday/Wednesday/Friday slot, allowing me to retain my sleep-in schedule, by far the biggest consideration in course selection.

Freshman year had been a breeze. I had been crushed at Exeter with 5 hours of homework crippling every night (there was a class of student at Exeter that never left their rooms, only to go to CVS to get crates of water and bags of mini-pretzels, just to get Bs). The days of class had been equally arduous, heckled as much by classmates as teachers, who tended to hang back and watch the carnage with wry smiles behind their folded hands. So I was academic concrete. Besides, I had taken the equivalent of all AP classes my senior year: Bio, English, History, Calc AB. So at Kenyon, to ease the transition, I “cleverly” signed up for all the same classes: Intro Bio, Intro English, Intro History, and Intro Calc AB. I essentially repeated my senior year of highschool, doing about 20 hours of classroom work all year to get a B+ average (Dad, if you’re reading this, which you probably are, I’m so sorry….). So I delayed my reckoning one year, which I suppose actually saved me, ironically, given I had a chance to figure out social dynamics, extra-curriculars, fraternities, and… well, things like where the bathrooms were (underrated!).

Unfortunately, in my late-teenage arrogance, I figured that the same lackadaisical approach would work just fine sophomore year, given I had skirted the system successfully the first year. And so it was that one afternoon in October, I walked into two classes on a Wednesday afternoon that had blue book exams for which I hadn’t studied. Not only had I not studied for them, I hadn’t read a single word of any of the books that the tests covered (or any of the sparknotes!). The first was a Shakespeare class, the second was Smith’s Native American literature class, the hot stove that would leave its singing mark.

Though I BSed my way through, I received a D on both exams, probably generous given that I said basically nothing for several hours but brain vomit. It was a call from the metaphorical front desk. The only grade below a C+ I had gotten before that was the Chem class I took at Exeter (a nightmare for another tale). My current approach was not going to work anymore. The party was officially over…except on Saturdays, nothing could have stopped that.

Following the episode, I turned the volume on my studies. By large decibels. I read every single word of every book from that day forward for both classes, studied the reading guides, attended every class, took notes, dressed snappily. The second test rolled around and I was exceptionally well-prepared. I destroyed the blue book exams, proudly I walked out with the satisfaction of effort winning over adversity. But then I got the grades. Shakespeare: A, excellent work. Native American Literature: D. Not a D+ or D-, a flat D. She didn’t like me. Perhaps she didn’t like how smug I had been. Perhaps she didn’t like the number of classes I had missed early on, my orientation, my gender, how I looked at the clock too much, how I dressed in clothing a little too large, that my eyes were slightly askew. I don’t know. It didn’t matter, not even a little. She was bearing a grudge and that was all.

I went in to meet with her during office hours, my bluster high. I pointed out the argument I had made, the accuracy of my analysis, my knowledge of the details; I also committed Satan’s worst sin: I argued that her red marks, blood on the page, were inaccurate and just downright wrong. This is not the right thing to do…. She was intransigent, unmoved, her iron jaw locked, the steely look of utter distaste for my entire existence dripping from her inert features; her gray locks cut as neatly as a freshly cut lawn, indifferent to the world of such stray grasshoppers.

The next exam, D. The final exam, D. The class, D (though I continued in all due diligence). Injustice roiled my stomach all semester, detestation that still lingers in my memories 20 years later– blame and regret. At one point I even petitioned the department over the grade, though I later withdrew the petition when I realized the truth: PROFESSORS HAVE COMPLETE IMMUNITY. Like complete. They’re tenured and untouchable. Not only was brown-nosing appreciated and revered by peers and professors in college. It was necessary. It was survival.

This is not to vilify, most of them were very nice, very understanding, motivating, even empowering and life altering (Professor Klein, looking at you, big guy. You’re a freaking god!). But watch out for the Professor Smith’s of the world. Your relationships with your professors take on a more peer-like feel, and similar to your peer relationships in high school, if you don’t manage them well… it’s down the existential sinkhole.

About the Author:

Alexander has taught English, coached, and dorm-parented for nearly 20 years at Dartmouth College, The King School, Kingswood-Oxford, Philips Andover and The Taft School. He is an expert at the college application process, including college essay writing, standardized test preparation, and the recommendation process. He has tutored hundreds of adolescent teens and young adults from middle school through college level on all spectrums, behaviorally and academically. He attended Philips Exeter Academy and received an undergrad degree from Kenyon College and a Masters Degree from Dartmouth College.  He lives in Middlebury, CT with his three rug rats and wife, Alexa.

