“It looks great on college applications.”

I ask you right now, how many times have you either A) said this to your student or B) heard your student or one of their friends say this about an activity?

“Join that club, it’ll look great on college applications.”

“Take that extra class, it’ll look great on college applications.”

“Well, I’m only in three clubs. I should probably add a few more because that looks better on college applications.”

Increasingly, this is the trend among students that leave them overworked, stressed, and going through the motions instead of dedicating themselves to activities that they’re truly passionate about. Not only do they suffer, but they’re doing the organizations and clubs that they’re involved with a disservice by going through the motions and not truly dedicating themselves to the activity.

This myth, this trend has to stop.

Why do we keep urging students to be as overworked as possible? Is it the competitive nature of college admissions? 

College admissions officers aren’t interested in the student who can balance fifteen activities anymore. They want students who have developed a passion for something and demonstrated an independent, in-depth interest in that passion. Being the president of five clubs on campus is no longer seen in the same favorable light that it was fifteen years ago. In fact, admissions officers would much rather see a student who had an interest in film and started filming small documentaries about his than five club presidencies under his belt. 

We’re doing students a huge disservice by forcing them into activities for one reason and one reason alone instead of encouraging them to further develop their passions and learn in a way that speaks to them. In fact, all of my clients light up the minute we start planning out how to take one of their interests and turn them into activities to further their expertise instead of joining more clubs or activities at school that they’re not interested in joining in the first place. 

Take my brother, for example. His entire life, he loved video games. That’s all he did in his spare time growing up, other than the occasional skateboarding trick or sports team. Developing that interest against the advice of nearly everyone around him, it paid off: he was a subject matter expert in his field, won competitions for a particular game, and is now working for the industry. It was his interest that kept him going school, made money to pay for school, and eventually turned into a career. 

While not every student will turn their hobby into a career, the journey that they take in learning more about a subject interest will do far more for their own self-development than sitting bored in a club meeting at lunch for twenty minutes a week. 

I know you’re thinking to yourself: how do I help my student find this passion? He/She doesn’t seem to be interested in much.

Here are a few ways to find that interest and brainstorm activities to make that interest grow into something incredible. 

1. What does your student spend most of their time doing? If it’s not a particular activity, is there a skill set or a quality about many activities they do that appeal to them?

2. Do they have an interest that you’re not sure you want to because you can’t match a career to it? Be careful here, because even students who have an interest in training homing pigeons will learn something about the nature of animals, develop responsibility, and might even develop teaching skills later on as they pass their wisdom on to future homing pigeon trainers. 

3. Does your student have a unique expertise that they could teach to others?  The expanse of the internet has opened up opportunities for entrepreneurs, giving your student the chance to write an ebook or develop a YouTube channel teaching their expertise.

Now, take that particular expertise and start brainstorming ways to develop new activities around that field. For example:

Does your student like taking pictures? Perhaps they can document the history or social events in your town. They could teach younger kids about photography, even if it’s how to take amazing iPhone pictures. They could compile a collection of photos and enter photography competitions or see about getting their work in a gallery. The list goes on and on…

Before school starts this year, sit down with your student and list out all of the activities they’re planning on participating in and ask them why they picked each one, or the reasoning behind each one. Then start narrowing down the list by the activities that your student is truly interested in pursuing as opposed to the activities that would “look good.” Brainstorm new or exciting ways your student can develop their own interests in activities they want to be a part of. Also, don’t be afraid to make suggestions or cross activities off of the list to make room for new ones or extra time. Your student should have time to be a teenager too.

Remember, admissions officers want to know what you’re truly interested in doing, not a list of activities that “look good.” Or, as quoted in a recent New York Times article:

“Be authentic. We want to know what your real interests and passions are, not what you think we want you to be interested in.” — Dr. Tom Bowling, Vice President for Student and Educational Services, Frostburg State University

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A March Consulting Ode to Having a Planner

Personally? I love office supplies. New pens, new folders, new desk organizers – the list goes on and on. But if you’re not someone who loves spending hours deciding whether this year’s theme should be rose gold or March Consulting green for your school supplies, there is one thing that has to make it on your list this year: a planner.

While everyone is different, what I suggest is browsing a few planners to get a feel for what would best serve you. During the school year, you need to be able to plan out your assignments, when you’re going to study for tests, and when big events are, so you’re not spending the whole night before a project is due actually doing the project.

Yes, there is a better way.

Below are a few planners that have worked well for our students in the past. We also have a guest post from one of our former students, Sophia Caputo (who is a junior at Mercy College) to show you from a student’s perspective how a planner can work for you. 

