Monday, August 31, 2015

The Best Worst PR Mistake

PR mistakes when dealing with bloggers
My inbox is filled with press releases. It comes with the blogging territory. You get on a PR list targeting parents of kindergarteners because that's the age of your youngest when you start blogging, and ten years later you are still being sent pitches for clothes or games targeting that age group.

Even worse, because you're on some type of "mommy" list, you wind up on other types of "mommy" lists. So I get pitches for diapers, strollers, and other products that I haven't needed or written about in ages.

In fact, I think it's been at least 4 years since I asked Rashida Ferguson to please remove me from her mailing list because I don't care about infant car seats, or any kind of booster seat for that matter (unless they now make one for petite adults) and I will not devote editorial space on any of my blogs to them (except for the petite adult model). Rashida is top of mind only because I noticed something in my inbox the other day from a Rashida New Name, and I was like, "Oh, she got married!"

But this is not about Rashida and the laziness or refusal to remove a recipient. It's about another kind of PR sin related to recipients--the full cc. 

The fullest cc ever. 

I didn't notice at first, because when I get a pitch with a horrible subject line, say, one about a pregnant teacher's great new idea that's now on Kickstarter, it goes Right. In. The. Trash. I didn't give the note a second thought until a "reply all" message with that subject line popped into my inbox.

My curiosity piqued, I opened it. The PR flack who sent the first note apparently cc'd a few people on the message. 

No, not a few. A few hundred

The PR person copied more than 450 people in single email!

After that first person replied all to chide the PR person for the mass cc things got awesome. People started "replying all" with smartass comments, funny GIFs, with a few cat facts thrown in for good measure. Apparently once you apply to this cat facts service, it's hard to get off the list.

Those notes were followed up by emails from people from around the world inviting others on the cc list to get together for coffee. How nice to think that I can head to Spain, India or Dubai and have a new friend who will join me for a cuppa Joe.

We've even got our own Facebook group now. Two, actually, but only because lines crossed. I think we're going back to one. It's actually an interesting international mix of traditional tech journalists and bloggers. People are introducing themselves more formally, invitations to meet up continue to be shared. It's a beautiful thing. We're hoping that two people on the list will meet and get married.

I'm generally up for a bit of serendipity. Plus, I now have the email addresses for some editors at several top tech and lifestyle sites.

But as for that Kickstarter campaign? Nobody is actually talking about that.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Great College Essay Topics

Great College Essay Topics
Looking for just the right college essay topic? Now that the college application season is here, essay topics for the Common App, personal statements for this school or that have become part of our daily household conversation. I have several great college essay topics! But my son has rejected them all. That's fine, he really needs to "own" his essay, right? Maybe they are right for your child.

1.     What I learned after my freshman yearbook photo became a viral meme.
2.     How I plan to use my White Privilege to better the world.
3.     The moment I realized that my father really does know best.
4.     Affluenza, the scourge of my generation.
5.     #MyLifeMatters.
6.     What I learned after I put an end to my mansplainin' habit.
7.     In-home wifi: right or privilege?
8.     How I found out that Snapchat messages don’t really disappear and what I learned from the experience.
9.     The most meaningful participation trophy I ever earned.
10. My parents suggested I put pen to paper to write the first draft of this essay. You won't believe what happened next.
11. Straight Outta Suburbia.
12. #Winning: The week I got myself out of bed without my parents needing to wake me up for school.

Did you catch that episode of Modern Family a few years ago in which Haley was applying to college? As part of her application, she was supposed to write an essay about "the biggest obstacle she's overcome in her life." Haley bemoans the fact that her life has been so charmed that she has never had to overcome anything. (That was in 2011, but certainly jives with current conversations about the oversensitivity and high level of anxiety among today's college students, which is speculated to be an outcome their oversheltered early years.)

Haley's mom, Claire, takes her on a drive promising to share a family secret. When they are out in a rural area, Claire pulls off the road and points to a tree that she says has a secret message from when she and Haley's dad were dating. Claire acts like she's going to take her daughter to see it, but after Haley steps out of the car Claire drives off leaving Haley to find her way home, without money or a cell phone, so that her daughter would have something to write about.

I'm not going to that kind of extreme-nor do I need to. Despite my casting aside my incredibly awesome prompts, my son has some meaningful topics of his own. And I know once he gets serious about writing (and rewriting and then rewriting yet again) his essays, they will be fabulous, original, heartfelt and truly his.

Also, my prompts are dripping with sarcasm and in some cases not true. You think he ever gets himself up for school?! (I'm kidding.)(Sort of.) His yearbook photo did not become a meme as far as I know, he never got in trouble with Snapchat, and even as a child, he felt a disdain for rewards he did not earn. True story: his favorite trophy was actually a very large, shiny one he picked out of a "free" bin at a garage sale.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Do You Need to Hire a College Admissions Counselor?

A friend wrote me the other day asking if I thought she should hire a college admissions counselor to help guide her child (and her family) through the application process. I gave her such a long-winded answer that I decided to polish it up and turn it into a blog post. So,

Do You Need to Hire a College Admissions Counselor? 

Probably not.

I should clarify, do you need to hire a college counselor at a cost of several thousand dollars that equal the amount I paid for my first new-to-me car? I doubt it.

Do you want to hire a college admissions counselor?

Yes, maybe.

Do you need to shell out thousands of dollars? Probably not.

When it comes to the college application process there will be plenty of other expenses (test review materials, tutors or classes, college visits, and application fees) to name a few.