Finding Colleges That Fit

Selecting colleges is a critical piece of the college planning process.

How not to select colleges. I’ve seen students who have built their college lists in a poor or even random fashion. Often they were unhappy with their subsequent college experience. Sometimes they ended up with an unplanned transfer that cost time and money or they dropped out of college.

Don’t select colleges:

  • So you or your parents can brag about the college.
  • Because someone else, not you, likes the college.
  • Without reflecting on what you want in a college and knowing how the college meets that criteria.
  • Because someone else went there or is going there.
  • Because of ranking.

Identifying college criteria. Consider why you want to go to college and what makes a college right for you. If you go to a residential college, the college will not just be your education; it will also be your home and social life. Identify academic, social, and financial criteria by reflecting on what you need and want.

Separate your college criteria into must-have and nice-to-have categories. If you have too many must-have criteria, there may not be any colleges that match all of them. Talk with your parents or guardians about how much money they have to help you with college costs so you can identify realistic financial criteria.

As you identify college criteria, avoid these common traps.

Don’t:

  • Get hung up on published college rankings. You are building the best college ranking: a ranking that is based on criteria that are important to you!
  • Eliminate small colleges for the wrong reasons. So many students say their college must be bigger than their high school without thinking this decision through. If a student goes to a large high school, this decision might eliminate a large percentage of colleges. For example, almost 62% of U.S, colleges have under 2500 students.
  • Limit the distance the college is from home because you think that will save you money. Other parts of the country have excellent colleges that may be less expensive than the colleges in your region even with the additional travel costs. Consider how often you will be going home or your family will be visiting you each year when making this decision.
  • Focus too much on a major. Be aware that many students in the U.S. are undecided about their major when they start college or change their minds about their major after they start college.
  • Leave financial concerns until after you have selected colleges. If finances are important, need-based and/or merit aid should be integral to the college selection, not something you worry about after you have made your college list. Most aid comes from the government or the colleges. If you have financial needs, select colleges that meet as close to 100% of your need as possible. Most colleges don’t meet 100% of your need leaving you with a financial gap that is hard to fill. If you are seeking merit aid, select colleges that give merit aid, typically these are colleges where you will be in the top quarter of their incoming class.
  • Eliminate a college because the list price is high. The important price is the price college will cost your family after grants and scholarships. You can get an idea of how much need-based aid you might receive by using each college’s Net Price Calculator. Sometimes the Net Price Calculator also estimates merit aid.
  • Stop addressing your learning differences when you go to college. If you have been receiving accommodations during high school for learning differences and/or ADHD, this is not the time to go it alone. Research and visit with the disability services personnel at the college.
  • Stop addressing your mental health needs when you go to college. If you have mental health needs, learn about and meet the campus mental health professionals before college starts. Be sure to make arrangements to continue meeting with your current mental health professional or establish a relationship with a private, off-campus mental health professional in case the campus services are inadequate (e.g., a limited number of sessions per semester, too long a wait for appointments).

Finding colleges that meet your criteria. Once you know what you are looking for in a college, search for colleges that meet most or all of your must-have criteria and have many of your nice-to-have criteria. Many search engines can help identify colleges based on common criteria (e.g., size, location, majors available) including NCES College Navigator, College Board’s Big Future, and Naviance. More unusual criteria will often require the use of additional resources.

Researching colleges. Once you have identified colleges that meet most of your needs and wants, do in-depth research on:

  • Chance of admission
  • Academics (e.g., general education requirements, class sizes, tutoring availability)
  • Likely majors (e.g., number of professors for the major, number of students in the major, required courses for the major, areas of research)
  • Career services and what happens to graduates (e.g., jobs, graduate school)
  • Dining and housing
  • Clubs and activities
  • Social life
  • Surrounding community.

Take notes about what you learned, what you like and dislike about the college, and questions you have. 

You can find college information from websites and social media, college brochures, college newspapers, current students and alumni, college fairs, virtual college visits, independent college guides and books. Familiarize yourself with a variety of sources to gain an objective and broad understanding of the data and choices facing you. One of the best ways to learn more about a college is to experience it firsthand through an in-person campus visit, preferably when college is in session.