Ready? Set? Plan!

Bullet Journal – Great for students who want more freedom and less structure in their planner. What we love about this one (other than that freedom), is a brief guide at the beginning and future planning that allows you to set goals and decide if you’re meeting them.

Clever Fox – A more traditional planner with flare, the Clever Fox allows you to plan out your weeks and months accordingly while also giving you room to document your goals. You can also document your personal goals at the same time, and evaluate whether or not you’re reaching them week to week and month to month.

Day Designer – While originally designed for managing the day-to-day of adulthood, Day Designer has made an academic planner that allows you to – you guessed it – plan out each day. There’s ample room to write down assignments, events, and even your to-do list, along with monthly and weekly plans. The Day Designer is more expensive due to being daily, and includes stickers, a customizable cover, and other additions.

Ultimate Student Planner – Designed for high school students, the ultimate student planner gives you a weekly and monthly view, as well as a place to keep your class schedule. It has space to plan out assignments and extracurriculars and runs from August to June, just like the school year.

Mead Planners – Last, and certainly not least, is the good old fashioned Mead planner that you can get at any store, including Target. They carry weekly and monthly versions of their planners. They get the job done and are extremely durable.

There are only a few suggestions. Don’t be afraid to look for one that fits your personality, organizational style, and needs. Remember that what is most important is that you USE your planner. 

As promised, here’s a word from a former student on what a planner can do for you (even if you’re not a senior yet).

The First Step to Conquering Senior Year

By Sophia Caputo

Do you have $8.09? Oh, perfect! You can afford a planner to keep your life in order.

    That’s right, it’s time for you to buy a planner (you too, dudes!). If the extremely basic Mead pocket planner is unexciting to you, try Kate Spade’s website or take a trip to Ross or Burlington. (I got one for $4!) Still not thrilled about buying an empty book to keep your life organized? Then use your phone’s calendar– easy peasy. 

    So you say you hate planners…

Coming from someone who perceived all organization tactics, especially planners, to be Satan reincarnate the first three years of high school, I can assure you I survived many deadlines and due dates all thanks to my trusty Target planner I purchased a month into senior year. This year is filled from top to bottom with obligations and assignments, with applications for both college and scholarships– and unfortunately neither the University of California Los Angeles or the Coca Cola Foundation are too forgiving on missing those deadlines.

…because it’s so tedious…

    Believe me, it takes a serious adjustment period to get into the habit of writing down the mundane tasks we’re required to do each day (homework, laundry, ASB meetings, etc.), but it helps in the long run. Avoid turning in assignments late or begging your classmates for due dates and details by keeping tabs on your own. By jotting down important things, you’re deeming them important– and you’re not simply affording yourself the excuse of “I forgot” anymore. 

    …and you’d just end up forgetting to actually write things down.

    Like I said, using your phone calendar or reminder app is just as good. One of my best friends set reminders on his laptop– one time I was at his house and we were studying for the AP Environmental Science test and a reminder to “GRIND!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” popped up. If something was super important, I’d take the time to utilize the “remind me at a location” feature on the reminder app. 

    Senior year will be epic for you, and it’ll be crazy stressful, too. You’ll be wishing for more hours in everyday; you’ll soon become painfully aware of the fact that, in a year, your siblings and parents won’t be down the hall from you. You won’t be able to just hop in the car and grab a Dewar’s milkshake before heading to your best friend’s house. Every single moment is valuable– try to make the most of every one.

So dig up $8.09 and get ready for an unforgettable senior year.

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CameraOccasionally you may have heard us mention the benefits of completing a summer project or program: Have a great experience! Meet new people! Learn new skills! Discover your passions!

You might even agree with us an think a summer project would be a great idea! But now it’s practically July… and you’re still watching Netflix 7 hours a day…

No more excuses. You’ve still got plenty of time left to take on a fun and meaningful summer project. Here’s a list of 21 things you can do THIS summer:

Volunteer: You don’t necessarily have to travel half way around the world to find a place to serve. If you’re from the Bakersfield area, we just made your life easier and included links to local organizations looking for high school aged volunteers. Not from Bako? A quick Google search pulls up more volunteer options than we could count! Try volunteering at:

1. The humane society (Bakersfield SPCA)

2. A local museum (BMOA)

3. Your place of worship

4. A hospital or nursing home (San Joaquin Community Hospital Adventist Health)

5. A day camp (List of Bakersfield area camps)

Job Shadow: One of the best ways to learn if you’re cut out for a certain career is to follow a professional along for the day. Make sure to ask lots of questions, introduce yourself to other employees, and record your thoughts and experiences when you get home. While shadowing someone doing EXACTLY the job you dream of would be ideal, don’t be afraid to spend an afternoon learning about a field you don’t know anything about. You might be surprised at what interests you. You can shadow:

6. Your parents

7. Other relatives

8. Your parents’ friends

9. Your neighbors

10. Alumni from your high school

Learn/Develop a Skill: Never tried cooking calamari? Always wanted to take your pogo stick technique to the next level? This is your summer. Do it.