Oh, and let's not forget the added fee for registering late for the SAT Subject Test which some highly selective schools request, especially, it seems, for STEM majors. Is my child going to apply to a highly selective school? I'm not sure, but we wanted to keep the option available. But back to those late fees, typically they were due to his lack of organization, not mine, so he paid the fee.

On a related note, did you know you could register for one of those tests and simply not take it without it harming the child's record? Yes, but if it wasn't your fault that the child wasn't prepared, that child will reimburse you for the fee, at least in my house.

I didn't even know about SAT Subject Tests until I did a series of three Google Hangouts with college admissions counselor Susan Goodkin. There's not much to watch, but you can listen to them via my YouTube channel. I learned a lot from our discussions; maybe you will, too.

Search online and you'll find a lot of useful information. Some counselors like Susan (disclosure: I didn't pay her nor did she pay me) also offer free or low-cost webinars in addition to one-on-one consulting services.

Check your local library, community parent group, and of course your child's school for additional information. If you do hire an admissions counselor, I'm thinking you could trim the budget by going in as an informed consumer.

Before you jump into the college search and admissions fray, read Frank Bruni's book, Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be. It's a common sense reminder that a child, even your special snowflake, can thrive at just about any institution of higher learning if s/he is motivated to do so.

Also, know your support system. Learn who you can talk to about the college search- friends who are level-headed and good listeners with sound advice. Avoid those who drive you into a subtle game of one-upsmanship, a dizzying spiral of insecurity. Why isn't my kid applying to Harvard? Why didn't I insist on three years of hard-core summer school? I've done it all wrong!

My older son asked me to sign him up for a fee-based ACT review class at school. The course met for several weekends for several hours each time. He would have hated it on many levels. I also suspected an online review would be too distracting because, internet! I bought him a review book for $25 instead and told him to spend at least 10 or 15 minutes a day on it in the days leading up to the test. Which he mostly did with a bit of parental nudging. Should I have insisted on more? He set a threshold score and met it on his first try. Sweet relief!

That said, I can easily get thrown into the spiral of should we insisted on a more disciplined approach? But then I also think, would an extra point or two make or break his future? In his case, probably not, but your mileage may vary. I think most admissions officers would rather, say, see his app in the App Store(!) than get an inkling of the hours he might have devoted to making an incremental increase on a standardized test score...but I'm not a paid professional.

These days many kids take the ACT, which is popular in the Midwest, two or three times! Why? Because colleges may only consider the best set of scores or pick the best section score from each test and "superscore." It's good for the college board ($) and it's good for the schools because they can they claim to higher test scores on behalf of their students? Is it good for the kids?

Oh, and by the way, Stanford insists on seeing all standardized test scores, so there's no hiding the bad ones from them.

When it comes to my younger son, I will likely sign him up for an ACT class. Not because I learned some lesson from the first go-round, but just because he's a different child with different strengths and needs. I think he'll benefit from the structure and advice (which will no doubt includes the words, "Slow down and take your time with each question.").

So back to that admissions counselor....

If your child has known since 5th grade that he wants to attend a Big 10 School, it might not be hard to find the right one or two for her on your own. Does your child want a college that it larger or smaller than his current high school? Rural or urban environment?

IMO, you don't need to hire someone to walk you through these questions. There are plenty of free online materials and books to guide this piece of the process. Speaking of which, does your school have Naviance?


Naviance is a whole suite of tools to help guide the college search process. If your school provides Naviance, take advantage of it, especially to note your child's activities and honors as they go through school because by the time senior year rolls around those details from freshman and sophomore years can be pretty fuzzy.

For all it's helpfulness, Naviance can also be like that toxic friend who sends you into fits of anxiety---but for different reasons. Naviance provides scattergrams, data visualizations that reveal patterns of student acceptances rates at a given school. The data points are anonymized, so that, for example, you know Student X got into the University of Illinois with an ACT score of 28 and a GPA of 3.9 and so did Student Y with an ACT score of 20 and a GPA of 3.4.

However, you don't know about the details of the students' backgrounds, nor do you know which college within the university each was admitted to. Or if Student Y was maybe recruited to be on the Division 1 baseball team, etc. So the data only provides a partial picture.

And, BTW, that picture is based solely on historical data from your child's school. So, for example, my friend who has a son at a highly competitive public school told me with no small amount of anxiety in her voice, that even kids with 4.2 weighted GPAs don't seem to be making the cut for Ivy League schools. Naviance is freaking her out.

On the other hand, my boys attend a very mixed public school that has a small number of students applying to the most selective schools. Because of the low numbers, some of these schools don't even have scattergrams. For example, if only three students applied to MIT last year and only one gained admittance, I could figure out who that data point represents, so the information isn't shared at all. Hmph. In this case, Naviance simply isn't helpful except to wake that sleeping giant bear of anxiety called, must one choose between socioeconomic diversity and a high quality education or can they co-exist? (see also, as noted above, I've done it all wrong!) which, let's be honest, is not at all helpful.*

Okay, I've gone even farther afield than the email it was based on and I still have more to say. So, stayed tuned for Part 2!

In the meantime, prepare yourself for when those acceptance letters come with this etiquette post from my friend Alexandra Rosas and Peyton Price.

*This is issue is too big for my blog. I'm working on a novel that, like many first novels, is a fictionalized version of my own life about our (mis)adventures in public (and private!) education. I'm tempted to make it a choose-your-own-adventure book and explore things like a version of life where we move to the Lake Wobegon-like affluent, white neighborhood before my boys started school. Or explore what life would have been like if we homeschooled with the fantastic co-op in our area. Or what might have happened if my son got this teacher instead of that one. Or... you get the idea.