Visiting colleges. Plan your college visit. During that visit, learn as much as possible by:

  • Attending an info session
  • Taking a tour
  • Sitting in on a class
  • Looking at bulletin boards
  • Eating in the cafeteria
  • Reading the school newspaper
  • Talking to students
  • Staying overnight (if available)
  • Having an interview (if available)
  • Having your parents talk with the financial aid office
  • Talking with a professor or chairperson of the department you would like to major in
  • Walking or driving around the surrounding neighborhood.

Building the list of schools you will apply to. Based on your college research and visits make a prioritized list of colleges you would be happy to attend from the first choice to the last choice.  Select six to eight schools.  No more than a third should have a low probability of acceptance.  Include at least one college with a high probability of acceptance and at least one with a high probability of acceptance that your family can afford without aid.  In some cases, you may want to apply to between four (e.g., if your four top choices are all high probability of acceptance) and ten colleges (e.g., if you want to apply to more low probability of acceptance schools or if you are shopping for the best financial aid package).


If you follow this process, it is likely that you will be happy with your college experience and will meet your college goals.

Making a small college seem bigger

A number of small colleges are part of a consortium, allowing them to seem bigger because they can take advantage of shared resources like classes, clubs, libraries, dorms, cafeterias and cultural events at other schools in the consortium. Which resources are shared vary from school to school. Consortiums are most effective when the member colleges have calendars and class times that align and when the colleges are physically close.

For those of you who wouldn’t consider a small college, you might consider attending a small college in a consortium to get the feel of a medium or large college. Here are four consortiums to consider:

  1. Claremont McKenna colleges has 5 adjacent private undergraduate colleges in southern California
  2. Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges and to a lesser extent Swarthmore College (private colleges in Pennsylvania)
  3. Five College Consortium consisting of 4 small private colleges (Smith, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, and Hampshire Colleges) and 1 large public university (UMass Amherst) in western Massachusetts.
  4. Olin, Babson and Wellesley Colleges (3 private colleges in Massachusetts).

What is your experience with making a small college seem bigger through these or other consortiums?

Four High School Graduation Gift Ideas

Are you wondering what to get a high school graduate as a graduation gift? Here are 4 practical gift ideas for a high school graduate who will be attending a residential college in the fall:

  1. College apparel (e.g., a hoodie) from the college they plan to attend in the Fall
  2. The book “The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College” by Harlan Cohen for advice about dealing with the day to day “surprises” they are likely to encounter at college.
  3. A gift certificate for a store like Bed, Bath and Beyond to purchase college dorm necessities like XL sheets, a shower tote, and shower shoes.
  4. A photography session to capture important events and people (e.g., high school graduation, graduation party, close relatives and friends). If you are looking for a central Jersey photographer, contact April Ludwig Photography at info@aprilludwig.com.

Rich Educational Opportunities at College

Rich educational opportunities support student learning and development at college according to the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) at Indiana University for Postsecondary Research. NSSE suggests that students ask colleges the following questions to learn about the college’s rich educational opportunities:

  • “How many courses include community-based service-learning projects?
  • What types of honors courses, learning communities, and other distinctive programs are offered?
  • How many students get practical, real-world experience through internships or off-campus field experiences?
  • How many students study in other countries?
  • What co-curricular activities are most common (performing arts, athletics, fraternities and sororities, guest speakers, etc.)?”

Here are examples of rich educational opportunities at colleges and universities:

The College of New Jersey
  • 91 percent complete internships (American University).
  • All students study abroad (Goucher College).
  • More than seventy courses combine academics with service work in the community (George Washington University).
  • As an alternative to a major and a minor, students can do the Nexus program which builds opportunities for internships, off-campus research, and public presentations in addition to coursework. Participating students can select from one of nine pre-professional tracks (Mount Holyoke College).
  • Community service organization arranges for students to volunteer in about 600 placements (Smith College).
  • Students dorm their freshman year with those in their first year seminar class (The College of New Jersey).
  • Students complete an independent study project in the last two years of college (College of Wooster).
  • Students staff and manage nine campus businesses (University of Massachusetts – Amherst).
  • The Outside the Classroom curriculum is an optional co-curricular program that rounds out the college experience with activities in leadership development, sense of self, service to others, and art appreciation (University of Pittsburgh).
  • Students can spend a semester getting hands-on conservation education from the Smithsonian Institution, George Mason University, and wildlife protection agencies (George Mason University).
  • All students do independent research for three years in the January term and all complete a senior project or write a thesis that they defend before a faculty committee (New College of Florida).
New College of Florida

Buyers and Sellers

In Jeff Selingo’s book, Who Gets In and Why A Year Inside College Admissions, he introduces the concept of “college buyers” and “college sellers.” In this blog post, I will focus on whether a private college is a college buyer or a college seller. 