11. Learn HTML

12. Pick up a new instrument (or an old one you’ve set down!)

13. Film a movie with friends

14. Start a podcast or blog

15. Make your parents or grandparents’ day and ask them to teach you to cook

16. Write a sestina (What’s a sestina? This.)

17. Learn how to ride a unicycle

Plan Something Different: Alternating with friends between swimming in the pool and going to the movies can get old eventually (and we love movies). Change things up and start something new!

18. Start a running group to train for a 5k/10k/half/marathon/triathlon/jump rope across America race

19. Start a band and host a concert for friends and family

20. Plan a block party for your neighborhood

21. Host a book and movie club with friends to read and then watch books turned into movies together. Host a discussion and battle over the ever-present controversy: Was it better than the book?

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Seemingly every college application and scholarship application is going to ask for a list of your activities and involvement. Read on to learn why you should carefully choose your activities and how to create an activities “brag sheet” that captures just how unique you truly are.

Not Just Well-Rounded – Why You Should Think Carefully About Your Activities

While you may not know exactly what you want to do in the future, you probably have a good idea of a job you dream about or a field you’re passionate about. Your career at 25-years-old seems far off, but you can start pursuing that dream job now while you’re still in high school.

See, the goal of a college application is not just to tell the admissions officers about your hopes and dreams for the future. They want to see that you have ALREADY started on your journey. Then they want you to explain to them how their university is necessary to start the next chapter in the story you are already telling.

This type of story-telling application is much more impressive than just being the “well-rounded” student type that everyone thought (and still thinks) that colleges look for. If you’re joining activities “because it looks good on college applications” you might want to rethink your strategy.

Trust me, this is not the story you want to tell.

Think of a college class like a giant puzzle, and each student is their own little puzzle piece. Admissions officers are looking to find students that fit together well (because each one is well defined and distinct from the rest) in order to make a complete picture. If every student had exactly the same list of random activities, that would be a very boring picture. Schools need variety, so, all clichés aside, it’s never been more important to “be yourself.” Show them where your passions and interests are.

Brainstorming Activities

The key is to figure out what kinds of activities you can get involved in while you’re in high school to carve out your little puzzle piece. Every hero has their own mission, and every gladiator has their specialty weapon. So what are yours?

Grab a pen and paper, and let’s brainstorm some activities for you to pursue during however many years of high school you have left.

If you’re just starting out as a freshman, feel free to try out activities in any field that could possibly interest you. Let your imagination run wild. If you’re an upperclassman already, maybe just focus on expanding on the activities you’ve already been focusing on.

Here are some things to consider as you make this list:

  • The activities you think “don’t count” – the little things that you do every day, like playing video games or taking care of siblings – are actually extremely important in defining who you are, so don’t discard those as irrelevant. Maybe taking care of your siblings has helped you realize that you want to study child development or public childcare policy, and maybe playing video games has inspired you to study video game science. (Yes, that exists.)
  • Look at the values, strengths, and passions that you listed if you need some help coming up with ideas. Doing something outside of school that is your own idea or creation based on your values and passions will be much more fulfilling, more impressive, and more constructive for the creation of your future career than just showing up to a weekly or monthly school club so you can put the name on the list.
  • You should also be thinking of ways to supplement and expand on the activities that you’re already participating in. Look into different camps, contests, extra classes, volunteer opportunities, and tutoring positions in relation to a few of the activities you care most about. For those interested in STEM, join the Intel Science Competition. If your interested in art, volunteer are your local art museum, such as Bakersfield Museum of Art. Do some research. There’s something out there for everyone.
  • Think outside the box! Don’t limit yourself to conventional activities. If your lifelong dream is to become a chef at a major restaurant, then start your own cooking show on Youtube or Snapchat! The possibilities are endless.
  • Don’t let your summers go to waste! There is so much time available to explore new things and go to new places. Build talents that you wouldn’t have time for during the school year. Write that book you’ve been thinking about for three years. (Need some ideas? Check out 21 Better Ways to Spend Your Summer than Watching Netflix.) Also, if you need help funding any of your summer activities, there are lots of organizations that would be thrilled to help you in your educational journey such as your local chapters of Rotary, Kiwanis, or Chamber of Commerce. Or you can launch a kickstarter campaign and get friends and family to donate.

With your brainstorming done, start doing some research. Then write down everything you actually intend to do, in order, with a plan of how you are going to make those things happen.

Think of this as your training plan for the next few years. These are the smaller arenas in which you hone your skills to prepare you for the big leagues.

The Brag Sheet

If you’re already a junior or senior, you should get started right away on what I’m called a “Brag Sheet.” It’s where you list all of your best activities and awards in a way that honestly presents who you are and how you spend your time to admissions officers. Here’s an example.

No matter where you are in high school, this brag sheet is a key part of your application, so don’t treat it lightly.

If you keep updating this as you go through high school, filling out college applications, brainstorming your essays, and applying to scholarships will be a snap.

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Practice, Practice, Practice

Let’s be honest. Nobody likes taking tests. Well, a few people do, but they’re a little weird, and we’re all secretly jealous of them.

The problem is that standardized tests are really important. They’re like the pre-qualifying rounds that prove what you’ve learned in your gladiator training so that you can get to the final matches in the Colosseum.

But see most people hate them, so they avoid them for as long as possible.

That’s probably not your best strategy. Don’t do that.

Start taking the test your freshman year if you can. Even if you don’t know all the answers, you need to start familiarizing yourself with the material and the structure of the test.

And you don’t always have to take the official tests that cost money either. Both the SAT and the ACT have official prep booklets that include five official practice tests.

In a perfect world, you should be taking a practice test once a month.

But that’s ridiculous! I don’t want to take a massive test every month!

True, but the key is practice, practice, practice.

You’ve probably heard of people taking SAT prep classes over the summer, and they sound awful, right?  (Full disclosure: I did one and mostly they were simply forcing me to study for four hours every Saturday in the Highland High School Library.  It was great to be studying-don’t get me wrong because I probably wouldn’t have done it on my own–but my parents paid a lot of money for forced study time.)  With a bit of preparation and determination, you can save yourself hundreds of dollars by putting together some goals, a study plan, and getting my help with accountability.

What helps most is daily practice (which you can do on your own!).  There are tons of great apps for the SAT and ACT that you can get to test yourself on your weaker subjects. Whenever you have a free moment, just pull out your phone and do five practice problems.

Studying and Testing Game Plan

See, these tests aren’t about memorizing every possible answer imaginable. That would be insane. And impossible. And I would never ask that of you.

These tests are about learning HOW to answer the questions. It’s not really something that can be taught, but it IS something that you can acquire through regular contact with the material and the process. You have to get to know the test so well that, when you read the question, you know exactly what they’re asking you to do, even if you’re not sure what the answer will be.

That’s why you have to start studying now.

But that studying requires a game plan.

In a perfect world, you would take the PSAT your freshman and sophomore year, and you would be finished with the SAT and ACT by the end of your junior year. You would take a practice test every month and do one practice question every day.

That’s not so bad, right?

Ok, so that does sound daunting. But once you get used to doing regular testing, it won’t seem that unusual, and you’ll LOVE watching your scores improve.

Or you could make the whole process more fun by starting a study group with your friends. Quiz each other every day, and compare your scores each time you take it. Compete against each other for the best scores or best improvement. There’s nothing like a little healthy competition to drive you to improve.

How Do I Study? What Do I Study?

The best thing that you can do, first and foremost, is to take a practice SAT and a practice ACT.  Sit down on a Saturday or Sunday morning and take the test from start to finish, timing yourself as though it were a real test.  If you want help, ask your parents to proctor the exam. Or ask me if you can come by the office and I can proctor the test for you.

Now, decide which test you want to concentrate on.  Did you like the ACT or the SAT better? Since schools now take either test, there’s no longer a need to take both.  Keep in mind, however, that if the school requires an SAT II subject test, they often will accept the ACT instead of that subject test.  You can check with me on that and I can give you advice depending on your college list.

Score your test and look at all the answers you got wrong.  Map them out on a chart: for example, if you missed six geometry questions and three trigonometry questions, put that on a chart and try to be specific about the question and why you missed it.  

Why would you go into all of this work?  Well, if you know why you missed a question and can fix that, you won’t miss a similar question in the future.  It’s all about the quality of your studying and if you’re not sure why you’re getting questions wrong, you can’t get them right.

Now you’re going to set up a study schedule.  You’re going to set up a goal score and you’re going to break up how to get there.  So if you’re looking to get a 34 on the ACT English section, you’ll need to be scoring consistently in the 34 range or higher in your practice tests a month before the official test.  Two months before the test, you should be scoring in the 30 range, etc.