College sellers are the colleges that receive tons of applications and have a high yield (i.e., a large percent of accepted students choose to attend). Because of the high demand for these colleges they don’t need to “buy” students by offering merit aid or tuition discounts. College sellers typically offer financial aid to students who have financial need and a very small percent (if any) of really exceptional students.

College buyers on the other hand, are not in such high demand. They often provide as good or better an education than the sellers, but they discount tuition and/or provide significant merit aid to many students in order to make sure that they have a full freshman class.

Whether a college is a “buyer” or a “seller” does NOT reflect whether students get a great education there.

If you don’t have financial need, but you want your student to get a good price for college, be sure your student includes buyers on their college list.

Jeff Selingo provides these rules of thumb to differentiate buyers and sellers:     

  1. Sellers typically admit less than 20% of applicants on average. Colleges as a whole accept 67%. 
  2. The yield at most seller colleges is nearly 45%, as compared to about 25% at most buyer colleges.
  3. On average, 7% of financial aid that sellers give is a merit-based discount vs. nearly 33% of financial aid that buyers give is a merit-based discount.

Selecting high school classes

This time of year, many students are selecting their high school classes for the Fall. Here are three things to consider when picking classes. 

(1) Be aware that the preferred high school curriculum for applicants of selective colleges include:

·        4 years English

·        3 or 4 years Math

·        3 or 4 years of a lab Science including Chemistry or Physics

·        3 or 4 years Social Studies

·        3 or 4 years Foreign Language. 

(2) Take the most challenging classes (e.g., honors, AP, IB) your high school offers that you can handle without harming your grades, extracurricular involvement or your health. I believe a “B” in an AP class is better than an “A” in a standard class. If you don’t think you can get more than a “C” in the more challenging class, I would advise against it. Look at the difficulty of your entire schedule and be sure to consider how many challenging classes you can handle at one time. 

(3) Different classes expose you to possible college majors and careers. Think about whether you enjoy the class material, whether you excel in the subject and whether you want to learn more about the subject in high school and beyond. If you have an idea of your future college major or career, let that impact the classes you choose.  For example, if you are planning to study math, science or engineering, I would recommend that you take at least four years of Math and Science, including Calculus if your school offers it.

7 Surprising College Application Essay Prompts

With the 2019-2020 application season winding down, here are seven surprising and thought-provoking college application essay or short answer prompts (in random order):

  1. “What is the most compelling thing you have ever read, and how has it changed you or inspired you to take action now, in the past, or in the future? This could be an entire book, a passage or chapter, a poem, an article, graffiti- anything written.” George Mason University Honors prompt 
  2.  Seattle has a rich musical history and SU students love discovering new Seattle music. Tell us: what five songs would be the soundtrack to your perfect college experience? (two to three sentences for each song is appropriate)” Seattle University prompt
  3.  “At USC Viterbi, we endeavor to engineer a better world for all humanity. This vision goes hand-in-hand with the objectives of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and their 14 Grand Challenges. Engineers and Computer Scientists are challenged to solve these problems in order to improve life on the planet. Learn more about the NAE Grand Challenges at http://engineeringchallenges.org and tell us which challenge is most important to you, and why.” University of Southern California prompt
  4. “There are approximately 171,476 words in the English dictionary. Pick your favorite word and tell us why you picked it.” Brandeis University prompt
  5. What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?” Stanford University prompt
  6. “Who does Sally sell her seashells to? How much wood can a woodchuck really chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Pick a favorite tongue twister (either originally in English or translated from another language) and consider a resolution to its conundrum using the method of your choice. Math, philosophy, linguistics… it’s all up to you (or your woodchuck).—Inspired by Blessing Nnate, Class of 2024” University of Chicago prompt 
  7. Yale’s residential colleges regularly host conversations with guests representing a wide range of experiences and accomplishments. What person, past or present, would you invite to speak? What question would you ask?” Yale University prompt 

Which of these prompts do you think is the most challenging? The most creative?

What prompt did you encounter that you consider thought-provoking?