Set aside time to study, even if it’s just 15 minutes of UNINTERRUPTED time. No playing on your phone, no text or tweet interruptions, etc. You’ll be able to focus and better absorb the material during that time if you’re not distracted.

For study materials there are a lot of places to start looking. Khan Academy has teamed up with the College Board to offer SAT prep that you can sync up with your practice tests and get a customized study plan.  Their videos are great and it’s all free. Visit KhanAcademy.org or ask me more about this option.

Also, if you’re struggling and need extra help, I highly recommend Lauren of Higher Scores Test Prep,who takes each test every year and scores perfectly on each test (and if she doesn’t, she knows the exact question that she missed).  First and foremost however, I want you to set up your own study plan and take practice tests before investing in an outside program.

What else can I study to help me?  

I highly recommend that you start reading some sort of national newspaper or magazine.  Many of the reading passages for the SAT and the ACT are taken from publications like the Wall Street Journal, Popular Science Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, The New York Times, etc.  The more you read (even if it’s simply an article a day), the more prepared you’re going to be not only for your tests, but for college, admissions interviews, and as a citizen of the United States and of the world.  You’ll be more informed and better prepared for life. It’s a win-win-win. A win cubed.

The Tests

Here’s a little more information on the three major tests you’ll be dealing with:


This test is technically just a practice for the SAT, but it’s a lot more important than most people think. The PSAT is the qualifying test to become a National Merit Scholar. National Merit is a national scholarship program consisting of several qualifying rounds.

The qualifying round for the semi-final is the PSAT. (The minimum qualifying PSAT score changes from year to year depending on the scores of everyone taking the test in that particular year. This article suggests aiming for a 220 in California.)

Then each semi-finalist is required to submit more academic and extracurricular details along with an essay in order to become a finalist. If you become a National Merit Finalist, there are hundreds of schools in the country that are willing to supply full-ride or half-tuition scholarships.

Then, if you pass the finals, you become a National Merit Scholar, which is one of the top academic honors that you can get in high school. (Read an interview with a National Merit Scholar to learn more). It’s extremely impressive to colleges, and you have even more scholarships available to you. Besides just being another practice for the SAT, this test is definitely worth your time.


This is the most well-known of the standardized tests. It covers reading, math (up to Algebra 2), writing and language, and an optional essay. This is usually the test most favored by analytical personalities, typically interested in math and sciences. It’s split up as follows (according to the College Board):

Reading Test

65 minutes

52 questions

Writing and Language Test

35 minutes

44 questions

Math Test

80 minutes

58 questions

It’s based on a 1600-point scale.


This test used to be more popular on the East Coast, whereas the SAT was popular on the West Coast, but that’s not the case now.  Colleges and universities take either test, meaning that you get to choose which test you’re best at to study for.

In my experience, students focused in the humanities are better at this test, but I recommend that everyone try it, just in case you get a better score than the SAT. Anything to help improve your chances of acceptance, right? The ACT covers English, reading, math, science, and writing. (Note that this is the only one that covers science.) It might feel more like the testing you did in elementary school.  The sections are broken down as follows:

Reading Test

35 minutes

40 questions

English Test

45 minutes

75 questions

Math Test

60 minutes

60 questions

Science Test

35 minutes

40 questions

It’s based on a 36-point scale per subject with a composite score of up to 36.

The SAT Subject Tests

Not every school requires these–in fact, most don’t.  However, if you’re considering an engineering or science major or are looking at those top ten schools in the nation (including the Ivy League schools), most of them are going to require the SAT Subject tests.  These are individual tests that test a specific subject on an 800 point scale. You can take them in the following subjects:

Math 1, Math 2, Biology (ecological), Biology (molecular), Chemistry, Physics, Literature, World History, US History, Spanish, Spanish with listening, German, German with listening, French, French with listening, Latin, Chinese with listening, Modern Hebrew, Japanese with listening, Italian, and Korean with listening.

If you’re going into engineering or science, be prepared to take one of the math tests and a science.  

Unfortunately, you can’t take the SAT and the SAT II Subject Tests on the same test date.  You’ll register for one SAT II Subject Test but you’ll have the option to take up to three subject tests on one test date.  The beauty of these are that if you decide you don’t want to take the Physics test (the one you signed up for), you can switch it out for any of the other tests that day.  

These are on an 800 point scale.


And that’s it! Those three are all you need to worry about. If you divide them up, only focusing on the small steps directly ahead of you, just as a gladiator learns how all of the sword positions before learning to fight an opponent, soon you’ll have three completed tests with scores you can be proud of!

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